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3.46 pm

Mr. Shaun Woodward (Witney): I oppose the Bill as a director of Childline, although I do not speak for Childline. I do so after much consideration, particularly, as my hon. Friends will know, since I take a very strict view that there should be an equal age of consent. I have voted for that in the House, but the Bill also relates to children in primary schools. We have to be careful to distinguish the fact that we are talking specifically about children, not young people.

There is an innocence to childhood that needs to be preserved and maintained. Beginning sex education--not relationship education--at key stage 1 goes a stage too far. Children should be taught about relationships from the beginning of their time in school--loving relationships, family relationships, relationships between friends--but sex education is not appropriate for a small child.

The present system seems about right. The Bill poses a number of questions. I do not for one moment question the integrity of the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) in introducing the Bill, but I worry about the consequences should it become law. It raises the question: what should the teachers teach? What should the content of such lessons be; and, indeed, who should teach it? What is "adequate"? Adequate for some parents may not be adequate at all for others. One culture may require one sort of teaching and another may require another. Again, we are talking about children of a very tender and vulnerable age.

I have another fear, which has arisen far too often in my work with Childline. When it is done wrongly--of course, one would hope that it would be done only correctly--such education can create peer pressure of its

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own: peer pressure on children in the later years of primary school to enter into relationships with which they are ill prepared to cope. Such issues are, of course, difficult. It is right that the House should debate them, but difficult issues require judgments.

I worry about producing a situation where instructions from the centre go out to a huge range of primary schools. It will be arbitrary. All sorts of children and cultures are found in those schools. I ask myself: with children who are so young and sensitive, is that best handled by teachers?

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon cited the case of Childline. As a director, I have absolute knowledge of the cases that he cited about teenage pregnancies. We should all be worried about teenage pregnancies; they are a serious problem. In 1997-98, Childline took more than 7,000 calls on the subject. It was the fifth most common subject of calls from girls to Childline. We know that children as young as 12 are having sexual relationships, often unplanned and often secret. Pregnancy was the most common reason for calls from 14 and 15-year-old girls, but we have to remember that I am talking about teenage pregnancy, not primary school children's pregnancy.

Again, my worry is that we are tending to bring the age barrier down. It is different from the age of consent, where we are dealing with people who are of an appropriate age to enter into a relationship. Here we are dealing with something with which these young children are not equipped to deal.

Sex education is important, and sex is a complicated matter. Sex is tied up, as it should be, with relationships. It is simply inappropriate for primary school children to be sexually courageous. Such behaviour is not brave, but inappropriate.

Childline's work on the issue has highlighted the importance of teaching young children about relationships. Age-appropriate education should begin in primary school and continue as a child progresses through secondary school. However, there is a firm distinction between what children at primary school should be taught about relationships, and sex education--which should, quite rightly, be taught to children in secondary schools.

Secondary school programmes should be wide ranging, and discuss the problems and loving relationship that one may have in a sexual relationship with someone else. They should discuss the emotional aspects of relationships, and arm children with the means of resisting peer pressure. Secondary school programmes should advise children and young people on how and when to use contraception, and the responsibilities and implications of becoming a parent. However, such education should be for those who have reached the appropriate physical stage--which will, of course, vary from one individual to another. Moreover, Childline's figures on teenage pregnancies deal only with teenagers and not with primary school children.

I believe that the primary school environment is, crucially, about allowing children to emerge from innocence into their teenage years. However, I am also all for ensuring that the questions of lively young minds are answered. Sadly--it is sad only because of the accompanying loss of innocence--the days of telling 12 year-olds about the stork and all those other things are gone; but the change is also good, as effective sex

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education will make for a healthier society. Nevertheless, a healthier society is not necessarily one in which our six and seven-year-olds are taught matters that may not yet be appropriate for them.

Children need to develop socially, but providing sex education at pre-school would be to go a step too far. I do not want to turn back the clocks--there never were "better days" in dealing with the issue--but believe that we should think about how our children should be taught in the future.

