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Baroness Richardson of Calow: My Lords, when "Newsnight" finished yesterday evening I looked to see what else I might watch. I could have watched a programme on whale hunting, or I could have turned to Channel 4, where in "Sex Tips for Girls" two unsatisfied women sign their boyfriends up for sex lessons to learn oral sex technique; or I might have chosen Living TV, which offered "Sex Toys": the easy guide to fulfilling one's sexual fantasies, followed by "Undressing", another easy guide to sexual fantasies. In the event I switched off in order to think what I might say today.
It is ludicrous to suggest that children and young people are waiting for local authorities to produce sexually explicit material with which to corrupt them. Such material is readily available. What young people need is to be taught how to respond to the material thrust at them from all sources. Any material produced by local authorities is already filtered by the time it reaches children. It is filtered by local authorities, which have community representatives available. It is filtered primarily by the governing bodies of schools that have responsibility to see what is used in sex education classes.
I am not convinced by arguments that parents know better than teachers. Many parents have failed their children dismally in carrying out sex education at home, which is why it is so important for sex education policy to be carefully worked out by governors, teachers and parents, who are all involved in policy and not the minutiae of what is dealt with in the classroom.
Sexual orientation is a given; it cannot be caught or taught, and even if promotional material were to be made available, it would be ineffective. But sexual behaviour needs to be discussed. To allow in class only responsible heterosexual behaviour to be the focus of sex education is to deny those of homosexual orientation the opportunity to be helped towards a responsible use of their own sexuality. Parents are singularly bad at recognising the homosexual orientation of their children and children need a safe place in which to discuss this. Teachers must be allowed to introduce discussion of such matters without fear of prosecution.
Education is about giving the tools for good judgment. It is about protecting young people by promoting respect for difference and about valuing themselves and one another and being able to evaluate the materials that come into their hands. To suggest that there are some things that should not be discussed openly is to create a climate of secrecy that could lead to bullying and allow abuse to go unreported.
Either to leave Section 28 in force or simply to replace it with a poll of parents is not responsible behaviour. To leave it in force is an offence not only to lesbians and gays but to the integrity and judgment of all involved in education. It should be repealed.
Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, this is the first time that I have participated in a debate on this subject and it has been a privilege to follow the noble Baronesses who have just spoken. I have followed the issue with some interest over the years as a member of your Lordships' House, as a county councillor in Suffolk, part of a local education authority; but above all, as the mother of two teenage children with whom I discussed the issue yesterday evening, because I thought it was interesting to get the perspective of at least two of the young people about whom we all purport to know and understand so much.
What originally moved me to speak was the briefing material that I received from the Christian Institute, which has been widely quoted. When I read it I was shocked. I was shocked by the way in which material that was never intended to be seen by young people was presented as though it had been, and I was shocked by the selective and partial use of out-of-context quotes, in a way that was designed deliberately to shock and outrage.
This dodgy dossier contains a number of myths. The first is the myth that somehow wholly unsuitable materials are being distributed widescale across our schools. In my 12 years on a local education authority I have never seen such material distributed to children, nor has a teacher, parent or governor ever come to me and expressed such concerns. I am deeply offended by the suggestion that a local authority run by whichever party, or that teachers, youth workers and organisations dedicated to young people are all somehow hell bent on corrupting the young people to whom they have dedicated their professional lives.
The second myth being propounded is that local authorities are retaining responsibility for sex education. That is simply not true. The teaching of sex education is a matter for school governors and parents. I find it ironic that someone who has rightly championed the freedom of schools from central control should seek to add to that control by imposing compulsory ballots on schools that in the main do not want them.
Local authorities produce guidance, but they do so as a result of demand from teachers, many of whom are struggling to know how to deal with those difficult topics. Goodness knows, anyone who has ever sat down with their children and tried to tell them the facts of life knows how excruciating it can be for both parties. Teachers find it very difficult, and the guidance is often produced as a response to their needs.
