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20 May 2008 : Column 186

Mr. Parsons is a clinician who provides fertility treatment every day, and who in essence is putting into practice the principle of my amendments.

Mr. Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): As proposed, the need for a father or for a male role model is an additional requirement to the 1990 Act. It is clearly aimed at single women or lesbian couples and is therefore an additional burden on them. How can that not be discriminatory? The hon. Gentleman asserts that that is not, but what is his evidence?

Mark Simmonds: First, the evidence is that that requirement is sought in clinics already, as I have said. Secondly, there is absolutely no evidence—we have heard none today—that same-sex couples and single mothers are not accessing IVF treatment. They are doing so, and my amendments propose that clinics look for a male role model, as distinct from just a female one.

Why have I put that proposal in my amendments? Many research papers—they are too numerous to quote, but they include the excellent work done by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green and his think-tank—make clear the unique contribution made by the father. Fathers contribute academically, psychologically and socially, and also build confidence and self-esteem in their offspring. Indeed, the importance of the father is now almost uncontested in social research. It is important that children have the knowledge that engenders respect for and understanding of the opposite sex.

That understanding has been challenging enough for many of us who have lived with members of the opposite sex for most of our lives, and one can imagine how challenging it must be for people who have not. We in the Committee have to admit there is a problem in this country, where familial breakdown has led to many serious social problems such as crime, truancy, an over-reliance on the state and poor parenting skills. Social research has found that the involvement, or lack of it, of the father, not the mother, is the key determinant of teenage behavioural problems. Unbelievably, 24 per cent. of children in this country are growing up in families without a live-in father.

5 pm

These amendments are not anti same-sex couples, nor anti single mothers. Of course, children can and do thrive in loving families in both same-sex and single mother households, often in very difficult circumstances. As my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) rightly said, single mothers and same-sex couples need to be congratulated on doing such a superb job.

The second important issue—the rationale that was given for amending the 1990 Act—is that society and social attitudes have moved on in the 18 years since that Act was passed. That is generally and generically true, but they have not moved on in this matter. I am very reluctant to quote polls, because obviously, they often reflect the question that is asked, but 77 per cent. of people recognise the importance of the need for a father. Interestingly, the figure rises to 84 per cent. among 18 to 24-year-olds.

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Dawn Primarolo: Will the hon. Gentleman explain to the Committee why he wants to put into legislation proposals that he then expects no one to take any notice of, to ensure that discrimination does not occur against lesbian couples and single women?

Mark Simmonds: That intervention was very confusing; logically, it is an argument for taking out in totality reference to the need for a father under the 1990 Act. In practice, that condition has made absolutely no difference to access to treatment for same-sex couples and single mothers.

Mr. Duncan Smith: I wonder whether another response to the right hon. Lady would be very simply that we are not are seeking to remove something; she is. The Government are ripping it out; we are trying to put it back, so the Opposition are on the side of the status quo.

Mark Simmonds: I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend, and my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury forensically deconstructed the Government’s logic and case for removing the consideration of the need for a father and merely inserting the phrase “supportive parenting”.

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Is not the burden on the Government to prove to us that their proposal to remove the requirement to consider the child’s need for a father benefits that child’s welfare?

Mark Simmonds: Absolutely, and if there were evidence to show a detrimental impact on the child’s welfare and if evidence had proved discrimination in access to IVF treatment, the Government might have a stronger case than at the moment, but none of those things has been proved.

Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): I am afraid that I do not understand the logic of my hon. Friend’s position. If he is saying that the provision on the need for a father has not worked, what is the point of keeping it in the Bill?

Mark Simmonds: That is why I have tabled my amendments, which not only maintain the need for a father but extend that requirement to include male role models. As I have just said, that would mean that the current practice in clinics would continue, while ensuring that the proposal on supportive parenting was included. The amendments would thus try to address the current disparity and difference of approach adopted by parenting units.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): Hon. Members on both sides of the Committee recognise that, in taking decisions, the welfare of the child is paramount. Opposition Members have gone out of their way to emphasise that the need for a father has not prevented lesbian couples or single women from getting access to IVF. So in what circumstances can the hon. Gentleman envisage that such people might be turned down? What is his definition of a father role model?

