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Earl Russell: The noble Lord, Lord Denham, taught me a number of years ago that it is a sound rule in procedural matters, before doing anything, to consider what one would feel if the other side did it. I shall therefore ask the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, to consider what she would feel if someone were to introduce an amendment to allow a right of conscientious objection to those who object to children being adopted by a married couple, or who object to children being adopted by heterosexuals. I believe that the noble Baroness would feel a good deal of indignation about that; indeed, it might detain the Committee for some considerable time.

This is a matter of equality. The noble Baroness said that we were condemned to an ideological secularism. Not so. We are condemned, for good or ill—those who wish to do so may think that it is for ill—to live in the world with the other people who happen to be in it and who happen to be a very diverse collection of people. Some of them like living in one way and some like living in another. That is just like the parties in this House. We disagree passionately about a great many things. We live at peace together because we accept an equality with each other, a common bond of procedure and a sense of fair play, of which Lady Young was so notable a protagonist—it was for that above all that I respected her so deeply.

The amendment produces an inequality in that it allows a conscientious objection on one side but not on the other. That is like the Government saying that they can break the rules of procedure but that no one else can. All governments would like to say that. We spend much time stopping them. People cannot live at peace with each other when they are constantly getting from another group of their fellow citizens the message, "You are inferior". I remember getting that as a child in America for being an Englishman. It made me a great deal more proud of being an Englishman than I ever was before; I was extremely pig-headed and pugnacious about it. That is the sort of effect that the amendment would have if it became law.

Lord Northbourne: I had not expected to speak to this amendment but I am distressed by the tone that the discussion has taken. If I stand with anyone, I stand with the noble Earl.

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My recollection of the Adoption and Children Bill—I was present for quite a lot of those sittings—is that we all felt that the criterion for a decision about an adoption was to be the best interests of the child. No noble Lord has so far acknowledged that the best interests of the child may be a matter of opinion and that the professionals who are charged with making the decision may have different views. I am absolutely amazed, if it is true, that there is no conscience clause regarding social workers who hold a particular view, or if they are forbidden to hold a particular view. It may be that the social worker should not be working in that department, but if he or she holds the view that children should not be adopted by unmarried couples, so be it. That is a professional opinion which the person should be entitled to express. It can then be overruled. But to say that a social worker has to have a particular opinion because it is politically correct at this point in our social history seems very unjust.

Baroness O'Cathain: I certainly do not intend to go over all the points raised during debates on the Adoption and Children Bill last autumn. I want merely to refer to the idea of conscience.

I echo the point made by my noble friend Lady Blatch. Other legislation includes a conscience clause. I refer in particular to the Abortion Act. With great respect to the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, I do not equate abortion with adoption. I am merely saying that there are people who may object on religious and moral grounds. We are not arguing about the grounds. We merely accept the fact that, regardless of what religion people have—indeed, they may have no religion—and regardless of whether they have a moral stance, they should be allowed to exercise their conscience on this issue.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, made me smile when he said that, just because he was different, he felt that he was inferior and it made him big-headed and pugnacious. I cannot imagine the noble Earl being either big-headed or pugnacious. I have had amazing respect for him over the past 12 years while I have been in this House and I have listened to him avidly. So I think that he is over-egging the pudding.

However, I can arrive at the same position as the noble Earl, having been in a minority all my life. I understand the point about being big-headed or pugnacious. One does fight for those who are in a minority position. I feel that social workers—who are being intimidated and unnecessarily upset over this issue—should be allowed to back off from one part of their job when there are plenty of other people who want to do it.

Over 80 per cent of adoptions in this country are undertaken by local authorities. So there must be quite a few people in local authority departments who deal with adoptions. Can we not, for heaven's sake, allow one or two people to say, "I am sorry, I cannot do that. My conscience will not let me", or, "My religious/moral views will not let me do that"—as happens in

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hospitals in relation to the Abortion Act? The amendment seeks nothing more or less than that, and I support it absolutely.

Earl Russell: Perhaps I may offer one short correction for the record. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for his remarks, but I did not say that I expected anyone to hold any particular opinion because it was politically correct, or for any other reason; merely that people should let their opinion compete on equal terms with all others, and, as far as possible, as we do in the Chamber, attempt to argue the difference in language that is common to both sides whenever it can be done.

Baroness Hamwee: Perhaps I may put one question to the noble Baroness. If a social worker has a problem of conscience over this issue—this is an entirely straight question—is it possible for that person to work in the field of adoption at all? By definition, a part of the pool of possible adopters identified by the local authority will not be able to be considered by that individual social worker.

Lord Northbourne: The words "conscientious objection" continue to be used. I would rather use the words "conscientious opinion" or "professional opinion" in this context.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Rooker: In response to the initial comment of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, the tone of the debate was set by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, who managed to speak for 11 minutes without once mentioning the child. That is where the tone was set, so I do not see—

Baroness Blatch: My Lords—

Lord Rooker: Hang on a minute, I shall give way in a moment. I do not want us to get off on the wrong foot, but that is the case. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, raised the issue about tone because of the other speeches made. The mover of the amendment set the tone. That is the bald fact, and Hansard will justify what I say. The issue of the child being put first was never mentioned in the opening speech; it came from the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, to start with. Now I will give way.

