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10 Mar 2003 : Column 73—continued

Mr. Bryant: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Wilshire: Forgive me, but many other Members wish to speak.

At that time, councils were intentionally attempting to promote homosexuality. It may be argued that one cannot promote it, but councils were trying to do so at that time. There were plenty examples of that. Some councils portrayed alternative families as the same as the ones that we all know. Councils were using taxpayers' money to do that. All that section 28 said then and all that it says now is, "You simply mustn't use taxpayers' money to do that sort of thing." Section 28 passed no judgment on individuals. It left them free to do whatever they wished. I defend their right to do that. I agree totally with almost all that the hon. Member for Rhondda said. I have no problems when it comes to an individual issue. It is the use of taxpayers' money that concerns me.

Mr. Bryant: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Wilshire: Yes, as I have now mentioned the hon. Gentleman twice.

Mr. Bryant: I accept that the hon. Gentleman considers himself not to be a bigot, but the phrase that

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many people find profoundly offensive and bigoted is "pretended family relationship". Does he not accept that?

Mr. Wilshire: I understand what the hon. Gentleman says. If we were to get into a debate about lifestyles, that point would apply. However, all that I was saying then and all that I am saying now is that one must not use taxpayers' money for such things. Fifteen years later, I am still opposed to the use of taxpayers' money in that way. I believe that section 28 was necessary because money was being used for those purposes. I believe that section 28 has worked, because the things that were happening stopped. If local government has no wish to promote or to attempt to promote homosexuality, what is the fuss all about? All the add-on issues and concerns that the hon. Gentleman and others have raised have nothing to do with section 28. There is an ethical debate to be had, but section 28 should not be used as the vehicle for that debate.

I hope that, you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will allow for a vote to be held on amendment No. 8. I certainly want one, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) who tabled the amendment. I make that formal request now. On balance—I stress the phrase "on balance"—I have no regrets at what I did 15 years ago. I believed then that what I was doing was right, and I believe that, by voting for the amendment, I will be doing what I still believe to be right.

6.45 pm

Mr. Borrow: I am grateful for the opportunity to speak after the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), who explained the heart of the problems that we are debating. It is the assumption that homosexuality can be promoted and therefore that, by spending public money, one can increase the proportion of the population that is homosexual. In itself, that statement is totally stupid; there is no evidence for it whatever.

The hon. Gentleman's proposal that central Government should legislate in specific areas to stop local government wasting money is rather stupid. Local government wastes money in many other areas, and we rely on the electorate to boot out councillors who waste public money. Parliament does not introduce individual clauses year after year to stop individual councillors wasting a bit of money here and there.

The hon. Gentleman assumes that section 28 was all about preventing the waste of public money. That may have been the reason why he introduced it and he may not be a bigot. However, I was deeply offended when section 28 was passed and, in my first year as a member of Preston borough council, I was able to persuade the council to pass a resolution against the provision. For me and many other gay men and lesbians, section 28 and, in particular, the reference to "pretended family relationship" is deeply offensive. I regard my relationship with my partner in the same way as my sisters would regard their relationships with their married partners. To enshrine in legislation something that is so partial and so deeply offensive to a minority of the population should cause every hon. Member to think deeply about whether that is what we are sent here to do.

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I look forward to the removal of section 28. I also smiled somewhat at the assumption that sexuality can be promoted. I went to school in the west riding of Yorkshire in the 1950s and 1960s, and the concept that homosexuality existed was unknown to me. I was totally unaware that an alternative to marriage existed. Sex education should be taught in such a way that adolescent boys and girls who are struggling with their sexuality feel that they can have a happy future if they turn out to be gay. I hope that the vast majority who turn out to be heterosexual will grow up to be tolerant, caring and loving to everyone and that prejudices and bigotry will not be supported by legislation, however innocently that legislation may have been introduced in the first place.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): Many exaggerated claims have been made about section 28. Some say that it prevents any discussion of homosexuality in the classroom, that it prevents teachers from tackling bullying and that it is a "hate clause". None of that is true. The circular that was issued to accompany the provision in 1988 makes it clear, for example, that objective discussion of homosexuality is not affected by section 28.

