Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Streeter: I have tremendous sympathy with what the Minister said. She might be interested to know that we did not send our children away to boarding school—
Dawn Primarolo: I was not talking about you.
Mr. Streeter: Okay. I am saying that because we did not want to be separated from our children, but I take her point. That is why I would rather a child was placed for adoption with a gay or lesbian couple than left in local authority care, because the presence of two nurturing parents for that child has to be better than local authority care.
Dr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman argued in part that because certain relationships were more likely to break down than others, people in such relationships should not be allowed to be parents—at least through NHS provision. Perhaps he is arguing against the clause standing part. Yet that is the only area that he is choosing. Let us say that one part of the country was found to have, on average, a greater rate of relationship breakdown—say, Devon. Would he argue against IVF being provided by the NHS in Devon? If poor people had a higher rate of relationship breakdown, would he use the same argument? How can he say, because there is a general issue in Sweden, that that is translatable into policy applying to everyone in that situation?
Mr. Streeter: I am not saying that of course. I am asking whether the state should be facilitating the creation of a child, from a same-sex couple, who will never have a father. Is that what we should be doing? Is that what we should be doing without consulting our constituents widely? The reference to Sweden was simply to make the point that the studies that Professor Golombok produces are open to challenge. However, I shall not go into further detail, because we have only a few moments left before we are required elsewhere.
When the Minister replies, she may talk about human rights. I understand the human rights position, but I believe that the balance of human rights between two adults who want a child and the human rights of the child yet to be born can be broadly weighed equally. Having looked at the matter fairly carefully, I do not think that a successful challenge could be brought under human rights legislation. As the Minister will know, IVF for same-sex couples, or even single people, is prohibited in France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Norway, the Czech Republic and Portugal, all of which have signed up to the European convention on human rights. That we have incorporated the convention into UK law is not important—it is the same set of values and rights as those countries also embrace, and they do not have a problem with human rights. There are members of the Committee who think that perhaps I am on a flight of fancy. I am saying that on this, the UK is out of step with most of our European colleagues.
I have two more points to make. The first is that fathers are important and clause 42 takes us in the wrong direction. Over the last week or so, a very nice White Paper has been produced by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. It says:
“Fathers’ involvement in their child’s life can lead to positive educational achievement, a good, open and trusting parent-child relationship during the teenage years and reduce the risk of mental health issues for children in separated families. Engaging fathers around the time of their child’s birth, including through being registered as father, is important in establishing that close involvement.”
The Government are promoting fathers on the one hand, but through this legislation they are, in my opinion, condemning some children in the future to never having had a father. The Committee should consider that extremely carefully. On that point I will sit down.
Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab): I hope that the Committee will resist the hon. Gentleman. For one thing, if he was successful and the Committee did not agree that clause 42 should stand part, it would not prevent the provision of IVF to a lesbian couple. The clause deals with how the other member of the couple is to be referred to and that is all. As to the principle that he has been expounding, the House dealt with that at length, and it was very heavily carried on a free vote. The amendment demanding the need for a father in those circumstances was soundly defeated. It is not reasonable to try and circumvent that decision in this way on this clause and in any event, it would not have the effect that he desires of preventing IVF treatment for lesbian couples.
We are in an interesting political situation. I do not mean to be party political, but there is an issue of the state not interfering too much with consenting adults, and then some people in Parliament argue that the state should specifically deny and interfere with certain family arrangements. If we are going to do that, there must be good evidence for doing so. The other side does not need the evidence; the burden of evidence falls on those who wish to discriminate and in this case, there is no good evidence that can be adduced. However, the evidence that the hon. Member for South-West Devon has attacked—in moderate terms, I accept—from Professor Golombok and others, is good evidence. The evidence that the hon. Gentleman cites does not relate to the sorts of families we talk about. Indeed, in his quotes from a book and a report there was no read-across between lesbian couples and other families. The arguments against the measure fail at the first hurdle. They fail to demonstrate that there is any basis on which to discriminate in a positive way. There is no evidence that children do better with heterosexual couples than with same-sex couples.