Baroness Blatch: If the noble Lord looks at Hansard tomorrow he will see that I argued about professionals who considered that it was in the best interests of the child to be placed with a mother and a father. I hope that Hansard will confirm that. I said it quite early in the 11 minutes.

Lord Rooker: That is not the same thing, with respect. The best interests of the child are paramount. Frankly, if people cannot think about that and accept it, they should not be in the business in the first place. It is not for them to pick and choose. They either put

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the child first or they do not—they put themselves first. The argument today is putting other people first, not the child.

Lord Northbourne: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I started by referring to the best interests of the child. The Minister is assuming that he has the right answer. There are honest, genuine differences of opinion, including professional opinion. Those must be taken into account by any reasonable government.

Lord Rooker: All I said was that the first comments of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, were about the tone of the debate. But the only point I make is that the tone was set by the mover of the amendment. Although it was said that the amendment was suitable for local government legislation, it could be argued that it is a straightforward employment issue. We are dealing with employment legislation. The first few words of the clause are:

    "No person employed by, working for".

I do not know about the individual cases mentioned. I presume that the individuals involved were named with their permission—that is what would normally happen in another place. I assume that that is the case; I am not making a point. I shall not comment on any individual cases.

I do not have a lot to say. However, those who look at the clause will ask, "Where do you stop on the next one?" It is interesting; we are told that there are lots of conscientious objections, but only one example has been raised. Nobody has raised any issue other than abortion. That is the reality. The phrase used in the amendment is not "conscientious opinion", it is "conscientious objection". The only analogy made is abortion; nobody is offering anything else.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, made the point about the Christian religion. On proposed subsection (2)(a), some social workers might object to parents who are married but are of mixed religions—for example, a Muslim married to a Jew. A social worker might say, "Oh, we have a dodgy issue with the children there. We will have real trouble". Do not say that that does not exist; it does. Where do you draw the line? You stop putting the interests of the child first the minute you go down that road. The minute you start to qualify, you do not make the interests of the child paramount.

The situation is not hopeless for the employees whom the amendment is designed to help. I shall not use the term "the way forward", but certainly the avenue is not closed for people like that. I do not know the detail of the 2002 legislation, but I am well aware of the debates that took place in your Lordships' House when I was a newcomer here. I realised the sincerely held beliefs of people on all sides. Nevertheless, Parliament decided in the end. That is the position that we face today. I do not seek, nor should we seek, to unstitch what Parliament has decided but which has not come into full operation yet.

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Parliament has taken the view for the first time that unmarried couples, regardless of their sexual orientation, may apply to adopt a child jointly. Let us face facts: it was a bit of a farce that a couple could adopt but only in the name of one person. A blind eye was turned to the rest, was it not? We did not hear complaints about that. That is hypocrisy on a grand scale, which Parliament has now corrected—and rightly.

The Adoption and Children Act raises no new fundamental issues in that respect. Therefore, we do not believe that there is any need to make special provision for a conscientious objection as a result of the change to enable unmarried couples to adopt jointly. Unmarried couples could adopt. In the past, only one partner could adopt, but now they can adopt jointly. That has now been dealt with. The key benefit for children as a result of the change in 2002 is that it enables a child adopted by an unmarried couple to enjoy the permanence and security of two parents, not only one parent.

In the past we were prepared to put up with one-parent adoption because it satisfied our religious beliefs and opinions, not those of the child. But that was no good for the child because only one parent could adopt; now two parents can do so.

Essentially the proposed new clause raises quite narrow employment issues; matters we believe would be more suitably addressed by the Employment Equality (Religion and Belief) Regulations 2003 which were approved by both Houses on 17th June. These regulations, when made, will prohibit discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief in employment and vocational training.

Local authorities have a duty to maintain an adoption service in their area that meets the needs of those who may adopt a child. I have no idea how many surplus social workers there may be in the field of adoption. I do not have any figures or, indeed, anecdotal information about that. Of course the function of the local authority now includes dealing with unmarried couples and individuals who are in fact part of a couple. The proposed amendment would make it more difficult for local authorities to meet their duties and could lead—or even inevitably would lead—to delays in the assessment of prospective adopters able to meet the needs of those children waiting for adoption. The Adoption and Children Act 2002 was a long time coming, but we think it is unacceptable to risk young children losing out on the chance of, or experiencing delays in, finding a new family.

With the best will in the world, and I cast no personal aspersions, I believe that this would be a damn dangerous road to go down. We in Parliament would go down this road at our peril, because it would be used as the thin end of the wedge in other areas later on. Therefore, I do not think that noble Lords should have anything to do with it. Obviously, given the other procedures contained in the Bill, this will not be the end of the matter. Moreover, as I have said, we consider this to be first and foremost an employment

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issue. The House has already approved the order from which the regulations will flow in due course, thus preventing people from being discriminated against on account of their religious beliefs. That is a perfectly acceptable way in which to approach this issue.

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