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The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Murton of Lindisfarne): The Division Bell has gone. We will adjourn for 10 minutes.

[The Sitting was suspended for a Division in the House from 5.35 to 5.45 p.m.]

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: As I was saying, the key is an assessment of the couple applying to adopt. Clearly, the robustness of the adopter assessment process is a critical factor in ensuring that we have a robust system in place. As I explained last week, a home study over several months is part of the current adopter assessment process. A designated social

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worker visits the prospective adopters at home to establish a detailed view of them, as well as any family members and other people living in their home.

In addition, adoption agencies ask for confidential personal references about prospective adopters and personal referees are usually asked to comment on all aspects of the relationship between the prospective adopters, including the amount of time they spend together and the leisure and recreational activities they share.

The feedback we receive from those who have gone through the process is that it is pretty tough and rigorous and sometimes people feel it can be over-intrusive. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, spoke about delays in the system. There are some delays that we need to eradicate. However, it is also a product of the fact that the system is very vigorous, robust and detailed in assessing whether people are suitable for adoption.

We need to bear that in mind when we come to the issue of the outcomes for children of unmarried parents in comparison with those of married parents. Surely this must be seen in the context of the increase in the number of cohabiting couples in our society. In 1986, they accounted for 5 per cent of families. By 1998, that had risen to 14 per cent. In 2000, around 40 per cent of births were outside marriage, compared with 30 per cent in 1990.

Some noble Lords have suggested that marriage should be accorded a special status among all the other important and valuable relationships that exist. From that, it is argued that placement with a married couple should, therefore, be the first choice of adoptive placement.

The Government's position on marriage is quite clear. The Government support the institution of marriage. They recognise that marriage is a sure foundation for raising children, and remains the choice of the majority of people living in our country. However, we also recognise that not all children are born to parents who are married, and that many unmarried couples have stable relationships in which children are brought up exceedingly well.

The Fostering Network put it right when it wrote to all noble Lords, saying:

    "Family life in Britain has changed dramatically since the last adoption legislation was produced and current legislation will probably be in place for at least another 25 years. More people will live in a relationship which is not confirmed by marriage and yet has all the components of it in terms of commitment to one another and the capacity to provide a home for children in need . . . The foster care service has provided a model. Unmarried couples and gay and lesbian carers have given children excellent care often for many years, until adulthood. These children have benefited from the love and care provided, and the security of the relationship. Many of the placements have been made of children with special needs who may not otherwise have benefited from family care had there been a need to wait for the perfect married couple to come forward."

Surely that was the substance of the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas.

When it comes to making individual judgments about a couple who have applied for adoption, the critical issue is how suitable that couple are to take on

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parental responsibilities. Our starting point in considering this suggestion is that the adoptive placement of choice should reflect the needs and best interests of the child. In relation to unmarried couples, the noble Earl, Lord Howe, asked whether Clause 1 could really be said to apply. I say that it does.

Established adoption agency practice shows that it can be in the best interests of some children to be placed with single adopters. Indeed, research has shown that girls who have been abused do particularly well when placed with single women. As I mentioned earlier, in some cases it may be in the best interests of the child to be adopted by an unmarried couple; for example, where a child is already being cared for by an unmarried couple, such as unmarried foster parents. Again, perhaps I may quote from the Fostering Network, which says:

    "From our experience of supporting a growing number of same sex couples we have noted a trend that suggests that these couples are more prepared to adopt 'harder to place' children and more open to support to make these placements work. This openness to support results in more successful placements for these children."

We have discussed married life, and the importance of marriage as an institution. But let us be honest: some marriages may not provide a suitable environment in which to bring up children, just as some unmarried couples can be successful in providing a loving and stable family environment. That is why the adopter assessment process is important in ensuring that only those who are able to provide a secure home for a child are approved as prospective adopters.

This is not a debate about the reasons why unmarried couples are unable to marry, or chose not to do so; it is a debate about increasing the number of vulnerable children who have the opportunity to grow up as part of a stable, loving and permanent family. It is the adopter assessment process, and, ultimately, the courts that will decide whether a couple are suitable to adopt. That process will provide the necessary safeguards in order to protect the child.

Throughout my response I have laid a great deal of stress on the robustness of the adoption process. I know from comments that have been made today, particularly by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and by other noble Lords during the passage of the Bill, that there is concern about current patchy provision of adoption support services. That is why Clause 3 places a new clear duty on local authorities to make arrangements to provide adoption support services.

In relation to adoption services generally, I have already given a commitment to noble Lords that we will have a comprehensive performance assessment system for social services, which includes both in-year and end-year monitoring, including performance in relation to adoption. We have already agreed that from April 2003 voluntary adoption agencies will be inspected and registered by the National Care Standards Commission. Local authority adoption services will also be inspected by the commission. We can always intervene if a local authority fails to perform its functions adequately.

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The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, also mentioned political correctness. Although allegations have been made about political correctness and blanket bans, the PIU report found no evidence that such blanket bans exist. However, there is a perception in certain areas of the media that they do. Sometimes that is based on a misunderstanding of agency practice. For example, in placing a very young baby agencies would need to consider the age of the adoptive applicants with a view to them being able to cope with a child as it grew up. As I said on Second Reading, the figures for 1999 show that the average age for adoption couples was 37 years and eight months, that the average age for single adopters was 40 years and four months, and the maximum age in the sample was of a person of 59 years and one month. The Cabinet Office PIU report said that there was no evidence of blanket bans, although there is certainly a perception that they exist.

I shall not deny that there have not been examples of thoroughly bad practice or insensitive approaches. I go back to the adopter assessment issues. I know that sometimes prospective adoptive parents have been concerned about the way they have been questioned, often because it is not explained to them why certain questions, which may be regarded as intrusive, are being asked. I do not deny that we need to do much to improve the performance of those social workers, but I never seek to knock social workers in general. It is all too easy to do.

When one thinks about the awesome decisions that fairly junior staff in social service departments have to make, who of us would ignore the fact that those decisions are very hard? I would not defend bad practice among social workers, but I recognise that many of them work tremendously hard under great strain and do their very best. Of course we want them to do better. That is why we set up the General Social Care Council to make the profession of social work much better supported. We have extended the training period for social workers. I am confident that, with the development of an adoption service, with the clear standards we are laying down, with inspection by the National Care Standards Commission, with the work that we are doing to improve and boost the status of social workers and their professional qualifications, we will be able to ensure that the adoption assessment process will work effectively, and that, as far as you can ever be certain about a couple when it comes to couples being assessed, that as much care as possible will be taken to assess those couples.

At the end of the day, we will all make our own individual decisions on this matter. I believe that the case is very strong to accept the Bill as it now stands. The fact is that at the moment it is perfectly legal for adoption to be undertaken by single people who none the less are in stable relationships, whether of an opposite-sex nature or a same-sex nature. It is also clear that where such a single person is in such a relationship the adopter assessment process will assess both people in that relationship, even though only one person can adopt. The logic of that argument is clear. We would provide greater stability for an adopted child in those circumstances by allowing both of the

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parties to that couple to adopt. I am absolutely convinced that as a consequence we shall enable more young people to be adopted—often young people who in the current circumstances find it very difficult to find suitable adoptive parents. Of course we will debate this matter again on Report.

6 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: May I ask a question on that point? What is the score roughly? How many children are in care waiting for adoption? The information was not clear. How many prospective adopters, be they single or joint, are now wanting to adopt children? I am trying to get the size of the problem and I could not pick it up from the debate. I do not seek an answer now.

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