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10 Mar 2003 : Column 66—continued

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman towards consensus. Many of us have considerable sympathy with the points made by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant), but would vote for the deletion of section 28 only if appropriate other safeguards were in place. If the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) wants consensus and wants members of all parties to support his argument, it would be nice to hear him supporting the idea that parents might have some say about what their children were taught.

Mr. Davey: I am grateful for that intervention, which brings me on to my next point. There are already many safeguards to protect children and give parents the power. The Learning and Skills Act 2000 makes it clear that local authorities are not responsible for sex education in schools. The Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000 makes it clear that there is a framework for protecting children. It is a strong framework that had support from all parts of the House. The Education Act 1996, as the hon. Member for Cotswold said, gave parents the right to remove their children from sex education lessons in school if they so wished. The sex and relationship education guidance published by the Government in July 2000, which was so powerfully supported from the Conservative Front Bench, is very clear. It is difficult to understand what further safeguards are required. They are strong and they work.

Sir Patrick Cormack : Has the hon. Gentleman any conception of what it is like for a child to be withdrawn

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deliberately by the parents from any formal instruction? That child is immediately isolated and is often treated in a rather unpleasant way by the rest of the children.

Mr. Davey: That argument is fallacious. It would be easy to ensure that the removal of the child was done in a sensitive way if the parents spoke to the teacher and the head teacher. There should be no problem about that.

The Conservative amendment, No. 37, which proposes another approach to give parents choice—through ballots—is one of the most odious amendments to come before the House in a long time. Can the hon. Gentleman imagine what would happen? There would be ballot after ballot led by homophobes trying to change the sex education policy of school after school. It is a recipe for homophobic behaviour on a grand scale. It would not give parents any real choice; it would give homophobes a choice. We should oppose it vigorously.

Mr. Andrew Turner: As the hon. Gentleman knows, I did not support the amendment in Committee, and I find it odd that he should believe that democracy is right when democrats would agree with Liberal Democrats, but not right at other times. However, his earlier point was that there was no need for any new safeguard. Will he concede that section 28 covers the organisations covered by section 508, which my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) read out earlier, including youth clubs, and that no other legislation covers those institutions?

6.15 pm

Mr. Davey: I shall give the hon. Gentleman two answers. [Interruption.] He made two points, so he deserves two answers. His first point was that Liberal Democrats do not like democracy in these circumstances. We are Liberal Democrats; we believe in liberal democracy. That means, as the hon. Gentleman as a Member of the House ought to know, that the interests of minorities should be protected under the law. We stand firm and square for that, and I am surprised that he does not.

On new clause 17, as the hon. Member for Cotswold said, section 28 does not apply to youth clubs. We are concerned about new clause 17 because of the way it could apply. Does it take account of the voluntary sector? Would it apply where a local authority gave some small support to a voluntary-run youth club, possibly scouts or a church club? One of the major flaws in the new clause is that children and young people attend youth clubs on a voluntary basis, according to their parents' wishes. That is quite different from attending school, which is compulsory by law. The parents can decide, after discussion with those running the youth club, whether their children should attend. New clause 17 goes into dangerous territory for the Conservative party, infringing the rights of parents and voluntary groups. I am surprised to see it tabled in the name of Conservative Members.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The hon. Gentleman was present in Committee and he will have discovered that there is a

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lacuna in the Bill. If the existing section 2A is abolished, there will be no provision for guidance to youth clubs and other bodies. Our new clause specifically refers to those funded by local authorities. Those are public sector bodies. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there needs to be guidance to youth clubs and other such bodies?

Mr. Davey: The hon. Gentleman does not seem to have grasped the point that there are many voluntary youth clubs throughout the country, often scouts and guides, that receive taxpayers' money from local authorities. Many local authorities help the uniformed organisations and voluntary-run organisations and would fall foul of the new clause.

I shall take no more of the time of the House, as we want to hear from other right hon. and hon. Members. It is time the House grew up, realised how our constituents are living out there, stopped hiding in the past, and removed this odious legislation from the statute book once and for all.

Kali Mountford: As the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) rightly said, the essence of the debate is the education, protection and care of children. That is what we should focus on—how we nurture children's minds so that, as adults, they can operate properly in society. That is the aim of education, of growing up, of youth clubs, of voluntary sector organisations, of parents, governors and teachers. The problem with section 28 is that that is not its aim. Section 28 has been bypassed by subsequent legislation and by society's increasing acceptance of difference.

