Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to address this most important issue today in the House. I do so with the support of my colleagues in the Democratic Unionist party, including our leader, Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson, and the deputy leader, Gavin Robinson, who unfortunately have a prior engagement.
Let me say at the outset—this is no slight on the Minister responding—that it is disappointing yet not surprising that neither the Secretary of State nor the Minister of State is in this place to respond today. Once again, that shows a lack of connection with the issues that matter. Although the investment conference in Belfast is important, so too is the very foundation stone of our society, our children and their education.
One thing I have learned in my time in politics is that Governments mess with children’s education at their peril; they do not meddle in issues where parents are—and should be—first educators; and they certainly do not do it without consulting and engaging with parents, teachers and boards of governors. Parents in Northern Ireland are genuinely angry and fearful. Teachers feel vulnerable and fearful, yet this Government continue on a track of potential wide-reaching changes to the teaching of relationships and sex education in post-primary Northern Ireland schools, with no consultation, little scrutiny and no care for the devolution settlement.
This change is imposing a teaching regime on schools that many parents object to. Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most sinister aspects is that teachers, who will have strong convictions about some of these issues, will be forced by law to teach the subject within the parameters set down by the Government?
As a former teacher, my right hon. Friend knows only too well the impact that the change will have on teachers, which I will refer to throughout my speech.
I am proud to have stood in this House time and again to be unequivocal in my opposition to these liberal and irresponsible agendas. I am proud to sit on these Benches with my DUP colleagues, who have consistently voted against the regulations. My party has and will continue to oppose, unpick and expose them for what they are. I pay tribute to my colleague Diane Dodds, our education spokesperson at Stormont, who has done a deep dive with us into the detail of the changes, exposing the wrongs of this latest RSE legislative change.
We on the Democratic Unionist party Benches will be working with parents, teachers and boards of governors to ensure that our children and young people are protected, that their innocence is protected, that teachers can exercise conscience and remove themselves from teaching something they do not agree with, and that boards of governors have the flexibility and ability to protect the ethos of their schools.
The hon. Lady is giving an excellent speech. Does she agree with me that it is not only contrary to the spirit of devolution—education is, of course, a devolved matter—to impose this on Northern Ireland, but that, given the controversies that have surrounded RSE in Great Britain and the inquiry the Government have launched because of those controversies, it seems absurd to implement this right now when the inquiry is still ongoing?
I want to get into that, in detail. The law on RSE in England changed three years ago and since then public concern has been building steam. Mistakes have been made, so much so that, as the hon. Lady says, the Government have had to bring forward their review of RSE and appoint an external body to assist the Department for Education here in its review.
What concerns me now is the risk of the same errors being repeated in Northern Ireland. I am asking the Government to take steps to ensure that we have a credible approach to RSE in Northern Ireland, which parents, teachers, schools and our community as a whole can have confidence in. Unfortunately, the Secretary of State has got off to a very bad start with his approach to introducing the regulations with a lack of consultation, scrutiny and the pretence of CEDAW—the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women—being used to justify the move.
My hon. Friend must have been delighted at the turnout of over 1,000 schoolteachers, boards of governors and political representatives in her constituency last night, campaigning on this issue of letting kids be kids. Is that not the important message? As she rightly said, interfere in the education of our children at your peril. It will not be tolerated by people across the community in Northern Ireland. Is that not the message the Secretary of State should hear loud and clear?
Absolutely. Parents, teachers and boards of governors are angry, frustrated and really concerned. That has been demonstrated through meetings held locally in Northern Ireland.
I am about operating in the realms of reality. I am not about platitudes or throwaway lines that will be forgotten. I am about protecting our children and young people. I come asking the Government to listen to the concerns and to make amends. The changes as per the Northern Ireland RSE 2023 regulations are deeply concerning. They will change RSE teaching in Northern Ireland in post-primary schools, forcing the teaching of contraception and abortion. That, coupled with the long-term agenda of implementing the RSE progression framework, has invoked so much anger and genuine concern.
When it comes to teaching about abortion, the Government have sought to reassure us that it should take place in
“a factual way that does not advocate, nor oppose, a particular view on the moral and ethical considerations of abortion”.
But such assurances are impossible to deliver. The very act of teaching about abortion is not morally neutral. It normalises it, presenting the subject—the taking of innocent human lives at their most vulnerable stage—as a mere moral dilemma about which people may be free to disagree, whereas for those who are pro-life, human lives are at stake. Further, it diminishes the value of life because if young people are taught about the legal availability of abortion and how to access it, they are more likely to do so in greater numbers. We have seen that in England and Wales since the Abortion Act 1967 was introduced. Indeed, the widely used Sexwise RSE resource in England and Wales even teaches girls that they can go and do it privately without their parents knowing—so much for assurances on parental consultation.
