Clause 47 - Applications for adoption

Adoption and Children Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 3:45 pm ar 29 Tachwedd 2001.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Llafur, Chatham and Aylesford 3:45, 29 Tachwedd 2001

I beg to move amendment No. 118, in page 28, line 34, leave out `married'.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Ceidwadwyr, Broxbourne

With this it will be convenient to consider the following amendments: No. 119, in page 28, line 38, leave out `spouses' and insert `applicants'.

No. 120, in page 28, line 41, leave out `spouses' and insert `applicants'.

No. 121, in clause 48, page 29, line 8, leave out `married'.

No. 122, in clause 48, page 29, line 9, leave out `spouses' and insert `applicants'.

No. 123, in clause 48, page 29, line 10, leave out subsection (2).

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Llafur, Chatham and Aylesford

The issue was debated at great length during the evidence-gathering sittings. It was a key matter in which all members of the Committee showed an interest when they cross-examined the witnesses. As I recall, 30 witnesses gave evidence, 29 of whom believed that children should have the opportunity to be adopted by unmarried couples as they have the opportunity to be adopted by single persons and married couples.

We must ask ourselves whether it is inconceivable for us to consider circumstances in which the children's greatest needs would not be met if they were unable to be placed with an unmarried couple. Do we believe that one size fits all? Opposition Members believe that the child's rights should be put to the fore. If we believe that and the child says, ``These are the parents who I want to live with. These are the people I want to be with permanently, not just up to 18 years old, but for the rest of my life'', surely we can imagine circumstances in which that might happen.

Under previous clauses, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said that he wanted to get rid of inequalities in respect of those who are eligible to adopt.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Llafur, Chatham and Aylesford

I think that the record will show that the hon. Gentleman did. Under the Bill, there are inequalities that make people ineligible to adopt. The best interests of the child are fundamental. As I said at the beginning of our proceedings on Tuesday, we do not want hard and fast rules; we want flexibility to be able to meet a child's needs. We all agree that we do not want delay or political correctness, whether left-wing or right-wing—

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Llafur, Chatham and Aylesford

When the issue arose on Second Reading, the hon. Gentleman said, ``I'll duck this.'' I wonder whether he will duck it on this occasion. [Interruption.] He can check the record again; it is there for all to read.

We need to consider race, religion and linguistic aspects and all the other demands at once when trying to find the right place for a child. We all broadly agree with those demands and we want to increase the adoption rate by 40 per cent. That is a tall and ambitious order, but it is right and we all support it. Children should have the opportunity to be adopted; they should not have to languish in care. That is what the amendments are about and they would strengthen the Bill.

We have a huge responsibility. We know the benefits of children moving to an adoptive placement, compared with moving from one foster carer to another, and what it does for their social, welfare and life opportunities. I know that from having worked in the system for 10 years. We have an enormous responsibility, and an opportunity that comes along once in a generation to get the legislation right for children. Hon. Members must seriously consider the fact that the Bill as drafted will prevent children from being adopted by appropriate and loving parents.

We know what the optimum is: prospective adopters would be married and would meet the racial, religious, linguistic and cultural needs. Child and parents would be the perfect match and would have a supportive network. However, perfect families are not always available. That would take the notion that all children looking for adoptive families were white and middle-class, but our society is not like that. If only things were that easy, we might not need additional legislation—but life is complicated. Children who come into the care system have been sexually, physically and emotionally abused. They have been damaged, and the demands on adopters in looking after them are considerable.

There are some excellent clauses to deal with post-adoption support, but children need to find permanent homes first, and finding the right family is not always easy. Should we say that only married couples or single parents can adopt children? That is an ideological position. On the other hand, if we believe that that is best practice and will provide the best opportunity, let us have that debate.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Llafur, Lancaster and Wyre 4:00, 29 Tachwedd 2001

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is hypocritical that although, presently, couples living together and gay couples may adopt children, only one person in such relationships can be the adopter? Is that not a poor way of bringing up children and an inadequate message to give to children and young people?

