Same sex couples in Northern Ireland may get adoption rights, under a new law plan by the government to put children’s needs first in the country.

Junior Health Minister at the Northern Ireland Office, Paul Goggins, unveiled the proposed new approach to adoption in Northern Ireland today which will put children’s needs at the heart of the process.

Speaking as he launched the consultation document, Adopting the Future, the Minister said it set out proposals for the changes needed to improve adoption services.

He said: “I want to make adoption work more clearly, consistently and fairly. I want to see more adopters recruited, agencies working better, and courts performing more efficiently. Above all, I want to see vulnerable children safe, in permanent families. I am confident that these reforms to adoption and permanence planning will transform the life chances of hundreds of children.

“The future role of adoption will be one where the needs of the child are placed firmly at the centre of the process, where agencies will make more use of adoption as an option to meet the needs of looked after children, and where children and families can expect the highest standards of professional advice and support.

“Where children cannot live with their birth parents, we have a shared responsibility to make sure they can enjoy the kind of loving family life most of us take for granted. Adoption has a good record in delivering stable, permanent new families for children. Research shows that children who are adopted generally make very good progress through their childhood and into adulthood.”

Key elements of ‘Adopting the Future include pre and post-adoption support, standards and training for agencies to ensure they get the best results for children, introducing timescales to avoid unnecessary delays and extending joint adoption to civil partners and unmarried couples

According to government statistics, approximately 2,500 children are looked after by social services in Northern Ireland at any one time, the number of adoptions in Northern Ireland has fallen significantly from a peak in 1970 of 554 to an average of around 150 per year. 79 children were adopted from care at year-end March 2004. For children adopted during 2003/04 the average duration from care to adoption order was 3years and 10 months.

In November 2002, the Adoption and Children Act passed into law and allowed unmarried couples, including same-sex couples, in England and Wales to apply for joint adoption.