Previous Section Index Home Page

Mr. Duncan Smith: I must say to the hon. Gentleman that technology is a lovely thing, and while the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) may not have liked it from me, she certainly is not going to like it from him.

All I want to say by way of conclusion to my hon. and right hon. Friends, and in this context to my hon. Friends across the Floor who have signed up to and agree with the amendments, is the following. I simply say that this comes down to the Government, to a balance of judgments, to the rights of the child versus the rights of adults, and to the importance of fathers and the demonstrable body of evidence regarding the effect of absent fathers on children and families.

We must balance all those considerations. Nothing is absolute. I am not for one moment saying to the Government that I am absolutely right; I am saying that there is a strong level of doubt about the Government’s position. They need to argue the case in almost absolute terms, because it is they who are setting out to do away with the existing code. It is they who are doing away with it, not me. I am simply standing for the status quo and arguing—as ever, with legislation—that they must make their case and we will listen to it. However, the case has not been made, and I do not believe that it exists.

4.15 pm

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Duncan Smith: No.

There might be an element of doubt, but the Government are playing absolutes over this. They say that this provision absolutely contravenes human rights, but I say that it does not and that their evidence is insufficient.

Ms Taylor: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

20 May 2008 : Column 175

Mr. Duncan Smith: I am concluding my speech, so if the hon. Lady will forgive me, I want to let other hon. Members get in.

In regard to the way in which the advisory section should work, I believe that clinics should be sensitive to the needs of all parents, as I have stressed from the beginning. If they are sensitive, when the requirement comes up for people to take cognisance in this way, even gay and lesbian couples will think about it. It is a great prompt to allow people to think, “Yes, maybe we’ll have to find some way round that. We’ll have to do something”. As the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) has said, people will try because it is important. That is all that we want. We want people to recognise that fathers have a major role to play, and if they are not around, let us find a way of ensuring that their influence can still be felt.

What is important for hon. Members tonight is that they do not sit here thinking, “I am right.” Rather, everyone in the House should examine their conscience and ask themselves on the basis of the balance of this argument whether they are in any doubt at all. If any Member of the House has a shade of a doubt about whether to support the amendments, I ask them to remember that it is the Government who have made the case for stripping the provision out. We have not made that case. They are the radical proponents here, not us. We are arguing for the status quo. Anyone with a scintilla of doubt in their mind should vote for the amendments, and for the status quo.

Several hon. Members rose

The Chairman: Order. Before I call the next hon. Member, may I gently remind hon. Members that we are in Committee and not sitting as a House?

Emily Thornberry: I am grateful to have an opportunity to answer the points made by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) in full. If we are talking about scintillas of doubt, confusion or misunderstanding, I certainly believe that that has been begun by his contribution today. On the one hand, he has said that, if the provision is discriminatory, the Human Rights Act 1998 will protect lesbian couples and single women. On the other hand, he says that the Act should not be the machinery—

Mr. Duncan Smith: With respect, I did not say that it was discriminatory. I said that it was not discriminatory, and that people are protected by the convention on human rights.

Emily Thornberry: So, on the one hand, the Human Rights Act can deal with any problems that might arise as a result of the wording of the provision, but, on the other, the Act should not be the engine that is pushing the Government to change the law in order to avoid any doubt. The right hon. Gentleman has stated that there are 50 opinions for every lawyer who looks at this question, yet he is against trying to clarify the law.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): The hon. Lady might care to reflect on the fact that Parliament decides such questions. If we decide to do so by legislating inconsistently with the Human Rights Act, it is crystal clear that we can decide on the amendment tabled by
20 May 2008 : Column 176
my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), which would override the provisions of the Human Rights Act provided that we use the words “notwithstanding the Human Rights Act 1998” in the amendment.

Emily Thornberry: Well, that’s all right, then— [Interruption.] I have already pointed out one example of overt discrimination, relating to the eligibility criteria used since November 2006 at Birmingham women’s hospital. I am told that questions are frequently asked on the web—understandably, given the published eligibility criteria—as to whether or not lesbian couples and women are being discriminated against.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Emily Thornberry: Let me finish the point, and then I will.

