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Miss Smith: Teachers and head teachers are not affected by section 28; it does not apply to schools. New guidelines have been issued since section 28 was introduced. It is a complete red herring to suggest that it affects schools or the teaching in them. It is for governing bodies and teachers to decide what they wish to teach.

Mr. Patrick Hall: Has my hon. Friend seen the evidence based on research that the health and education research unit of the university of London published in November 1997, called "Playing it safe"? The research, carried out among secondary schools in England and Wales, arrived at clear conclusions that teachers and governors felt that section 28 applied to schools, even though it technically did not, and that it influenced their perception of how they should do their job in terms of meeting the needs of young people.

Miss Smith: I am not surprised that there is confusion in schools, because there seems to be rather a lot of confusion in the House. Many Members of Parliament seem not to understand that section 28 does not affect schools. People, especially hon. Members, would do well to research the matter thoroughly and to pass that information on to head teachers in their constituencies. If they are confused, I am not surprised that they are sending out confusing signals, which have been picked up by teachers and head teachers.

Another widely quoted piece of nonsense, which is offered as a reason why section 28 should be repealed, is that its existence somehow acts as a barrier to building a more tolerant and inclusive society. Those who foster that myth are, of course, completely unable to show that the introduction of section 28 caused an upsurge in homophobic activity or that its repeal will have the reverse effect.

Mr. Borrow: At the heart of section 28 lies a statement that promoting homosexuality as a pretended family

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relationship is unacceptable. Does not my hon. Friend feel in any way that that introduces into legislation the suggestion that homosexual relationships are unacceptable and that gay people who have long-term family relationships with someone of the same sex are in a pretended relationship, not one of merit? Does not she consider that that contributes to homophobia?

Miss Smith: I think that section 28 was badly drafted and that it could have been amended, but I do not believe that it is the role of local authorities to promote homosexuality or, indeed, any other form of sexuality. That is not their job; it is not what local ratepayers expect them to do.

Mr. Gordon Marsden: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way because she is dealing with the important relationship between section 28 and local authorities. If she will not accept that section 28 has inhibited what can be taught or done in schools, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, will not she at least accept that it is now having an inhibiting and negative effect on the health education and promotion that local authorities can provide? I refer to the case that has been brought against Glasgow city council, as a result of which all its funding for HIV and AIDS groups has been stopped. The basis of that case is that such activity contravenes section 28. Is not that a clear and unambiguous example of how section 28 inhibits the health education activities of local authorities?

Miss Smith: Section 28 makes it clear that health promotion should not be stopped and that HIV and other information can be provided by local authorities.

I shall make progress. The fact that this matter is once again being debated in Parliament and that it has received much coverage has given a platform to every homophobic group and presented them with an opportunity to whip up anti-homosexual feelings among the public. We have seen that recently in newspapers and on television.

On the subject of inclusiveness and tolerance, may I say that the intolerant way in which the party Whips are being used for this debate on a topic that is essentially a matter of conscience leads me to believe that the major parties in this place have much to learn about tolerance?

The core of the issue is section 28(1), which states:

Section 28 is part of the civil law, not the criminal law. It therefore regulates what a local authority may do but does not create any criminal offences. In theory, any ratepayer could apply for a judicial review of a local authority action or decision that might appear to be in breach of section 28. If that was successful, the court could, for example, make an injunction restraining the authority from continuing with its action. No damages or fines could be awarded.

Mr. Borrow: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Miss Smith: No. I must make progress. I have taken several interventions.

Let us be honest. When we strip aside all the hot air and red herrings that have littered the debate, we are left with this simple question: should local authorities be

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allowed to spend taxpayers' money on the promotion of homosexuality? My answer to that question is a clear and unequivocal no, not on the promotion of homosexuality or any other form of sexual relationship.

Given that the only real effect of repealing section 28 would be to remove the prohibitions that prevent local authorities from spending their taxpayers' money in that way, one can assume only that those in favour of the repeal are in favour of local authorities having the ability to promote homosexuality directly.

Dr. Harris: Will the hon. Lady clarify--

Miss Smith: I am sorry; I am trying to make progress.

I find it odd that so many supporters of repealing the section are silent on that point. Section 28 is badly drafted, and I understand why many would find the wording objectionable. That could well be improved by amendment, but no such amendments have been tabled. However, it provides the public with an important safeguard against the irresponsible actions of some local authorities, and until a credible alternative is found, it should remain.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): I am grateful to be called to speak after the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Miss Smith), whose speech contained a huge amount of common sense. I find myself agreeing with most of what she said. She spoke in practical terms, and it is important that we bring our practical experience to the debate.

I know that others want to speak, so I shall make a brief contribution from the perspective of a mother of young children who have yet formally to receive their sex education in school. I am deeply concerned about the way in which that is taught. I know that I am not alone in that, because in the playground parents come up to me and tell me of their fears about the implications of repealing section 28.

Young people are increasingly being encouraged by various media to experiment with sex. The fact that this country has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy and the highest incidence of sexually transmitted disease in Europe is nothing to be proud of. As parliamentarians, we must work together to try to do something about that.

I read from cover to cover a copy of a teaching guide--yes, it is called a teaching guide--produced by Avon NHS health promotion trust. I was dismayed to find that the health authority has produced a written guide, teachers' notes and a video aimed at years 9, 10 and 11. Things have changed since my day, so for the benefit of the House, I should explain that that means 13, 14 and 15-year-olds.

On the video, speaking to the camera, a young boy says:

Mr. Patrick Hall: Will the hon. Lady give way?

4.30 pm

Mrs. Spelman: There have been many interventions in this debate. We all have brief contributions to make, and I should like to see mine through. The hon. Member for

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Morecambe and Lunesdale took many interventions, making it difficult to follow her points, so I should like to persist.

Avon health authority spent £9,000 of public money on that material, basically aimed at encouraging people to break the law on the age of consent. With section 28 in place, that material, which was produced by the health authority for schools--why else would there be accompanying teacher's notes?--should not be used in any way. Certainly taxpayer's money should not be used to encourage children to break the law on the age of consent for sexual intercourse.

Mr. Gordon Marsden: The hon. Lady referred earlier to teenage pregnancies, which I am sure hon. Members on both sides of the House would agree is an important issue, which should be addressed. Does she therefore feel that to teach girls of 14 or 15 about sexual activity with a view to discouraging teenage pregnancies would be a bad thing, in the same way as she seems to be saying that for boys of that age to be taught about sexual activity would be a bad thing?

Mrs. Spelman: The hon. Gentleman is trying to distract me from the words:

experimenting, if you please--

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