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Baroness Blatch: I in no may meant to offend the noble Baroness or to make an ethno-centric point. I am not an expert in these matters and I can only use the ONS statistics. The vulnerability of such children who are available for adoption calls on us all to look positively for a placement that knowingly reduces the risk of future insecurity. The statistics provided by my noble friend Lord Howe, from the ONS report, bear that out.

The noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, rightly referred to cohabiting couples who tend to get married after two years. There should not be a problem with adopting children if they eventually make a commitment to marry.

I am enormously grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Russell, for what he said about my noble friend Lady Young. We all wish to be associated with his wishes. I know that she is making some progress, but is still too weak to attend this Committee. Reference was made to my noble friend on the subject of removing barriers. One of the good things about the Bill is that it should go a long way to removing barriers to adoption. That will receive universal support around the House. However, my noble friend was referring not only to the bureaucratic barriers mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, but to philosophical and prejudicial barriers and even to politically correct attitudes. The Minister rightly said on Second Reading that there are many married couples who would like to adopt children but the system stands in their way. Some 90 per cent of applicants are put off or rejected after inquiring. The Prime Minister's review found that,

So, a great many suitable people are lost in the process.

The Prime Minister's review noted that responses to enquiries were "unfriendly, unsupportive or even insensitive". Vast numbers of married couples are being turned away on frivolous grounds; they are, for example, too rich, too fat, too tidy, too conventional, have too many books or go to church too often. As my noble friend Lord Astor of Hever said:

    "Many married couples would like to adopt. The problem is the delays that occur between each stage of the system. Worse still are the manifestly unjust and irrelevant recommendations on adopters' lifestyles that have been identified by the Government's Performance and Innovation Unit."—[Official Report, 10/06/02; col.73.]

This Bill will go a very long way towards resolving some of that.

Those who support adoption by two parents—whether married, unmarried, heterosexual and/or same-sex couples—raise a number of issues. A married couple will have made a legal commitment to each other as well as to the child or the children that they adopt. Unmarried couples, heterosexual or same sex, will not even have made a legal commitment to each other. As I said earlier in response to the noble

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Baroness, Lady Gould, if they make a legal commitment, heterosexual couples have no fear; they will be free to adopt. However, why should anyone expect them to have a stable and permanent commitment to the child?

Earl Russell: Does the noble Baroness understand that some people may refrain from marriage simply because people are attempting to compel them to make a legal commitment?

Baroness Blatch: Nobody is compelling them to make a legal commitment. However, in the interests of the child, we have a duty to follow the record of statistics—which I shall repeat in a moment—that couples who make a commitment to marriage offer a child greater stability and security. At the end of the day, that has to be our concern.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: The noble Baroness said that if the couple are married, they can adopt; but they cannot adopt just like that. They have to undergo the same rigid criteria as everyone else. We must get away from the idea that anybody can adopt just because they are married.

Baroness Blatch: I absolutely agree. It does not pre-empt or say that just because they are married, they are suitable people. There is a rigorous process which I absolutely support. However, because of this amendment, we are talking about whether people seeking to adopt should be married or unmarried and whether we should discount, for the purposes of adoption, same-sex couples.

In their survey of seven years in the lives of British families, Berthould and Gerhsuny concluded in the British Household Panel Survey that,

    "children born to cohabiting parents are much more likely to see their parents split up and much more likely to experience a period in a one-parent family, than children born within marriage".

That is yet another survey. It goes on to make the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, on the issue of parents going on to marry. If they do, however, it is not a problem as long as they are suitable people to adopt.

The statistics used by my noble friend Lord Howe should be repeated. After five years following the birth of a child, 52 per cent of couples who were cohabiting but never married had split up; 25 per cent who were cohabiting but later married had split up; but only 8 per cent of couples who married after five years had split up. The statistics speak for themselves.

I should also refer to the anomaly in Clause 139 where it refers to married couples. The clause provides that the two adult adopters, other than a married couple, must not be related to each other. This gives rise to the following example. A brother and a sister cannot adopt, but the brother living with a gay lover could adopt. Two sisters could not adopt under the Bill, but the sister living with a lesbian lover could adopt. A mother and a daughter who have shared a house for 20 years cannot adopt, but two women living next door who happen to be lesbian lovers could adopt. Is that really what we expect from the Bill?

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At the end of the day a placement should offer as far as possible long-term stability and security and, given all the evidence that we have from the Office for National Statistics in its survey of married and cohabiting couples with children, we know that a married couple offer the best possible chance of long-term stability and security. I support my noble friend Lord Howe.

5 p.m.

Lord Alli: Before the noble Baroness sits down, perhaps I may ask her a question. I approve of marriage, but I believe that it is destructive in the context of this debate to try to compete between married and unmarried couples and gay couples. Essentially, we have all agreed that this debate is about the welfare of children. What does the noble Baroness say to the point made by the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun of Abernethy, that we have a shortage of people who want to adopt and that living in institutional care can be the most horrific experience for children? Is she saying that she would never give an unmarried couple or a gay couple the opportunity to help a child in institutional care when there was no other couple available? Is that what the noble Baroness is saying?

Baroness Blatch: One can believe whatever one wants to believe, but I simply do not believe that there is a dearth of married couples who wish to adopt. I simply do not believe that. We have already given a number of examples—I gave them in my speech just now and others have given them, and the record book is littered with them—of good, suitable, married people who wish to adopt but who find that they are thwarted by the system. It is my view, and I support it—

Baroness Howarth of Breckland: Every time this point has been raised I have tried to tackle the issue. The Government have looked at the matter and a number of other people have looked at it. There is a huge amount of mythology but very little fact as regards people in a range of situations—fat, thin, smokers, non-smokers—who have been found unsuitable to be adoptive parents. Good assessment involves looking at quite different issues. It is a great pity that social workers are again blamed for making inappropriate assessments. They are sometimes faced with certain pressures within local panels, often in relation to the placement of black children. However, that matter has been tackled recently. I need to make the point yet again that it is erroneous to suggest that all these examples are valid when the evidence that I have shows that they are not.

Baroness Blatch: I can only speak from experience. I have two very good friends who, after two and a half years of consideration, were deemed to be too old at 45 to adopt a child. Their children had passed through their teenage years and they were considered too old to adopt a child. That child had already been with foster parents, then with this family and then it was shunted on to foster parents yet again. I am sorry but I do not regard that as an acceptable experience for that child.

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I return to the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alli, many of which I agree with. I believe that institutional care is something that we should do what we can to avoid. However, I do not believe that there is a dearth of married couples who wish to adopt. I believe that the Bill will go a long way to remove some of the barriers to suitable adoptive parents being able to adopt. I am simply referring to statistics. If we knowingly place a child in a situation where the risks of family break-up, instability or insecurity are much greater, it is not responsible to go down that road. I believe that it is better, as far as is possible, to place a child where there is the greatest chance of stability and security.

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