Secondly, the comparisons that are made in the work of Professor Golombok, formerly of London university, now of Cambridge university, are correct. They compare heterosexual couples and their children with same-sex couples and their children and show that there does not appear to be any problem. These people are academics; they do not say that there are definitely no problems and therefore the policy is this. It is right to point out that they use the word “may”, but in so far as they draw conclusions, they do not find that these children have any particular problems, and they have now looked at them, albeit in small numbers, for quite some time.
6.30 pm
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
7 pm
On resuming—
Dr. Harris: I was saying that, first, the onus should be on the discriminators and the interferers to show that there is a problem with families of same-sex couples, but there is no evidence showing that there is, and, secondly, the evidence that the children do well is good, but I will not go into that.
I wanted to take issue with the argument made by the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth, who is not in his place, that somehow having lesbian parents is not going to help with the turbulence of teenage years—a view that the hon. Member for South-West Devon agreed with, but I think is wrong. The only problem that can be specific to those children is that they might be bullied. The best approach to that is to stop the bullying, not to deny those who would be bullied the chance to live. That is an argument for saying that mixed-race children should not be allowed to be born because they might be bullied. It is an argument—I am not saying that the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth was saying that.
The Golombok research shows that, despite any bullying that might take place—I hope that there is little of it now—and despite any feelings that the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth in an intervention attributed to them, those children do very well and are psychologically well adjusted. It cannot be argued that having lesbian parents cannot help with the turbulence of teenage years. I respect the way in which the hon. Gentleman made his case, which he is entitled to do. I am not implying that he is motivated by prejudice, for example, but I think that his arguments are wrong.
Finally, even if it could be shown—I do not think that it can be—that, on average, children in these families do worse, that is not an argument for not allowing the families to exist and for the children not to be born. That is not simply for the reason that it must be better to be born, but if one argued that people had such a hard time that it would be best not to be born, where would it end?
We know that, sadly, on average children from poor backgrounds do not do as well as children from wealthy backgrounds. There is evidence for that. Yet, through the NHS, the state provides IVF for such families, despite that average outcome. I am not for one moment suggesting, and I do not think that the hon. Gentleman would suggest, that clinics should have to consider the need for two incomes or that the birth certificate arrangements in clause 42 should apply only to better-off families, because children from poor backgrounds do worse on average—although some do very well—than children from better-off backgrounds. Even if he could make the case that he is seeking to make, which he cannot, it is not an argument against the measures, and that is even before we deal with the human rights and discrimination issues. Therefore, I urge the Committee to support the clause as it stands.
Dawn Primarolo: I shall start by referring to the provisions in the clause and then respond to the hon. Gentlemen’s contributions. Clause 42 makes provision for bringing the arrangements for female civil partners in line with those for married couples. Where a female civil partner gives birth to a child conceived as a result of donor insemination, she is the mother of the child and her civil partner will automatically be the other parent, unless she did not consent to the mother’s treatment. The terminology of the clause is different, as it seeks to bring civil partnerships within the sphere of the legislation, but otherwise the legal provisions are the same as for married couples.
I shall return to this point, but the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness would seek within a short period of time—nine months maximum—to conflate a range of relationships that may change who is the parent with legal responsibility. We have accepted provision for married couples and we are making the same provision for same-sex couples in line with the civil partnership legislation. There cannot be any points of principle on that, because civil partnership legislation has been passed by the House. It is not about whether we had a discussion on the Floor of the House on the need for a father, but a recognition that the House has accepted partnerships and civil partnerships in legislation.
The hon. Member for South-West Devon advances an argument that is not supported by the majority of the House, in discussions on not only the Bill but civil partnerships and other legal status, and the Finance Bill, which recognises civil partnerships as equivalent to marriage for tax responsibilities. Therefore, as he acknowledged, he holds a minority view. He put it powerfully, but I absolutely disagree with him on every point. He advances the argument that there is a diminution of the quality of parenting if the parents are not of a particular family type, namely heterosexual, married and constantly there. Regrettably, not just now in modern Britain, but throughout many centuries, family structures have not followed the model that the hon. Gentleman believes is best. Legislation reflects what the House has decided that the make-up of modern Britain is.
