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Official Report of the Grand Committee on the

Adoption and Children Bill

Thursday, 11th July 2002.

The Committee met at four of the clock.

[The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Ampthill) in the Chair.]

Clause 48 [Applications for adoption]:

Earl Howe moved Amendment No. 71:

    Page 29, line 41, after "a" insert "married"

The noble Earl said: The amendment brings us to perhaps the most politically contentious issue in the Bill: whether unmarried and same-sex couples should be permitted by law to become adoptive parents.

There are no two ways about this proposition—you are either for it or against it. That is not the same thing as saying that those who take one view have a closed mind about the other. I hope that noble Lords will not accuse me of that when I have completed my remarks.

On these Benches, we have reached the conclusion that it is right to restrict the pool of potential adopting couples to those who are married. However, in arriving at that view, we do not in any way belittle the alternative case, which we recognise is advanced out of equally sincere conviction.

The amendments I have tabled would reverse those carried in another place and would exclude unmarried and same-sex couples as adoptive parents. Why do we believe that these amendments are worthy of approval?

Clause 44, on the suitability of adopters, does not say very much, but one thing it troubles to spell out is the need for stability and permanence in the relationship of an adopting couple. There is a risk in what I am about to say that I shall be accused of passing judgment on certain types of relationship. I ask the Committee to accept that I am not doing so.

If we believe that stability and permanence are vital for the well-being of children, the statistics on the durability of unmarried relationships are indisputable. A recent authoritative survey found that the average length of a cohabiting relationship is two years. Of course, people can, and do, live together for much longer than that, but 83 per cent of cohabitations break up within 10 years. Cohabitation is, by definition, a temporary relationship in which neither party is willing to make a permanent commitment. According to the Office for National Statistics, cohabiting couples are six and a half times more likely than married couples to split up after the arrival of their first child.

The question that needs to be answered by proponents of the Bill in its current form is this. If we are looking to give permanence and stability to an

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adopted child, why should we take that significant extra risk? There is no manual that tells a social worker or a court that this couple is less or more likely to split up than that one. As we were saying a week ago, you can ask as many questions as you like but, in the end, it comes down to a subjective judgment.

The key point is that social work, in many of its manifestations, rests on the art of reducing risk. One of the ways in which risk can be reduced in adoption is by not placing an adoptive child in a family where there is already a child of the same age. Statistically speaking, to break that rule of thumb is asking for trouble.

Similarly, the state should not consciously and deliberately place a child with a family in which there is a markedly higher chance of the parents splitting up. The best indicator of stability in a relationship is where a couple have made a public commitment to each other for life by getting married. If we look at unmarried couples who never marry—and these are Office for National Statistics figures—they show that the number of such couples who split up within five years of the arrival of their first child is 52 per cent. Of couples who cohabit and later marry, the figure is 25 per cent who split up within five years following the birth. Of those who were married at the time the child arrived, only 8 per cent. split up after five years. That is why I speak of a very significant extra risk.

With gay relationships the risks are even greater. The average length of a so-called "closed" gay relationship is 21 months. That is according to a study funded by the Department of Health. "Closed" in this context means that sexual fidelity had been maintained during the past month. Studies have been done on the levels of educational attainment among children of homosexual couples. Those studies show unequivocally that such children tend to do much worse than those of married parents. Children with lesbian or gay parents experience a much higher incidence of relationship problems with other people because of the knowledge of their parents homosexuality.

It is an unfortunate fact that children can be very cruel to one another. So if we are looking at the issue from the point of view of children—and not just children, we should remind ourselves, but often very damaged, challenging and difficult children—I ask again why we should consciously expose children to those additional risks. To that the following may be said. If I believe, as I do, that lone individuals should continue to be able to adopt children, why on earth should I deny the partner of such an individual the opportunity to adopt as well? Why should two unmarried people or two homosexual people be debarred from adopting as a couple?

There is a very powerful argument as to why. The law of property as it relates to marriage is well established. If a married couple decides to get divorced it is for the matrimonial court to decide how the assets of the couple should be divided. In that process the children's welfare is protected to the extent that a court will usually decide on a division of property that ensures that children of the marriage will be housed and supported. Children of unmarried couples do not

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enjoy the same protection. Other than for the shared house, a cohabitee has no legal right to sue for an order to share the other partner's financial assets. Until such time as we invent a form of legal partnership that mirrors this legal aspect of marriage, children of cohabiting partners will be disadvantaged.

I agree that there will always be children born out of wedlock and that many unmarried couples are admirable parents. But I ask again, why consciously and deliberately expose adopted children to this additional hazard when there is absolutely no need for us to do so?

There is no need because there is no shortage of married couples who would like to adopt. For a number of years we have had a system that frustrates the wishes of such couples to become adoptive parents. It frustrates their wishes by erecting hurdles of various kinds that put many couples off before they have properly begun. One of those hurdles is the absence of adoption support. We hope that this Bill will rectify that particular omission. So we should not imagine that a shortage of potential married adopters somehow obliges us to cast the net more widely. There is no such shortage.

These amendments are about avoiding unnecessary risk for children. Children who are looked after are already the product of broken relationships. If we know, as we do, the risks of breakdown in unmarried and same-sex relationships, we surely cannot look ourselves in the mirror as we read Clause 1 and argue that, by placing a child with an unmarried couple, we are doing our best for that child's welfare throughout his life. We cannot argue that. If we do, we are allowing ourselves to entertain the notion that the needs of children are not paramount after all. I beg to move.

