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21 Feb 2007 : Column 112WH—continued

John Bercow: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for very generously giving way. In one respect, at least, I would like to endorse the observation of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash): my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury has an exemplary track record in the cause of adopting children, particularly those who are hardest to adopt. I respect that, but it is this particular point on which I strongly disagree with him. I put it to him that there is no
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question of forcing any agency to close. Agencies will simply be expected to comply with the law. We cannot have a blackmailer’s charter in respect of any piece of legislation.

Mr. Brazier: It is not a question of blackmail; the issue is straightforward. The Catholic Church will not place children with gay couples and has a conscientious objection to doing so, and it cannot continue to do so within the scope of the new law.

A number of wider issues are raised. I mentioned that of abortion, but one that is more immediately topical is that of governors’ appointments of teachers to faith schools. The Catholic Church has a policy, as do the governors of other religious schools, that people who are living in unmarried relationships, whether heterosexual or homosexual, will not be appointed to teaching posts in its schools. Schools have been given an exemption from the legislation by the Government. It seems strange that schools that affect tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of what I might call ordinary children have been exempted, but no such way forward has so far been found for a very specific arrangement that affects only relatively small numbers of desperately disadvantaged children.

Why should the Government say that Catholic and evangelical social workers cannot continue to carry out a highly professional job unless they agree—bearing it in mind that there has been only one case in all the years that the process has been going on—publicly to proclaim opposition to their deeply held beliefs? The Government have allowed a two-year transition and Ministers have promised that no child already adopted will suffer. That is an ambitious pledge indeed, given the lack of after-care in a high proportion of authorities—45 per cent. have failed the inspectorate’s tests.

David Holmes, the new director of BAAF, has said:

In other words, BAAF strongly supported the move on gay adoption. However, he continued:

I am not quite as optimistic as him, but there is a possibility.

To return to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone made, I have seen a great deal of testimony on the clash of rights between competing groups—Christian rights and gay rights, for instance—but I wonder whether endless arguments about rights are the best way to resolve such increasingly common clashes, in what is becoming a more and more divided, fractured and unhappy country. No child will benefit from the application of the regulations to close successful organisations that help the most damaged children. The Government have allowed themselves two years to find a way of enabling some of the best agencies in a thin field to continue, within their consciences, to serve the most vulnerable members of our community—damaged and disabled children in care.

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Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. David Marshall (in the Chair): Order. I intend the winding-up speeches to start at 3.30 pm, giving the three Front Benchers 10 minutes each. Four hon. Members have asked to speak. If they are relatively brief, I shall hope to call them all.

2.51 pm

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): First, I have urgent business in my constituency this evening, so I apologise for the fact that I shall not hear the summation speeches.

I am a Catholic and I am a liberal, and I have agonised over clashing rights. There are issues on both sides. As a Catholic, I have helped my wife, who was formerly chair of a joint Catholic-Anglican adoption agency for six years. As a liberal, I sat with my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) on the Committee that considered the Gender Recognition Act 2004, and he knows that I fought for those rights for recognition. I have also stood up for gay rights since I first became involved in politics many years ago. When two sets of rights appear to clash with each other, how do we resolve the matter? With the sexual orientation regulations, it appears that the legislation will ride one set of rights over another, but it does not have to do so. If I thought that there were a prima facie case for that and that some rights had to be subservient, I would accept that argument. However, I do not accept that argument.

Let us consider faith-based rights. Catholics have their views about homosexuality. Not all Christians or even Catholics necessarily share the Church’s view, but let us put that on one side for the moment. People have a right to their faith. We have recognised and extended that right in this country, so that people can give education, and so that other rights, concerning who they allow into their schools, are set to one side. In the past, people have traditionally also done that in the family context of adoption agencies, but we are in danger of cutting off something that is fundamental to adoption agencies—to work within a family context of adopted families. I would argue that that is not necessary to preserve the other set of rights, which are equally important.

I shall come back to the other set of rights at the end of my speech. We have talked about the rights of the parents and the child—they have been well aired—but so far we have not discussed the adoption process and how it works. Given the details and pitfalls of the process, we do not need to impose the SOR across the board, as is proposed, to preserve both sets of rights effectively. Anyone who has gone through the adoption process or worked in a charity will know that potential parents are given the third degree. Some find the process extremely distressing, while others withdraw from it because of the intrusion into their lives by social workers trying to ensure that they are proper and fit people to bring up children.

