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5.15 pm

Lord Patten: My Lords, one Roman Catholic follows another, rather like those trains that one is warned about at French level crossings. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, has outed herself as an Anglican and I had better come out as a Roman Catholic and follow her example in declaration. I support her excellent Amendment 21, which is-I say this to the Leader of the House-very modest not only in intent but in extent. It is bent only on attempting to right an injustice to a minority.

As the noble and learned Baroness noted, back in 2007 the Prime Minister's official spokesman said that the objectives of the Government's policy in bringing forward the sexual orientation goods and services

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legislation was both to avoid any dilution or dissipation of Catholic adoption expertise and to avoid discrimination. That was on the record. Unfortunately, the Government did not, in the end, provide any credible means for the realisation of those objectives. For reasons that the noble and learned Baroness has explained so clearly, neither end has been achieved, with very unfortunate consequences for a minority of children and for a minority religion.

As it happens, Catholic agencies have quite simply been the very best agencies for placing children recently, as the record shows. I am sorry to break into fractions here but the latest figures available to me demonstrate that just 3.6 per cent of Catholic placements broke down in the period up to the adoption order, while the comparable figure for voluntary agencies as a whole was 5.5 per cent and the figure for local authority agencies-I pay tribute to the difficult work that they have done-was very much higher, at about 20 per cent. Catholic agencies have been particularly successful at placing children with serious behavioural problems-something that, again, the Prime Minister's official spokesman recognised.

In this regard, it is worth noting that on 21 February 2007 Mr Julian Brazier in another place questioned in that extremely brief four-minute debate the wisdom of the Government's failure to accommodate Catholic adoption agencies. He related the story of a boy called Jake, who was helped by the now defunct Roman Catholic Salford adoption agency. I am told that this boy was three when he was placed for adoption. I know that very often it is wrong to argue generalities from a particular case but I think that this is a telling one. Jake had waited a long time for a family. He had been placed with a very experienced foster carer, who managed his extreme behaviour with difficulty. I pay great tribute to that foster carer for the difficult work that was done with that child. He had some obsessional behaviour: he did not like doors being closed and he hated getting wet. He also had extraordinary behavioural problems. The local authority social workers were so concerned about any family coping with his challenging behaviour that they asked his foster carer to provide a video of him in all his difficulties to show to prospective adopters so that they knew what they were letting themselves in for. Jake did find adoptive parents. They were secured by the now closed Salford Roman Catholic adoption agency. They were given an option to say no but felt that the little boy needed them. Therefore, this child was very fortunate.

It strikes me that the noble and learned Baroness wishes only to see more boys and girls experience similar good fortune if possible. I wonder how many children like Jake are not adopted today but would have been had it not been for the unfortunate failure of the initial goods and services legislation to make reasonable space, as the noble and learned Baroness so eloquently set out, for faith-based adoption. It is a good question to ask your Lordships, although it is almost a rhetorical one, because the Salford agency no longer exists in any shape or form due to the failings of the Government's goods and services legislation.

Another agency that has been closed down by the legislation is the Westminster children's society. I think that I told your Lordships in an earlier debate on this

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Bill that that has had unfortunate effects. It strikes me as extremely odd, if not poignant, that as recently as Friday 19 February the equally recently retired chief executive of the Roman Catholic Westminster children's society, the Reverend Jim Richards, went to Buckingham Palace to have the MBE conferred on him by Her Majesty for services to children and families, as the citation said. Therefore, an honour has been given by the public to Mr Richards through Her Majesty for doing things that the Government think are illegal. It is a very peculiar world when someone can get the MBE for doing something that the Government do not wish to see happen-that is, providing goods and services through a faith-based adoption agency. It is pretty rum and I do not really understand it. The noble Baroness the Leader of the House may be able to explain later-or perhaps she could write me one of those letters that we conventionally get-how this odd conundrum can be solved in my mind.

In the question of Catholic adoption agencies, it seems that three sets of rights are in play. This matter needs to be debated because it has never been debated before in either place. First, there are the rights of the child-rights not to have his or her best interests placed in jeopardy by legislation that did not make space for what were the most successful adoption agencies. I am borrowing the noble and learned Baroness's phrase about space; it is very apposite.

Secondly, there are the rights of the service providers who wish to deliver a service as a vocation and to be allowed to do so without violating their identity. I imagine that some will be quick to point out that no one is forced to violate their conscience, in the sense that no one has to provide that service-it is not compulsory. However, being told that you can either violate your identity by making yourself complicit in an action that your faith prohibits or simply cease service provision, with a loss of vocation and livelihood, does not seem particularly reassuring. This does not help a more diverse and tolerant society. It is hardly a vaunting triumph for the equality agenda.

