Clause 14

Children, Schools and Families Bill – in a Public Bill Committee on 4th February 2010.

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Exemption from sex and relationships education

Amendment proposed (2 February): 63, in clause 14, page 15, line 31, leave out ‘15’ and insert ‘16’.—(Tim Loughton.)

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

Photo of Janet Anderson Janet Anderson Labour, Rossendale and Darwen

I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following: amendment 162, in clause 14, page 15, line 31, leave out ‘15’ and insert ‘14’.

Amendment 163, in clause 14, page 15, line 33, leave out ‘and relationships’.

Amendment 164, in clause 14, page 15, line 34, after ‘school’, insert

‘if that parent has met with the head teacher of the school or the relevant teacher to discuss their concerns and establish the nature of what is to be taught’.

Amendment 65, in clause 14, page 15, line 35, leave out from ‘withdrawn’ to end of line 36.

Amendment 64, in clause 14, page 15, line 36, leave out ‘15’ and insert ‘16’.

Amendment 112, in clause 14, page 15, line 36, leave out ‘15’ and insert ‘14’.

Amendment 195, in clause 14, page 15, line 36, after ‘15’, insert

‘unless the pupil expresses a wish to be excused from receiving such education.’.

New clause 7—Removal of exemption from sex and relationships education

‘Section 405 of the Education Act 1996 shall be omitted.’.

Before we begin our deliberations, I wish to draw the attention of hon. Members to the fact that, as Chairman, I have a duty to ensure that as much progress as possible has been made in our consideration of the Bill by the time we conclude our business at 5 pm today. I therefore  urge members of the Committee to be succinct, and I shall be listening carefully to ensure that all contributions are relevant to the amendments under consideration.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education)

I belatedly welcome you to the Chair, Mrs. Anderson. We had an interesting debate up to 10 o’clock on Tuesday, in which we heard many weasel words but, in reality, nothing has changed for the Conservatives. In supporting compulsory personal, social, health and economic education, I wish to make the point that all the major children’s organisations support the provision, including the National Children’s Bureau. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children also supports it, as does UNICEF, which has provided briefings for me in the past. We should operate from such a background. There has been a strong call for the move for a long time; it is critical.

The clause allows us to deal with the opt-outs. I have tabled four amendments, two of which propose the age of 14 instead of 15. They are probing amendments to find out why the Minister favours the age of 15. There are strong arguments for making sure that all children have education about sex and relationships earlier than at the age of 15. My personal view is that there should not be opt-outs. I accept that the Government agree, but I am interested in why they favour the age of 15.

The other amendments relate to my concern that the age of 15 is late for many pupils. I suggest in amendment 163 that the curriculum for children and young people should still have a relationships part. That is important. It should cover not only sexual relationships but getting on with one another, not bullying and confidence and self-esteem. Important education centres on the whole issue of relationships.

If the opt-out remains, amendment 164 suggests that it should apply only if the parent has met the head teacher of the school or the relevant teacher to discuss their concerns and to establish the nature of what is to be taught. There are many misconceptions—sorry about that—about what sex and relationships education involves. I have received a letter from a parent begging me not to take the innocence away from their child. If I thought that such education was taking innocence away from children, would I support it? No.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham challenged me on the subject of children being allowed to opt out. He needs to take on board the views of the very organisations that always ask us to put forward the rights, wishes and feelings of children. They are 100 per cent. behind this approach, particularly the Children’s Rights Alliance, which does not support an opt-out. It sees matters in terms of the rights of the child and says that the

“state has the duty to ensure children and young people receive a good, broad and balanced education”— we have discussed that before—

“which develops their personality, talents and physical and mental ability. SRE education is part of this duty.”

It does not see sex and relationships education as any different from history, citizenship or science. No one would want to suggest that a child should have the right to withdraw from history or science; that would not fit in with the vision of the curriculum objectives. Currently, parents can withdraw their children from sex education,  but not from the parts of the science curriculum that teach the biological aspects of human growth and reproduction. What nonsense. To teach children about the mechanics in the abstract and without providing the important relationships education that goes with it would be a disaster. People who argue against this are living in the past. There is no modernisation at all.