The Secretary of State also sought to assure us that education on so-called
“sexual and reproductive health rights” should be “scientifically accurate”. Again, I would point out that this is a cause of significant contention. For example, many people in Northern Ireland and many scientists would contend that an unborn baby is, scientifically, a human being. The Education for Choice website, recommended as an RSE resource in England and Wales, asserts that
“before the limit of viability…the foetus is not considered a human being”.
Such a claim is highly contentious and, I would suggest, neither neutral nor scientific. The point is that it is not possible to be neutral on this issue, where science and ethics are interwoven. It is highly likely that resources in Northern Ireland will therefore end up being biased, as in England and Wales. In short, these are matters which should be left to parents, not schools. RSE is not just like any other school subject. It deals with issues on which there are a wide range of views and perspectives. It is a highly sensitive topic that involves very personal issues, and it is critical for parents, teachers and school governors across Northern Ireland to feel confident that the regulations and the guidance now being drawn up recognise that. They need to know that the Government will ensure that schools understand the sensitivity of the topic, and approach it appropriately and in a way that respects the range of views that exist.
Unfortunately, in recent times it has seemed that one view is not respected: that of the Christian, or of the citizen who values life and respects others. The pro-life view is scorned—the view that those who do not want to get pregnant should not have sex, the view that teaches faithfulness in relationships, and the view that subscribes only to the fact that a boy is born a boy and a girl is born a girl and there are not more than 100 different gender ideologies, and that it is ludicrous that people can now identify as cats, dogs and foxes. I say this not to provoke but because these are the views of the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland and throughout this United Kingdom, and unfortunately they appear no longer to be welcome.
The vote on the amendment relating to RSE in Northern Ireland took place on
The position of school governors must be respected. A major part of their role is to safeguard the ethos of schools and ensure that a school serves its local community, and to do so they need a degree of flexibility and freedom to make decisions on the school’s approach and policy. That cannot be dictated in detail from Belfast, still less from Westminster. Indeed, a large proportion of schools in Northern Ireland were not established by Government but by the Churches, and were later transferred—not sold—into Government hands on the understanding that they would continue to provide an education in accordance with their Church foundations. Of course I understand that the Government can now make law on the education that takes place in those schools, as they have now done in respect of teaching on contraception and abortion, but it is crucial for teaching to be handled in a sensitive and balanced manner that does not disempower governors in their important role. That is my first ask: for school governors to have the autonomy that will allow them to produce RSE policy in line with the school ethos.
Most young people in Northern Ireland grow up to form healthy relationships. Many form the stable families that are so important to the upbringing of children, providing the care, personal knowledge and understanding that only a parent can give. Safeguarding is important, and we are right to be alert to the very tragic cases in which parents present a risk of real harm to their children, but those cases are extremely rare—they are the exception to the universal rule that parents make the best parents, not the state—so parents must be given the power to make the final decisions.
As I said earlier, the hon. Lady is making an excellent speech, and I entirely agree with her that parents should have the power to make the final decisions about what are particular and personal values for each individual family, but does she agree that part of the problem is the fact that parents cannot make those decisions? Given that many of the materials concerned are not available for parents to view, how can they know whether they want to exercise their right of withdrawal?
The hon. Member has done an immense amount of work in this regard, and she speaks about the issue in a very educated way. She is absolutely right: parents should be at the heart of this.
The consultation that is currently open in Northern Ireland asks about balancing parent and child rights, but, with respect, that is not how it works. Parents have rights to empower them to do their job of caring for their child. It is parents who are the first and best guardians of their children’s rights, and their role must therefore be safeguarded.
At present in Northern Ireland, it is common for schools to allow parents to remove their children from RSE, but it does not happen frequently, because affording that ability to parents discourages schools from adopting radical and controversial approaches. Schools want to avoid pushing parents into making the decision. When schools empower parents in this way, it builds trust and confidence on both sides in the school’s delivery of RSE.
The Education Department in Northern Ireland is currently carrying out a public consultation on rights of withdrawal. The plan emphasised in that consultation is to afford a statutory right of withdrawal only from the new statements introduced into the minimum content order, thereby narrowing the ability of many parents in Northern Ireland to withdraw their children from any part of RSE that they are concerned about. I urge the Minister to ensure that this does not happen. My second ask is therefore that the guidance will not restrict parents’ ability to withdraw their children from all parts of RSE about which they have a concern.