Then there are the rights of the service users-the would-be parents, the adopters-to-be. This interest group, the adopters-to-be, have barely been mentioned in your Lordships' House and I think not mentioned at all in another place. We should pause for a moment and reflect on the difficulties that they have. One of the interesting things about our earlier debates was that everyone focused on the rights of same-sex couples to access adoption services from any provider, while very little thought was given to those would-be parents who just happened to want to be able to access adoption services in the context of a Catholic ethos, from at least some providers, and who now lack that opportunity entirely.

This is strangely illiberal from a House that very often seeks to promote the liberal agenda. It is something that the noble and learned Baroness's amendment sets out to correct in all the clarity that her amendment contains. This situation is particularly strange when one recognises that, as the noble and learned Baroness said, there was record of only one same-sex couple approaching a Catholic agency, where they were courteously referred to an alternative provider. All went well and no one was outraged or upset. I was

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particularly interested to hear what the noble and learned Baroness had to say about her friend from Stonewall wondering what on earth the fuss was about in making it possible for people to have access in this way.

A large number of couples, including non-Catholic couples, who appreciated the opportunity of being able to access adoption in a Catholic ethos can no longer do so. In this context, on the basis of the Government's actions-again, perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Royall of Blaisdon, can help me-it is difficult not to draw the conclusion that some rights are much more important than others and that some minorities are much more important than other minorities, such as Roman Catholic minorities, a number of Muslim minorities and others. The dismissal of the rights of those wishing to access adoption services in the context of a Catholic ethos is particularly strange because it comes at a time when the Government are placing so much emphasis, and I agree with them, on the importance of reforming public services to promote more choice, not less.

However, far from extending choice, we have here goods and services legislation that is actually eroding choice. Clearly the public are becoming increasingly unhappy about this restriction of choice-hence the e-mail petition on adoption choice, which has been drawn to my attention, that is currently on the Downing Street website. It calls on the Government to amend the Equality Bill to make space for Catholic adoption agencies, as they said that they would do back in 2007 but alas have not found the means of doing so. The noble and learned Baroness has given them the script to enable them to do what they said that they would do back in 2007.

I believe that, in just the same way that a law designed for the majority can have negative and destructive effects on a minority, from which the minority needs to be protected, through the provision of different treatment under the law, so, too, can laws designed for one equality strand, as one might inelegantly term it, have negative and destructive effects on some other minority strands, such as religious adoption and fostering agencies, which the noble and learned Baroness's Amendment 21 deals with. If we fail to respect the principle of equal treatment under the law, we will get into, and have got into, all kinds of quite unnecessary difficulties.

Mindful of the fact that equality interests can sometimes conflict with each other, the aim of any democratic Government should surely always be to apply the law for one minority strand, governing the interactions of others with it, to the population at large and other minority strands generally. To this extent, and only to this extent, those other strands should be provided with different treatment under the law, so that there is space for different communities. That is what the amendment in the name of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, seeks to do. If we fail in this task and create laws for one equality group that can be used to oppress another, we will have a recipe for social conflict and grave injustices to minorities.

I have two questions for the noble Baroness, Lady Royall of Blaisdon. First, why are the rights of those who want to have an opportunity as UK citizens to access adoption services in the context of a Catholic ethos in some instances less important than the rights

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of same-sex couples who want to access adoption in all instances? For the avoidance of doubt, I shall repeat that question. Why are the rights of those who want to have the opportunity to access adoption services in the context of a Catholic ethos in some instances thought to be less important than the rights of same-sex couples who want to access adoption in all instances? Surely there should be equivalence between groups.

Secondly and lastly, given that the Government were warned in advance that agencies would close-as they have done, including some of the very best-and given that it was clear that this service disruption could do nothing but negatively affect the best interests of children in need of adoptive parents, why did the Government not find a way through? The answer is extremely simple and it is has been given by the noble and learned Baroness. This is the way to make it possible, not just in the interests of all the Jakes out there who could still today access the very best adoption care if it were not for the blunt nature of the Government's goods and services legislation, but also in the interests of the service users-the parents-who wish to go to a Catholic adoption agency.

