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Baroness Hamwee: I entirely take the point that dealing with small, routine matters should be made as easy as possible. My concern was greater in regard to the standards board than it was in regard to the Audit Commission, given that the standards board has very considerable powers. It is not merely a question of what it does at the end of the day—by way even of possible disqualification; but it has the powers to require documents, e-mails and so forth to be presented for examination. This is a serious matter. I shall read the Minister's response. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 112 agreed to.

Clause 113 [Standards Board for England: delegation]:

[Amendment No. 216D not moved.]

Clause 113 agreed to.

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The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Tordoff): A Division has been announced, so the Committee will now adjourn for 10 minutes.

[The Sitting was suspended for a Division in the House from 5.53 to 6.3 p.m.]

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 217:

    After Clause 113, insert the following new clause—

(1) No person employed by, working for or acting as an adviser to a local authority shall be under any duty whether by contract or by any statutory or other legal requirement to participate in—
(a) any placement under section 18 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 (c. 38) (placement for adoption by agencies); or
(b) any application under section 49 (applications for adoption) of that Act;
to which he has a conscientious objection on either of the grounds specified in subsection (2).
(2) The grounds referred to in subsection (1) are that the placement is with, or the application is made by—
(a) a couple who are not a married couple;
(b) one person who is in fact part of a couple within the meaning of section 144(4)(b) of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 (general interpretation etc.).
(3) In any legal proceedings the burden of proof of conscientious objection shall rest upon the person claiming to rely on it.
(4) A local authority shall not treat less favourably any person who relies on subsection (1) above."

The noble Baroness said: The purpose of the amendment is to protect staff employed by, or advising, a local authority in its adoption services.

Towards the end of last year, the new Adoption and Children Act was passed. One of its provisions is to allow same-sex couples jointly to adopt children. Now is not the time to repeat the many arguments against this idea—that debate is over. But one thing that last year's debates surely indicated is that this form of adoption is a controversial issue.

Many people in this country do not think that adoption by same-sex couples is in the best interests of children. They feel strongly that vulnerable children should be placed for adoption with a mother and a father. Among those who disagree with same-sex adoption are professionals who work in the adoption services. They are caring and diligent employees, some of whom have long and distinguished records of service. The effect of my amendment is to protect such staff from intimidation and maltreatment because of their conscientious objection.

The amendment inserts a new clause into the Local Government Bill after Clause 113. It provides that no person employed by, or advising, a local authority is under any duty to participate in an adoption where the prospective adopters are an unmarried couple applying jointly, or an unmarried couple where only one member of the couple is applying.

The Local Government Bill is the appropriate place for this measure because every local authority is under a statutory duty to maintain an adoption service under

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Section 3 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002. It is a fact that some 84 per cent of all adoptions are made by local authority adoption services.

This protection is urgently needed. The past few months have already revealed disturbing threats made by local authorities to adoption staff who do not want to take part in adoptions to same-sex couples—that is before the relevant sections of the new adoption Act have even come into force.

One particularly alarming example of such intimidation is the treatment of long-serving adoption workers Dawn Jackson and Norah Ellis. It deserves to be put on the record. Until recently, Dawn Jackson and Norah Ellis were members of the adoption service of Sefton Metropolitan Borough Council in north-west England. Between them, they have nearly 50 years' experience in adoption and fostering. But they have now been forced out of their jobs for their conscientious objection to same-sex adoption. Their case has been widely reported in the national press.

Dawn and Norah are both Christians and can cite sound evidence against same-sex adoption. Indeed, many colleagues in their department have previously expressed agreement with that position. Although both Dawn and Norah had previously had informal discussions with their management about their views, the formal letter that threatened them with dismissal arrived without warning. In fact, it arrived in December 2002, less than a month after the new Act received Royal Assent. The letter from the director of social services warned them that they would have to abandon their objection or lose their jobs.

Dawn and Norah had many discussions with lawyers, but they felt that they would have to move to other jobs in the council because threats and the new atmosphere of intolerance made it impossible for them to continue their work in adoption. Sadly, they no longer work with children.

