Commons Amendment

– in the House of Lords at 6:30 pm on 24th July 2000.

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377Leave out Clause 91.

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 377. The amendment and those grouped with it deal with a situation which received substantial attention during the passage of the Bill. It relates to the provision of what used to be known as Section 28.

The Government's position on Section 2A, as it now is, of the Local Government Act 1986 has been clear and consistent throughout the passage of the Bill. We consider it bad law; we consider its drafting imprecise; we consider its effect misleading; and, above all, we consider its indirect effect as having been extremely damaging in the provision of education and other parts of public service and to a number of often vulnerable people. We have therefore repeatedly said that it must be repealed and we shall strongly continue to impose any attempt to reinstate what we regard as a discriminatory and confusing piece of legislation on the statute book.

Amendment No. 377 would remove Clause 91 from the Bill. That clause was proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Young. Amendment No. 378 makes good our commitment by reinstating the repeal of Section 2A. Amendments Nos. 388, 389, 478 and 482 are consequential to this and other repeals.

From what I have said during the passage of the Bill, it will not surprise noble Lords to hear that we shall oppose Amendments Nos. 337A and the other amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, all of which seek to overturn the Commons amendments.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, has tabled Amendment No. 378B, which is intended to replace Section 28 or Section 2A. I have some sympathy with the intentions of the amendment but believe that it may well cause confusion. At this stage I am not convinced that it meets what is required.

Those who here and in the wider world support the retention of Section 2A have argued at length in this Chamber and elsewhere that, without its protection, children in schools would be at risk of inappropriate teaching and that local education authorities would seek to promote homosexuality. That argument has been the most emotive and frequently repeated in the whole debate. Even when Section 28 was first passed, that argument was wrong.

Moreover, the argument deliberately ignores the key changes that have taken place in the relationship between school and local education authorities in England and Wales since the original legislation was passed. It ignores the fact that Section 28 never directly, legally applied to schools. However, as there was such an enormous reaction to the passage of the clause by its proponents, its entire effect in practice was deeply damaging.

School governors and teachers felt inhibited in providing support to gay and lesbian students and in explaining to those who were doubtful about their sexuality the position with regard to homosexuality. It did nothing, to put it at its mildest, to help to tackle the misery of homophobic bullying.

Your Lordships will be aware that more recently we put into effect safeguards in relation the education system. Since the original Bill was discussed, guidance has been issued by the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, and amendments have been made to the Learning and Skills Bill. All have one firm and central purpose: the protection of children from inappropriate teaching and from materials inappropriate to the delivery of sex education in schools.

That new guidance, on which considerable comment was made during the passage of the Learning and Skills Bill last week, is a major step forward. I should point out that the previous government never mentioned marriage, for example, in sex education. This Government introduced marriage into the curriculum for sex education for the first time. Circular 5/94, which our guidance replaces, contains no mention whatever of marriage.

Our guidance, which is given its statutory base by the Learning and Skills Bill, adopted by this House last week, provides a much more robust protection for our children. What better protects our children: is it a confusing piece of legislation, which has been subject to enormous emotive arguments on all sides of the issue--a piece of legislation which does not apply to schools and a piece of legislation which is subject to enormous misinterpretation on all sides--or is a better protection for our children a clear statutory safeguard set out in the Learning and Skills Bill and the related guidance to schools?

I believe that with the issuing of that guidance and with the passage of the Learning and Skills Bill, we are now in a different situation. Some of your Lordships could have been forgiven for believing that the argument about Section 28 or Section 2A--

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Does he recall the words of his colleague, the Minister dealing with the Learning and Skills Bill? He told me in response to a question which I asked that what we did in the Learning and Skills Bill had no read-across whatever to Section 28 or Section 2A, in this debate and with regard to this Bill.

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

My Lords, precisely; because Section 28 did not apply to the powers of governors and teachers who will be carrying out the guidance under the Learning and Skills Bill. There is no direct read-across. My point is precisely that. It has always been wrong to say that Section 28 affected the way in which teachers, governors and head teachers provided sex education in schools. Section 28 relates to the role of local authorities.

Your Lordships may well have been misled into thinking that it applied to schools. Much of the propaganda on all sides has related to schools. In fact, Section 28 applied to the role of local authorities. Therefore, having dealt with it under the Learning and Skills Bill and clarified the situation in relation to the teaching of children, for whom there are understandable concerns in this House, we are left with the services provided by local authorities. The bulk of those services relate to adults.

Some Members of this House may not like my argument. Some may believe that any provision of services to the gay and lesbian members of our society is of itself wrong. We on the Government side do not accept that. We believe that those whose sexuality is different from the majority are citizens of this realm and are entitled to receive from the public authorities of this realm treatment equal to that given to those whose sexuality is more of the majority.

Local authorities provide a number of services to gay and lesbian people. They provide health and medical advice, social services, counselling services and so forth. It must be right and proper that local authorities should be able to continue to do so without running into the danger of being accused of promoting homosexuality under Section 2A or Section 28.

I have no doubt that we shall have a long, but I hope not too emotive, debate on the subject. The central question is whether in the 21st century we are prepared to accept that members of our society who happen to be gay and lesbian are entitled to services from their local authorities which they elect and to which they pay taxes.

The House of Lords must recognise that in another place a large majority of Members were in favour of the repeal of Section 2A or Section 28. Clearly, as always, the House must take very seriously an attempt to overturn that.

But today the House has another, even greater, responsibility in considering how to deal with amendments which seek to overturn the Commons repeal. I remind your Lordships that this House has always seen itself as having, and constitutionally had, a special responsibility to protect the rights of minorities. If we retain Section 28, we shall be doing precisely the opposite.

When the Bill left the Lords, the Government did not feel able to assure the House of Commons that the Bill was compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. With all the legislation that has passed through this House, that was a serious and totally unprecedented move. We should not now be diverted to discussing the situation within schools. The guidance contained within the Learning and Skills Bill has protected and clarified the position in relation to children.

Primarily at issue now are the human rights of adult citizens. Of course I understand the concern in relation to the sex education of our children. It has been mentioned throughout the debates in this House and in the media and elsewhere. However, we resolved the issue of sex education last week. Before us now in the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, is an attempt to provide a means to deny human rights and equality to a group of our citizens. That is the issue before your Lordships today.

I have no doubt that the debate will range wide and that much extraneous material, in all senses, will be referred to. As with the Learning and Skills Bill and unlike previous debates on this issue, I hope that we shall have a calm and reasonable debate which deals with the facts rather than with misleading and prejudiced assertions. I believe that today the House has a heavy responsibility to protect minorities. Therefore, we should agree with the Commons amendment in order to restore the reputation of this House as a defender of all citizens, including a minority of citizens. I shall refer to the other government amendments shortly.

Moved, That the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 377.--(Lord Whitty.)