Local Government Bill — [2nd Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 4:58 pm on 10th March 2003.
'The Secretary of State shall lay before Parliament within 24 months of the coming into force of section 119 and at intervals of 24 months thereafter a report containing information on the effect of the operation of that section on—
(a) the adherence to guidance issued under section 403(1A) of the Education Act 1996 (c. 96);
(b) the operation of the provisions of section 404 of that Act; and
(c) the numbers of parents withdrawing their children from sex education pursuant to section 405 of that Act.'.—[Mr. Clifton-Brown.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment (a) to the proposed new clause, in line 7, leave out 'and'.
Amendment (b) to the proposed new clause, in line 9, at end add,
(d) the operation of guidance issued in relation to section 403(1A) of that Act in relation to bodies established by local authorities pursuant to section 508(2) of that Act.'.
New clause 17—Sex or relationship education in facilities established pursuant to s508(2) of Education Act 1996—
'.—A local authority may not provide financial support to any facilities established pursuant to s508 (2) of the Education Act 1996 unless that local authority is satisfied that any sex or relationship education or guidance offered within that facility complies with the guidance issued by the Secretary of State pursuant to s403 (1A) of that Act.'.
New clause 21—Presentation of issues of sexual morality—
'In the Local Government Act 1986 (c. 10) there is inserted after section 2—
"Issues of sexual morality
2Z (1) The local authority, in the exercise of any of its functions in relation to people under the age of eighteen years, shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to secure that where issues relating to the morality of sex outside of marriage are brought to the attention of persons under the age of eighteen who are—
(a) in attendance at a maintained school, or
(b) taking part in extracurricular activities which are provided or organised for registered pupils at the school by or on behalf of the school they are offered a balanced presentation of opposing views.
(2) In this section "maintained school" includes a maintained special school established in a hospital.".'.
Amendment No. 8, in page 70, line 41, leave out Clause 119.
Amendment No. 14, in page 110 [Schedule 7] leave out lines 27 and 28.
Amendment No. 15, in page 110, line 29 [Schedule 7], leave out 'Sections 28 and' and insert 'Section'.
Amendment No. 16, in page 111 [Schedule 7], leave out line 41.
Amendment No. 17, in page 112 [Schedule 7], leave out lines 2 and 3.
Amendment No. 18, in page 112 [Schedule 7], leave out lines 20 and 21.
Amendment No. 10, in page 72, line 34 [Clause 125], leave out '115 and 119' and insert 'and 115'.
Amendment No. 11, in page 72 [Clause 125], leave out lines 38 and 39.
Amendment No. 12, in page 73 [Clause 125], leave out lines 3 to 5.
Amendment No. 13, in page 73 [Clause 125], leave out line 8.
Amendment No. 37, in page 73, line 9 [Clause 125], at end insert—
'(2A) Section 119 shall come into force two months after the day on which the Secretary of State certifies that—
(a) appropriate guidance has been issued under section 403(1A) of the Education Act 1996 (c. 56); and
(b) an appropriate mechanism has been established for consulting parents of registered pupils by ballot about the contents of any written statement made in pursuance of section 404(1)(a) of that Act.'.
Many misapprehensions and misnomers have been expressed on the subject of repealing so-called section 28, and it may help the House if I go through the current legal position on sex education in schools. Let me say at the outset that the Conservative party regards these as matters of conscience. We will therefore have completely free votes on the whole of this part of the Bill. I urge Ministers and spokesmen for other parties to confirm when they reply to the debate whether the same procedure will apply to their colleagues.
This debate is entirely about protecting our children in schools. All of us can argue about the content of sex education, but few would argue that there should be no sex education at all. The question is simply how it should be carried out. The question is important, especially in the light of some of the statistics that I shall give on unwanted teenage pregnancies.
Let me set out the legal history. As everyone knows, section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 inserted new section 2A into the Local Government Act 1986. The words of the provision are well known by many hon. Members, but it is worth quoting them. New section 2A states:
"(1) A local authority shall not—
(a) intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality;
(b) promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship."
Subsection (2) is important. It states:
"Nothing in subsection (1) above shall be taken to prohibit the doing of anything for the purpose of treating or preventing the spread of disease."
Parliament then passed the Education Act 1996, clause 403 of which states:
"The local education authority, governing body and head teacher shall"—
I shall paraphrase—take steps to ensure that sex education is given in such a manner as to encourage pupils to have due regard to the moral considerations and the value of family life. Few would argue with that. That Act, in section 404(1)(a), provided for a written statement to be made and kept up to date, and it defined a maintained school. Importantly, section 405 provided the statutory basis for exemption, stating:
"If the parent of any pupil in attendance at a maintained school requests that he may be wholly or partly excused from receiving sex education at the school, the pupil shall, except so far as such education is comprised in the National Curriculum, be so excused accordingly until the request is withdrawn."
Any parent who is not happy with any of the sex education provided at any maintained school may withdraw their child from that sex education at the school in so far is it does not form part of the national curriculum. That is clearly enshrined in legislation, and it is an important safeguard.
The Learning and Skills Act 2000 is important to sex education in schools, too, because it modifies section 403 of the Education Act 1996 by inserting new subsection (1A), which states:
"The Secretary of State must issue guidance designed to secure that when sex education is given to registered pupils at maintained schools—
(a) they learn the nature of marriage and its importance for family life and the bringing up of children, and
(b) they are protected from teaching and materials which are inappropriate having regard to the age and the religious and cultural background of the pupils concerned."
New subsection (1B) provides that
"In discharging their functions under subsection (1) governing bodies and head teachers must have regard to the Secretary of State's guidance."
It is important to note that section 148(3) specifically omits the words "local education authority". Colleagues can see that sex education in schools and guidance are now the responsibility of the governing body and the head teacher, not of the local authority as defined under section 2A of the Local Government Act 1988. In a sense, section 28 has become something of a misnomer in law.
The guidance extends to about 30 pages and was issued in July 2000 under reference DfEE 0116/2000. If any colleague has not read it, I would urge him or her to do so. I think that it is written in a moderate, balanced and sensible way. When we debate new clause 11, it will be seen that one of the main planks of our policy is to enshrine this guidance even more strongly in statute than it is now.
Does my hon. Friend accept that no matter how clear or unclear the guidance may be, the effect of section 28 is to stop teachers trying to prevent homophobic bullying? It means that many schools cannot explain effectively what homosexuality is all about. In this modern day and age, there needs to be openness in schools, as in society in general.
I entirely agree with the last sentence of my hon. Friend's intervention. There must be complete openness in schools. I think that colleagues will recognise, when I quote relatively selectively from the guidance, how well written it is. If it is strictly adhered to, I cannot see that there would be a great problem with sex education in schools. The problem comes when some of the things to which my hon. Friend alluded happen. I shall come back to that, but first I shall concentrate for a moment on the guidance.
Colleagues will have noted that new clause 11 requires the Secretary of State to
"lay before Parliament within 24 months of the coming into force of section 119"— that is, the section that abolishes section 2A—a report about
"the adherence to guidance", about
"the operation of the provisions of section 404"— that is, the written statements and materials—and about
"the numbers of parents withdrawing their children from sex education pursuant to section 405", which I have already read out. If colleagues vote for the Bill to remain as it was when it emerged from consideration in Committee—that is, in the absence of section 2A—we want to see some strengthening of the position.
I shall quote from the guidance. It is introduced by three points, and starts by saying:
"Sex and relationship education should be firmly rooted in the framework for PSHE".
That means personal social 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 PSHE framework will help pupils to develop the skills and understanding they need to live confident, healthy and independent lives"— in response to the intervention of my hon. Friend Michael Fabricant, I would almost add "open lives".
The document continues:
"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 people should learn the significance of marriage and stable relationships as key building blocks of community and society."
The document also says:
"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."
That is very important; we can begin to see how reasonably written the document is.
Page 9 says:
"Materials used in schools must be in accordance with the PSHE framework and the law. Inappropriate images should not be used nor should explicit material not directly related to explanation. Schools should ensure that pupils are protected from teaching and materials which are inappropriate, having regard to the age and cultural background of the pupils concerned."
Clearly, what is appropriate at secondary school age would be entirely inappropriate at primary school age. I shall give a few examples that amply demonstrate that.
The document also says:
"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."
Finally, page 15 of the guidance document says:
"In England in 1998 there were over 100,000 conceptions to teenagers, of which over 8,000 were to girls under 16".
Of these teenage pregnancies, 38 per cent.—almost 39,000—ended in abortion. We have to get sex education in schools right.
If the hon. Gentleman wants to enshrine that guidance in law, I find it difficult to accept his argument. The guidance gives parents, governing bodies and teachers the flexibility to take account of the very things that he says are important, such as cultural background, age and the religious affiliations of the area. Would it not be difficult to recognise those differences in pupils' culture and religion if the hon. Gentleman tried to enshrine the guidance in law as he suggests?
I take the hon. Lady's point, but it is important that we try to get the subject right. It should be taught on a national basis, and best practice in sex education should be adopted by all schools. One way of achieving that is making sure that the guidance is largely adhered to.
I shall give the House one or two examples of how things can go wrong. I give the Minister notice that I want to press him on what is meant by the Learning and Skills Act 2000 which, via new section 403(1C) of the Education Act 1996, states:
"Guidance under subsection (1A) must include guidance about any material which may be produced by NHS bodies for use for the purposes of sex education in schools."
At the moment the position is very unclear indeed—I shall come back to that in a minute.
Some of the material produced by health authorities is inappropriate. A rather nasty booklet has been produced by an organisation called PHACE West. I shall not subject the House to its contents except to say that it refers to practices called rimming and scat—I do not know what they mean. PHACE West is partly funded by public funds, and its booklet is available to children as young as 12. Such material is inappropriate for young children. I am pressing the Minister hard for the meaning of subsection (1C), because his colleagues the Education Ministers certainly seem to be unclear about its meaning.
Another booklet was produced by the Scottish Executive and entirely funded by public funds. I accept that the law in Scotland is slightly different, and shall not subject the House to some rather nasty bits of that booklet. Suffice to say it talks about teaching children aged seven to 11 about anal intercourse, masturbation, all about the clitoris, lesbianism, oral sex and bisexuality. That is another example of where things have gone wrong. Another rather nasty booklet was produced by Avon health authority, but I shall spare the House the gory details. However, we need to know what is meant by health authority guidance in subsection (1C).
My hon. Friend Mr. Leigh has done the House a great service in tabling amendments that demonstrate the ragged edges caused by the Government's getting rid of section 2A of the Local Government Act 1986. As Conservative spokesman, I have said that the issue is one of freedom of conscience, and shall abstain from voting on my hon. Friend's amendments, to demonstrate strict neutrality on the Front Bench. None the less, there are some ragged edges.
If this is a genuine free vote—and I believe that it is—why should my hon. Friend be inhibited from voting?
I am not inhibited from voting one way or another. I just think that it would be wrong, in proposing our compromise new clause—to which I shall now turn—to indicate which way I feel section 2A should go. There will be colleagues who have strong views either way, and I respect those views. I respect the strong views of my right hon. Friend David Davis and I respect my hon. Friends who hold the opposite view. From my own point of view, I shall maintain a strict neutrality and not vote either way.
I am following closely what my hon. Friend is saying and he is making his arguments very carefully and concisely. Does he agree, however, that if examples of this material exist, and if there are clear indications that abuse could occur, and if section 28—as it is colloquially known—is swept away by the Government with Liberal Democrat support, the onus should be on the Government to come up with an alternative method of protecting our children, rather than that being left to the official Opposition?
I entirely accept what my hon. Friend says. I have no idea whether the Government are going to accept my new clauses or not, but if they are not, there needs to be further negotiation. If no such further negotiation takes place, I am sure that our noble Friends and colleagues in another place will wish to take the matter up. I do not expect this to be the last word on the subject.
My hon. Friend has made a powerful case for our Front-Bench amendments. May I say, however, that the most important single thing to arise out of the case that he has just made is the need for the House to vote on new clause 21—also tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough—which specifically identifies the sexualisation of children as the central issue? That issue is independent of homosexuality or heterosexuality, as many of the examples given by my hon. Friend Mr. Clifton-Brown show. 5.30 pm
I entirely accept the sincerity of the views that my hon. Friend, and many of my other hon. Friends, hold on this subject. New clause 21 is an excellent new clause; it is very similar to my own new clause 11. Unfortunately, new clause 11 comes first, and I suspect that it will be the first to be voted on. Colleagues might wish to call for other votes, however. I have no idea what they might wish to call for.
May I move on? I have an important point to make. I challenged the Minister to give the House an answer on the health guidance, and I wish to take that matter further because, having given the House examples that come from health authorities, I believe that there will be a lacuna in the law. We need the Minister to clear this matter up tonight. My hon. Friend Mr. Hammond helpfully wrote to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills on this subject on
"I cannot, however, find anything within this publication that discharges the Secretary of State's obligation under Subsection 1C."— that is the one that I read out—
"The only reference, so far as I am aware, to the material produced by the NHS is in paragraph 1.8 which indicates that the Department of Health will be issuing guidance to Health Authorities to the effect that any materials developed by them must be in line with DFEE guidance. This does not discharge the obligation under Subsection 1C."
My hon. Friend received a reply from the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Mr. Twigg, on
"Materials intended for use in schools should be pre-tested with teachers, parents and governors, to ensure they are acceptable and appropriate. In producing materials for schools, Health Authorities must also have regard for the Department for Education's Sex and Relationship Education Guidance. Copies of the document may be obtained from the Department of Health website".
We need a much stronger position than that. If the House votes this evening to leave the Bill as it is—that is, to remove section 2A—the Government will need to attend to this matter, and I urge them to use the earliest legislative opportunity to clarify the measure.
I am going to use an unconventional parliamentary technique—for which you will probably call me out of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker—and hand the letter across the Dispatch Box. I ask the Minister to clarify the matter when he sums up.
Just for the record, will the hon. Gentleman make it clear whether the material that he has been waving about this evening and in Committee is for the use of children, or to prepare teachers in case they get awkward questions from the children? It is important to make clear what the literature is intended for.
The hon. Gentleman cannot be so naive as to presume that material produced for teachers is not automatically given to the children. One knows what children are like: even if the teacher does not give the material to them directly, it is likely that it will be left lying around and children will get hold of it. Everybody knows that. [Interruption.] Labour Members may make a huge fuss, but what matters is not whether the material is given to the children or the teacher, but the content of the material. If the content is unsuitable, it does not matter whether the children get the material or not. It is unsuitable for children of the age that it is aimed at—full stop. I shall move on.
I want to be helpful to the hon. Gentleman. His hon. Friends will want to know that he did the honourable thing in Committee and voted to get rid of section 28. Therefore, can he explain to the House why he will be neutral and not oppose amendment No. 8 if it is pressed to a vote?
I have made my position clear. I will not vote one way or the other if amendment No. 8 is pressed. I shall vote in respect of our compromise proposal. [Interruption.] I have made the position clear, but the hon. Gentleman looks shocked. I can do no more than emphasise what I have said from the Dispatch Box.
I wish to move on to one or two other aspects that must be considered, because the whole thing is fairly untidy and jagged. Here I pay great tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and urge the House to consider not only his amendment No. 8, which has just been referred to by Mr. Davey, but, for a start, my hon. Friend's amendment No. 16, which relates to paragraph 5 of schedule 1 to the Education Act 1996, and pupil referral units.
