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that is, the guidance set out in the draft prospectus for local education authorities accompanying the School Transport Bill of the previous Parliament—

The previous Committee had recommended that

The Joint Committee concluded:

that is, the Equality Bill—

I accept that that is clear in the Bill that we are discussing today, but the Minister with responsibility for equality said that guidance would be producedafter the passage of this Bill. Will the Minister, in
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responding to this debate, reiterate that assurance and clarify that the language of the guidance will make it absolutely clear that it covers not only denominational schools but “non-religious beliefs” as well?

Jim Knight: On that last point, I hope that I can reassure the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) to his complete satisfaction that guidance to local authorities will be rewritten to accompany these clauses, and that it will be fully compliant with the European convention on human rights, including its references to lack of religion and belief. I hope that that is a clear enough statementfor him.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): One thing that is not clear from my reading of the proceedings on the Bill in another place is the question of the cost implications of these provisions. The Education and Skills Committee carried out a thorough review of the former School Transport Bill—which, as the Minister will remember, disappeared in that form—and one thing that we learned was just how expensive school transport is, and how expensive special educational needs transport is, within that budget. These amendments would result in serious cost implications for local authorities, which could have a disproportionate effect on certain types of local authority. Does the Minister have any evidence on that matter?

Jim Knight: Cost was certainly a factor when we were considering whether to extend the distance to15 miles or to opt for a lesser distance. My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that we opted for the greater distance at a cost of £10.7 million a year. That is funding that we will clearly need to pass on to local authorities on the basis of an analysis of need. Representing a Dorset seat with significant rural areas, I am conscious of the extra costs that can be incurred in such areas, and I obviously want to ensure that they are properly funded so that they can deliver the appropriate service to my constituents.

Dr. Harris: May I record my thanks to the Minister for his commitment on the guidance? Would he be kind enough to reassure members of the Joint Committee that a draft of the guidance will be offered to them for comment before it is finalised? The Committee has informally been told, as we can see in paragraph 50 of its first report on this Bill, that that will be the case.

Jim Knight: I shall be very happy to look at how we relate to the Joint Committee in respect of ensuring that we deliver on the promise that I have given to the hon. Gentleman that the provisions will be compliant. The Committee is an important authority in the House on this matter, and we must have proper regard to it.

I welcome the important comments made by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) on extra-curricular activity. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) asked about large families that did not qualify for free transport. As ever, with any provision made by the state that is assessed on the basis of income, there will be those who fall just short of qualifying. I have seen people in my own constituency who face similar
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problems. However, we have to draw the line somewhere. There may be some large families for whom exercising their choice involves a financial consideration along with other matters, particularly in sparsely populated rural areas that do not offer the same degree of choice as urban areas, where distance is less of an issue, although congestion might be a factor. I am pleased, however, that the hon. Lady supports the Lords amendments, and I think that I have responded to the other points that have been made.

Mr. Sheerman: I am grateful for the figure that the Minister gave us on the extra cost of school transport. Local authorities will be relieved, and even more so when they get the cheque in the post. In parallel with the change in the eligibility for free transport over much longer distances, there is the fast-tracking of some Muslim faith schools into the maintained sector, and some of those in my area are Muslim girls schools. My Select Committee visited Birmingham, where, on one side of the ring road, there is the largest girls school in Europe. Has the Department considered the large number of parents in urban areas who, under the new eligibility, might choose to send their children long distances to get single-sex education? Is the Minister aware that, as has happened in Birmingham, that often removes the ability to have a gender balance in any of the local schools?

Jim Knight: Obviously, we keep that issue under review, and I would be happy to have a longer conversation with my hon. Friend about his experience in Birmingham. I was happy to visit Birmingham this week to open three new special schools in the area. Unfortunately, I was not able to visit the schools that he has in mind. We must certainly consider the effect that choice has on movement and congestion, onwhich we have discussions with the Department for Transport. Clearly, however, we firmly believe in parental choice as an important factor in driving up standards in schools. I would not want to interfere too much with that.

Mr. Sheerman: Is the Minister saying that he views with equanimity a dramatic shift of girls into single-sex education in most of our urban areas? Does not that worry him at all?

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. This group of amendments relates to school travel.

Jim Knight: I think my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) and I will continue that conversation on another occasion, which will keep you happier, Madam Deputy Speaker, and allow us to move on. I commend the Lords amendments to the House.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Before Clause 50

Lords amendment: No. 46

Jim Knight: I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

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Madam Deputy Speaker: With this we may consider amendments (a) to (c) thereto, and Lords amendments Nos. 54, 65, 78, 81, 238 and 239.

