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Mr. Stephen Twigg: Does my hon. Friend agree that, unfortunately, some of them would--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. If the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) is giving way, he should himself resume his seat.

Mr. Marsden: I give way.

Mr. Twigg: The point that I was seeking to make to my hon. Friend is that those of us who have listened to the debates on the Race Relations (Amendment) Bill will know that, sadly, some Opposition Members would consider concern with those issues to be obsessive.

Mr. Marsden: My hon. Friend may be right in that assessment, but I would exempt the vast majority of Opposition Members from it.

Mr. Twigg: What about the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth)?

Mr. Marsden: I am not looking at that hon. Gentleman.

The important issues that have to be addressed in our consideration of the Bill are protection, fundamental rights and public health. One of the dangers and detrimental effects of retaining section 28 is that it seriously hobbles the advice that local authorities are able to give. If Conservative Members, particularly the hon. Member for Eastbourne, are serious about not wishing to promote a climate of homophobia, they could do no better than go to Baroness Young and tell her to call off her dogs of war from the Christian Institute, whose members are going across the country fomenting difficulties.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Marsden: No, I will not give way.

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Labour Members, like all people of sense and reason in this place, want to see the end of section 28 as soon as possible. We accept that that has to be done in a manner that does not allow the bigots in the other place a field day by going round this course again. One thing, however, is extremely important. I said that Members of the other place had dropped a poisonous incubus into the Bill. I stand by that. Baroness Hamwee said last night:

Those were powerful and relevant comments. They will be taken on board and, whether or not section 28 is ruled null and void in the near future by action in this House, which is what many of us profoundly wish, my belief is that, one way or another, it will be consigned to the dustbin of history, where it so deservedly belongs. It will be so consigned not just because of the views of the British people on fairness and tolerance, but because it is bad law and it contravenes the Human Rights Act.

12.30 am

Mr. Don Foster: I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden), not least because in his closing remarks he referred to the words spoken in another place last night by Baroness Hamwee. She made the Liberal Democrat position clear. As the hon. Gentleman has just said, she put a number of questions to Lord Whitty about whether the Bill could be said to comply with the European convention on human rights if the content of section 28 were retained. The House should be aware that, in response to Baroness Hamwee, Lord Whitty made clear the Government's view that if section 28 continued to be part of the Bill, the legislation would not conform with the convention.

Although I do not agree with the position of the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) on this issue, I am delighted that he at least had the good grace to draw attention to the fact that the Liberal Democrats were the only political party that had the courage to include their commitment to repeal section 28 in their general election manifesto. Lest there be any doubt, let me say that the Liberal Democrats remain absolutely committed to the repeal of section 28.

I have enormous regard in many ways for the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), but he misled the House when he suggested that the Liberal Democrats had been involved in a deal on section 28. He is simply and absolutely incorrect on that issue. We have been and we continue to be implacably opposed to section 28. The Liberal Democrats will do everything possible to bring about the abolition of section 28 at the earliest possible opportunity. We recognise, of course, that the procedures both in this House and in another place will make that difficult. That gives credence to our view that it is a matter of urgency that we get on with the further repeal of the House of Lords as quickly as possible.

Dr. Harris: Reform.

Mr. Foster: Yes. Perhaps that was an inadvertent slip, but it is one that I happen to believe in.

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The hon. Member for Eastbourne accused the Minister of not being prepared to make a graceful retreat. I am delighted that the Minister is not making a graceful retreat on this issue.

Mr. Shaun Woodward (Witney): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, not least because he was referring to what was said by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), whose comments from the Conservative Front Bench traduced what the children's charities are saying. They are saying that the problem is real. To suggest that those involved in a charity such as Childline do not worry about the issue is a gross distortion of reality. The hon. Gentleman, his party and others who support the failure to repeal section 28 must bear that responsibility, and recognise that tonight, there are children who are not protected and who are suicidal and that, in the next year--[Interruption.]--some will die--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is not addressing the House--he is making an intervention.

Mr. Foster: None the less, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman says, because he draws our attention to a very real issue. It has been suggested, both in this House and in another place, that there is no evidence that section 28 has had any impact in causing homophobic bullying.

In reality, however, there is real evidence that section 28 has a direct impact on many young people. For example, many teachers--whether by design or through misunderstanding--have been put in a difficult position, or have chosen not to deal with homophobic bullying. There is clear evidence that such bullying has led not only to serious problems for individual children but, in at least one well documented case, to the loss of life. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to draw attention to that matter.

Section 28 was undoubtedly born of prejudice against gay and lesbian people. There are four reasons for Liberal Democrats' consistent opposition to it. First, we genuinely believe that the legislation is based on discrimination on the grounds of people's sexual orientation. Secondly, we are firmly of the view that the provision is redundant in respect of schools.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): About 45 seconds ago, the hon. Gentleman said that section 28 was the source of all sorts of evils. Now he says that it is irrelevant. He cannot hold both positions. He might hold one or the other, but not both.

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman is wholly wrong--[Interruption.] If he wants an explanation, I shall give him one.

There is no doubt that the existence of section 28 on the statute book has led some teachers--rightly or wrongly, because of their interpretation of the legislation--not to take action in the face of observed homophobic bullying. There is evidence to back up that claim; it is a fact.

Dr. Julian Lewis: Name a school.

Mr. Foster: I have previously referred to the research carried out by my noble Friend Lord Tope, and I made it

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clear that my noble Friend is prepared to send details of that research to any right hon. or hon. Member who wants to study it.

The hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) made the accusation that I could not say that the provision was redundant. It is redundant. As hon. Members are well aware, in recent legislation the House has provided that decisions on sex education in schools should be made not by local education authorities but by the teachers, parents and governors of individual schools. The provision is thus redundant because it refers to activities that are assumed to be the responsibility of LEAs but in which they cannot, in fact, be involved.

Thirdly, section 28 is a meaningless piece of legislation for the simple reason that it is impossible to define the word "promote" in the phrase "promote homosexuality". Indeed, I would go so far as to say that it is not possible to promote homosexuality. Some people seem to suggest that that is of exactly the same order as, for example, promoting an interest in train-spotting--or even in joining the Conservative party. The two things are simply not the same, and it is simply not possible to promote homosexuality.

Fourthly and finally, as I said, I believe that section 28 has led to confusion in the minds of many teachers as to how to address the issue of homosexuality in our society.

I hope that it is absolutely clear to the House that we are implacably opposed to the continuation of section 28, and that we will work with all those, of whatever political party and of none, whose desire it is to see it abolished. Further, we wish that abolition to take place as quickly as possible.

The Minister has made it clear that the Government are anxious for section 28 to be abolished, but she has failed to tell us how quickly that is to be done, or by what mechanism. We shall work with her as long as it is absolutely clear that the Government's desire is to see the abolition of section 28 at the earliest possible opportunity--and I say to her that that can be achieved. It can be achieved by the introduction of a single clause Bill, even during the spillover period of this Parliament, at least to test the waters. It would be an example of good faith on the part of the Government, and show that they were prepared to work with those who, like us, oppose section 28, to see whether that would be an appropriate mechanism.

I very much hope that before this debate is out, we shall hear more from the Minister about a commitment to speed, and some indication of the procedure by which we shall achieve the end that I believe she and I share.

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