Through the repeals section of the Bill, the Government are removing paragraph 5, but the problem is that they are not removing paragraph 7, which involves offences relating to section 2A and being able to exclude people from a pupil referral unit. Whatever happens, the Minister must consider that particular jagged edge. This is a serious matter, and amendment No. 16 relates to it. Paragraph 5, entitled "Application of Local Government Act 1986", states:
"A pupil referral unit is a maintained school for the purposes of section 2A(1)(b) of the Local Government Act 1986 (prohibition on promoting homosexuality)."
That is entirely consistent with the Bill as it left Committee and entirely right, but paragraph 8, entitled "Sex education, political indoctrination and political issues", states:
"Sections 403, 406 and 407 (sex education, political indoctrination, and treatment of political issues) apply in relation to pupil referral units as they apply in relation to county schools."
It seems to me that leaving in paragraph 8 would be untidy. The Minister shakes his head. That is fine, but perhaps he will explain why it would not be untidy, as I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough will press that point in addressing amendment No. 16.
Another of my hon. Friend's proposals, amendment No. 18, would repeal section 104 of the Local Government Act 2000, which says:
"In section 2A of the Local Government Act 1986 (prohibition on promoting homosexuality by teaching or by publishing material), at the end of subsection (2) there is inserted; 'or
(b) prevent the headteacher or governing body of a maintained school, or a teacher employed by a maintained school, from taking steps to prevent any form of bullying'."
Bullying, whatever form it takes, is an important matter.
My hon. Friend has done the House a service. That section will be repealed if the Bill goes through, and we need to know from the Minister what will take its place. Bullying in schools, whether homophobic or whatever else, is a serious matter.
The strength of the examples that my hon. Friend has given are not quite reflected in the strength of his new clause 11. Does he intend to say anything about his new clause 17? Merely calling for a report may not improve the situation.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that matter. I was coming to that. For administrative convenience, I want to deal with amendment No. 37 first; then I shall return to new clause 17.
Amendment No. 37 is the second part of our compromise. I have already elucidated the first part in some detail, which is to enshrine the guidance in statute. We feel that the guidance, sensible though it is, should not be able to be amended unless it comes before the House as a statutory instrument under the affirmative resolution procedure.
The second important part of our compromise is that parents should be able to test whether the head teacher and school governing body have adhered to that guidance. We propose that parents should be able to exercise their vote in a ballot if they are dissatisfied with the material and with the written statement under the statute. If at least 5 per cent. of parents so decide, they could trigger a ballot. The majority of parents registered at a school would vote, and if they voted that the material did not conform to the guidance, the head teacher and governing body would have to rewrite it. There would be the possibility of triggering a further ballot, and if parents again voted against the material produced by the school, the default position would be for the Secretary of State to issue his own guidance and statement.
In that way, the parents in a school would have two safeguards. First, under section 405 of the Education Act 1996, they could withdraw their children from school. Secondly, they could trigger a ballot, and a repeat ballot if they thought that the material produced by the school's governing body or the head teacher did not conform with the guidance. We believe that that is a strong compromise, and I hope that my hon. Friends will see that.
If a second ballot were lost by 1 per cent., what would happen next?
That is clear. We believe in democracy, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman does. If the second ballot were lost even by one vote, the parents would obviously be dissatisfied with the material, so the matter would go to the Secretary of State. That seems to me exactly the right thing to do.
The final lacuna in the Bill is that section 2A applies only to pupils in maintained schools, as I stated clearly in my longish summing up of the legal position. It emerged in Committee that there is a lacuna, as the provision does not apply to youth clubs. I have referred to the nasty little document that is circulating among children as young as 12 in youth clubs. If section 2A is abolished, there will be nothing in the law to cover that situation.
It was difficult to make sure that the new clauses would be in order, because we are trying to amend an Education Act by means of a Local Government Bill. We propose that section 508 of the Education Act 1996 should be included in any guidance. I shall give my hon. Friends an idea of what section 508 covers. It provides that a local authority may
"establish, maintain or manage . . . camps, holiday classes, playing fields, play centres, and . . . other places, including playgrounds, gymnasiums and swimming baths not appropriated to any school or other education institution", and may organise games, expeditions and other facilities. So we say, through new clause 17, that it is incredibly important that all facilities and organisations, where they are in any way funded by the local authority, should be brought within the guidance.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that the section covers youth clubs?
I am as satisfied as I can be in that respect. My hon. Friend brought up the matter in Committee, and I am grateful to him for trying to assist by tabling amendments (a) and (b). He obviously feels that the section would apply to youth clubs.
If what the hon. Gentleman describes as a nasty little document is available in youth clubs, why is it not prohibited under section 2A?
Because, as I have tried to explain to the hon. Lady, section 2A applies only to maintained schools. That is precisely the point.
The hon. Gentleman asks why we do not vote to get rid of it. We have to ensure that safeguards are put in place. If the House votes to get rid of section 2A, as I suspect it will, hon. Members must be aware of the lacunae that will still exist. One of the difficulties that I mentioned to the Minister, who undertook to consider it, is that boys and girls who go to youth clubs when they are relatively young will be left unprotected. That is an unsatisfactory position. If the Bill emerges without any amendments or new clauses, the Government will have to consider that aspect, among others.
I will not give way any more; I have given way enough.
The Minister needs to address three major issues, apart from the whole issue of sex education and guidance: the material that is produced by health authorities, and how the guidance applies to them; bullying and how to deal with it; and, in particular, youth clubs.
We are all concerned to protect children and we are having an important debate about that. I suspect that the House will vote to leave the Bill as it is. That means that sex education in schools is moving on, so appropriate safeguards must be in place. The beginnings are there, but substantial problems remain. The compromise measures that we propose in new clauses 11 and 17 and amendment No. 37 would address that situation. I urge hon. Members to vote for them.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak. I shall talk about only one of the many amendments that are before us—amendment No. 8—for the simple reason that it strikes to the heart of the debate, which essentially concerns the morality of the society in which we live and the way in which we choose to incorporate that into law.
Every society is constituted by its mores, the pattern of which forms the morality by which we all live our lives. Sometimes those mores are simply customs such as shaking hands or kissing somebody when you greet them; sometimes they are commonly held assumptions that everyone believes that everyone else holds; sometimes they are intellectual assertions that are propounded by teachers, educationists or the authorities of the land, and are often fiercely contested. It is rare, however—at least in modern democratic societies—that those mores are enshrined in law. In the modern world, it tends to be only theocratic states that have retained the enshrinement of mores in law.
What does the hon. Gentleman mean by mores, in this context? Many of our morals are enshrined in law—such as, "Thou shalt not kill."
I do not want to get into a lengthy discussion on the ten commandments, although they would clearly form part of the mores of any society. However, mores stretch across a wide range of issues. In this country, it might be thought immoral for two men to greet each other by kissing; in Argentina, it would be thought very peculiar for two men to greet each other not by kissing.
I know that my hon. Friend does not want to get into a discourse on the ten commandments—neither do I—but we would not dream of legislating, to bring into law and enshrine in statute, that people had to honour the Sabbath. My hon. Friend is right to suggest that these are complex matters. Does he agree that simply parroting out the ten commandments does not get us anywhere?
Indeed. I do not think that any of the ten commandments touch on the matters that we are discussing tonight.
Often, the mores on which a society's morality is built are based on myths—myths that were held in days gone by but that have subsequently been proven incorrect. The most common myth about homosexuality is that it is a choice—that somebody has chosen to be homosexual. Some people's interpretation of the Old and New Testaments may be that those who have chosen to be homosexual are acting outside the law of God, whereas those who have no choice about their sexuality, and for whom their sexuality is something to be discovered, are not acting outside that law. That view has often been preached by the Archbishop of Canterbury. In the late 20th century and now in the 21st century, most people have accepted that people do not choose to be homosexual but discover that they are homosexual.
The hon. Gentleman is making a thoughtful contribution, but does he accept that the sexual orientation of young children can be influenced, and that sex education can play a part in that?
The hon. Gentleman is tending towards the argument that homosexuality is an illness that can be caught. From experience, I know that the pressures of modern society are so strong that nobody would choose to be homosexual unless they felt that it was absolutely inevitable, that being homosexual was an integral part of who they were, and that they could do no other. For many years—from Jung onwards—psychiatric opinion has contested the idea that homosexuality was an illness that could be cured by aversion therapy, by electric shock treatment and by a whole range of other treatments.
I want to press the hon. Gentleman on the point that was raised by my hon. Friend Andrew Selous. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that teaching a child encompasses an element of influence? Is it not therefore important, when teaching children, that a way of life that—as the hon. Gentleman has just admitted—can cause problems in adult life should not be promoted?
The right hon. Lady once told me on Radio 4 that I was "gambling with eternity" because of the way in which I led my life. The right hon. Lady makes a common mistake. She believes that the influence that can be brought to bear on a young person can so transform their sexual leanings that they will become homosexuals. From my experience as a youth worker in the Church of England, when I assisted youth organisations all round the diocese of Peterborough, I know that that is not the case. If it were possible for somebody to catch homosexuality or to be influenced into becoming homosexual, I think that Oscar Wilde's children would have been gay. They were not.
Homosexuality cannot be caught. One of the myths that is perpetuated in common parlance is that homosexuality and paedophilia are more or less the same thing. Sometimes, in the debate on this issue—especially in the House of Lords, where it has been referred to many times—there has been an enormous conflation that is both ignorant and profoundly unhelpful.
There are two myths than can easily be dispelled. They strike perhaps a slightly lighter note. One is that no clergy are gay. That was the firm belief of the Bishop of Oxford who, three weeks after ordaining me, said that he had never laid hands on a gay man. Either he did not know, or he chose to ignore it. It is one of the profound sadnesses of the past 50 years that, although the Church of England has had many gay clergy who have served it extremely well—especially in many inner-city parishes where many clergy with children would not want to serve—the Church has pretended that those people have not served it well. That has been a great disservice to the Gospel.
The second myth is that no married people are gay. I cannot count the number of times I have heard somebody say, "Oh, no, he can't be gay, because he's married with children." I have already mentioned Oscar Wilde but I am sure that there are many others—some of whom have been Members of this House—who could prove that myth untrue.
I have always felt section 28 to be immoral because of the profound damage that it has done to enormous numbers of bruised individuals. The number of young men who have committed suicide when they have started to understand their own sexuality is phenomenal. The more tolerant attitudes in many other countries have made it far more possible for people to come to understand themselves and to grow into adults who play an important part in society.
Section 28 was not brought in to protect children; it was brought in to make a declamation—that homosexuality was abnormal, immoral and wrong. That has caused profound damage, not only to homosexual men but to literally millions of wives. How many women, because their men have felt, in the society in which they lived, that they had to get married to cure themselves somehow of their homosexual tendencies, have ended up leading a miserable married life because they never really knew the person to whom they were married? I do not want to mention any particular people, but if any hon. Member doubts what I have said, they should watch the film "Far from Heaven", which is a dramatic version of a story that literally millions of people have gone through. Millions of wives have had their lives destroyed. For that matter, millions of children of homosexual men have never been able to know their father properly. Those men have sought to marry but have done so against what they probably knew to be their proper nature. Their children have often inherited denial as a psychiatric pattern, which has affected the rest of their lives and given them further problems.
A declamatory law that says that homosexuality is not to be promoted. because in some way or another it is abnormal or immoral, leads to a greater sense that it is okay to bully somebody because they are homosexual. Section 28—as it was called in 1988 and as many of us still think of it—is purely a declamatory law. Mr. Clifton-Brown has already said that it has no effect in modern law. Law that has been drafted means that the section has been sidelined in a way that is marked. There has not been a single prosecution since section 28 was brought in, despite all the things that the hon. Gentleman referred to.
I want to correct the hon. Gentleman on that point. He is probably aware that, in the case of Glasgow City Council, there was a judicial review as a result of section 28, although the section has since been repealed in Scotland.
I know that the hon. Gentleman is making a point, but we are talking not about the way that legislation will affect Scotland but about the way that it will affect here.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way as it gives me an opportunity to clarify what was said earlier by Mr. Clifton-Brown. Is it not the case that section 28, as it is known, applies to local education authorities and therefore to youth clubs that are run by them, so any material that is produced for or by youth clubs would be covered by the Act as it now stands?
To be honest, the single most important reason for getting rid of section 28 is its declamatory effect. The words that many gay men, lesbians and bisexuals find profoundly offensive are those that state that a local authority shall not
"promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship."
I cannot imagine how anyone could have written that from any perspective, whether it be profoundly Christian or Muslim, without deliberately intending to be offensive.
The hon. Gentleman is being generous and his speech is courageous, but what does he think about new clause 21? Without mentioning either homosexuality or heterosexuality specifically, it would dissuade local authorities from sexualising young children.
I said that I only wanted to speak about one aspect of the subject. New clause 21 is ambivalent and is merely a smokescreen for those who want to pretend that they are in the nice party when really they are not.
Surely the best case for the repeal of section 28 is that it is obsolete. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that no one was prosecuted under it. Andrew Selous referred to a civil process in Scotland. As far as I know, there has never been a criminal prosecution.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point.
My problem with such a declamatory law is that it leads to an assumption of prejudice. Some hon. Members may believe that there is hardly any prejudice left against homosexuality in this country. Homosexuals are in nearly every soap opera on television and many celebrities feel able to come out. Indeed, many hon. Members on both sides of the House are honest about their sexuality and see it as something to be celebrated. But prejudice is alive and well. Many children speak of bullying. Being called a poof or a queer can be devastating for young people and they will do everything in their power to prevent that from being levelled at them if they happen to be homosexual. If they are not, it might not matter so much.
Everyone who guesses the number of homosexuals comes up with a figure of their own, but perhaps between one in 20 and one in 10 are by nature homosexual, as they will discover by the age of 18, 21, 28, 34 or whenever—it will happen at some point in their life. For many of those people, that bullying can be profoundly bruising, and the bruises can sometimes be very real. There are more than a dozen cases every year of serious queer bashing in which individuals are killed or beaten for their sexuality and for doing something that other people would find entirely normal—perhaps for going to a bar or for kissing someone whom they love. It is not many years since the bombing of the Admiral Duncan pub in Old Compton street. Very few people in the gay community in London or, I suspect, across the country were not as profoundly touched by that experience as the Afro-Caribbean and Asian communities were when bombs were let off in their communities.
In addition, gay men or lesbians have to think twice about many thoroughly normal things that are part of an ordinary person's life. They have to think twice before booking a hotel room because the woman on the desk at the hotel might say, "Sorry. We don't allow homosexuals in this hotel", when they turn up. They have to think twice before taking out a mortgage in case the woman falls off her chair when someone says that his partner is a man, not a woman. However, gay and lesbian people do not have to think twice when they write their wills, but three, four or five times because of the difficulty of constructing a will that allows their partner to live in the home for which they may have paid throughout their life. They have to think twice before going abroad because a large number of countries, including many in the Commonwealth, have legislated against homosexuality and the penalties are severe. For that matter, they have no right to attend the inquest of the person with whom they may have lived and shared their life for 20, 30 or 40 years and whose funeral they may have organised.
I am sure that the House has considerable sympathy with the points that the hon. Gentleman makes, but how do his remarks relate to sex education in schools and section 28?
I am sure, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you would have ruled me out of order had I steered away from the Bill's content. My point is simple, however. At the moment, the section is obsolete. It only exists as a declamatory law and it makes people feel all right about being prejudiced against homosexuals in society. If we are to have a declamatory law on homosexuality, it should proclaim that everyone is equal under the law and has an equal right to live and love.
Many of us presume that this House will come to one view on the matter and that the other place will come to another. A friend of mine who sits in the House of Lords told me that her first day there was spent in a debate on section 28 which she found perplexing because she had never heard so many medical terms in her life. I profoundly hope that as a result of, I think, four free votes in this House, the House of Lords will honour the views of the democratic Chamber.
