|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): I welcome the chance to participate again in an important debate on the Queen's Speech. I want to make a couple of general comments before focusing on the issues of the day.
As a former Minister with responsibility for people with disabilities, I welcome and thank the Government for the further steps to reduce discrimination against disabled people. As the Minister for Children, Young People and Families knows, being a Minister for disabled people is one of the best jobs in Government. It provides a unique opportunity to see life from a rather different perspective and to learn from that. Spending any time with disabled people tells us of a number of frustrations and distractions, which can be dealt with only by the change of attitude that is at the heart of anti-discrimination legislation. I stress that that change of attitude in society is much the most important thing.
Before dealing with the topics of the day, may I say a brief word in response to the Home Secretary's attempt to persuade us all that the policies and targets that he
30 Nov 2004 : Column 582
advocates will lead to a safer Britain? I might be forgiven for feeling that that has a rather hollow ring in North-East Bedfordshire, particularly around Yarl's Wood, as last week the Prison Service ombudsman produced a report that specifically blamed ill-thought-through policies and the pursuit of unachievable targets for the near disaster that engulfed the Yarl's Wood removal centre on 14 February 2002.
The Government's attempt then to deal with security issues set in train a series of consequences that cost more than £100 million and which, but for the individual heroism of many people on the night, could have led to scores of deaths. I was disappointed that the Home Secretary could not come to the Dispatch Box to introduce that report personally and to answer questions as to which parts of this particular policy fiasco have contributed most to the concept of a safer Britain, but come to the Dispatch Box in due course he will.
I give my wholehearted support to the amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) and contribute to the debate by again reinforcing the commitment to the NHS that my colleagues and I share. My father was a GP for nearly 50 years and my brother is a consultant anaesthetist at St. Thomas's. My wife and I have no private health insurance and our children were born in the NHS facilities at the wonderful Fairfield hospital in Bury, so let no one say there is a lack of commitment to the health service on this side of the House.
The big issues for my constituents are not addressed by the Queen's Speech or by what the Secretary of State had to say, despite his valiant efforts. My constituency, like a number of others in the south-east, faces an enormous housing increase: there will be 80,000 more houses in Bedfordshire over the next 25 years. Our facilities and infrastructure are already stretched, so how will they cope with this pressure on resources? We are stretched in relation to GPs: 330 are needed in Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire over the next three years, even before all this building takes place. That has not been addressed and I am worried about it, as are my constituents.
On education, the Government's determination, as stated in the Queen's Speech, to ensure that children fulfil all their talents and abilities is devoid of meaning without ensuring the right environment for teaching and learning. Despite the Government's avowed emphasis on education, is it not, after seven years, a matter of shame for them that one in three 11-year-olds leave school unable to write properly, 1 million children play truant every year and there is an assault on a teacher every seven minutes? If those issues are not addressed, the Government's rhetoric is as nothing.
In my constituency, parents of children in special schools feel threatened. The Government's pressure towards an inclusionist policy, which has its good points, runs the risk, by being pushed too far, of going beyond the aspiration of parents and the assessments of professionals in those schools, thus changing their character, not necessarily in the interests of each and every child. Those interests must be paramount. I urge the Secretary of State to include in the education Bill some measure on the further protection of special schools.
30 Nov 2004 : Column 583
Schools in my constituency also tend to feel that the Government are all talk in terms of their commitment to improve children's sport in schools. In 2001, the lotterynot the Governmentset up the fund for sport and physical education with a balance of more than £500 million. Schools attempted to access it, but got caught up in extraordinary bureaucracy to such an extent that by the middle of this year only £10 million of £500 million committed in 2001 had been spent.
Sharnbrook upper school in my constituency, with its excellent head teacher Peter Barnard, was caught up in this. He reckons that it has cost him some 18 monthsnearly £40,000 worth of timeto seek to access £250,000 from the fund. A Government who were really committed to sport in schools would have sorted out such nonsense a long time ago. How much more the Queen's Speech could have achieved if it had recognised the people's priorities of cleaner hospitals and school discipline, and made people truly feel safer, not by frightening them, and putting forward half-baked policies and targets, but by matching our commitment for 40,000 more police over the next eight years.