4.15 p.m.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: It is with regret that I feel that I must stand up and oppose the noble Earl, Lord Howe. I hope that, just as I appreciated the sincerity of his comments, he will understand the sincerity of those who disagree with him, and appreciate that we do have the welfare of the child at heart and can look in the mirror and say of Clause 1, "Yes, we have got it right".

Many noble Lords present today, although not all, attended out sitting last Thursday. It is perhaps a pity that not everyone attended the whole of that debate, which was a very important and thoughtful discussion on the criteria that should be in place to provide an adoptive child with a loving and caring home. Those criteria should be based not on whether adopters are married, but on their ability to provide stability and permanence for a child. That is what this debate is about for me. It is about the vulnerable child to whom the noble Earl, Lord Howe, referred. I hope that we shall concentrate on that.

The noble Earl, Lord Howe, referred to cohabiting couples splitting up after two years. He has clearly been reading a slightly different article from the one I read at the weekend, which said that cohabiting

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couples tend to get married after two years. That puts rather a different emphasis on his point. The question is how best to find stable and permanent homes for the maximum number of children currently in care. The only way is by extending the pool. I will come back to the points made by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, about that not being necessary.

If we accept the fundamental premise of the Bill that the welfare of the child is paramount, we have positively to do something for the 14,000 children who have been in care continuously for more than five years. We have to do something for the 5,000 children nationwide who are waiting for a suitable adoptive family. We have to think about the large number of boys aged between five and 10 whom nobody has suggested that they are prepared to adopt. We have to think about the children who come out of care with poor educational qualifications and those who are likely to be homeless for longer than other children. That is why we have to extend the pool. Of course we have to make sure that all suitable adopters, married or unmarried, have to qualify under the most stringent criteria to be applied by the agencies, social workers and courts.

I agreed with the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, on Second Reading, and I am sorry that she cannot be with us today. The noble Earl, Lord Howe, reiterated some of the attitudes of social workers and the need to reduce some of the bureaucratic barriers. That is necessary, but it would only marginally extend the pool. There is no evidence that the pool would be substantially increased—and we need a substantial increase.

We have to look not only at the obstacles that are in place, but also at some of the current anomalies that tell against the interest of the child. As we have previously discussed, a cohabiting or same-sex couple can adopt, but only one of the partners can be the legal parent. The noble Earl, Lord Howe, explained why he felt it was important to keep the possibility of adoption for single people. I want to look at the situation from the eyes of a child living in a loving and stable environment, but without the added security of having two parents. Research by MORI shows that 41 per cent of unmarried couples would adopt, but only 6 per cent do so because only one of them can be the legal guardian. Surely that is not a good environment to bring a child up where one of the partners is the legal guardian and the other can have no say about the responsibilities for that child.

The situation is even more anomalous for unmarried foster carers who are jointly assessed and found to be suitable to foster a child with joint responsibility and who then find, if they wish to adopt, that only one parent can do so. A child who has been part of a loving family for a number of years with two parents can suddenly find himself with only one legal parent because they want to make a permanent home for him. That cannot be right for the child or in their interests. It must have destabilising psychological effects. Nor can it be in the interests of the family. One

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can imagine the conflicts that could occur in a family in those circumstances. That is a farcical situation and it is the child who ultimately loses out.

I listened with interest to the question asked by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, about matrimonial property. Not everybody owns property, so we are not talking about the entire married population in that respect. Also, many cohabiting couples come to agreements about the property and their resources in case they split up. The noble Earl did not mention that, but merely implied that they just split up, disappear and cause chaos. That is completely untrue.

The Bill as it stands provides a necessary guarantee of the child's legal right of relationships with both parents and provides the security of two legally recognised parents. Under the current provisions, if the one legal parent dies or becomes incapacitated, does the child who has lived with those people for a long time have to go back into care? Having had a loving, stable relationship with two people whom he loves dearly, the child loses one of them because they have died then has to leave the other one and go back into care, losing his permanent home altogether. What is the effect of that on the child? It goes completely against their interests. I find it very difficult to comprehend how anybody can accept such a devastating trauma on the child and the possible consequences for the rest of its life.

The Bill provides legal grounds for either parent or both to provide consent for medical care, to make education, healthcare and other important day-to-day decisions on behalf of the child—to make collective decisions as a family should. While there is only one person who has that legal responsibility, those collective decisions are not being made, which is not good for family life.

A number of points were raised on Second Reading about things such as possible bullying in the school playground and the possible psychological problems that can develop from that. I would like to know where some of the evidence referred to earlier by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, came from. I do not know of evidence to support that claim. We know that many cohabiting couples have children at school. Are they bullied in the playground because their parents are cohabiting? Do the children know the parents are not married? I find those sort of arguments difficult to cope with.

Another argument which has been put to me in the last few days is the question of the child's name—what will the child be called? Many children now do not necessarily bear their parents' name. That is quite normal. I have a nephew who is married with two children. He and his wife decided that one child would take his name and one child would take her name. Many young couples are taking that sort of stance. Therefore, the argument about names is completely irrelevant .

I could respond to some of the other points that were made on Second Reading about certain effects on children and their future gender behaviour, but perhaps I shall come back to those if they are raised again.

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The choice for me is simple: is it not better and right that a child should have constancy and security and the opportunity of a real home than to remain in care? The amendments that we have before us will ensure the second option and I am not prepared to accept that.

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