The House is indebted to Mr. Bryant. He put his case powerfully and sensitively. Some of the real-life examples that he gave reminded me of gay friends of mine who faced huge prejudice and difficulty when they decided to declare to their family and friends how they really felt about their sexuality. When I spoke at length on the issue in Committee, I mentioned a colleague of mine who was at university with me. When he realised his sexuality in his late teens, rather than face his family, he hanged himself in a toilet in our university. That is the reality of the prejudice and discrimination that many people experience, and that is why it is wrong to have a prejudiced piece of legislation on our statute books.
I shall be brief because the Liberal Democrats position on section 2A has been clear for a long time. We voted against it when it was first proposed and it has been party policy in successive manifestos to repeal it. Liberal Democrat MPs have voted against it time and again. It was our privilege to move an amendment in Committee, with cross-party support, to remove the section. In particular, I give credit to the hon. Members for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford) and for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) and Mr. Curry for their support.
My hon. Friend Mr. Clifton-Brown confirmed that the Conservatives will have a free vote and the Minister confirmed by nodding earlier that that is also the case for Labour Members. Do we take it that the Liberal Democrats will not have a free vote?
The hon. Gentleman can take it that that is case. It is party policy and has been in three, if not four, manifestos.
I commend the hon. Gentleman's party on that choice. I am sure that the vast majority of my hon. Friends will support his case. We would not dream of allowing a free vote on issues of race discrimination or gender discrimination. I understand the history but, frankly, would prefer my party to take the same stance as the Liberal Democrats.
I am grateful for that comment. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it is a matter of party policy and demands that approach.
We tried to get cross-party consensus on the amendment when we moved it in Committee and it is extremely important that the House gets consensus tonight. In yet another vote, we need to give a clear signal to the other place that the mind of the democratic House is made up. It needs to know that we have voted time and again on the issue and that it no longer splits the parties. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have made up their mind on it—indeed, some have even changed their mind. We must send a powerful message to the other place, so that it does not try to obstruct the democratic House on the issue yet again. It is time we got rid of the legislation.
In Committee it was noticeable that the majority of members from all parties voted to delete section 28, or section 2A, whichever one wants to call it. Mr. Clifton-Brown, Mr. Curry, and the hon. Members for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) and for Poole (Mr. Syms)—all Conservative Members—voted to delete section 28. They were right to do so, and I believe that their example will be followed by many other Conservative Members tonight. I hope we can maximise the Conservative vote tonight. People outside and in the other place know where the majority of Liberal Democrats and Labour Members stand. It is important that we get rid of the issue by as many Conservative Members as possible voting for the amendment. That will be the best way of getting rid of the discrimination once and for all.
Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman towards consensus. Many of us have considerable sympathy with the points made by Mr. Bryant, but would vote for the deletion of section 28 only if appropriate other safeguards were in place. If Mr. Davey wants consensus and wants members of all parties to support his argument, it would be nice to hear him supporting the idea that parents might have some say about what their children were taught.
I am grateful for that intervention, which brings me on to my next point. There are already many safeguards to protect children and give parents the power. The Learning and Skills Act 2000 makes it clear that local authorities are not responsible for sex education in schools. The Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000 makes it clear that there is a framework for protecting children. It is a strong framework that had support from all parts of the House. The Education Act 1996, as the hon. Member for Cotswold said, gave parents the right to remove their children from sex education lessons in school if they so wished. The sex and relationship education guidance published by the Government in July 2000, which was so powerfully supported from the Conservative Front Bench, is very clear. It is difficult to understand what further safeguards are required. They are strong and they work.
Has the hon. Gentleman any conception of what it is like for a child to be withdrawn deliberately by the parents from any formal instruction? That child is immediately isolated and is often treated in a rather unpleasant way by the rest of the children.
That argument is fallacious. It would be easy to ensure that the removal of the child was done in a sensitive way if the parents spoke to the teacher and the head teacher. There should be no problem about that.
The Conservative amendment, No. 37, which proposes another approach to give parents choice—through ballots—is one of the most odious amendments to come before the House in a long time. Can the hon. Gentleman imagine what would happen? There would be ballot after ballot led by homophobes trying to change the sex education policy of school after school. It is a recipe for homophobic behaviour on a grand scale. It would not give parents any real choice; it would give homophobes a choice. We should oppose it vigorously.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I did not support the amendment in Committee, and I find it odd that he should believe that democracy is right when democrats would agree with Liberal Democrats, but not right at other times. However, his earlier point was that there was no need for any new safeguard. Will he concede that section 28 covers the organisations covered by section 508, which my hon. Friend Mr. Clifton-Brown read out earlier, including youth clubs, and that no other legislation covers those institutions?
I shall give the hon. Gentleman two answers. [Interruption.] He made two points, so he deserves two answers. His first point was that Liberal Democrats do not like democracy in these circumstances. We are Liberal Democrats; we believe in liberal democracy. That means, as the hon. Gentleman as a Member of the House ought to know, that the interests of minorities should be protected under the law. We stand firm and square for that, and I am surprised that he does not.
On new clause 17, as the hon. Member for Cotswold said, section 28 does not apply to youth clubs. We are concerned about new clause 17 because of the way it could apply. Does it take account of the voluntary sector? Would it apply where a local authority gave some small support to a voluntary-run youth club, possibly scouts or a church club? One of the major flaws in the new clause is that children and young people attend youth clubs on a voluntary basis, according to their parents' wishes. That is quite different from attending school, which is compulsory by law. The parents can decide, after discussion with those running the youth club, whether their children should attend. New clause 17 goes into dangerous territory for the Conservative party, infringing the rights of parents and voluntary groups. I am surprised to see it tabled in the name of Conservative Members.
The hon. Gentleman was present in Committee and he will have discovered that there is a lacuna in the Bill. If the existing section 2A is abolished, there will be no provision for guidance to youth clubs and other bodies. Our new clause specifically refers to those funded by local authorities. Those are public sector bodies. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there needs to be guidance to youth clubs and other such bodies?
The hon. Gentleman does not seem to have grasped the point that there are many voluntary youth clubs throughout the country, often scouts and guides, that receive taxpayers' money from local authorities. Many local authorities help the uniformed organisations and voluntary-run organisations and would fall foul of the new clause.
I shall take no more of the time of the House, as we want to hear from other right hon. and hon. Members. It is time the House grew up, realised how our constituents are living out there, stopped hiding in the past, and removed this odious legislation from the statute book once and for all.
As Mr. Clifton-Brown rightly said, the essence of the debate is the education, protection and care of children. That is what we should focus on—how we nurture children's minds so that, as adults, they can operate properly in society. That is the aim of education, of growing up, of youth clubs, of voluntary sector organisations, of parents, governors and teachers. The problem with section 28 is that that is not its aim. Section 28 has been bypassed by subsequent legislation and by society's increasing acceptance of difference.
When we deal with difference, we need to be honest with children. As sure as eggs is eggs, children will notice if we are not telling them the truth. Any parent knows that if a child asks us a question and we try to sidestep it rather than dealing with it directly and honestly in a way that he or she can understand, he or she will not only not believe us on that occasion, but will probably not believe anything we say ever after. That means that as early as a child asks, "Why is uncle Fred living with uncle George?" we have to tell them. As early as a child says, "Mummy, I've just seen two men holding hands," or, "That girl just kissed that other girl," if we do not tell the truth about the reason behind it, the child will never believe us on that or on anything else. Education must be in the context of the world we live in, not the world we would like to live in. Where a school is in a community, the education from that school must reflect not only the ethos of the school but the community and families from which pupils of that school are drawn. If parents have the opportunity to choose a school—we must all accept that that choice is not available to everybody, for a variety of reasons, such as ability to travel, and, in some circumstances, ability to pay—to some extent, they have a voice within that school. That is what many hon. Members are concerned about. It has been said that hon. Members would feel more comforted in supporting the withdrawal of section 28 if some other protection were in place. I ask those Members to consider carefully what they think is happening, what is really happening, and what might be the effect of proposed legislation.
What is happening now? In schools, the curriculum committee that is required of every governing body of every state-funded school must include a teacher, a parent and other members of the governing body, and it must approve the curriculum of the school. If parents are not happy with the curriculum devised, not only can they remove the child if they want to do so but they can object to the curriculum overall. That curriculum needs to be agreed by the school, and that is part of what we do now.
How many parents examine the material that is used in schools in sex education? Surely the hon. Lady cannot imagine that the system works as well as possible, and that parents are always making an informed decision in that process.
The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. I have experience not only as a parent but as a grandparent: I have three grandchildren in primary education, and I also have a child aged 19 in education, so I can see the whole range of education in my family. If a child came home with a story about something inappropriate that had happened at school, I cannot imagine the parents not noticing. The prospect of sending curriculum material to every parent for approval would be dire. Curriculum bodies allow representatives of parents to represent the view of the community to the governing body. That is the purpose of setting up the governing body in that way.
My problem with amendment No. 17 is that it would ask every parent to vet curriculum material—on an annual basis, I presume, as curriculum material changes all the time—which would be a nightmare. I cannot see how that could work. The representation of parents on governing bodies is working well and has been working well for some time. The evidence that it is working well is that we do not have a flood of parents knocking on our constituency office door saying, "Good heavens, my child has been looking at this material today, and I object strongly." If a parent did so, I would represent their view, but it has never happened.
The proof of that is in the experience. Since section 28 was introduced, people have not been bringing forward such material. That is not because of the protection of section 28, because, as we know, section 28 has been overtaken by events. The protection has been the good sense of the parents, teachers and governors on the governing body who decide the curriculum. That has worked well for a long time, and it has been enhanced still further by the guidance that has been produced. Hon. Members may want to enshrine that guidance in law, but I think there are difficulties with that. Such an approach does not recognise the very thing that is special about schools—the fact that they are founded in the communities in which they are placed. In a predominantly Muslim area, the curriculum may be taken in a particular direction suited to the community. A predominantly Christian area or Christian school may have a particular direction for their education, too. That is to be welcomed, and it recognises the breadth of culture, religion and diversity that we have in communities.
Enshrining that in legislation becomes extremely difficult. At the moment, a school can reflect the ethos of the community in which it is based, but enshrining that in legislation would fix that at the point at which we are now, and would not allow for the constant changes in communities. We are living in a dynamic society that changes constantly, and we must recognise not only the changes in society overall but changes in education and what is thought appropriate. What we thought 50 years ago, and what we thought when I was at school, is very different from what we think now. Parliament can set out certain broad objectives that a school might want to achieve, but I have never thought that Parliament is the right to place to decide on the day-by-day aspects of a school's curriculum. That level of detail, and that level of imposition on family life, seem profoundly wrong.
That kind of decision should not be taken in this place, because it strips out all the usefulness of the contact between parents and schools. We should treasure that contact, which is not achieved through a bureaucratic process and a ballot. Balloting on these issues does not bring out the best in everybody. All that happens when we have ballots is that entrenched positions develop on either side and debate is polarised, and groups with different sets of values pull the community apart. It is not about cohesion or bringing people together, and that is very wrong, certainly for children. I would not want my children to be placed in a school in which such debates started to divide communities.
These are questions for the family. The morality that I want in my family—we have, I hope, very high moral standards—comes from the family, what we believe, and what we discuss at home. It is sad and a shame that there are some families in which such discussions do not take place. We cannot say that the proper place for all that discussion is school. We must not be directive to that extent. I have strong feelings about how I want my children to be: I want them to be caring, open and accepting of other people. I do not want them to go to a school that closes down their minds in relation to accepting and caring for different kinds of families
Does the hon. Lady not accept that the nub of this debate is not about accepting or tolerating but about promoting, which is a different thing altogether?
I am sad that that has been raised, as it relates to the differences between what people believe and what is true. The fact that someone believes something does not make it true. It is a complete myth that sexuality can be promoted. Members of my family are gay, straight and transsexual, too. Are we saying that any of those people have a lesser or greater place in the family or in society? Of course we are not. If someone were to beg me, on their knees, to be gay, I could not be, because I am not gay. No more could I say to anyone I know who is gay, "You must be straight." It is not possible to promote a particular sexuality as having a greater value than another. I strongly and firmly attest and believe that one's sexuality is as much a part of oneself as any other aspect.
We can no more lop off an arm than change our sexuality—it would be a denial of oneself. It is wrong-headed and a complete myth to suggest that sexuality can be promoted. If it could, everyone would be straight because, when we go to school, to be gay is to be different and normality is promoted—whatever a normal family is. Two parents married for all time with two children and everyone living happily ever after is the preferred and promoted state in schools, and that is supported by guidance, yet people are gay.
Does the hon. Lady not accept that, among children, it is wrong to promote sexuality at all and that when a child of 12 becomes pregnant, as has happened in the village next to mine, it suggests that there is too much encouragement of sex among people who are years under the age of consent? I ask the hon. Lady to consider new clause 21, which addresses that wider issue.
I would happily go some way with what the hon. Gentleman says about the sexualisation of children, but the new clause that he appears to support would not do much about it. The sexualisation of children is not happening in schools, or even necessarily youth clubs; it is happening in a wider sense, and I deplore it. I do not like the idea of little children wearing adult clothes and behaving in an adult way; that is quite wrong, but it is not happening in schools, and it is certainly not being promoted in them. If it were promoted in the schools where my children are taught, I could imagine that fleets of parents would go down to the school saying, "What on earth are you doing telling my five-year-old that Barbie is an essential part of life and that little girls of five should be like Barbie?" That is not the way that we expect our schools to behave now.
Is not the truth of the matter that children are talking about sex day in day out, and that, rather than promoting anything, it is often a case of answering their questions and correcting some of the myths?
My hon. Friend, as ever, is entirely right, and what he says takes me back to the beginning of my remarks: children will always, and should always, ask questions. Without asking questions, how can they know anything? If we do not tell the truth, they will make things up, and the myths about how children are born will continue. I do not want to make the House any more squeamish than it has been made by earlier remarks, but I recently read that some teenagers believe cling film is an appropriate form of contraception. I will not go into how the cling film is used; hon. Members can use their imaginations. That sort of problem leads to what Mr. Brazier rightly pointed out—too many teenage pregnancies—but that can be dealt with only by answering the questions that young people ask about their own feelings, their own relationships and how they fit in.
Very often, peer group pressure, rather than a teacher trying to instil an idea into a child, is the greatest problem. Those ideas are already being propagated all the time in the playground, after school and wherever young people congregate on street corners, and we must be empowered to challenge them. We must be able to say to young people that some behaviour is not appropriate in a relationship—it is not loving, caring or responsible—and that males and females are not respecting each other's bodies or the child that might result.
All sorts of things are included in the guidance that the hon. Member for Cotswold rightly commended to the House, but I differ with him about enshrining such things in law for the very difficult reasons that I have mentioned. My problem is that the guidance would be rigid and fixed for all time.
If the hon. Gentleman wants to tell me how he could change the guidance, he may.
First, I said that the guidance could be changed by statutory instrument under the affirmative procedure, which is how we would enshrine it in law.
Secondly, does the hon. Lady accept that the written statement will sometimes depart from the guidance? In those circumstances, how are parents supposed to make their views known in their children's school, other than by withdrawing them from the sex education in that school, which is not desirable, as I am sure the hon. Lady would admit? Our mechanism of having a ballot—I expect that it would be used very rarely—would provide those parents with that safeguard.
The hon. Gentleman says that the measure would be used very rarely. Thank goodness for that, as it shows that the good sense of teachers and governors, which I have already outlined, will prevail. I cannot imagine how the measure would be used at all because the current system is working well.