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Llafur, Chatham and Aylesford

I agree with my hon. Friend. The situation involves a second-class parent. A child may have a mum or dad, but not a mum and dad. What do we call the second-class parent in that family? The situation flies in the face of all the evidence that we heard and the overarching principles of the Bill.

It is not easy to find the right families. We remember my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey) talking about trying to find a quarter Pakistani family for a quarter Pakistani child. Let us suppose that such a family was found, and they happened to be an unmarried couple. Let us suppose that the child lived with that couple as his foster carers, that they wanted to adopt the child, and that everybody thought that such permanency was correct for the child, but that, for a variety of reasons, the couple were unable or unwilling to marry. The Bill would deny the child an equal mother and father. That is the key test. If we can argue that it is in the child's best interest not to be placed with the couple, or that it is better for one parent to have a higher status, let us hear that argument. If we agree with my earlier point about equal parents, we have an ideology that does not work in the best interests of the child. That is key.

I have not quoted from the evidence in Hansard, but all members of the Committee who heard it know that is was overwhelming. Hon. Members argued with witnesses, but in my assessment, arguments in support of the Bill as it stands floundered. I am keen to hear what my hon. Friend the Minister will say. She has done a magnificent job in introducing the Bill so early in the Parliament—there is adoption legislation only once a generation—and starting the process by ensuring that we have good quality witnesses.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Ceidwadwyr, North West Norfolk

I accept entirely what the hon. Gentleman said about the Minister's effort and work on the Bill. She has done a superb job and should be applauded. I respect the hon. Gentleman's professional background. Does he agree, as a professional, that it is a pity that we are debating under a programme resolution that curtails debate on a Bill as technical and lacking in controversy—except on one or two clauses—as this?

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Llafur, Chatham and Aylesford

We should have ample time to debate the controversial issues; deciding which bits of the Bill are controversial is a matter for his hon. Friends. I am happy and content with the programme resolution—I do not want to upset my hon. Friends too much.

Many aspects of the Bill are welcome. Prior to the Special Select Committee before the election, I spent time with adoption professionals in my constituency. They welcomed the old Bill, but raised several issues with me, which have since been dealt with by the Government in the new Bill. If the Bill is concerned with the child's best interests and tapping a pool of adopters so that we can meet the 40 per cent. target, we should agree to the amendment and act in the child's best interests.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

I shall be brief because other Members want to contribute.

I agree with the amendment of the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw). There are many worthy measures in the Bill, but if we do not address this issue, we will undermine the credibility of the exercise. There should be a blanket ban on unfit adopters only. A blanket ban on the basis of marital status is Victorian, old fashioned and somewhat ridiculous. One argument that will no doubt be put is that far more unmarried couples split up than married couples. Whether that is true, it has no moment in this debate, because we are dealing only with people who qualify as adopters. Many married couples will not qualify; many unmarried couples will not qualify. I cannot logically work out why, in the best interests of the children, the Government have set their face against allowing unmarried couples to adopt.

We all took part in the evidence-gathering sittings and heard an overwhelming amount of evidence in favour of allowing unmarried couples who qualify as good adopters to adopt. The Minister said that she had made a compelling case in response to an earlier amendment; it is only infrequently that I hear a compelling case being described as such by the proposer. With the greatest respect to the Minister, I must say that there is a compelling case for the amendment.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Llafur, Gorllewin Caerdydd

I thank you for chairing today's deliberations, Mrs. Roe. This is the first time that I have spoken in a Standing Committee other than in an intervention, and our proceedings have been an education. If someone carried out a word search of them, the words that would jump out would be ``probing'' and ``teasing''—and perhaps ``circumcision''. I have certainly learned some new parliamentary terms. I have learned also that it is customary for the Opposition to complain, at great length, about the time that we have for debate. Yet, in this morning's proceedings, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham welcomed the Chairman to ``our mammoth sittings''. I am not sure how those two complaints square with each other.