This is a terrible affair. Dawn Jackson and Norah Ellis were not ineffective or incompetent employees. The only issue was their profound belief that placing a child with a father and a mother was in the best interests of the child. I am sure that Sefton's adoption service is much poorer without them.

There are other cases that show the unreasonable and hostile attitude of some in social services. They pre-date November 2002. In fact, during the passage of the adoption Bill, on 16th October 2002, I referred to the case of the paediatrician Dr Joy Holloway, as reported in Hansard at col. 897. Dr Holloway had much experience in adoption. In that capacity, she published a paper that summarised the evidence against homosexual parenting. In response to her reasonable comments, Dr Holloway suffered great harassment from her employers and was moved from her job. Can anyone defend such intolerance?

Another example of that culture concerns Pam and Trevor Birtle, who operate an agency providing training for foster parents in north-east England. They were told by two members of the fostering panel that they were,

    "unfit to foster any child or work for any local authority".

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What was the basis for such a sweeping statement? Simply their unwillingness to support same-sex relationships. That sorry episode raises the possibility that protection should also be extended to those who work in fostering. However, my amendment would not do that.

I would have thought that Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, enshrined in our much-vaunted Human Rights Act, would have protected Dawn Jackson, Norah Ellis, Joy Holloway and others. Article 9 aims to protect everyone's,

    "right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion".

However, it seems to have failed to do so in this case. I therefore tabled Amendment No. 217 so that there is clear protection on the face of a statute.

I wish to make it clear that Amendment No. 217 protects only professional staff who are fully equipped to carry out their jobs but who have a principled objection either to same-sex adoption or to adoption by cohabiting heterosexual couples. It does not protect incompetent or lazy employees making unfounded excuses. It parallels a similar provision in the Abortion Act that has proved effective.

There are other controversial issues in our society where Parliament has deemed it necessary to protect freedom of conscience. In the same way that homosexual adoption is a controversial issue, so is abortion—indeed, so is religion and people's religious opinions.

Under Section 4 of the Abortion Act 1967, doctors who oppose abortion for moral or professional reasons cannot be required to participate in abortions. It protects staff with a conscientious objection. However, there has been a longstanding concern by some medical professionals that they feel sidelined—for promotion and in other ways—because of their opposition to abortion. Proposed subsection (4) in Amendment No. 217 would create an additional safeguard for staff who may be mistreated because of their beliefs.

Similar conscience provisions apply in education law, which since 1944 has protected teachers from being discriminated against because of their religious beliefs. That provision is currently still on the statute book and can be found in Section 59 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998.

The problems in adoption have so far revolved around the issue of same-sex couples. However, Amendment No. 217 also covers those who have a conscientious objection to taking part in adoptions by a cohabiting heterosexual couple. Christianity and the other major world religions believe that sexual activity outside marriage is wrong. Many adherents to Christianity and other religions work in adoption, and they deserve protection for their conscientious views in such instances.

Some involved professionally in adoption have said that we should allow only the staff of voluntary adoption agencies to maintain a principled objection to homosexual adoption. I cannot understand that. How can it possibly be right to allow freedom of conscience in a voluntary agency but not in a local

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authority? Is there to be a blanket ban that excludes from local authority adoption services Christians and other conscientious objectors to same-sex adoption? Will everyone who works with a local authority be compelled to conform to an ideological secularism, despite all the evidence, common sense and deeply held convictions that run counter to it?

I end by returning to the case of Dawn Jackson and Norah Ellis. On reflection, it proves at least three things. First, it shows that there is a serious atmosphere of intimidation in some social work departments. Secondly, it shows that existing law does not offer clear protection to good, competent professional staff who genuinely hold a conscientious objection to adoption outside marriage. Thirdly, it shows that the pressure on staff to approve of same-sex adoption has grown significantly since it was legalised by the Adoption and Children Act last year, despite the fact that the relevant part of the Act has not yet commenced.

