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4 Nov 2002 : Column 55—continued

Dr. Harris: I think that they will, because currently people may be deterred from applying as they are not allowed to adopt jointly. The hon. Gentleman might argue that a child needs two parents rather than only one—although I accept that he might not argue that in the case of same-sex couples—so at present heterosexual unmarried couples who shared his view might be deterred from applying to adopt. For example, if the hon. Gentleman were not married, he might find it difficult to apply, although I have no doubt that he would make a most suitable adoptive parent. I hope that I have addressed that point.

The hon. Member for Huntingdon argued, on the basis of an opinion poll, that a majority of people oppose the proposals. The most recent polling data that I can find are from MORI in September 2002. They show that 44 per cent. of people supported the right of same-sex couples to apply—the hardest case as regards

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popular opinion—while only 36 per cent. opposed that right. I have never held the view that we should go by popular opinion in matters to do with human rights—[Interruption.] I am grateful for the sympathy expressed by Labour Members for the necessity of that virtue.

People who pray in aid the fact that there is no public support for the proposals should look more carefully at the evidence from reputable organisations such as MORI rather than from partial organisations—that is the politest description—such as the Christian Institute.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham made some important points and offered a more considered view of the alternative approach than we had heard previously. We should deal with that approach. He argued that the changes would not really expand the pool—a point that was echoed by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier). I do not doubt the strong commitment of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham to adoption or to the Bill. That has been shown by his contributions to the debates. However, that does not mean that he cannot be wrong about something. Even without the evidence that I have just cited from BAAF, produced today, we must ultimately make a judgment as to whether the measure will improve things.

On one side of the argument are the National Organisation for Counselling Adoptees and Parents, the Fostering Network, the National Foster Care Association, the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering, Barnardo's, the NSPCC, NCH Action for Children, the Association of Directors of Social Services, the Local Government Association, the Children's Society, A Voice for the Child in Care, After Adoption, and so on. Ranged against them only a small number of organisations are persuaded by the views of the hon. Gentleman. That may not be conclusive evidence, but it is certainly persuasive of the fact that the hon. Gentleman is wrong in his estimation of the impact of the proposals.

I want to make two more points about the merits of this matter. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham argued that too many people were put off by the rigors of the assessment process, but, in fact, research done for BAAF in 1999, by Dr. Gilles Ivaldi, who examined applications for approval as adopters that were considered by adoption panels and voluntary adoption agencies, shows that 94 per cent. of those applications were approved as suitable. So there are many reasons why people do not pursue their initial inquiries, but it is not right to say that the assessment process is too harsh. Obviously, a balance has to be struck.

In an intervention, the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) cited the figure, to which Earl Howe referred, from the Christian Institute, which stated that the average length of a closed gay relationship was only 21 months. That figure has to be rebutted. My information suggests that that figure is an inaccurate portrayal of the findings of a survey carried out in 1992. The survey stated that the lengths of same-sex couples' relationships varied between very short and very long—up to 38 years. The mean average length of a relationship was, in fact, almost four times that suggested by Earl Howe. A follow-up study carried out by the same research team in 1998 found that the

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average length of gay relationship was almost six years and that, again, many couples were in considerably longer relationships.

The 2001 United Kingdom lesbian and gay census, carried out by ID Research, found that 28 per cent. of gay male couples and 22 per cent. of lesbian couples were in partnerships that had been ongoing for between five and 20 years. ID Research surveyed 10,500 lesbians and gay men nationwide—a far larger sample than the 1992 study cited by the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire. If we were to use averages of faithful, stable relationships, hon. Members would find it difficult to qualify for assessment, and I include the relationships of those in his own party. We must at all times avoid the temptation to generalise, because that way lie despair and destruction.

I should like to deal with the reason that we are discussing this issue yet again. I have made this point before, but it is worth rehearsing: it is unfortunate that we have to debate this issue again. The House of Lords rejected proposals similar to the amendments in lieu of the Lords amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Wakefield and supported by the Liberal Democrat party and hon. Member on both sides of the House. Those proposals were rejected not simply because of the Conservative party in the House of Lords. The Conservatives as a parliamentary force are not conclusive in that House and some would say that, although their discussions on this issue are diverting, they are not in the end relevant. To a certain extent, the problem was the hang-ups that the Labour party and, in particular, the Government have about the measure, because no Whip was placed on Labour peers.

Kevin Brennan: Rightly so.

Dr. Harris: I question whether that was right because, if we believe that this is a matter of human rights—particularly those of the child, but also those of potential adopters not to be discriminated against—we should expect parties to state their view so that people can be held to account on the party line. In that respect, the Conservatives have a point about imposing a Whip, but they are inversely wrong by 100 per cent. However, to say that this is somehow a matter of conscience and that the best interests of children should be left to the whim of individuals, without people being able to know what the party line is, appears to let the party off the hook.

If we in the Liberal Democrat party believe that something is in the best interests of children, we say that it is our party's policy, we put it in our manifesto and we impose a Whip. If Liberal Democrat Members decide that they cannot support that line, they vote against the Whip and, although no dreadful punishment goes their way, they are forced to go against the party's view. Had the Government imposed a Whip, however mild, in the House of Lords, 23 Labour peers would not have voted against an amendment similar to that supported by so many Labour Back Benchers in the House and there would not have been a miserable turnout of only 49 per cent. of the mass of Labour peers in support. There are certainly Liberal Democrat peers who are unsure about the measure. By imposing a Whip, however, we were able to secure a 63 per cent. turnout in support, and no votes against. If the Government agree with the Joint Committee on Human Rights and believe in the merits

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of the case, will they consider staking their reputation and honour on the matter and do the same with regard to the Labour party?

5.45 pm

Kevin Brennan: The hon. Gentleman displays yet again his childish attitude to the subject, which he displayed with regard to his amendment the last time that we discussed the matter. Clearly, whether or not a Whip on the Liberal Democrat side involves tickling Members rather than whipping them, there are issues of conscience in relation to this matter on both sides of the House. If he cannot recognise that, he is clearly a member of the Stalinist wing of his party.

Dr. Harris: There are issues of conscience on every matter considered by the House. If the hon. Gentleman is arguing that every time the Government put a Whip on there is no issue of conscience, many of the less slavishly loyal Labour Members will have words to say to him. It is not a question of whether there are issues of conscience and of people having sincerely held views; it is whether the Government are slipping and sliding away from taking responsibility for supporting the measure. The Minister did a fantastic job of defending herself against Jeremy Paxman on XNewsnight"—eight times—on the issue, but people were still left asking why, if the Government want this change, they will not ask their supporters to vote along party lines in this House and in the other place.

Tim Loughton: The hon. Gentleman is being as disingenuous as usual. He has claimed several times that the Liberal Democrats are wonderful because they have allowed a free vote, although it is Liberal Democrat policy to open up adoption. More than a third of Liberal Democrat peers did not support the measure, however, and many of them were present for the vote and actively abstained. The Liberal Democrat leader in the House of Lords, Baroness Williams, has said:

She, along with more than a third of Liberal Democrat peers, did not vote in line with what the hon. Gentleman claims is his party's policy.

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