It is clear that children and young people want to receive high-quality sex and relationships education. We have already mentioned the United Kingdom Youth Parliament. The state has a duty to educate children on health. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which monitors Government implementation of children’s rights, including the right to express their views, is clear that all children and young people should receive good-quality, age-appropriate health education, which includes sex and relationships education. That is important.

In the England submission to the Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2008, more than 100 non-governmental organisations endorsed a report recommending that the Government remove parents’ right to withdraw children from sex and relationships education in school. The case for compulsory PSHE is well made.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

The hon. Lady started by saying that one of her amendments was a probing amendment to find out the Government’s justification for 15. Her amendment reduces the age to 14. She has said nothing to justify why 14 rather than 13, 12 or whatever age. Will she address the reason for her amendment?

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It is pretty obvious that I am simply asking the question, “Why 15?” The easiest way to probe that was to table an amendment. I am sure that the Minister understands the reasoning behind it. “Why not 12?” is a perfectly reasonable question. There should not be an opt-out at all. I want to hear from the Minister why 15. Organisations consider this to be so important that they reached a consensus around the age of 15. I am not sure that that is right, but I know that we must get this on the curriculum. We must have high quality PSHE and sex and relationships education, in particular.

With those words, Mrs. Anderson, and bearing in mind what you said earlier, I beg to move the amendments tabled in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil.

Photo of Ken Purchase Ken Purchase Labour, Wolverhampton North East

The question is, “What message are we sending out?” It is perfectly clear that there is overwhelming support in the country for properly structured, well-delivered, high quality sex and relationships education. When a poll is taken on such matters, more than 80 per cent. of people approve. They wish it to remain compulsory and on the curriculum for all children. I move that section 405 from the Education Act 1996 is removed, which would render the new clause—“Exemption from sex and relationships education”—redundant.

I understand the arguments with regard to “Why 16 or 15?” “Why 35?”, as I mentioned the other day. There is no logic in any of the answers. The other day, we had an exchange about the works of Piaget, the child psychologist. He identified differences between the  maturation rates of boys and girls and between each boy and girl. We know that girls in particular are entering puberty at an earlier age. Many girls need help and often that is not forthcoming.

The argument here is not about the quality of sex education or whether it should be taught—we all agree on those things—but about the messages we are sending out. I share the view of my hon. Friend the Minister for Europe that:

“Britain has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Western Europe and the second highest, after the USA, in the world. Depressingly, the map of teenage pregnancy is the map of British deprivation.”

I have no argument with people who decide that the way in which a school delivers sex education does not suit them and so take their children elsewhere. However, in Wolverhampton and another 300 or 400 constituencies, that choice does not exist.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

Although there are close links between deprivation and teenage pregnancy levels, it is not exclusively so. Last year or the year before, the highest increase in teenage pregnancy levels was in the royal borough of Windsor and Maidenhead—hardly a ghetto of poverty.

Photo of Ken Purchase Ken Purchase Labour, Wolverhampton North East

I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point. Of course the levels can be quite random. However, when mapped across Britain, the picture is as the Minister for Europe described it last year.

The message is all important. As far as we know, only a small number of children are withdrawn from sex education; about 40 children in every 10,000. That is almost too small to measure. Why do we make this fuss? Is it really about parental choice, or is it about parental prejudice? When the matter was challenged in the European Court, there was an unequivocal ruling that it was an infringement of a child’s rights to take them out of sex education lessons.

Let me make it clear that I think it is the right of the child to withdraw from Christian prayers or those of other religions, but not to withdraw from religious education. I do not believe a parent should be able to withdraw a child from religious education. Without a good knowledge of the King James Bible, the whole world of English literature is probably closed off for many children. Education must be seen in a broad sense. There must be consensus about what should be in the curriculum. Sex education is included.

We are talking about a tiny minority of people who insist that this matter is very personal to them and that in the broad sweep of education, they must be an exception and be able to deny their children the right and opportunity to have good-quality sex education. I agree with the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole that quality is at the heart of this issue.

