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4 Nov 2002 : Column 64—continued

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): I rise to support the motion to disagree and a number of the grouped amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), which stand in the name of several hon. Members.

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At the outset, I pay tribute both to the hon. Gentleman's work and to his words on previous occasions and today. I am aware, after taking a cursory glance at his biographical details, that he married in 1982. He has considerable experience and was able to knock sideways those who cavilled at his motivation—especially people involved in parts of the media, who might suggest that he had some sort of politically correct agenda. Manifestly, he has nothing of the sort in mind. He is a champion of marriage and he is practising his commitment to it.

I, too, believe in marriage. I am—I hope, God willing—soon to demonstrate my commitment to marriage, when in 33 days' time, here in the House of Commons, I get married. I look forward to the joys of marriage, and I ought to have the humility to put on record my extreme gratitude that I have been lucky enough to find a gracious future wife who has, rather generously, agreed to slow down the process of my inevitable deterioration. That said, and fan of marriage though I am, I do not think that that institution is or should be the centrepiece or defining feature of the debate about adoption. It certainly should not be.

6.15 pm

Several hon. Members have referred to the key statistics that lie at the heart of today's debate. Let the point be underlined: approximately 5,000 children are adopted each year; a similar number again have been decreed suitable to be adopted, but still await willing adoptive families, and those kids are languishing principally in institutional care.

I found extremely powerful the research conducted by British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering. In particular I focused on the research relating to March this year—it has been mentioned by the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw)—concerning the group of 430 children who were potentially available for and suited to adoption. It was striking that although overall there were more than 1,200—1,255, I think—inquiries about those children, no fewer than 129 of the 430 were children in respect of whom no inquiries were made. That is a serious situation which no democratically elected politician has the right to dismiss or ignore. That is an extremely challenging state of affairs for legislators.

Alongside those bald statistics, we have to consider the obvious and, I suspect, increasing phenomenon of people coming forward who are not married, but who are cohabiting, and who have, not merely an interest in, but a passion to realise their ambition to have a child. Often, they are people who tried to have children but were unsuccessful, and they want to adopt a child.

It is in that context that the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Wakefield have to be considered. As has been said many times, the objective of those who have tabled the amendments is to widen or extend the pool of potential adopters, and I believe that we should judge the arguments on their merits and not seek to impugn the good motives or personal integrity of those who have put their names to the amendments. Let us examine first the argument about extending the pool—a point to which I am sympathetic and which I have discussed with several people over a period of months.

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A week or two ago, in the context of making what I thought was an important argument in relation to the Bill, a senior Conservative, who is himself strongly opposed to adoption by unmarried couples, said to me, XThis issue is not about gay rights." It so happens that, in the course of the remarks that excited that response, I had made absolutely no reference to gay rights, but there you go. On the point of fact, I agreed with that individual: this issue is not about the rights of gay people, or of heterosexual people, or of married people, or of unmarried people—frankly, it is not about the rights of adults at all. It is about the rights, welfare and futures of some of the most vulnerable children in our society today.

In contemplating this issue and preparing for the debate, I have had a number of conversations with the county adoption adviser in Buckinghamshire, Elaine Dibben. I am happy to say that I learned a lot from those conversations; they were extremely instructive for me. Elaine Dibben told me of a number of harrowing cases and personal tragedies of people in the county of Buckinghamshire who have been judged suitable for adoption but who are the great unwanted, discarded, forgotten children in our society.

I think, for example, of the seven-year-old boy in Buckinghamshire who has been waiting for adoption since July 2000. He is vulnerable and he needs help now. I think of the 10-year-old boy who has been waiting for adoption since January 2000. He is vulnerable and he needs help now. I think, for example, of the brother and sister respectively aged four and six years who come from mixed parentage and who waited for adoption from January 2000 until July 2001, at which point they were taken on by an adoptive family. Sadly, despite best efforts and no doubt good intentions on both sides, that arrangement did not work. Within two months, by September 2001, that brother and sister were back in institutional care, where I am sorry to say they have languished for the succeeding 14 months.

I think, for example, of the sisters aged eight and nine who have been waiting for adoption for the past 12 months. Those sisters are judged and described as hard to place on the ground—surprise, surprise, in common with a great many other siblings—that they want to stay together. They have not yet been placed. Those sisters are vulnerable and they need help now.

