Unmarried couples win right to adopt

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The Independent Online

Unmarried couples are to gain unprecedented rights to adopt under changes to the law to be endorsed by ministers next month.

The Department of Health is preparing to remove its long-standing opposition to allowing unwed couples to adopt children living in care, as part of its drive to ensure that more find permanent families.

An all-party amendment to the Adoption and Children Bill, to be tabled when it returns to the House of Commons, will not be opposed by the Government, The Independent has learnt. The amendment will allow couples who have not married to legally adopt, if the authorities are satisfied they are in a permanent and stable relationship.

MPs acknowledge the amendment, if taken in its broadest meaning, would also confer the same rights on gay couples. But a subsidiary amendment, being prepared by Tory backbenchers, will seek to restrict the definition to a man and a woman.

Many Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs are expected to back the extension to same-sex couples, but any move to do sowill not receive the same degree of ministerial backing.

Christian groups and traditionalists will fiercely resist any change in the law. They will argue it undermines the institution of marriage. But privately ministers say the ban on unmarried couples is preventing thousands of potential parents adopting children in care. There are about 60,000 children in care, but only 3,000 a year are adopted.

Under the current law only married couples or single people are allowed legally to adopt. Partners of unmarried people who have successfully adopted do not have full parental rights, leaving the child potentially vulnerable in the event of its adoptive parent's death or the couple splitting up.

The amendment now being prepared will make it necessary to have long-term provision in place for the adopted child if one of the couple leaves.

Only people aged over 21 who can demonstrate they have a long-term commitment and are living in a stable relationship will be permitted to adopt under the reforms.

Senior government sources told The Independent last night that ministers would not oppose the amendment to the Adoption Bill. "It will not be our initiative, but we are sympathetic. We are expecting this and are not going to stand in its way," said a source at the Department of Health.

The Government is expected to allow MPs to have a free vote. But ministers will send a strong signal to Labour MPs that they would be happy about the change.

David Hinchliffe, the Labour chairman of the Commons Health Select Committee, is expected to put his name to the amendment, which will enlist the backing of a majority of Labour MPs.

The senior Tory MP Andrew Lansley, who is one of the sponsors of the amendment, said it was designed to open up opportunities for couples and to help find homes for children in care, particularly those from ethnic minorities.

"The cross-party amendment is intended to extend the law to unmarried couples," he said. "Notwithstanding that marriage is the best circumstance to bring up a child, modern society understands that many unmarried couples are able to provide stable and loving homes for children.

"I will be putting a further amendment, which will define unmarried couples as a man and a woman living together in a stable relationship."

In the committee stage of the Bill, several Labour MPs argued its failure to give rights to unmarried couples made it look out of date and did not serve the interests of children.

The move to give unwed partners equal rights to adopt is likely to be opposed by David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, who is a strong advocate of protecting married life.

The Bill is designed to make it quicker and easier to adopt and represents the biggest change in adoption law for 25 years. It leaves local authorities to decide who can adopt but establishes a national standard, which will prevent certain people from being discriminated against.

Adoption groups gave a cautious backing to the moves to give unmarried couples new rights.

Liv O'Hanlon, director of the Adoption Forum, said: "We need to go down this route in the interest of finding more good homes for children but we must also ensure that we can guarantee stability."