Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Whitty: In view of the fact that we face a rather difficult afternoon, it may be for the convenience to the House if I give at an early stage an indication of how the Government intend to respond in this debate to the proposals of the right reverend Prelate under this amendment, and perhaps reflect slightly forward into other debates we shall have this afternoon.

First, I thank the right reverend Prelate for raising these issues and indeed other noble Lords who have tabled amendments and who are genuinely trying to find a way out of what would otherwise be a very difficult situation. Also, I thank the right reverend Prelate for the manner in which he has proposed this first amendment. I would hope that the rational and

7 Feb 2000 : Column 400

unemotive tone--but nevertheless profound concern--with which he has expressed the amendment can be reflected throughout the rest of the afternoon.

I also agree with much of the substance of what the right reverend Prelate has said, and indeed with much of the substance of his amendment. Hitherto, we have taken the view, and still do, that one of the most important things, in order to remove the emotion from this debate, is to remove Section 28, which his amendment would achieve, and to provide a more balanced way of approaching sex education in schools. We have taken the general view that these are delicate, difficult and sensitive issues and therefore are best dealt with by guidance rather than trying to encapsulate all these matters on the face of the Bill.

As the right reverend Prelate said, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education is currently engaged in very detailed discussions with the Churches and other faiths on this issue. However, I realise that that guidance may not be quite sufficient to reassure people. Therefore I would hope that the right reverend Prelate and others who support his amendment would recognise that some further discussions are needed on this. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education stands ready to talk to the right reverend Prelate and other colleagues to take this further and to see what should be the balance between primary legislation and guidance in order to reassure people.

The central problem is that most of the concerns expressed relate to schools, whereas Section 28 does not really apply to schools. We are here debating this in a local government Bill context, whereas most of the issues relate to education. The issue of the repeal of Section 28 ought, logically, to be separate from the safeguards that are in place to ensure that children receive appropriate sex and relationships education in schools. Unfortunately they have become enmeshed in the whole of this debate. Therefore I sympathise fully with much of what the right reverend Prelate has said. I also have some sympathy with parts of other amendments which are tabled--particularly the amendment much later on in the names of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, and others. As I say, I am very grateful that these dimensions are on the agenda today, rather than being dealt with in the kind of polarised argument which has been foreseen in the press. I would therefore hope that, rather than press this amendment today, the right reverend Prelate will accept that we need to discuss this further. We hope that in those discussions before the Bill completes its passage through Parliament, we shall have reached an understanding as to what is appropriate for primary legislation and what is appropriate for guidance and perhaps secondary legislation.

7 Feb 2000 : Column 401

I reserve the right to reply at the end of this debate if other issues have been raised, but I thought it would be helpful to the House to see the way in which the Government are approaching not only this amendment, but the other amendments tabled today.

Lord Quirk: Perhaps I may quote from the speech made by the Prime Minister on 19th January. He was explaining the Government's position on this issue. He said it was,

    "not because we believe it right to promote homosexuality but because we believe it is right for school teachers and others to be able to explain to children properly the facts of life".--[Official Report, Commons, 19/1/00; col. 840.]

There, it seemed to me, spoke not only a wise Prime Minister, but a wise and caring parent who understands that the country teems, as the right reverend Prelate has said, with caring parents who greatly fear what may happen when clever, determined, committed and indeed well-resourced pressure groups take advantage of the obvious inference that, if something is declared to be no longer forbidden, it is by the same token plainly permitted.

This would put us in a worse position than before the section in question--worded ill-advisedly, in my view--was introduced in 1988. It was written in to forbid something which, so far as I was aware at that time, no one seriously believed was permissible; namely, the active promotion of homosexuality by publicly-funded bodies.

The Prime Minister says specifically that Her Majesty's Government do not want the promotion of homosexuality. And fortunately he is at one not only with those caring parents I mentioned, but with the homosexual organisation Stonewall itself. I was reassured this weekend to read its document dated February 2000, which is pretty recent, on this matter. I quote from page 2:

    "Indoctrination, whether it be political, religious or sexual, has no place in maintained schools ... No lesbian or gay man is advocating the promotion of homosexuality".

And thus, the document notes, and again I quote:

    "a prohibition on indoctrination is not in itself wrong".

So it should not be difficult to find a wide consensus around the right reverend Prelate's amendment, if indeed not one of the other amendments before us today which, as the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, has indicated, seek to avoid the inference--which those I have quoted agree should be avoided--that it would henceforth be permissible to promote homosexuality. We can surely satisfy the millions who already feel threatened, indeed betrayed, by some of the measure and proposals from Her Majesty's Government in the past couple of years.

Threatened, betrayed and indeed mystified. The health of the entire population, and of children in particular, is receiving welcome attention by government--as witness the forthcoming Food Standards Agency, the increased restriction on tobacco advertising, the work of the so-called drugs czar, and action to protect us all from CJD, salmonella and GM foods.