By and large, social workers get it right. However, there are difficulties in how they relate to different families. It is quite common for adoption agencies working with different ethnic groups to try to employ people from that ethnic background to work with those families, in order to have a better understanding of
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who those people are. As the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) has said, there is only one case on record of a gay couple coming to the Catholic adoption agency for approval, and they were referred on. Why would they do so? Would a gay couple really want a local priest to try to judge them and their lifestyle as appropriate to bringing up children?

There are circumstances in which it might be entirely right for a gay couple to bring up a child. An example of that would be a child—particularly a girl, but also a boy—who had been severely abused by men. An entirely female setting might be the best setting for that child. The question is whether we would ask a Roman Catholic, a Muslim or someone else with strong religious views to judge whether that was the right setting, and whether that person would have the right values to judge whether such potential parents were suitable. Could that person ask the pertinent, searching questions without being offensive and in a way that came to the right solution? I suggest that the answer is probably not.

The adoption process as it currently exists is multi-faceted and needs to be so. The danger of the SOR is that it will homogenise the process and that we will return to the bad old days of a politically correct form of adoption that rules certain people out because they do not fit within a narrow definition. We only have to think back to the 1970s, when we had that sort of process. People were compartmentalised according to who could adopt whom, rather than considering individual families on a proper basis.

John Bercow: I am listening respectfully to the hon. Gentleman, because I recognise that he knows something about the subject and that he feels as passionately about his position as I do about mine. May I nevertheless suggest to him that he is developing a most extraordinary argument? It is, namely, that people need to be protected from possibly prejudiced attitudes against their chances of adopting a child, which means, if we follow the logic of the hon. Gentleman’s position, that those with the prejudices are given a uniquely privileged position. That seems to me to be wrong. All we are asking is that Catholic adoption agencies should consider each case on its merits and not be influenced by a doctrinal view about homosexual practice.

Richard Younger-Ross: The argument that I am trying to develop is not one of prejudice, nor am I saying that we should enshrine prejudice, because I would not wish to do that. I am trying to take forward the idea that we should look at the best way of judging potential adoptive parents. The best way is not to have a one-social-worker-fits-all model, otherwise we will be asking social workers to develop a set of skills that is very broad.

At the moment, we have Catholic adoption agencies—or the evangelicals, the Methodists or whoever—that work within a certain field. To overcome the fears of prejudice, would it not be better to have a model that is close to what we have now, which says that local authorities are the adoption agencies? Local authorities would therefore be responsible for diversity and equality and would be able to contract people within those fields. Although the numbers are small, there is even an argument for
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saying that a specialist agency might be required to work within the gay community. If we adopted the SOR as proposed, we could not do that, even though it might be beneficial in those cases.

Finally, having worked with and considered Catholic adoption agencies, I can say that they offer “care-plus”—their work goes beyond when the child leaves the adoptive family. If a 40-year-old has problems that relate back to their adoption, those social workers and charities will still be there to help them. That is well beyond anything that local government can do. We are at real risk of undermining some of those very good things to no effect whatever.

3 pm

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): As you will be well aware, Mr. Marshall, in Scotland adoption is a devolved matter. I should also like to address the sexual orientation regulations, because there is a particular issue to do with Catholic adoption agencies that affects Scotland.

I stress that I personally support the regulations. I note in passing that although there has been much comment on rights, no couple—gay or heterosexual—has a right to adopt. We should be considering the rights of the child, which seem to be lost in much of the smoke and fury around the issue.

As I have said, I personally do not agree with the stance of the Roman Catholic Church on gay adoption. I see absolutely no reason why gay couples cannot provide a loving and caring environment in which to bring up a child. However, the fact remains that Catholic adoption agencies, of which two operate in Scotland, provide a valuable service. As the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) has mentioned, they are particularly good at placing children who are otherwise difficult to place. It would be an utter tragedy if such agencies were unable to continue their valuable work because of this dispute.