It has been established in Committee and repeated on the Floor of the House today that section 28 is obsolete. The hon. Member for Cotswold has accepted that many times in debate. If the guidance is working well now, and since hon. Members have not been able to cite a single complaint from parents who have not been able to influence the school, what is section 28 for? Why not allow the variety of education that exists to continue, so that education can be as dynamic as we would want it to be?
I speak in favour of amendment No. 8. It is a long time since I have said anything in public about section 28. Although I tabled the related amendment to the Local Government Bill in 1987, I have kept out of the debate for some years now. In view of all that has happened and all the things have been said in the past 15 years and again this evening, I thought it might be helpful if I could try to get the debate back to the reality of section 28 and away from the assertions and assumptions that have been made ever since.
I listened with great care to the impassioned speech made by Mr. Bryant, and I pay my respects to him for saying what he said. He said that the Bishop of Oxford was wrong and he knew it. May I say, as gently as I possibly can, that the hon. Gentleman's views of the purposes behind section 28 are wrong? I tabled it, and I hope that he will accept that none of the assertions that he has made were in my mind in the time.
When I arrived in the House for the first time in 1987, I had spent 11 years in local government at a time when various councils and councillors were wasting huge sums of public money and using large sums of public money to achieve social change that the overwhelming majority of people in this country did not want.
I will not because of time, if my hon. Friend will forgive me.
I was enthusiastically opposed to what I saw as a misuse of money then, and I remain so now.
I suffered the fate of all new Members of Parliament; I was unceremoniously dumped on to a Standing Committee. No one took the trouble to tell me that, as a Government Back Bencher, I was not supposed to say or do anything, so I tabled an amendment. Little did I realise what I was unleashing when I did so. I doubt that many other MPs have been accused of causing people to abseil from the Public Gallery on to the Floor of another place. I do not think that many other MPs, at least not in the past century, have been blamed for a siege of Parliament. Indeed, I got a fair amount of hate mail and a fair amount of publicity, most of it unflattering.
It might be relevant to say, perhaps in my own defence, that I gave an interview to a newspaper called Capital Gay. I do not know whether it still exists, but on
"David Wilshire is not a bigot. I repeat: David Wilshire—the man who introduced Clause 28 into Parliament—is not a bigot.
Confused, ignorant and illogical—Yes. Stupid, even. But bigoted he is not."
To this day, I protest that section 28 has nothing to do with bigotry, and it certainly had nothing to do with bigotry when I introduced it.
My focus 15 years ago was on the use and misuse of taxpayers' money. It had nothing to do then—and it has nothing to do now—with lifestyles or making moral judgments.
Forgive me, but many other Members wish to speak.
At that time, councils were intentionally attempting to promote homosexuality. It may be argued that one cannot promote it, but councils were trying to do so at that time. There were plenty examples of that. Some councils portrayed alternative families as the same as the ones that we all know. Councils were using taxpayers' money to do that. All that section 28 said then and all that it says now is, "You simply mustn't use taxpayers' money to do that sort of thing." Section 28 passed no judgment on individuals. It left them free to do whatever they wished. I defend their right to do that. I agree totally with almost all that the hon. Member for Rhondda said. I have no problems when it comes to an individual issue. It is the use of taxpayers' money that concerns me.
I accept that the hon. Gentleman considers himself not to be a bigot, but the phrase that many people find profoundly offensive and bigoted is "pretended family relationship". Does he not accept that?
I understand what the hon. Gentleman says. If we were to get into a debate about lifestyles, that point would apply. However, all that I was saying then and all that I am saying now is that one must not use taxpayers' money for such things. Fifteen years later, I am still opposed to the use of taxpayers' money in that way. I believe that section 28 was necessary because money was being used for those purposes. I believe that section 28 has worked, because the things that were happening stopped. If local government has no wish to promote or to attempt to promote homosexuality, what is the fuss all about? All the add-on issues and concerns that the hon. Gentleman and others have raised have nothing to do with section 28. There is an ethical debate to be had, but section 28 should not be used as the vehicle for that debate.
I hope that, you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will allow for a vote to be held on amendment No. 8. I certainly want one, as does my hon. Friend Mr. Leigh who tabled the amendment. I make that formal request now. On balance—I stress the phrase "on balance"—I have no regrets at what I did 15 years ago. I believed then that what I was doing was right, and I believe that, by voting for the amendment, I will be doing what I still believe to be right.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak after Mr. Wilshire, who explained the heart of the problems that we are debating. It is the assumption that homosexuality can be promoted and therefore that, by spending public money, one can increase the proportion of the population that is homosexual. In itself, that statement is totally stupid; there is no evidence for it whatever.
The hon. Gentleman's proposal that central Government should legislate in specific areas to stop local government wasting money is rather stupid. Local government wastes money in many other areas, and we rely on the electorate to boot out councillors who waste public money. Parliament does not introduce individual clauses year after year to stop individual councillors wasting a bit of money here and there.
The hon. Gentleman assumes that section 28 was all about preventing the waste of public money. That may have been the reason why he introduced it and he may not be a bigot. However, I was deeply offended when section 28 was passed and, in my first year as a member of Preston borough council, I was able to persuade the council to pass a resolution against the provision. For me and many other gay men and lesbians, section 28 and, in particular, the reference to "pretended family relationship" is deeply offensive. I regard my relationship with my partner in the same way as my sisters would regard their relationships with their married partners. To enshrine in legislation something that is so partial and so deeply offensive to a minority of the population should cause every hon. Member to think deeply about whether that is what we are sent here to do.
I look forward to the removal of section 28. I also smiled somewhat at the assumption that sexuality can be promoted. I went to school in the west riding of Yorkshire in the 1950s and 1960s, and the concept that homosexuality existed was unknown to me. I was totally unaware that an alternative to marriage existed. Sex education should be taught in such a way that adolescent boys and girls who are struggling with their sexuality feel that they can have a happy future if they turn out to be gay. I hope that the vast majority who turn out to be heterosexual will grow up to be tolerant, caring and loving to everyone and that prejudices and bigotry will not be supported by legislation, however innocently that legislation may have been introduced in the first place.
Many exaggerated claims have been made about section 28. Some say that it prevents any discussion of homosexuality in the classroom, that it prevents teachers from tackling bullying and that it is a "hate clause". None of that is true. The circular that was issued to accompany the provision in 1988 makes it clear, for example, that objective discussion of homosexuality is not affected by section 28.
Section 28 is about the use of local authority money for the active promotion of homosexuality. Certain subjects in our society are controversial. Politics is one and religion is another. Sexuality is a controversial subject on which people have differing views. We hear a lot of talk about respect when the subject is raised. I am concerned that there should be respect for the views of parents.
I am very relaxed about what people do in private. That is their own business. I do not seek to condemn people for what they do. Like most of the British public, I am realistic about these things. However, most people do not want homosexuality promoted to children in school or elsewhere. We are not extreme people. Like most people, I am tolerant of homosexuals. Those who simply hate homosexual people are, thankfully, in a tiny minority. I doubt whether a single person in the House falls into that category.
I use the word "tolerant" deliberately. Most British people are tolerant of homosexual people. They may know homosexuals and they like them as people, as I do. However, whether we like it or not, many people in this country—their views should not be dismissed—think that homosexual practice, with the emphasis on the word "practice", is wrong. That is what tolerance means—putting up with something that one believes to be wrong.
I have tabled an amendment to retain section 28 partly because I believe that there should be a debate on the subject. If I had not tabled it, there would have been no debate on a matter that is important to the British people, whatever their views. I tabled it also because I believe that section 28 is right and represents the wishes of the majority of the British public. We must be careful when legislating on such a contentious subject and dealing with whether council tax payers' money is spent on promoting views that many people find controversial.
Should local authorities tell children to try experimenting sexually with boys and girls to ascertain with whom they feel most comfortable? Some local authorities recommend materials that advise exactly that. Should sex education in schools be conducted in a moral vacuum? My answer is no. Protection such as section 28 should exist. There is anxiety about what schools teach about politics and religion; sex education is the same sort of subject. Some appalling materials should not be promoted for use in our schools.
We should be careful and consider not simply what politically correct views dictate, or the wishes of a specific minority group, but the genuine wishes of ordinary people who have children. They want their children to be protected and to know that local authorities will do nothing in schools, youth groups or elsewhere to undermine the moral values that they have attempted to instil in their children.
One reason for retaining section 28 is that it works. If it did not, the Government would not have spent so much parliamentary time and political capital on trying to repeal it. If it were truly redundant, as some allege, it could remain on the statute book, unused and forgotten. However, gay rights supporters and the Government want to repeal it because they know that it works.
I shall do so later, but others want to speak and I want to make my point. However, if the hon. Lady wishes to intervene later, I shall give way to her.
Gay rights groups want to repeal section 28 because they want public subsidy for their work. They know that they would not receive much money if they promoted their cause in the high street. People will give to charities that look after the poor and so on, but they will not knowingly fund the promotion of homosexuality or any other sexual special interest group. Public money has breathed life into groups, which, if left alone, would make little headway and would not survive. Such groups need public money. Gay rights groups know that some councillors are sympathetic to pushing public cash their way. Section 28 stops them doing that. Extreme local authorities that would like to promote homosexuality often do not do so because they are afraid of section 28.
In 1992, only four years after the provision was introduced, Peter Tatchell of the gay rights group Outrage! complained that he knew of at least 35 instances of self-censorship by local authorities that feared prosecution under section 28. Councillors know that if they approve ultra vires expenditure, they can be forced to pay back council tax payers' money out of their pockets. That is a sobering thought. They also know that a council tax payer who objects to the unlawful use of his money can seek judicial review.
In Scotland in 2000, a nurse sued Glasgow city council for breach of section 28. She succeeded in stopping a council-funded youth group, with members as young as 12, that used extremely explicit homosexual pornography. The council was forced to ensure that its grants were not used to promote homosexuality. The nurse's case was so strong that even when the action had to be dropped because the Scottish Parliament deleted section 28, Glasgow city council agreed to pay its legal costs.
Some councillors do not want to fund gay groups, but hide behind section 28. They fear the vitriol that the gay rights lobby might pour on them for refusing to support them. They say, "I'm sorry. I'd like to fund your gay rights venture but I simply can't because of section 28." If that is one of the ways in which the provision operates, that is fine—its purpose is fulfilled.
The current law works. It prevents the promotion of a lifestyle with which many disagree. The wording is clear; parents understand it and that it is why they like it. It reassures them about what their local authority is teaching their children, especially in schools. Gay rights groups know what it means. That is why they dislike it. It means that the statute book states that promoting homosexuality is undesirable.
Is the hon. Gentleman worried by the fact that many teachers dislike section 28 because they have felt inhibited about giving essential guidance to troubled adolescents?
Nothing in section 28 prevents a balanced discussion in the classroom of sexuality, homosexuality or anything else.
Let me deal with the Conservative party because it is important to understand our position. Conservative Front-Bench Members fear that, if they support section 28 they will be perceived as acting against a minority, and that that will lose us support in the country. I do not believe that. The only people who raise gay rights issues at election time are gay rights activists. On the doorstep, voters are worried about crime, education and health.
Homosexual people vote Conservative because they believe in Conservative values and not because the party plays up to a minority rights agenda. We cannot appease every interest group. Tory Members could vote en masse for repeal today but I doubt whether it would sway more than a few hundred voters in the country. In my experience, those who are most stridently critical of traditional Tory party policy on section 28 would not vote Conservative anyway.
Some people hold conventional views and like section 28, but believe that it should go because it is a totem to others. Such arguments have been made today. They perceive that a small minority has strong personal feelings about the provision. That is undeniable, but it is not a good enough reason to change a law. Some people feel strongly that recreational use of cannabis should be legal, but that is not enough for Parliament.
I stress, especially to my hon. Friends, that we must make a moral judgment. I hear the sound of hackles rising, but we make moral judgments all the time in the House. We decide that it is moral to tax people and threaten them with criminal proceedings unless they pay. We force people to pay income tax because we believe that it is moral to do that to fund public services. We disagree about the extent of taxation but we cannot deny that we make a moral judgment. We do so all the time.
We make moral judgments about criminalising people. We will shortly consider the Sexual Offences Bill, which will criminalise some forms of incest for the first time. It will provide that a person who has any sexual contact with someone who is under 16 commits a criminal offence. Most hon. Members support that. However, it is a moral judgment.
In the past, some hon. Members laughed when I said that I have friends who are homosexual. I mention that to rebut the calumny, which is often thrown at people with views such as mine, that we are hateful, spiteful, prejudiced or bigoted and that we openly or secretly wish homosexual people to suffer. We are accused of condoning physical violence against homosexual people or stirring up such violence, and of being equivalent to racists. We are nothing of the sort. We are simply making a judgment that is based on our religion or our moral beliefs about the family. It is based on profound conviction. We make a judgment about people's actions, not their inherent, inborn traits, the colour of their skin or their genes. I accept that we make a moral judgment, but I believe that we are entitled to make it.
Those who are open and honest about their moral judgments do not hate the people who engage in the act of which they disapprove. That would be thoroughly unchristian. However, they believe that the act is wrong. Sometimes in this House, we have to have the moral courage to stand up for what we believe in. When we are talking about protecting children and young people, we must stand up for what we believe to be right.
Section 28 is a statement that there is no moral equivalence between homosexuality and heterosexuality. I make that moral statement. I know that it is controversial and that it is not accepted by many people in this House, but I make it in the knowledge that many other people in this country believe it to be true. It is the view of very many parents who are interested not in the gay rights agenda, but in bringing up their children, just as I want to do, to be moral, responsible, self-controlled and right-thinking members of society. They care about preserving the values that are important to them. Why should they be called names just for doing the right thing for their children?
I commend amendment No. 8 to the House.
Mr. Wilshire spoke about getting the debate back to reality. I say this to the hon. Gentleman, who is not in his place: it may be that his intentions were honourable and related to saving taxpayers' money, but the unintended consequences of the legislation have been appalling. My hon. Friend Mr. Bryant set out the reality of the position from one perspective. As a trustee of Childline, I have to tell the House that I have heard the reality from kids speaking at the end of a phone line about the lack of protection that they have received because of the uncertainty in their schools.
Mr. Clifton-Brown spoke about the importance of protecting children from bullying. He is absolutely right to talk about that, but section 28 was a charter to allow some bullying to take place on the ground of homophobia. However much Opposition Front Benchers shake their heads about that, I simply say to them that they should come and listen to the children whom we talk to at Childline and hear about the pain that they suffer. He may stick to his principles and believe that the measure could not possibly have that effect, but the reality is that it did.
This issue is not about wasting taxpayers' money. Indeed, Childline has to raise money and is one of a number of charities that have to do so to fund work to clear up the damage done by pernicious measures such as section 28. The reality is that section 28 passed judgment. That was most brilliantly—if one can use those words to mean "in a shining sense"—shown in the words "pretended family relationship". That phrase caused huge hurt and, indeed, it was intended by some to do so. That was at the heart of section 28 and it has damaged people. One of the finer things that we will be doing this year in our legislation is ridding the statute book of this nasty and pernicious measure.
The word "promotion" was a very clever one to use. That may not have been the intention, but it was unintentionally very clever. Why? Those of us who thought that section 28 was a bad measure had to say, if we supported its repeal, that we wanted homosexuality to be promoted. If we wanted it to be repealed, it apparently followed that we wanted homosexuality to be promoted. That is why the provision was so clever and why some of the press that I enjoyed three years ago was so unpleasant about me, as, apparently, I wanted to promote homosexuality.