Most teachers are highly professional, care deeply about their job and the children, families and communities they serve and are conscientious in following school policy and instructions from school leaders, but teachers also have their own views and sensitivities. The UK Supreme Court has recognised that no one should be compelled to express a view with which they fundamentally disagree, yet regrettably some of the teaching resources produced by the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment present as fact opinions that many teachers disagree with. While there are safeguards built in currently allowing for ethos to be upheld by the board of governors, thus protecting teachers, there is no clarity on whether those safeguards extend to the changes that will be implemented in January 2024.
Quite frankly, when we do a deep dive into the resources and materials that could make their way on to our children’s desks, it is scary; it is worrying. I want to put on record my thanks to the many boards of governors and schoolteachers who have held the line and resisted forcing down pupils’ throats ideologies that their parents and communities do not support. Therefore, my third ask is to make provision for teachers with conscientious objections to refuse to teach something they do not agree with.
The statutory guidance for schools that will be issued in January will be crucial, yet no draft of this guidance has been provided as part of the consultation, and nor does the consultation provide any clarity on the scope or detail of its content. This is simply not good enough. Therefore, my fourth ask is that this is made available.
I stand in this place today not only as a parliamentarian, but as a mum and as a board governor of three schools. And I stand here on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland, who do not support what is being done by this Government, who want protections for their children and who want the classroom to be a safe space, not a space that forces on their children opinions and ideologies that are not in keeping with their views.
Before I left home this morning, I dressed my little boy for school—Charlie, aged four. I entrusted him into the care and keeping of his new school, safe in the knowledge that the school he attends promotes and supports a Christian ethos. My nieces and nephews travelled to their post-primary schools, where a Christian ethos is upheld and the teaching of RSE is measured, balanced and does not promote some of the most bizarre and liberal views. I do this for them, for every child and young person in Northern Ireland, and for every teacher and board governor who wants to protect. I ask the Secretary of State to stop meddling. Stop, stop, stop this agenda of devaluing life and radically changing the very bedrock of our society, our children and their education.
Let me start by thanking Carla Lockhart for securing tonight’s debate on an issue that I know she feels very strongly about. The Secretary of State is disappointed that he cannot respond himself, but unfortunately this debate has coincided with the Northern Ireland investment summit, where he is busy showcasing Northern Ireland’s innovation and potential to investors from around the world. As a result, I am making my somewhat improbable Dispatch Box debut.
Relationship and sexuality education for children in the United Kingdom is a sensitive issue and I recognise and respect the fact that there are strongly held personal views on the issue across the House. In responding for the Government, I seek to continue in the spirit of respect that has characterised the hon. Member’s remarks. Let me start by outlining why the Government have acted.
Earlier this year the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland laid the Relationships and Sexuality Education (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2023. In doing so, he was acting to implement the clear will of Parliament with respect to sexual and reproductive health education in Northern Ireland. When passing the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, this Parliament, by an overwhelming majority in a free vote, voted to impose a duty on the Secretary of State to implement in full the recommendations of the United Nations committee on the elimination of discrimination against women.
What legal authority does CEDAW, a committee of unelected officials from other countries, have over UK law? In what other point of UK law does it have the authority to tell us what to do?
Given that the vote took place before I was a Member of this House, it is difficult for me to comment. I will state only that the result was 332 Ayes to 99 Noes.
That legislation thereby placed a statutory duty on the Secretary of State to make age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate education on sexual and reproductive health and rights a compulsory component of the curriculum for adolescents in grant-aided schools in Northern Ireland, and to monitor its implementation. This is a specific and unique duty, which colleagues will recall also placed the Government under a duty to establish abortion services in Northern Ireland. The regulations to deliver on this decision of Parliament were passed in the House of Commons, again by an overwhelming majority, on
The Secretary of State did not take lightly the decision to bring forward this legislation. It has always been the Government’s preference that, because education is a devolved matter, the Department of Education in Northern Ireland should update the curriculum. The Government gave it every opportunity to act, but regrettably it did not do so.
It is widely acknowledged that there is a problem with how sexual education is being taught in schools in Northern Ireland. Indeed, a recent report from the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission recommended that a standard level of RSE throughout all schools be introduced.
The Minister comes to the nub of the issue. One of the criticisms was that, when they were teaching it, people were introducing some values into their teaching. The objection was that faith schools and Christian teachers, because they believe certain things, brought those values into their teaching. These regulations are designed to prevent people and schools from reflecting those values in their teaching and in the curriculum. That is the crux of the issue, and it should not be the case in a free society.
