The Shadow Secretary of State for Health has called for the government to assert the need for a child to have a male role model.

Speaking in the House of Commons during yesterday’s second reading of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, Andrew Lansley said that children conceived through IVF or assisted fertilisation need a father figure.

Earlier the Secretary of State for Health, Alan Johnson, explained to the House that the current legislation:

“insists that clinics must take into account “the need for a father” when considering new applicants for treatment.

“The new Bill will replace this with “the need for supportive parenting.””

Tory and Lib Dem MPs have a free vote on all aspects of the bill, while Labour MPs are whipped. During next week’s committee stage, Labour MPs will get a free vote on the “need for a father.”

Mr Johnson said:

“This does not signal a desire to diminish fatherhood, nor are we denying children who have been conceived through assisted conception access to information about sperm donors.”

“Indeed, the opposite is true. If the current law leads same-sex couples or single women to seek sperm in the unregulated sector, where donors will not be screened or recorded on the HFEA (Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority) register, access to information about the man who donated the sperm will not be available for the child.

“Leaving in the Bill a provision that is challengeable, and could lead to couples feeling that the law has discriminated against them, would be a missed opportunity.

“The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Iain Duncan Smith) and others make the argument, but as there is currently no issue, and the need for a father has never adversely affected any gay or lesbian couple going through the process, why not make the law consistent with the other laws that Parliament has carried, while we have the opportunity of updating the legislation?

“The right hon. Gentleman says that gay couples can go through the process. That is the case, and it is the case for lesbian couples.

“However, those people are treated completely differently. That is the point. We are seeking to make sure that the treatment is the same for gay and lesbian couples as for heterosexual couples.

“Clause 54 will also give same-sex couples who have children through assisted conception the same parenting rights as heterosexual couples.

“The current law recognises the woman who carries the child following assisted conception as that child’s mother. If the woman is married, her husband, unless it is shown that he did not consent to treatment, is recognised as the child’s legal father.

“However, at present, the female civil partner of a woman who gives birth following assisted conception has no legal status. She is not recognised as the parent of the child, and her name would not appear on the birth certificate.”

Mr Lansley responded:

“Same-sex couples and single mothers can be successful parents, but if we enable a child to be born in circumstances in which a natural conception would not be possible, we have an ethical responsibility to ensure that the welfare of the child is fully protected.

“It is in the interests of every child to have a mother and a father, but if no father is present, as is, unhappily, the case for many children today, a male role model should be available.

“For that reason, I, personally, do not regard the substitution of “supportive parenting” for “father” as sufficient.

“The reference to the need for a father, which has not been reflected in the code, should be re-cast in the legislation as “the need for supportive parenting and a father or a male role model.”

The concern of many Tory MPs about the removal of the “need for a father” was reflected by former party leader Iain Duncan Smith, who told the Commons that just two per cent of IVF treatments are to single parents or gay couples.

“By making this change, we send a powerful signal to everyone involved that fathers no longer matter,” he said.

“We know of the difficulties of breakdown when fathers are absent; the guidance—for it is only guidance—is there simply to remind everyone of the necessity and need, where possible.”

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill was given its second reading by 340 votes to 78, a majority of 262.