I do not want the promotion of homosexuality or heterosexuality. What I want is responsible teaching in our schools to help children to cope with growing up. I say to the hon. Member for Cotswold that it does not help to take pieces of guidance for teachers in Scotland, deliberately to twist the way in which they were intended to be used and say that such material would be absolutely terrifying if it fell into the hands of schoolchildren. He knows that it was not intended to fall into the hands of schoolchildren and there is no question about that. Of course, such an approach can pervert the way in which we talk about the issue. Once again, it is tragic to see, when so many Conservative Members have now changed their minds—
I shall not.
Many Conservative Members have changed their minds for all the best of reasons, but, unfortunately, underneath it all, among some members of the Conservative party, there is still a willingness to say, "Somewhere underneath all this, teachers really want to promote this stuff and it's all very nasty."
Mr. Leigh constantly spoke about being a parent, so I shall do so in return. I have a son and three daughters. One of them may grow up to be gay or they all might not be gay. What I know is that, because of their ages, they are all passing through periods of growing up and are becoming adults and going through sexual experiences in changing from a child to an adult. I am glad if teachers are encouraged to gain understanding. The hon. Member for Cotswold referred to the word "clitoris". I have an 11-year-old daughter, a nine-year-old daughter and a six-year-old daughter. I am not ashamed that that word is contained in guidance to teachers. If my 11-year-old child, who is experiencing the passage of growing up, can talk with her teachers about such things and not feel ashamed and scared about it, that is a good thing and the hon. Gentleman should not be afraid of it.
I say to the hon. Member for Cotswold and his party that they lecture the Labour party on not trusting teachers and tell us that we give them too much red tape and guidance, but at the first opportunity for a free vote, they immediately want to invent guidance, regulations and red tape to tell teachers what to do in the classroom. I am prepared to trust teachers on his issue. When I was in the Conservative party, I was told that this issue was all about family values. I have always felt that it is about family values, because I do not think that family values are simply the ones that some in his party would wish to say that families were about. Families are complex things. They come in all shapes and sizes. The important thing is the love, attention and nurturing that we give to our children.
There is a crucial issue that the House has not discussed today. Is it not the case that, in passing the Adoption and Children Act 2002, we last year institutionalised in law homosexual parenthood as an actual family relationship? Therefore, if a council were to look for gay parents under the law that this House has passed, it could fall foul of section 28. There is a conflict.
Over the years since my little local difficulty with the Conservative party, the hon. Gentleman and I have not always seen eye to eye, but he is absolutely right on this one. Once again, the crucial issue is the love that can be provided by one or two people, whether they are of different sexes or the same sex, for a child. That must be reflected in the school environment, local authorities and everywhere else where a child is brought up.
This issue is not about tolerance, as some hon. Members have said. As long as it is seen as being only about tolerance, we have not moved very far. It is about fairness and equality. It is about equality because we are all capable of loving each other, although that may happen for different reasons and in different circumstances. The hon. Member for Gainsborough said—I think that he denigrated his argument by doing so—that the issue was all about the gay rights special lobby. Frankly, there is every reason for those in that lobby to undertake special pleading about some of the devastatingly cruel things that have been done to people who are gay, but the issue is not about special pleading. It is simply about saying, "Let's all treat each other in the same way." There is no special pleading; it is about fairness and about everybody being equal under the law.
Will the hon. Gentleman take it from me that, in an age of pervasive cynicism about Punch and Judy politics, it is important not to oppose, criticise or formulate alternative policies for the sake of doing so? I will vote for repeal and against the obnoxious amendments, and I shall also be against other risible amendments that are really designed to save face.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman; this issue is not about political correctness, but fairness. In that sense, I agree with the hon. Member for Gainsborough that it is about a moral judgment—the moral judgment to be fair and to allow everybody to be treated equally.
That is what is at the heart of getting rid of this very nasty measure. It is about scrapping those who would use it to hide their prejudices and fears, because they have nothing to be fearful about. What people have to fear is prejudice out there doing harm. When my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda mentions the 12 people who are on the end of being gay bashed and murdered each year, year in, year out, the hon. Member for Gainsborough should think about that. If the legislation before us saves one life, let alone 12 lives—or 120 in 10 years—it will be a very good thing that we do tonight.
Section 28 is a dreadful measure, and we should get rid of it. Let us hope that if anything is infectious, it is the spirit of Conservative Members who will vote to do so tonight. Let us hope that they can pass on their enthusiasm to their colleagues in another place.
We have had a mixed debate, including a number of passionate, impressive speeches revealing deep understanding of the complex, sensitive issues with which we are dealing. We have also heard speeches that seemed curiously redolent of a previous era when prejudice, stereotypes and divisiveness were in the ascendancy.
Our debates on this subject send important messages about our attitudes to tolerance, fairness and inclusion. Those messages are relevant both to the wider public and to the other place. This evening's debate will receive a great deal more attention from the wider public and the media than did our debate in Committee, which was generally a high-level and impressive debate. The outcome in Committee was that a majority of Members in each of the political parties voted to repeal section 28. There was an overwhelming vote of 19 to two in favour of repeal. Fourteen Labour Members voted for repeal, and none voted against.
I ask the hon. Gentleman to restrain himself. I was about to refer to him.
Four Conservative Members voted for the repeal of section 28. Two, including the hon. Gentleman, did not. One Liberal Democrat Member voted for repeal. In total, 19 Members were in favour of repeal and only two were in favour of retention. That sends a powerful message that I hope will be echoed in this debate and listened to very carefully in the other place. I give way to the hon. Gentleman.
Will the Minister concede that the debate in Committee was extremely brief, and that not all Members who wanted to speak got the chance to do so?
We had a long debate; it lasted almost a whole sitting of the Committee. There were frequent interventions, including some from the hon. Gentleman. I certainly did not get the impression that the debate was curtailed in any way, and the issues were covered thoroughly, as they have been tonight.
There are several amendments and new clauses in this group, and I shall begin with those that seek to disturb the substantial degree of agreement on the principle of repeal. Amendment No. 8 and amendments Nos. 10 to 18 seek to remove clause 119 and the associated consequential amendments, thereby preserving section 28. I do not intend to go over all the ground on the principle of repeal. The Government's position on that is clear: section 28 is an unnecessary measure that many people find deeply offensive, because it stigmatises certain lifestyles. We are committed to tackling actual and perceived discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, and section 28 is widely perceived as discriminatory. We should remove that unnecessary measure; it has caused offence and confusion for long enough.
The other amendments and new clauses seek to introduce purported safeguards or to delay implementation, based on concerns about the possible effect of repeal. They are not necessary and they would have no beneficial effect.
I agree with the Minister that section 28 has caused too much pain to too many people for too long. Is he, as the Minister for Local Government and the Regions, interested to hear that I was informed by the Department for Education and Skills last week that it is not aware of having a received a single complaint in the last six months about the sex and relationship education guidance issued in July 2000? Is it not a case of game, set and match?
That is clear important evidence that the current arrangements work well, and that there is absolutely no need for a change. As I shall go on to make clear, section 28 is wholly irrelevant to what is taught in schools, and the hon. Gentleman's point is valid.
Interestingly, many of the amendments appear to be based on the continuing misconception that section 28 has an impact on sex education in schools, which is a clear illustration of the confusion that the measure has engendered. Local education authorities have no say in what is taught in schools. The Education Act 1996, as amended, places the responsibility for sex education in schools firmly on teachers and governors. It gives the Secretary of State a statutory duty to issue guidance on sex and relationship education. It explicitly states that parents should be involved in developing a school's policy. Local authorities do not determine schools' sex education policies, so none of that is affected by the repeal of section 28.
Section 405 of the 1996 Act provides a further safeguard by enabling parents to withdraw their children from the non-statutory elements of sex education in schools—that is, the parts of the national curriculum that are not covered through science. Few parents see the need to make use of that safeguard. As the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, the Department for Education and Skills has received no complaints about the issue in the past six months. Indeed, since the guidance was introduced, the level of parental withdrawal has stood at well under 1 per cent. That represents an overwhelming endorsement of the framework that has been in place for nearly three years.
New clause 11 would require the Secretary of State to report every two years on the effect of the repeal of section 28 on a number of issues: adherence to the guidance that I have mentioned, the operation of the requirement for schools to make their policies available for inspection by parents, and the number of parents withdrawing their children from sex education lessons. That measure is simply not necessary. The fundamental point remains that, as I have said, local authorities have no locus in determining schools' sex education policies, and we have in place a robust framework, which will not be affected by the repeal of section 28. Surely there is no need to report on a measure that will have no effect.
The amendments to new clause 11 tabled by Mr. Turner would add a requirement to report on the operation of guidance for bodies established by local authorities for recreation and social and physical training. I believe that the hon. Gentleman is focusing on youth clubs in particular. Authorities have a duty to ensure that education provision in their area includes adequate facilities of that kind. They may choose to provide those directly, or others may provide them. The amendments are technically flawed because section 508 of the 1996 Act enables local authorities to provide such facilities, which is very different from establishing bodies, as suggested in the amendment; I shall deal with the wider issue of those facilities under new clause 17. However, I do not want to argue simply on technicalities; I regard the amendments as inappropriate.
New clause 17 would prevent local authorities from providing financial support to such facilities unless the authority was satisfied that any sex or relationship guidance offered by the facility complied with the sex and relationship education guidance issued by the Department for Education and Skills. That is an unnecessary bureaucratic burden, which the Opposition seek to foist on to local government and the voluntary sector. It shows that the purported concern with greater freedom for local government that we heard Opposition Members voicing in Committee is as flimsy as we always suspected. Indeed, the new clause could well put at risk the continued operation of valued youth centres and similar projects.
Let us consider a scenario in which a local authority is presented with a malicious unfounded complaint against a youth club operated by a voluntary agency, so it feels inhibited from giving any financial support to that body until the investigation has been completed. In the meantime, the organisation could cease to exist or be put out of business. That would be the consequence of the new clause; indeed, it would be the consequence of many of the elements associated with section 28. It would encourage homophobia and prejudice and allow bigots to interfere with proper service delivery. We should have no truck with that.
It is perfectly open to the Minister to present the extreme argument about an organisation collapsing for want of support during an investigation. He shakes his head at the word "extreme", but his argument does seem to me extreme. Does he concede that without new clause 17 there will be nothing to cover such organisations?
No, for the reasons that I shall give—but first let me put it on record that I was not presenting an extreme scenario. Having worked for many years in the voluntary sector, I know only too well how difficult life is for voluntary organisations that are dependent on local authorities. If malicious complaints are made about voluntary organisations and their funding is withdrawn, their whole operation can be threatened.
The position in relation to youth clubs is important, and I undertook to make it clear. The guidance issued by the DFES is primarily for schools. There are clear reasons for that. Parents have a right to expect a framework to exist to provide adequate protection for their children while they are in school. By contrast, attendance at youth clubs and other facilities providing recreation and social and physical training is voluntary. Many are run by Churches and voluntary organisations, and it is for parents to decide whether they wish their children to attend them. Nevertheless, the guidance specifically refers to youth workers and other professionals.
The guidance makes it clear that schools should work in partnership with the wider community and that health professionals, social workers, youth workers and peer educators working in schools should abide by the school's policy on sex education. The guidance also states that it would be inappropriate for any professional providing sex education to promote a particular sexuality. To quote paragraph 6.7 of the guidance:
"It is inappropriate for youth workers, as with any professional, to promote sexual orientation. They will be expected to respect this guidance when dealing with school age children. Individual views should not affect the independent advice given to the young person concerned."
The guidance has been the subject of plaudits from hon. Members on both sides of the House. Mr. Clifton-Brown emphasised the fact that it is well written and balanced. Guidance to youth workers is also available from other nationally recognised bodies. For example, the National Youth Agency has produced materials that can help to inform sexual relationship education work by youth workers.
The position that I have described is the correct and responsible one. Guidance sets out what we expect of those who deal with children, while reflecting parents' role in deciding whether their children attend youth clubs and other facilities provided outside schools, many of which are not provided by local authorities. In our view, authorities should act as community leaders. They know what is expected of them and they should act responsibly. They should not promote any specific lifestyle choice, but they should be able to provide services that meet local needs and support organisations that meet the needs of their communities. The new clause is misguided and unnecessary.
New clause 21 would require a local authority, in exercising any of its functions in relation to school age children, to ensure that there was a balanced presentation of views in any case in which the morality of sex outside marriage was raised as an issue. That is an unnecessary proposal. I have already made the basic points. Local authorities have no say over what sex and relationship education is taught in schools. The guidance to which I have referred was described as reasonable and balanced by the hon. Member for Cotswold. As I have already said, we expect professionals operating in non-school settings to respect the guidance when working with young people of school age. There is no evidence that those arrangements are not working satisfactorily, and the House should reject this inoperable and unnecessary proposal.
Amendment No. 37 is palpably a delaying mechanism designed to defer commencement of the repeal of section 28. It proposes that before repeal happens, the Secretary of State should certify that sexual relationship education guidance has been issued—that seems curious, given that I have a copy here and it has been available for three years—and that a mechanism should be established to allow parents to be balloted on the school's policy. The first requirement is wholly redundant. As for the second, the Education Act 1996 requires that schools work with parents in devising their sex education policies and that schools' statements on their policies are made available to parents. The guidance specifically addresses the issue of parental involvement and makes it clear that that should be ongoing, saying that it is "essential" that parents be regularly consulted on sex education in schools, especially when the contents are being reviewed. Those arrangements are between schools and parents. Section 28 has no bearing on them.
In the light of that, and of parents' ability to withhold their children from sex education lessons, we believe that balloting parents, quite apart from being bureaucratic, costly and potentially divisive, is an unnecessary requirement. An effective sex and relationship education programme is not a matter for crosses on ballot papers, which could, as Mr. Davey rightly said, turn out to be a recipe for homophobia.
We have established a successful and robust framework that ensures that clear guidance is in place, allows for some local discretion on the part of governors and head teachers in consultation with parents to ensure that what is taught reflects local cultural traditions, and draws on the professionalism of teachers and others who work with children. In the evidently very rare cases in which parents feel that the approach to teaching about sex and relationships is unsuitable for their child, they can withhold their child. There are sufficient protections in place.
The case for repeal of section 28 is clear. It serves no useful purpose, it is a relic of a less enlightened age, it is offensive and it should go. There is no need for further delay. I hope that the House will overwhelmingly reject these inappropriate amendments and approve clause 119, which repeals section 28.
There have been some strong and impassioned speeches expressing sincerely held views. It is clear that the House will be asked whether to retain section 2A. If it votes to retain the Bill as it emerged from Committee, without section 2A, it is clear that some safeguards are needed—[Hon. Members: "No."] I have made it clear that material emanates from health authorities, circulates and can be accessed by children of an inappropriate age. One of the key points in the guidance is that material should be suitable for children of a particular age. We are talking about the protection of children. Children's welfare and their moral upbringing should be paramount.
May I say politely to my hon. Friend that he offered not a scintilla of evidence that the material to which he objects is being used by teachers in schools? Does he accept that the danger of the ballot proposal is that it goes way beyond the right to withdraw one's own child from sex education, and creates a new right at which most people would baulk—that one should be able to vote to deny other people's children the sex education they deserve?
I am sorry that my hon. Friend made that intervention. He of all people should respect the pluralism represented by the ballot box. If a majority of parents in a ballot express the view that the materials are unsuitable, that is democracy working and the material should be taken away and rewritten. If they do so again, it is wholly right that the Secretary of State, who writes the guidance that my hon. Friend admires so much, and about which there have been no complaints in the past six months, should replace that guidance and those national materials.