I believe that there is no age at which withdrawal from SRE can be justified. As Opposition Members said, why is it 15? Why should it not be 16, 19, 12 or 14? We do not include this equivocation in any other subject in the curriculum. Children in my constituency learn their sex in the playground, in dirty books and from TV. The other night in “EastEnders”, two younger people were clearly having sex in a cabin. It was aired just after  8 o’clock. These people were virtually stripped off. In my opinion, the 9 o’clock watershed is sensible and should apply.

Children are so far down the road of knowledge that it is vital that they get advice from expert teachers in the calm atmosphere of a classroom. The TUC argues that health workers should be involved so that they can support teachers who do not have the wide experience that is necessary to deliver the subject in a top-quality way. I argue that clause 14 is redundant and out of date, that it sends the wrong message, is an infringement of children’s rights and a sop to prejudice that we should not be considering in 2010.

Photo of Ann Cryer Ann Cryer Labour, Keighley 9:15 am, 4th February 2010

I assure you, Mrs. Anderson, that I will be as brief as I can. I agree with much of what has been said, and there is no point in repeating it because we want to finish this matter.

Over the weekend, I was fortunate enough to address two meetings. One was a group of Asian women between the ages of 30 and 40 who were discussing problems with divorce, and the other was a group of people who were concerned with health matters. I took the advantage of the two gatherings to ask for people’s opinion on this clause. The view, by and large, was that those parents who wish to withdraw their children from sex and relationship lessons are very likely to be the same parents who will not broach the subject themselves at home. Therefore, their children will be completely deprived and very vulnerable. The other view was that 16 is far too old, and most thought that the age should be brought down to 12 or 13, but I will not go down that path.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools)

Welcome back to the Chair, Mrs. Anderson. This group of amendments deals with a parental right of withdrawal from SRE. Amendments 63, 64 and 65 put forward the argument that pupils should be excused until they attain the age of 16. Amendments 162 and 112 propose that there should be a right to withdraw up to the age of 14. Amendment 163 would substitute references to sex and relationship education with references to sex education only. Amendment 164 would qualify the parental right to withdraw their child from sex and relationship lessons by making it a requirement on parents to talk to the school about any of their concerns. Amendment 195 would give a child over the age of 15 the right to withdraw from SRE, and new clause 7 would remove a parental right completely to withdraw their child from SRE.

Late on Tuesday evening, I was very interested to hear the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. His comments on the high rates of chlamydia and teenage pregnancy, and his acceptance of the need for good-quality PSHE and sex and relationship education were very welcome. I am sure that all parts of the Committee are in agreement on that today. Moreover, in an article in The Daily Telegraph, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) said that we needed good sex and relationship education, so that is all very  positive. I was astonished, therefore, when the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham confirmed late on Tuesday evening that Conservative policy was to retain the right of parental withdrawal for any pupil in compulsory education, and those in further education up to the age of 19, from SRE. That approach seems most illogical when we all know that the age of consent is 16. It means that 16, 17 and 18-year-olds, who can quite legally be having sex, can be withdrawn from any sex and relationship education. That is an untenable position, and it also prompts a question about the modern face of the Conservative party, because it is failing to look at the realities of life and listen to what key stakeholders, parents, young people, faith groups and the third sector are saying to us about this particular issue. It is not defensible to continue to allow parents to determine whether or not their children receive SRE potentially up to the age of 19 when the age of consent is 16.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

Will the hon. Lady tell the Committee what responsibilities parents have to enforce the duty to participate in education or training until the age of 18?

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools)

Just on the point of parents’ involvement, what we would say and what has been said by all members of the Committee, is that we are absolutely clear that parents have a positive role to play with their children and young people not only in sex and relationship education, but generally in the whole of area of PSHE, and that they should make sure that the values relating to the importance of education are instilled in young people. We want children and young people to reach their full potential in education, so parents absolutely have that role to play.

I will come on to talk about why the Government initially took the view that we should accept Sir Alasdair Macdonald’s recommendations in full. I know that, on Tuesday night, the hon. Gentleman wanted a response to that particular issue. The reason why we have changed our position is that we started to have in-depth discussions with experts and interested parties, including representatives of faith groups. We looked at research findings from samples of parents and adults who were concerned about that issue, and we concluded that it was right to say that there should be a right of withdrawal from sex and relationship education, but only to the age of 15.