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Mark Simmonds: The need for a father or a male role model ensures that the welfare of the child can be maximised, by allowing access to the benefits of having a male role model or a father figure. [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Vaizey: Given my hon. Friend’s answer to my earlier intervention, he appears to be saying that he is attempting to strengthen the clause. Therefore, is not the logic of his position that he intends the clause to make it more difficult for lesbians and single parents to access IVF? Would not the male role model part of his proposal encourage fraud? Numerous lesbian couples could attend clinics with their hired male role model for the day. Surely, that would be totally counter-productive.

Mark Simmonds: I do not agree with that analysis at all, because at present, when there is no direct father figure, a male role model such as a grandfather may be used.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mark Simmonds: Let me make some progress and answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey). In my amendments, I am simply trying to clarify exactly what happens at the moment with regard to the consideration of the need for a father.

Pete Wishart rose—

Mark Simmonds: I should like to make some progress. As Lord Darzi confirmed in the other place, there is no evidence that single-sex couples or single women who present themselves for fertility treatment have been disadvantaged or faced barriers to treatment. Let me put the matter in context: in 2006, there were only 775 IVF treatment cycles, of which less than 2 per cent. were for single women or single-sex couples.

Indeed, statistics from the King’s College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust show that of the 6,000 patients treated between 1995 and 2004, 500 gave rise to “welfare of the child” considerations, and 28 were refused treatment. Eight of them were refused treatment because of psychiatric problems, four because of virus infections, and two because previous children were wards of court. There were other issues, too, such as drug or alcohol abuse, or the fact that partners were in prison. There was only one case in which a single woman was refused treatment, and that was because of physical problems. There were two cases in which same-sex couples were refused treatment because of concerns about their relationship. None of the refusals was due to the fact that individuals were single or in same-sex relationships. Those statistics will be replicated across the country. They demonstrate that single women and same-sex couples do not face barriers to accessing treatment under the provisions of the 1990 Act.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): Does not what the hon. Gentleman says, and indeed do not all our exchanges this afternoon, show only one thing—that in practice it will make no difference at all what wording is used?

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Mark Simmonds: The hon. Gentleman makes a sensible point, but it is important that, through the Bill, we send a message to the country that fathers are important to the welfare of the child, as we have done since 1990.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate) (Lab) rose—

Mark Simmonds: Let me make some progress. The Joint Committee on the Human Tissue and Embryos (Draft) Bill concluded that there was

a point that I made—and it said that it may be

John Bercow: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mark Simmonds: May I make some progress? I shall be happy to give way to my hon. Friend later.

Glenda Jackson: I hope that the central message that the hon. Gentleman wishes to send to the country will be picked up by all those fathers who are being pursued by the Child Support Agency; they are clearly failing to be fathers to their children. Is that the message that he hopes will be sent?

Mark Simmonds: Interestingly enough, I was just about to come on to that point. I agree with the hon. Lady, and I support what she says. There is to be an end to anonymity for sperm donors; divorce courts are to ensure that contact with both parents is seen as beneficial; donor children are to have every opportunity to establish their origins; the Government have a policy to extend, promote and encourage paternity leave; and the Department for Work and Pensions has said:

It is odd, inconsistent, incompatible and paradoxical that the Government are promoting those policies on the one hand but wish to remove the need for a father to be considered prior to IVF on the other.

Pete Wishart: I am genuinely interested in the description of a “male role model”. The hon. Gentleman mentioned grandparents when he was challenged about who qualified for that lofty position. Who else qualifies as a male role model? Celebrities, such as David Beckham, Andy Murray, or pop stars? I do not know who qualifies for the position.

Mark Simmonds: The hon. Gentleman is being facetious. It is not for Parliament to detail a list of male role models; that is up to clinicians on the ground. I would suggest that the role model should be a close family member. By removing the provision, the Government are showing a disregard for the importance of fathers.

John Bercow: The logical corollary of my hon. Friend arguing that account must be taken of the role of the father is that the applicant’s case will be damaged if there is no evidence of such a role. Does my
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hon. Friend not think it rather peculiar so to argue, when the only compelling academic evidence that exists shows that there is no detriment to the child who is brought up by lesbian parents?

