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10 Mar 2003 : Column 80—continued

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): There is a crucial issue that the House has not discussed today. Is it not the case that, in passing the Adoption and Children Act 2002, we last year institutionalised in law homosexual parenthood as an actual family relationship? Therefore, if a council were to look for gay parents under the law that this House has passed, it could fall foul of section 28. There is a conflict.

Mr. Woodward: Over the years since my little local difficulty with the Conservative party, the hon. Gentleman and I have not always seen eye to eye, but he is absolutely right on this one. Once again, the crucial issue is the love that can be provided by one or two people, whether they are of different sexes or the same sex, for a child. That must be reflected in the school environment, local authorities and everywhere else where a child is brought up.

This issue is not about tolerance, as some hon. Members have said. As long as it is seen as being only about tolerance, we have not moved very far. It is about fairness and equality. It is about equality because we are all capable of loving each other, although that may happen for different reasons and in different circumstances. The hon. Member for Gainsborough said—I think that he denigrated his argument by doing so—that the issue was all about the gay rights special lobby. Frankly, there is every reason for those in that lobby to undertake special pleading about some of the devastatingly cruel things that have been done to people who are gay, but the issue is not about special pleading. It is simply about saying, "Let's all treat each other in the same way." There is no special pleading; it is about fairness and about everybody being equal under the law.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Will the hon. Gentleman take it from me that, in an age of pervasive cynicism about Punch and Judy politics, it is important not to oppose, criticise or formulate alternative policies for the sake of doing so? I will vote for repeal and against the obnoxious amendments, and I shall also be against other risible amendments that are really designed to save face.

Mr. Woodward: I agree with the hon. Gentleman; this issue is not about political correctness, but fairness. In that sense, I agree with the hon. Member for Gainsborough that it is about a moral judgment—the moral judgment to be fair and to allow everybody to be treated equally.

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That is what is at the heart of getting rid of this very nasty measure. It is about scrapping those who would use it to hide their prejudices and fears, because they have nothing to be fearful about. What people have to fear is prejudice out there doing harm. When my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda mentions the 12 people who are on the end of being gay bashed and murdered each year, year in, year out, the hon. Member for Gainsborough should think about that. If the legislation before us saves one life, let alone 12 lives—or 120 in 10 years—it will be a very good thing that we do tonight.

Section 28 is a dreadful measure, and we should get rid of it. Let us hope that if anything is infectious, it is the spirit of Conservative Members who will vote to do so tonight. Let us hope that they can pass on their enthusiasm to their colleagues in another place.

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford): We have had a mixed debate, including a number of passionate, impressive speeches revealing deep understanding of the complex, sensitive issues with which we are dealing. We have also heard speeches that seemed curiously redolent of a previous era when prejudice, stereotypes and divisiveness were in the ascendancy.

Our debates on this subject send important messages about our attitudes to tolerance, fairness and inclusion. Those messages are relevant both to the wider public and to the other place. This evening's debate will receive a great deal more attention from the wider public and the media than did our debate in Committee, which was generally a high-level and impressive debate. The outcome in Committee was that a majority of Members in each of the political parties voted to repeal section 28. There was an overwhelming vote of 19 to two in favour of repeal. Fourteen Labour Members voted for repeal, and none voted against.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Raynsford: I ask the hon. Gentleman to restrain himself. I was about to refer to him.

Four Conservative Members voted for the repeal of section 28. Two, including the hon. Gentleman, did not. One Liberal Democrat Member voted for repeal. In total, 19 Members were in favour of repeal and only two were in favour of retention. That sends a powerful message that I hope will be echoed in this debate and listened to very carefully in the other place. I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Goodman: Will the Minister concede that the debate in Committee was extremely brief, and that not all Members who wanted to speak got the chance to do so?

Mr. Raynsford: We had a long debate; it lasted almost a whole sitting of the Committee. There were frequent interventions, including some from the hon. Gentleman. I certainly did not get the impression that the debate was curtailed in any way, and the issues were covered thoroughly, as they have been tonight.

