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4 Nov 2002 : Column 82—continued

Mr. Lansley : It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor), who spoke from the heart. Participating in the debate is a humbling experience, because many contributions have been excellent in so many different ways. At this stage, therefore, I want not to rehearse previous arguments, but to consider the question that the House must answer at the debate's conclusion.

One of the excellent speeches was made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who presented a difficult case in an exemplary fashion. However, I want to question one or two aspects of it.

7.30 pm

This does not strike me as a side issue. It was not part of the original Bill, but if Conservative Members try to justify—or exclude from justification—any aspect of a Bill not originally introduced by the Government, we deny ourselves a range of valuable arguments. Moreover, we must consider the nature of the Bill with which we are dealing, and compare it with the legislation of 26 years ago. This Bill proposes that a child's interests throughout its life should be the paramount consideration, not that its interests throughout childhood should be the first consideration.

That important change means that we must think hard about all the circumstances of adoption at this point. It would be remiss of us to transfer any aspect of the decision that must be made to a point in the future, or to a separate discussion in a civil partnerships review. If we are genuinely considering the best interests of children in relation to the adoption system, we should think through all the aspects. That was contemplated on Second Reading, not least by Ministers. I remember the Secretary of State for Health, who is present, saying that he looked forward to the debate in the Special Standing Committee, the implication being that if there was a justification for a further change he would have no objection. That turned out to be the case.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), who fostered my original interest in, and understanding of, the immense difficulties

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experienced by children who are looked after by local authorities, when we served together on the Select Committee on Health. I would feel resentful if it were thought that I, along with some of my hon. Friends and, indeed, Labour Members, was promoting this issue purely in order to campaign on Xlifestyle" issues. The hon. Member for Wakefield and I probably have similar views on many of the matters that we are discussing, but we hold those views less on the basis of any assertion about the lifestyles of adults than on that of the interests of children. Happily, that has been the context of the debate: we are all keen to establish what is in children's best interests.

I think that all the legal arguments can be dealt with in the same context. If it is true that children's best interests should be paramount—which was established by the United Nations convention on the rights of the child—it follows logically that if by extending the ability to adopt to, for instance, unmarried couples we can improve children's prospects by one jot, we are obliged to do that.

I do not know—other Conservative Members have asked the question—whether at the end of the process it will be possible for all children placed for adoption to be adopted by married couples because of improvements elsewhere in the Bill; but even if that is so, we cannot know at this point. We must allow for the possibility that we do not meet all our objectives in terms of securing suitable adoptive parents, even with all the other measures in the Bill. It would be remiss of us not to take the opportunity presented to us now.

It has always seemed straightforward to me. We must contemplate offering the possibility of adoption to unmarried couples, because some will have been deterred in the past by the structure of the legislation, by the presumptions implicit in that legislation and, not least, by the difficulty of determining who is the adoptive parent and who is not. It must be in the interests of children to establish a lasting legal relationship. In the past, when residency orders have been involved, they have expired when children have reached a certain age. If we are now to be concerned about children's interests throughout their lives, by definition we must look beyond residency orders and try to create that lasting legal relationship.

All Members must think about how they will vote, but that applies particularly to Conservative Members, because we are being asked to support the House of Lords and to oppose the hon. Member for Wakefield. That would cause me immense difficulty. The hon. Gentleman and I discussed an amendment along these lines at the beginning of the year, or perhaps last year. I made it clear on 29 October last year, on Second Reading, that the Bill should address this issue. I wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) on 1 March this year, saying that I would support the extension of adoption to unmarried couples and that the Conservatives should have a free vote. I spoke about the subject on 16 May, and voted contrary to my party's desire on 20 May. It would be wholly inconsistent of me to say now, XMy party says I must vote in a particular way, so I must reverse all my earlier decisions". It would be particularly perverse of me to do so, given that I adopted a view in the absence of a view

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on my party's Front Bench and had to take an initiative, along with the hon. Member for Wakefield, to embark on that path.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): Many of us who disagree with my hon. Friend agree profoundly that this is free-vote territory, and that it was quite wrong to impose a three-line Whip.

Mr. Lansley: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for punctuating that section of my speech with a full stop. I am always glad when I can agree with him.

