Local Government Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Turner: Does my hon. Friend accept that the excellent guidance to which he has referred deals only with schools? No such guidance is provided for youth clubs. The repeal of the section would permit the distribution of all these documents in youth clubs.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend is right. The little booklet that I quoted was designed for and was circulating in youth clubs. With the repeal of section 2A, the guidance should cover all Government organisations; any organisation funded by Government money should have to adhere to the guidance. We are looking for materials that are appropriate to children of a particular age. What is appropriate for children of 14 to 16 is inappropriate for seven to nine-year-olds. A huge difference applies.

Mr. Lepper: Could the hon. Gentleman clarify whether the words that he quoted from the Avon education authority document were intended to be read by children of the age that he mentioned, or were they part of the guidance for teachers in approaching discussion of those issues?

Column Number: 556

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I have no idea whether the teachers were using the document or letting the children read it. I suspect that the teachers probably did, and that the children found it inappropriate. I do not want to get into a facile debate. What is clearly wrong about the document is that it is written in a way that is unsuitable for nine to 11 year-olds.

Mr. Swayne: The document comes with a video that is intended to be, and is shown to children in schools. The clear message of that video is that a young boy in any doubt as to his sexual feelings and proclivities should experiment with all the different kinds available so that he can make up his mind. That is the sort of filth being peddled in schools.

Kali Mountford rose—

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I give way to the hon. Member for Colne Valley.

Kali Mountford: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that each governing body has its own curriculum committee containing members of the governing body, including parents, who have to discuss and agree the content of the curriculum for their own school? I can only assume that parents in Avon made that choice. Does he also accept that the other material that he has demonstrated to the Committee is not being distributed in schools and would not be covered by section 28 in England and Wales?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful for the first part of the hon. Lady's intervention, which brings me nicely to our new clause. I do not want to get into an argument about which materials are available in schools. All that I am saying is that these materials have been prepared with public money for education in schools. I am surprised that anyone in the Committee is having an argument about this. These materials are inappropriate for the ages they are intended for. Therefore, I think that the guidance is reasonable and that is why I want to turn to my new clause 18.

Before I do so, I refer to section 405 of the Education Act 1996, which enshrines a provision for exemption from sex education:

    ''If the parent of any pupil in attendance at a maintained school requests that he may be wholly or partly excused from receiving sex education''.

The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton made that point. The Secretary of State has to provide a plan for such children. That provision is unsatisfactory for two reasons: first, the children become stigmatised among their peers; secondly, and more important, well-trained teachers should be able to teach sex education as part of a balanced package in addition to any parental guidance that pupils may receive, otherwise what is the point in having sex education at all?

We have come to the current legal position in which local authorities have no locus; the governors of maintained schools have a locus. The guidelines in operation are perfectly adequate, provided that they are enforced across the piece, as my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight said. That applies not just to materials in schools but to all materials that might be

Column Number: 557

used for teenagers of an inappropriate age. If section 2A is to be repealed, there needs to be something else in its place to strengthen the existing situation.

The guidance, which is excellent, needs to be strengthened and maintained. It should be incorporated into legislation and it should not be changed until a statutory instrument is approved by Parliament, so that it is still acceptable to Parliament; that would be the new guidance used in schools.

Mr. Goodman: I want to probe my hon. Friend. I have a quote from a spokesman for the Scottish Executive on guidelines with reference to the incident that my hon. Friend mentioned. It reads:

    ''These guidelines are there for teachers but it doesn't mean that they are going to be used.''

Does that not reinforce my hon. Friend's point that the guidelines need additional force?

10.45 am

Mr. Clifton-Brown: As my hon. Friend says, the guidelines need additional force, and the second part of our new clause is also needed. As the hon. Member for Colne Valley said, there must be a proper curriculum procedure, the materials must be available in every school and there should be a written statement, which accords with this reasonable guidance. All that is enshrined in legislation, but we also need a mechanism whereby parents in a particular school can object if they believe that the written statement or the materials go outside, or do not conform with, that guidance. I am not rigid about the form that that should take, but we propose that there should be a ballot to decide whether the material should be rewritten and reintroduced if 25 per cent. of parents in a school object to it.