If section 2A is to be abolished, the safeguards in place are not strong enough. The Minister did not make out a strong enough case regarding protection in youth clubs. He says that they are included in the guidance already laid out in connection with the Education Act 1996, but section 403 of that Act refers specifically to maintained schools, not to other bodies funded by local authorities, so they are not covered. Attendance at them might be voluntary, but they are not covered. If youth clubs started to use the type of materials to which I referred, they would not be outside the law. There is a lacuna, and the right hon. Gentleman must address it.
The Minister should also examine the health guidance. He arrogantly refused to look at the letter that I gave him. If he does so—I will write to him enclosing a copy of that letter—he will see that he must provide clarification. I am sure that my colleagues in another place will take up the matter. There is a muddle. Section 403(1C) says:
"Guidance under subsection (1A) must include guidance about any material which may be produced by NHS bodies for use for the purposes of sex education in schools."
The law is unclear.
Finally, the Minister did not deal properly with abolishing section 104 of the Local Government Act 2000, which relates to bullying. If there is no safeguard in that respect, we will be in great difficulty.
My hon. Friends will make up their own minds—there will be a free vote—but there are still problems to be dealt with and more safeguards that must be established. If those safeguards are not put in place, I have no doubt that my noble Friends in another place will send the matter back to this House.
Question accordingly negatived.
It being after half-past Seven o'clock, Mr. Deputy Speaker, pursuant to order [
Amendment proposed: No. 8, in page 70, line 41, leave out Clause 119.—[Mr. Leigh.]
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The House divided: Ayes 77, Noes 368.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment No.26, in page 110 [Schedule 7], leave out lines 16 to 18.
Amendment No.27, in page 72, line 22 [Clause 125], leave out '118'.
Amendment No.28, in page 72 [Clause 125], leave out lines 25 to 28.
Amendment No.29, in page 74, line 31 [Clause 126], leave out '113 and 118(a)' and insert 'and 113'.
Amendment No.30, in page 74, line 33 [Clause 126], leave out from 'the' to 'section' in line 36 and insert
'entry in Schedule 7 relating to'.
The context in which the House is considering these changes to the Fire Services Act 1947 is well known: the rumbling dispute between the Fire Brigades Union and the fire service employers that flared into action in the last quarter of last year and which, sadly, looks as though it might re-ignite in the near future, if press speculation is to be believed. From that dispute stemmed the Government's commissioning of the Bain report on the modernisation of the fire service, and I shall return in a moment to the question of what modernisation means.
The Government's view is clearly that subsections 3 to 8 of section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947—the parts of the Act that provide for the Secretary of State to give his approval to certain aspects of establishment schemes—should cease to have effect. Clause 118 of the Bill will effectively remove a large chunk of section 19 of the 1947 Act and place at least the notional power to change deployments of fire appliances and fire fighters, to close fire stations and open new ones, and to alter manning levels, into the hands of local fire authorities. I should like to make it clear at the outset that Conservative Members have absolutely no wish to stand in the way of the genuine modernisation of the fire service. There is consensus among fire service employers that there is a need to remove section 19, for many of the reasons that the Minister will no doubt outline in a few moments.
The reason for tabling amendment No. 2 is a rather technical one, but it will be clear to anyone who has read the Standing Committee proceedings. When the Government introduced what is now clause 118, which will scrap section 19 of the Fire Services Act, the Minister made it clear that an understanding of the Government's intentions would depend critically on the draft guidance that would be issued to fire authorities on how they should go about developing their integrated risk management plans, and how they should consult the local community and stakeholders on those draft plans.
As the Minister was unable to let the Committee see a draft at that stage, the Committee was unable to do its duty of scrutinising the Government's intent—the words in the Bill are not terribly informative.
The Minister gave a commitment in Committee to do his best to ensure that he could place the draft guidance at the disposal of the House before we considered the clause on Report. My hon. Friends and I tabled amendment No. 2 simply to allow the House to debate the issue, consider the draft guidance and discuss the issues arising from a review of it. I shall raise some specific issues in a moment, but I ask the Minister—no doubt he intends to do this anyway, but we should avoid any doubt—to make clear to the House what discussions have taken place between the Government, the employers and the FBU on the draft guidance, which he placed in the Library of the House last Wednesday and which will form the basis of the development of integrated risk management plans.
Amendment No. 2 has attracted the signatures of what I can describe only as a wide cross-section of opinion in the House, ranging from my hon. Friends and I to Labour Members who are not normally noted for their inclination to agree with Conservative Front Benchers on many issues. I have made it clear that, through tabling the amendment, we intend to allow proper consideration of the Government's guidance. [Interruption.] As the Minister has helpfully reminded me, some of those Labour Members are not always known for their willingness to agree with the sentiments expressed from the Government Front Bench, either.
Our purpose is clear—to allow proper consideration and debate in the light of the draft guidance—but other Members, in adding their names to the amendment, may have other intentions. They will no doubt make them clear in due course. I am extremely grateful to Labour Members for tabling all the consequential amendments, which I would otherwise have had to work out and table for myself. I do not know whether they are responsible for the amendments or whether they had outside assistance, but what they have done is extremely welcome.
The revocation of section 19 of the 1947 Act could have been a tidying-up exercise in the context of an agreed settlement of the wider dispute, which has been rumbling on for the best part of a year, but, after seeing the reaction to the offer tabled by the employers last week—it looks set to be rejected by the FBU—it seems that the dispute is not about to end and there is a clear possibility of further strikes in the near future, including during military action, which may occur in or around Iraq.
If I may, I shall put two specific questions to the Minister, and I hope that he is prepared to deal with those wider issues. First, in the circumstances that the country finds itself in, are the Government now prepared to make a commitment to use the powers available to them either under the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, although they have disputed that that power is available to Ministers, or through the medium of the declaration of a state of emergency to ensure that no fire strike, which would place additional burdens on our military, naval and air forces, is allowed to take place while military action is under way in the Persian gulf?
Conservative Members believe that it is deplorable that any trade union would even consider, or certainly threaten, such irresponsible action at a time like this, when military forces would have to provide cover to protect the civilian population in the event of a strike and against the threat of any terrorist or enemy action at home during any military action abroad. I urge the Minister to make an unequivocal statement of the Government's intentions.
Secondly, will the Minister deal with press reports, which Members on both sides of the House have read, of refusals by the FBU in some areas to allow training on and commissioning of decontamination units, which have been bought at considerable public expense to protect the public in the event of a chemical or biological attack on this country? Can he confirm whether those press reports are true and that the FBU has prevented work on those things from going ahead in some areas? What action will he take to ensure that such risks to preparedness for a terrorist attack are eliminated?
In the absence of a settlement of the dispute, the revocation of section 19 becomes one more step in the conduct of that dispute. It was about pay—the FBU originally claimed a 40 per cent. increase—but it became linked to the Government's modernisation agenda, although there is a clear difference of opinion about what modernisation really means. What is clear is that the Government see local risk-based redeployment of resources as the key to modernisation of the fire service. For that reason, they wish to remove the section so that the Secretary of State would no longer have a role in sanctioning such locally determined reallocations of resources.
However, one of the principal problems throughout that long-running dispute—the proposal to scrap section 19 simply underlines it—has been local fire authorities' notional responsibility for running the fire service and dealing with the fire service employees—the fire workers, as we have come to call them in the House. The reality is that effective control is exercised by central Government through their control of the purse strings. We saw that clearly in the early hours of
Immediately after that, we heard the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister going on the record to declare that any settlement above the 4 per cent. inflation-linked settlement that had already been offered had to be self-financing through modernisation of the fire service. I urge Members to remember those words of the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister—"self-financing through modernisation".
The fire service employers are apparently responsible for negotiating a settlement of the dispute. Now, with the integrated risk management plans, local fire authorities are, apparently, supposed to make risk-based assessments as the basis for identifying the resources required to provide appropriate community safety and fire cover in their areas. That is what the Government guidance tells us, but the Prime Minister himself has already made it clear that the settlement of the fire service dispute must be financed through modernisation.
Thus the Prime Minister has corrupted not only the word "modernisation", which is the word that has been most corrupted by new Labour over the past six years, but the process of risk assessment, which the Government guidance document is all about, by preordaining the outcome. If a higher-than-inflation settlement of the firefighters' pay claim is agreed, the integrated risk management plans, which are supposed to be risk based rather than resource driven, must conclude that fewer resources are required.
What would a cynic—not that there are any in this place, Mr. Deputy Speaker—make of clause 118 and the proposal to abolish section 19? A cynic would fear that local politicians are to be invited to take responsibility from the Secretary of State for the politically unpopular cuts in services that are possibly to be dictated by a central Government finance settlement based on the Prime Minister's and the Deputy Prime Minister's declaration of the need for any settlement to be self-financing through modernisation.
I am trying hard to follow the hon. Gentleman, but with some difficulty. Is he opposed to a 16 per cent. settlement being mainly self-financed? Is he opposed to the risk-based assessment producing savings? Or is he trying to blame the Government either way?
I would certainly not be opposed to a risk-based assessment producing savings if that is what a risk-based assessment produced. Before implementing the risk-based assessment programme, the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister said that the settlement must be self-financing through modernisation. I suggest that they are defining modernisation as a reduction in real resources available to the fire service. In a moment, I shall invite the Minister to disabuse the hypothetical cynic of the view that he may take of this whole process.
The fear is that politically unpopular cuts in service that are dictated from the centre will have to be implemented by local politicians. If that hypothetical cynic were to read the draft guidance on how the locally produced integrated risk management plans are to be developed, his fears would not be allayed. We are told in the guidance that the Government will helpfully provide guidance notes that fire authorities
"will wish to take into account in the development of integrated risk management plans."
Moreover, the Government will make available Her Majesty's fire service inspectorate to advise fire authorities, so as to ensure the
"implementation of a consistent approach."
Indeed, paragraph 2.7 says that Her Majesty's fire service inspectorate
"on behalf of Government, should also be consulted on the draft integrated risk management plan."
The draft guidance gives what can only be described as some not very subtle steers on this locally based programme of risk assessment. Paragraph 3.5.6 says:
"The policies needed to deliver some improvements could relate to the terms and conditions on which staff are employed as well as to operational matters. How those could be brought into effect is outside the ambit of this guidance. Even if it is currently unclear how or when these could be effected, it is still important to identify them where they are an essential component of delivering improvements to the community."
Paragraph 3.5.8 says:
"Before deciding on the emergency response standards to set, you"— the fire authorities—
"will first need to consider whether there are any categories of calls, or circumstances, in which an attendance would be deemed to be inappropriate."
In paragraph 3.6.1, fire authorities are told that they will wish to
"consider the appliances and crews you will need to deliver your goals, policies and standards. The properties currently used to house them, i.e. the fire stations, do not in themselves contribute to the emergency response provision ... Fire authorities may wish to consider using other opportunities to meet these needs, particularly in view of the greater flexibility likely to be adopted in some areas".
It goes on to say rather controversially:
"The provision of fire stations in every locality to accommodate appliances that may only be in the area for a few hours would clearly be wasteful."
My cynic would see that as an example of prejudging the review that the guidance is supposed to set up. Paragraph 3.6.2 tells local fire authorities:
"You may also wish to consider whether some special services might be provided on a re-chargeable basis."
All that may be true, and fire authorities may indeed wish to consider these matters, but setting them out in the guidance suggests to some people that the Government have prejudged the likely outcome of these reviews.
In paragraph 3.6.2, the document says categorically that fire authorities should
"only make changes where it is clear that the overall net effect will be to improve community safety."
That is flatly contradicted in paragraph 3.2 of the second draft guidance notes, which talks about the public being most interested in those aspects that impinge directly on the service provided to them. It says:
"This will include those instances when proposed changes will improve the service provided as well as when the reverse occurs, e.g. when resources are redeployed from one location to another".
That clearly presumes that not all the changes will be in accordance with the exhortation in paragraph 3.6.2 that authorities should make changes only when it is clear that the overall net effect will be to improve community safety.
The reality for fire authorities, as they embark on this process, is, first, that central Government controls the funding; secondly, that central Government have shown themselves determined to set the parameters for any settlement to this dispute; thirdly, that the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have both said that any settlement has to be self-financing; and fourthly, that the understandable conclusion of many observers is that there is a presumption that these integrated risk management plans must call for fewer resources. It would be understandable if an observer were concerned about the transfer to local fire authorities of the power to implement this modernisation, which is likely to be politically painful and controversial if the overall real resources deployed are to be cut.
The facts are these. A 16 per cent. pay increase by July 2004 was recently offered, presumably with the approval of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. I know that officials from the ODPM monitor the negotiations closely. That will not be paid for by staff reductions over that period, especially given the pledge of no redundancies. All the Government have offered the fire service employers is a £30 million transitional funding loan that will be clawed back out of future funding allocations, thus requiring an even greater ultimate reduction in the level of real resource.
The Government have been silent on allocation issues. The cost of a settlement of this dispute will have an impact on all fire brigades, but the scope for savings through the modernisation programme and the implementation of risk-based management plans will be largely concentrated in the metropolitan and urban area brigades.
I have five simple questions to put to the Minister in order to assess the genuineness of this process. Are the Government budgeting for the service to cost more or less in total after the introduction of the integrated risk management plans? Will the resource requirements of any properly developed integrated risk management plan be reflected in the formula grant for the local authority that implements it? I hope that this is not the case, but if the Government's proposal merely replaces a national dispute over modernisation and pay with local disputes over specific proposals for resource redeployment, will the Government underwrite the cost of military fire cover for authorities involved in individual disputes? During the national dispute, the Government have met that cost. Indubitably, none of the fire authorities could have afforded to fund the military cover that has been provided if they had been forced to meet that out of their own budgets. It is difficult to see how the Minister expects fire service employers to be able to negotiate appropriately at a local level if the Government will not back them with Government-supported military cover if a dispute unfortunately occurs.
Will there be a robust regime for measuring the performance of brigades under integrated risk management plans, and how will it work, given that there will no longer be standard performance indicators and therefore no immediate comparability between brigades? If so, will the Government commit themselves to achieving some testing targets for reduction in fire deaths? If they really believe that these risk management plans will deliver greater community safety, can they reassure the public by setting testing targets to show that they have genuine faith in the process on which they have embarked? Otherwise, the watching public may prove to be as cynical as my hypothetical observer.
Conservative Members will support modernisation and the integrated risk management plans if they are genuinely about improvements to the service, but when the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister said that the settlement had to be self-financing through modernisation, they undermined the case for genuine modernisation. Eighty-five per cent. of the cost of the fire service consists of wages and salaries. That gives rise to a genuine fear that more pay equals fewer jobs and fewer appliances in fire stations. The fear is that the Government have prejudged the review that they are setting in progress. There are real concerns that integrated risk management programmes will not be risk based, but will be driven by cuts in the real resources available as higher pay is financed by lower manpower and fewer appliances. In those circumstances, the local consultation to which the Minister has committed the Government would be a charade. We are well disposed to genuine modernisation, but the Minister must seek to dispel our concerns.
I know that several hon. Members wish to speak, so I shall try to be brief.
First, I disabuse any hon. Member of the idea that there has suddenly been an alliance of the socialist Campaign group with elements on the other side of the Chamber. We tabled the amendment unwittingly, not knowing that the other amendment had been tabled.