We believe that is right because it is balanced, deliverable and legally enforceable, and it maintains the right of that small number of parents who wish to exercise the right of withdrawal. We also believe that setting the age limit at 15 offers the best chance of building a strong consensus on the subject. We have consulted with Sir Alasdair on that decision and he has supported it as a way forward. The trend in English law over the past 20 to 30 years has been to afford young people the right to make decisions for themselves, when they have the maturity to understand the implications of those decisions. That sits very well with international law and the development of human rights law.

The measure would bring together and balance the range of perspectives on an important and sensitive issue. The age of 15 is an age that key stakeholders—parents, professionals, young people and most faith groups—accept as a sensible compromise. That means that every young  person will receive a minimum of one year’s sex and relationship education before they reach the age of 16. Also, those parents who wish to withdraw their children from sex and relationships education will be able to see that their child is withdrawn throughout primary school and well into their child’s teenage years.

I think that most 15-year-old children have already been introduced to the issues around sex and relationships through their friends and the media. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East talked a few moments ago about what was on the TV this week. Young people at 15 are well aware of such issues, so it is vital that all children have access to this education for that final year in school.

Photo of Ken Purchase Ken Purchase Labour, Wolverhampton North East

This 15 business defies logic. Although my hon. Friend wants to argue that it is a matter of balance and we can agree it, we are agreeing with people who are way off the pace with these matters. I used the illustration of the TV soap for the effect of pointing out what was on TV at 8 o’clock in the evening. The truth is that the points she makes about a playground education, the TV and so on are the very reason why compromise on the matter is foolish, childish and not grown-up politics. Such an approach completely fails to recognise the realities of today. I cannot go into that now because I know the Chairman wants to move on, but the fact is trying to decide between 12, 15 and 19 is a ludicrous position. There is no logic, sense or reality to that. We get to a point in our lives when we ought to recognise for once that it is time to stop the hypocrisy and get on with a proper job.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools)

I note my hon. Friend’s passion on the subject. We are very much talking about grown-up politics and making sure that we get compulsory sex and relationship education into our schools. We have to accept that a small number of parents want to retain the right to withdraw. If we are going to have the bigger prize of making sure of at least one year of compulsory sex and relationship education, for grown-up politics we have to agree the compromise. That is my answer, but my hon. Friend makes a persuasive case and a lot of hon. Members agree with him.

In answer to the question asked by hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole, the view is that 14 is a little too young and 16 would mean that some young people received no sex and relationship education before they reached the age at which they are legally able to have sex. Having talked to key stakeholders—parents, faith groups—14 is not something that we can get agreement on, but we can with 15.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

The Minister says that 14 is too young. On what basis is 14 too young?

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools)

What I have been trying to express throughout is that we have reached the age of 15 as a compromise, balancing different clear views: no right of withdrawal or keeping the age at 19. We think 15 is the compromise that the majority of people can coalesce around and say, “That’s workable, we are willing to accept that.” Fourteen was not an age that the majority of stakeholders, parents and faith groups were willing to accept. For the sake of grown-up politics, it is much  more important to get the compromise of 15 on to the statute books than not to have anything at all or, as the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham would like, to keep the age at 19, which is completely ridiculous.

The amendment to give a young person over the age of 15 the right to be excused from SRE if they express such a wish would give a child a right of veto. That would also give the right of veto over the wishes of the vast majority of parents who support the teaching of sex and relationship education in schools. The right of withdrawal would effectively pass from the parent to the child once they reached the age of 15. The starting point has to be the extreme importance of pupils receiving at least some of that education about sex and relationships to keep them safe from harm and provide them with essential health information.

Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Labour, Battersea

May I ask the Minister about the 0.04 per cent. of parents who withdraw their children from sex and relationship education? Is that done on any promise that they will provide their children with sex and relationship education? If so, is there any check on whether they have done so or not? After all, when parents withdraw their children from school education, as we shall hear in the clauses on home education, there is strict control on whether they provide the equivalent.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools)

I understand that there is not.

