Local Government Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:15 pm on 10th July 2003.

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Photo of Baroness Scott of Needham Market Baroness Scott of Needham Market Liberal Democrat 5:15 pm, 10th July 2003

My Lords, this is the first time that I have participated in a debate on this subject and it has been a privilege to follow the noble Baronesses who have just spoken. I have followed the issue with some interest over the years as a member of your Lordships' House, as a county councillor in Suffolk, part of a local education authority; but above all, as the mother of two teenage children with whom I discussed the issue yesterday evening, because I thought it was interesting to get the perspective of at least two of the young people about whom we all purport to know and understand so much.

What originally moved me to speak was the briefing material that I received from the Christian Institute, which has been widely quoted. When I read it I was shocked. I was shocked by the way in which material that was never intended to be seen by young people was presented as though it had been, and I was shocked by the selective and partial use of out-of-context quotes, in a way that was designed deliberately to shock and outrage.

This dodgy dossier contains a number of myths. The first is the myth that somehow wholly unsuitable materials are being distributed widescale across our schools. In my 12 years on a local education authority I have never seen such material distributed to children, nor has a teacher, parent or governor ever come to me and expressed such concerns. I am deeply offended by the suggestion that a local authority run by whichever party, or that teachers, youth workers and organisations dedicated to young people are all somehow hell bent on corrupting the young people to whom they have dedicated their professional lives.

The second myth being propounded is that local authorities are retaining responsibility for sex education. That is simply not true. The teaching of sex education is a matter for school governors and parents. I find it ironic that someone who has rightly championed the freedom of schools from central control should seek to add to that control by imposing compulsory ballots on schools that in the main do not want them.

Local authorities produce guidance, but they do so as a result of demand from teachers, many of whom are struggling to know how to deal with those difficult topics. Goodness knows, anyone who has ever sat down with their children and tried to tell them the facts of life knows how excruciating it can be for both parties. Teachers find it very difficult, and the guidance is often produced as a response to their needs.

I also received the briefing from the chair of the board of governors. I believe that his final comment, concerning the question of balance being "insulting and offensive" to his profession, is very telling.

The third, and to my mind most invidious, myth is that somehow children will be protected by ignorance. There is no doubt that sex can be a risky business. Unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and psychological damage are issues dealt with by health professionals every day. But whispered conversations behind the bike sheds, a furtive exploration of porn sites on the Internet or, indeed, mainstream television channels leave young people in ignorance of the real facts of life, and it leaves them more and not less vulnerable to damage in the future. Unless responsible sex education takes place under appropriate circumstances, we leave them highly vulnerable.

Therefore, sex education must—for practical purposes if for no other—pay heed to the reality that there is a variety of sexual activity out there. We cannot simply teach activities which the noble Baroness or anyone else regards as mainstream or acceptable.

It is very difficult for any parent to consider his or her adolescent offspring as sexually active beings. It is probably even more difficult for the offspring to think about their parents in that light. Therefore, on either side it cannot be relied upon that sex education between parents and children will, indeed, be adequate and address these issues.

I am the mother of two teenage children and I desperately want them and their friends to receive an education which prepares them for a life in which they are happy and confident in themselves and their sexuality. I want them to learn to respect the differences found in other people's faith, belief, culture and sexuality. I want them to make reasoned judgments about danger and risk and I do not want them to lead their lives in fear through ignorance and scaremongering. What I want for them, I want for all children.

I have listened very carefully to the many organisations which specialise in the care of young people and which want to see Section 28 repealed. They do not want to see anything that will delay that repeal. The Children's Society, the NSPCC, Childline and the National Children's Bureau all want to see Section 28 repealed as soon as possible. Those are the very organisations in which we have entrusted the care of our most vulnerable people, and we should listen to them.