In discussing the amendments, we should return to the principle at the heart of the Bill—the welfare of the child throughout its life. We all accept that society has changed since 1967 and the height of the period when unmarried mothers gave up babies for adoption. Adoption itself has also changed, and the two changes are intimately related. The lack of social acceptance of birth outside marriage at that time led to unmarried mothers giving up their babies. Because they knew that I was on the Standing Committee for the Bill, I was approached by several Members of Parliament from both sides of that equation. Some gave up their babies for adoption many years ago and others adopted many years ago.

We must accept that with more and more children being brought up outside marriage few babies are given up today. It is increasingly common for unmarried people to adopt babies, but they are allowed to do so only as individuals. In many cases that approach is not necessarily in the best interests of the child. The child may have the right, if it is possible, to have two parents and two sets of grandparents. The child may have the right, if it is old and mature enough, to say which parent it would like to stay with in the event of a break-up of an unmarried adoptive couple's relationship. When only one parent is allowed to adopt, that decision is already taken for the child.

It is wrong to say, as the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) did a moment ago, that the Government have set their face against this. The Secretary of State made it clear on Second Reading that that was not the case and that the Government are minded to hear the arguments. I know that the Minister is minded to hear the arguments. That is the purpose of our deliberations today. I also understand that there are broader ramifications, beyond the boundaries of the Bill, in changing the law to allow unmarried couples to adopt, including matters such as the civil registration of partnerships. Therefore, it may not be appropriate to press the amendments now.

Just as we should not lose sight of the welfare of the child in a haze of political correctness, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford said earlier, we should not lose sight of the welfare of the child in a blaze of political bigotry. The law should not be a sham. Do we really believe that the situation where a single person adopts and brings up a child alone—or where an unmarried person adopts as an individual and brings up a child together with a partner—is so superior to the situation where an unmarried couple adopts together that the latter should be banned? That is the key question. I welcome the genuinely open approach that the Government have taken on this matter. I hope that we will have further debates on it as the Bill progresses.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Romsey

One of the things that struck me when I became involved in the Bill was how little I knew about adoption, and how the sort of children who are being adopted has changed over the years. Many people still have an image of nice pink little babies. However, the vast majority of children who are put up for adoption are damaged in some way. The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford referred to sexual abuse. When a child has been sexually abused it might be totally inappropriate to put her near someone who might remind her of that abuse. Another type of couple might be better in such cases.

What struck me during the evidence sessions was the overwhelming consensus that the needs of the child are paramount. If that means that the best available placement is not with a married couple, we should be free to place that child where it would find love, care and understanding. I hope that the Minister has taken note of that consensus. I know that there are far-reaching consequences if we decide to amend the Bill, but Members of the Committee should send a signal that that is right on this occasion. We should not say, ``Well, now is not the time. We need to go down the civil registration partnerships route, and then we might resist it in some way.'' We will not have a chance to revisit the matter for a long while.

I hope that the amendment will be pressed to a Division, and I hope that Labour members of the Committee, who have spoken so eloquently about the matter, will have the courage of their convictions, and vote in accordance with their remarks.

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Llafur, Erewash 4:15, 29 Tachwedd 2001

Unlike several of my hon. Friends, I do not have a social services background. However, I did teach for a long while, and a local authority children's home was situated in the catchment area where I taught, so some of the children who resided at the home attended my school. It was noticeable that, as they grew up and passed through the school, the self-esteem of those children fell dramatically, and they fell behind in terms of academic achievement. Many of them became involved on the fringes of criminal activity, and, lamentably, I heard that some of them, after they left school, went to prison. We are therefore discussing a group of damaged young people, and it is important that we try to enable adoption of such children to be more effective and speedy.

The changes in those children were very apparent. Whatever situation they were in when they entered the children's home, it became worse over time—and I witnessed that process, as I taught at the school for a long while. With such damaged children, we must look for couples and individuals with enormous emotional resources who can make a difference to their lives. They are special people; they are prepared to commit to taking those children on—to loving and supporting them, and to nurturing them through to successful and healthy adulthoods.

