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Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: I can answer the first point raised by the noble Lord. The latest figures I have are from March 1999, when almost 3,000 adoptive placements were made. However, at the same time there were nearly 2,500 children waiting to be adopted with no adoptive family having been identified. I do not think that we have the statistics available with regard to the second point, but I will see if we do and will write to the noble Lord.
I do not think that there is anything more I need to say. Clearly we will make up our own minds. I conclude by paying tribute once again to all Members of the Committee who have spoken in what has been a splendid debate.
Earl Howe: I begin by echoing the Minister's final words; I agree that this has been an excellent debate. I do not intend to draw out our proceedings today, particularly as he indicated that we cannot bring the matter to a final conclusion today in the nature of the rules of Grand Committee. I hope that the Committee will forgive me if I do not address every single point that has been raised.
I said earlier, and I repeat now, that I understand and respect the arguments on the other side. The slightly sad part for me is that, with the notable exception of the Minister, I have not heard much from those who have attacked me to demonstrate that the same applies in reverse. I have been called various things todaysinister, ethnocentric and inhumane. I shall, of course, reflect on those words. To the extent that my position is regarded as out of line with mainstream opinion, I would ask the Grand Committee to reflect on the following fact. The majority of European countries allow adoption only by married couples. Some countries, it is true, have legal partnership schemes but these specifically exclude joint adoption. Until recently the Government were of the same opinion as that which I was trying to advance earlier today. So I hope we can avoid too much talk that might suggest to those reading Hansard that I had taken up some kind of freakish position.
Earl Howe: I readily concede that and I am grateful to the noble Baroness. The point I was seeking to make was that I did not hear much in the way of accepting some of the points I was making. In fact, I do not believe that any of the points I made were accepted. I concede that my own sincerity was not in question and for that I am grateful.
The noble Baroness, Lady Gould, picked me up on what I said about the bureaucratic barriers in the adoption process. She questioned the significance of those barriers and said that reducing them might have only a marginal effect on the number of adoptions. I would point out to her, however, that in the Prime Minister's review there was a finding that,
In the White Paper on adoption it is noticeable that there were no proposals to change the eligibility grounds for adoption. The White Paper listed the 10 most serious problems with children's services and adoption but a shortage of married couples to adopt was not even on the list. Again, therefore, I question those who say that we need to widen the pool for the reasons that the noble Baroness indicated.
The noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, stated her view that adoption by an unmarried couple or a homosexual couple was not the optimum solution but, that nevertheless, she would be prepared to entertain it as an option. I note that she is not in her place but I make the point that, if the Bill is not amended back to its original state, there will be one obvious consequence: the law will not distinguish between types of union for the purposes of adoption. All types of union will be considered equally valid.
From that will develop an approach to applicants wishing to become adopters based on those coming forward, rather than on the needs of the child. Supposing 30 couples needed to be assessed and let us suppose that 10 of those are unmarried and 20 are married. As all of those couples are seen to be equally valid, this may lead to the 10 unmarried couples being assessed alongside only 10 married couples, leaving the other 10 married couples to wait. That will lead to a disproportionate number of unmarried couples being assessed.
Earl Howe: The point is that married couples who, as the Minister said, are, generally speaking, in the majority among those who are coming forward to apply for adoption, may, nevertheless, be sidelined because it will be the legal duty of the adoption agency to consider all types of couple as equal for the purposes of assessment. Resources are limited and it may be that
Lord Alli: I believe that I understand. If the resources available only allowed a certain number and there were 30 couples, 20 of whom were married and 10 of whom were same sex or unmarried couples, the noble Earl is suggesting that that would disadvantage the married couples.
Earl Howe: It is a very simple point that concerns me in the context of Clause 1. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, added to the brickbats hurled in my direction when he accused me of having an unanalytical mind. If that is so, I have to live with it. However, what I do not have is a prejudiced mind. Some of my best friends are unmarried couples. I have good friends who are gay and live together. The issue of whether certain lifestyles are intrinsically more or less worthy than others is an issue for another day. It is not the territory that I am on, or feel the need to be on. The issue that should occupy us throughout the debate is what is best for children. We are all agreed on that; we just do not agree on how to get there.
As I have said, unmarried and gay people can already legally adopt a child. Therefore, those who believe that only married couples and lone individuals should be allowed to adopt a child cannot be accused of wanting to exclude unmarried or gay people from the adoption pool. I certainly do not wish to exclude such people.
Earl Russell: I accept the logic of what the noble Earl says; namely, that this cannot be intended to exclude unmarried or gay people from the pool. However, is it meant to exclude couples from the pool? That is the obvious logic of what the noble Earl is saying.
Lord Clement-Jones: I am sorry to interrupt the noble Earl again, but I have reflected on his earlier point about the approach that could be adopted by an adoption agency. The more I think about it, the more extraordinary I find the point. The noble Earl was speculating on the fact that out of 3020 married couples, and 10 unmarried couples things would inevitably be balanced out by taking 10 of each. If no difference is made in the status of married or unmarried couples, and gay couples, why not use a chronological first-come, first-served approach? If resources are limited, those who apply to the adoption agency can be taken in the order in which they have applied.
The Earl of Listowel: Yes, of course. I thank the Minister for that invitation. As regards the procedures that will be set out in regulations for determining who is to adopt, or not to adopt, a child, would it be possible for such regulations to state that married couples would be preferred and that weight is likely to be given to the fact that a couple are married when reaching a decision? Alternatively, is that possibility completely ruled out by this current debate?
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: The Government would certainly rule that out. It takes us back to the earlier argument about a hierarchy of acceptable relationships. The Government's view is that each couple has to be assessed on their own merits irrespective of whether they are married or unmarried, because there are many married people who would be wholly unsuitable to adopt. That is why they need to go through the same process.
The other point is the issue of 30 people applying but only a few being able to be processed at any one time. I draw the attention of the Noble Earl, Lord Howe, to Section B of the National Adoption Standards for England which talks about the clear process that needs to be gone through and the clear written time scales for each stage. He raised the point about people having to wait in the context of whether gay or unmarried couples should be treated differently from married couples. The real issue in the prospective adopter process is how to speed up the process while not losing sight of the need for rigour at every stage within it.
The standard published in the National Adoption Standards is aimed at doing that, so that we can avoid forcing people to have to wait unduly. We want to make information available to whoever applies to adopt about the time scales they can expect to apply to them throughout the adopter assessment process.
The Earl of Listowel: Forgive me for being so slow in understanding this. To be quite clear, is it correct that no account will be taken of marriage as an important resilience factor in relationships? It will be one important resilience factor among many, as relationships between married couples are generally more likely to last. I know that we had this debate earlier. I should like to be quite clear that there will be a point in the process when the endurance of a
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