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Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South): Given everything that we have been told tonight about the Churches' support for section 28, why does the hon. Gentleman think the Bishop of Blackburn introduced his amendment?

Mr. Howarth: I am coming to precisely that point. I was about to quote the Bishop of Blackburn, and the hon. Gentleman has kindly given me a trailer. In the House of Lords on 18 July, the bishop said:

I emphasise the words "full square"--

I do not doubt that that is what the bishop believes, or that other bishops also believe that, but I cannot square that statement with the way in which the Bishop of Blackburn and eight other bishops voted down the amendment proposed by my noble Friend Baroness

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Young, which spelled out the central importance of marriage much more clearly than did that tabled by the Bishop of Blackburn. Why on earth did nine bishops of the Church of England--who, as the Bishop of Blackburn said, remain full square behind the importance of marriage--vote against an amendment that spelled out clearly and unambiguously how important marriage is?

Mr. Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd): Tell us.

Mr. Howarth: The hon. Gentleman invites me to explain. Unfortunately, or fortunately, I do not sit on the Bishops Benches, but I have written to the Archbishop of Canterbury asking him to explain to Christians throughout Britain how on earth the Church of England can send out such a confusing message. By their votes, the bishops ensured that my noble Friend's amendment was defeated, so they have some accounting to do for the way in which they voted. After all, they are members of the other place. That is why I asked the Archbishop of Canterbury why they voted as they did.

The fact that the Bishops were not prepared to be as robust as their words would suggest that they intended to be, is a crisis for the Church of England, but I pay tribute to the Bishop of Winchester, who has been unambiguous on the matter throughout.

Whether we like it or not, family life in Britain is in crisis, and we in Parliament must do something about it. I fear that the Government have not been resolute; they have been infinitely too timid. They continually look over their shoulder, or stick their finger in their mouth and lift it up to the wind to find out which way the wind is blowing, or which focus group has sway at a particular time. They are more concerned about that than standing up for principles. As my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead says, the Government have no principles. They are motivated entirely by their consideration of how the focus groups tell them they should be behaving, instead of adopting a programme that is principled and clear.

The Bishop of Blackburn's amendment is an improvement on what we had before, but the mess that we are in is entirely of the Government's making. The amendment is the quid pro quo for the repeal of section 28. In so far as it goes some way to resolving the matter I welcome it, but I hope that when we return to government we shall be able to address the problem properly.

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who has fought long and hard on the issue, on another outstanding contribution to the debate. We are discussing an issue that affects the many, not the few.

I am sure that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, like me, noticed that, in the previous debate, a score of Labour Members leapt to their feet to make speeches on a minority issue. However, when it comes to a majority issue, such as marriage, which affects the majority of people in this country, not one Labour Back Bencher wants to make a contribution to the debate. The entire debate is being led by those of us on the Conservative Benches. That tells us all we need to know about the Government and the Labour party. The Government's agenda is driven by the few, not the many. We witnessed another example of that tonight.

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Labour Members have bandied about the accusation of bigotry against anyone who dares to disagree with their point of view. That is an outrageous abuse of the courtesies of Parliament, let alone the truth and the facts. Let us remind ourselves of genuine bigotry. Bigotry is historically applied to major events such as the crusades, with Christians versus Muslims, the 30 years war between Protestants and Catholics, and racial and ethnic bigotry. We witnessed such bigotry in the last century in German attacks on the Jewish race. Those were serious cases of bigotry, which led to millions of people losing their lives.

What we heard about earlier constituted an abuse and a devaluation of the word bigotry. We were considering prejudice at worst. In the case of this evening's debate, we were considering mere differences of opinion. I have not met an hon. Member whom I regard as bigoted about gender politics.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there were homosexual victims of the Nazis, and that they were victims for no other reason than their sexuality?

Mr. St. Aubyn: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, but those victims were a tiny number in proportion to those who were affected by racial bigotry. We should keep the matter in a proper perspective.

Mr. Gordon Marsden: How many homosexuals would have to have died in the death camps for them to be significant?

Mr. St. Aubyn: The hon. Gentleman--whom I know well; I have known him for many years--is deliberately and mischievously misinterpreting my point. As I said earlier, the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) made a valid point. However, the thrust of my argument was that millions died as a result of ethnic and religious bigotry and that we should therefore keep matters in perspective. We are in danger of losing the thread of the amendment.

Mr. John Austin (Erith and Thamesmead): How little bigotry is acceptable?

Mr. St. Aubyn: We have to use such terms carefully. Tonight's discussions have been about differences of opinion. When Labour Members dress those up as bigotry, they overplay their case and undermine any credibility that their argument might have had in the first place.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. St. Aubyn: I should like to make some progress--[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. It would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman dealt more directly with the amendment that we are considering.

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Mr. St. Aubyn: I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You are right to call the House to order. We are considering sex education guidance. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) was incorrect to say that the previous Government ignored the issue. They not only spelt out in statutory terms the way in which local authorities should deal with homosexuality, but set out clear guidelines to schools in circular 5/94.

2.45 am

Many Conservative Members are reluctant to go beyond giving mere guidance to schools because we recognise that governors, teachers and parents show more common sense than politically motivated representatives of LEAs in dealing with those issues and many others that schools have to consider. I have reservations about issuing guidance that emanates from a Secretary of State and tells individual schools how to deal with a specific subject. Far too much direction comes out of the Department for Education and Employment: the more top-down direction of schools there is, the more demoralised teachers become. Since the Government came to power, we find that half the teachers in the profession are thinking of leaving in the next 10 years. That would critically undermine not only sex education in our schools, but all education and the development of standards, which was one of the previous Government's great triumphs.

Tonight's debates have clearly shown that a metropolitan attitude prevails on the Labour Benches and pervades ministerial offices. That attitude has no place in many schools, which do not want the Department to be able to produce guidance that would undermine their perspective on the relevant issues. We had no compunction about favouring the proposal that identified marriage as the most reliable framework for raising children. Do Labour Members challenge that statement? If so, they challenge the views of Labour Ministers. However, if we agree, should not we enshrine that principle in legislation?

Hon. Members spoke earlier about the effect of section 28 on homophobic bullying. I am grateful for the Government's draft guidance, which was out for consultation until mid-April and suggested how their proposed new guidance would look. Paragraph A.10 clearly states:

None of that is prevented by section 28. The premise of the earlier debate on the subject was false and the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough described a false position. No doubt the tragic case to which he referred had many sad causes, but clearly section 28 was not one of them. According to the Government's own guidelines, that legislation cannot affect the delivery of such advice and education in an individual school.

I have been a member of the Education and Employment Select Committee for the past three years and I cannot remember a single witness describing section 28--or, indeed, the previous Government's guidance, which is to be updated--as an obstacle to a head teacher or any teacher preventing homophobic or other bullying

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in a school. Therefore, I was not surprised to learn in evidence given to the Committee only a couple of months ago by Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools that no head teacher has ever raised the issue with him either.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon mentioned scientific evidence in the earlier debate. I have studied the evidence to which he referred, but not in as much detail. Like much scientific evidence, it is no doubt professionally produced. However, it is not convincing. Anyone who can produce a good argument can usually find some scientific evidence to back it, but there may also be scientifically gathered evidence to refute it. Surely the experience of head teachers as expressed to the Office for Standards in Education, to hon. Members and to those who have served on the Education and Employment Select Committee is far more weighty evidence than a scientific study that was driven from the start by a desire to prove a particular point of view for whatever reasons--no doubt they were noble ones.

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