A specific Scottish dimension applies, because when the Scottish Parliament debated the Adoption and Children (Scotland) Bill, which allowed gay couples to adopt in Scotland, the matter of Catholic adoption agencies was canvassed. Indeed, amendments were introduced to try to ensure that Catholic adoption agencies would be able to continue their work. In his comments on those amendments, Robert Brown, the Liberal Democrat Deputy Minister for Education and Young People, made it clear that the equality law was the responsibility of the UK Parliament in respect of the sexual orientation regulations. He also stated that agencies would be required to comply with it and regulations made under it.

It is also important to set out what Robert Brown said in the debate about the position of Catholic adoption agencies. He said that Peter Peacock, the then Minister for Education and Young People,

which was to protect faith-based agencies—

In the light of that, the Scottish Parliament took the view that nothing in the legislation would have impacted on how Catholic adoption agencies were operating and the Bill was enacted. That was right, because the Bill was dealing only with adoption and the right to adopt, not with the question of equality, which is a matter reserved to Westminster.

However, the equality question was canvassed during the passage of the Bill. The Minister—Robert Brown again—specifically said:

Clearly, Ministers at the Scottish Executive were in touch with UK Ministers to try to deal with the situation, because the Scottish Parliament recognised the need for the good work of the Catholic adoption agencies to be protected. It was understood that they would be allowed to continue to pass on people to other agencies. It was a practical compromise, to avoid the situation into which we now seem to have got ourselves. Will the Minister say what approaches were made by the Scottish Executive on the matter and what became of them?

The issue is important in Scotland. As I have said, the understanding was that if a gay couple approached the Catholic agency, they would be passed on to another agency. It is a great shame that that now appears effectively to have been undermined by the actions of the UK Government in refusing to allow the exemption under the sexual orientation regulations. At least we assume that they will refuse to do so, although we have not yet seen the regulations, but given those that have been introduced in Northern Ireland, one presumes that they will.

The reasonable compromise that I have mentioned would not undermine the regulations. Despite some of the more outlandish allegations made in the letters that we receive about the sexual orientation regulations, the regulations already contain exceptions for religious reasons. For example, if I read it correctly, regulation 16—again, I refer to the Northern Ireland regulations—allows religious groups to refuse to rent out their premises to gay groups and others of which they disapprove. The problem is that that applies only when they are operating as a religious organisations.
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It does not apply to Catholic adoption agencies, which operate outwith the Church and fall under regulation 6, which applies to goods and services.

It is right that we should legislate to prevent discrimination against gay people. However, in legislating, we sometimes need to heed the beliefs of others. Perhaps in this case a small compromise could avoid a serious problem with the adoption agencies.

3.7 pm

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate; I am also grateful, as we all are, to the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) for raising this matter.

One of the rules of the House is that one gets on personally very well with those with whom one often finds oneself in disagreement, because they are pleasant people. That rule certainly applies to the hon. Gentleman, but I disagree with him on the sexual orientation regulations. I shall concentrate on those regulations, although I recognise that he raised other extremely important issues, some of which my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) will address from the Liberal Democrats’ point of view.

It is right to pay tribute to the record of the hon. Member for Canterbury for his work on adoption across the piece. I am aware of the excellent work of the organisation Parents and Children Together in the Oxfordshire diocese; it has no rule excluding gay couples from adopting, and rightly so. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights and shall say a word or two about how the European convention on human rights plays on this issue—something that has been raised, not least by the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash).

Several rights are at stake on this issue. The rights of the child, which are paramount in adoption law, although I do not think that they are in competition with the rights of gay people, for reasons that I shall explain. Parents also have rights to be considered fairly and without unreasonable discrimination as prospective adopters by the public authority or the people acting for it in carrying out the public function of the placement of vulnerable children.

There is no contest between the rights of the child and the rights of parents to be considered fairly without unreasonable discrimination. Of course some parents will not qualify for adoption and will be discriminated against. However, the grounds on which that can happen have to result from a professional assessment process and be legitimate. There must be assessments of risk and harm.

Let us be clear: all other things being equal and all the other boxes having been ticked, the House has extensively debated whether gay people should be able to adopt—either individually, as they have for a long time, or as a couple. Although not everyone voted for the provisions, the House overwhelmingly agreed that it was right and proper that gay people should be able to adopt as a couple, just as they could when they were single, and that it was wrong to have unequal parents. Obviously, not everyone accepts that view, but that is the view to which the House came by a large majority.

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