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25 Jul 2000 : Column 1063

Learning and Skills Bill [Lords]

Lords amendments considered.

Clause 117

Sex education

Lords amendment to Commons amendment No. 180: in line 4, at beginning insert--
("In exercising any function which may affect the provision of sex education in maintained schools, every local education authority must have regard to the guidance issued by the Secretary of State under section 403(1A).
(7) Except to the extent provided in subsection (6),").

1.56 am

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): With this it will be convenient to discuss the Lords amendment to Commons amendment No. 182.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Malcolm Wicks): I beg to move,

I am pleased to say that we are now close to the end of our consideration of the Bill. I hope that the amendments will not detain the House for long tonight.

Hon. Members will recall that the amendments on sex education made in this House focused on protecting children from inappropriate materials, including those produced by health authorities. We have to consider two amendments to amendments agreed in this House. The first, to amendment No. 180, is a Government amendment that ensures that when local education authorities carry out any activity that may have a bearing on the provision of sex education, they must have regard to the Secretary of State's guidance on sex and relationship education.

The Government tabled that amendment in another place in response to amendments tabled by Baroness Young that would have provided that, if a local education authority gives training and advice to teachers or governors on the subject of sex education, it should have regard to the fact that marriage provides a strong foundation for stable relationships and is the most reliable framework for raising children. The Government believe that the amendment was unacceptably narrow and that it would be wrong to focus on marriage as a single issue in that way.

We recognised, however, that it was important to consider the role of LEAs. They play a key part in supporting schools; for example, by providing information, training and advice. We thought it right for LEAs to have regard to the principles set out in our guidance when performing that role, and had already sent copies of our sex and relationship guidance to every LEA to encourage them to do so.

Both in principle and to ensure the successful passage of the Bill, we believed it right to table an amendment to make it clear that LEAs must have regard to that guidance when carrying out activities that may affect sex education. The amendment does not change the existing provision that, of course, the key responsibility for sex and

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relationship education must remain with the head teacher and the governing body, and that the local authority has no duty in the policy or delivery of sex education.

The second Lords amendment, tabled by the Bishop of Blackburn, inserts an addition to amendment No. 182, passed in this House, to provide that the Secretary of State's guidance should secure that children learn the nature of marriage and its importance for family life and the bringing up of children. The amendment would preserve the remainder of Commons amendment No. 182, at the heart of which is the protection of children from inappropriate teaching and materials. It is consistent with our guidance, and with our personal, social and health education framework.

In the other place, the Opposition tabled an amendment to stipulate that the guidance must be designed to secure that pupils are taught that marriage provides a strong foundation for stable relationships and the most reliable framework for raising children. We believed that the amendment carried risks of stigmatisation for many children in schools.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Wicks: Not at the moment.

The Government therefore supported the Bishop of Blackburn's amendment, which, as I have said, is consistent with the Government's guidance and the PSHE framework, and resisted the Opposition amendment. The amendment was carried in another place and I encourage the House to support it. Our sex and relationship education guidance recognises the significance of stable relationships as well as marriage. It is thus rooted in the reality of life for many of our children. That reality was echoed by the Bishop of Blackburn when he introduced his amendment in another place.

Today, there has been much comment during the debate on the Local Government Bill. The Minister for Local Government and the Regions has set out our position on that measure. Recent events do not change the provisions in the Learning and Skills Bill or the guidance that the Secretary of State has issued. Nor do they diminish the serious responsibility behind our actions--to support heads and governors in delivering effective sex and relationship education.

Our guidance is clear: schools should consider the needs of all pupils when developing a policy on sex and relationship education. Teaching on such matters needs to be sensitive so as not to stigmatise children because of their home circumstances. As we have emphasised repeatedly, schools need to be able to deal with homophobic bullying.

In agreeing to these amendments, the House should wish the Bill well on its way to Royal Assent.

2 am

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): It is rather appropriate that we are discussing amendments on the Learning and Skills Bill immediately after the debate on the Local Government Bill. The measures have two aspects in common. They were both the subject of crushing defeats for the Government in another place. Valiant efforts were made by Baroness Young and Baroness Blatch on sex education

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provision in the Learning and Skills Bill, and by Baroness Blatch on the measure in general. Both Bills, and the amendments that we are discussing tonight, relate to the debate on section 28.

The Learning and Skills Bill, of course, relates to the reorganisation of post-16 education and training. It may be a pity, therefore, that, in its last gasp in the House, it is subject not to a debate on the threat to school sixth forms, which the Bill introduces; not to a debate about the changing of sixth form funding, which the Bill introduces; not to a debate about the abolition of training and enterprise councils and the relationship of business men to the Learning and Skills Council; not to a debate about the sudden introduction of city academies brought into the Bill at the last minute by the Government; and not to a debate about the introduction of Connexions, a scheme which means that not every young person will have careers guidance in the future.

Instead, the amendments that we have before us tonight relate to sex education. The fact that these amendments are before us tonight is entirely the fault of the Government and their obsession with the repeal of section 28, contrary to the commonsense views of the mainstream majority of people in this country--because the clause to which these amendments refer was inserted in the Bill as an attempt by the Government to achieve a compromise in another place, which would have enabled them to repeal section 28. It was nothing to do with the Government's views on marriage, or on sex education generally.

The clause and the amendments have everything to do with section 28. I accept that, in her closing remarks in the debate in another place on 18 July, the Minister, Baroness Blackstone, said with reference to the speech that had been made by Baroness Blatch:

Well, I must tell the House that the reality of the Government's position was, unfortunately for that Minister, given away this morning on Radio 4 by the Minister for Local Government and the Regions--who spoke in the previous debate--when she made it clear that the references to sex education and guidance in the Learning and Skills Bill had been introduced only as a compromise, with the specific intention of making it easier to repeal section 28, by making section 28 redundant and making any attempt to retain it perverse.

In that, of course, the Government failed, as a majority of their lordships chose to reflect the views of parents and others on that subject. However, in this entire debate we have seen the hypocrisy of the Government, and we have seen how very out of touch they are with the British people.

The debate so far on this clause and amendments has focused not only on the practical implementation of guidelines on sex education, but in particular on the extent to which the importance of marriage should be reflected in the guidance given, and should be set out on the face of the Bill.

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This is an issue on which we see clearly how much the Government rely on spin rather than substance. When the review--[Interruption.]

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