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20 May 2008 : Column 192

However, the point that I wanted to make to her was this: the wording of the Bill is far more complex than the simple wording that we wish to put back in the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds) got caught up in the issue of what a role model is. What can we expect from clinicians as they start to define the whole issue of what is or is not supportive parenting? We are putting a huge burden on them. There should be simplicity—a statement about the role of a father. That is easy to do.

Dawn Primarolo: The right hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. He uses so-called evidence about family structure, which is not relevant to this debate. However, when the evidence that such families involve good parents and that the children have no problems is put to him, he does not want to consider it. Then he asserts that there is no discrimination in respect of the need for a father and that that provision should be put back in the Bill because it is important—even though he says that it is completely ignored in the debate, a contention that I dispute.

Mr. Duncan Smith rose—

Dawn Primarolo: The right hon. Gentleman’s logic does not bear scrutiny.

Mr. Duncan Smith rose—

Dawn Primarolo: If the right hon. Gentleman will be patient and let me finish my response to his intervention, I shall be happy to let him intervene again. However, I say to him that when he is in a hole, he should stop digging.

Mr. Duncan Smith: I have to say that I hope the right hon. Lady does not emerge out of her hole, but here we go. She is of course eliding two different things. I referred to her so-called data about same-sex couples. I said that there was no real body of evidence on them yet, and that we should infer nothing about them either way. However, in respect of the vast bulk of couples—heterosexual couples—who have IVF, there is a huge amount of evidence concerning the absence of fathers and its effect on families. The right hon. Lady can do whatever she likes, but she cannot run away from that. The body of evidence shows that the absence of fathers has a detrimental effect on children, regardless of family income. The right hon. Lady does not have a way out of that.

Dawn Primarolo: The right hon. Gentleman wants to start with a different proposition entirely from that of the Government. It is the view of the Government that all parents assessed for treatment would be assumed to be supportive parents unless there were evidence to the contrary—

Several hon. Members rose

Dawn Primarolo: I will just make this point, and then I shall take interventions.

A supportive parent would be willing and able to make a commitment to safeguard and promote the child’s health, development and welfare and to provide direction and guidance in a manner appropriate to the
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age and development of the child. The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green wants to start with the proposition that we should consider them to be bad parents unless we give them an additional test.

Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way; I just want a point of information. My problem with the issue concerns not the parents, but the child. I know that the child has a right, at the age of 18, to find out who its father is, but what if the child decides it has a need for a father at the age of 10 or 12? What kind of support mechanisms will be in place to ensure that that child will have access to its father?

Dawn Primarolo: As my hon. Friend knows, the Bill introduces a provision to ensure that the child will have access at the age of 18, or 16 if necessary, to the details of their natural father. Indeed, if couples are driven away from the regulated service, the child will never know those details. The parents have the responsibility to make clear to that child their relationship with either parent and the possibility of an absent natural father. It is made clear during the counselling and access to IVF treatment that that is a matter for the parents. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend’s proposition that it is crucial in this process that parents are motivated by what is best for the child and the child’s development, which includes information about whether they were the result of a donor insemination and about the progress being made.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): I commend the way in which the right hon. Lady has treated this debate, and the other debates, but I think she is foundering on this issue. Her case rests on the interpretation of good parenting. Would she regard it as acceptable that good parenting should include those who want to deny the role of fathers or male role models? Men and women are different and they provide different role models to children. Both role models are necessary for the upbringing of children. That is all that the present legislation attempts to say, and what the Bill would remove—wrongly, in my view.

Dawn Primarolo: I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman about the quality of parenting being crucial. The removal of the requirement to take into account the child’s need for a father is not about doing away with fathers or doing anything that does not recognise the important role that fathers can and do play in the upbringing of children. We are ensuring that the law reflects current practice and family set-ups, and current legislation on human rights and discrimination. The wording in it should have meaning for those who have to make decisions on whether or not the child, as a result of IVF, is going to have quality parenting and support.

Several hon. Members rose

Dawn Primarolo: I give way to the hon. Member for Strangford (Mrs. Robinson).

Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): I note that the Minister places great importance on the quality of parenting. Can she envisage, down the road, a child
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going to primary school and being collected by two females or two males, and the bullying and abuse to which such children will be exposed—or going into their parents’ bedroom, as is natural for a child to do, and finding two women or two men making love?