Dr. Harris: I want to speak to amendments (a) and (b) tabled by me and by Members from both sides of the House, which relate to collective worship and religious education in schools.

1.45 pm

In relation to the Bill, the issue was originally raised by the National Secular Society in communication with Education Ministers and with the Joint Committee on Human Rights on which I serve. It asked whether it was correct in human rights terms for the opt-outs from collective worship and religious education to rest only with parents of young people, when those young people should be considered to be competent humans in their own right. As a result of those representations on both collective worship and religious education, the Joint Committee took legal advice, as is the usual process. According to that advice, unless young people who are competent to make a decision about their article 9 rights with regard to freedom of religion were able to exercise an opt-out, the Government were at risk, in legislation and in practice, of breaching the Human Rights Act 1998. There is a right not to be forced, when one is old enough to know whether one believes in God, or in which God one believes, to pray against one’s will to another deity. That right applies regardless of age—there is no age threshold for human rights. Indeed, the UN convention on the rights of the child—and I have heard some of my hon. Friends speak eloquently on that—provides specifically for consultation with children on their education and other matters.

In other areas, such as in the provision of contraceptive advice, the Minister will be aware that young people are able to consent to medical and surgical intervention, including the right to access an abortion, without parental consent or even parental knowledge. In such cases, the health professionalmust decide routinely whether the young person is competent enough to make a decision about their health. In relation to sexual health, that judgment is often activated at around age 14. Religious belief will vary according to the maturity of the child, but a child who has a strong view against belief in God should not be forced in any state school, under the Human Rights Act, to pray, whether individually or collectively.

The Joint Committee also covered the question of religious education. The reason that there is an opt-out for religious education, which seems strange to many people, given that it is a subject rather than worship, is that it has no central curriculum. In voluntary aided and voluntary controlled schools with a faith ethos, the religion education curricula and syllabuses obviously look extremely different. Religious education syllabuses are generally set by standing advisory committees on religious education in each local authority area. For faith schools, there is a layer on top of that, which is the faith school deciding. As the Government have always recognised, however, the curriculum or syllabus is designed and delivered in such a way that there is no current protection for those parents who do not want their children exposed to both the content and style of
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delivery of directional religious education—which used to be called religious instruction, partly because of the way in which it is delivered in a few schools.

The Government’s draft guidance on the Equality Act 2006 in respect of discrimination on religion describes an exception needed in some schools for children to continue to be discriminated against on the basis of what they are allowed to read out aloud. Some religious texts, some schools have urged, should not be allowed to be read out by a child who is not of the right religion, because to do so would be sacrilegious.

I never thought for a moment that that would be an issue, let alone an example in the Government’s draft guidance to schools on how to ensure that they have adequate exemptions in place to avoid charges of religious discrimination. That is the sort of context in which religious education is currently provided.

My view—and I believe that there is sympathy for this view in my party, although our Front-Bench spokesman will also speak—is that religious education is important in terms of the teaching of comparative religion, and that its presence in the syllabus is necessary as religion is part of our culture and history. Just like history, geography, philosophy, belief studies and citizenship studies, it needs to be taught and taught well. Clearly, some variation is needed to ensure that children of a particular belief are taught about it. It would be bizarre for the content in a school that had lots of Muslims, or that was a Muslim faith school as it currently exists, to be related mainly to Christianity. The curriculum must ensure, however, that those of all beliefs and none are covered.

Were that part of the national curriculum or, as I would like, a minimum curriculum entitlement, there would be no need for a parental opt-out on religious education. Because that is not currently part of the national curriculum, however, there is a parental opt-out, and rightly so. For reasons that I have explained, I have never argued against that opt-out. Where that opt-out exists for parents, because of their human rights need for their wishes to be respected, it must also apply to young people who are old enough to decide for themselves, rather than it being imposed by parents or authority figures. After all, the House should be concerned about the radicalisation of some young people by older people, potentially including their parents, teaching them a brand of religion that they might want to resist. If young people cannot excuse themselves from rather directional teaching at school, we cannot even start the battle to ensure that they are immune from such proselytisation. After all, we do not allow political inculcation, which is a brand of belief inculcation, in our schools.