It is right that the paramount importance of the child's welfare is at the heart of the Bill. I know of numerous examples of unmarried couples who have fitted the bill with regard to the adoption of certain children, and they have done a jolly good job of bringing them up. There is a good chance of getting a good match and a successful adoption if, right at the start, in the assessment process, whoever is doing the assessing can see the quality of the relationship of a couple, or the environment provided by a single person, and can identity what they might have to offer to a child. It is therefore unsurprising that the majority of the witnesses from whom we heard last week supported the view that what is important is not whether a couple are married or not, but the quality of their relationship, and the match with the child—whose welfare is of paramount importance.

I am not copping out, as has been suggested, when I say—after having given the matter considerable thought, and after having read through the evidence again—that if we passed the amendments, that would be a mere token gesture, as the overarching legal framework needs a root and branch review. I hope that the Minister will say something about the Government's intention to reconsider the legal framework in respect not only of adoption but of its wider effect on several different issues, which I shall not go into, which I also see as nonsense. I hope that there is a review and that we will make changes, because if people are prepared to put themselves forward to adopt challenging, needy children we should have the decency to allow both partners of an unmarried couple to have a legal relationship with the child and, most importantly, allow the child to have a legal relationship with both the partners who make that commitment.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

I have a sincere respect for the proposer of the amendment, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford, for several of his hon. Friends who supported him, and for my hon. Friends. I agree with the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy on many things, although I cannot pronounce the name of his constituency, and I am saddened that I disagree with him on the matter that we are discussing.

The difference between the Special Standing Committee, and the earlier Committee on which the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford and I and two other members of the Committee served just before the election is that, although it was right not to try to repeat that, there was time for the hearings to take place. The problem about trying to cram all the evidence into two days is that there was not as much scope for deliberation.

The feeling in the first set of hearings was different in several ways: first, there was strong testimony from the official on the Bill, supported by Ministers, about why the proposal would be a mistake, partly related to treaty obligations, and to other factors to which I shall come to in a moment. Secondly, several Labour Members expressed strong views against the change. I shall mention two, both of whom are now Parliamentary Private Secretaries and therefore cannot serve on the Committee. One, whom the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford mentioned in his speech, was the hon. Member for Stockport who spoke about a person being required to be one-eighth from an ethnic background—the fraction was seven-eighths, not three-quarters. The hon. Lady made it clear that she opposed the change. I last discussed the matter with her in the past few days—

Mr. Shaw indicated dissent.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

She did indeed. It is no good the hon. Gentleman shaking his head. Her remarks are on the record. Another hon. Member who opposed the change—

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Llafur, Chatham and Aylesford

I shall certainly check. That is for the record.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

The hon. Gentleman is welcome to check but I assure him that I last discussed the matter with the hon. Lady only two days ago. She made some remarks during the Committee so they were presumably on the record. Another Labour Member who opposed the measure was the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint); the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford will surely remember her comment that she was about to get married. She made some personal remarks that I shall not repeat, but the hon. Gentleman will remember that conversation as he was there at the time.

The consensus, even in the evidence-gathering sittings—the hon. Gentleman said that only one of the witnesses spoke for the status quo—

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

The Minister went to the hon. Lady's wedding.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

Oh, really? I am delighted to hear it and I hope that the hon. Member for Don Valley had a very happy day. However, she made it clear that she was opposed to the change.

During the hearings, the hon. Gentleman said that 29 out of 30 spoke strongly against the Bill's provisions—

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Romsey

I have the words of the hon. Member for Don Valley in front of me. She actually said that she was being devil's advocate.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

I shall have to check the record, as I was speaking from memory, but the hon. Lady said that she was getting married. However, there is no question about the views of the hon. Member for Stockport on the subject. I discussed it with her a couple of days ago and she would not mind my mentioning it.