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There are several amendments and new clauses in this group, and I shall begin with those that seek to disturb the substantial degree of agreement on the principle of repeal. Amendment No. 8 and amendments Nos. 10 to 18 seek to remove clause 119 and the associated consequential amendments, thereby preserving section 28. I do not intend to go over all the ground on the principle of repeal. The Government's position on that is clear: section 28 is an unnecessary measure that many people find deeply offensive, because it stigmatises certain lifestyles. We are committed to tackling actual and perceived discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, and section 28 is widely perceived as discriminatory. We should remove that unnecessary measure; it has caused offence and confusion for long enough.

The other amendments and new clauses seek to introduce purported safeguards or to delay implementation, based on concerns about the possible effect of repeal. They are not necessary and they would have no beneficial effect.

Mr. Bercow: I agree with the Minister that section 28 has caused too much pain to too many people for too long. Is he, as the Minister for Local Government and the Regions, interested to hear that I was informed by the Department for Education and Skills last week that it is not aware of having a received a single complaint in the last six months about the sex and relationship education guidance issued in July 2000? Is it not a case of game, set and match?

7.15 pm

Mr. Raynsford: That is clear important evidence that the current arrangements work well, and that there is absolutely no need for a change. As I shall go on to make clear, section 28 is wholly irrelevant to what is taught in schools, and the hon. Gentleman's point is valid.

Interestingly, many of the amendments appear to be based on the continuing misconception that section 28 has an impact on sex education in schools, which is a clear illustration of the confusion that the measure has engendered. Local education authorities have no say in what is taught in schools. The Education Act 1996, as amended, places the responsibility for sex education in schools firmly on teachers and governors. It gives the Secretary of State a statutory duty to issue guidance on sex and relationship education. It explicitly states that parents should be involved in developing a school's policy. Local authorities do not determine schools' sex education policies, so none of that is affected by the repeal of section 28.

Section 405 of the 1996 Act provides a further safeguard by enabling parents to withdraw their children from the non-statutory elements of sex education in schools—that is, the parts of the national curriculum that are not covered through science. Few parents see the need to make use of that safeguard. As the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, the Department for Education and Skills has received no complaints about the issue in the past six months. Indeed, since the guidance was introduced, the level of parental withdrawal has stood at well under 1 per cent. That represents an overwhelming endorsement of the framework that has been in place for nearly three years.

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New clause 11 would require the Secretary of State to report every two years on the effect of the repeal of section 28 on a number of issues: adherence to the guidance that I have mentioned, the operation of the requirement for schools to make their policies available for inspection by parents, and the number of parents withdrawing their children from sex education lessons. That measure is simply not necessary. The fundamental point remains that, as I have said, local authorities have no locus in determining schools' sex education policies, and we have in place a robust framework, which will not be affected by the repeal of section 28. Surely there is no need to report on a measure that will have no effect.

The amendments to new clause 11 tabled by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) would add a requirement to report on the operation of guidance for bodies established by local authorities for recreation and social and physical training. I believe that the hon. Gentleman is focusing on youth clubs in particular. Authorities have a duty to ensure that education provision in their area includes adequate facilities of that kind. They may choose to provide those directly, or others may provide them. The amendments are technically flawed because section 508 of the 1996 Act enables local authorities to provide such facilities, which is very different from establishing bodies, as suggested in the amendment; I shall deal with the wider issue of those facilities under new clause 17. However, I do not want to argue simply on technicalities; I regard the amendments as inappropriate.

New clause 17 would prevent local authorities from providing financial support to such facilities unless the authority was satisfied that any sex or relationship guidance offered by the facility complied with the sex and relationship education guidance issued by the Department for Education and Skills. That is an unnecessary bureaucratic burden, which the Opposition seek to foist on to local government and the voluntary sector. It shows that the purported concern with greater freedom for local government that we heard Opposition Members voicing in Committee is as flimsy as we always suspected. Indeed, the new clause could well put at risk the continued operation of valued youth centres and similar projects.

Let us consider a scenario in which a local authority is presented with a malicious unfounded complaint against a youth club operated by a voluntary agency, so it feels inhibited from giving any financial support to that body until the investigation has been completed. In the meantime, the organisation could cease to exist or be put out of business. That would be the consequence of the new clause; indeed, it would be the consequence of many of the elements associated with section 28. It would encourage homophobia and prejudice and allow bigots to interfere with proper service delivery. We should have no truck with that.

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