For the benefit of those who did not have the enjoyment of serving on the Committee, I want to go through the genesis of the amendment and the background to how it came about. When the Fire Services Act 1947 was introduced, section 19 was identified as a mechanism whereby the Government would be able to ensure that minimum standards of fire cover were maintained by fire authorities, and subsequent guidance ensured that there would be full consultation with local communities prior to any changes in provision. That meant that section 19 ensured that the Secretary of State would need to be consulted on any significant changes and to approve them. However, that applied only in cases where there would be a reduction in cover; no approval would be required if a fire authority wished to increase cover. Approval was required for station closures and changes in practices whereby full-timers, part-timers or pumping appliances would be removed from individual fire stations. The system worked in such a way that no trivial matters were referred to the Secretary of State. It was not about replacing fire stations on existing sites, but about significant changes in local fire cover practices. The same applied in relation to staffing matters—the system was concerned with reductions in firefighter posts, which is of concern to local communities. Time scales were set—usually six weeks—within which the Secretary of State would be required to come back with a decision, or at least an explanation of why the decision had not been made in that time.
Pertinent to the whole process—I quote from the circular that the Government issued in 1992—was that potential changes should be sufficiently widely publicised in sufficient detail with adequate time to ensure that any interested parties would be able to make representations, and that such representations should be considered by the fire authority. What then happened, of course, was that the Secretary of State became the longstop in terms of any right of appeal for a local community. MPs, local authorities, fire authorities and members of the local community recognised that the Secretary of State could intervene if the local fire authority was trampling over their wishes.
Changes in the professional environment then followed. In May 2000, the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council agreed to set up a task group to look at section 19 procedures and to develop a strategy for dealing with section 19 applications resulting from any changes in fire cover standards as the service—yes, even at that point—developed its discussions about modernisation. The first meeting of that group was convened by the Home Office on
Can my hon. Friend tell me on how many occasions since 1991 the Home Secretary has overturned a proposal?
It has been very rare for applications even to reach the Secretary of State, because fire authorities operated in the knowledge that they would ultimately have to be accountable to the Secretary of State. That is the effectiveness of an appeal mechanism.
The task group was established specifically to review section 19 and the fire policy unit was to produce the report, yet no report was produced, although the chairmanship and the secretariat was in the hands of the Government. The fire cover review produced by the task group concluded that section 19 was not a barrier to the introduction of risk-based emergency cover. Included in that task group were representatives from Government, Her Majesty's inspector of fire services, the employers' organisations, the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association and, of course, the Fire Brigades Union.
Then, Bain came along. The Government's proposal to amend the legislation comes directly from Bain. It drives to the heart of the contradiction of the Bain inquiry and report, because Bain is either a considered assessment and proposed programme of reform of the organisation and management of the fire service or it is part of the negotiating process to settle a pay dispute—it cannot be both. The tragedy of Bain is that it is being used for both purposes, ultimately not particularly effectively. Bain made several recommendations and proposals concerning the planning and future provision of fire cover. It recommended the establishment of new institutions to consider risk management, to advise Secretaries of State, and to bring forward a level of expertise in that advice through the fire service college and a new role for the inspectorate. Bain said that the move to allocate resources according to risk would not require legislation. Then, Bain moved beyond being a body that recommended improvements in fire cover and professional management into the negotiating process, saying that if full efficiency gains are to be unlocked by the use of new models of fire cover, the Government must repeal section 19 of the 1947 Act.
That is the crux of tonight's debate. Bain's recommendation was not about the introduction of risk management to improve the overall service; it stemmed from the Government's demand from Government for resource-driven reform. That meant that Bain had to come up with some process by which those resources, through supposed modernisation savings, were identified rapidly. The Bain report had to deliver the removal of what the Secretary of State would describe as "encumbrances" to achieving cuts. It is appalling that that recommendation has been brought forward before all the other Bain recommendations. We were promised—and Bain recommended it—that a White Paper giving a new legislative base for the fire service would be published by Easter. Most of us have been arguing for that for a long time. The FBU was involved in discussions with Government on a draft White Paper. It was not published but Ministers commended the fire service for its exemplary modernising practices over the years.
We now have one section of Bain being brought forward before a comprehensive analysis of what new fire safety legislation should look like. Why? Because Bain has to find £140 million of cuts in the pay bill. That is what this is all about. For opportunistic reasons, we are dragging a proper assessment of the reform of the fire service into the mud of a pay negotiation. If we are to have reform of the fire service, let us have a proper and appropriate process. Let us establish bodies to consider the professional practices that we want. Let us consider changes proposed in a White Paper or new legislation; but, Oh Government, do not come here and seek to bounce through the sorts of changes in this Bill. They will result in cuts in fire cover, in firefighters' posts and, indeed, in the numbers of fire stations.
The hon. Gentleman knows that my hon. Friends and I disagree with much of what he is saying, but there is one point of agreement. Is it not ironic that the Deputy Prime Minister told the House that he would be willing to use powers to impose a settlement from Whitehall, but that tonight he is trying to remove the Secretary of State's powers in other areas?
It is ironic that, at the same time as the Minister was waxing lyrical about reform that would place devolved power in the hands of the local fire authorities, as I note he did in one of the meetings of the Committee, the Secretary of State was interfering in the dispute to prevent a settlement—which but for his intervention would have been arrived at last November.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, in effect, we are talking about national negotiations and conditions? Local authorities have no choice but to consider the 15 per cent. that they are left with, which can only mean various cuts in, for example, fire boards.
I fully agree with my hon. Friend. It is clear that the changes to the Fire Services Act 1947 that the Government have proposed will result in local fire authorities seeking to introduce practices in the fire services that will demand local negotiation. Thus it will be sought to break the power of a union that has represented its members well and has worked effectively with the Government, up until this dispute, to promote reform of the fire service that would deliver increased professionalism and effectiveness.
Our anxiety as MPs was to ensure that Government listened to the wishes of our local communities. We were told in Committee that guidance would be produced to ensure that local consultation would continue. That guidance was placed in the House of Commons Library three working days ago. I believe that most people only picked it up today. The guidance has no teeth. It says what it expects of fire authorities, but nothing more. There is no legal requirement for consultation. We are told that, if a local fire authority acts unreasonably, the local community can seek judicial review. Judicial review costs, on average, £15,000 just to get cases into court—and that is not to mention the possible subsequent costs. Judicial review is no remedy for the local working-class community that is about to lose its fire station and needs a voice or a protector against a fire authority, under the cosh because of Government cuts, that wishes to close services.
The Government should give us time to consider the guidance. They should pull back from their position and allow this amendment to go through. They should give us time to consult properly on the guidance, as they promised. We want national uniformity and consistency of standards. However—and we say this clearly to the Government—individual MPs in individual communities will not stand by and allow their local fire stations to be closed. They expect Government to work with them. They expect the Secretary of State to protect communities. I find it bizarre that the Secretary of State wants to give up his role in vetoing outrageous local policies for the fire services, but that central Government, as we heard last week when debating local government finance, are trying to retain their power to control the level of rates that local authorities can set.
Tonight we are asking Government to hear the message that local communities should retain a voice. We need to have a right of appeal to the Secretary of State. We have such a right in education, when schools are threatened with closure; we have it in health when hospitals are threatened with closure; but we do not have it in the police or ambulance services. There were horrendous problems, especially in the ambulance service, in my constituency and London overall. We needed Government intervention to protect local communities, but they did not have the powers. The provision gives rise to the suspicion that it clears a path for the Government to implement a massive cuts package as a result of the wage negotiations. I will not be a party to that and will not allow them to introduce proposals that aid and abet something that is driving down the working conditions and the wages of firefighters.
Liberal Democrats have many concerns about the way in which the Government have dealt with the fire dispute. We have often questioned them about their role—in particular how they will handle transitional funding. We have been concerned about the fact that Ministers have said different things and have sometimes not spoken with one voice. I agree with some of the remarks made by Mr. Hammond and hope that the Minister responds to him. In particular, I am interested to learn who would fund military cover if local disagreements lead to local industrial action by the FBU.
We are concerned that the Government are, to an extent, prejudging the integrated risk management programmes by setting them in stone. If the analysis shows that more money is required to maintain or increase community safety in an area, they need to be clear that that money will be forthcoming. Equally, however, we are worried about the FBU's behaviour throughout the dispute. It did not accept the latest offer on the table although it was reasonable, and I hope that it will not go ahead with strikes, especially at this time.
I was concerned to read in the FBU's briefing note sent to Members of Parliament tonight that if we maintain clause 118
"This will mean the withdrawal of the right of local communities, local councillors, and local MPs to have a say on the closure of local fire stations, the removal of fire-engines and cut-backs on the number of firefighters."
If that were true, I would have voted against it in Committee and would vote against it tonight, but we have to make our decisions on the basis of truth and what information is available to us. I have read guidance notes 1 and 2 and it is clear that there will be full and open consultation. Let me set out what form that will take because, although we have not discussed it so far, it is germane to the debate. The consultation is vital. If there were no consultation—no due process—to consider a change in the configuration of local fire services, that would be a huge problem. It would mean that those of us who want to campaign against the closure of a fire station or the removal of a fire appliance in our constituency would have no mechanism to represent our communities if they were concerned about such proposals; but from my reading of the guidance notes that is not the case.
Relevant sections of the guidance notes show that consultation is required. Guidance note 1 is sent to chief fire officers. Paragraph 2.4 states:
"Consultation with the community you serve and your staff will be an essential element in the preparation of" the integrated risk management plan. In the guidance note on consultation itself, the Government go into detail on how that should be undertaken and they set out who should be consulted and on what. The guidance covers the draft integrated risk management programme, the annual action plans and changes to them, examples of proposals for changes, who should be consulted on them and the best way to consult. I refer hon. Members to the note because it sets out exactly what consultation there must be. John McDonnell implied that the consultation could take place if the fire authorities choose to do that, but in fact there is a statutory requirement for them to do so. I looked up section 3 of the Local Government Act 1999—the best value authority legislation. It requires best value authorities—fire authorities are defined as a best value authority in section 1 of that Act—to undertake consultation. The guidance note refers to that. There is clear protection for our communities and for us as Members of Parliament in the requirement that consultation must take place.
Although I agreed with some of the remarks of the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, I thought that at times he quoted selectively from the guidance notes. Paragraph 3.6.2 of guidance note 2 provided me with some reassurance. The hon. Gentleman might suggest that I am naive to be reassured, but if we in this place cannot trust what is in a Government document, we had better give up, as we cannot have proper debate. Paragraph 3.6.2 makes it clear that in the event of any changes resulting in a reconfiguration of the fire service, there must be no reduction in community safety. It states:
"You should only make changes where it is clear that the overall net effect will be to improve community safety."
That is a clear safeguard. If it had not been in place, I would have been on my feet tonight asking where it was.
I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman means by selective quoting—I quoted exactly the piece that he has just read out to the House.
Indeed. The hon. Gentleman then chose one or two other excerpts, which did not make his point fully. He should have quoted the full paragraph from which they were taken. He asked, rightly, how national standards would be measured in future. The guidance note refers to national performance measures. That reflects the 1999 Act, which allows the Minister to put forward performance measures—output measures, in the jargon—that fire authorities would have to meet. If they did not, they would be failing in their legal responsibilities. That clearly underpins the framework.
No, I will not give way. The hon. Gentleman's Whip has just told me that I must shut up in a second, so I shall bring my remarks to an end.
I have some questions to the Minister, to which I should like answers to reassure me that the framework that he is setting in place is sufficient. The guidance notes are fairly clear about what will happen in the first round of integrated risk management plans. However, clause 118 will get rid of the safeguard for all time, or until another Parliament seeks to restore it, so what about future integrated risk management plans? What is the process for future consultation on those? What consultation on national performance measures is envisaged by the Minister? The guidance note refers to a future guidance note, but we do not have that in front of us, and those national performance measures will be important.
The guidance notes say little about the post-consultation period and what will happen with respect to decisions taken by the local fire authority, how it will held to account, and how those decisions will be published. If there is to be local accountability, as we agreed with the Minister that there should be, he needs to say more about the post-consultation period than the one paragraph in the current guidance notes. Can he confirm, as I asked him in Committee, that if a consultation process does not follow the guidance notes and the 1999 Act, the FBU and local communities could seek judicial review of that decision? That is an important safeguard. I know that judicial review costs a lot of money, but the FBU is more than capable of funding such a review. If its members were prepared to forgo a few dinners, they could afford it without difficulty.
No, I will not give way. I am trying to bring my remarks to a close. I was concerned that the guidance did not include more requirements for greater collaboration—
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Many people wanted to speak in this debate, and we are fast approaching the time when wind-ups will take place. Will you look again at our arrangements so that, when we have pure discussions of this kind, Members who wish to get involved have opportunities to contribute?
Order. The hon. Lady will understand that that is determined by the Programming Committee, and that the general question of allocation of time must be tackled through the usual channels.
The hon. Lady will know that I am taking less than half the time that was taken by the Conservative Front Bench.
My final question to the Minister on the guidance notes is in relation to collaboration between local fire authorities and, for example, bodies that are involved in providing transport or bodies that are involved in community safety partnerships. A lot of the improvement in the fire service, in terms of community safety and prevention, will come through such collaboration. The guidance notes are very weak on that aspect, and they must be tightened up when they are finalised.
In conclusion, the Liberal Democrats support the inclusion of clause 118 in the Bill, which gives a greater decentralist flavour to the way in which we will run local fire services in future. I hope that the Minister will give proper answers, both to my questions and to those of Mr. Hammond, so that we can be assured that proper consultation measures will be in place.
I shall do my best to answer the many questions that have been raised. If time gets the better of me, and I cannot deal with everything tonight, I shall write to all hon. Members who raised questions.
I have just begun. I will give way to my hon. Friend in a moment, but I should make a little progress.
We have had a useful debate, as we did in Committee, about this important element in the overall package of reform for the fire service recommended by the independent review. Before I deal with the details of the repeal of part of section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947, I would like to put that in the context of the current dispute. Following discussions at ACAS, the local authority employers tabled last Thursday an offer that holds out the prospect of a 16 per cent. increase in average pay by July 2004 in exchange for modernisation of working practices. That is, by any measure, a generous offer, and goes to the very limit of what local authorities can afford. Indeed, it offers substantially more to firefighters than the 7.8 per cent. deal over two years accepted by other local authority employees last year.
I sincerely hope that, despite the views being expressed by the Fire Brigades Union executive, the union's membership will recognise that this is a good deal. They have nothing to gain by refusing the offer. Indeed, refusal would risk another unproductive period of conflict from which no one can gain, and which would inevitably impact adversely on the public. At this particularly sensitive time, I cannot believe that any reasonable person could want such an outcome.
Some of those who oppose a settlement have suggested that the necessary reforms to existing working practices, which make possible a pay increase significantly ahead of what would otherwise be available, involve unacceptable changes—
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If the Government wish to make a statement on the Fire Brigades Union dispute on the pay issue, may I suggest that they bring forward a statement at the appropriate time, rather than abusing the process of this Bill procedure?
Order. As far as I can rule on this matter, the debate appears to be in order. I am sure that the Minister will have heard what the hon. Gentleman has to say.
Indeed, I did, and I also heard the comments of Mr. Hammond, who specifically asked me to respond on this issue. I am only surprised that my hon. Friend does not want to hear these important points.
It is simply not the case that the reforms of working practices would involve unacceptable changes to firefighters' terms and conditions. The proposed changes allow a more flexible approach that will enable fire authorities to respond more effectively to today's risks and challenges. That will not mean tearing up all the terms and conditions enjoyed by most firefighters. Firefighters would continue to work, as they do now, an average 42-hour week. The majority could continue on the same shift system that applies now. Some would have the option of changing working patterns: for example, to work days only, as some wish to do. Some would be able to work overtime if they wanted. Nor will local fire chiefs be free to impose draconian changes on firefighters without regard to national considerations, as some who are hostile to a settlement suggest.