As to the supposed 29 out of 30 who spoke strongly on the matter, it is true that the vast majority of the witnesses this time were in favour of the change, but at least two spoke against it. The Adoption Forum representatives were against it.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Llafur, Chatham and Aylesford

There was only one, the gentleman from the Westminster Catholic Children's Society. As I said, I accept the general principle, that of the optimum, but when I asked the Adoption Forum representatives if they thought it was inconceivable that there would not be a situation where a child's best interests would be served with an unmarried couple, they agreed with that point of view.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

The lady from the Adoption Forum was pressed strongly by several hon. Members, including the Chairman, but her testimony was in favour of leaving the law as it is. As I understand it, that is the Adoption Forum's position.

I want to move from testimony to the heart of the evidence. As several hon. Members have said, in the majority of cases a child is in care for traumatic reasons. These are children with a great deal of baggage. To be faced with the prospect of another break-up would be to have a second trauma imposed on the first. The outcomes from adoption are much less bad than from any other option; two academics told us that they were the best outcome by far, a view that I have long supported—I am glad that several Labour Members are nodding—but, nevertheless, the success rate is only just over 80 per cent. The other 18 or 19 per cent. represent cases in which there is a further individual tragedy on top of the history of such events; how the children are placed is most important.

Members on both sides of the Committee share the view that more training and more resourcing is needed for social work, but no social worker, however well trained, can make a perfect assessment. However, contributing towards it are certain hooks on which we hang our coats, one of which is the massive difference between the outcomes for children in birth families whose parents marry, even though they may not necessarily have started in a married relationship—we do not have a body of evidence on adoption yet—and for their comparable peers whose parents do not go on to get married.

I cite two statistics. The first is the study based on official statistics in 1997, which looked at the outcomes of a proportion of children born in 1987 whose parents stayed together. The proportion who were still married at that 10-year point—there is a small element who were married but separated which unfortunately the study was not able to pick out—was 81 per cent. About two-fifths of unmarried parents in that same 1987 cohort subsequently got married, so they are taken out of the picture, but of the remaining three-fifths who did not get married, 85 per cent. had parted by the 10-year point.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Llafur, Gorllewin Caerdydd

Should not the hon. Gentleman clarify what he is saying about married and unmarried couples? Does he think it is logical that the law should permit an unmarried person with a partner to adopt a child on their own and for the partner to be able to apply successfully for a residence order when an unmarried couple cannot adopt a child together? If his objection is to unmarried partners adopting children, the logic of his position is that that should be outlawed.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

I shall come back to that in a moment, but the short answer is no—the law is correct. I have been passed the record, so let me correct the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) and read out what the hon. Member for Don Valley said. The devil's advocate point came further on in the text on a related issue:

``On the marriage and on the sexuality issue, when we are told that for people who want to have children—often because they cannot have children of their own—it is something that is very important to them, why then would they not see—not necessarily in church but under the law—defining their relationship in terms of a more public, legal contract as being a precursor to actually adopting a child?''

That is the heart of the argument—

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Llafur, Chatham and Aylesford 4:30, 29 Tachwedd 2001

The heart of the argument is evidence, but the hon. Gentleman's evidence is not based on like for like. That is the problem. My hon. Friend the hon. Member for Don Valley may have said that, but there is no evidence to back it up. She was responding to a question rather than making a statement of belief.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

I am not going to pursue that further. We can all examine the record later. My understanding is that the hon. Member for Don Valley took the same view as the hon. Member for Stockport. I should like to finish my main argument and give the Minister plenty of time to reply, as strong views have been expressed on the subject.

There is a massive disparity in steadiness between a typical unmarried relationship and a married one. Various studies demonstrate that. Norman Dennis, a professor of sociology from Newcastle and a life-long supporter of the Labour party, put the first set of studies together. He studied evidence relating to performance in class, likelihood of falling into trouble with the law and capacity to hold down a job. In every case, he found that—when the economic issues were removed—children from married homes did considerably better. In assessing two people who present themselves as a couple, it is reasonable to take certain factors into account as well as those that can be prima facie examined.

The hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) rightly asked why a single person in an unmarried relationship should be allowed to adopt when an unmarried couple cannot. About 95 per cent. of all adoptions in this country are by married couples. In exceptional circumstances—and I suspect that the lady from Adoption Forum touched on them—a household with a couple living together might be the best, perhaps the only, option. However, why should they both become adopters?

The most common argument is that, otherwise, the child might not feel that he or she properly belongs to both. The best way to put that right is for the couple living together to get married, which is possible in most cases. To make hard law on the basis of the few cases where that is not possible is entirely wrong. The evidence that children have the best chance of stability in a married relationship is so overwhelming that we should stay with that. It is the international legal position. We signed up to a treaty in the 1970s that affirms it. We should stand by our treaty obligations because they affirm the best interests of the child.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Ceidwadwyr, North Dorset

What has emerged from the debate is the fact that all of us on both sides of the argument are concerned about putting the primary interests and welfare of the child foremost. We must take into account the fact that this is a judgment that society is making on what is the most suitable environment for nurturing children who have been put into the care of local authority or put forward for adoption. Such children will not be in adoptive households by an accident of birth; they will be there because we have placed them there in their best interests.

I am very concerned about some of the implications of the amendments. Although I am not opposed to the basic thrust of hon. Members' comments, the consequences of some of the amendments concern me. Many hundreds of thousands of men and women living together across the country are not married but in stable family relationships. What concerns me most is that the amendments would enshrine the right of gay men to adopt. That may concern other members of the Committee.

I have no problem with adult homosexual men living together; I have many friends who live in such relationships. However, I do not believe that that is suitable to bring up a young child. This is not a homophobic response; consenting adults can do what they wish in private. We are concerned with the welfare of the child.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Romsey

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is going to elaborate on why he thinks that gay men are unacceptable, whereas gay women—whom he has not mentioned—might be acceptable. What is the difference as far as he is concerned?

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Ceidwadwyr, North Dorset

The difference is that I am concerned, on child welfare grounds, about putting a child into a relationship of that nature. In terms of a family relationship, it would be totally alien, particularly to a young child. I was about to say that I have been consistent on this matter and that it was on such a basis that I voted against lowering the age of consent. I do not believe that we should be putting children at risk.

If I may, I should like to turn to the most important part of the matter. I have sympathy with the principal provision envisaged, which is to acknowledge that unmarried couples are already recognised in a vast array of legal arrangements, whether it be mortgages, tenancies, or whatever else. I could not support the amendments if they opened the way to homosexual couples adopting. I do not think that in law we can discriminate between male and female homosexual relationships, so if they are to be eligible to adopt, single-parent adoptions will have to be the only avenue to pursue. If the Minister were minded to think along the same lines, I would suggest that there is a formula that we could adopt.

There are six amendments in the group. I might be minded to support two, but not the other four because they remove the term ``spouse''. I should be interested in the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department intervening on me, as I have done a little research into this subject. I am grateful to the Library for providing me with much of my information about the legal definition of ``spouse''.

The first definition comes from ``Butterworth's'', which states that a spouse is a person who is married. However, if we look into statute law and a number of judgments in the House of Lords, we find that ``spouse'' covers both married and unmarried couples. A judgment in the House of Lords based on the Rent Act 1977, which was amended by schedule 4 of the Housing Act 1988, drew the distinction between a spouse in a male and female relationship, and a single sex relationship. That judgment, Fitzpatrick v. the Sterling Housing Association, said:

``The 1998 amendment extended the meaning to include as a `spouse' a person living with the original tenant''—

obviously this related to property law—

`` `as his or her wife or husband'. This was obviously intended to include persons not legally husband and wife who lived as such without being married. That prima facie means a man and a woman, and the man must show that the woman was living with him as `his' wife; the woman that he was living with her as `her' husband. I do not think that Parliament as recently as 1988 intended that these words should be read as meaning `my same-sex partner' rather than specifically `my husband' or `my wife'.''

