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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 6:42 pm on 25th February 2019.

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Photo of Hannah Bardell Hannah Bardell Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 6:42 pm, 25th February 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir David, and to have sat through the wide range of contributions to the debate—that is probably the only way I can describe them. Although I appreciate that this is a contentious issue, it is not a difficult one. The petition is about potential rights, but at the heart of the issue are children’s rights and, unfortunately, some of the speakers have forgotten that.

As far as I am aware, I am the only member of the LGBT community to speak in the debate. I am a lesbian, and I started primary school in Scotland during the year that section 28 came into force. This year, my four-and-a-half-year-old niece will start school in Scotland, during the first year that inclusive education is introduced. That is a source of great pride for me. However, as Stella Creasy mentioned —unfortunately she is no longer in her place—the kind of bullying that I and some of my friends and colleagues experienced, and that is still experienced in schools, happens because of a fundamental lack of education, understanding and tolerance. I absolutely respect the rights of religious communities and of parents, but if they want an inclusive society—each religious group wants to be not just tolerated, but accepted— surely the best way to do that is for our children to be properly educated in their schools about the range of families, religions and people in our society.

The issue is of course devolved and I take on board the points made by a number of hon. Members about the implementation and the stress and concern that that has caused in some communities. That is regrettable. None of us is perfect—no Government or party—but from a Scottish perspective, the majority of parents in Scotland want schools to teach RSE: 92% in 2016 according to an independent poll for the PSHE Association. I want to highlight that Scottish perspective.

As has been said, nearly half of LGBT pupils—45%—are bullied for being LGBT. I am sure that some hon. Members will be aware of the work of Laura Bates, the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, and writer of many an excellent column and book, most recently “Misogynation”, which I would suggest all hon. Members add to their reading lists. In her work, she recalls how young women described it as normal to be groped or sexually assaulted while wearing their school uniforms, and the shock that she experienced about the level of misconception and myth surrounding ideas about sexual relationships among young people.

A number of hon. Members have made the point about tracking the number of children in each school who are being taken out of RSE, and having discussions with their parents about how and what they are teaching their children is a sensible idea. I understand that some parents will have concerns about that, but surely a responsible parent with nothing to hide who has taken their child out of RSE should have no concerns about whether or not a school wants to support them in that decision. So many vulnerable children are being taken out of RSE. Are they not the ones who need that education and support? That goes to the heart of the matter.

Laura Bates also highlights the phenomenon of online harm, which I am conscious of as the SNP spokesperson on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee. Although I only managed to catch part of the Secretary of State’s speech before I came to this debate, Laura Bates points out how drastically outdated the UK Government’s current guidelines are: it is 19 years since they were last updated. In Scotland, we updated ours in 2014 and they are about to be updated again. One in 25 primary-aged children are sent a naked image by an adult according to research by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Educators have the responsibility to teach young people not only about sex and relationships, but about related issues, such as consent, conducting respectful relationships and the nature of unsafe relationships and abuse. I appreciate that in some quarters my view may not be popular, but it can only be damaging for a parent to take a child out of that vital education if they are not trained to an appropriate level and have the appropriate knowledge to prepare their child for what they will face. Helen Jones, who spoke so powerfully in her speech, rightly said that although parents may be able to control what their children have on their phones or on the home computer—that is debateable and today there was a concerning article in The Times about the app TikTok, which asks children to strip—they have no control over what other children will show and put in front of their children.

It is only right and sensible, therefore, that any Government put the duty of care and safety of children first, and ensure that that education is holistic and informative. If children are not provided with that education, they will clearly be left exposed. As for the existing guidance for teaching relationships education or RSE, I think it is fair to say that repeal of a piece of legislation, or changing it, does not take away the problem. When we repealed section 28, we put nothing in its place. Children are still subjected to bullying, and not just to that.

LGBT young people, in particular in the trans community, have staggering rates of self-harm—80% or 90%. At the moment, a difficult and damaging debate is raging about trans rights. In reality—I think Shabana Mahmood made reference to this and gave her views—while the adults all argue about definitions and rights, children are much further ahead of them. When I talk to my local LGBT group, the Glitter Cannons, I find that some of those young people are much better informed than most of the adults I know. The reality is that those discussions and that education are taking place outside schools.

In Scotland, our LGBT education will be world leading. I pay tribute to the Time for Inclusive Education campaign, Stonewall, LGBT Youth Scotland and my colleagues in the Scottish Government, in particular John Swinney and Christina McKelvie, who were bold and brave and brought that policy forward. They consulted widely, although I know that people still have concerns, which we must work constructively on, as I hope and know the Minister will on the concerns expressed by Members about the legislation in England and Wales. In Scotland, however, our world-leading LGBT education policy will have no exemptions or opt-outs. It will embed LGBTI-inclusive education across the curriculum and subjects, which the Scottish Government believe to be a world first.

We talk about religious tolerance and freedom, but every religion has a spectrum. I am always minded to mention Vicky Beeching, who is a champion of inclusion and diversity in the Christian faith. She is a lesbian but also identifies as an evangelical Christian. When she came out a few years ago, before I came out, I had a discussion with her at an event about her experience. She faced a huge backlash and huge persecution, but she pressed on. Vicky’s book, “Undivided”, is absolutely worth the read—another one for Members to add to their reading list—and in it she talked about the reading and interpretation of the Bible and religious texts, and how certain communities can, for their own ends, interpret texts in a certain way. As we move on, as society progresses and evolves, people read those texts in different ways. I am not about to preach to any religion about how to look at its texts, but it is interesting that someone such as Vicky from the Christian community can talk from a scholarly and theological perspective about the Christian faith and how some in that faith have interpreted what the Bible says about LGBT people. It is vital to ensure that in our schools and societies, we recognise how society has moved on.

Pornography has become a huge issue, as many Members said, affecting young people’s sense of self and issues that they will come up against regarding consent. Not only in pornography but in advertising in general how our bodies are portrayed—how we should look, how women should look—is hugely damaging. If we do not teach our children how to interpret that and how to have meaningful, consensual and well-developed relationships, we are setting them up for spectacular failure. Some might argue that it is not for us legislators to interfere, but I absolutely take very seriously my responsibilities as an elected parliamentarian to ensure that children, wherever they are, are properly educated and prepared.

I am sure that the Minister will respond to the concerns expressed by some, and I take on board some concerns expressed by my own constituents, but I am also conscious of what Caroline Lucas said: that there seems to be quite a lot of misinformation. The petition states:

“We have grave concerns about…about certain sexual and relational concepts”,

but it does not go into specifics. A lot of misinformation has seeped out into the public domain, and it is important that we counter it.

An incredible wealth of literature is out there to counter some of the narratives about sex, relationships and consent. I pay tribute to Lucy-Anne Holmes, the founder of the No More Page 3 campaign—it is a shame that the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion is no longer present, because she famously wore that T-shirt in the Chamber. Lucy-Anne Holmes did a huge amount for feminism, not only when she and her feminist colleagues managed to get rid of topless women on page 3, but in her work since then. She has just brought out a book, “Don’t Hold My Head Down”, which is a memoir about sex—another one for Members to add to their reading list. It talks about her journey into self-love and empowerment through sex, and about what healthy sex and relationships should and could look like.

When I read that book, it was almost like going on a journey through my own experiences. The reality is that so many of our young people are growing up in abusive relationships because they experience them at home or see them on television and in other media, and they do not understand what should be respectful and consensual. We must absolutely give them the best start in life by having inclusive education and doing everything we can to ensure that they are supported, can have fulfilling lives and, above all, are safe and protected.