I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention. It is the Government’s view that educating adolescents on issues such a contraception and access to abortion should be done in a factual way that does not advocate or oppose a particular view on the moral and ethical considerations of abortion or contraception.
Nearly four years have passed since the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act, and adolescents in Northern Ireland are still not receiving comprehensive and scientifically accurate education on sexual and reproductive health and rights, and the Government have therefore acted to implement the will of the House. In doing so, the Government have sought to ensure that the education provided is broadly in line with that already provided in England with regard to contraception and abortion—these regulations do that.
The regulations passed earlier this year amend the curriculum for key stage 3 and 4 pupils—11 to 16-year-olds.
I will make some progress, if that is okay.
The regulations make age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate education on sexual and reproductive health and rights a compulsory component of the curriculum in Northern Ireland. This covers prevention of early pregnancy and access to abortion.
In recognition of the fact that education in Northern Ireland is a devolved matter, the Secretary of State has sought to ensure that the Department of Education in Northern Ireland has led in determining the content and delivery of this education—they are the experts. The regulations place a duty on that Department to issue guidance by
As I noted at the beginning of my remarks, this Government recognise the sensitivity of this topic. Some parents may wish to teach their child about sex education or make alternative arrangements for sex education to be provided in line with their religious background or their belief about the age at which their children should access sex education. Let me assure hon. Members that in recognition of that the regulations also place a duty on the Department of Education in Northern Ireland to make regulations about the circumstances in which a pupil may be withdrawn from such education, or elements of that education, at the request of a parent. That mirrors the opt-out approach taken in England and Scotland.
The Minister has used the word “sensitivity” on a number of occasions during his speech. Does he accept that advising someone on the killing of a child is one of the most sensitive issues that there could possibly be, yet, according to what the Secretary of State has said, what CEDAW has said and what these regulations will result in, any teacher who has a deeply held view that killing a child is wrong will be prevented from saying so to the children they are trying to guide?
On the point of teacher opt-outs, it is important to stress that this will be a matter for the Department of Education in Northern Ireland, as it has overall responsibility for education in Northern Ireland. It will be part of its consultation, which I will be coming to in a moment, and the guidance that is published next year. On teacher opt-outs, it is also worth pointing out that a large majority of the schools in Northern Ireland outsource their relationship and sexuality education to third-party providers.
Thank you for indulging me on this, Mr Deputy Speaker. The Minister said that the “Government recognise the sensitivity” of this matter and he then used the words “some parents may wish to”. How does he reconcile that with the fact that scrutiny in the other place said that there had been insufficient consultation with parents? Does he not think that some stronger legislation may have been brought forward, if that was deemed appropriate, following proper consultation with parents?
By the way, you should first have apologised for not being present throughout the entire debate.
As my colleagues have said, the mechanics of teaching sex, the mechanics of an abortion and the mechanics of contraception are one thing; this is about the teaching of values. Going through life, as we all know, is about one thing: relationships—relationships with each other, how we build those relationships, whether they become sexual, and whether they take place in a loving environment. When those values are removed, what happens to the things that we believe in passionately? It is, “You can have an abortion because it is an inconvenience to have a child.” That is where the problem comes. Can the Minister give us an assurance that values will be allowed to be kept, so that at the centre of all our relationships we have value?
I am not sure that was quite the short intervention that the hon. Member promised. I reiterate what I said earlier about the need to have the education done in a factual way. But that does not exclude parents being able to teach those values to their children, which surely would be the most primary thing when it comes to this.
The Department for Education has confirmed that it intends to have the opt-out regulations in force on the same day as the guidance on the updated curriculum, which is
Hon. Members have noted in this debate that the House of Lords brought the regulations to the special attention of the House as a result of their concerns about the decision not to publicly consult on them. The Secretary of State has already addressed the issues in a subsequent debate on those regulations, but I just reiterate that, in line with the Government’s statutory obligations under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, and in consultation with the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, the Government completed an equality assessment screening, the outcome of which did not indicate the need to consult publicly on the policy. The Secretary of State’s duty is clear that it requires topics such as abortion and contraception to be compulsory curriculum components. A public consultation would not change this requirement. As I have mentioned, there is the consultation now open on both the guidance and the opt-out provisions.
In closing, I reiterate that the Government have only stepped in where necessary on this issue to deliver on a statutory duty. In bringing forward these regulations—
I am afraid that I am out of time.
In bringing forward these regulations, the UK Government did not set a new policy direction, but rather gave effect to a decision taken by Parliament in 2019 by an overwhelming majority in a free vote. The Department for Education in Northern Ireland—
House adjourned without Question put (