I also received the briefing from the chair of the board of governors. I believe that his final comment, concerning the question of balance being "insulting and offensive" to his profession, is very telling.
The third, and to my mind most invidious, myth is that somehow children will be protected by ignorance. There is no doubt that sex can be a risky business. Unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and psychological damage are issues dealt with by health professionals every day. But whispered conversations behind the bike sheds, a furtive exploration of porn sites on the Internet or, indeed, mainstream television channels leave young people in ignorance of the real facts of life, and it leaves them more and not less vulnerable to damage in the future. Unless responsible sex education takes place under appropriate circumstances, we leave them highly vulnerable.
Therefore, sex education mustfor practical purposes if for no otherpay heed to the reality that there is a variety of sexual activity out there. We cannot simply teach activities which the noble Baroness or anyone else regards as mainstream or acceptable.
It is very difficult for any parent to consider his or her adolescent offspring as sexually active beings. It is probably even more difficult for the offspring to think about their parents in that light. Therefore, on either side it cannot be relied upon that sex education between parents and children will, indeed, be adequate and address these issues.
I am the mother of two teenage children and I desperately want them and their friends to receive an education which prepares them for a life in which they are happy and confident in themselves and their sexuality. I want them to learn to respect the differences found in other people's faith, belief, culture and sexuality. I want them to make reasoned judgments about danger and risk and I do not want them to lead their lives in fear through ignorance and scaremongering. What I want for them, I want for all children.
I have listened very carefully to the many organisations which specialise in the care of young people and which want to see Section 28 repealed. They do not want to see anything that will delay that repeal. The Children's Society, the NSPCC, Childline and the National Children's Bureau all want to see Section 28 repealed as soon as possible. Those are the very organisations in which we have entrusted the care of our most vulnerable people, and we should listen to them.
Lord Elder: My Lords, I would not normally have spoken in this debate, and I feel privileged to follow the previous two speakers. However, it seems to me that I should say that I am in favour of the abolition of Section 28, unencumbered by the proposals put forward in these amendments.
Listening to some of the arguments in favour of the amendments causes me to reflect on what happened north of the Border when Section 2Athe equivalent sectionwas abolished by the Scottish Parliament. The original intention had been to go ahead with abolition at the same time as Section 28 was abolished south of the Border, but the decision here by this House not to support abolition meant that Scotland went alone. There followed in Scotland a consultation exercise, and the main Churches did not object to the proposal to repeal. In particular, initially the Catholic Church made no move to oppose it. There were good reasons for that.
Section 2A had never been used in a court of law to protect children. The existing procedures achieved that. From the first announcement of the intention to repeal, a review of existing guidelines was offered to reassure those who had concerns. There was a feeling that the issue had become one of whether or not teachers and head teachers could be trusted to make sensible decisions. There was, and is, no reason to doubt that.
At the very end of the eight-week consultation period, a group of individuals, representing a rather narrow and far from liberal view of society, intervened and applied great pressure on others with a campaign based on fear and misinformation. Some of those fears and the misinformation have reappeared in this debate. It led to a period of great uncertainty.
However, the doubts raised by them were dealt with to the satisfaction of all the other groups. The working group, on which there was very broad representation, reached agreement on guidelines about the future teaching on this difficult range of subjects. Those guidelines have been very generally accepted. None of the largest Churches in Scotlandnot the Catholic Church, the Church of Scotland or the Episcopalian Churchis calling for the section, or one like it, to be reintroduced. Noble Lords should bear that in mind when they read the far more narrow views expressed by the Christian Institute.
It is often claimed that the whole Section 2A experience was a bad one for the Scottish Parliament. That is not how I see it. A proposal was made. There was consultation. Agreement was reached on the way forward, and that allayed a number of greatly exaggerated fears which a small group had generated. That led to a general agreement, which has the support of a very broad consensus, and a wrong was righted. I do not believe that the Scottish Parliament should be in any way ashamed of that, and I very much hope that the same balanced decision will be made here today.
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