Previous SectionIndexHome Page

4 Nov 2002 : Column 68—continued

6.30 pm

Right hon. and hon. Members are duty bound to take account of the nature of the process by which those who initially select themselves as potential adoptive parents come ultimately to be selected or not to be selected, as the case may be, by others. It is important, as other hon. Members have done, to focus on the specifics, the facts and the detail of the process. The way some people speak about it, anyone would think that the adoption process was the parenting equivalent of service in a fast-food restaurant. It simply is not like that.

As evidence in our various constituencies around the country conclusively shows, the process is thorough, rigorous and exacting. It is right and proper that that should be so. When people come forward, they have to go through the entire process. If, for example, they are part of a thoroughly unstable relationship, they are extraordinarily unlikely to get through the process. I want to attend to the detail, because I am concerned about the way in which generalised arguments and—dare I say it?—occasionally deliberate or inadvertent prejudices are tossed around in the course of these debates.

What can we say about the process? There might be an initial inquiry by telephone or letter. Information would then be sent out, with details of an information session. The person or couple would have to attend the information session, there would be an interview with a social worker, and a series of statutory checks would be made. There would be attendance at a preparation group, and following that, interviews with two social workers. An assessment would be started with a social worker, on the principle of home visits, of which

4 Nov 2002 : Column 69

typically there would be six or eight, conducted over a period of three months or so. Follow-up workshops would be held.

There would be referees to be visited by the social worker, there would be the crucial form F report to be completed, and there would be a second opinion visit by a second social worker. The applicants would have the opportunity to read and comment on form F. The social worker would present the report to the adoption panel, the adoption panel would make a recommendation to the adoption agency, and the adoption agency would make a decision. If, after that recitation, right hon. and hon. Members and others attending to our proceedings elsewhere are not already exhausted, I have to tell them that that is not the end of the process.

An agency decision might be made that a child would be put into a willing adoptive family, but as we all recognise, that is a trial arrangement. In due course, an assessment of the success or otherwise of that trial would be made. The assessment would be made by a judge in a family or county court. That is an extremely important safeguard. Throughout the rigorous, thorough and exacting process that I have described, certain criteria are to the fore—the stability of the couple's relationship, the extent of the networks of support available, the details of the family histories involved, and the capacity or, as it may transpire, the incapacity of the would-be adoptive parents to create space, in the widest sense of that term, for the entry of a new child into the family. It is an extremely rigorous, highly valuable and very serious process. To cavil at it or to appear to dismiss its significance or quality is cruelly unfair to those who labour long and hard in pursuit of the interests of children.

That leads me to what happens now. I pay tribute to the many right hon. and hon. Members who know a lot more about the subject than I do. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), with whom I have had some productive conversations on the subject, and a number of whose contributions to debate I have read. My hon. Friend, in the best Conservative tradition, is focused on the practicalities—the here and now, the reality of what happens in the society in which we live.

As we know, couples who are cohabiting already adopt. That is true not only of heterosexual couples, but of gay couples. However, they do not adopt jointly, so they face the peculiarly unenviable dilemma of deciding which of them is to have the status of the adoptive parent, and which of them is to accept the lesser role of second-class citizen whose fate and limitation it is, perhaps, to acquire a residence order which will lapse when the child involved reaches the age of 16 or 18.

I hope that it will command general assent to say that, quite apart from the fact that such a discriminatory arrangement within the family creates injustice, inequality, instability and possibly unhappiness in the mind of the child, who will naturally view both partners as his or her parents, there are also damaging practical consequences that flow from that peculiarly anomalous legal arrangement. For example, if the adoptive parent dies, the adoptive parent's partner—that is to say, from the vantage point of the child, his or her other parent—will not have an automatic right to become the adoptive parent. He or she will have to go through the whole process, with all the attendant uncertainty and stress,

4 Nov 2002 : Column 70

and the possibility of a sad culmination of events. If, for example, the adoptive parent's partner dies, there can be many instances in which the child does not have a right to inherit the estate of his or her other parent. If the couple split up, the partner who is not the adoptive parent currently has no responsibility in law to contribute to the cost of maintaining the child.

