Tony Blair is under new pressure on gay adoptions as cabinet ministers and Labour MPs called for the Roman Catholic Church to be given only months to come to terms with a new anti-discrimination law.
Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, wants a transitional period of six months to allow the church to decide how to respond and possibly transfer the 80 staff employed in its 10 adoption agencies to other agencies. But some professionals working in the adoption service say they need a three-year period to ensure children do not suffer from any changes. Catholic leaders have warned that the agencies may be closed unless the Government exempts them from a law banning discrimination in the provision of goods and services on grounds of sexuality.
A study by officials at the Department for Education and Skills, which is responsible for adoption, has found that only six months would be needed to ensure that children were not harmed by the change. There is currently some over-provision in the adoption service and so the Catholic agencies might not need to be fully replaced. Some might decide to continue despite their leaders' opposition to children being adopted by gay and lesbian couples.
Mr Blair is sympathetic to the church's position and may seek a transitional period longer than six months in an attempt to allay its concerns over the Cabinet's decision to reject its demand for an opt-out from the Equality Act.
One option is a one-year transitional period. But Mr Blair could have trouble winning support for that from many Labour MPs, who do not want the period to exceed nine months. A final decision is expected next week.
Downing Street denied that the Prime Minister had been defeated by his own Cabinet. Mr Blair inisted he supported gay adoptions and was trying to broker a compromise which retained the expertise of the Catholic Church on adoption.
He said: "I have always personally been in favour of the right of gay couples to adopt. Our priority will always be the welfare of the child. That is why the Adoption Act in 2004 sought to extend the field of potential adoptive parents to include unmarried and gay couples."
Mr Johnson said the Catholic position was a "minority view". He told BBC Radio 4: "The case for no exemption has been made very eloquently. The strength of that argument suggests that we cannot introduce legislation to protect gays and lesbians against discrimination and at the same time allow that discrimination to continue."
John Reid, the Home Secretary, who is a Catholic, said the principles of equality in the new law must not be undermined. "If you bring in a law that says all people will be treated equally, all people will be treated equally," he said. "I don't think people have a right to overrule fundamental principles on which the country is based because of their conscientious values."
The Muslim Council of Britain backed the stand taken by the Catholic Church and said the argument that there could be no exemption to the regulations is "absurd and inconsistent with domestic as well as international legal precedents."Reuse content