I want to move on to the issue about 15-year-olds being able to decide for themselves. We do not think that we should pass that right to a 15-year-old. We are concerned that from no other area of the national curriculum can a pupil withdraw themselves. I agree with the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole. Although saying that a 15-year-old should be able to decide on withdrawal for themselves is superficially attractive, it is difficult to determine whether that is the wish of the young person or whether they are saying what their parents want them to say.

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Labour, Don Valley

I, like other colleagues on Committee, have some sympathy with the view about children and young people continuing to have access at whatever age to sex and relationship education. Can the Minister confirm that we are not in an ideal world? If we are to have the chance to put sex and relationship education on the statute book as a compulsory part of the curriculum, even with the proviso of 15, unfortunately we sometimes have to have trade-offs in the real world to move forward. I would hate for us and the other place—which personally I voted to abolish some years ago—to lose the opportunity to stop it getting on to the statute books.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools)

My right hon. Friend makes a valid contribution to the debate, about making the measure through with agreement.

We believe that the Liberal Democrat amendment about requiring parents to talk to the school first, if they are concerned and want to withdraw their child from SRE, is too much of a burden. There would be pressure on parents to debate and propose arguments in an inappropriate way. We think that schools should have an ongoing dialogue with parents about SRE, and it would not be appropriate to accept the amendment.

New clause 7 was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East. He spoke to it passionately and persuasively, and we have some sympathy with the new clause, in as much as we would prefer no parent to withdraw their child from SRE. However, as I have been saying throughout my speech, we recognise that, for some parents, the teaching of SRE can conflict with their sincerely held views and religious beliefs. As a consequence, we believe that we should preserve the right, but with the limit at age 15.

I urge the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children) 9:30 am, 4th February 2010

We have had an interesting debate, both on Tuesday and tonight—[Interruption.] This morning; it seems to have been going on for so long.

Returning to where we started this debate, I absolutely want to see better quality sex and relationships education in and out of our schools, with more imaginative ways of getting the message across to children and young people so that they will listen to, understand and act on it. I spent a fascinating fact-finding day working in CosmoGirl magazine before it went out of business. The problems page dealt with amazingly serious and distressing problems about sex and other things from young girls, which were handled intelligently by the magazine. A number of other magazines handle such problems intelligently too, despite some of the criticism that they get for talking about sex.

The problem is that there is no equivalent for teenage boys. Magazines such as Zoo and Nuts are all about fast cars and fast women, rather than responsible sex and relationship advice. There is a huge vacuum out there, particularly for young boys. We need to consider how we get the message across in an environment in which boys will listen and take note, so we desperately need better quality sex and relationships education in whatever forum we can have it. The quality is absolutely key. As I pointed out when I challenged the Minister before, nothing that she has said, and nothing contained in the arrangements, guarantees an improvement in quality. The second consideration is that SRE should not compete with the already highly stretched curriculum time within our schools, thus having a diluting effect on other subjects. The third consideration is about parental choice.

I agreed with much of what the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East said. Interestingly, both this week’s episodes of “EastEnders” so far have involved sex scenes between various characters in Portacabins and bathrooms—[Interruption.] I have been a devotee of “EastEnders” ever since the first episode. What is interesting is the big impression that soaps such as “EastEnders”, of which I am a big fan, can make, particularly on young people. Some of the messages that they teach can be a great force for good. Storylines on “EastEnders” have included children in care, gay relations and HIV, which are tremendously educational for and influential on people who watch it.

However, if one looks at the relationships within “EastEnders”, one can hardly count the number of children living in stable families with married parents—it is not the norm in that soap. There have been a disproportionate number of children born to teenage or  single mothers compared with the rest of the population, and that can create the impression that that is the way things are done.

I am not criticising that particular programme. What I am saying is that that programme, similar soaps and the media have huge influences on our young people. If they run responsible messages, that can be good, but when they do not run responsible messages, and if there is a skewed image society, that can give rise to some of the copycat behaviour that we see.

