My Lords, we have held an extensive formal consultation, and the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government have listened to strongly held views from all sides on adoption agencies and the new sexual orientation regulations. The Prime Minister said on Monday that,
“there is no place in our society for discrimination … And … there can be no exemptions for faith-based adoption agencies offering publicly-funded services from regulations which prevent discrimination”.
In the interests of vulnerable children, the regulations will, however, include a transition period which will give adoption agencies time to adapt their methods of operation.
My Lords, while thanking the noble Baroness for that Answer, I confess that I find the decision by the Prime Minister very odd. Was not the Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, clearly wrong in saying that this decision was the right outcome for it puts the interest of children first? Is not the case, in fact, that the interest of same-sex couples—for whom I have every respect—has been put first? One has to expect and understand that there is much more chance of an adoption working if the child goes to a family where there is a male and female parent, a possible mother and father. Would it not make much more sense to leave things as they are and allow any adoption agency that does not process applications from same-sex couples to refer them to an agency that does? Is that not what happens and will happen in Scotland?
My Lords, when this House debated the adoption Bill in 2002, it was on the knowledge and presumption that children need loving, stable family homes, which includes gay and lesbian couples. As the Prime Minister has said, the arrangement made this week is very much in the interests of the children, who have been paramount in the continuing, complex discussions. It would not have been in the interests of any child for any agency to close. We know how well the Catholic Church cares for children. We are confident that the agencies will want to engage constructively with us to secure in the transition processes being set up the interests of those most vulnerable children. We have the assurance of Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor that he is more than prepared to work constructively with us on that, which will secure the interests of those children and the widest pool of adopters for children under the rule of law.
My Lords, can the Minister reassure me that we will stick solidly by the principle of the best needs of the child? I have known for a fact for many decades, never mind years, that children have been placed with gay couples, very often where the child, for whatever reason, has a good relationship with that couple. I would be very alarmed by the recent debate if I was led to believe that church agencies or any other agencies had over-ruled that on grounds of individual conscience about sexuality and sexual orientation which over-rode the principle of the needs of the child. That is the first cause, which over-rides individual conscience. A gay relationship can in many respects be far better than unstable heterosexual relationships. It depends on the needs of the child and the quality of the relationship. That is what should guide us. Does the Minister agree?
Yes, my Lords. Again, I turn to the Prime Minister’s statement, which says that,
“this is a package which has the interests of children, and particularly the most vulnerable, at its heart”.
The assessment process for placing children for adoption is extremely rigorous and thorough and the judgment is based on the suitability of the adoptive parents to provide a loving and stable home for the child, no matter what their domestic arrangements and circumstances.
My Lords, Members on these Benches welcome the Prime Minister’s statement. Does the Minister recall that when the Human Rights Act was passed, instead of giving church organisations the blanket immunity which they sought, it instead provides that the courts have to pay particular regard to the right to freedom of conscience and religion as exercised by a religious organisation,
“itself, or by its members collectively”?
Does the Minister agree that the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006, which we recently approved, balance fairly the duty of public authorities such as publicly funded Catholic adoption agencies not to practise sexual orientation discrimination in providing their public services with freedom of conscience and religion? Perhaps I may also ask—slightly cheekily, but not entirely so—whether, when senior clerics accuse Ministers and other politicians of arrogance, they could be asked,
“Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own?”.
My Lords, I do not think I can contest anything the noble Lord has said on the basis of either experience or judgment. The debate on this issue has been extremely important, and I note that the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury has asked for a wider debate; that is perfectly reasonable. Our debate has not diminished the place of religious conviction in our society at all, but it has upheld the rule of law.
My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that when eminent churchmen such as Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor and the most reverend Primate speak out, they have a perfect right to do so and they should be listened to with respect? Further, is she aware that throughout the tangled web of English family law there is one golden thread always to be seen, and that is that the interests of the child must be paramount? Can she assure the House that that has been, is and will be the policy of the Government?
My Lords, I can certainly give that assurance, and I quote the Cardinal himself in recognising that this is exactly what the Government intend to do:
“We note and welcome … the Government’s expressed desire that the experience and excellent work of our agencies is not lost, especially for the benefit of needy children”.
The paramount importance of the needs of the child is written throughout our legislation and is observed in our action in government. This is certainly the latest expression of it.
My Lords, surely the principle of non-discrimination is important, but not absolute. With some good will, does she agree that there must be a way through this problem without the two-year deferment mentioned by my noble friend—by, for example, setting up a close twinning arrangement between the Roman Catholic agencies and other agencies which are prepared to follow the legislation? I speak not as a Roman Catholic, but as a Welsh nonconformist.
My Lords, I understand the background of my noble friend. What has been agreed with the Catholic Church is that a process should be set up for the two-year transition period. An independent team has been appointed by the Prime Minister and will report directly to him. As he has said, no one wants to lose these excellent adoption services that help some of our most vulnerable children. The independent assessment team will look at all the practicalities of the transition period to ensure that the needs of these children and their adoptive parents within the process are secured during the transition period, and that they will continue to be met afterwards. That will include the requirement for any faith-based adoption agency that wishes to take advantage of the transitional arrangements to refer gay, lesbian and bisexual couples to agencies which are able to assist. Further, the independent panel will look at issues such as funding and partnerships as well.