Mr. Streeter: I may be wrong, but I do not believe that I mentioned the word “married” even once in my speech. If I did, it was not the main thrust of my argument, which was about the state facilitating a situation in which a child is denied the prospect of having a father, as a matter of state policy. That is what I am challenging.
Dawn Primarolo: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely wrong in his assertion that the clause, in recognising civil partnerships, seeks to do that. I regret to tell him that the presence of a father within a family structure does not necessarily mean that he is actively engaged in the upbringing of his children. The Government position is that, in recognition of the legislation, all parents have responsibilities to their children, and that the quality of parenting is crucial. The clause adds a second legal parent; it does not take away status or say that there is not another individual in the child’s genetic make-up. That is why the right for a child aged 18 to know who are the donors is crucial.
I do not wish to rehearse it. The hon. Gentleman has made his case twice. He bases his argument on a preferred model without evidence that quality of parenting is crucial. He and other Conservative Members have described families in crisis or experiencing breakdowns and sought to say that that applies to all.
The hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth commented in an intervention on what is recorded on the child’s birth certificate. I was taught, and I am sure that every Committee member would concur, that honesty is always the best policy. The best relationships between children and their parents are built around honesty. It is important that children should be told by their parents at an early age that they were donor conceived; that is recognised to be beneficial to the children. That is why the Government support and promote the Donor Conception Network’s “Telling and Talking” project. Hon. Gentlemen may continue to advance their case if they want, but a majority of the House substantially disagree with their view. Having passed legislation on the matter, it is necessary that we ensure that future legislation complies with the House’s views.
The hon. Member for South-West Devon quoted the White Paper, saying that it showed that the Government were doing two different things. I do not agree. It comes back to the point, which is made in the White Paper, that fathers—and, the provisions ensure, parents—take responsibility for their role through participation in their children’s upbringing, in this case by registering the birth with the mother. That is exactly where we should be.
The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness asked a couple of questions and gave examples. Is he seriously suggesting that between conception and birth, several legal partnerships will be entered into, dissolved and re-entered? The first point that must be made is that counselling is given before IVF treatment, during which it is crucial that the welfare of the child is considered. That includes parents with a stable relationship who are committed to the child’s upbringing. As I said in my opening remarks, the clause introduces the same measures that have operated for married couples so far, and I do not remember any complaints about them. To answer his scenarios, I hope that he is not suggesting that we should treat same-sex couples differently, given their legal status under civil partnership legislation.
The hon. Gentleman also asked what would happen if assisted conception took place within a civil partnership and then, within the short period after all the processes are gone through and before the baby is born, the civil partnership is dissolved and the mother marries. It will be presumed that the husband is the father, but that presumption is rebuttable—this is the same point as in our discussions on previous clauses—by DNA testing. Because clause 42 would apply, the original civil partner would be the other legal parent. This comes back to the fact that in deciding to become parents, the individuals need to recognise that they have a responsibility as parents that will endure, but which under certain circumstances could be rebutted.
7.15 pm
If the civil partners have an assisted conception and then enter into a second civil partnership, that will not affect the original arrangement. As in the first example that the hon. Gentleman gave, the original civil partner will be the other legal parent by virtue of clause 42. This is about recognising the point at which the decisions are taken and I have covered the importance of that issue.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about what happens if the civil partner does not consent. In that case, they would not be the legal parent of the child because the consent would be presumed unless evidence was shown to the contrary. Of course, these are complex relationships in terms of law and reflecting on what is necessary to produce an outcome on who has the legal responsibility. While I acknowledge the strong feelings of the hon. Member for South-West Devon, with which I do not agree, I have given most of my remarks in this debate in relation to what the clause does, as opposed to the wider principle.
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