My point is this. Frequently asked questions and the answer are one thing, and an overt piece of discrimination is something else. If there is a lack of clarity in the current law, we have an opportunity to sort it out today. If we were to confirm the need for a father, to add the need for a mother or to move away from the carefully thought out wording proposed by the Government, there would be increased confusion—or, worse, no clear law at all. Many hospitals would have eligibility criteria for IVF treatment as explicit as that published in Birmingham, so we would then have to wrestle with the Human Rights Act.

Frankly, why, in the 21st century, are we doing this? Why are we putting ourselves in such a position? Why are we saying, “We are not really overtly discriminating against lesbians or single women, but if we are, the Human Rights Act will sort it out, even though the Human Rights Act does not apply at the moment”? Why? [Interruption.] I always worry when people say that they are only applying common sense, because all too often common sense is a cover for discrimination, narrowness and an inability to face the 21st century.

John Bercow: I personally thought that the hon. Lady provided a compelling example of discrimination and that the attempted rebuttal was profoundly unpersuasive. Is she aware of another example of a lesbian couple who went to an IVF clinic in pursuit of treatment and were told in terms that their best option would be to go to the pub and find themselves a man? If that is not discrimination, it is not entirely obvious what is.

Emily Thornberry: The difficulty is that lesbian couples or single women who wish to have children will be influenced by the current confusion, which will be perpetuated by the amendment suggested by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green.

Geraldine Smith: rose—

Emily Thornberry: Let me finish the point first.

Those people will continue to be confused and will end up believing that IVF is not for them. In that case, they may well go out to a pub and get pregnant or try other informal means of doing so. The disadvantage is
20 May 2008 : Column 177
simply this: there will be no details of the biological father on the register, yet that will become increasingly important as time goes on. As a result of the amendment, no more fathers will be brought into any more families. That is the central point. It is important to give legal rights to lesbian couples and single women. As far as lesbian couples are concerned, we will then at least have two legally recognised parents instead of just one. What is wrong with that?

Geraldine Smith: I think that my hon. Friend displays a very patronising attitude towards lesbian women. I do not think they will be that confused by someone saying that if they go for IVF treatment they will have to take into consideration the welfare of the child and the need for a father. I would have thought that that was pretty easy to understand; my hon. Friend may think that that is difficult, but surely most reasonable people could understand it. Most people, including lesbians and single women, might well think that that would be a good thing. Unless they absolutely hated men, they might well like a positive male role figure in the child’s life. It is good to have a father figure in a child’s life. Do colleagues think that it is nonsense to have a male figure involved in a child’s upbringing? Might it not be a good thing, if possible, or should it not at least be taken into consideration? I think that some colleagues display the fact that they are way out of touch—

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Lady is making a very long intervention, which is bordering on a speech. She was also making it in a direction that made it very difficult for me, and the Hansard reporters, to hear.

Emily Thornberry: It may well be the case—I certainly hope that it is—that before deciding to have children, people will appreciate that those children must be brought up in loving households. In my experience, based on the lesbian mothers whom I know, before they make the very serious decision to have children in what is not, in all circumstances, the most liberal of worlds, they look to the welfare of the child and to how they can best bring that child up. They do not need a doctor who is not trained in and has no particular experience of these matters to give them counselling on what sort of father figure they should seek, how long that father figure should be involved in their lives, and exactly what “father figure” means in what circumstances. It is not for a doctor to make that sort of decision.

We should trust the good sense of parents—of women—who do not need to be patronised by anyone, or told how they should bring up children. Motherhood is a serious matter, as is fatherhood, and we should allow parents to make serious decisions themselves.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): In the hon. Lady’s common sense-free world, what takes precedence, the supposed right of adults to have children or the actual right of a child to have access to and enjoyment of both parents during his or her upbringing?