Make no mistake, my amendment does not outlaw or invalidate what the Adoption and Children Act says. It simply allows good, competent professionals involved in adoption a conscience clause, just as doctors and teachers enjoy one. Now that the law allows joint adoption by same-sex couples, the pressure will be even greater on adoption workers to take part in same-sex adoption. There is an urgent need for Parliament to act now to defend innocent and much-needed professionals. I beg to move.

6.15 p.m.

Baroness Barker: I begin not with an apology but with regret that I must intervene in the middle of the Committee's deliberations on the Bill. Approximately a year ago in this very room—it was as hot then as it is now—many noble Lords sat through the whole of the Committee stage of the Adoption and Children Bill. The part of the Local Government Bill that we are discussing attracted perhaps undue attention during the passage of the Adoption and Children Bill. Perhaps that is reflected in the discussion today.

One would assume from the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, that the provision we are discussing is an ideological matter which we are discussing outwith the context of the rest of the adoption system. However, that is certainly not the case. I refer to the decision which your Lordships' House took last autumn. The decision was not taken lightly or thoughtlessly and was taken after a great deal of consideration within the context of a long and complex piece of legislation, at the heart of which is one overriding principle; namely, that the needs of children should be paramount, just as they are in the Children Act. The measure constituted a huge change in the whole of our adoption legislation and was a thread that ran through absolutely every aspect of the Bill that we discussed. It was for that reason alone that a great many noble Lords eventually came to the conclusion that it was right to allow unmarried couples—and, within that, same-sex couples—to adopt as couples. We studied evidence which had been considered in a Select Committee. On the basis of that

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evidence many noble Lords were convinced that the decision they arrived at was in the best interests of children.

Throughout the passage of that Bill I thought long and hard about the issue. I took a special interest in the aspect that came to be known in shorthand as retrospection. That is shorthand for people who had given away children for adoption many, many years ago being able via an intermediary to find out what had happened to them. It also covered the siblings of such children.

In the course of that consideration I received a great many letters from adults who had been adopted as children and for whom trying to trace what had happened in their early life was traumatic. In many of those cases people had studied records to try to find out what had happened to them and why they had been moved to different places. Several of the letters centred on one particular point; namely, that people could not understand why they had been treated in the way that they had been. The only explanation that they could arrive at was that social workers and adoption agencies had acted according to their own set criteria. A number of the people who wrote to me stated that they were moved from placements where they were happy. The only reason they could deduce for such a move was a difference in religion as between them and the people with whom they had found a placement where they were happy.

One of the key threads which ran throughout our debates concerned the consistency or inconsistency of social workers. Throughout our discussions social workers came in for somewhat of a bashing. During the passage of the Adoption and Children Bill we tried to ensure consistency of treatment of children on the part of local authorities and social workers. The noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, spoke memorably of prospective adopters and the way in which they had been treated. She mentioned prospective adopters who had been turned down as they were too wealthy. That situation will come to an end under the terms of the Adoption and Children Act and through the enshrinement of the principle that children's rights are paramount.

Having argued as passionately as the noble Baronesses did throughout the passage of that legislation I find it strange that they should now try to overturn that principle and that practice and say that social workers should be allowed to exempt themselves from a law which has been passed. I do not believe that that is in the interests of any child. What is in the interests of children is to have a law which has been thoroughly considered—as the Adoption and Children Act was—and to have it implemented with consistency and consideration.

The noble Baroness's terminology was somewhat striking when she talked about intimidation, unreasonableness and hostility. Employees of local authorities have to abide by the law. Many people with strong convictions and religious beliefs work for local authorities and have to uphold laws which they find offensive and repugnant. Section 28 is a prime example

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of that. However, it is the law and, be they Christians or be they not, they have to uphold it without exception. I do not see why there should be an exception in this case.

I make one final point to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. To equate placing children with gay people who have proved conclusively that they meet the tests of all prospective adopters with abortion does her case no credit at all. We are talking of very different and distinct matters. Last year, after lengthy consideration, the House took a decision with which the noble Baroness disagrees; however, it took that decision knowingly. The decision was to put the rights and interests of children first. I do not believe that the noble Baroness has made the case to overturn that decision.

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