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Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): Like much of Second Reading, Report stage and Third Reading, very little of that 18-minute speech by the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) was about the substance of the Bill. I am sure that the House noticed, even at 17 minutes past 2, that children were hardly, if ever, mentioned. The entire emphasis of what we are supposed to have been debating for the past couple of hours rests on young people. Fifteen minutes of the nine and a half hours on Report and Third Reading was spent on the substance of the Bill--I am sure that the Minister would concur--yet the hon. Lady had the audacity to say that matters have not been conducted properly.

Conservative Governments--of whom the hon. Lady was not a member, although certainly many of her hon. Friends on the Front Bench were--had 18 years in which to put guidance on sex education on to the statute book. Apart from the national curriculum, in which there was some good advice, nothing appeared. It is sheer hypocrisy when the first thing said by the spokesperson--and the other members--of a party that says that it wants to free schools and give power back to head teachers and governors, giving them freedom over the curriculum, is that there must be statutory requirements to ensure that every school delivers a curriculum on sex education exactly as they think it should be.

I do not wish to hold the House up for long. The amendments, the guidance in the Bill and that which the Secretary of State has produced will not make a jot of difference in the vast majority of our schools. Their governors, heads and staff are already giving students the most appropriate and effective sex education and guidance.

My sadness tonight arises from the fact that the Minister for Local Government and the Regions did not, as she said on the "Today" programme, "get the balance right," even though the Government truly wanted to get rid of section 28 and replace it with guidance that commanded a consensus among most Members of both Houses of Parliament.

As they go home tonight happy to have defeated the Government, especially on section 28, the hon. Member for Maidenhead and her right hon. and hon. Friends should reflect on the following account. I remember sitting beside the hospital bed in Leeds of a young man who had attempted suicide because, as a homosexual, he had not been able to get the support in school that he should have been able to get. I worry that such fear will persist in our schools and among our teachers. Conservative Members may feel that they have done a good job tonight, but I can assure them that they have not. In most schools, what they have done will make no difference, but for a small minority of our children, it might make all the difference.

The Liberal Democrats will not oppose the amendments, because we believe that the Bishop of Blackburn has got it just about right. There is no balance to be struck between family life versus something else. We should honour all children, whatever their circumstances, and we should

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make sure that we support every family that a young person lives in and is nurtured by. Remember the Conservative Government and the appalling debacle of the family lives of their Ministers--that shows the hypocrisy of what we have seen tonight.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): On the first anniversary of my taking the oath, I am glad to have just gone into the Lobby on the winning side for the first time.

I wish to comment on the amendment to clause 117 from the perspective of both children and parents. It is neither politically incorrect nor anachronistic to say that until children enter the world on their own, schools and learning institutions stand in loco parentis. There is a real connection between schools' and parents' responsibility to teach, and none of us should be ashamed that, as parents, we have that role. One of the things shared by all of us who have the privilege of being parents is a determination to give our children stakes in the ground--not least because in due course, our children will make their own decisions. They must not do so in the absence of principles that they can hold on to and standards that they have been taught by their parents and in schools and other learning institutions--I recognise that the Bill deals with post-16 education. We must give those who are charged with teaching children, including parents, the opportunity to ensure that children learn about the nature of marriage and its importance to family life.

Although the noble prelate the Bishop of Blackburn has negotiated a concession from the Government, I do not accept that it is a measure that the vast majority of parents in this country want for their children. They want their children to learn that marriage provides the most reliable framework in which to bring up children. As we attempt to pass good legislation, it is incumbent on us to ensure that we are not driven by a so-called politically correct agenda, but that we reflect in law a responsibility that parents want to have available to them. That is why it is critical that we ensure that children are taught about marriage, the value of marriage and its being the most reliable way in which children can be brought up--and that that is reflected in the Bill.

I regret that the Government have not gone far enough. It is a shame that they have decided that they must try to tilt the balance back towards a series of potential interest groups, without taking full cognisance of the power of what parents think and wish to see reflected in the Chamber as we consider appropriate legislation.