Mark Simmonds: I do not agree with the basis of my hon. Friend’s argument or the point that he makes. I would argue the opposite: it is very important that there is consideration of the need for a father or a male role model when clinics decide whether to provide IVF treatment. As I pointed out earlier, the HFEA guidance makes it unlawful to discriminate against patients on the ground of sexual orientation, so that point does not apply.

The amendments are not discriminatory and apply to all patients. It is right for clinics to have the right to refuse treatment under some circumstances, whether it be mental instability or a history of child abuse or drug abuse. It is not correct to say, as some hon. Members have argued, that the retention of the reference to a father would drive people away from regulated services and the quality and safety assurances that those provide. As evidenced earlier, single women and same-sex couples have not faced barriers, and I do not see why the amendments proposed by me or by my right hon. Friend will change that.

Mr. Willis: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who more than anyone else has proved to the Committee why getting rid of the reference to the need for a father, or not bringing it back, is the right decision. He has also proved that the whole House can unite around the compromise on the need for supportive parenting— [Interruption.] I hope the whole House will unite around it. The hon. Gentleman has demonstrated that once we start to create tight definitions about a role model, we encounter all sorts of problems. No doubt the hon. Gentleman, who is a sensible Front-Bench spokesperson, would agree that trying—

The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Sylvia Heal): Order. This is an intervention.

Mark Simmonds: I shall draw my remarks to a conclusion. The Bill as drafted represents a decision by the state to remove recognition of the importance of a father. What I am proposing in the amendments retains the need for consideration of supportive parenting and reinstates the importance of the need for a father or male role model. The amendments are designed to retain a male influence in a child’s upbringing, providing a balanced outlook for society and ensuring that the country understands that the House of Commons still values the role that fathers or male role models should play in the welfare of children. I hope the Committee will support the amendments later.

Dawn Primarolo: The need for a father provision has provoked much debate here and in another place. It is important to remember the people on whom the provision has an impact. It could very well be a practical impediment to obtaining treatment. Contrary to what some Members are saying—that it has never prevented people from receiving treatment—we have heard of same-sex couples who have been refused treatment on the grounds of their sexuality. If the Committee were to reaffirm that today, we could
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realistically expect that position to continue and, most likely, worsen if it became endorsed as the current view of Parliament. It is a question not just of access, but of equitable access.

When providing treatment under the 1990 Act, a clinician is required to take into account the welfare of the child, including the child’s need for a father. The requirement to consider a child’s need for a father is removed by the Bill and replaced by a requirement for a clinician to take into account the welfare of the child, including the child’s need for supportive parenting. That goes to the heart of the issue with which the Committee is struggling in this debate. How do we define “supportive parenting”? The Conservatives argue that we should include wording, which we know will have no meaning or practical effect, in legislation that is only about IVF so that we can send a wider message to the whole population about family structures. The Bill is not the right place to do that, and it is not acceptable that the House should do it.

5.15 pm

Mr. Gerald Howarth: What research has been carried out by the Minister’s Department or anyone else into the likely effect on children of being brought into the world in what some of us would regard as an unnatural relationship? In the Dog and Partridge in Yateley, or the Thatched Cottage in Cove, a natural relationship is considered to comprise a mother and father. What evidence does the Minister have whether children brought up in the unnatural environment in question will prosper or suffer as a consequence?

Dawn Primarolo: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, which relates to my next point. In his opening remarks, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) made assertions about behaviour in all families on the basis of evidence from families that had broken down. With no support or evidence, the right hon. Gentleman sought to advance the argument that the children whom we are discussing would suffer a certain fate.

The evidence, however, is available. Social research from Murray, Golombok and Brewaeys shows that children of same-sex couples develop emotionally and psychologically in a similar way to children born of heterosexual donor-inseminated couples. What counts is the quality of parenting.

Geraldine Smith: Will the Minister give way?

Dawn Primarolo: No, I will not give way. Just a moment.

Quality of parenting will make the difference to the child’s development. The Committee needs to face that proposition in considering the arguments.

Mr. Duncan Smith rose—

Dawn Primarolo: I give way to the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Duncan Smith: As the Minister may recall, I said that the body of evidence on that issue was not yet good enough for her to make any judgment whatever. I did not draw any inference; I simply said that she could not draw on the evidence and nor could I.

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