Unmarried couples to win adoption rights

GAY couples will be able to foster children for the first time and unmarried couples, including same-sex couples, will be able to adopt in a planned upheaval of children's services in Scotland.

The Adoption Bill, published yesterday, has been drawn up in response to a falling number of places for vulnerable children.

The legislation, which has yet to go through parliament, proposes to fill the shortfall by allowing more groups to adopt. There are also measures to make adoption easier and better to protect all the parties involved.

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Campaigners welcomed the opportunity to create families of "all shapes and sizes".

However, the Catholic Church described the move as a "social experiment" that was not in the best interests of children.

Adoptions have gone from 1,000 a year 20 years ago to about 400 a year now. Peter Peacock, the education minister, said: "At a time when the number of adoptions is falling and the number of children living in seriously chaotic households is rising, we have to secure more opportunities for youngsters to enjoy family stability which can make all the difference."

Currently, only one partner in an unmarried couple can adopt, but the new legislation will allow heterosexual and homosexual couples to adopt together - whether they are married or in a civil partnership or not.

Mr Peacock insisted the selection process will remain tough.

"Only those couples who can demonstrate that they are in an enduring family relationship ... will be successful," he added.

Other measures to encourage more adoptive parents to come forward include making it easier to dispense with parental agreements where the parents cannot be found.

Measures to support the children include providing more contact with natural grandparents and allowing access to medical information about the birth family.

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For children for whom adoption is not an option, new "permanence orders" will provide stability by giving long-term responsibility to foster parents while maintaining links with birth parents. "Our proposals are designed to put the interests of the child first," said Mr Peacock.

Calum Irving, of the gay rights group Stonewall Scotland, said: "The bill rightly recognises that families come in all shapes and sizes and that no type is inherently better than any other."

But Peter Kearney, of the Catholic Church in Scotland, said there was not enough evidence to suggest gay couples will be good parents. "Why are we putting children at the centre of a social experiment?" he asked.

"Opting to put children in inherently unstable situations cannot be in their best interests and there is a wealth of evidence that highlights the relative instability of these relationships, which has not been taken into account."