Local Government Bill [H.L.]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:35 pm on 6th December 1999.

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Photo of Lord Waddington Lord Waddington Conservative 5:35 pm, 6th December 1999

My Lords, it is with some diffidence that I rise to follow the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, because I am not an expert on local government. When I make a few remarks about Part II, I do so with some diffidence and in the hope that it is sometimes helpful to have a layman's perspective. It certainly seems somewhat strange to me that even before there is a mayor in London and we have seen the consequences of having a mayor in London, we should be hurrying on to consider having mayors elsewhere.

Looking at the situation in London at the present time, I am not encouraged to believe that the post of mayor is bound to fall to someone interested in good administration and the delivery of efficient service rather than a demagogue bent on political posturing and confrontation with the government of the day. We shall have to see. However, when I read in the papers who is supposed to be the front runner for the Labour nomination, I am not exactly encouraged.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, said that there had been a decline in the public's view of local authorities over the years. I am told by many people that it has been quite difficult in recent years to get good people to stand as councillors in some of our cities. There may be a number of reasons for that, but one reason represented to me not long ago is that when one has sought election in order to ensure that the street lights work and that one's children receive a decent education, it is fairly dispiriting to have to sit patiently while one is harangued night after night about gay rights. It is hard to see how abolishing the committee system is going to solve that difficulty.

Furthermore, having an inner circle of councillors serve on an executive, relegating the rest to second-class status with no part in decision-making, will not--in spite of all that was said by the noble Lord--improve democratic accountability, which Labour say is their aim. It is hardly likely to encourage those who do not get into the magic circle to continue to serve.

We are told that those who serve on the executive may be paid pensionable salaries. It is important that the public should be aware that that new idea is not a no-cost idea and that it may cost council tax payers dearly. Clearly, higher remuneration does not necessarily guarantee the involvement of higher quality people any more than paying expenses, however justified, resulted in better councillors at that time.

In other contexts, I believed that the Government rather liked the idea of power-sharing. There is much to be said for the committee structure in which all councillors can be involved in decision-making. Surely the Government should therefore think again about the unanimous conclusion of the Joint Committee and allow an authority to choose arrangements other than the executive arrangements on the face of the Bill. Otherwise, with the abolition of the committee system, absolute unfettered power really will be given to one party in many of our big cities. That is not desirable.

I turn now to the repeal of Section 28 by Clause 68. As my noble friend Lady Young said, the matter was not mentioned at all in the Queen's Speech, and when the Deputy Prime Minister mentioned the matter in debate in the other place on 18th November at col. 127 of Hansard, he was almost apologetic, admitting that the intention behind Section 28--that is, to prevent the promotion in the classroom of homosexuality as a way of life--was,

"a fair and proper intention".

My noble friend Lady Young pointed out that, although both she and I mentioned the proposal for the reduction in the age of consent and Section 28 in our speeches in this Chamber during the debate on the gracious Speech, and although the Lord Privy Seal did us the courtesy of replying to our comments about the reduction in the age of consent, not a word fell from her lips about Section 28.

I am not surprised at the Government's diffidence because the arguments which they have been able to muster in support of repeal range from the tenuous to the trivial. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said that there have not been any prosecutions under Section 28. But according to Mr Nick Seaton of the Campaign for Real Education, neither has there been the same volume of complaints from parents. Even Mr Peter Tatchell seems to think that Section 28 has had a deterrent effect. In an article a year or two ago he said that he had identified,

"at least 35 instances of self-censorship by local authorities fearful of prosecution".

According to the Christian Institute, there have been many instances where local authority officials have used their powers to block expenditure which would have been illegal under Section 28. Therefore, quite clearly it has had a deterrent effect.

That is the whole point. Section 28 is aimed at local authorities and the spending of money by local authorities on material which promotes homosexuality. It is not aimed at and poses no threat to teachers. I believe that the right reverend Prelate, who is not in his place at the moment but who will be able to read Hansard, can be assured that it does not affect what is taught in sex education lessons. That is decided on a school-by-school basis by the governing body with guidance from the department. It clearly allows counselling of pupils who are concerned about their sexuality.

