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10 Mar 2003 : Column 83—continued

Mr. Andrew Turner: It is perfectly open to the Minister to present the extreme argument about an organisation collapsing for want of support during an investigation. He shakes his head at the word "extreme",

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but his argument does seem to me extreme. Does he concede that without new clause 17 there will be nothing to cover such organisations?

Mr. Raynsford: No, for the reasons that I shall give—but first let me put it on record that I was not presenting an extreme scenario. Having worked for many years in the voluntary sector, I know only too well how difficult life is for voluntary organisations that are dependent on local authorities. If malicious complaints are made about voluntary organisations and their funding is withdrawn, their whole operation can be threatened.

The position in relation to youth clubs is important, and I undertook to make it clear. The guidance issued by the DFES is primarily for schools. There are clear reasons for that. Parents have a right to expect a framework to exist to provide adequate protection for their children while they are in school. By contrast, attendance at youth clubs and other facilities providing recreation and social and physical training is voluntary. Many are run by Churches and voluntary organisations, and it is for parents to decide whether they wish their children to attend them. Nevertheless, the guidance specifically refers to youth workers and other professionals.

The guidance makes it clear that schools should work in partnership with the wider community and that health professionals, social workers, youth workers and peer educators working in schools should abide by the school's policy on sex education. The guidance also states that it would be inappropriate for any professional providing sex education to promote a particular sexuality. To quote paragraph 6.7 of the guidance:

The guidance has been the subject of plaudits from hon. Members on both sides of the House. The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) emphasised the fact that it is well written and balanced. Guidance to youth workers is also available from other nationally recognised bodies. For example, the National Youth Agency has produced materials that can help to inform sexual relationship education work by youth workers.

The position that I have described is the correct and responsible one. Guidance sets out what we expect of those who deal with children, while reflecting parents' role in deciding whether their children attend youth clubs and other facilities provided outside schools, many of which are not provided by local authorities. In our view, authorities should act as community leaders. They know what is expected of them and they should act responsibly. They should not promote any specific lifestyle choice, but they should be able to provide services that meet local needs and support organisations that meet the needs of their communities. The new clause is misguided and unnecessary.

New clause 21 would require a local authority, in exercising any of its functions in relation to school age children, to ensure that there was a balanced presentation of views in any case in which the morality of sex outside marriage was raised as an issue. That is an unnecessary proposal. I have already made the basic

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points. Local authorities have no say over what sex and relationship education is taught in schools. The guidance to which I have referred was described as reasonable and balanced by the hon. Member for Cotswold. As I have already said, we expect professionals operating in non-school settings to respect the guidance when working with young people of school age. There is no evidence that those arrangements are not working satisfactorily, and the House should reject this inoperable and unnecessary proposal.

Amendment No. 37 is palpably a delaying mechanism designed to defer commencement of the repeal of section 28. It proposes that before repeal happens, the Secretary of State should certify that sexual relationship education guidance has been issued—that seems curious, given that I have a copy here and it has been available for three years—and that a mechanism should be established to allow parents to be balloted on the school's policy. The first requirement is wholly redundant. As for the second, the Education Act 1996 requires that schools work with parents in devising their sex education policies and that schools' statements on their policies are made available to parents. The guidance specifically addresses the issue of parental involvement and makes it clear that that should be ongoing, saying that it is "essential" that parents be regularly consulted on sex education in schools, especially when the contents are being reviewed. Those arrangements are between schools and parents. Section 28 has no bearing on them.

In the light of that, and of parents' ability to withhold their children from sex education lessons, we believe that balloting parents, quite apart from being bureaucratic, costly and potentially divisive, is an unnecessary requirement. An effective sex and relationship education programme is not a matter for crosses on ballot papers, which could, as the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) rightly said, turn out to be a recipe for homophobia.

We have established a successful and robust framework that ensures that clear guidance is in place, allows for some local discretion on the part of governors and head teachers in consultation with parents to ensure that what is taught reflects local cultural traditions, and draws on the professionalism of teachers and others who work with children. In the evidently very rare cases in which parents feel that the approach to teaching about sex and relationships is unsuitable for their child, they can withhold their child. There are sufficient protections in place.

The case for repeal of section 28 is clear. It serves no useful purpose, it is a relic of a less enlightened age, it is offensive and it should go. There is no need for further delay. I hope that the House will overwhelmingly reject these inappropriate amendments and approve clause 119, which repeals section 28.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: There have been some strong and impassioned speeches expressing sincerely held views. It is clear that the House will be asked whether to retain section 2A. If it votes to retain the Bill as it emerged from Committee, without section 2A, it is clear that some safeguards are needed—[Hon. Members: "No."] I have made it clear that material emanates from health

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authorities, circulates and can be accessed by children of an inappropriate age. One of the key points in the guidance is that material should be suitable for children of a particular age. We are talking about the protection of children. Children's welfare and their moral upbringing should be paramount.

Mr. Bercow: May I say politely to my hon. Friend that he offered not a scintilla of evidence that the material to which he objects is being used by teachers in schools? Does he accept that the danger of the ballot proposal is that it goes way beyond the right to withdraw one's own child from sex education, and creates a new right at which most people would baulk—that one should be able to vote to deny other people's children the sex education they deserve?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am sorry that my hon. Friend made that intervention. He of all people should respect the pluralism represented by the ballot box. If a majority of parents in a ballot express the view that the materials are unsuitable, that is democracy working and the material should be taken away and rewritten. If they do so again, it is wholly right that the Secretary of State, who writes the guidance that my hon. Friend admires so much, and about which there have been no complaints in the past six months, should replace that guidance and those national materials.

If section 2A is to be abolished, the safeguards in place are not strong enough. The Minister did not make out a strong enough case regarding protection in youth clubs. He says that they are included in the guidance already laid out in connection with the Education Act 1996, but section 403 of that Act refers specifically to maintained schools, not to other bodies funded by local authorities, so they are not covered. Attendance at them might be voluntary, but they are not covered. If youth clubs started to use the type of materials to which I referred, they would not be outside the law. There is a lacuna, and the right hon. Gentleman must address it.

The Minister should also examine the health guidance. He arrogantly refused to look at the letter that I gave him. If he does so—I will write to him enclosing a copy of that letter—he will see that he must provide clarification. I am sure that my colleagues in another place will take up the matter. There is a muddle. Section 403(1C) says:

The law is unclear.

Finally, the Minister did not deal properly with abolishing section 104 of the Local Government Act 2000, which relates to bullying. If there is no safeguard in that respect, we will be in great difficulty.

My hon. Friends will make up their own minds—there will be a free vote—but there are still problems to be dealt with and more safeguards that must be established. If those safeguards are not put in place, I have no doubt that my noble Friends in another place will send the matter back to this House.

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Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 127, Noes 356.

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