If the Minister were minded to keep references to spouse, rather than accepting the amendments, it would give us the opportunity to explore the question of unmarried couples—men and women living together in a stable family relationship. I have the greatest respect for the points that were made by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier). He and I are supporters of the institution of marriage. We are both married.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Ceidwadwyr, North Dorset

No, I intended no disrespect to our respective wives.

We have to accept the world as it is. There are hundreds and thousands of men and women across the country who are living together in stable family relationships. We would do a disservice to children if we ignored that fact.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

The clause provides that both single people and married couples can apply to adopt. Applications by married couples are subject to the age restriction in clause 48; applications by single people by the conditions in clause 49. Clause 47(2) provides that at least one of the applicants must be domiciled in the British Isles, and follows the 1976 Act. Alternatively, subsection (3) states that the applicant or both members of a married couple must

``have been habitually resident in a part of the British Islands for a period of not less than one year ending with the date of the application''.

The clause also provides that an application for adoption cannot be made unless the person to be adopted is under 18 at the date of the application.

The major debate concerning the amendments and the clause has been around the current legal position and the changes proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford in his amendments on the status of people who can adopt. Clause 47 does not change the legal conditions under which single people may adopt—regardless of sexual orientation—or change the fact that only married couples may adopt jointly. The hon. Member for Romsey argued that a child who had suffered sexual abuse might be best placed with a single woman. That is already possible, both under current legislation and in the Bill. I understand the circumstances in which she was suggesting that that might be appropriate.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said on Second Reading:

``Although we would not have introduced the legislation unless we believed that these were broadly the right proposals—that must be the case—we want to commit the Bill to a Special Standing Committee precisely so that we can invite views from outside the House.''—[Official Report, 29 October 2001; Vol. 373, c. 654.]

We have had a very useful and wide-ranging debate, both today and during the evidence hearings. Several witnesses and hon. Members have suggested that, where the relationship was stable and it was in the child's interests, an unmarried couple should be allowed to adopt jointly. That is clearly what has prompted my hon. Friend's amendments. The Government believe that, when considering joint adoption, what is important is stability and security for the child. I think that there is recognition across the Committee that that is crucial.

The adoption law review, when considering this issue, concluded that joint adoption should remain limited to married couples on the grounds that adoption by a married couple was more likely to provide the stability and security that the child needed because married couples have made a joint, publicly recognised, legal commitment to each other. In addition, marriage provides for mutual legal and financial obligations, and importantly in the event of divorce, the couple must be prepared to have plans for the future of their children scrutinised by the courts. There is no provision in law to protect the child's interests when unmarried couples separate.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence) 4:45, 29 Tachwedd 2001

In circumstances where the child has been adopted by a person who co-habits with a person who is not subject to the order, the adoptive parent dies and shortly after the co-habitee dies, the child, who is outside the intestacy rules, would lose out utterly on any inheritance. That has to be a case for the application of human rights legislation. Will the Minister please take advice on that?

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

If the hon. Gentleman wants me to, I will, although the natural parent of the child could have made provision through a will or there could be provisions for the appointment of a guardian. I am not quite sure why the hon. Gentleman suggests that that problem would relate particularly to an unmarried couple.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

In the case to which I have referred, both have not made a will—many people do not bother—so they are both intestate. The adoptive parent dies and shortly after, the parent without the adoption order dies. The child would be without any form of inheritance.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

The hon. Gentleman is clearly concerned about that point, and I shall write to him about it.

The safeguards that I outlined have led the Government to believe that the security and stability that is needed for joint adoption is more likely to be provided by a suitably assessed married couple. However, as hon. Members will know—this point was made well by my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman)—a wider debate is under way about providing for the formalisation of the mutual obligations, rights and responsibilities for unmarried partners who do not wish to or cannot get married.

Indeed, the private Member's Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) on that point was debated last Friday, and in response to her parliamentary question, my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Cabinet Office confirmed yesterday that the Government would examine thoroughly the many and complex issues of partnership registration. However, she said that it was premature to commit to any changes until a comprehensive analysis of the issues and their implications had been completed. I can confirm today that the exercise will include giving careful and detailed consideration to joint adoption by unmarried couples in the context of formal partnership registration. The evidence submitted to and heard by the Committee will be considerably helpful for that.

