POLITICS

Published: 24/10/2002, Volume II2, No. 5828 Page 23

What do you mean, did Alan Milburn nearly hit Keith Hellawell, the drugs czar? Of course he didn't; how could you possibly imagine such a thing? All right, then, you can imagine it. So can I. But he didn't, despite the excited 'Minister Squared Up For Fight' headline in the Mail on Sunday when it launched Mr Hellawell's memoirs.

'Complete drivel' says my man at the ringside, who admits the pair did have their disagreements, but also points out that the ex-czar is both taller and larger than the Darlington Demon. An even more convincing detail is that the MoS's sister paper, the Daily Mail, ignored the tale the next day.

So the Milburn vs Gordon Brown foundation hospital battle remains the season's most significant up to now. In search of further fisticuffs I turned first to reports that the Department of Health is considering paying family members to donate organs, but that turns out to be a nonstarter, too. Think for a moment: it would be neither ethical nor sensible.

The real looming fight is the firefighters' strike, a test of nerve both for ministers who fear a generous settlement would spread throughout the public sector - starting with the NHS's 'angels' - and for the unions, which hope it would.

Hence the threats of rail unions and even Unison to refuse dangerous tasks without proper fire cover. The danger of a hospital fire is real (an accident and emergency department burned down recently in MP Tom Watson's West Bromwich East constituency), but the strike's threat to the NHS is on the road. Put simply, if firefighting experts are not there to cut victims out of car crashes quickly they will arrive at A&E in much worse shape. Road traffic accidents are where the firefighters make the big difference to the NHS, officials concede. It remains too early to see how that fight develops, but it is potentially very damaging to Labour.

My attention has also been drawn to a fight already underway: the House of Lords' refusal to endorse the Commons vote to widen the adoption pool by letting unmarried couples, straight or gay, become eligible.

This arises from an amendment to a Milburn-sponsored measure, the Adoption and Children Bill, which has been the subject of outraged comment on both sides before and since last week's 196 to 162 vote. What has angered Labour MPs and sympathetic commentators is that the whipped Tory vote comes days after Iain Duncan Smith's big modernisation speech in Bournemouth. 'We must understand the way life is lived in Britain today, not 20 years ago, the Tory leader said.

Shadow work and pensions spokesman David Willetts promised that 'the Tory war on single parents is over'. Just as well, you may feel, since 40 per cent of British children are now born out of wedlock - a mystery to our EU cousins - compared with 30 per cent in 1990.

But what is going on now? Some of my Tory friends say they are not making moral judgements, but rest their belief - that the child's welfare must be paramount - on the relative instability of unmarried cohabitation.

Some 83 per cent of cohabitations break up within 10 years, 52 per cent within a year of the birth of a first child, said Earl Howe in the Lords. Lady O'Cathain, who took up the late Baroness Young's cause as a deathbed promise, reported lower language skills among the adopted children of gay couples and greater domestic violence among unmarried straights.

Some of these statistical points are true enough, but they miss the larger point which motivates Mr Milburn, himself partnered, and Tony Blair, himself the son of an adopted father. Cohabiting single people, straight or gay, can already adopt, but adoption is not a right. Applicants are severely vetted and the new law will also curb past nonsense about them being too posh, too white, too Christian, too poor.

Surely what matters most is that children left in institutions, even well-run ones, lack the attention and the love that customised care gives them: without it prison and suicide loom. I was astonished to read Lord Redesdale's account (as a Mitford he is pretty posh) of how his parents, with seven children of their own, also fostered two badly damaged boys. When the Commons overturns the Lords next week, Lord R will approve.