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Lady Saltoun of Abernethy: I have great sympathy with the amendment of the noble Earl, Lord Howe, and my heart in some ways lies with it. However, I do not believe that I can go along with it. I do not believe that adoption by an unmarried couple or a homosexual couple is in any way the optimum. However, the alternative to adoption in the case of a child who has been in care is so infinitely worse than adoption into a home which is less than ideal that I believe that the risk is justified even if it results in only a handful of children being adopted who otherwise would remain in care.

We hear endless conflicting evidence as to the effects on children of adoption by unmarried and homosexual couples and it is very difficult to sort out what is right and what is not. However, as far as a child in care is concerned, even a much less than ideal family is preferable to remaining in care, which, as I have said before, is one of the worst fates that can happen to any child.

I would like some indication that, where other considerations are equal, a married couple will be preferred to an unmarried or homosexual one.

The noble Earl has raised the question of how property would pass in the case of an unmarried couple. The noble Baroness, Lady Gould, pointed out that a legal arrangement could be made where property is involved. However, I do not know whether a couple who have no legal status as a couple can, as an entity, be parties to a legal process such as adoption. I am not a lawyer. Legal advice needs to be considered over this.

Finally, I entirely agree with the noble Baroness about names. At the age of 16, my eldest daughter changed her name from Ramsay to Fraser because she was going to be the heir to the chiefship of the Frasers. When her son was born, he was called Fraser, not Nicolson, for exactly the same reason. That has never been any problem to anybody.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: That is a lovely note to try to follow. The noble Earl, Lord Howe, put the situation before us very clearly. I agree with him that one either agrees or disagrees with these amendments. I do not agree with them. The Government have already announced their intention of having a free vote for their supporters on these issues. I suspect that there will be a division of opinion among all the parties and groups. We have to deal with that as best we can.

I support the Government's approach in the Bill. I also support the view of the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, that there is a lack of couples willing to adopt. The noble Baroness brought this out clearly by rehearsing the figures. I will not follow that through. Although the general figures are difficult to analyse, the General Register Office seems to suggest that the

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number of children adopted fell between 1997 and 1998 and then rose quite slowly and have still not reached the 1997 level.

That does not suggest that there are many parents desperately trying to adopt difficult children with serious emotional, psychological or physical difficulties—or sometimes all three, because these things seem to go together. We have to remember that those are the kinds of children that we are trying to place in adoption because we know that their chance of turning out to be reasonable citizens are so much better in a family than they are in a home.

We must be careful before we say that certain sorts of families are not good enough to undertake this work, which is so important to the children and to society as a whole. Of course, all couples will get the same rigorous assessment of their stability and their ability to provide safe and loving care.

When the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, spoke to Amendment No. 7 at a previous sitting, he suggested a reference in the Bill to the rigorous assessment that needs to be carried out on all couples. I know that the Government do not like doing this, but there are occasions when it is valuable to put a point of this sort on the face of the Bill—and well up in the Bill—so that people can see the connection between the interests of the child and the rigorous assessment of the couple. Therefore, I ask the Government to think again on that issue. It could make quite a difference. Indeed, the knowledge that this rigorous assessment will take place would be a reassurance to everyone.

Much has been said and written about the relative stability of married and unmarried couples. Some of these statistics fall into that famous definition whereby you end up with "Damned Lies and Statistics", or whatever it is. It is terribly difficult if you take, say, two or perhaps three years, because that does not tell us about those couples, both married and unmarried, whose relationships survive for longer. That is what this rigorous assessment will be considering. Those conducting the assessment will not say, "We're placing a five year old", and then ask, "Will the couple still be together when the child is 10?" No. They will say, "We're placing a five year-old"—perhaps a difficult five year-old—"one who has already been rejected from nursery school as being totally uncontrollable, and we are wondering whether this couple will still be together in 15 years?" That is the important factor for the child. It is a different set of statistics.

