Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:00 pm on 24th July 2000.

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Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions 8:00 pm, 24th July 2000

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, on one thing--and probably on only one thing: that the discussion of this very important Bill on the reform of local government has been--in this House at least--utterly dominated by consideration of this issue. Much of the public consciousness of the proceedings of this House over the past 12 or 18 months has likewise been dominated by our consideration of Section 28 and the way in which we approach homosexuality. That is to be regretted on both counts.

Nevertheless, one has to be realistic. This is a deeply symbolic issue to people on all sides of the argument. It has a symbolism which is way beyond its actual importance. It is a piece of legislation which is subject to different interpretations by different groups of people in different contexts--and it has never been used. For all those reasons, in any other context the House of Lords would undoubtedly conclude that this must be seriously bad law.

There is also the societal aspect. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, rightly said that there is an age-related differential attitude in society to this issue. It is unfortunate, but it is true. We live in a changing society. It is a changing society which I am afraid that the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and many of her supporters refuse to accept or recognise. But it is the very society with which not only our children but our young adults, and many of our middle-aged adults, have to come to terms. It is that reality that we should be addressing in the House of Lords rather than some of the more symbolic issues that have been referred to today.

Much of the debate has still related to the position in schools. It is almost as if the Learning and Skills Bill and the guidance issued by the Secretary of State had never existed. Therefore, I shall need, once again, to refer to the Learning and Skills Bill and to the guidance given under it, which places the responsibility of sex and relationship education firmly on teachers and school governors and makes it clear that local authorities have no power in determining sex education in schools. It puts a requirement on schools that they should be statutorily obliged to have regard to the guidance issued by the Secretary of State; for the first time, it requires that pupils should be taught about the nature and importance of marriage to family life and to the bringing up of children.