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Baroness Masham of Ilton: Having seen so many young people become involved in crime after having been brought up in care, I feel that such outcomes might not happen if those young people had had the love and support of a home they could call their own. Sometimes the birth parent or parents do not want to place them for adoption. I ask the Committee what we can do about that. It is a very big problem. I am sure that I am right in saying that older and disabled children are the more difficult children to place. Can the Minister tell us the numbers of children currently awaiting adoption?

I should add that I have two names—it is all very complicated—and that our two adopted children had yet another name. That caused no problem at all—it was just one of those things. But it is terribly important to have a home to call one's own.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): This has been a quite remarkable and high-quality debate. I pay tribute to all noble Lords who have spoken. I join other noble Lords in saying how sorry I am that the noble Baroness, Lady Young, is not able to join us, and how much we look forward to her resuming her place when we come back to this issue at Report stage.

We touch on a very sensitive matter on which each noble Lord will reach their own judgment. It is undoubtedly clear that our discussion this afternoon can only help in enabling noble Lords to make that

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judgment. Although this issue of unmarried couples is important, I should like to place it in its proper context. We are now in our fifth day of Committee. What has united all noble Lords who have spoken in those sittings is the determination to see a much enhanced adoption service put in place. The noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, put that point very well indeed.

We know that outcomes have not been good for children in care compared with children who have not been looked after by local authorities. Looked-after children have poor chances of leading successful settled lives when they leave the care system, and we know that adoption can provide a new start in life for many children. All too often adoption has been seen as a last resort for those children when it should have been considered as the first resort.

Too often the adoption system has let children down. I readily acknowledge that council performance is too varied. In some councils, 10 per cent of looked-after children are adopted; in others, the figure is less than 2 per cent. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, that, overall, the system, including the courts, can be slow, cumbersome and unfair. The average time taken to adopt a looked after child is two years and nine months—an eternity in a child's eyes. That is why we have to change it and that is why we are all so hopeful that the passage of the Bill will lead to a dramatic change in the lives of so many young people.

It is therefore important that we place this question of unmarried couples in its appropriate context, considering current practice. At the moment only married couples may adopt children jointly. Single people may adopt as individuals, regardless of their sexual orientation. That is the position under the Adoption Act 1976. Adoption by single people was accepted practice under the previous Government as much as under the present one.

Some of those single people who adopt will be in a long-term, stable relationship, whether heterosexual or homosexual. If a person in such a relationship applies to adopt, the couple are currently assessed jointly. However, only one person may adopt the child. The other person may seek a residence order, but while the holder of a residence order may exercise parental responsibility, he or she does not become the child's legal parent.

An interesting question was asked about how many children are currently adopted by unmarried couples. The simple answer, as with many questions in relation to statistics, is that we do not know because such adoptions are currently recorded as adoptions by single people. The BAAF adoption statistics project, which I am informed is a robust statistic analysis, found that 95 per cent of local authority adoptions in 1998–99 were by married couples. We do now know how many of the remaining 5 per cent of adopters were living on their own or as part of an unmarried couple, but we know that 43 per cent of single adopters who adopted during 1998–99 were already fostering the children, as opposed to only 11 per cent of the couples.

Noble Lords will be aware that a free vote, at least on the Government side, on a Back-Bench amendment to allow unmarried couples, whether of the same sex or

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the opposite sex, to apply to adopt children jointly was held on Report in another place on 16th May. Members of Parliament from all sides voted in favour of the change. What were the reasons for that? I suggest that it is based on experience of adoption practice over many years. It is essential that the adoption placement reflects the child's needs and best interests. Let me give an example in which the amendments made to the Bill in another place would surely come into play in the child's best interest. If a child has been cared for by an unmarried couple—for example, in a foster placement—it may be in the best interests of that child to remain with that couple permanently. However, under the current legal framework only one person may adopt the child in such circumstances.

Our first objective surely is to improve security for the adopted child. I have already stated that if an unmarried couple applies to adopt, they are assessed as a couple, yet only one person may adopt the child. Arguably this denies the child the permanence and security of having two legal parents.

The Government's second objective is to increase the number of vulnerable children who have the opportunity, through adoption, to grow up as part of a loving, stable and permanent family.

Earl Russell: Perhaps I may ask the Minister a question for clarification. If a consent form needs to be signed, say, for a child to have an operation, is it only the legal adopter who can sign it? If that person is absent, can the operation not take place?

5.30 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: Yes, except that, if there is a residence order, the person who is party to the residence order also has parental responsibilities. However, residence orders are often time-limited and they certainly do not provide the stability of that person being regarded as a parent, although he or she may have parental responsibilities for a set time.

A large range of evidence was given in support of the change in Standing Committee in another place. In a letter to all MPs on 12th March, the British Agency for Adoption and Fostering said that the amendment would improve the life chances of more children by widening the pool of potential adoptive parents and by enabling those children who are placed with unmarried couples to enjoy the security of a permanent legal relationship with both parents rather than with only one of them. The letter from BAAF to MPs was signed by many organisations, including the Law Society and the Family Law Bar Association.

My department has also received correspondence from children expressing views about joint adoption by unmarried couples. One letter was sent by a child living with her natural parent and the natural parent's same-sex partner. This child was concerned that, should anything happen to her natural parent, she did not have the security of a legal relationship with her parent's partner and she might not be able to continue living with her.

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It is noticeable that the wording of the amendment tabled in another place introduced a tailor-made definition of "couple", which would apply for the purposes of this Bill only. By avoiding terms such as "cohabiting" or "living as husband and wife", the new definition avoided any confusion with the position in existing legislation. This definition does not attempt to define the legal relationship between the two adults and therefore does not encroach on or pre-empt the wider work on civil partnerships being carried out across government. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, are quite right to refer to the Private Member's Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, which has been debated in your Lordships' House. In a sense, part of the answer to the issues on inheritance raised by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, must rest in this wider work that is currently taking place across government.

Noble Lords have understandably raised questions about how certain we can be that only those who are suitable to adopt should be allowed to do so. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, particularly focused on suitability. As I said on other important amendments last week, nobody has a right to adopt. That is the position under existing legislation and under the Bill. It is the job of adoption agencies and the courts to decide whether a couple is suitable to adopt.

We debated last week how such a decision would be made. I do not want to repeat everything I said, but it bears reiterating that for any couple to become adoptive parents they need to prove not only that they can provide a loving a stable family relationship for a child, but that their own relationship is sound and likely to be lasting.

We have given a clear commitment to make regulations under Clause 44 to require adoption agencies to consider the stability and permanence of the relationship between a couple, whether they are married or unmarried, as part of the adopter assessment process. I said in Committee last Thursday that I would consider sympathetically whether the regulations should be considered under the affirmative procedure. We are undertaking a review to consider the range of criteria used for the assessment of potential adopters and the consistency of their application across the country.

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