I believe that the Government should recognise three years on from the legislation that they made a small but unfortunately damaging mistake. I am sure that they did not mean it to be damaging-certainly not the Leader of the House. That mistake has been made but now there is a golden opportunity for the Government to support Amendment 21 or to bring forward an amendment of their own. I am sure that the Minister in her normal way will give me a straight answer to my first question, so will she then proceed to undertake to bring forward an amendment such as the model script provided by the noble and learned Baroness in her Amendment 21?

Baroness Afshar: As a Muslim educated in a Catholic school and subsequently in a Protestant school, I think that for many people faith is an important parameter of life and that they should be allowed to exercise their belief and standards in choosing to adopt, which after all is a service to the nation. In this time of dire shortages, when the need for adoption is greater than ever, it is important not to exclude parents who would be supported by their faith from exercising their right to choose a child who would be raised in the same faith.

The Lord Bishop of Bradford: My Lords, in the light of the noble Baroness's introduction of herself, I too must declare that I am Anglican. The fact that the sexual orientation goods and services legislation was introduced by secondary legislation in 2007 placed parliamentarians concerned about its implications for Catholic adoption agencies in a very difficult position. As unamendable regulations they could vote against the regulations as a whole, vetoing the many good provisions in them, or they could accept them knowing that they would be confirming the demise of Catholic agencies. Today, I very much welcome the fact that we can have a sensible debate about the sexual orientation goods and services legislation, affirming all that is good about it, but highlighting the need for this amendment to make space for Catholic agencies and others.

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If we want to create a diverse society in which people with sometimes very differing views happily live alongside each other, we must have equality laws that make space for difference. There should be space, for example, for lesbian, gay and bisexual organisations to operate in line with their ethos. Regulation 18 of the sexual orientation regulations, now replaced by Clause 19 of the Bill, provides for this. There should be space for Catholic adoption agencies and for other faith-based bodies to operate according to their ethos.

Surely, in relation to the adoption of children, it is the well-being of the children that is primary. I believe that their needs are best served if the options are not reduced: if they are not reduced to eliminate lesbian and gay couples; if they are not reduced to eliminate Catholic couples. We must avoid developing equality laws for one strand in a way that makes life very difficult for another strand, thus vulnerable to exploitation by others, whose purpose is to make life difficult for the negatively affected strand and for their own different purposes.

Between January and March 2007, when the sexual orientation rights were being debated, Stonewall, which has already been mentioned and commended and which has a legitimate interest in sexuality, issued just three press releases on the subject, while the National Secular Society, whose raison d'ĂȘtre does not pertain to sexuality at all, issued 10 strongly worded press releases championing the unamended regulations. We must understand, as others have observed, that in the same way a law designed for a majority can have a negative and destructive effect on minorities, from which they must be protected by different treatment under the law, so, too, can laws designed for one equality strand have negative and destructive effects on other equality strands, for which they shouldalso be provided with different treatment under the law.

Many people have mentioned registrars. I sometimes wonder whether the small town of Settle is rather like the village from which Miss Marple comes, where everything happens. That village happens to have a registrar who spoke to me and was very distraught. At the time of speaking to me, she was able to carry on her work because others would cover during the registration of lesbian and gay couples' civil partnerships. She was quite happy with that and they were happy, but she was thinking of retiring early because of the pressure upon her by the expected regulations. It seemed a shame. I hope that now that the Government have an opportunity to right this wrong, they and we will support the amendments of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss.

5.30 pm

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, the contributions we have heard today clearly demonstrate that goods and services legislation is complex and requires careful debate. I very much regret that that was denied in 2007 and welcome the opportunity that my noble and learned friend has given the House today to consider this question afresh. These amendments, which I strongly support, strike the right kind of balance for reasons that have been eloquently adumbrated during the course of our proceedings.

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Like others who have talked about their faith background, I make no secret of the fact that I am from a Catholic background. I live in the Salford diocese, and there has been great sadness there that the adoption agency in that diocese has had to close. I think it is an example of the law of unintended consequences. I do not believe that the Government set out with a vendetta against Catholic adoption agencies, with an agenda to try to close them. However, it has been one of the unfortunate side effects of the legislation that was enacted in the past.

However, I do not come to this amendment as a Catholic. I come to it as a Member of your Lordships' House concerned about the position of minorities and, as the noble Lord, Lord Patten, said as well, the position of service users, about which we have heard far too little during these debates. I come to it also because of my belief in minorities. One of the reasons why, when I was in another place, I voted against Section 28 was because of my belief in the importance of the place of minorities in society. Minorities will often be in competition and we are hearing today the debate about when majorities and minorities sit together in a tolerant and plural society.