Dawn Primarolo: With respect, I do not think that those comments have any place in the debate. Children are loved by many adults in families, extended families and neighbourhoods. It is crucial to consider the safety and nurture of the child.

John Bercow: I appreciate that the hon. Member for Strangford (Mrs. Robinson) has passionate views, and I respect her integrity on the matter, but I happen to disagree with her. I put it to the Minister that the hon. Lady’s argument is not simply against gay couples having access to IVF treatment but against gay adoption, the legal age of consent and gay equality per se.

The First Deputy Chairman: Order. It might be appropriate if we reverted to the content of the amendment that is currently under discussion.

Dawn Primarolo: I believe that the debate would be improved if all hon. Members were direct and open about their views on the subject. The hon. Member for Strangford (Mrs. Robinson) should be given credit for being one of the few who is brutally honest about her views and expresses them in the Chamber. I hope that other hon. Members will do that instead of trying to conceal their arguments.

Ms Dari Taylor: We are all seriously passionate about getting the matter right. We want to get it right because the welfare of the child is crucial to us all. However, the research has been repeated time and again, and I cannot understand why the Committee is so unprepared to hear what MacCallum and Golombok are saying. The conclusions of their research, “Children raised in fatherless families from infancy: a follow-up of children of lesbian and single heterosexual mothers at early adolescence”, are clear. Being without a resident father from infancy does not seem to have had negative consequences for children. There is no evidence that the mother’s sexual orientation influences parent-child interaction or the child’s socio-emotional development. Those statements are clear and made by people who are not pushing a line. They are conducting research and reporting fairly and objectively. Why is the Committee so resistant to listening to them?

Dawn Primarolo: My hon. Friend makes her point passionately, as she has done in previous debates. The Committee is not saying that we do not need fathers; we are broadening our understanding to recognise the quality of parenting and the impact on the child, which should be paramount at all stages.

Geraldine Smith rose—

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con) rose—

Dawn Primarolo: Let me make a little progress, and then of course I will take more interventions. However, I am conscious of time.

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The amendments would have a wide-ranging, discriminating effect on access to treatment for single women and same-sex couples. Instead of being in the child’s interests, they would drive single women and same-sex couples away from the safety of the regulated services. That is a retrograde step, which we should not risk: every hon. Member who has spoken has said that ensuring the safety and nurture of the child is paramount. The legislation should be fair to all people who seek treatment, whether they are in same-sex couples, single women or in heterosexual couples. If the provision specifying the need for a father or the equivalent was retained, the legislation would place additional burdens on single women and same-sex female couples. That is the point that we need to address, albeit in the context of there being no evidence to suggest that such women make bad parents and should therefore be required to take additional steps.


Geraldine Smith: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Streeter: Will the Minister give way?

Dawn Primarolo: No, I would like to make some progress.

The Bill requires a clinician to take into account the welfare of the child, including that child’s need for supportive parenting. That is based on the fact that, as I have repeatedly said, the quality of parenting makes the most difference, not the gender of the parents per se. That is why the Bill requires the consideration of the child’s need for supportive parenting, not the gender of the parents. The Bill strikes the correct balance between protecting the interests of the child to be born by requiring that their welfare is considered, and the right to supportive parenting.

Mr. Streeter: Will the Minister give way on that point?

Dawn Primarolo: No, I will not.

Reference has been made to the recommendations of the Joint Committee on the Bill. The Committee recommended that

The Joint Committee recommended an amended version, but its deliberations and recommendations also showed the difficulty of settling on different definitions. Therefore, the suggestions in the Bill as amended provide for that quality parenting. We intend to strike the correct balance between protecting the child and providing those supportive arrangements.

The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds), who tabled amendments Nos. 12 and 13, has made thoughtful contributions throughout this debate, but he has fallen into his own trap. He seeks to replace consideration of the need for a father by proposing that clinicians should take into account the child’s need for supportive parenting—that is what the Bill says now—and a father or male role model.
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However, he fails to tell us how. Amendments Nos. 12 and 13 do not say that all families should have a father; in fact, if anything, they suggest that any male role model could easily replace a father. Surely that is not the intention of the Committee.