We believe that it is better to consider adoption by unmarried couples in the wider context of partnership registration than in isolation. That point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash. A registered partnership could provide the secure mutual obligations about which we are all concerned, and it is worth noting that the Netherlands—the leading example of a European country that has introduced the right for unmarried partners to adopt jointly—has done so with a partnership registration scheme. Some countries that have partnership registration schemes do not allow joint adoption by unmarried couples.

Adoption by unmarried couples would raise several complex legal questions about, for example, the legal definition and treatment of an unmarried couple. There is no standard definition of an unmarried couple who are living together in the same way as a married couple. Examples in primary legislation are not consistent. For example, the term ``co-habitee'' is generally used to refer to two people of the opposite sex who reside together as husband and wife. Section 62(1) of the Family Law Act 1996 defines ``cohabitants'' as

``a man and wife who, although not married to each other are living together as husband and wife''.

An unmarried couple in the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992 is defined as a man and woman who are not married but live together as husband and wife otherwise than in prescribed circumstances. There is no generally accepted legal definition of a same sex unmarried couple. To enable unmarried couples to adopt jointly, we would have to create a definition of an unmarried couple in the Bill. Given the current wider consideration, it would not be right to set a precedent in the Bill without the necessary consultation and thorough consideration. I hope that hon. Members will agree.

Hon. Members raised rightly the situation that pertains when a single person who has adopted a child co-habits and the partner gains, for example, a resident order. Hon. Members have used that as a reason to make the situation more straightforward. In that circumstance, although it may be possible through legislation to establish a legal relationship between each of the unmarried partners and the child, there would still be no legal relationship or mutual obligation between the two partners. That could lead to difficulties, which we must consider in detail. It would be difficult and inappropriate to deal with the other complex issues involved, such as nationality or inheritance—the treatment of adopted children of unmarried couples compared with the treatment of natural children—in isolation from the wider debate that I referred to.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

The Minister said that there are many complicated issues. Will she clarify the time frame for the review that she refers to? Is it about to start, or is it part of a long-term plan?

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

It is not for me to set time frames for my ministerial colleagues. As I pointed out to the hon. Gentleman, Cabinet Office colleagues announced the review yesterday in a response to a parliamentary question. It is for them to determine the time frame for the consultation. The important point is that the exercise will include careful and detailed consideration of adoption by unmarried couples. It would be difficult and inappropriate to pre-empt the conclusions of the review.

For those reasons, and given my assurances about the seriousness with which the Government take the issues raised in evidence last week and by my hon. Friend's today, I hope that my hon. Friend will withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Llafur, Chatham and Aylesford

This has been a good and constructive debate on one of the few issues about which there are clear divisions among hon. Members. I am grateful that my hon. Friend the Minister indicated that it will be an important component of the review that is to take place. She said that several complex legal issues would arise if we accepted the amendments. I am not in a position today to examine or comment on them as I would wish, but I hope that I will be able to meet her to discuss some of them in more detail between now and the Bill returning to the Floor of the House on Report.

Jacqui Smith indicated assent.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Llafur, Chatham and Aylesford

I am reassured by the Minister nodding. I am pleased that the Government are not set against unmarried couples adopting children. Couples choose not to marry for a variety of reasons, including beliefs or circumstances that prevent them from doing so. However, if the adoption is appropriate for the child, it should go ahead, regardless of the reason why the couple have not married.

I am grateful for the contributions of my hon. Friends. I respect the position of the hon. Member for Canterbury, although I disagree with him fundamentally. If his assertion that my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport believes that unmarried couples should not adopt proves to be true, I will purchase a bottle of House of Commons champagne for him to give to a charity of his choice; I am clear about my hon. Friend's position. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment, but I want to return to the matter at a future stage.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 47 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 48 ordered to stand part of the Bill.