20 May 2008 : Column 178

Emily Thornberry: I am very concerned about some of the comments that are being made by Conservative Members about children with single parents. I had only a mother to bring my brothers and me up. I am all right, and my brothers are all right. Of course we relied on other adults who were brought into our lives via our mother and our experience of life: many role models are available to children. Members should not make blanket judgments about children and families, and they should not demonise such a large number of children.

Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that what purports to be common sense is reminiscent of the “back to basics” campaign of the past? Is not the insistence on a male role model for lesbian couples tantamount to saying that lesbian families are not proper family forms?

Emily Thornberry: That is absolutely right.

Several hon. Members rose

Emily Thornberry: As I am nearing the end of my speech, perhaps I should take some interventions now.

Mr. George Howarth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is being very generous in giving way. Does she agree that the world that she is describing is not so much a common sense-free world as the real world? In the real world, there are bad fathers and sometimes bad mothers. There is no ideal version of the right combination of parents in every circumstance.

Emily Thornberry: I am very glad to hear such good sense.

Sir Patrick Cormack: I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for her generosity in giving way. Whatever may be the case in Islington, in Staffordshire it is actually thought normal for a child to have a mother and a father. Does the hon. Lady think it is equally normal for a child to have two mothers?

Emily Thornberry: I think it is wrong to make judgments about families, and to tell one family that they are normal and another family that they are abnormal. I think it wrong for a seven-year-old to be pushed to the edge of a playground and teased or vilified; I think it wrong to vilify single parents; and I think it wrong for the law to discriminate against lesbian couples. In this day and age, we should pass the Bill unamended.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): I know that people have asked why on earth we are debating this issue, but I am very glad that we are debating it. I was a member of the Joint Committee that considered the draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill, as it then was, last year. We recommended

I was one of the Committee members who changed their minds during the submission of evidence. A number of peers, of both sexes, also changed their minds. The
20 May 2008 : Column 179
reason was very straightforward. I was always concerned about the broader principle of our approach to this proposed legislation. The first point was that both Houses of Parliament should set the legal framework and be the de facto bioethics commission for this country, and then once we have set the legal framework it should be for the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to regulate—not the regulatory authority for tissue and embryos, which was going to be the body but which the Government then abandoned, but another body, and in terms laid down by Parliament.

4.30 pm

We also made it clear that the final decision on an individual case of in vitro fertilisation treatment should be taken between the mother, the clinician and the husband or partner—that the decision should be taken at the lowest possible level. Our Committee also made it clear that we would take into account the situation regarding civil partnerships and how that had changed attitudes and how adoption and fostering authorities would not discriminate against same-sex couples: the current law does not prevent single-sex couples from adopting or fostering, or, indeed, from having IVF treatment.

In the evidence we took, it was made clear to us that single-sex couples could provide a warm background that was stable and loving, and that could be a lot better than that provided by an unhappy heterosexual family where the father abused the mother, or came home late and drunk, or hit the children. There was no question in our minds that a single-sex couple could be very good foster parents or adoptive parents. That was not the issue. What was particularly interesting was the question of why on earth this ever came near the Bill in the first place: why was there a need to take it out?

We discovered the answer to that, too. We did so on 6 June 2007, when the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) was interrogating Mr. Ted Webb, the deputy director of scientific development and bioethics at the Department of Health. The hon. Gentleman asked that erudite official why it had been decided to remove the need for a father. Mr. Webb told the Committee:

the new clause that takes out the need for a father—

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): My hon. Friend brings to our attention a remarkable piece of information, and it is a great shame that the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) is not present to hear it, as, against all the conventions of this House, she has made her speech and pushed off.

The Chairman: Order. In fairness to the hon. Lady, I should say that there is a Division in the Finance Public Bill Committee and she asked my permission to attend that.

20 May 2008 : Column 180

Robert Key: I am grateful for that information; the record has been put straight, and I will not go there.

We also took evidence from a lot of specialists and academics in this area. One of the most interesting evidence sessions involved academics from Oxford, Cambridge and elsewhere. Professor Ann Buchanan of Oxford university was asked about the need for a father. She said that

and that she and her colleagues had conducted two major studies which show that father involvement

Next Section Index Home Page