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Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South): The hon. Gentleman may be aware, depending on how closely he studies the proceedings of the Select Committee on this matter, that when the chief inspector of schools came before the Select Committee and was questioned on that issue--and, indeed, in correspondence with my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw)--he specifically admitted that he had never raised the issue directly with head teachers.
Furthermore, a survey was carried out by Mr. Neil Duncan and published by Routledge, and another by the Institute of Education. They showed that 61 per cent. of schools surveyed were aware of lesbian, gay or bisexual pupils in their schools, and that 51 per cent. of those schools had reported at least one instance of homophobic bullying in the past term. Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that that is ample testimony, whatever the chief inspector's non sequiturs on the subject?
Mr. Waterson: I am aware of those surveys, but I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing them into the debate. I think that there are two issues here, and it is important to separate them. One is whether homophobic bullying takes place in schools. I should have thought that it is clear that it does. There are different conclusions from the evidence on how prevalent it is, and to what extent children at a certain age understand the meaning of some of the words they use. The second, more important question is whether, as a result of section 28, teachers feel constrained in from dealing with such bullying.
Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon): A survey was carried out asking teachers whether they felt reticent
Mr. Waterson: With respect, I fear that the hon. Lady was eliding two quite separate points. Whether teachers believe that the section affects them at all is yet another issue that we shall discuss. The other issue is whether they are prevented from talking about homosexuality in the classroom. I seriously wonder whether teachers feel constrained when it comes to dealing with bullying for that reason. Bullying is a separate problem, whatever the excuse or ostensible reason for it--there can be no proper reason for it--and we should crack down on it. I do not think that we can separate out homophobic bullying for a particular purpose.
When we first began to debate some of the issues in the Bill, I wrote to secondary heads in my constituency to find out about their attitude. They held a meeting and wrote to me. Their comments partly relate to the hon. Lady's remarks. The letter stated:
Two points arise from that letter. The first is that those heads treat bullying as the problem--whatever its causes. The second is that they obviously do not feel at all constrained in trying to deal with bullying or to eradicate prejudice.
Not long ago, Mr. Arthur Cornell, a retired and distinguished headmaster in my constituency, wrote to The Times on the issue. He stated:
Dr. Harris: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if there was a law that schools should not promote the teaching of the acceptability of Sikhism as a pretended religion, that would create real difficulty for teachers? Indeed, it would be an open invitation for the bullying of Sikhs. A child might say, "Miss, I've been told my religion is unacceptable", and the teacher would reply, "Well, that's what it says in the law." The hon. Gentleman's analogy is
Mr. Waterson: I am prepared to concede that the analogy--like most analogies--can be taken only so far.
I am sure that the Minister for Local Government and the Regions is strapping on her spurs and boots and preparing to climb on to her high horse over this issue--as she did in Committee--to lecture us and the rest of the world, if they are listening, about the purity and goodness of the Government's intentions. To dismantle that argument, one has to begin by considering how the Government's case for repealing section 28--a decision that I am sure they bitterly regret--has subtly changed.
We used to hear much about bullying. We are still hearing it from the Minister, but she is slightly out of step with the spin doctors--I hope that does not presage anything too awful for her. Recently, the Government have been pushing hard on three issues. The first is guidance. We have heard and will continue to hear much about guidance to schools and to teachers--suddenly, there is a lot of it around. Guidance is welcome as far as it goes. I have not followed the progress of the Learning and Skills Bill as closely as I have the proceedings on this Bill, but there have been some useful debates on the matter. The Government's proposals do not go as far as we would like. However, it is difficult to avoid feeling--as with yesterday's debates on cabinet secrecy in local government--that Ministers see guidance as a way of getting themselves out of a tight spot.
The second issue is the Government's greater reliance on the argument that the section does not apply to schools at all. I can understand how that argument runs legally. The only problem is that it applies--of course--to local education authorities. Many hon. Members agree that LEAs have some impact on what is taught or not taught in the schools in their area. It seems to be common ground on both sides of the argument that, whatever the law may or may not say, there is much confusion about whether the section applies to schools.
Mr. Gordon Marsden: I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman's point about schools, but may I take him back to what he said earlier when he focused on the position in 1988, when the section was introduced? Since then, there has been a revolution in the way in which schools are administered, their budgets handled and decisions taken in them. In the light of that, is the hon. Gentleman seriously telling the House that the parents and the governors who have been empowered to make decisions in that period are no longer to be trusted to make sensible and reasonable decisions about the teaching of homosexuality?
Mr. Waterson: That is not what I am saying--certainly not. However, those on the other side of the argument really have to make up their minds. On one hand, it is argued that the proposed repeal will be a small piece of tidying up that needs to take place because it is a bad thing to have legislation lurking on the statute book that nobody uses or is likely to use. Certainly, it is clear that nobody has ever used section 28. If that is the case, however, why was there all the excitement and bally-hoo when it was first announced that the section was going to
Sir Peter Lloyd (Fareham): Those in favour of retaining section 28 must also make up their minds as to whether the changes that were brought in to strengthen the powers of school governing bodies and to give parents a central role on those bodies are working or not. The tenor of my hon. Friend's argument is that those changes are so weak that parents cannot ensure that inappropriate teaching does not happen in a school. If he thinks that, presumably he will suggest further legislation to make governing bodies really effective in the way that the previous Conservative Government thought they had done.