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Baroness Massey of Darwen: My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, but would she not agree that schools are already required by law to have parents on the governing body, which has oversight of the sex education curriculum? Therefore, those parents already have a right to inspect material and develop policy.

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4.45 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am coming to the very point that the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, has just made.

Surely, all that I suggest is perfectly reasonable. Why should parents not enjoy a legal right to be consulted and to see the materials used? My amendments would strengthen the partnership between parents and schools and, having discussed them with many in education and local government, I have been heartened by the support for this approach.

My amendment would come after Clause 121. In Clause 117 the Government have decided to give local authorities a new legal power to conduct polls on the provision of local services. Clearly, the provision of education has to be one such service, and in particular the provision of sex education. Under Clause 117—the Government's own clause—local authorities can choose who is polled and the questions asked. Under my new clause, once the requirements set out in the amendment are met a local authority is required to exercise its powers under Clause 117 to carry out a poll of parents on the sex education provided at their children's school.

I see the arrangements for a poll of parents as an important measure of last resort. Parents who are concerned about their children's sex education will be able—and this is the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen—to speak formally or informally to their class teacher, head of department, head teacher, parent governors and the governors, and to all those who have a responsibility. In that way, most concerns will be resolved. Having a legal right to be consulted and to view materials will also minimise the need to take such matters further.

Sadly, at the end of the day there are some people who advocate the use of the kind of wholly inappropriate material from which I quoted earlier, and there are those who wrote that awful material in the first place. There are advisory teachers who are currently recommending it to schools. For 10 per cent or more parents to wish to resort to a ballot, there would have to be deep dissatisfaction among parents and a widespread desire for the school to change its sex education policy. For clarification, sex education within the national curriculum is not affected by my amendments. No vote is allowed on the content of the national curriculum.

When a council has received a valid petition consistent with the conditions in subsections (2), (3), (4) and (6), the council must call a poll within two months. If the proposition is successful, a further three months is allowed to ensure that the school complies with the wishes of parents.

My amendment does not create a need for a new register of parents because schools are already required to do this by law. A register of parents is already needed to hold elections for parent governors, for example. My proposed new subsection (2)(c) stipulates that a poll can only be held once every two years.

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On a point of interest, I could not help noting that, last week, the Government announced that there would be local ballots to decide who should receive money from the National Lottery. How can it be that the Government encourage local ballots on the lottery and yet oppose ballots of parents on the quality of their own children's sex education?

I hope that when noble Lords speak to my amendments, they will confine themselves to the case that I have made and not speak about issues that I have not raised. My package of amendments provides a safeguard for children that should be in place following the repeal of Section 28. They enshrine legal rights for parents and protection for children from some materials and lesson plans that frankly border on the pornographic.

As I said, to oppose my amendments would be to deny greater protection for children and more power to parents. I hope that noble Lords will agree that I have not sought to engage in the sterile and divisive debate about being pro or anti-homosexuality. My concern is exclusively for the education and well-being of children. In this, I have been supported by many Members of this House, both present and those who are unable to be here today, but, in particular, by thousands of teachers, many professionals, and parents and grandparents from the length and breadth of this country. It is our duty to support them and their children, and that is what I invite noble Lords to do. I beg to move.

Lord Palmer: My Lords, I have added my name to the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and after such a powerful contribution it is difficult to say very much else. I believe that many of your Lordships will have received a letter, probably this morning, from the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, and others urging support for the repeal of Section 28 and attacking the Christian Institute. I have yet to see any evidence that the Christian Institute briefings are misleading as is alleged. I have always found its material to be rigorously researched and thoroughly reliable.

I was deeply shocked to receive such a letter from such eminent people and even one from a right reverend Prelate for whom I have the greatest respect, and indeed, affection. The letter calls for the repeal of Section 28. The amendments to which I have put my name, of course, allow the repeal, subject to certain conditions. I hope that noble Lords who put their name to the letter will be willing, therefore, to look at these amendments with an open mind.