As I will make clear in a moment, we will issue guidance on how local fire authorities can best approach the development of integrated risk management plans. Her Majesty's fire services inspectorate will take a close interest, and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister will work closely with the Local Government Association to ensure fair implementation of the new arrangements.
Those are commonsense reforms in line with what is happening in almost every other sector of our economy, and they would ensure a better service to the public, as well as enabling firefighters to receive a substantial pay increase. I hope that the deal will be accepted and that the FBU will engage constructively in the reform and modernisation process, as it is both necessary and inevitable.
I turn now to specific subject of the debate. The purpose of clause 118 is to remove the requirement in section 19(4) of the Fire Services Act 1947 for fire authorities to seek the Secretary of State's approval before making any reduction, no matter how minor, in the number of firefighting posts, or before closing fire stations or withdrawing fire appliances.
The Minister refers to the 7.5 per cent. offer that has been made, but does he agree that 16 per cent is far short of the 22 per cent. increase that was given to teachers in Scotland, along with a modernisation deal?
My hon. Friend will know that Scottish matters are devolved—I cannot speak for Scotland and do not intend to—but by contrast with the offer made to local authority employees in England, the offer made by the employers to the FBU last week is generous.
The proposed repeal is a key element in the replacement of the existing, outdated and over-centralised framework for fire cover. That framework is out of keeping with the aim of a modern fire service, where resources are flexibly deployed to meet locally identified risks to life and property. Repealing section 19 and the early introduction of a new risk-based approach to fire cover, recommended by Bain, offer a real prospect of reducing the incidence of fire, and deaths and injuries from fire.
Although I do not agree with the savage attack on the FBU made by the Liberal Democrat spokesman, I share the concern that, in removing the Home Secretary's theoretical power, we might weaken the power of local councillors and Members of Parliament to react to proposals. Can the Minister reassure us on that point?
I will cover precisely that point in a moment if my hon. Friend will bear with me.
Decisions should be taken by democratically accountable fire authorities, acting on the professional advice of chief fire officers and after taking account of the local community's views. The Government do not believe that the Secretary of State should take those decisions in a modern fire service. I heard the comments of my hon. Friend John McDonnell, but the most recent case that came to us involved a proposal to transfer a station from one location in the area to another; there was no change in the number of appliances or in crewing. That disproves his claim that section 19 was not about unnecessary or trivial matters being referred to the Secretary of State.
It is important that the Government do not go ahead with something that is premature, that does not provide the flexibility that will be needed and that could pre-empt achieving a joint partnership agreement to resolve the firefighters dispute. Surely a decision on all that should be taken at one time; it should not pre-empt an agreement.
The Bain review explored all those issues in considerable detail and made a series of recommendations that has been widely welcomed by almost every fire interest in the country, apart from the FBU. As we are faced with a clear recommendation from the Bain inquiry, it would be extremely perverse to ignore it and not to proceed rapidly to repeal section 19. That is why we are acting now.
In the fire service of the future, a flexible risk-based approach to fire cover will be achieved through the implementation of locally determined integrated risk management plans, within the framework of national guidance. I explained in Committee that Her Majesty's fire services inspectorate was preparing guidance on the implementation of such plans, including arrangements for local consultation. I gave an undertaking that, barring unforeseen circumstances, hon. Members would have access to that draft guidance before considering the Bill on Report, and I am pleased to have been able to satisfy that commitment.
The fire service is widely respected for its performance in meeting the attendance times set out in the national standards for fire cover, but that will not necessarily deliver the reduction in deaths and injuries that should be our priority. Indeed, as recently published statistics show, the number of deaths and serious injuries caused by fire sadly increased in the last 12 months reported—the 12 months ending in March last year. To reverse that trend, we need to move beyond the 1947 standards. Those standards have their origin in the Riverdale committee of 1936 and were recommended to fire authorities more than 50 years ago. They are based on the characteristics of property and buildings in an area, not on the risk of death and injury from fire.
The current standards do not, as Bain noted, reflect the changes in our cities since 1947: the falling population in town centres, the growth of suburbs and the movement of people to city centres in daytime and returning to the suburbs at night. They do not reflect the changing nature and location of industry or more effective fire safety measures. For example, smoke alarms and sprinklers are now found in many buildings. For much of the time, the current standards determine that fire service resources are targeted on protecting unoccupied buildings and not on ensuring the most effective response to the needs of people who might be at risk.
The current standards are also based on inputs. The Bain review recommended rightly that we need, as a matter of urgency, to move away from this inflexible and formulaic approach to one that puts the emphasis on outputs and outcomes in terms of lives saved and injuries prevented, that is responsive to locally identified risks and needs, that is concerned with a wide range of threats to community safety and that accelerates the move from intervention to prevention.
The repeal will not alter a fire authority's statutory responsibility to provide an efficient service. That will remain by virtue of section 1 of the 1947 Act. Nor will it mean that fire authorities will no longer consult about the deployment of resources. One of the more regrettable features of the propaganda against our proposals has been the suggestion—repeated by the FBU in its brief to Members that Mr. Davey quoted—that the repeal of part of section 19 will mean no consultation with the local community. There is absolutely no truth in this claim, as he made clear.
The guidance provides the national framework under which fire authorities will be able to prepare local integrated risk management plans that are tailored to the risks and safety needs of the local community. We shall consult in the immediate future on the draft guidance, and we would very much welcome an input from the key stakeholders. Comments made by hon. Members tonight will certainly be taken into account when we consider the responses to the consultation.
Following the consultation, we envisage that the definitive guidance should be published in June, that fire authorities should produce a draft integrated risk management plan in September and that they should consult their local communities, employees and other interested parties over the following three months. There are a number of safeguards in the new arrangements to ensure consistency of approach, without inhibiting local flexibility and decision making. The integrated risk management plans are, as I explained, being drawn up within a framework of national guidance. Her Majesty's fire services inspectorate will be one of the bodies consulted by fire authorities, and it will establish a specialist team to provide advice, training and support to authorities. It will also examine and disseminate examples of innovation and good practice and continue to monitor the performance of authorities in providing effective fire cover arrangements.
In addition, fire authorities must have regard to their general duty, under the best value provisions of the Local Government Act 1999, to secure continuous improvement in the way that their functions are exercised. That is the response to the question from the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge about how we will ensure that there are proper standards. I have covered much of the ground, but I have not been able to answer several questions. I will write to hon. Members on those points.
The new approach that we are seeking to introduce will deliver a fire service that is better placed to deliver community safety and one that offers a real prospect of reducing the incidence of fire, and deaths and injuries from fire. I hope that hon. Members will endorse that approach and support clause 118.
I am grateful to the Minister for offering to write to me with replies to the questions that he did not manage to answer. As I said earlier, Conservative Members are disposed to support the modernisation process. We are dismayed only because it has become mixed up with financing a pay settlement. The Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister will have only themselves to blame if the public become suspicious of the motives for modernisation.
We support genuine modernisation and we acknowledge the fire employers' support for clause 118. I shall not press the amendment. However, we will watch closely as matters unfold. We shall not hesitate to cry foul if it becomes clear that my hypothetical cynical observer is right and the process becomes resource rather than risk driven.
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
The Bill has been extensively debated in Committee, on Report last Wednesday and today, and on Second Reading in January. We have had a wide range of interesting, detailed debates on the large number of varied subjects that are the characteristic of the Bill, which covers an enormous range of issues of concern to local government.
This is an important deregulatory measure that extends significant new freedoms and flexibilities to local authorities, as well as removing unnecessary red tape and bureaucracy. The new prudential regime, which provides for a fundamental change in the capital borrowing powers of local authorities and introduces new freedom and flexibility for authorities to undertake capital projects, has been widely welcomed. Indeed, local government is particularly keen for the Bill to be enacted in time for those measures to be introduced from April 2004. There are other important new freedoms, such as new powers for local authorities to charge for discretionary services and to trade. The better a local authority's performance, the more freedom it will have.
New ways in which local authorities can work in partnership with business to improve the environment for their local community are being made possible through the Bill's provisions on business improvement districts. Businesses will also benefit from the new financial incentives being given to authorities to promote business growth, and we are making life easier for small businesses through provisions for small business rate relief.
We have had the opportunity to make important reforms on topical issues of real concern to hon. Members. In particular, this evening's debate on section 28 demonstrated that there is a substantial majority in favour of abolition. That was confirmed by the votes in the House tonight and in Committee: there was an overwhelming majority in favour of reform in both. I regret that the Leader of the Opposition chose to vote against that important reform, which will remove an offensive piece of legislation that causes deep concern to many people in this country.
We have also made important changes in relation to the fire service, with reforms designed to focus on outputs and outcomes in terms of saving lives and preventing injury. Our objective is to provide a new fire service that is properly related to modern circumstances and in which local decisions can inform the development of the service to respond to local needs. That is our objective not only for the fire service, but for all local services.
In the words of the Local Government Association,
"the proposals in the Bill represent significant new freedoms for local councils and will help them deliver improved services to their communities."
I believe that the Bill will be seen as another important step in improving opportunities for local authorities to deliver high-quality services to their communities. Our objective is to help local authorities to do more and to do better, recognising the huge importance of the services that they perform. I commend the Bill to the House.
At the start of our consideration on Report, we had only 24 minutes in which to discuss four important groups of amendments, which dealt with important topics such as staff transfer matters, including terms and conditions and issues relating to the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981, and local authority charging and trading. We had hardly any time, and we dealt with only one group of amendments. That is an affront to democracy, and the business managers, especially those on the Government side, must look into it.
It is unacceptable to our constituents that large chunks of the Bill have not been discussed. For example, in a letter sent on
"It seems to us that Clause 95 could jeopardise the whole process of competitive tendering by enabling such authorities to set up what would be an 'in-house' company to retain or take over certain functions or services".
"If local authority 'best value' companies are able to cream off successful undertakings, there is a real danger that private sector companies will find it uneconomic to bid for some of the less profitable services, and 'best value' will simply cease to operate in practice."
Perhaps the Minister would like to intervene, given that the subject has not been discussed by hon. Members, either in Committee or on the Floor of the House.
Mr. Benjafield asks several questions:
"First, how does the concept of 'best value' local authorities being able to set up companies to carry out certain functions or services tie in with the process of competitive tendering?
Second, what safeguards does the Government intend adopting to ensure that such companies do not receive preferential treatment? Will they be obliged to compete with private sector companies on a 'best value' basis for each contract? How will the Minister ensure a level playing field if they do and will the same criteria be used to assess their performance as is currently used for private sector companies?"
Those are important questions. Perhaps the Minister will assist the House and facilitate proper consideration of the Bill by answering those questions in a letter to me, and placing a copy in the Library.
I will try to help the hon. Gentleman by giving an instant response. The whole thrust of the legislation is to improve local authorities' ability to work with business, among other groups. We discussed business improvement districts, growth incentives and a range of other measures designed to encourage good relations between local authorities and business. However, we also aim to improve local authorities' efficiency and effectiveness.
I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman should be suggesting on behalf of the official Opposition that they oppose the idea of giving power to local authorities that can trade well in services that they deliver efficiently. Are they saying that those authorities should be prevented from doing so? Surely we should all welcome greater efficiency on the part of local authorities delivering services.
I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation. I raised the matter on Second Reading, and we think that there could be an element of unfair competition affecting private sector companies facing publicly subsidised councils carrying out their own functions. [Interruption.] Perhaps the Minister will undertake to see a delegation from Cleanaway with my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar; that would be extremely helpful—and he is nodding his head.
I shall give way, but only once.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if there were proper safeguards in respect of accounting practices, his concern could be easily dismissed?
We did not have time to discuss the matter thoroughly, and I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman is right. Cleanaway is one of the best run waste disposal companies, and I am grateful to the Minister for agreeing to see a delegation with my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar. Let us see whether we can clear up some of the problems. That would be helpful.
The Bill materially alters the capital finance regime for local authorities. There is the combination of pooling capital rights and the botched handling of the withdrawal of local authority social housing authority grant. I gather that local authorities, despite all our protests, have not yet been notified of the withdrawal of that grant. The message to debt-free authorities from the Bill and from the Government is that the writing is on the wall.
That, combined with the controversial measure for the repayment of overhanging debt, for which £800 million is allocated this year for highly indebted authorities in the north—in effect to provide them with a bribe to ensure that they transfer their housing authority stock and have the debt paid off at the same time—is a massive transfer of local authority finance from the south to the north.
There are other measures in the Bill that we think are deleterious, too. For example, there are the alterations to the non-domestic rating regime. There is the fact that the regime has to be self-financing in each financial year. Transitional relief will have to be paid for within each financial year. Underfunded under-phasing will take place for businesses, large and small, that have lower revaluations. That will put them at a disadvantage.
Combining all that with a transfer of subsidy from the housing revenue accounts of authorities that are in surplus and well run to authorities in a negative position is a swingeing measure of financial redistribution. I am not sure how much some tenants in the south, who will be subsidising tenants of poorly run councils in the north, will like this provision.
Perhaps the most controversial measure of all is the amendment to the council tax regime. The Bill heralds regular revaluations for council tax, together with the extension of the number of council tax bands, with no relationship between the top and bottom bands. This will turn what used to be a relatively small item of household expenditure into an extremely significant item, unrelated to the ability to pay.
I came across some statistics in preparation for yesterday's television programme on the council tax. One third of all the pension increases that pensioners have received during the past six years of the Labour Government will be soaked up in the increases in council tax that the Government have imposed. That is a shocking statistic. When we introduced the tax, it was part personal and part property. It is now becoming a pure property stealth-wealth tax, and there is no relationship between what people pay and their ability to pay. In combination with the acknowledged additional council tax supplement for all the regional bodies that the Government are to introduce, that will mean an extremely nasty stealth tax—one of the biggest that the Government have introduced.
There are some measures in the Bill that we welcome, including prudential borrowing. Provided that it is done with safeguards, that is wholly in line with our policy of devolving policy down to the lowest possible level, and is an example that can be followed. With reservations, we support the BID—business improvement district—regime, although it is probably limited in effect. In America, such schemes are low value, and work well because the rating system is based on property tax. In Committee we explored the way in which benefit may accrue to property owners, while tenants and lessees will pay.
On the subject of BIDs, the hon. Gentleman has just commented favourably on the American system of local taxation, which is based on property tax. Will he try to explain how that fits in with his earlier comment attacking the council tax—which, incidentally, was introduced by his party and is a mixture of a property tax and a tax relating to people's receipt of local services? Why is a property tax acceptable in America but not here?
That was a mischievous intervention by the Minister, and one of his poorer efforts. As he knows, council tax applies to private individuals who occupy and own houses. We are talking about businesses, so the scenario is entirely different. We want some mechanism by which BIDs can work. We are concerned that there is a substitution affecting what the taxpayer should pay for and what is additional in the BIDs process. Under the timetable imposed by the Government, we did not have a chance to discuss our concerns about the mechanism of council vetoes in BIDs. We would have liked the veto to operate before the vote, as it is unnecessary to go through a complicated ballot only to find that the local authority vetoes the outcome. If we had had sufficient time, without the programme motion, we would certainly have liked to explore that in greater detail.
We did not have any time to discuss the change of the date of European and local government elections in the Bill—an important matter that was simply squeezed out by the restrictive timetable. Gerrymandering the timing of those elections is quite wrong.
Does the Minister believe in democracy or not? Perhaps he will tell me.
Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House what is gerrymandering in presenting an option that has been the subject of widespread consultation and brings together local government and European elections in 2004 to try to encourage a higher turnout than the deplorably low turnouts in recent European and local elections?