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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:05 pm on 25th February 2019.

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Photo of Shabana Mahmood Shabana Mahmood Labour, Birmingham, Ladywood 5:05 pm, 25th February 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this debate, Mrs Moon. The turnout of hon. Members from across the House is testament to its importance.

It is a little disappointing that the debate clashes with the statement by the Secretary of State for Education. We will be making our speeches a little bit in the dark, as most of us have been here in Westminster Hall, rather than in the Chamber for that statement. Matters may have moved on a little, depending on the content of the Secretary of State’s statement. I wonder if that Government statement was initiated by this debate and the e-petition, which many of our constituents signed.

I want to put into context my contribution and the perspective of my constituents. My hon. Friend Helen Jones discussed the whole range of issues around sex education, relationships and sex education and relationships education. However, most of my constituents have been contacting me about the specifics of mandatory relationships education at primary school. None of my constituents is seeking particular or differential opt outs at secondary school level. It is all about the age appropriateness of conversations with young children in the context of religious backgrounds.

When these issues were first raised with me, I did what all hon. Members do: I turned to the law itself. What does the Children and Social Work Act 2017 say in respect of mandatory relationships education for primary school pupils? Section 34 gives the enabling power to the Secretary of State to lay down the regulations and guidance, which I believe is the subject of the statement in the House today. It says that religious background and age appropriateness must be taken into account. That is the legislative protection for faith communities, so that children who are being educated in any part of the education system outside the faith school system are protected and have their religious background taken into account.

Before any relationships education is delivered, according to the legislation, there must be a consultation. Failure to hold a consultation has led to a number of issues arising in my constituency and across Birmingham. It was not just a badly conducted consultation that did not involve all parents; there was no consultation whatever. That is in direct contravention of the spirit of the draft regulations and the draft guidance, and the absolute commitment in section 34 in relation to religious backgrounds.

Parents come to me in my advice surgery and say, “There is no consultation, Shabana. Who do we complain to?” It turns out that there is no process and no guidance for how to deal with those concerns. Those parents’ first question to me is, “What is the sanction when a school fails to carry out any consultation at all?” It appears to me that there is no sanction or mechanism. The regional schools commissioner does not have a role. I do not think that the Secretary of State has a role. Nobody seems to be able to say what the sanction is when the process fails.

If a school does carry out a consultation, the question is who decides what is appropriate and what is not. What happens when you have conflicting views between different sets of parents? That is particularly important in respect of religious backgrounds. As a member of a faith community myself, I can tell the House that we are not all the same. There are many differences of opinion between religious groups—between different groups of Muslims—on what is appropriate.

I welcome those from faith communities who are watching this debate from the Public Gallery. I hope they will not mind me noting that many are from the Orthodox Jewish community. There is an interpretation of religious texts within the Jewish community that leads people to what is described as an orthodox set of values and beliefs. There is also a self-described modern, progressive and reform end of the Jewish community, as there is in the Muslim and Christian communities—in all faith communities, in fact.

What happens when religious background is taken into account in a primary school setting in Birmingham and there are two groups of Muslim parents with full religious conviction, one of which says, “Actually, we think this is unacceptable,” and the other says, “No, this is perfectly acceptable.”? Who is the arbitrator when their rights collide? There is nothing in the guidance and no consideration of the fact that it is perfectly possible for religious groups to come to different views about what is appropriate.