I hope that the Minister accepts that religious education should be just that—education, not instruction, inculcation or proselytisation. However, the very existence of opt-outs is due to the local variation that is allowed, and the fact that faith schools may include in their lessons materials such as instructional videos from a pro-life group, showing abortion in graphic terms. One school allowed just such a video to be shown recently. The young people at that Catholic sixth-form college objected to having to attend compulsory collective worship for long periods, and to receiving such education or instruction. When they rebelled and refused to attend, they were excluded
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by the head teacher, who felt strongly about the subject. In the end, the matter was settled in favour of the students, and I believe that the head teacher resigned. Young people need the statutory right to say that they do not want such instruction imposed on them.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but I hope that he does not want us to move towards excluding people from religious education, or from classes on comparative religion. In any sustainable, multicultural, multi-faith society, it is essential that all children are brought up with some understanding of the multiplicity of faiths, and of people with no faith.

Dr. Harris: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I thought that I had made the point that if education of that kind was included in the national curriculum, or if it formed part of a minimum curriculum entitlement subject that was clearly defined, agreed to and accepted, there would be no need for any opt-out. The risk that the hon. Gentleman runs is that the kind of education that he mentions is lost at the moment to those children whose parents withdraw them from religious education lessons. There is a good argument for including such information, which I agree is vital—I have said so twice—in a religious education and beliefs or citizenship curriculum, in which pupils could examine their responsibilities to others, and their own beliefs, or lack of them. That would be fair enough. I hope that that point is understood. However, because the system does not work like that, and because, in some cases, lesson content is not as balanced as the hon. Gentleman suggests it should be, there is a parental opt-out. The Joint Committee on Human Rights was firm in its view that, if an opt-out is deemed necessary for parents, it must also be available to young people who are competent.

To finish, I shall deal with the Government’s concession in the House of Lords, in response to a Liberal Democrat amendment tabled by Baroness Walmsley and supported by Members of all parties. After the subject was raised in Standing Committee, and following the report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the Government consulted the faith community on the issue, but very narrowly. It consulted only on collective worship, and only in respect of sixth-formers, rather than all those competent to decide. They did not ask about some of the other issues in the Joint Committee’s report—indeed, the consultation did not refer to the report—and they did not refer at all to the human rights issue at the heart of the subject.

After that consultation, the Government returned with a welcome but rather narrow amendment that allows sixth-form pupils to withdraw from collective worship. I shall pocket that concession, and I thank the Minister for it, but he should accept that one is either in breach of human rights or not; we cannot say, “Well, ensuring 25 per cent. of those rights is okay”. The concession left out the half of our amendment that dealt with religious education, as well as the issue of 15 or 16-year-olds who are not in the sixth form, but who know that they do not want to attend compulsory prayer—at least, not the compulsory prayer on offer.
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Those young people should have that right, even if their parents think that they—excuse my language—damn well should attend.

The Minister has to explain why he chose not to consult on the issue and why the consultation was so narrow, and he should respond to the point made by my noble Friend Baroness Walmsley, who said that the Government’s provisions might well open the door for a case to be brought under the Human Rights Act 1998. Why should the Government wait? What is their fear? It has been argued that it would be difficult for schools to decide what Gillick competence was, but that was not an argument against ensuring rights in respect of the provision of medical treatment. I have not heard that argument advanced—especially not by Liberal Democrat Members—in discussion of pupil choice, a subject on which we have a policy to ensure that pupils, after receiving advice, have more choice over their curriculum. Nor was that argument used on the subject of the rights of a child to be consulted; there was no worry about whether the child was not competent to feed into that consultation. It seems to the Joint Committee, and to other human rights authorities to which I have spoken, that that is not a problem; schools can make a decision when a child comes to them and gives good reasons for not wanting to attend religious education or collective worship.

My party has a long history of calling for collective worship not to be compulsory in school, but for schools to provide prayer rooms, so that people who wish to pray and worship may do so, whatever their religious belief—and young people have the right to express their religious belief. The converse of ensuring that worship is not compulsory is allowing young people, as a minimum, to opt out of what is organised for them. The Government are particularly vulnerable on the issue of collective worship.

I hope that the Minister understands where other hon. Members and I are coming from. This is not an attack on the proper teaching of religious education, or on freedom of religion—I believe that people should be able to pray in prayer rooms, outside lesson hours, at schools—but I hope that he will explain why he does not propose to take the Joint Committee’s advice on this important issue.

Jim Knight: The issues raised by the hon. Gentleman have already been debated in another place, as he said. The amendments would allow competent pupils to withdraw themselves from collective worship and religious education. They build on Lords amendment No. 46, which would allow sixth-form pupils in maintained schools to withdraw from attendance at the daily act of collective worship. In drafting the amendment, we took account of the views of the faith groups and other interested parties. We recognise that worship is an issue on which young people have views, and we believe that allowing sixth-form pupils to withdraw from worship is reasonable. The amendment will deal with the example that he gave of the dispute in the Catholic sixth-form college.

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