I want to turn to my substantive remarks on chlamydia. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford) is not in her place, because I enjoyed what she said, which was helpful and significant. I am not sure whether an education Bill will examine this issue, as it may not be the place to do so, but can I urge the Government to conduct a serious review of sex education in schools? The information given to the House last week by the Secretary of State for Health that perhaps one in 10 sexually active women under the age of 25 are infected with chlamydia is perhaps one of the saddest statistics of our age. For whatever reason, we have surely failed our children if the demystification of sex over the past 40 years or so has resulted in the sort of unhappiness that comes from the picking up of a sexually transmitted disease or infection.
A fascinating exchange took place last week on BBC television's "Question Time". A questioner from the audience asked about the rate of increase of chlamydia and whether we were therefore losing the battle for safe sex. Bishop James Jones of Liverpool then questioned the conventional wisdom that nothing much could done about young people having sex, by saying that growing numbers of young people of faith backgroundsChristian, Jewish and Muslimwanted their faith reservations on early sex to be backed up by a society that encouraged and supported them if they wished to say no. The Liverpool audience gave the bishop strong support for such a view. That is worth exploring further, and it is a matter of great urgency to do so.
First, there is plenty of evidence that whatever we have been doing up to now has not really worked well enough. Secondly, the impact of such diseases and infections on young people can be catastrophic, and it is unacceptable to leave things as they are. Thirdly, to take a different tack, the cost to the NHS both of dealing with such diseases and infections, and future infertility, is great and growing. Fourthly, we must be honest about how we have got to where we are. There is a significant danger of the polarisation of views on this sensitive topic not being in anyone's best interest.
30 Nov 2004 : Column 584
As a practising Christian, I reject a view that sex education is wrong, and that the more that is learned, the more harmful it is. Dutch and Swedish experience suggests the contrary. But such education should be considered in the context of the teaching of relationships and values accompanying the learning of the technicalities. Equally, those who condemn abstinence education out of hand should examine it again, not because it is the only answer, but because children are not uniform, and different teaching and different ideas will strike young people differently.
There is a further point. Forty years ago, those who spoke from a position of faithoften Christianon these matters, and who tried to make an abstinence case, were often derided. They were, they were told, backward, against feminism, morally judgmental, and representing a finger-wagging authoritarian God whose nature was to condemn. Whether or not some took such a view, there was no evidence then available of where a society changing its moral and commercial attitudes to sex would go. The arguments could therefore rage in some form of vacuum.
But now things are different. There is evidence of genuine harm being done to our young people. Anecdotal stories of peer pressure to have sex early, encouraged by a far more sexualised society, can now be accompanied by information on rises in disease and infection and, as Bishop Jones said on "Question Time", sheer unhappiness.
That is not what we want for our children, and what we may be able to cope with as adults may not be right for them. I suggest to the House that the Christian response might now be seen in a different light. God gave his rules for our lives not because he wishes to condemn but because he loves us, and wants us to fulfil all that we can be. He warns against things that might hurt us. There is no condemnation.
Contrary to popular myth, the overwhelming characteristic is not that we are unabridged successes working in a context of self-righteousness but that we have all messed up, and we all have experience of a loving God reaching out to pick us up out of our mess and take us somewhere better. Let us adopt a balanced approach to sex education. Children must have knowledgenot to give them that would be to leave them unarmed in the worldbut it must be put in a context of value and relationships. Those who feel unready, and do not want to take a relationship that far, should be encouraged to feel that saying no is powerful and right. Good medical back-up and professional services should also be available to deal with physical issues unambiguously and unashamedly. Let us not assume that, with such an approach, we cannot aspire to alter behaviour, and to enhance children's sense of self-esteem and self-respect in the avoidance of sexual activity.
We are so open about almost everything else to do with sex, but listening to youngsters on that programme and reading their comments on the BBC website makes one appreciate how hit-and-miss our sex education really is. Let us pick up the best ideas in the world. Let us talk to faith groups about their contributions. Let us also recognise a worry among people that years of licence, while helping us come to terms with many sexual matters and avoid misery, have also caused unwitting
30 Nov 2004 : Column 585
harm to others. I hope that the Government will consider an urgent review of sex education in the current Session.
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|