The Leader of the House of Commons Jack Straw has been called to initiate a debate on the “ramifications” of allowing gay couples to adopt in Northern Ireland.

Mr Straw, setting out the timetable for debates leading up to and after Parliament’s summer recess, was yesterday asked by Democratic Unionist MP for Strangford Iris Robinson, to schedule a gay adoption debate after the break as a matter of “urgency.”

She said: “When the House returns, will the Leader of the House provide Government time, as a matter of urgency, for us to discuss the ramifications of the Government’s decision to allow civil partnership couples in Northern Ireland to apply to adopt children in care, and the serious impact that it will have on the children in particular and on society as a whole?”

Mr Straw replied, “I know that there are strong opinions on all sides. On the basis of my knowledge of the working of the adoption system, at least in Great Britain, I can say that the adoption authorities have the strictest duties-and in any event take the strictest care-not to permit adoptions unless they are satisfied that they are in the interests of the children concerned, and the courts would not do so either.”

Earlier this month, Junior Health Minister at the Northern Ireland Office, Paul Goggins, unveiled a proposed new approach to adoption in Northern Ireland 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.