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Relationships and Sex Education — [Mrs Madeleine Moon in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:39 pm on 25th February 2019.

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Photo of Naseem Shah Naseem Shah Shadow Minister (Equalities Office) (Women and Equalities) 5:39 pm, 25th February 2019

It is a pleasure and a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I concur with the comments made by Chris Green about the passionate speech made by my hon. Friend Shabana Mahmood and the points that she raised.

I enter this debate as a representative of thousands of constituents who have been in contact with me, either directly or indirectly. Strong opinions—varying, contrasting opinions—have been expressed, all drawing equally on our tradition of respect for human rights. In grappling with the subject of this debate, I want to respect and have sensitivity for that divergence and be clear about the need to protect the vulnerable from harm while ensuring that the state fulfils its duty and individual citizens are given their freedom. The connection between the collective and the individual has been discussed many times in this House. It is my firm belief that the empowered individual is the bedrock of a collective that upholds the rights of the vulnerable and protects them from those who are more powerful. Otherwise, minorities will be abused in the name of the freedom of the majority.

On occasions throughout history, coercive religious states have mandated that their worldview should be indoctrinated through all the structures of their societies, disregarding the rights of minorities or of anyone who wishes to pursue non-religious worldviews. It was in that context that philosophers, ideologues and revolutionaries from the Scottish coffee houses to the streets of Europe dedicated their words and their lives, sacrificing everything to build on the renaissance and give birth to modern liberal democracies such as the one we stand in today. Although liberal democracies such as ours often challenged authoritarian regimes that neglected minority rights, it took centuries for modern systems to include the rights and freedoms of working-class people, women, black and minority ethnic communities, and—more recently—people from LGBTQ communities. In all those regards, we have serious ground to make up if we are to have fairness and justice for all, it is fair to say that we have come on leaps and bounds from where we once were.

When arguments are made in favour of mandatory relationships and sex education in schools to provide LGBTQ communities with further equality or protection from bullying, I can categorically understand and appreciate those arguments. When the argument is about protecting young children from sexual predators, or the dire need to protect our young children from the adverse effects of social media in particular, it is a no-brainer. We need to address all those issues in a way that is congruent with our need to respect the rights and freedoms of all components of our society.

Although there was clearly some debate about cultural and religious elements when the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 was passed, that Act did not apply to religious institutions: it merely aimed to provide everyone in our democracy with equal rights. The Act provided the right of marriage to those who were previously denied it; those with religious beliefs were unaffected by that change and were allowed to maintain their religious rights. We would not claim, nor should we claim, that by protecting the right to religious belief in that Act we were denying the rights of anyone else. This measure, however, is mandatory for everyone, without the right of exemption on the basis of belief. Many of my constituents, especially parents, have expressed concerns. They are not seeking a false right to be bigoted or to promote or incite bigotry, but they are concerned that the legislation engages with deeply personal matters that go beyond our purview as state legislators.

My call today is simple: the fundamental principle of a true liberal democracy is to ensure that a society can exist in which all people’s rights are intact. In that spirit, I ask that the concerns of my constituents, and many of the signatories of the petition that led to today’s debate, not be completely ignored. I have seen many of the draft guidelines published by the Government, and I welcome much of what is in them, as they signal a collaboration between parents and schools on the syllabuses that will be taught. Nevertheless, for many people, the guidelines are still built along unclear lines, and with the legislation not having been put into practice, parents across my constituency have significant concerns. Some of those parents have indicated that the legislation coerces them into giving up their parental rights, and that although they may not have a right to opt their children out of lessons taught in schools, they do have a right to take their children out of school and teach their principles through home schooling. I do not want that to happen, as it will be hugely detrimental to society as a whole.

Minorities and majorities change according to time and place, but we must stay true to our principles and not allow any minority to be ignored. I therefore call on the Minister to reach out to concerned parents, and I invite him to my constituency of Bradford West to consult further with parents there. Many organisations have suggested that the consultation period went silently by, and that not enough time was given for the parents to fully understand the issues involved. Those organisations also want to be part of further discussions to gain reassurance about many things, including clarity about how faith and cultural factors will be considered. It is in line with our fundamental principles that people should not be ignored, nor should they feel coerced. Let us win hearts and minds through debate and discussions. Even if getting this right means delaying the process, it would be a positive step forward. It is better that we win with freedom than lose with the perception of a denial of rights.