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4 Nov 2002 : Column 92—continued

8.15 pm

I have some sympathy with those hon. Members who have expressed concern about the way in which the

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assessment process is carried out. Of course that is why we are also undertaking a fundamental review of the assessment process, to ensure that prospective adopters have better education and information, that there is more consistency and transparency in the process, and that we are clear when people come forward as prospective adopters about what will be asked of them.

The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) called for recruitment activities to be supported, and we are already providing such support. Under the Bill, we will introduce an independent review for possible adopters who are turned down by adopter panels, to provide more certainty about the process.

The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) called for tax rises to help adoption support. I do not remember him and other Conservative Members voting for the investment outlined in the Budget. Nevertheless, the Government are investing #70 million in improved adoption support, which will enable people to come forward with more certainty that they will have the support that they need to take on some of those very difficult children. So we are making progress, but there is no room for complacency.

As we have heard, BAAF estimates that 5,000 new adoptive parents are needed every year. It says that there is no shortage of adopters for very young children, but they represent only one in every nine children adopted, and we recognise that and several hon. Members have made that point.

Many hon. Members have referred to BAAF's publication, XBe My Parent", and to the fact that, in one month alone, 431 children appeared and that there were 1,255 inquiries about them, but the crux of the matter is that 65 of those individuals and 64 groups of siblings received no inquiry at all. As many hon. Members have very powerfully said, no one felt able to express an interested in adopting the eight-year-old boy who is interested in football and swimming and is lively but who has mild learning disabilities and has been in care for the past four years. No one felt able to offer the stable family life that children need so much to the five-year-old boy who is keen on computer games, bicycling and dogs but who was taken into care at the age of one. That is the basis of my support for the amendments in lieu of the Lords amendments—measures that will make a difference to the possible pool of those who can provide a family life to those children.

In supporting my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield, I should like to point out that amendments (a) to (uu) in lieu would complete the changes necessary to the Bill that are consequent on the decision to allow unmarried couples to adopt jointly. Those amendments fall into three main groups. The first group contains those amendments that would replace references throughout the Bill to Xmarried couple", Xstep-parents" and Xpersons to whom the adopter is married" with references to Xcouple", Xtwo-people adopters", Xpartner" and Xpartner of a parent", and insert the new definitions of Xcouple" and Xpartner" in relation to a parent in the glossary contained in schedule 6.

The second group contains amendments that would ensure that adopted people have a clear legal status, irrespective of whether adopted before or after the Bill is enacted or whether by a married couple, a single adopter or an unmarried couple. The amendments

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would enable relationships created by adoption to be described in law as adoptive relationships, and they would also preserve the status of people adopted prior to the Bill.

The third group contains amendments to adoption and other legislation consequent on the changes to the legal status of adopted people. When the House votes, as I hope that it does, for the principle of allowing unmarried people to adopt, that will ensure that the necessary consequential amendments are included. I want to make it clear that the House will have an opportunity to vote on all the amendments in the group. I want to ensure that the House has a chance to express its views on these and any amendments in lieu where appropriate. In addition, I would move any outstanding motions to disagree to Lords amendments if and when the knife falls—

Dr. Evan Harris: Will the hon. Lady clarify a point that was raised over four and a half hours ago about whether the Government agree with the Joint Committee on Human Rights? The Committee concluded:

Jacqui Smith: The Government took legal advice when the Bill was introduced in the House of Commons, which was that the position in the 1976 Act and in the Bill as it then stood was, on balance, defensible on ECHR grounds. As we have heard, the Committee has now given its view that the Bill as amended by the Lords is incompatible with convention rights, and the Government do not necessarily accept the reasoning of the Committee. We recognise, however, as we always have, that in the light of developing case law—not least some of that cited by the hon. Gentleman—there is a risk that the current law and the Bill as it stands would be found to be incompatible. Clearly, much will depend on the circumstances of individual cases. I shall now return to the key issues.

Much has been said about the propensity of unmarried relationships to break down—that was a key part of the arguments of the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous). We are not suggesting, however, that all unmarried couples or all same-sex couples should have a right to adopt. We are simply saying that these couples should have the same right to be assessed jointly as prospective adopters as that enjoyed by married couples.

Mr. Brazier: Will the Minister give way?

Jacqui Smith: No.

When considering the suitability of couples as adopters, agencies and the courts are not assessing from the public at large but from a small self-selecting group

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who have decided that they would like to adopt. Incidentally, we should be grateful to and encourage that group of people, not label them as being concerned about making a lifestyle choice, as the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) did at the weekend.

The overall statistics are not, therefore, a helpful guide. People who are in casual, short-term relationships are most unlikely to put themselves forward as prospective adopters, and if they did, they would certainly not advance beyond the first stage of the approval process. The key is in the assessment process, which ensures that we can identify with confidence those single people and couples that have the qualities needed to be successful adoptive parents. Adoption is about making judgments about suitability and judgements based on evidence, not judgments based on generalisation and—dare I say it—sometimes prejudice. One cannot use generalisation to determine assessment—that is not acting in the best interests of children. One can, however, assess each prospective adopter on their own merits so that an informed decision can be taken as to their suitability to offer a home to a vulnerable child. That is why the adopter assessment process is critical, and the assessment process is tough. That point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn), and in the brave and wise speech of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), which reflected the in-depth analysis that he has undertaken of this issue.

We have spelled out in the framework for assessment, which is currently out for consultation, the tough questions that will need to be asked about the stability and security of the relationship of any couple coming forward to be potential adopters. The sorts of issues that social workers will seek to discuss with them will be about the history of their current relationship and any previous relationships, what makes that relationship work, whether the relationship has been severely tested and survived, how the couple go about resolving difficulties, how they perceive commitment, where they see themselves in 20 years' time, how decisions are made within the partnership, how conflict is dealt with in the relationship, and whether both partners support each other and meet each others' needs. We are asking whether people believe that those are the crucial factors that need to be discussed. It seems to me that that is a tough and rigorous approach to ensuring that we make clear that couples who come forward to adopt will be in very stable relationships. That is the toughness of the assessment that hon. Members have outlined today.

Some have seen these amendments as an attack on marriage. That is rubbish. My marriage is not made stronger by knowing that the loving, caring and skilled potential parents down the road are prevented from offering a home to a child because they are not married. Marriage is not the strong institution that I believe it to be if it has to be protected by limiting the life chances of vulnerable children.

Many Members have rightly argued that what we need to ensure for children is stability and security. Of course, single people, including gay people, can already adopt. They have been able to do so since 1926. Some of them will be in long-term relationships, and the

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assessment process already considers the nature of those relationships. What the reforms will do is enable adopted children to have a long-term legal relationship with two parents. I fail to see how that undermines security and stability. Children have written to the Department of Health outlining some of the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) about the security that comes from a legal relationship with two parents. The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), demonstrated the illogicality of the position that opposes these reforms.

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