A while ago, when I visited a school not far from me in a deprived area of Brighton, a teacher made the interesting comment that because the soap opera of choice in that area was mostly “EastEnders”, teachers knew the storyline because it could reflect the way in which parents would respond to the teachers. The programme is hugely influential.

We must ensure that kids are getting the right message in a way that they will listen to. However, taking away parental choice is not the way to do that. I thought that it was rather patronising of the Minister to say that parents have a big and positive role to play in their children’s life. Parents have the biggest and the most responsible role to play. They are the most important people in the lives of their children. This approach takes away the rights and choices of those parents to do what they think is best by their children, without taking away any of the responsibilities—it still loads those responsibilities on them. I have no problem about teaching sex and relationships education to children in school with the safeguards that I have mentioned, and particularly with the safeguard of parental choice and the ability to withdraw their children from it.

Why is that a problem? As we have seen, the only existing statistical evidence shows that a tiny number— 0.04 per cent.—are affected, which represents fewer than 3,000 children in this country. There is no evidence that those children are more susceptible to immature sexual relationships or sexually transmitted diseases than those who have sex and relationships education. That might or might not be the case, but there is no evidence for it. As we heard from Gill Frances, one of our witnesses, the whole age thing is a complete red herring. I would like good quality sex and relationships education that is well communicated to kids. Its purpose should be well communicated and consulted on with the parents so that that 0.04 per cent. of children becomes even lower without having to introduce compulsion.

Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Labour, Battersea

May I ask the hon. Gentleman the same question that I asked the Minister? Should there be any check on whether the small group of parents who withdraw their children from sex and relationships education provide that education themselves? Is it enough to let them watch “EastEnders”?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

It is not enough to let them watch “EastEnders”, but I would like to see some empirical evidence from a survey of the parents of those 3,000 children. If that showed that those 3,000 children had a much higher tendency to teenage pregnancy or everything else that we are trying to avoid—[Interruption.] Hold on. If that was the case, there would be a stronger case for amending the law. However, no empirical evidence  exists, and no evidence has been put forward by the Government to support making this change. No convincing case has been made by the Minister as to why the Macdonald report has gone out of the window nine months on.

Photo of Ann Cryer Ann Cryer Labour, Keighley

I want to point out briefly that, in going along this path, the Opposition are withdrawing the rights of children. Some of those children will be vulnerable. As I said earlier, the parents who withdraw children from these classes are likely to be the very parents who will not discuss such matters with their children. Therefore, they will be going out into the world without any enlightened knowledge.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

Well, by the same token, there is no evidence to back up the hon. Lady’s claim. There is no evidence to suggest that the 3,000 children involved are not acting much more sexually responsibly than those who are left to have the compulsory lessons in school. We need legislation that is based on empirical evidence, particularly in these sensitive areas, and the Minister has failed to produce that.

Caroline Flintrose—

Martin Lintonrose—

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

We do not want to carry on the debate for too long, but I shall give way two more times.

Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Labour, Battersea

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but is he not waiting for research that cannot be conducted? Are the names of the 3,000 parents who withdraw their children not protected by the Data Protection Act? Is it not impossible to conduct the research that he thinks would be necessary?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

In which case the status quo should be kept. Until it can be shown that there is a problem that would be undermined by not allowing parents the right of choice about whether their children remain, the legislation should not be changed.

We all want to achieve what I set out at the beginning: much better quality sex and relationships education. We think that can be done without removing the rights of parents, and that more children could be involved and exposed to higher quality sex and relationships education without making it a compulsory subject. Making it compulsory has knock-on effects and potentially undermines the relationship—I cited quotes about this—between parents, communities and schools, which have no choice about how this is taught to their children.

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Labour, Don Valley

Obviously the debate always comes back to the point that the issue is about having sex. For those young people who have withdrawn from sex education, it is not necessarily about whether they are having sex or not, but about giving them information to assert themselves at some point in their young adulthood with knowledge that is non-biased and helps them to make choices. It is about talking about their rights in marriage, domestic violence and other issues. We have a terrible problem with discussing sex and relationships in this country, but that is what this matter is about. If the Dutch or people from other countries with far more successful outcomes on the issue were looking at us, they would think we were mad.