I am not sure that we have a statistical base for judging the stability of married and unmarried couples where a child has been adopted. Perhaps the Minister can tell us whether such statistics exist, because I want to make the point that adoption is not at all the same as having a child in the normal course of your life. Couples have their own children for a number of different reasons, for example: because they are married and it is the natural thing to do; because they have decided—married or unmarried—that they want to have a child, and now is the time to have it; because

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one member of a couple has cheated on the other member; or perhaps by way of a mistake. There are all sorts of reasons, but they are all private reasons.

However, adopting a child is not a private decision. It is a decision taken by two people in public. It is a public commitment that is tested by the system of assessment: you take on someone else's child and love and care for it as though it were your own. To me, that is a very admirable thing to wish to do. If there are couples who do not fall into the traditional definition of a "married couple" who are willing and able to do just that, it seems quite wrong that we should reject them for such a reason. I do not wish to say any more because no doubt other people will put forward more statistically-based and accurate reasons. I just wanted to put it into the human context.

4.30 p.m.

Earl Russell: I should like to make three prefacory comments before addressing the arguments advanced by the noble Earl, Lord Howe. The first, with which I hope all the Committee will agree, is to regret very much the absence of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and to wish her all good health from us all.

Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

The second is to offer to Members of the Committee the apologies of my noble friend Lady Barker, who is presently busy in the Chamber dealing with the Statement on pensions, but will be here later. The third is to say that I am in full agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, that this issue should be resolved on the Floor of the House. However, as all parties seem to be stating their positions, it is probably best not to be left out of the debate.

The noble Earl, Lord Howe, concentrated exclusively for much of his argument on one point; namely, the rate of splitting up among couples. I speak as the child of divorced parents, as everyone who reads the newspapers probably knows. It was not particularly easy, but the noble Earl is making an enormous assumption that splitting up is the only, or even necessarily the worst, evil that can happen to a child.

My parents were happily married for many years and gave me a good and loving home from which I believe I benefited. Then came the earthquake. Twelve year-olds are notoriously egocentric, but even as an egocentric 12 year-old I was not so selfish as to wish them to stay together after that earthquake had taken place. It was a cruelty of which even then I was incapable.

All the statistics comparing the result of stable unions with the result of broken unions are in effect comparisons between happy people and unhappy people, since most couples who remain married are happy, though not all. When we say that happy people tend to produce happier children than unhappy people, we are not saying anything particularly startling. That is because we do not have a proper sample for our research. If we need to consider the

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effect of splitting up, we need to compare unhappy couples who split up with unhappy couples who do not.

It is very difficult to get the statistical base for proper academic comparison. Until we do, we should not talk with quite as much confidence as we regularly do about the argument that cohabitation is bad for children because the parents split up. Among my pupils I have encountered a good many psychological problems. Some of the worst have been from couples whose children suffered because the parents remained married when extremely unhappy and fought their battles by proxy through their children—Mummy's boy fighting Daddy's girl. I have seen that do no end of harm in a family. We should therefore approach this with a little more becoming uncertainty.

I also read with interest a letter published in Community Care on 24th May this year, which said that the sample which argued that cohabiting couples split up more easily was considerably distorted by a small number of people who were very rapid serial cohabiters on what I might describe as the Hollywood model. If those people were taken out of the statistics, the rate of break-up among cohabiting couples was not particularly different from that among the rest of the population.

I speak here also on behalf of my two sisters-in-law, both of whom chose to cohabit rather than to marry. Having observed their relationships and the relationships of their children fairly closely over a long period, I cannot see the difference between the relationship they have had and the relationship that my wife and I, as a married couple, have had. It is in all respects, as far as I can see, the same thing.

I was grateful to the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun of Abernethy, for making her point about the change to the name of Fraser. My father made me familiar with that concept when I was a child. Many of his friends had changed their name on marriage or by their parents' wills in order to inherit property. His favourite example was a couple where this had happened many times and they had ended up as Johnson-Thompson-Clatterby-Randall. I shall not forget that very easily.

When the noble Earl, Lord Howe, talks about cruelty to children in the playground because their parents are not married, he is talking of a world that I do not recognise, except in the single case of gay couples, to which I shall return.

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