I also caution those who, as Queen Elizabeth I said, "make windows into men's souls". I think we have to be very careful in this plural society not to make a big issue of the way in which people practise their faith. I am concerned, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bradford has just said, that there is an aggressive agenda at work which is almost itself becoming an ideology. The National Secular Society should reflect on that carefully, because pushing people into a corner on issues of conscience is not healthy for a democratic society.

On Sunday, I was struck by the headlines in one newspaper about the effect of the Children, Schools and Families Bill and how it may be a requirement on Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Anglican schools to refer pupils in the future for abortion services. I am sure that the Leader of the House will have seen those headlines. That too will raise a huge conscience question. It will be impossible for many people who run such schools. So respect for conscience is something that ought to unite the whole of your Lordships' House.

The noble Lord, Lord Patten, referred to the good work that these adoption agencies have done over the years. Rod Liddle is not a man who is given to writing very positive reports about many people, but I was struck by a review of a new book by Pauline Prescott that he wrote in last weekend's Sunday Times. She very movingly described how a church adoption agency helped her when she was a teenager to put her child into adoption. She has had the benefit of being reconciled with him; he has had an illustrious career in the Armed Forces as a result. The Jewish rabbi who said that a man who saves a single life saves the world was right. We never know how these events will work out when we provide the opportunity for people to be adopted and to live.

Modern concerns for equality were very much inspired by the work of scholars such as John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville. They warned us about the tyranny of the majority and we should understand that warning

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today. They recognised that if you embrace a crudely majoritarian model of democracy, that will result in the formation of laws that have no regard for the rights of minorities. When laws designed for the majority are found to have negative or destructive effects on minorities, those minorities should be protected by different treatment under the law, usually courtesy of legal exceptions. There are numerous examples of such provision in relation to things such as military service, the taking of oaths, vaccination, abortion, the wearing of motorcycle helmets, and the wearing of protective head covering on building sites.

The sexual orientation goods and services legislation has failed because it has not made adequate provision to protect the interests of what have been described as "these other strands". The impact of this is clearly seen today in the closure of both the Salford and, closer to home, the Westminster agencies, and the cessation of operations by the Leeds agency that is this very week fighting in the courts for its continued existence. Other agencies have continued, but no longer as agencies of the church. It is a real tragedy when people are pushed underground when they are actually doing great work, which should be seen as such.

These changes have negatively affected children needing adoption by causing very unfortunate service disruption. They have had very unfortunate effects on those would-be parents wishing to access adoption in the context of the Catholic ethos. It seems bizarre to me that legislation that is supposed to further goods and services provision should have jeopardised the goods and services rights of so many people. These people did not want all adoption services to be provided in the context of the Catholic ethos, but they did hope that they might continue to have the option of accessing those services somewhere in a context that is accessible to their protected characteristic. They are asking why this has been taken away, because the Government have determined that another protected characteristic should be free to access services anywhere in a way that is accessible for their protected characteristic.

I very much welcome my noble and learned friend's amendment, which moves us to a place where a right balance can be struck. Failure to rise to this challenge leaves us with what might be described as majoritarian equalities legislation that has no regard to its effect on other minorities. Ironically, it moves us from the place where we properly worked to avoid the tyranny of the majority to a place where we are in danger, in some contexts, of creating a tyranny of a minority. I very much hope, therefore, that the Government will accept the spirit of the amendment which my noble and learned friend has moved today, and also accept, in view of the moderate way in which she moved the amendment, and in which all the noble Lords who have contributed to this debate today have spoken, that we want to see a reasonable resolution of an issue that is, as I have said, the result of the law of unintended consequences.

Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, I too declare an interest as a Roman Catholic and vice-president of the Catholic Union of Great Britain. I say to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, who I thought argued her case beautifully, as one would expect, that

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the Conservative Party is broad-minded and that we have always considered these issues to be issues of conscience and therefore subject to free votes. Therefore, what I am going to say is my personal view. I shall be brief because these are weighty issues coming very late in the Bill right at the end of the legislative process.

As my noble friend Lord Patten said, Catholic adoption agencies had a worldwide reputation for the work they did in placing some of the most damaged and vulnerable children. One reason why they had great success is that they were supported by the Catholic community in the parishes. Their aftercare was second to none. That was why they had good results. For the Catholic Church, the issue was not about sexual orientation, but about sex outside marriage. It was the same for heterosexual couples.

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