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Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington): I shall speak on the narrow point of strategy that has been discussed this evening. I was in local government for 25 years before I entered the House, and I know and understand the importance of the Bill to many of our colleagues in local government, and the powers that it can confer on local councillors to do good in our communities.
However, I was also in local government in 1987. I was chief executive of a local government organisation when the clause that eventually became section 28 appeared, and I was therefore an officer advising local authorities on its effects. To be frank, we know why it was brought
Dr. Lewis: I think that the hon. Gentleman's memory is slightly at fault. I remember that the provision was brought forward in the light of publications like "Jenny lives with Eric and Martin", which were being put into schools, to the dismay of many parents.
Mr. McDonnell: There was an element of publicity surrounding publications like that, but I thought that the debate had moved forward from then, because in the discussions that took place about such publications, many of us learned many lessons. I believed that local government must come to terms with its powers and its relationship with schools as the education authority across a range of such matters. At that stage, I thought that we had moved forward. The first few years after 1987 were difficult, but after that there was an informed debate.
I genuinely thought that all political parties had moved on. I thought that we had all learned lessons about our relationship to minority groups, about mutual respect, and about how legislation should be used to protect, rather than undermine, human rights.
That is why I say, just on this narrow strategic or tactical point, that although I respect the need for the local government legislation, I also respect the role that the House should play in the protection and promotion of human rights. I pay tribute to Members, such my hon. Friends the Members for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) and for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg), who have worked hard to shape the legislation so that it satisfies all concerned.
Mr. Woodward: Last year, the shadow cabinet of the Conservative party thought that, as a matter of human rights, this issue was worth two minutes' discussion. It thought that the views of every children's charity, the National Union of Teachers and all those interested in the protection of children merited just two minutes' consideration. What does my hon. Friend think about that in the context of human rights?
Mr. McDonnell: I was hoping that when we debated this issue 13 years on from 1987, we would come at it with mature reflection about the implications for our communities--the minority and the majority--and that we would have learned lessons from what has happened. The Lords have thrown out every compromise that has been offered to them--in some cases, the compromises went too far--and sent us the message that section 28 should remain in force. If there is to be a constitutional battle between the elected House and the unelected House, let us have it on the issue of human rights.
As a matter of tactics, we should send the Bill back to the Lords. If we have to stay another couple of weeks to debate the issue and confront the unelected House on a key issue--[Interruption.] Hon. Members may laugh when I suggest that perhaps we should work for an additional fortnight. Most of my constituents will have at best two weeks' holiday this summer, so why do we not stay here to confront the House of Lords? Why do we not draw a line in the sand on this fundamental issue of
Mr. Gummer: The problem is that the Government have not convinced the majority of people of the sense of repealing section 28. I say that, even though I have a long record of taking what many would describe as a liberal view on this issue. However, in her representation of the debate in the other place, the Minister missed out some serious speeches and, in particular, that of the Bishop of Winchester, who cannot in any circumstances be referred to as a bigot. It does not help our discussion of the issue if both sides of the House merely shout "bigot" at each other.
We have to face up to the fact that the majority of people in Britain have not been convinced that it is sensible to allow the promotion of homosexual behaviour in schools. Every test of public opinion has shown that fact to be true. It is also true that, in the past, the House of Lords has shown itself to be more liberal than the House of Commons. The reform of the laws that made homosexual behaviour criminal was very much made possible by the House of Lords. Criticism of the other House in these circumstances seems to be unjust and historically inaccurate.
Are we taking seriously the debate that took place in the other place? Some people are bound to express themselves badly on such matters and others have a deep-seated antagonism to this particular minority. However, it does not help the debate to suggest that everybody who has doubts about the repeal of the section is in that category. I beg the right hon. Lady to take seriously the fact that people such as the Bishop of Winchester speak for the majority, and in a democracy she needs to convince the majority before she makes this change.
Ms Armstrong: The right hon. Gentleman said that we had failed to convince people on the question whether local authorities should promote homosexuality in schools. We have made it clear in the Learning and Skills Bill that local authorities have no role at all in the teaching of sex education in schools. There is a role for governors, in consultation with parents, to determine what is taught and how it is taught, and they must take account of guidance from the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. The right hon. Gentleman continues to push the point about section 28 when it is absolutely clear that the law does not relate to what he is speaking about.