Those are significant downsides and injustices, about which we should not be complacent. If, on the other hand, we go for reform, tidy up the law and practise the principle of equity, the situation could be a great deal better. Under child support legislation and under the relevant schedule of the Children Act 1975, the interests of the child will be safeguarded and promoted, in terms of the opportunity to make maintenance orders, and in terms of the transfer and settlement of property. Those are important considerations.

I shall focus now on the consensus in support of reform, which is a powerful consideration. The hon. Members for Chatham and Aylesford and for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) have, in the course of the debates, made much of the organisations that support reform, and they have been right to do so. I simply pose the question, and I admit that I pose it in particular to some of my right hon. and hon. Friends, whether it is entirely wise to ignore or disregard the fact that 29 of the 30 organisations that gave evidence and made representations to the Special Standing Committee on the Bill argued in favour of these particular amendments or, at any rate, the principle that underlies them. I think that that is an extremely relevant consideration. I do not say that it is conclusive of itself, but it is a material consideration. Simply to dismiss as the politically correct social worker brigade the organisations whose daily responsibility and privilege it is to cater for the interests of children betrays a degree of arrogance and ignorance that is unworthy of a serious debate on these important subjects. The people in those organisations know what they are talking about.

Andrew Selous: I am listening with great interest to my hon. Friend, who is clearly speaking with great passion and conviction in dealing with a matter about which he feels very strongly. On the number of organisations that support a particular argument, he will recall when 264 economists, I think, wrote to The Times to say that the policies of the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Geoffrey Howe, were incorrect. Lord Howe ignored that advice and was later proved to have been right in doing so.

Mr. Bercow: I must admit that I do not think that a powerful argument. However, I shall do my best to improve it. With characteristic self-effacement, my hon. Friend understated what I confess I believe to be a poor case. He referred to 264 economists, but in fact, of course, 364 economists excoriated my right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven and her colleagues for pursuing those economic policies. I say to him that economics is a notoriously inexact science. If one meets any three economists, one will unfailingly hear at least five opinions, so it does not seem to me that we should be too influenced by that consideration.

What we are talking about are people in professional practice dealing not with theories and isolated models such as those in the discipline of economics, but with the

4 Nov 2002 : Column 71

practice of social work, care for children, human understanding, interpersonal relations and societal development. Those are very important differences.

Jonathan Shaw: May I assist the hon. Gentleman in strengthening his argument in respect of the 29 agencies that gave evidence to the Special Standing Committee? Members of the Committee had the opportunity to cross-examine those agencies and put questions to them. Their submissions were not merely letters in a newspaper; we had the opportunity to put questions and test their arguments.

Mr. Bercow: I agree. I should add that it seems a poor line of argument merely to say that, as the amendments were not proposed at the outset and arose only at a later stage, they cannot be of much significance. What is the point of having a number of different stages in the passage of a Bill, including pre-legislative scrutiny, as now favoured by the Government, and the opportunity for specialist representations to be made, if one simply dismisses them out of hand when they happen to conflict with one's preconceptions? I was influenced by what happened and I took the trouble to read the evidence.

I should like to conclude with reference to the parliamentary management of this issue. There has been a good deal of discussion in the past few days, as people may have noticed, about the way in which the subject has been handled, especially on the Opposition Benches. The judgment was made to impose a three-line Whip—that is to say, to instruct Conservative Members of Parliament to vote against the amendments. I must emphasise that this is the second occasion on which that has been done. It was done last May and it has been done again.

I do not mind saying to the House that in May this year, after much soul searching, and with a heavy heart and, frankly, a guilty conscience, I did what is not customary for me and stayed away. I did not take part. If I remember rightly, I sat instead in my office. I had on this occasion to ask myself how I should react to the situation that has been presented to me and which other hon. Members will have to address. Of course, there is never any shortage of well intentioned and often friendly people who will say, XDon't go to the wall over it; it's not worth having a big fight. After all, it is only one issue, and"—wait for it—Xit's the Government's problem to get their Bill; and if they lose it, that's their tough luck." That would be the easy way out. I think that it would be a cop-out, a get-out and a sell-out for somebody who feels as strongly as I do on this matter to take that course of action. I concluded that I was not prepared to convict myself of that abdication of responsibility.

Next Section

IndexHome Page