Health secretary Alan Milburn publicly placed his cards on the
table over his personal support for unmarried couples, including
same sex couples, to be allowed to jointly adopt,
writes Clare Jerrom.
He told MPs they would be given a free vote later this month on
amendments to the Adoption and Children Bill, tabled by David
Hinchliffe, Labour chairperson on the select committee for health,
that would allow unmarried couples to jointly apply for
Milburn said it was important to consider “widening the pool of
adoptive parents so that more vulnerable children, rather than
being stuck in the care system, have the chance of the stable
family life that adoption can bring”.
Unmarried couples would have to prove “they had formed a long
term, stable relationship”, and, he insisted, “it is not about
extending the right to adopt to anybody, but about extending the
right of more children to be adopted”.
Currently single people can adopt and married couples can make a
joint adoption. With unmarried couples, only one person is granted
the legal status of adoptive parent.
“This rules out a significant number of potential applicants to
the detriment of children in care,” Hinchliffe said.
He added that if current trends on marriage continue, only 50
per cent of couples will be married in 2025. If the bill goes
through without amendments, it could restrict the number of
children who will be adopted.
David Berridge, professor of child and family welfare at Luton
university, agreed: “Society is changing, many more people live
together and increasingly children are born outside marriage.”
Berridge added the vote was a sensible way forward, as
legislation needs to catch up with these changes.
Milburn’s announcement has been welcomed by a coalition of 19
agencies, led by BAAF Adoption and Fostering, which wrote to MPs
earlier this year on the issue.
Chief executive of BAAF Felicity Collier said: “We are delighted
that the government recognises the importance of ending unnecessary
restrictions on prospective adopters.”
“We want the public to understand that there are simply not
enough adopters coming forward to provide homes for the very
vulnerable children for whom adoption is the plan.”
BAAF estimates there are 5,000 children waiting for a suitable
adoptive family. During its Adoption Week in 2001, 10 per cent of
enquiries about adoption were from unmarried couples. Currently
between 5 and 7 per cent of adoptions of children are from single
people, with the rest from married couples.
A MORI poll, commissioned by BAAF, found 41 per cent of
cohabiting couples are likely to have considered adopting, compared
with 25 per cent of married couples. The research revealed 82 per
cent of cohabiting couples and 68 per cent of married couples
thought unmarried couples should be eligible to adopt.
Ruth Fasht, director of the National Adoption Register for
England and Wales, said: “As far as the Adoption Register is
concerned we have no way of quantifying how many unmarried couples
will be coming forward. We only receive data from adoption agencies
once people have been approved to adopt.”
But Collier warned there is a shortage of enquiries for children
with disabilities, groups of siblings and black and ethnic minority
children, which emphasises the need for the widest range of
If the bill is extended to unmarried couples, it would be unfair
to exclude gay and lesbian couples as it would be a potential
breach of human rights, although: “This is not an issue about gay
rights, it’s children’s rights,” she said.
Gary Streeter, MP for south-west Devon believes adoption is the
best option for children in care, but is not supportive of same sex
couples adopting. He asked Milburn if children shouldn’t always
have an environment with a mother and father?
But the health secretary confirmed the amendments refer to same
sex and two sex couples. Under current law, it is possible “for
single people, regardless of their sexual orientation, to
Director of the Catholic Children’s Society (Westminster) Jim
Richards agrees that in same sex couples, the child would have two
mothers, or two fathers, “which I argue is confusing”.
Former social worker Jonathan Shaw MP said the changes wouldn’t
mean huge numbers of gay and lesbian couples adopting, but where
the circumstances are right: “Then whether unmarried or gay – the
issue is what’s best for the child.”
But Richards believes only married or single people should
adopt. His evidence to the special standing committee on the bill
says: “All too often co-habitation is seen as being on an equal
footing with marriage. This is clearly not so…”
“With marriage the couple make a life long public commitment to
love and care for each other and their children. This does not
exist in co-habitation which can lead to a one generational
arrangement without the clear kinship links created by
Richards said 70 per cent of children born to married couples
live with them throughout their childhood, whereas only 36 per cent
of children living with cohabiting parents do. The breakdown for
same sex couples was even higher, he added.
“I argue that one of the reasons people aren’t coming forward
for adoption is more likely to do with the recognition that
children in care sometimes have difficulties and they don’t
want to go into it without being supported,” he said.
The high cost of living, particularly in the south-east, means
both parties in a relationship need to work, he added.
Simon Calvert, deputy director of Christian charity, the
Christian Institute, agrees adoption should not be extended:
“Evidence is showing that all family forms are not equally
Calvert refers to research from the British Household Panel
survey which says: “Where children are involved, though, it may be
a mistake to regard cohabitation as a more modern form of joint
parenting, a ‘marriage without a licence’.”
“The BHPS analysis shows that children born to cohabiting
parents are much more likely to see their parents split up, and
much more likely to experience a period in a one parent family than
children born within marriage.”
However Shaw argues such figures lack a credible argument as
prospective adopters have to go through rigorous assessments, that
other couples would not have to.
Hilton Dawson, chairperson of the all party parliamentary group
for children and looked after children, agrees the figures are “too
broad a generalisation”.
“A large part of the process is on stability of relationships,”
But Calvert insists the bill should not change, and blames local
authorities for placing obstacles to adoption: “Local authorities
should be enthusiastic and foster a culture which encourages
married couples to come forward.”
“Children are especially vulnerable, who have been through
enormous traumas. We should not play games with their lives and
should ensure they get the best possible new start.”
“It is morally wrong to play social engineering experiments with
adoptive children,” he concluded.
Milburn’s announcement comes just two months after figures
demonstrated a fall in the number of children in care being
adopted. In the year to the end of September 2001, only 2,890
looked after children were adopted, compared with 3,067 between
April 2000 and March 2001. This was despite a doh public service
agreement with the Treasury to increase the number of adoptions by
40 per cent by 2004/5 from 2,700 in 1999-2000.
The free vote is scheduled for 20 May and Shaw, Dawson,
Hinchliffe, Streeter believe it will be backed in the House of
Commons. But Dawson says, “it might raise concerns” in the House of
Even if the bill is changed, all prospective adopters have to
face tough assessments to ensure they are cut out for the job.
Hinchcliffe, who spent 20 years in social work, said he qualified
the amendments knowing the adoption procedures: “The thorough
monitoring and selection process will ensure only suitable people
If backed, the changes should take away the decision for
unmarried couples of which adult should become the legal adoptive
parent. This can also be odd to explain to a child, according to
June Thoburn, professor of social work at the University of East
The Children Society agrees: “Having two parents responsible is
more secure and gives more opportunity and greater safety for the
A spokesperson said the charity sees changing the bill more as
closing a loophole that doesn’t make sense: “The government is keen
on adoption, and if you are going to have a proper process, you
need to iron out inconsistencies.”
Thoburn spells it out simply: “If you haven’t got enough
adopters, why do anything that could discourage people?”
“There is nothing that says unmarried parents are going to be
less good than married couples,” she concludes.