Mr. Bercow: Is my hon. Friend aware that one of the justifications for the imposition of a three-line Whip on this occasion is: XWe did it last time; we could have allowed a free vote but we did not, and it would look bad to change tack now"? Does my hon. Friend agree that it is more important to be right than to be consistent, and that in any case it is more important to be consistent with what was right at the Conservative party conference in Bournemouth than to be consistent with what was wrong in May?

Mr. Lansley: My hon. Friend leads me into difficult territory. I can only say that for me to change tack now would constitute a substantial inconsistency. He is right, though. More to the point, I would be voting contrary to my judgment and conscience, and I can only applaud the way in which my hon. Friend is exercising his responsibility to vote according to his judgment and conscience.

I am persuaded of the desirability of pursuing the interests of children, to the extent that couples should be permitted to adopt. The question that some will remember from the debates on 16 and 20 May is whether that should mean all couples, regardless of whether they consist of a man and woman living together or of two people of the same sex. I am not persuaded, as I was not persuaded then, that we should necessarily extend the possibility of adoption to same-sex couples, not principally for any of the reasons advanced in the House of Lords but because I wonder whether we should create a set of circumstances in which the state can give children the prospect of having two legal fathers or two legal mothers, rather than one of two other prospects that natural circumstances would otherwise allow—that of having a mother and a father, and that of having a single legal parent who happens to be in a long-lasting relationship.

Ms Dari Taylor: Is the hon. Gentleman really saying that it is better for a child to be in one care establishment after another than to be adopted by unmarried or gay parents?

Mr. Lansley: No. I would hope that the hon. Lady would gather from the context of my argument that I am not saying that. I want to ensure the maximum possible use of adoption as an alternative to institutional care. But—there is always a but—we have to set the framework for those decisions and we cannot set out a hierarchy. We cannot simply say that all married couples should be given priority over all unmarried couples, who should be given priority over same-sex

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couples. In individual circumstances it will be right for a person in a same-sex relationship to be the adoptive parent.

In British society today it is a normal outcome for a child to be in a relationship with two adoptive parents who are a man and a woman living together, but for a child to have a legal relationship with both partners in a same-sex relationship would not normally happen and would happen solely at the behest of adoption legislation. That is my problem with the issue.

Dr. Evan Harris: The hon. Gentleman, tonight and previously, has been very clear about his reasons for opposing adoption by same-sex couples. However, he will recognise the conflict with his initial presumption. If we could increase the number of suitable homes for children by allowing adoption by same-sex couples, it would be important to do that, even at the cost—as he sees it—of creating an artificial situation legally with a child having two fathers or two mothers. How does he balance those two sincerely held positions?

Mr. Lansley: The greatest number of potential adopters is among unmarried couples, with a smaller number among same-sex couples. Same-sex couples, when considering adoption as a possibility, will be aware that in natural circumstances only one of them could be the natural parent. For a same-sex couple to care for a child does not require both of them to be parents, because that is not what occurs naturally. For example, if a woman has a child and then enters a same-sex relationship, she would not expect her partner to be the mother of that child. We are talking about normal circumstances.

I admit that I am making fine distinctions, but they are important legally. The preponderant issue is whether adoption should be restricted to married couples and single people, rather than to couples generally, and on that point the burden of the argument lies heavily with the hon. Member for Wakefield and with the conclusion that we have to disagree with the Lords in this amendment. When the matter returns to the other place, it will be for the Lords to decide whether they should think again about their amendment, or to give ground gracefully.

Whatever happens, the Bill should pass later this week. I have no doubt about that, and that should be common ground on both sides of the House and with the other place. Constitutionally, the other place would be well advised to bear in mind the fact that all parties in this House are committed to adoption legislation and that we have always been clear about the desirability of achieving that legislation as quickly as possible. It would be extraordinarily undesirable for the Bill to be put back to a future Session.

When the Lords act as a check on this House, they generally do so as a revising Chamber, to ensure that what we do works and is technically competent, or as a check on the power of the Executive. Neither case applies here. The Bill is technically competent and the original amendment was tabled by Back Benchers on both sides of the House. It is not the Government's amendment. Therefore, the essence of the argument with their Lordships is that we are seeking to express a view on behalf of the country about this current social

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issue. It must be right that the House of Commons is better at doing that than the House of Lords. I hope that the Lords will give ground gracefully.

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