I was disappointed to hear the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) suggest that my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) had not mentioned children. If he had been listening to her, rather than seeking to ensure that his prepared comments fitted, he would have heard her mention children often. Children should be our central concern in this context. It was somewhat tendentious when he described a tragic attempted suicide as a result of someone's homosexuality. It should be remembered that children and young people who are heterosexual can also go through such traumas and tragedies. It is important that we do not try to draw false analogies from such cases for the sake of argument.

I find it difficult wholeheartedly to support the amendment, but, as far as it goes, it is much better than what went before. I wish that the amendment stated that

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marriage was the most reliable way in which to raise children. However, the amendment is as good as we shall get tonight.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: I am delighted to be able to take up the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien). During the short time that he has been a Member of this place he has added a great deal to our proceedings and has made a substantial contribution to the effectiveness of the Opposition when confronting the massed ranks of the Government--although some members of those ranks seem to have gone to bed now.

We are debating an important issue, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) on setting it out comprehensively and effectively. She rightly paid tribute to Baroness Blatch, who has done sterling work in opposition, and was also a fine Minister.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) attacked the Conservative party. He said that we Conservatives were in government for 18 years and had done nothing about this issue. We did do something about it when there was a problem. The problem arose when left-wing Labour councils were beginning to produce inappropriate teaching material. That is how section 28 came into being. We now have the new guidelines on sex education, which run to about 33 pages, because they are the quid pro quo with which the Government have sought to placate worried parents.

By saying that they would repeal section 28, the Government tried to appeal to another interest group and appease the minority lobby. However, to reassure middle class, middle Britain, they decided to introduce the guidelines to show that they care about family life and marriage. They want to have it all ways. They want to appeal to every interest group without nailing their colours to the mast.

2.30 am

The astonishing thing about the guidelines is that the Government are reluctant to back the institution of marriage as the most reliable foundation for bringing up children. It is monstrous that the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks), who is usually a courteous Minister, would not give way to me. He must answer the point that if the Government are not prepared to use the words of the Home Secretary in the document "Supporting Families", which was sent out to the nation as evidence of the Labour Government's concern for family life in Britain, they are not entitled to be taken seriously in their support for the institution of marriage and for inculcating in our children the idea that marriage forms the most reliable framework for raising children.

The Government have unquestionably betrayed the full force of the argument by not fully supporting the concept of marriage. In the guidance that has been issued, they bracket together marriage and stable family relationships. They yoke those two together because they do not want to offend or stigmatise those who are not married, for fear of losing their votes.

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The House will be relieved to hear that I shall not rehearse the arguments that I advanced earlier in our discussions on the subject. I drew attention to the publication from the Office for National Statistics, which contained research findings showing that there was a clear increase in emotional disorder among young people from homes where the head of the household was a single parent or where the parents were cohabiting. The incidence of emotional disorder among those young people was up to three times higher than in households where the parents were married.

I do not believe that we as a nation should be morally neutral on the issue. We owe it to our children to give them a lead. It is a sad reflection on our times that we are even having the debate. In previous years, it was taken for granted by the nation that marriage formed the most reliable framework for raising children and a strong foundation for stable relationships. The debate illustrates that that is not so now. We can no longer take it for granted; indeed, the Government do not wish to take it for granted, so far has the family fallen into crisis in this country, as the Bishop of Southwark observed.

We cannot afford to be morally neutral. As adults, we owe it to our children not to run away from our responsibilities. We should set out in the clearest terms to them how we believe it is best for children to be brought up. That is the difference between the Opposition and the Government. We believe that emphasising marriage with a clarion call is the answer; they are afraid to do so because they fear that it will alienate some of their natural supporters.

Essentially, the argument centres on the two amendments, one proposed by my right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Young, which mirrors the amendment that I introduced in this place and contains the precise words used by the Home Secretary, and the other containing the words of the Bishop of Blackburn, which were designed as a compromise. Anyone can see that they are less robust than the words in the amendment proposed by my noble Friend. My noble Friend, who was defeated on the matter, welcomed the Bishop of Blackburn's amendment, as I do--but it is not as strong as it could be.

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