Local Government Bill

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Mr. Davey: I asked the Minister that question on Second Reading and I was not terribly happy with his answer. I am surprised that the Government have not tabled their own amendment and I wish that they had done so. However, as I said earlier, I do not intend to make party political points on the issue because it is too important.

Kali Mountford: My understanding of my party's policy and the Government's position is that it is their clear intention to introduce a Bill in its own right. Seeing an opportunity, as my hon. Friends have, of using the Bill to scrap the the measure at an earlier date, I would prefer to congratulate the Government on taking that opportunity, rather than denigrating them for not waiting to do so.

Mr. Davey: I would rather congratulate the hon. Lady on her initiative than the Government.

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Mr. Lepper: In the light of what my hon. Friend said, does the hon. Gentleman agree with the sentiments that I expressed on Second Reading—that it matters not who introduces the amendment; the important thing is that the iniquitous section 28 is repealed.

Mr. Davey: The hon. Gentleman will know from the tenor and substance of my remarks that I agree with him, but I ask hon. Members on both sides of the Committee not to make these points but to move on.

Mr. Curry: I am anxious to come to the Minister's defence, although he may think that he does not need me to do so. I wonder whether the Government discussed whether to include a proposal to repeal section 28 in this Bill. Discussions about what to include in a Bill can be quite acrid; the Minister may have wanted such a proposal, but other members of the Govt, mindful, perhaps of the Daily Mail, may not, and they won the argument. That is pure, idle speculation.

Mr. Davey: Nothing that the right hon. Gentleman says is idle because he is held in great respect on both sides of the House. Let us get this issue out of the way. I think that the Government did not deal with it in the Bill because they feared that the other place might hold up the legislation. Obviously, there could have been a separate Bill at the same time, but I think that that is probably the judgment that they reached. That is one reason why it is incumbent on those of us who want the provision to be removed from the statute book to talk about the legislation, as I am trying to. We must send a message to the other place that the democratic House wants it off the statute book, and that that is not a partisan point, but one made by hon. Members on both sides of the House. If we make our remarks as I suggest, we will send a very strong signal to the other place that it should stand aside and allow the democratic will of this House to prevail.

The long list of organisations that support the repeal includes ChildLine, Barnardo's, Save the Children, the Commission for Racial Equality, the Equal Opportunities Commission, fpa—which was formerly the Family Planning Association—One Parent Families Scotland, the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities, the Church of Scotland committee on education, Amnesty International, the National Children's Bureau, the Royal College of Nursing, the British Medical Association, the Methodist Church and the British Youth Council. A very long list of people who are specialist in this field want section 28 off the statute book. Let no one be in any doubt: there is huge support for new clause 1.

Finally, and possibly unwisely, I shall comment on new clause 18, which was tabled by some Conservative Members. I understand their difficulties and concerns, but I caution them about going about dealing with those concerns in this way. They seem to want to allow parents to be balloted on this type of issue. That would be a retrograde step. Local ballots of parents on issues such as this would give licence to outrageous campaigns. People would hijack the issue, and people from outside would stir up hatred.

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Mr. Turner: Like in the local government elections in Oldham.

Mr. Davey: The hon. Gentleman is right to talk about Oldham. I am sure that the Government Whip could enlighten us about that if he so chose.

I am simply saying that there are mechanisms to ensure that parents are consulted. Indeed, that is a very important part of the guidance. There are protections through parent governors and local education authority representatives on governing bodies. As we have made clear, there is the fundamental protection that parents can remove their children from lessons. If the Conservative party wants to be seen as tolerant, modernised and facing up to its responsibilities, it should not suggest this type of approach. I hope that the Conservatives will withdraw their proposal.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): Is it not also intellectually inconsistent, when considering a matter of individual sexuality, to suggest that a majority vote in a school should determine what approach should be adopted? Our concern should be for the freedom and protection of the individual, not for a democratic process in this matter.

Mr. Davey: The hon. Gentleman makes a strong point. In a liberal democracy, the need to protect minorities properly sometimes means that protection cannot be achieved through the ballot box and that some things are not appropriate for a vote. We need the protection of such rights in the framework of law and, sometimes, in the framework of the constitution.

In making those remarks on new clause 18, I am not trying to goad certain hon. Members in the slightest. I understand that they have had many problems and that many of them have come an awful long way on this issue. We should celebrate that across parties, because above all we need consensus to take the issue forward and get rid of such discrimination.

The Chairman: Before I call other Members, I remind the Committee that we are also discussing new clauses 18 and 10 and the Government amendments as set out on the amendment paper. The amendments will be taken formally this afternoon, but we have to dispose of the new clauses by 11.25 am, which I am sure that hon. Members will bear in mind in their contributions.

