Local Government Bill [H.L.]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:00 pm on 6th December 1999.

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Photo of Baroness Gould of Potternewton Baroness Gould of Potternewton Labour 7:00 pm, 6th December 1999

My Lords, like my noble friend Lady Massey of Darwen, I wish to concentrate my brief remarks on Clause 68 of the Bill and to welcome the repeal of Section 2A of the Local Government Act 1986 and what was to become Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988.

There were a number of points of detail that I would like to have raised on other aspects of the Bill, not least those that deal with referendums and elections. But I thought that I could leave those until Committee stage. However, there was one point that I could not resist taking the opportunity to raise. The turnout at local elections in this country is the lowest in the European Union. Many measures in the Bill are designed to help to rectify that position, as will the provisions of the Representation of the People Bill currently in the other place. But greater voter participation might have been further aided by an examination of our voting system for local elections.

It is now too late to make a change to our voting system in the Bill before us. But there has been at least a move in the right direction by the fact that mayors will be elected by a supplementary vote. I hope that that indicates that the Government are prepared to consider how local councils are elected and that they are not closing the door on changing the voting system. I should add that I do not expect a reply from the Minister on that point, unless he has some good news to impart.

However, what I did not expect was that Clause 68 would play such an important part in the selection of candidates for mayor of London. I say that not to make a party political point but rather the reverse; namely, to illustrate that across the parties there is support for the removal of Section 28. I hope that the debate on the issue, when we discuss it in more detail as we pass through the various stages of the Bill, will concentrate on the principle and not party political issues. As the noble Baroness, Lady Young, said--this is probably the only point on which I agree with her on the issue--we must not play politics with young children.

The debate should be about removing any climate of prejudice and discrimination against gays and lesbians. It should be about keeping a sense of perspective and understanding that homophobic intolerance does exist and that it is not acceptable. It must be about a more caring and compassionate society and about equal treatment for everyone. It must not be about seeking political gain from aiding and abetting bigotry and discrimination, nor do I believe that it is a debate about marriage versus homosexuality. That is a red herring that has been drawn across this issue.

I have read with interest reports of the previous debates in your Lordships' House when Section 28 was introduced. It seemed to me that the then government had latched on to homophobia as a means of attacking certain Labour councils. It was said then that it was a necessary measure to restrain the activities of a small minority of councils that had gone too far in using their discretionary powers. As a consequence, local authorities, school teachers and pupils have all been affected. The fear of how Section 28 might apply has served to create a climate of prejudice and bigotry that has affected a section of the community up and down the country.

My noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton--I am pleased to see him in his place--warned at the time that the clause

"will inhibit a young person who will wonder where he or she can get advice as regards his or her sexual orientation".

A further telling statement was made by the noble Lord, Lord Habgood. I paraphrase what he said:

"It is important to see the long-term implications of this clause ... it does not defend human rights, it is dangerous and unnecessary".

It is clear that those warnings have been vindicated at considerable personal cost to many young men and women attempting to come to terms with their sexuality.

So what have been the implications and what have been the long-term consequences? There is no question that one of the immediate effects of the implementation of Section 28 was an increase in hate crimes against both individual gays and lesbians and organisations they were associated with. It has stopped libraries from stocking books on homosexual issues and the ambiguity it has created has meant that some teachers have used Section 28 to avoid discussing the issues of sexuality. It was not that they could not but rather that they would not because of the confusion over what would be their position. It has also meant that some teachers who are homophobic--and they do exist--have found Section 28 has given their prejudice a legitimacy. Furthermore, it has almost certainly meant that in many cases homophobic bullying has been tacitly tolerated.

All these factors, and the confusion or unwillingness to tackle the issue by teachers, coupled with a flourishing intolerant sub-culture in schools, has had a detrimental effect on young gays and lesbians, who are often treated as being of a lesser status. The section's message--that lesbians and gay men are less acceptable in our society--continues to haunt schools and local authorities. We must change that culture, but the current patchiness of sex and relationship education provision in general means that many young people are not developing the knowledge, skills and attitudes they require to form positive and tolerant relationships, sexual or otherwise. To do that, the provision needs to include discussions of emotions, relationships, different sexualities and lifestyles. A memorandum sent in October 1987 to teachers and governors of Church of England schools stated:

"In order to love effectively, one must understand and hence it is vital that any good education programme must include some treatment of homosexual relationships alongside any treatment of heterosexual relationships".

I am sorry that the noble Duke, the Duke of Norfolk, is not in his place to hear that statement which was sent to Church of England schools.

I should also like to quote the words of Shaun Woodward MP who, when speaking on LBC Radio recently said that:

"Teachers need to be able to talk frankly about homosexuality to help those pupils taunted as 'gay' and 'lesbians'".

Section 28 prevents that from happening. It is the biggest obstacle to teachers tackling homophobic bullying in schools. Many debates have been held in your Lordships' House on the extent of bullying in schools and many concerns have been expressed.

A Family Planning Association project--here I must declare an interest as the president of the Family Planning Association--was conducted this year called "Gender Issues in Secondary Schools". It found that bullying is primarily about difference, in particular difference related to gender and sexuality. The extent of that bullying was highlighted in a study carried out in 1997 by the Institute of Education entitled "Playing It Safe". It found that only 6 per cent of schools surveyed had a bullying and discipline policy relating to homophobia, and that 56 per cent of schools had difficulties meeting the needs of lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils because, as the survey also showed, 82 per cent of teachers admitted that they found Section 28 confusing. There is a direct correlation between homophobic bullying and Section 28.

There is no question that there have been no prosecutions under Section 28, but its psychological impact has eliminated freedom of discussion and penalised a minority group made up of large numbers of individuals from all social classes who play a vital role in our society. That psychological impact has considerably hindered the work of local authorities in providing support and services to the gay and lesbian communities. It is difficult to assess the effect on people's lives of the closing down or never coming into being of such services, or how many young, vulnerable men have experienced negative health consequences because they have been unable to speak to the right people who could guide them. The effect of Section 28 has been to shut the door, resulting in despair and tragedy; and, as my noble friend the Minister said in his opening remarks, one in five gay people attempts suicide.

In conclusion, the Local Government Bill is about the promotion of economic and social well-being and about improving the quality of life of people in any given locality. The repeal of Section 28 will improve the quality of life of a very vulnerable section of our society. It is time it was repealed, and the Government are to be congratulated on attempting to do so. I, along with many others, hope that they succeed.