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12.15 am

Mr. Stephen Twigg: The hon. Gentleman has just told the House that the measure should not have been included in the Bill. In 1988, however, it was perfectly acceptable

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to implement the provision that we seek to repeal via a local government Bill. Was that an error on the part of the then Conservative Government?

Mr. Waterson: The hon. Gentleman will know, as he served on the Standing Committee--with some distinction, but in considerable silence--[Interruption.] Admittedly, he spoke more often than most. Anyway, as the hon. Gentleman will know, I have always suspected that the Government tacked this proposal on to the Bill simply to draw attention away from the major changes that they sought to make to local government.

The Minister's next point was that this had all been got up by the media, which had produced a storm of opposition across political parties and across the country, and had persuaded all major religious leaders to oppose the Government's plans. That is not convincing either. Almost as unconvincing was the Minister's blaming what she called the unelected House. According to the leader of her party in the House of Lords, that House now enjoys greater legitimacy as a result of the reforms. The Minister spoke of the chances of anything happening this side of an election to continue reform of the Lords. That is in the hands of the present Government, who have signally failed to do anything.

The Minister talks of "obsessives". Who are the real obsessives? I believe that they are sitting on the Government Benches tonight.

I will not get into the argument about homophobic bullying yet again, but--hopefully for the last time--let me make this point: bullying, whatever its cause or excuse, is wrong, and any teacher worth his or her salt should crack down on it ruthlessly.

There is an element of covering old ground in this debate, and I will not cover as much of it as I could. I will say, however, that it is the Government who have chosen to waste so much valuable legislative time on this issue. As I have said, the Minister referred to obsessives. The Government's actions reveal their obsession with the "PC" aspects of the proposal, and with the views of the chattering classes.

Ann Keen (Brentford and Isleworth) rose--

Mrs. Fitzsimons rose--

Mr. Waterson: I am spoilt for choice. I shall give way first to the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen).

Ann Keen: Can the hon. Gentleman explain the "obsessive" desire of Conservative Members and those in another place to disregard the strong advice of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Childline, Barnardos and all the other children's and young people's organisations? Why are they so obsessive about denying the evidence adduced by those bodies, and their recommendation that the evil situation brought about by section 28 should be ended by the repealing of that section? Why oh why do Conservative Members continue to ignore that advice?

Mr. Waterson: I am afraid the hon. Lady is plain wrong. Only the other day, in a written answer, the hon.

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Member for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes), the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, pointed out that the NSPCC and Childline did not have corporate views on the issue. The hon. Lady should do her homework.

As I have said, it is the Government who have chosen to proceed on this course. It is they who have got themselves into their present position. Conservative Members believe that this is simply a smokescreen to draw attention away from the major parts of the Bill.

The Government suffered a crushing and well-deserved defeat in the Lords last night. It was a victory for common sense. As on other issues, it was the House of Lords which stood up for the British people against a patronising, out-of-touch Government run by and for a liberal elite.

Mrs. Fitzsimons: Would the hon. Gentleman care to put it on record that he agrees with, I think, the majority of people that homophobia is wrong, evil and pernicious? Does he agree that the problem is that the debate surrounding the issue has legitimised homophobia, and will he dissociate himself and his party from any such sentiments?

Mr. Waterson: With respect, I think that it is that sort of argument which has clouded the issues.

I feel sorry for the Minister, because she has been left to carry the can this evening. Not a single member of the Cabinet is present. [Interruption.] Here we are. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, right on cue, as befits the master of theatrics in our country, has appeared, but, apart from him, not a single member of the Government is on the Front Bench--not the Deputy Prime Minister, who leads the Department of the Minister for Local Government and the Regions, nor any other Minister.

The Prime Minister is rapidly backing off this piece of legislation.

Mr. Stephen Twigg: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Waterson: No, I will make some progress.

If we turn to the famous memo that was written by the Prime Minister himself, are we to presume that he no longer regards this as an eye-catching initiative with which he would want to be personally associated? To quote his memo:

If it is so important to the soul of the Labour party that the section be abolished or repealed, why was it not a pledge in the manifesto? At least the Liberal Democrats can claim that it was in their manifesto. They take some pride in that, even though, as I have said, it is unlikely to appear in their Focus leaflets in Eastbourne or anywhere else. [Interruption.] I should be happy to give way on that point.

There has been a sudden flood of guidance on the issue of sex education. We welcome those guidances as far as they go, but, in part, they are designed to get the Government off a hook of their own making.

Both Lord Whitty in the Lords yesterday and the Minister tonight seem to have been labouring under the misapprehension that it is all about protecting minority

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rights. They have that protection elsewhere in law. The provision has only ever been of a narrow effect. That was made clear by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), who was the Minister dealing with section 28. He said:

He went on to say:

That is borne out by the memorandum attached to that legislation.

Dr. Harris: As the hon. Gentleman is aware, section 28 states that it will not be permissible to teach the acceptability of homosexuality, which is clearly saying that homosexuality is unacceptable. How can that be an objective discussion of a sexuality which someone has not chosen but happens to be? How is it an objective discussion to deny someone the ability to teach that something is acceptable?

Mr. Waterson: That is not what the section says. We have had debates on that very subject and quoted teachers who said that they felt able under the legislation to discuss homosexuality with pupils on the general level, but also with specific pupils who had that particular issue to raise, so I do not think that there is anything in that point.

In passing, I commend Conservative councils such as Kent, which said that, if the measure passed, they would make their own local rules to have the same effect.

To answer the point made by the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mrs. Fitzsimons), section 28 has never been about prejudice, bigotry and intolerance. It has a limited but important impact. It is a guarantee to parents and to council tax payers that local authorities will not spend public money on promoting homosexuality in schools. That is how to cut through the verbiage and the posturing.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of all is that the Government have not learned the lesson of this pitiful debacle. They have still not seen the light. They have promised--although they will not tell us how--that they intend to return to the repeal of section 28 at some vague time. Frankly, instead of talking in those terms, they should apologise to parents, teachers and religious leaders throughout the country. They should apologise to the House and to the Lords for wasting so much precious legislative time on this metropolitan obsession. Above all, they should apologise to the British people for trying to foist this tawdry piece of political correctness on them.

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South): It was not my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions--who has spoken so strongly and forcefully in this debate--who dropped this poisonous incubus into the Local Government Bill. Conservative Members and their supporters in the other place have whipped up the issue, making it the issue that it has become. No amount of posturing or crocodile tears, with statements that they are concerned about issues such as homophobic bullying, can disguise the fact that they have deliberately orchestrated and augmented the bigotry that has surrounded section 28. In 1986, when the Bill was

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first debated, Lord Willis described clause 28 as the first page of a "charter for bigots". A charter for bigots it was, and a charter for bigots it remains.

Conservative Members are pretending that the provision is nothing to do with bigotry and everything to do with protecting children and the rights of people in schools, but they have paid no attention whatsoever to the details of the Learning and Skills Bill or to the guidance that the Government have introduced, including the very wise amendments tabled in the other place by the Bishop of Blackburn. If Conservative Members had any honesty, they would admit that, bit by bit, any rationale for defending section 28 has been stripped away, both by the changes that the Government have made and by the way in which their opposition has been conducted, particularly in the other place.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) accuses hon. Members of being obsessive about the issue. How dare he say that? If it were an issue of protecting the position of black people in society, would he accuse us of being obsessive? If it were an issue of protecting the position of Jewish people in society, would he consider it obsessive? If it were a question of protecting the rights of women in society, would he consider it obsessive?

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