Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:30 pm on 24th July 2000.

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Photo of Baroness Massey of Darwen Baroness Massey of Darwen Labour 7:30 pm, 24th July 2000

My Lords, in opposing the amendments that support the retention of Section 28, I wish to put forward two simple arguments: first, that Section 28 is now redundant and unnecessary; and, secondly, that it is open to misinterpretation, thereby, giving permission for stigma and prejudice.

Section 28 is redundant because the concerns that it was designed to satisfy are now amply covered by legislation, such as the Education Act 1996, and new guidance on sex and relationship education about which we heard tonight. There is ample evidence to show that parents and young people want sex and relationship education. They want to learn the skills and information for improving relationships and sexual health.

In response to those concerns and those of professionals who have worked with young people, several recent sets of guidelines have been issued, one of which is the sex and relationship guidance. For many years, in law, schools have been required to have a policy on sex education, which must be available to all parents every year. Of course, Section 28 does not apply to schools, although many people believe that it does. Governing bodies are responsible in law for sex education, and one-third of their number are parents.

The new guidance specifies what should be in the policy. It should cover: how the education should be delivered and by whom; how it is monitored; and what parents should do if they wish to withdraw their children. It also talks about evaluation. In addition, there are special sections on materials and their appropriateness, on teaching strategies, and on issues such as the importance of teaching appropriate to Asian culture, as well as the importance of involving boys and parents. Moreover, paragraph 6.6 applies to youth workers.

The guidance builds on the framework of personal, social health education, which was set out last year. This will be inspected by Ofsted from this year, wherever it appears in the curriculum. It is not a single subject; indeed, health education could never be a single subject. All this surely provides a totally adequate framework to protect young people from inappropriate teaching, if any such teaching existed. The Care Standards Act contains much that will prevent young people being abused. Most importantly, such guidance is also concerned to stress the responsibility of family life in sex and relationship education.

We must all surely be concerned about the threat of AIDS, about teenage pregnancies and about young people forming good relationships. Continued confusion about Section 28 is not conducive to encouraging professionals who work not only in schools but in prisons, the youth service, the police and so on. Parents, concerned about their children's health and well-being, have said by a huge majority (2:1) that they want Section 28 to be removed. I do not believe that professionals who work with young people are evil and trying to corrupt young minds. All those I know of are without exception caring and careful. They do not try to make young people homosexual. In his recent speech about common sense for schools William Hague spoke of children being taught,

"by teachers who enjoyed the professional respect and freedom they deserve".

We have heard about unsavoury teaching materials. My own children went to three different comprehensive schools in London. The only targeting that went on was by zealots of the National Front. Fortunately, children at those schools were good at resisting pressure, which is something that personal health education is keen to promote. We have heard about a video being produced in Avon. I have made inquiries about it. I understand that it has not been widely distributed. Teachers are not finding it useful and of 10 teachers whom I asked, only one had heard of it. Sexual relationships guidance makes it totally clear that health authority material which may be used in schools must be in line with the guidance.

I too visited the display of material set out by the noble Baroness, Lady Young. I respect fundamentally her wish to protect children. But the vast bulk of that material was not intended for use in schools and teachers would not have found it remotely useful. I can assure the noble Baroness that material produced by education authorities and educationalist for use with young people is sensitive and appropriate to local needs. I believe that she would approve of it.

In the 1980s material was produced by health authorities and voluntary organisations as part of the fight against HIV and AIDS. Norman Fowler, the then Conservative Minister for Health, bravely supported that fight. As a result the HIV-AIDS epidemic in the United Kingdom was not as serious as predicted. This material was not promoting homosexuality but combating a potential disease, which we would be foolish to be complacent about. The material was not designed for use in schools.

Perhaps I may continue briefly to say why I believe Section 28 is harmful apart from the reasons I have just given. A law which allows the possibility of a group in society being treated unjustly is bad law. Section 28 does that by inferring--I stress that word--that homosexuality should be condemned even though it is a state into which people are born. I wish to quote a parents organisation, the Friends and Families of Lesbian Gays, which has 25 branches throughout the country and a substantial membership. It is vehemently opposed to Section 28. The parents know what their sons and daughters have suffered. I wonder what would happen if the letter writers supporting Section 28 were to meet the parents in that organisation. I wonder who would convince whom.

There is also an organisation of Catholic parents who have gay children. I quote from a letter from one such parent. It says,

"I know that Section 28 is wrong. It is a law that should now be removed. We have three sons who are well adjusted and caring young men who have never broken the law or been violent, raped or injured and who have respect for people. My eldest son was born gay. Nothing in society or his home or friends made him choose to be gay. He is seen by many as worse than criminal, as evil, depraved, unnatural and not normal. I am proud that he accepts his sexuality as nothing other than normal to him. My support of gay people and their lifestyle does not mean that I undervalue family life and marriage".

The parents have been married for 27 years. The letter continues:

"Both of these are vitally important to children in general, but so are tolerance, non-prejudicial judgment and care of others".

We do not need Section 28. It is not productive. It is not necessary, given the guidance to schools and the powerful role of governors and parents and the guidance we have been given for youth workers. A value central to civilised society is not only tolerance of difference but the celebration of difference. Those who are different in this case have made, and make, contributions to society which are respected and admired. I do not see why we should continue to insult them with a piece of bad legislation.