The regulations for the ballots would be issued in the form of guidelines from the Secretary of State. At least half those parents would have to vote for withdrawing the written material before any withdrawal. If it were withdrawn, the governors and head teacher would rewrite and resubmit it. If necessary, there should be another mechanism whereby another 25 per cent. would trigger another ballot, after which the material would be sent to the Secretary of State for adjudication as to whether it complied with the guidelines. If it did not, he would substitute national materials and statements as a default.

Mr. Davey: The hon. Gentleman rightly said that this is a sensitive matter. Does he now want ballots to be held throughout the country in different schools to deal with it?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I do not believe that that would happen often, because the ballot mechanism would deter any head teacher or governing body from straying too far from the guidance. The last thing a school wants is a ballot. It is a failsafe mechanism. If enough parents are aggrieved by the school's policy, there should be a mechanism through which they can ensure that the material is withdrawn and rewritten. The 25 per cent. trigger may be enough to cause the material to be withdrawn and rewritten.

Column Number: 558

One could consider the matter in various ways, but there must be a double-lock safety mechanism, which our new clause would provide. We must ensure that the guidance is available and strengthened so that it cannot be changed, except by Parliament's consent, and that there is an adequate mechanism to consult parents, if necessary by ballot.

Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that his new clause would lead to numerous ballots in schools resulting in a withdrawal of section 2A in some places but no withdrawal in others, which would be confusing and unsatisfactory?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I made clear how the mechanism works. The parents can call for a ballot if 25 per cent. of them are dissatisfied with the material. The material produced by the governors and the head teacher must be withdrawn and rewritten if the majority vote against it. There may then be a provision for another ballot, or there may not. The matter needs to be considered. If the parents were still dissatisfied, the material would be sent to the Secretary of State for adjudication, and he would substitute national materials and a national statement as a default. There can be no stronger or fairer safeguards, and a ballot would deter any head teacher or governor from straying too far from the national guidelines, which are perfectly reasonable.

The materials should be educational, not pornographic, but if the Minister wants consensus, or even unanimity, on new clause 1, he must reassure the Committee that either our new clause 18 or something similar will be passed, so that people who are aggrieved by the nature and type of materials circulating in schools feel that adequate safeguards are in place.

If the Minister can give that reassurance or, even better, accept our new clause, and if we can achieve unanimity in the Committee on voting to abolish section 2A, that will send a huge message to the House on Report, and to the other place. I say in the strongest possible terms to hon. Members that section 2A is redundant in law—it gives local authorities powers that they do not have under the Learning and Skills Act 2000. Therefore, the law as it stands is an ass. If we do not vote today to get rid of section 2A, we will emerge from the Committee with discredit.

Kali Mountford: I am grateful for the sensible remarks made by the hon. Member for Cotswold. Also, I thank the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton, who set the reasonable tone for the debate. Members across all parties have wanted the repeal of section 28, as it has come to be known, for many years, and I agree with him that rehearsing the whole argument, which started in 1998, and casting blame here, there and everywhere would do us no good at all.

However, I note that two parties here today—the Liberal Democrats and Labour—opposed section 28 from the beginning. My mother would say that, if something is part of a person and natural to them, they can take no credit for acting on it, because that is what they would do anyway. The people who deserve credit are those for whom change is an effort. We should therefore give particular credit to, for example, the

Column Number: 559

hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) and the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon, who have changed their view within their party. That is honourable and laudable. The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but no doubt he will clarify his position later. People who move with the times and recognise that things are different, rather than those who knew their position from the beginning, deserve credit.

The hon. Member for Cotswold made a clear case that this is a redundant section of the Local Government Act 1986, as did the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton. However, we should not believe that it has had no effect because it has never been acted on since its introduction and has never been used as a recourse in law. We need to consider that effect.

I have received many letters and e-mails since before Christmas, when I started to discuss a repeal of the section. People have written to me about their experiences of it. A local councillor said that, as LEAs do not have direct control over sex education in schools, it seems unlikely that the section could have an effect. However, in one school in that area, a young man, who had produced an extraordinary amount of artwork, died. The school wanted to put on an exhibition of his work, but was prevented from doing so because the young man was gay. It was felt that congratulating him posthumously would somehow promote his sexuality.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2003
Prepared 13 February 2003