The hon. Gentleman’s amendments more or less say that any man will do, which does not fit with the considerations of quality parenting. Will women who are not being treated with a man have to bring one along for the sake of it? Is that what is being suggested? Evidence was provided to the Select Committee on Science and Technology of women having to bring along a letter signed by a man—any man. Is that what we want? The hon. Gentleman advanced the main point in his argument. This issue is about reflecting the concept of quality of parenting, recognising the diversity of families and judging clearly whether individuals can provide the necessary parenting. That has to be right.

Amendments Nos. 21 and 22, which were tabled by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green and are supported by others, would require clinicians to take into account the need of any resulting child for a father and a mother. A general argument against both of the amendments is that they would be discriminatory because, as with the provision on the need for a father, they would create an additional hurdle for female couples and single women who seek treatment. Given the position of this House and the Government on civil partnerships and on adoption by same-sex couples, in my view as a Minister I would say it was wholly inappropriate to retain that additional, discriminatory burden.

Those who oppose the removal of the need for a father provision talk about it not making any difference anyway. They want a provision in the Bill to send a signal about family structures, but then say that no one should take any notice of it. That cannot be right. Some hon. Members have commented that the current provision does not prevent single women and same-sex couples from accessing treatment and say that it therefore does no harm. That assertion has been challenged repeatedly in today’s debate, and I challenge it. I say to the Committee that there is an impact and that we should not allow that discrimination to continue.

Geraldine Smith: People often say that politicians do not listen. Have the Government consulted on this change? If so, what was the response from the public?

Dawn Primarolo: Yes, we did consult on the change, and the full consultation was published. My hon. Friend follows these matters closely, so I am sure that she will have studied it in some depth and seen the arguments for and against the proposal. The House must also consider those arguments and how to respond. It is one thing for the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and clinics to interpret a provision that was passed almost 20 years ago in a way that allows same-sex couples and single women to access treatment, but it is quite another thing for such an interpretation to continue if the position is reaffirmed by this House in 2008.

Mr. Streeter: Will the Minister give way?

Dawn Primarolo: No, I will not.

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Including a reference to the need for a father or for a male role model would send the message from Parliament that we want to return to what was the position when the 1990 Act was introduced, when additional tests were imposed on certain groups of people. Such a provision would not be so harmless or meaningless if it were reintroduced. Those Opposition Members who had said that they hoped these matters would not affect their family or friends would need to think again.

Mr. Streeter: Let me clarify the Government’s position. Does the Minister believe that a child in a family unit containing a mother and a father has any advantage compared with a child in a family unit with two mums—supposing that all the parents are loving? Are the Government really saying that there is no advantage in having a loving mother and father compared with two loving parents who are both female?

Dawn Primarolo: No, the hon. Gentleman knows that that is not the Government’s position. He is seeking to use a particular provision on access to IVF treatment to argue a general position that he knows full well is not universally accepted by all our communities. In my humble opinion, it is the duty of the House to ensure that we reflect all those who make up our communities, and all the family units. When deciding whether people can have access to IVF treatment, the absolute cornerstone must be the quality of the parenting. That is precisely what the Government are seeking to take into account.

It is nonsensical to say that it is better for a child to have a mother and a father, while also arguing that the amendments would not prevent people from accessing treatment. The need for a father provision would be discriminatory, if it were reinserted. In order to protect the interests of same-sex couples and single women, and their donor-conceived children, it is important that this legislation should be passed unamended, to ensure that it is fair, that it offers equitable access and that it recognises the complexities of the Britain we live in today.

Dr. Harris: On these Benches—

Sir Patrick Cormack: On a point of order, Mrs. Heal. I do not wish to detain the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), but I should like to point out that we have just over an hour left for this part of the debate. Do you have any power to influence the length of speeches? Those of us who take one particular view have had no opportunity to place it in this debate.

The First Deputy Chairman: That is hardly a point of order for the Chair, but, as always, I hope that Members, knowing the pressure of time, will be as concise as possible in their remarks. More to the point, perhaps, I hope that Members who are making interventions will not use them to make speeches.

Dr. Harris: May I say to the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) that I am certainly aware of the issue that he has raised? There are people behind me on the Liberal Democrat Benches who want to speak, and there is a dilemma about whether to take interventions, which I hope I shall get through.

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