Mr. Gummer: The right hon. Lady is missing the point, which is simply that the Government seek to repeal section 28 when it is clear that the majority of people in Britain do not support that. The House of Lords, in its decision, has echoed the voice of the majority. I merely say to the right hon. Lady that if she is to be credible in this matter, she needs to be able to show that she has the support of the majority, which she should be able to do if her case is as watertight as she makes out. What worried me about her opening remarks is that she simply spoke loudly about people who have genuinely sought to discuss the issue.
I want to put three simple points to the right hon. Lady. If section 28 does not mean anything, why has she tried to introduce this measure so often, with such obsessive pressure? If, on the other hand, it is meaningful, why is it wrong to say that society is tolerant but is not neutral on the matter because it does not want homosexual activity to be promoted? That is not a homophobic position; it is a perfectly reasonable position which happens to be shared by the majority of people in Britain. If the right hon. Lady does not think it reasonable, she must convince the majority of her position. She has not done so.
Thirdly, we may live in a secular society, but it is serious when the Government decide that they will ride roughshod over opposition from the Churches and other faith groups. Again, I recommend that the right hon. Lady read the speech by the Bishop of Winchester, who expressed the deep Christian view of the majority of churchgoers in this country, who should not be ignored or called bigoted. The right hon. Lady suggested that every one of those people was bigoted. That is a great pity, and I hope that she will withdraw the remark.
Mr. Gummer: I hope that when the right hon. Lady reads Hansard, she will realise that it is at least reasonable to infer that from what she said. [Hon. Members: "Oh."] I am trying to be as polite as possible; the right hon. Lady made it clear that she thought that everybody on the other side of the argument was bigoted. I am prepared to say that I may be mistaken, but she ought to read her words.
If the right hon. Lady maintains her view, will she explain to the House whether she wants homosexual behaviour to be promoted? Is that what she wants? If not, what is wrong with having a section that prohibits it? She has not answered that question because she has never faced up to it. I remind her that when I tried to get the Government to agree to insert specific words about the promotion of marriage, they turned down that amendment. Would not it be an odd world in which we were allowed, by the repeal of a measure, specifically to promote homosexuality, but not specifically to promote marriage?
Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter): I do not want to rehearse the arguments all over again; they have been rehearsed quite enough times. Most Labour and Liberal Democrat Members, and even some Conservative Members who, sadly, do not have the courage of their convictions, share my depression.
I should, however, correct the false assertion of the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) and, I am sorry to say, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), about the position of the Churches. As far as I am aware, the only Church leader in the United Kingdom who has spoken clearly against the repeal of section 28 has been the Catholic Cardinal Winning in Scotland. The majority of the Church of England bishops in the House of Lords yesterday voted with the Government. [Interruption.] Conservative Members can check Hansard if they have the energy. I have it in front of me; the ratio of Church of England bishops who voted with the Government was about 6:2. So, please, no more of Conservative Members trying to claim that they talk on behalf of the Churches. The Churches are divided. Many decent Christians, such as myself and other Labour Members, believe that the legislation is pernicious and needs to go.
Is not the real issue facing us that, once again, the overwhelming will of the democratically elected House of Commons has been thwarted by an unelected House of Lords which is riddled with homophobia? Does my right hon. Friend the Minister agree--I hope that she will assure us in her winding-up speech--that the Government have a moral obligation to deal with the matter in a stand-alone Bill as soon as possible, to respect the House's overwhelming will?
I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell). I do not see what would be achieved by a ping-pong session between this House and the House of Lords all summer, giving Baroness Young more publicity for her homophobia and bigotry. That is the last thing that we and vulnerable young gay and lesbian people need. I beg him not to do what he said he would do.
May I point a way forward for my right hon. Friend and her fellow Ministers? Does not this problem show that the time has come to stop pussyfooting about extending human rights legislation? Is there now not an overwhelming case in Britain for a Government Bill or a manifesto commitment--I do not mind which--to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation wherever it occurs, to deal with the subject once and for all? Would that not also have the advantage of putting clear blue water between a Labour party that is committed to basic human rights for all and a Tory party that is mired in homophobia and hypocrisy?