Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): I have a sincere respect for the proposer of the amendment, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford, for several of his hon. Friends who supported him, and for my hon. Friends. I agree with the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy on many things, although I cannot pronounce the name of his constituency, and I am saddened that I disagree with him on the matter that we are discussing.

The difference between the Special Standing Committee, and the earlier Committee on which the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford and I and two other members of the Committee served just before the election is that, although it was right not to try to repeat that, there was time for the hearings to take place. The problem about trying to cram all the evidence into two days is that there was not as much scope for deliberation.

The feeling in the first set of hearings was different in several ways: first, there was strong testimony from the official on the Bill, supported by Ministers, about why the proposal would be a mistake, partly related to treaty obligations, and to other factors to which I shall come to in a moment. Secondly, several Labour Members expressed strong views against the change. I shall mention two, both of whom are now Parliamentary Private Secretaries and therefore cannot serve on the Committee. One, whom the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford mentioned in his speech, was the hon. Member for Stockport who spoke about a person being required to be one-eighth from an ethnic background—the fraction was seven-eighths, not three-quarters. The hon. Lady made it clear that she opposed the change. I last discussed the matter with her in the past few days—

Mr. Shaw indicated dissent.

Mr. Brazier: She did indeed. It is no good the hon. Gentleman shaking his head. Her remarks are on the record. Another hon. Member who opposed the change—

Mr. Shaw: I shall certainly check. That is for the record.

Mr. Brazier: The hon. Gentleman is welcome to check but I assure him that I last discussed the matter with the hon. Lady only two days ago. She made some remarks during the Committee so they were presumably on the record. Another Labour Member who opposed the measure was the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint); the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford will surely remember her comment that she was about to get married. She made some personal remarks that I shall not repeat, but the hon. Gentleman will remember that conversation as he was there at the time.

The consensus, even in the evidence-gathering sittings—the hon. Gentleman said that only one of the witnesses spoke for the status quo—

Tim Loughton: The Minister went to the hon. Lady's wedding.

Mr. Brazier: Oh, really? I am delighted to hear it and I hope that the hon. Member for Don Valley had a very happy day. However, she made it clear that she was opposed to the change.

During the hearings, the hon. Gentleman said that 29 out of 30 spoke strongly against the Bill's provisions—

Sandra Gidley: I have the words of the hon. Member for Don Valley in front of me. She actually said that she was being devil's advocate.

Mr. Brazier: I shall have to check the record, as I was speaking from memory, but the hon. Lady said that she was getting married. However, there is no question about the views of the hon. Member for Stockport on the subject. I discussed it with her a couple of days ago and she would not mind my mentioning it.

As to the supposed 29 out of 30 who spoke strongly on the matter, it is true that the vast majority of the witnesses this time were in favour of the change, but at least two spoke against it. The Adoption Forum representatives were against it.

Mr. Shaw: There was only one, the gentleman from the Westminster Catholic Children's Society. As I said, I accept the general principle, that of the optimum, but when I asked the Adoption Forum representatives if they thought it was inconceivable that there would not be a situation where a child's best interests would be served with an unmarried couple, they agreed with that point of view.

Mr. Brazier: The lady from the Adoption Forum was pressed strongly by several hon. Members, including the Chairman, but her testimony was in favour of leaving the law as it is. As I understand it, that is the Adoption Forum's position.

I want to move from testimony to the heart of the evidence. As several hon. Members have said, in the majority of cases a child is in care for traumatic reasons. These are children with a great deal of baggage. To be faced with the prospect of another break-up would be to have a second trauma imposed on the first. The outcomes from adoption are much less bad than from any other option; two academics told us that they were the best outcome by far, a view that I have long supported—I am glad that several Labour Members are nodding—but, nevertheless, the success rate is only just over 80 per cent. The other 18 or 19 per cent. represent cases in which there is a further individual tragedy on top of the history of such events; how the children are placed is most important.

Members on both sides of the Committee share the view that more training and more resourcing is needed for social work, but no social worker, however well trained, can make a perfect assessment. However, contributing towards it are certain hooks on which we hang our coats, one of which is the massive difference between the outcomes for children in birth families whose parents marry, even though they may not necessarily have started in a married relationship—we do not have a body of evidence on adoption yet—and for their comparable peers whose parents do not go on to get married.

I cite two statistics. The first is the study based on official statistics in 1997, which looked at the outcomes of a proportion of children born in 1987 whose parents stayed together. The proportion who were still married at that 10-year point—there is a small element who were married but separated which unfortunately the study was not able to pick out—was 81 per cent. About two-fifths of unmarried parents in that same 1987 cohort subsequently got married, so they are taken out of the picture, but of the remaining three-fifths who did not get married, 85 per cent. had parted by the 10-year point.

Kevin Brennan: Should not the hon. Gentleman clarify what he is saying about married and unmarried couples? Does he think it is logical that the law should permit an unmarried person with a partner to adopt a child on their own and for the partner to be able to apply successfully for a residence order when an unmarried couple cannot adopt a child together? If his objection is to unmarried partners adopting children, the logic of his position is that that should be outlawed.

Mr. Brazier: I shall come back to that in a moment, but the short answer is no—the law is correct. I have been passed the record, so let me correct the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) and read out what the hon. Member for Don Valley said. The devil's advocate point came further on in the text on a related issue:

    ``On the marriage and on the sexuality issue, when we are told that for people who want to have children—often because they cannot have children of their own—it is something that is very important to them, why then would they not see—not necessarily in church but under the law—defining their relationship in terms of a more public, legal contract as being a precursor to actually adopting a child?''

That is the heart of the argument—

4.30 pm

Mr. Shaw: The heart of the argument is evidence, but the hon. Gentleman's evidence is not based on like for like. That is the problem. My hon. Friend the hon. Member for Don Valley may have said that, but there is no evidence to back it up. She was responding to a question rather than making a statement of belief.

Mr. Brazier: I am not going to pursue that further. We can all examine the record later. My understanding is that the hon. Member for Don Valley took the same view as the hon. Member for Stockport. I should like to finish my main argument and give the Minister plenty of time to reply, as strong views have been expressed on the subject.

There is a massive disparity in steadiness between a typical unmarried relationship and a married one. Various studies demonstrate that. Norman Dennis, a professor of sociology from Newcastle and a life-long supporter of the Labour party, put the first set of studies together. He studied evidence relating to performance in class, likelihood of falling into trouble with the law and capacity to hold down a job. In every case, he found that—when the economic issues were removed—children from married homes did considerably better. In assessing two people who present themselves as a couple, it is reasonable to take certain factors into account as well as those that can be prima facie examined.

The hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) rightly asked why a single person in an unmarried relationship should be allowed to adopt when an unmarried couple cannot. About 95 per cent. of all adoptions in this country are by married couples. In exceptional circumstances—and I suspect that the lady from Adoption Forum touched on them—a household with a couple living together might be the best, perhaps the only, option. However, why should they both become adopters?

The most common argument is that, otherwise, the child might not feel that he or she properly belongs to both. The best way to put that right is for the couple living together to get married, which is possible in most cases. To make hard law on the basis of the few cases where that is not possible is entirely wrong. The evidence that children have the best chance of stability in a married relationship is so overwhelming that we should stay with that. It is the international legal position. We signed up to a treaty in the 1970s that affirms it. We should stand by our treaty obligations because they affirm the best interests of the child.

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Prepared 29 November 2001