I think of the 18-month-old boy who has been waiting for adoption for 12 months, since he was six months old. His situation is the more serious because in addition to the institutionalised care that he has been obliged to endure, he faces threats to himself and the possible retardation of his development for the simple and sad reason that his mother was a drug addict. These are the vulnerable children in our society who are not interested in a theory or an idealisation, but in practical help, demonstrable compassion, effective assistance now.

It is generally true and acknowledged—to try to cut through some of the statistical table tennis in this debate—that there are two valid propositions. First, on the whole, there is frequently a surplus of would-be adoptive parents, but that surplus is of would-be adoptive parents who want to adopt young, healthy, female—for that read generally less difficult—and white children.

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The second correct proposition is that there is in many cases a shortage of would-be adoptive parents who are willing, as many hon. Members have said, to take on and give a loving home to children in a different category. Those children might—this is often true—be older; they may very well be boys. In particular, those hard-to-place children are very likely to be those with behavioural problems, who suffer from learning difficulties, or who are afflicted by mental or physical disabilities. We have a duty to address their plight and to see what we can do about their situation.

Mr. Brazier: My hon. Friend is making a passionate and eloquent speech. Those of us who have campaigned for this Bill for many years want the matters that he is raising and the tragic cases—some of which he has listed—addressed, but does he not realise that the proposal would not open one extra home? All that it would stipulate is that, if a child is to be taken into a home and adopted jointly rather than adopted by one adult in the home, that couple would need to get married.

Mr. Bercow: I respect my hon. Friend's sincerity, but I utterly reject the point that he has made, and I am happy to tell him and the House why I do so. If the existing arrangements are manifestly discriminatory, send out a signal of hostility and purposely create categories of adopters—one category of which is made up of first-class citizens and the other of second-class citizens—it is scarcely surprising when some who might otherwise be interested in coming forward and adopting jointly on a basis of equality of esteem choose to give up the unequal struggle against such ludicrous arrangements which continue to obtain. I say in all sincerity to my hon. Friend that I know that he believes in his position with conviction, but the idea that one can simply lecture people and say, XYou get married and then you'll be all right, acceptable and we'll approve of you" is simply not acceptable in the century in which I think I now live.

I must emphasise that we are talking about abused, neglected and bereft children who need to be brought up physically, emotionally and spiritually in a family, headed preferably by two parents who are jointly and legally responsible for them. That does not seem to be an unreasonable request. Very often, there is not a great choice. I find it extraordinary that people talk as though the question is simply one of finding the ideal married couple. We should not view this debate in terms of two options that are juxtaposed and rivals to each other. The option of the Xideal" married couple on the one hand and of the Xflawed" and, by definition therefore, inferior unmarried and cohabiting couple on the other seems to be a wrong way to look at the matter.

The truth is that in a number of cases, as is demonstrably proven by the evidence of those who continue to languish either in institutional care or in serial and unstable fostering arrangements, the choice is different. The choice in many cases, and the choice in future as cohabitation grows, will be between the offer of a decent, loving, stable and committed home headed by two people who are not married, and the alternative

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which, despite the best efforts of those who provide the care, is not infrequently the living hell of institutional care or serial fostering arrangements.

Let us consider some of the arguments about whether unmarried couples should adopt. The thesis has been advanced many a time and oft, including in several speeches this afternoon, that cohabiting partners have inherently more unstable relationships. I must say to those who argue that case that we ought to remember our own political and to some extent intellectual mentor in the Conservative party, Disraeli, who, it was said, talked of

It may well be valid as a general proposition, as the statistical evidence adduced would appear to suggest, that married couples' relationships are longer lasting and more stable than those of unmarried couples. However, it seems a non sequitur to generalise from those statistics when we are dealing, and when we know that we are dealing, in the context of a debate about adoption, with a specific and self-selecting group of cohabiting people who have a thirst for adoption and are coming forward in the hope that that thirst will be satisfied. That is a different category. In many cases the individuals concerned are older, and they have frequently, as I mentioned earlier, tried to have children and not been successful, which is why they have come forward and taken an interest in the adoption process. Simply to smear them as unsuitable or lesser beings is unwarranted and, in terms of attracting people to adopt, extremely counterproductive.

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