It is said that the present law prevents teachers from dealing with bullying about which, of course, all teachers are rightly concerned. But it goes without saying that no teacher has ever been prevented by Section 28 from dealing with a bully. It is perfectly absurd to assert that a teacher cannot check bullying and cannot counsel young people about their feelings without promoting a gay lifestyle.

I submit that the Minister was wrong and that his remarks were in no way based on any evidence or on the wording of the section. He was quite wrong when he said that the legislation prevented local authorities addressing the needs of the gay community, still less from funding counselling services. The very limited scope of Section 28 was set out in DoE circular 12/88 and an extract is quoted in the excellent paper by Care. If the House will bear with me for a moment, I shall read the relevant extract:

"The provision will be relevant in cases where a local authority in exercising one of its statutory functions proposes to do something for the deliberate purpose of promoting homosexuality. Local authorities will not be prevented by this section from offering the full range of their services to homosexuals on the same basis as to all their inhabitants. So long as they are not setting out to promote homosexuality they may for example include in their public libraries books and periodicals about homosexuality or written by homosexuals and fund theatre and other arts events which may include homosexual themes".

The circular went on:

"Section 28 does not affect the activities of school governors nor teachers. It will not prevent the objective discussion of homosexuality in the classroom nor the counselling of pupils concerned about their sexuality".

The Minister was clearly ignoring entirely that circular, which must have been brought to his attention by a government department when he made his remarks. Those remarks are in complete conflict with what he and this Government know to be the position.

We were told by the noble Lord who last spoke that when Section 28 was introduced it was set up as an "Aunt Sally". I can assure him that nothing could be further from the truth. When Section 28 was introduced, the Government were acting in response to the genuine concerns of parents that local authorities were using their money to teach children that there was no meaningful difference between a family headed by a man and a woman and two homosexuals living together. Section 28 seems to have had a beneficial effect in the education service and in local authorities.

Unfortunately, again as was pointed out by my noble friend Lady Young, the activists who caused so much trouble in the late 1980s seem to have found other ways of pursuing the same agenda. That is obvious from the actions of a number of health authorities. For the sake of brevity I shall mention just two. The Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham Health Authority has funded a guide to the etiquette of "cruising" and "cottaging". The North Bristol National Health Service Trust has funded a so-called educational pack which encourages children as young as 14 to act out homosexual scenes, including pretending to be a married man who had sex with other men in secret.

As I received no response from the Lord Privy Seal when I spoke in the debate on the Queen's Speech, perhaps I may put the same question to the Minister today. How can the Government countenance young children being taught that it is all right to indulge in homosexual activity, and promiscuous homosexual acts at that, when they know perfectly well that if that lifestyle is adopted by those children, it will mean at the very least an increased chance of HIV infection and a reduction in their life expectancy? How can they countenance money being spent on that kind of material when it has been voted by Parliament for the treatment of sick people?

Last Tuesday night Stonewall put on a star-studded show attended by the Prime Minister's wife to advertise gay rights. Apparently, it included a scene in which male dancers dressed as cub scouts gyrated suggestively and made obscene gestures while the audience clapped, cheered and stamped their feet. Some people could have been excused for thinking that the dancers were signalling that cub scouts were proper game for adult homosexuals. But Mr Tim Telman, himself gay and a journalist who writes for a homosexual publication, was surely right to say in an article in the Daily Mail on 1st December that that scene, far from reminding us that homosexuals are an oppressed minority, was symptomatic of a wider gay triumphalism in public life.

I say in all solemnity that it is our job to see that that triumphalism does not infringe the right of children to be brought up knowing what is right and what is wrong, understanding that sodomy is not the moral equivalent of sexual intercourse between a man and a wife, and appreciating the importance of marriage and of children being brought up by a man and woman bound by their marriage vows to a lasting relationship.