When we deal with difference, we need to be honest with children. As sure as eggs is eggs, children will notice if we are not telling them the truth. Any parent knows that if a child asks us a question and we try to sidestep it rather than dealing with it directly and honestly in a way that he or she can understand, he or she will not only not believe us on that occasion, but will probably not believe anything we say ever after. That means that as early as a child asks, "Why is uncle Fred living with uncle George?" we have to tell them. As early as a child says, "Mummy, I've just seen two men holding hands," or, "That girl just kissed that other girl," if we do not tell the truth about the reason behind it, the child will never believe us on that or on anything else. Education must be in the context of the world we live in, not the world we would like to live in. Where a school is in a community, the education from that school must reflect not only the ethos of the school but the community and families from which pupils of that school are drawn. If parents have the opportunity to choose a school—we must all accept that that choice is not available to everybody, for a variety of reasons, such as ability to travel, and, in some circumstances, ability to pay—to some extent, they have a voice within that school. That is what many hon. Members are concerned about. It has been said that hon. Members would feel more comforted in supporting the withdrawal of section 28 if some other protection were in place. I ask those Members to consider carefully what they think is happening, what is really happening, and what might be the effect of proposed legislation.

What is happening now? In schools, the curriculum committee that is required of every governing body of every state-funded school must include a teacher,

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a parent and other members of the governing body, and it must approve the curriculum of the school. If parents are not happy with the curriculum devised, not only can they remove the child if they want to do so but they can object to the curriculum overall. That curriculum needs to be agreed by the school, and that is part of what we do now.

Mr. Brady: How many parents examine the material that is used in schools in sex education? Surely the hon. Lady cannot imagine that the system works as well as possible, and that parents are always making an informed decision in that process.

Kali Mountford: The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. I have experience not only as a parent but as a grandparent: I have three grandchildren in primary education, and I also have a child aged 19 in education, so I can see the whole range of education in my family. If a child came home with a story about something inappropriate that had happened at school, I cannot imagine the parents not noticing. The prospect of sending curriculum material to every parent for approval would be dire. Curriculum bodies allow representatives of parents to represent the view of the community to the governing body. That is the purpose of setting up the governing body in that way.

My problem with amendment No. 17 is that it would ask every parent to vet curriculum material—on an annual basis, I presume, as curriculum material changes all the time—which would be a nightmare. I cannot see how that could work. The representation of parents on governing bodies is working well and has been working well for some time. The evidence that it is working well is that we do not have a flood of parents knocking on our constituency office door saying, "Good heavens, my child has been looking at this material today, and I object strongly." If a parent did so, I would represent their view, but it has never happened.

The proof of that is in the experience. Since section 28 was introduced, people have not been bringing forward such material. That is not because of the protection of section 28, because, as we know, section 28 has been overtaken by events. The protection has been the good sense of the parents, teachers and governors on the governing body who decide the curriculum. That has worked well for a long time, and it has been enhanced still further by the guidance that has been produced. Hon. Members may want to enshrine that guidance in law, but I think there are difficulties with that. Such an approach does not recognise the very thing that is special about schools—the fact that they are founded in the communities in which they are placed. In a predominantly Muslim area, the curriculum may be taken in a particular direction suited to the community. A predominantly Christian area or Christian school may have a particular direction for their education, too. That is to be welcomed, and it recognises the breadth of culture, religion and diversity that we have in communities.

Enshrining that in legislation becomes extremely difficult. At the moment, a school can reflect the ethos of the community in which it is based, but enshrining that in legislation would fix that at the point at which we are now, and would not allow for the constant changes in communities. We are living in a dynamic society that

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changes constantly, and we must recognise not only the changes in society overall but changes in education and what is thought appropriate. What we thought 50 years ago, and what we thought when I was at school, is very different from what we think now. Parliament can set out certain broad objectives that a school might want to achieve, but I have never thought that Parliament is the right to place to decide on the day-by-day aspects of a school's curriculum. That level of detail, and that level of imposition on family life, seem profoundly wrong.

That kind of decision should not be taken in this place, because it strips out all the usefulness of the contact between parents and schools. We should treasure that contact, which is not achieved through a bureaucratic process and a ballot. Balloting on these issues does not bring out the best in everybody. All that happens when we have ballots is that entrenched positions develop on either side and debate is polarised, and groups with different sets of values pull the community apart. It is not about cohesion or bringing people together, and that is very wrong, certainly for children. I would not want my children to be placed in a school in which such debates started to divide communities.

These are questions for the family. The morality that I want in my family—we have, I hope, very high moral standards—comes from the family, what we believe, and what we discuss at home. It is sad and a shame that there are some families in which such discussions do not take place. We cannot say that the proper place for all that discussion is school. We must not be directive to that extent. I have strong feelings about how I want my children to be: I want them to be caring, open and accepting of other people. I do not want them to go to a school that closes down their minds in relation to accepting and caring for different kinds of families

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