Children need a loving and caring environment, and parents must play a huge role in properly educating their children--which includes educating them about sex. I should prefer to teach my primary school-aged children about sex myself than to have a schoolteacher do it. However, not all parents will be able to provide that education to their children. In those cases, schools have an important role to play, and I believe that the Government's current system is about right.

The issue is as much about children's innocence as anything else. Although children have a right to sex education at the appropriate time, they also have a right to innocence. We would be surrendering that right all too easily if we supported the Bill, and that is why I oppose it.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public busines):--

The House divided: Ayes 89, Noes 47.

Division No. 161
[3.53 pm


AYES


Allan, Richard
Austin, John
Ballard, Jackie
Barron, Kevin
Beith, Rt Hon A J
Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Bennett, Andrew F
Berry, Roger
Best, Harold
Blackman, Liz
Blizzard, Bob
Borrow, David
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin)
Bradshaw, Ben
Brake, Tom
Cable, Dr Vincent
Campbell-Savours, Dale
Casale, Roger
Clapham, Michael
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)
Clwyd, Ann
Coleman, Iain
Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Corbyn, Jeremy
Crausby, David
Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley)
Cryer, John (Hornchurch)
Davey, Edward (Kingston)
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H)
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)
Efford, Clive
Fitzpatrick, Jim
Flynn, Paul
Follett, Barbara
Fyfe, Maria
Gardiner, Barry
Gibson, Dr Ian
Godsiff, Roger
Gordon, Mrs Eileen
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)
Gunnell, John
Harris, Dr Evan
Hinchliffe, David
Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)
Jones, Ms Jenny
(Wolverh'ton SW)
Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)
Keetch, Paul
King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)
Laxton, Bob
Lepper, David
Levitt, Tom
Livingstone, Ken
McCafferty, Ms Chris
McDonnell, John
Mactaggart, Fiona
McWalter, Tony
Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)
Maxton, John
Mitchell, Austin
Moffatt, Laura
Moran, Ms Margaret
Mountford, Kali
Mullin, Chris
Organ, Mrs Diana
Palmer, Dr Nick
Pickthall, Colin
Plaskitt, James
Pond, Chris
Pound, Stephen
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Rapson, Syd
Ruane, Chris
Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Sawford, Phil
Sedgemore, Brian
Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)
Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Vis, Dr Rudi
Watts, David
Whitehead, Dr Alan
Williams, Rt Hon Alan
(Swansea W)
Willis, Phil
Winnick, David
Wise, Audrey
Wood, Mike
Wyatt, Derek

Tellers for the Ayes:


Dr. Howard Stoate and
Dr. Jenny Tonge.


NOES


Amess, David
Bercow, John
Blunt, Crispin
Boswell, Tim
Brazier, Julian
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter
Chapman, Sir Sydney
(Chipping Barnet)
Clark, Rt Hon Alan (Kensington)
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth
(Rushcliffe)
Collins, Tim
Colvin, Michael
Cran, James
Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)
Davies, Quentin (Grantham)
Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice & Howden)
Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen
Drew, David
Duncan Smith, Iain
Fearn, Ronnie
Forth, Rt Hon Eric
Fraser, Christopher
Garnier, Edward
Gray, James
Hammond, Philip
Hayes, John
Heald, Oliver
Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)
Jackson, Robert (Wantage)
Leigh, Edward
Lidington, David
MacGregor, Rt Hon John
McLoughlin, Patrick
McNulty, Tony
Madel, Sir David
Ottaway, Richard
Randall, John
Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)
Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)
Swayne, Desmond
Syms, Robert
Walter, Robert
Waterson, Nigel
Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Wilkinson, John
Woodward, Shaun
Young, Rt Hon Sir George

Tellers for the Noes:


Mr. Andrew Robathan and
Mr. Peter Luff.

Question accordingly agreed to.

4 May 1999 : Column 710

Bill ordered to be brought in by Dr. Evan Harris, Dr. Jenny Tonge, Jackie Ballard, Dr. Lynne Jones, Dr. Peter Brand, Dr. Vincent Cable, Dr. Howard Stoate, Dr. Ian Gibson, Audrey Wise, Mrs. Diana Organ and Mrs. Teresa Gorman.


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