Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Brazier: I am sorry, Felicity, but could I put the question again? I think that you may have misheard me. What I asked was whether, given the huge difference between the average age of unmarried couples and married couples, the question about whether couples were considering adoption was sized for age as was your poll on attitudes. Otherwise, the disparity that you suggested on willingness to adopt could be accounted for by age.

Felicity Collier: I have the information. I could provide it for you separately.

Mr. Brazier: I would be interested to see it. It is not in the pack that you sent us, but if you have it, it would be nice if it could be circulated afterwards.

The argument put forward by the officials from the Department of Health concerned the fact that the parents have entered into a legal commitment to each other and that must be of benefit from the child's point of view. Does it not worry you at all that successive surveys have shown that there is a huge difference between the likelihood of the breakdown of an unmarried relationship where there is a child and that of a married relationship? The last Office for National Statistics survey in 1997 showed that there was an 81 per cent. chance of a married relationship still existing after 10 years and a 15 per cent. chance of an unmarried relationship still existing.

Felicity Collier: As I have said to you on previous occasions, Julian, I do not consider that those surveys are in any way typical of people who would be assessed as suitable for adopting. I want to re-emphasise what was said in your earlier evidence. People are assessed as though they were a couple if one person is living with another person and their intention is to make a joint commitment to the child, even though currently only one can be the legal adopter. A sort of fiction has materialised. I see the ADSS representative nodding in relation to that.

What you then assess is both the longevity and the stability of their relationship and their commitment to each other. It would be very unusual, in our experience, for people who had not been in a cohabiting relationship for three years or so, or demonstrated a real understanding of the level of commitment both to each other and to the child, to be approved as suitable.

Indeed, many people think that the assessment process is almost too intrusive on people's relationships. I think that that is a protection in these situations. The sort of atypical people who are fairly young, have fairly brief cohabiting relationships, may have a child and then have separated are not the sort of people who are being considered as joint adopters, and it is not helpful to draw a comparison between the two.

The Chairman: Could we bring in Meg Staples, who is near the ground on this issue?

Meg Staples (Adoption Manager, Nottinghamshire County Council): A number of couples whom we approve who are married have had a number of previous relationships, and in fact a number of previous marriages, but the same issues do not apply in terms of looking at them. We are being required to assess the stability of the current relationship, even though it might have been for only three years. Many of the couples who come forward who are not married have been together in a relationship that has lasted maybe 10 or 15 years and has been their single most significant relationship. They are required jointly to apply to adopt, but then they have to make a choice in the assessment about which one of them is actually going to become the adoptive parent.

So the assessment is incredibly stringent, and I think, as Felicity said, that some couples do find that the approach that we take has been more intrusive, because we are required to meet very high requirements in terms of whether or not the relationship is strong and stable and is going to endure for the child's lifetime.

Mr. Brazier: One final question, just to you, Meg Staples. Why should a couple who are willing jointly to enter into the legal obligations involved in their both adopting a child refuse the legal obligations of entering into a marriage, with all the consequences that that entails in terms of property inheritance and many other things? One does not have to take a religious view to get married. There is a perfectly good civil marriage system that has been around for a century or so. Why should people want to enter into a joint relationship of adoption, which would not be a legal commitment in that sense, with regard to a child who has had enough legal and other problems in past?

Meg Staples: Some people do not value marriage in the same way as others. They do not see it as necessary to indicate their commitment to each other. They feel that they do not need that piece of paper or ritual. Some couples are not in a position to get married, so that is not an option, but they still wish to adopt and they still wish to become parents. I think it is important for the assessment to take account of why those individuals choose not to be married, and for us to be certain that those reasons are well founded. If they are, that relationship is more than likely to be stable and secure for a child's childhood.

The Chairman: Could I come in on a practical point? In a previous session, I raised the issue of the welfare principle with regard to this issue. I want to ask Miss Staples and Mr. Christie—who have practical, hands-on, day-to-day experience of this area—whether they see a problem in matching up the underlying principles of the Bill, which we all support and welcome, with this particular area, which would not allow an unmarried couple to jointly adopt in these circumstances. Mr. Christie, do you want to come in on this point?

Mr. Andrew Christie (Assistant Director, London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham): Yes, I do. I was reflecting on this from the point of view of the child. Am I not, as the child who is being adopted, being denied the opportunity to have two people who have the full responsibilities embodied in the making of the adoption order? I heard that there was some discussion, and obviously some lack of clarity, early on as to the current law or rule that would apply in the case of inheritance. To take that as an example, effectively the couple would be assessed as though they were going to act as parents. One of them may acquire, as I understand it, parental responsibility through the special guardianship order. If, through that, the opportunity to have access to inheritance rights were not conferred on the child, I would have thought that child to be potentially disadvantaged.

Meg Staples: There are other issues. If the adoptive parent dies, the child is left in an incredibly vulnerable position because the surviving partner might have taken on parental responsibility, but does not have the status of adoptive parent. For the child, that is of fundamental significance. Earlier, I referred to adoption allowances. Adoption allowances are awarded to the applicant who is going to lodge the adoption application. If that person does die, there is an issue about adoption allowances in terms of the surviving partner of the relationship. We are making significant differences in stability and security for children if we do not allow unmarried couples to adopt jointly.

Mr. Dawson: My point was answered by Felicity Collier, but I make the general point that we are not talking about anybody's right to adopt. We are talking about people's right to be assessed as adoptive parents.

Ms Munn: On the issue of the availability of adopters, may I ask Meg Staples and Moira Gibb how important it is for people who wish to adopt to have had a range of life experiences that have not necessarily been smooth and straightforward?

Moira Gibb: From my point of view, the principal reason for extending the scheme to unmarried couples is because we do not want to rule out any group, as we are very short of applicants for some of the children for whom we are responsible. That is a critical issue for us. We want people who have gone through life and experienced things that will help them to tackle some of the difficulties that they are going to face.

Meg Staples: I think that people who have rich life experiences often take a higher degree of risk in terms of the children whom we are looking to place. Therefore, the pool of adopters who are likely to take the children who are waiting are in those groups that have had experiences that make them feel comfortable about taking on the extra dimension of looking after children.

Ms Munn: What are the important factors in promoting stability for children in placements?

The Chairman: The hon. Lady used to be a social worker.

Ms Munn: Perhaps I should say at this point that Meg Staples actually supervised my first assessment of my first home study. [Laughter.] This is very embarrassing.

12.30 pm

Meg Staples: We promote stability when children can make attachments to stable adults who are going to remain there for the period of their childhood, and who are going to be able to provide for those children in terms of their physical and emotional needs. Apart from what the adoptive parents provide, which is highly significant, there are other services that the local authority and other agencies should provide in assisting in that task. That is concerned with support with education and with health, as well as with support as the adopted child becomes an adult and seeks counselling. It is also about giving support along the way, as required, and timely support.

For many of these things, there cannot be a time delay. Children cannot wait; they need it when they need it. More and more of the children whom we are placing have highly complex needs. Those children will need extra services that are outside the remit of healing adoptive parents. Those parents can do an enormous amount, but more is needed.

The Chairman: I presume, Miss Gibb, that you have not been involved in Ms Munn's career at any point.

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