10.30 am

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I was interested to see that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton started in a reasonable manner by saying that the debate would be non-partisan and non-political, before spending five minutes attacking our new clause. I can hardly see how that was a non-partisan way of introducing the debate.

The controversial issue of section 2A has dogged the debate on sex education for some time. The genesis is the Local Government Act 1986, which was then amended by the Local Government Act 1988 to give powers to local authorities. This was then made redundant by the Learning and Skills Act 2000, as the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton said, because section 148 of the 2000 Act, which amends the Education Act 1996 section 351, to add subsection 7, says:

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    ''Except to the extent provided in subsection (6), nothing in this section shall be taken to impose duties on a local education authority with regard to sex education.''

In other words, section 2A has been made redundant anyway, so it would be nonsense if we voted for new clause 1. It would make the law an ass if we tried to preserve something in law that could not be enforced.

The Education Act 1996, as amended by the Learning and Skills Act 2000, also imposed duties, including a duty to produce guidance and to maintain a statement and materials in schools. I have examined the guidance, and I urge anyone who has not read it to do so. It is 33 pages long and was issued in July 2000 as document DfEE 0116/2000. It is written extremely well and sets out the subject in great detail in a reasonable and balanced way. At the risk of taking a large document and quoting selectively from it, the Committee will benefit if I read out some brief quotations. It will give Members who have not read the guidance a good idea of what is being used in schools at the moment.

It is introduced by three points and starts by saying:

    ''Sex and relationship education should be firmly rooted in the framework for PSHE'',

which is personal, social and health education. It continues:

    ''Effective sex and relationship education is essential if young people are to make responsible and well informed decisions about their lives . . . The objective of sex and relationship education is to help and support young people through their physical, emotional and moral development . . . The new PHSE framework will help pupils develop the skills and understanding they need to live confident, healthy and independent lives. It will play an important role, alongside other aspects of the curriculum and school life, in helping pupils deal with difficult moral and social questions . . .

    This is the first time that schools have had a national framework to support work in this area. As part of sex and relationship education, pupils should be taught about the nature and importance of marriage for family life and bringing up children. But the Government recognises . . . that there are strong and mutually supportive relationships outside marriage. Therefore pupils should learn the significance of marriage and stable relationships as key building blocks of community and society . . .

    Effective sex and relationship education does not encourage early sexual experimentation. It should teach young people to understand human sexuality and to respect themselves and others. It enables young people to mature, to build up their confidence and self-esteem and understand the reasons for delaying sexual activity.''

We can begin to see how reasonably this document is written.

On page 9 the document says:

    ''The materials used in schools must be in accordance with the PHSE framework and the law. Inappropriate images should not be used nor should explicit material not directly related to an explanation. Schools should ensure that pupils are protected from teaching materials that are inappropriate, having regard to the age and cultural background of the pupils concerned.''

I hope that hon. Members will take that paragraph into account when I develop my argument in a minute or two. The guidance states on page 10:

    ''The Department recommends that all primary schools should have a sex and relationship education programme tailored to the age and the physical and emotional maturity of the children.''

My final quotation from the guidance document is on page 16:

    ''In England in 1998 there were over 100,000 conceptions to teenagers, of which over 8,000 were to girls under 16.''

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Of those teenage pregnancies, 38 per cent.—almost 39,000—ended in abortion. We must get this sensitive subject right.

The guidance is balanced and written fairly, but some of the material circulating at the moment, particularly in Scotland where the law is different, is frankly more pornographic than educational. It is almost obscene. I have with me a booklet produced by ''Face West''—the gay man's HIV prevention project, providing welfare rights advice and support for people living with HIV—which includes detailed pictures of homosexual practices, including rimming and skat. I do not even know what such practices mean. This little booklet is funded by public money and is circulating among teenagers as young as 12, which is quite unacceptable and inappropriate.

I have with me another booklet, which was produced by the Scottish Executive—in other words, with 100 per cent. funding by the Scottish taxpayer. Different sections apply to different ages. The section aimed at seven to 11-year-olds gives a detailed explanation of anal intercourse, masturbation, the clitoris, oral sex and bisexual sex. That is quite unacceptable for seven to 11-year-olds.

Still another document produced by the Avon health authority is aimed at nine, 10 and 11-year-olds. Under the title,

    ''Challenging heterosexism and developing discussion on issues of sexuality in the classroom'',

its opening sentence states:

    ''Homophobia interferes with the healthy development of all Young People''.

Again, it is unacceptable. We want to ensure a balanced debate and that schools adhere to the guidance. That is why my new clause 18 strengthens the need to use the guidance and to change it.

 
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Prepared 13 February 2003