Section 28 is about the use of local authority money for the active promotion of homosexuality. Certain subjects in our society are controversial. Politics is one and religion is another. Sexuality is a controversial subject on which people have differing views. We hear a lot of talk about respect when the subject is raised. I am concerned that there should be respect for the views of parents.

I am very relaxed about what people do in private. That is their own business. I do not seek to condemn people for what they do. Like most of the British public, I am realistic about these things. However, most people do not want homosexuality promoted to children in school or elsewhere. We are not extreme people. Like most people, I am tolerant of homosexuals. Those who simply hate homosexual people are, thankfully, in a tiny minority. I doubt whether a single person in the House falls into that category.

I use the word "tolerant" deliberately. Most British people are tolerant of homosexual people. They may know homosexuals and they like them as people, as I do. However, whether we like it or not, many people in this country—their views should not be dismissed—think that homosexual practice, with the emphasis on the word "practice", is wrong. That is what tolerance means—putting up with something that one believes to be wrong.

I have tabled an amendment to retain section 28 partly because I believe that there should be a debate on the subject. If I had not tabled it, there would have been no debate on a matter that is important to the British people, whatever their views. I tabled it also because I believe that section 28 is right and represents the wishes of the majority of the British public. We must be careful when legislating on such a contentious subject and dealing with whether council tax payers' money is spent on promoting views that many people find controversial.

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Should local authorities tell children to try experimenting sexually with boys and girls to ascertain with whom they feel most comfortable? Some local authorities recommend materials that advise exactly that. Should sex education in schools be conducted in a moral vacuum? My answer is no. Protection such as section 28 should exist. There is anxiety about what schools teach about politics and religion; sex education is the same sort of subject. Some appalling materials should not be promoted for use in our schools.

We should be careful and consider not simply what politically correct views dictate, or the wishes of a specific minority group, but the genuine wishes of ordinary people who have children. They want their children to be protected and to know that local authorities will do nothing in schools, youth groups or elsewhere to undermine the moral values that they have attempted to instil in their children.

One reason for retaining section 28 is that it works. If it did not, the Government would not have spent so much parliamentary time and political capital on trying to repeal it. If it were truly redundant, as some allege, it could remain on the statute book, unused and forgotten. However, gay rights supporters and the Government want to repeal it because they know that it works.

Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Leigh: I shall do so later, but others want to speak and I want to make my point. However, if the hon. Lady wishes to intervene later, I shall give way to her.

Gay rights groups want to repeal section 28 because they want public subsidy for their work. They know that they would not receive much money if they promoted their cause in the high street. People will give to charities that look after the poor and so on, but they will not knowingly fund the promotion of homosexuality or any other sexual special interest group. Public money has breathed life into groups, which, if left alone, would make little headway and would not survive. Such groups need public money. Gay rights groups know that some councillors are sympathetic to pushing public cash their way. Section 28 stops them doing that. Extreme local authorities that would like to promote homosexuality often do not do so because they are afraid of section 28.

In 1992, only four years after the provision was introduced, Peter Tatchell of the gay rights group Outrage! complained that he knew of at least 35 instances of self-censorship by local authorities that feared prosecution under section 28. Councillors know that if they approve ultra vires expenditure, they can be forced to pay back council tax payers' money out of their pockets. That is a sobering thought. They also know that a council tax payer who objects to the unlawful use of his money can seek judicial review.

In Scotland in 2000, a nurse sued Glasgow city council for breach of section 28. She succeeded in stopping a council-funded youth group, with members as young as 12, that used extremely explicit homosexual pornography. The council was forced to ensure that its grants were not used to promote homosexuality. The nurse's case was so strong that even when the action had to be dropped because the Scottish Parliament deleted section 28, Glasgow city council agreed to pay its legal costs.

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Some councillors do not want to fund gay groups, but hide behind section 28. They fear the vitriol that the gay rights lobby might pour on them for refusing to support them. They say, "I'm sorry. I'd like to fund your gay rights venture but I simply can't because of section 28." If that is one of the ways in which the provision operates, that is fine—its purpose is fulfilled.

The current law works. It prevents the promotion of a lifestyle with which many disagree. The wording is clear; parents understand it and that it is why they like it. It reassures them about what their local authority is teaching their children, especially in schools. Gay rights groups know what it means. That is why they dislike it. It means that the statute book states that promoting homosexuality is undesirable.

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