The hon. Gentleman talks about quality, but he does not will the means. What does he say to all the children’s charities that think that making this area of education statutory will, in some small way, help to raise the quality levels and consistency of what needs to be delivered for our children?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

If that were the case, there would be a stronger reason for these changes, but the right hon. Lady and her hon. Friends have not made the case for how the proposal will automatically lead to better quality. The reason we are talking purely about sex is because we are on clause 14, which is purely about sex and relationships education. We discussed the merits of the other elements of PSHE in our consideration of earlier clauses. I wholly agree with the points that the right hon. Lady makes. The subject should be taught in schools. It is being taught in schools, and it needs to be taught better. However, there is no need to make this so prescriptive and compulsory.

We will not reach an agreement on the proposal but, before we get to the debate on Report, we need the Minister to make a more convincing case for why she is going to take away the rights of many parents, in relation to whom there is no empirical evidence to suggest there is a problem. How will she deal with the subject of quality, because she has not done so by purely describing the mechanics of how the subject will have a different status within schools? How will it fit with the other pressures on the curriculum, and why has the arbitrary figure of 15 been plucked out of nowhere? I do not think there should be any such figure.

The right hon. Member for Don Valley accused us of undermining children’s rights, but one of our probing amendments refers to giving extra rights to children to make that choice. That might be workable or not, but we cannot be accused of doing one thing when we are trying to do exactly the opposite. The Liberal Democrats have not made a cogent case for why the age should be 14. We should do away with the reference to age, which is why we have said all the time that there must be a compulsory aspect. However, there should be a safeguard so that a tiny and, hopefully, diminishing number of parents can opt out their children when they have a particular case and want to do so. If we then concentrate on the quality, that would get the message across more effectively to a broader number of people without undermining the relationship between parents, the communities and their schools, which I fear the clause will do.

I do not want to press the amendment to a Division at this stage because we need to move on to other important matters. However, I make a plea for the Minister to do more homework and to prepare a much more cogent case before we get to the debate on Report, if she wants there to be such a big change to the status quo that has been in place for many years. For 13 years under her Government, it was perfectly tenable for parents apparently to have the choice to remove their children from sex and relationships education. She needs to make the case why—13 years on, and after an expert report that disagrees with her—now and only now she thinks that all that should be changed. That case has not been made, although I hope that it will be on Report. In the meantime, however, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families) 9:45 am, 4th February 2010

On a point of order, Mrs. Anderson. I do not want to detain the Committee, given how much we have to do, but can I raise one issue of concern with you? In a spirit of helpfulness on 28 January the Minister raised on a point of order a correction of some statements that he had made to the Committee that morning, about the powers of the ombudsman to award financial compensation.

The Committee will be aware that we have now received a letter, which I have only this morning seen, from the local government ombudsman, saying that in his view the corrected information that the Minister supplied us with was wrong. I am concerned that people who read the record of the sittings may draw the wrong conclusions from the Minister’s point of order. Have you, Mrs. Anderson, received any request to correct the record?

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

Further to that point of order, Mrs. Anderson. It may be helpful if I clarify matters.

I have of course, seen the letter sent by the local government ombudsman, Tony Redmond, to the Committee on 2 February, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I think it right to say immediately that the essential point on which we agree is that neither a school governing body nor a local authority can be compelled to pay financial compensation to a parent or pupil as a result of a complaint to the LGO under the guarantees. That was the point that the hon. Member for Yeovil was concerned about during our exchanges on this point on Tuesday 28 January.

Both the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009 and the Local Government Act 1974 require schools or local authorities, as appropriate, to decide whether to make a financial payment to a complainant after considering a report or statement. That remains the position. Whether that is called a recommendation or not is something on which we can agree to differ. We are in discussion with the LGO on those matters.

Photo of Janet Anderson Janet Anderson Labour, Rossendale and Darwen

Thank you. May I, before we proceed, urge members of the Committee to exercise some restraint. We have had many sedentary contributions, and background conversations. It is important that all members of the Committee can be heard.

Clause 14 ordered to stand part of the Bill.