BY SIMON CALDWELL
AN ATTEMPT to exempt Catholic adoption agencies from gay rights laws failed this week when the leaders of the three main political parties united to deny peers a vote.
An amendment tabled by four senior members of the House of Lords to Harriet Harman’s Equality Bill aimed to overturn a regulation banning the religious adoption agencies from rejecting gay couples and cohabitees as adopters and foster parents.
Led by Baroness Williams of Crosby, the peers claimed their move had the support of the major ity of the House. But the amendment was dropped after the “usual channels” – the leaders of the major parties in the Lords and their whips – ruled that it could not be moved on a technicality.
Acting on the advice of the clerks of the Public Bill Office they argued that the issue had already been twice debated and that it was against the “Companions’ Rules” to debate a subject for a third time during Tuesday’s Third Reading of the Bill – the last chance to amend the legislation.
Baroness Williams, a Catholic, argued strenuously that the issue had not been debated sufficiently. “It is a great shame,” she said. “I feel this was not discussed much at all during the whole of the proceedings. I feel very sad.” She added that she also felt that the abuse scandal convulsing the Church in Ireland and Germany had undermined the support her amendment might have generated.
“What has recently happened in the Church has not been helpful and a number of people who were supportive have not been supportive,” said Baroness Williams. “There is a real knock-on effect from the paedophilia scandal and I wish it wasn’t so. People feel shaken.” The amendment would have allowed “religious adoption and fostering agencies” to practise limited discrimination “if it is necessary to comply with the doctrine of the organisation” or “to avoid conflicting with the strongly held religious convictions of the religion’s followers”.
But it stipulated that such charities would be obliged to refer cohabiting or gay couples to agencies that would cater for them.
Besides Baroness Williams the amendment had the support of retired appeal court judge Baroness Butler-Sloss, the former president of the Family Division of the High Court, and a crossbencher, the Labour peer Lord Brennan, a human rights campaigner, and Lord Waddington, the former Conservative Home Secretary.
Lord Brennan said he was “extremely disappointed” by the decision of the party leaders.
He said: “It is not usual for you to get an amendment supported by senior parliamentarians across four sections of the House ruled out of order. It is very rare.
“It is an example of the fact that Christian-based amendments and contributions to the House have to be very carefully prepared and every eventuality catered for.” The Catholic adoption agencies previously found new homes for about 250 “hard to place” children each year. But the 2007 Sexual Orientation Regulations, which forbid discrimination against gay people in the provision of goods and services, has resulted in the bishops either closing or relinquishing control of all but one of their 11 adoption agencies because they could not reconcile gay adoption with the teaching of the Church that it is “gravely immoral”.
The exception is the Leedsbased Catholic Care agency.
A spokesman for the bishops of England and Wales said it was a “great pity” that peers did not have the chance to vote in the light of the High Court judgment. “It would have provided a further opportunity to raise an important point which goes wider than adoption, namely the freedom of charities to organise themselves in such a way that their activities are consistent with their religious beliefs when clearly providing public services,” he said.
It was revealed in the Lords earlier this month that just one gay couple has approached a Catholic adoption agency in the last three years and was referred elsewhere.