Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Shaw: We should have ample time to debate the controversial issues; deciding which bits of the Bill are controversial is a matter for his hon. Friends. I am happy and content with the programme resolution—I do not want to upset my hon. Friends too much.

Many aspects of the Bill are welcome. Prior to the Special Select Committee before the election, I spent time with adoption professionals in my constituency. They welcomed the old Bill, but raised several issues with me, which have since been dealt with by the Government in the new Bill. If the Bill is concerned with the child's best interests and tapping a pool of adopters so that we can meet the 40 per cent. target, we should agree to the amendment and act in the child's best interests.

Mr. Llwyd: I shall be brief because other Members want to contribute.

I agree with the amendment of the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw). There are many worthy measures in the Bill, but if we do not address this issue, we will undermine the credibility of the exercise. There should be a blanket ban on unfit adopters only. A blanket ban on the basis of marital status is Victorian, old fashioned and somewhat ridiculous. One argument that will no doubt be put is that far more unmarried couples split up than married couples. Whether that is true, it has no moment in this debate, because we are dealing only with people who qualify as adopters. Many married couples will not qualify; many unmarried couples will not qualify. I cannot logically work out why, in the best interests of the children, the Government have set their face against allowing unmarried couples to adopt.

We all took part in the evidence-gathering sittings and heard an overwhelming amount of evidence in favour of allowing unmarried couples who qualify as good adopters to adopt. The Minister said that she had made a compelling case in response to an earlier amendment; it is only infrequently that I hear a compelling case being described as such by the proposer. With the greatest respect to the Minister, I must say that there is a compelling case for the amendment.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): I thank you for chairing today's deliberations, Mrs. Roe. This is the first time that I have spoken in a Standing Committee other than in an intervention, and our proceedings have been an education. If someone carried out a word search of them, the words that would jump out would be ``probing'' and ``teasing''—and perhaps ``circumcision''. I have certainly learned some new parliamentary terms. I have learned also that it is customary for the Opposition to complain, at great length, about the time that we have for debate. Yet, in this morning's proceedings, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham welcomed the Chairman to ``our mammoth sittings''. I am not sure how those two complaints square with each other.

In discussing the amendments, we should return to the principle at the heart of the Bill—the welfare of the child throughout its life. We all accept that society has changed since 1967 and the height of the period when unmarried mothers gave up babies for adoption. Adoption itself has also changed, and the two changes are intimately related. The lack of social acceptance of birth outside marriage at that time led to unmarried mothers giving up their babies. Because they knew that I was on the Standing Committee for the Bill, I was approached by several Members of Parliament from both sides of that equation. Some gave up their babies for adoption many years ago and others adopted many years ago.

We must accept that with more and more children being brought up outside marriage few babies are given up today. It is increasingly common for unmarried people to adopt babies, but they are allowed to do so only as individuals. In many cases that approach is not necessarily in the best interests of the child. The child may have the right, if it is possible, to have two parents and two sets of grandparents. The child may have the right, if it is old and mature enough, to say which parent it would like to stay with in the event of a break-up of an unmarried adoptive couple's relationship. When only one parent is allowed to adopt, that decision is already taken for the child.

It is wrong to say, as the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) did a moment ago, that the Government have set their face against this. The Secretary of State made it clear on Second Reading that that was not the case and that the Government are minded to hear the arguments. I know that the Minister is minded to hear the arguments. That is the purpose of our deliberations today. I also understand that there are broader ramifications, beyond the boundaries of the Bill, in changing the law to allow unmarried couples to adopt, including matters such as the civil registration of partnerships. Therefore, it may not be appropriate to press the amendments now.

Just as we should not lose sight of the welfare of the child in a haze of political correctness, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford said earlier, we should not lose sight of the welfare of the child in a blaze of political bigotry. The law should not be a sham. Do we really believe that the situation where a single person adopts and brings up a child alone—or where an unmarried person adopts as an individual and brings up a child together with a partner—is so superior to the situation where an unmarried couple adopts together that the latter should be banned? That is the key question. I welcome the genuinely open approach that the Government have taken on this matter. I hope that we will have further debates on it as the Bill progresses.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey): One of the things that struck me when I became involved in the Bill was how little I knew about adoption, and how the sort of children who are being adopted has changed over the years. Many people still have an image of nice pink little babies. However, the vast majority of children who are put up for adoption are damaged in some way. The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford referred to sexual abuse. When a child has been sexually abused it might be totally inappropriate to put her near someone who might remind her of that abuse. Another type of couple might be better in such cases.

What struck me during the evidence sessions was the overwhelming consensus that the needs of the child are paramount. If that means that the best available placement is not with a married couple, we should be free to place that child where it would find love, care and understanding. I hope that the Minister has taken note of that consensus. I know that there are far-reaching consequences if we decide to amend the Bill, but Members of the Committee should send a signal that that is right on this occasion. We should not say, ``Well, now is not the time. We need to go down the civil registration partnerships route, and then we might resist it in some way.'' We will not have a chance to revisit the matter for a long while.

I hope that the amendment will be pressed to a Division, and I hope that Labour members of the Committee, who have spoken so eloquently about the matter, will have the courage of their convictions, and vote in accordance with their remarks.

4.15 pm

Liz Blackman (Erewash): Unlike several of my hon. Friends, I do not have a social services background. However, I did teach for a long while, and a local authority children's home was situated in the catchment area where I taught, so some of the children who resided at the home attended my school. It was noticeable that, as they grew up and passed through the school, the self-esteem of those children fell dramatically, and they fell behind in terms of academic achievement. Many of them became involved on the fringes of criminal activity, and, lamentably, I heard that some of them, after they left school, went to prison. We are therefore discussing a group of damaged young people, and it is important that we try to enable adoption of such children to be more effective and speedy.

The changes in those children were very apparent. Whatever situation they were in when they entered the children's home, it became worse over time—and I witnessed that process, as I taught at the school for a long while. With such damaged children, we must look for couples and individuals with enormous emotional resources who can make a difference to their lives. They are special people; they are prepared to commit to taking those children on—to loving and supporting them, and to nurturing them through to successful and healthy adulthoods.

It is right that the paramount importance of the child's welfare is at the heart of the Bill. I know of numerous examples of unmarried couples who have fitted the bill with regard to the adoption of certain children, and they have done a jolly good job of bringing them up. There is a good chance of getting a good match and a successful adoption if, right at the start, in the assessment process, whoever is doing the assessing can see the quality of the relationship of a couple, or the environment provided by a single person, and can identity what they might have to offer to a child. It is therefore unsurprising that the majority of the witnesses from whom we heard last week supported the view that what is important is not whether a couple are married or not, but the quality of their relationship, and the match with the child—whose welfare is of paramount importance.

I am not copping out, as has been suggested, when I say—after having given the matter considerable thought, and after having read through the evidence again—that if we passed the amendments, that would be a mere token gesture, as the overarching legal framework needs a root and branch review. I hope that the Minister will say something about the Government's intention to reconsider the legal framework in respect not only of adoption but of its wider effect on several different issues, which I shall not go into, which I also see as nonsense. I hope that there is a review and that we will make changes, because if people are prepared to put themselves forward to adopt challenging, needy children we should have the decency to allow both partners of an unmarried couple to have a legal relationship with the child and, most importantly, allow the child to have a legal relationship with both the partners who make that commitment.

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Prepared 29 November 2001