I support the amendments because I believe that there is a genuine need for strong, statutory safeguards to protect children from inappropriate sex education. Vague guidance and warm words from the Minister are simply not enough. Many people who have had sight of some of the ghastly sex education material recommended by various councils may have been surprised that such material even exists. That it should also be recommended by local authorities—bodies with statutory responsibilities for schools—is even more appalling.

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I shall not begin to repeat what I said in Grand Committee. Suffice it to say that we have learned in Scotland that there are people in positions of influence in education who are prepared to recommend some awful sex education material for use with young people. Recommendations made by Learning and Teaching Scotland, the Scottish Executive's education quango, caused such a furore among parents that 12,000 of them signed a petition to the Scottish Parliament calling for them to be withdrawn. The parliamentary Education Committee sympathised with their concerns, and, after many months of pressure, the chairman of Learning and Teaching Scotland conceded that some of the resources are unfit for use with young people.

Of course, in a highly charged debate such as this, whenever any noble Lord cites an example of a resource or a recommendation which others find shocking, some people will try to split hairs about the status of the resource or what the council meant by its recommendation. Ultimately, however, if there really are people producing this sort of material with the intention that it should be used in school sex education, I believe that we must do everything we can to ensure that they are unsuccessful. That is why I support these amendments. They are, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said, intended purely to support the protection of children. Even with Section 28 in place, the sorts of powers which her amendments give to parents would always have been a good idea. If Section 28 is to be removed, I believe that the amendments are absolutely essential.

I would also urge noble Lords who support Section 28 to support these amendments as a realistic alternative—one which addresses all inappropriate sex education, not just material to do with homosexuality. I would also urge noble Lords who oppose Section 28 to support these amendments. There is certainly no way in which they can be thought as anti-homosexual. The amendments make no statements about sexual preferences at all. Instead, they move parents closer to the centre of the circle when it comes to deciding sex education policy. That can only be a sensible and logical idea. It places more powers in their hands to ensure that the sex education that their children receive is appropriate.

Who would deny parents a greater role in the sex education given to their own children? I believe that very few of us would. Who would deny them the right to view the material to be used? Who would deny them a legal right to be consulted? Who would refuse them a right ultimately to vote on the sex education policy in their child's school? I believe that the noble Baroness ought to be congratulated. She has sought to provide new safeguards which protect children by bringing in greater influence from their parents. I can see no good reason why her amendments should not attract the broadest possible support from all sides of your Lordships' House.

Lord Alli: My Lords, if I may, I should like first to deal with the LGA briefing which the noble Baroness mentioned. I did indeed circulate that briefing. As I understand it, it was prepared for me and not for

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public consumption. I also understand that the LGA did not intend it to be circulated, but I did not know that at the time. Therefore, I circulated it to Peers who I thought would be interested. If I have caused any offence, I apologise unreservedly. I have already written to the noble Baroness, as she knows. If I have caused her any particular offence, I wish to apologise unreservedly.

This debate arouses a huge amount of passion and controversy. However, it has long since lost any sense of proportion, reason or logic. It has long since lost any basis in fact. This debate has become about two sets of values—values which come into conflict on issues to do with sexuality, and in particular if it has something to do with children or the protection of children. The noble Baroness's amendment not only seeks to reinstate Section 28 but also to put in place what is surely an unworkable system for both teachers and parents. My Lords, I ask you, is this debate to be reproduced in every school throughout the land, with headmasters, teachers and governors trying to adjudicate between warring parents trying to get votes? How would that help children?

Noble Lords have seen today, as in previous debates, the continued polarisation of the issues. In essence, the argument boils down to one of two truths. First, does Section 28 protect children in schools from inappropriate materials and, in doing so, stop loony councils from an overdose of political correctness? Secondly, does Section 28, in the light of the Learning and Skills Act, become redundant and serve only as another piece of discrimination against homosexuals?

Many smokescreens are erected by those in pursuit of a cause. In the one corner there is the Christian Institute which tries to dress up its cause in religion and prey on people's fear for their children, citing bogus material as their evidence.


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