7 Feb 2000 : Column 402

Of course, in a free society we should all be free to take risks with any activity that is legal, from smoking to bunjee jumping. Smoking is a good example, because with smoking no one is left in any doubt as to what is dangerous and why, and as to what are the risks.

So it is a puzzle to me, and I think to many outside this House, that issues of sexual health and sexual education are seriously neglected. One only has to contemplate our remarkable figures, a European record in this particular sport at least, on teenage, and indeed pre-teenage, pregnancies to feel that there is something grievously amiss with our health education and perhaps to wonder why our sex education has become so solidly fixated upon AIDS. AIDS is a terrible threat in all conscience, but one which needs to be put in the context of a broader, more balanced and more fundamental tackling of sex education.

So I should have liked the right reverend Prelate's amendment to make some allusion to sexual health in this connection.

3.30 p.m.

Lord St John of Fawsley: I congratulate the right reverend Prelate on a most useful contribution to this debate and on changing the whole atmosphere of the debate--something which very few people can achieve. I congratulate him also on a Jesuitical manoeuvre by which he seems to have come at the head of the agenda from some place which was originally much lower down. But, in view of his contribution, I believe that I can say that in this case the ends have justified the means. I thank also the Minister for the positive and constructive reply which he has given to the right reverend Prelate and which perhaps opens the way forward for the majority in this House.

I am extremely sad to see that a Whip has been imposed on this matter in this Chamber. If this Chamber is to mean anything, it must be free to discuss matters without the pressure of Whips and political parties. We do not want to turn ourselves into another version of the other place. I expressed that view to our Chief Whip about a week or so ago and I look forward to receiving a reply. Perhaps he was foolish enough to commit it to the post.

All discussion on this matter has been bedevilled by a confusion between the concepts of law and morals. Morals and law are connected but they are distinct. That is a view I put forward in my book Law and Morals, published in 1968 and therefore out of print. However, I remind the noble Earl, Lord Longford, that he described it in a review as a "small masterpiece". I have no objection to the noun!

Before I look at the detail of the right reverend Prelate's amendment, perhaps I may make plain my own position on this issue. It has been the consistent position of the universal Christian Church that all sexual acts outside marriage are wrong. There is no difference in that regard between heterosexual and homosexual acts. I subscribe to that tradition and it certainly rules out such fantasies as homosexual marriages in church.

7 Feb 2000 : Column 403

It may seem harsh but that is the teaching of the Church. It is difficult because not everybody can, or desires to, live a celibate life. But those problems are best dealt with in the secrecy of the confessional or in private counselling and not in the glare of the public forum. I hope that whatever the result of this debate, it will not hinder those who are working in that field in bringing comfort to those who are in difficulty.

When one turns to the law, the position is quite different. There is no single Christian position on the law. There is no single Catholic position on the law. My noble friend the Duke of Norfolk has spoken out on that matter. He takes a mechanistic view of the natural law which I certainly do not share. To venture even higher, there is another, his eminence Cardinal Winning of Glasgow, who has spoken out in an unappetising way with which I certainly, as a Catholic, do not agree. I regret very much that the moderate voice of Cardinal Hume is no longer to be heard to guide us in these perplexing and difficult problems.

But there are two principles with regard to the law. First, we must recognise that the law can have only a limited effect, which is what the right reverend Prelate's amendment achieves. Certainly, it must have precision and clarity of language. On both those tests, Clause 28 fails and even the right reverend Prelate's amendment causes some doubts. Therefore, I very much welcome the thought of conversations going on between interested parties to achieve a more precise form of language. After all, what on earth does the phrase "building block" mean?

But there is all the difference between the teaching in a school of perverse sexual actions on an amoral basis and seeking in a school to help those who experience what is common enough in adolescence and at other ages; namely, a strong attraction to members of the same sex.

Those people need understanding and help and they need to be counselled. But what is important in any relationship is love and friendship, much more than sex. That is what teachers can do and that is what they are inhibited from doing by the present law. The evidence for that is overwhelming.

Therefore, I believe that this matter is not ideally regulated by law. It should be left to guidelines by local authorities, ministers, Churches and teachers. When I was Minister of State for Education, I had the heavy responsibility of dealing with the moral discipline of teachers. It was an extremely heavy burden indeed. There were not many cases but one felt the weight of the responsibility on one's shoulders. But it was extraordinarily rare that such cases arose. The vast majority of teachers are responsible, ethical men and women. They do not abuse their position, either personally or intellectually. Their concern is that all the children committed to their care shall have the right to a full and free development.

The Government are quite right to seek to get rid of this legislation in that respect. It is totally unnecessary. The right reverend Prelate has given us a lead which I certainly would be prepared to follow. My noble friend

7 Feb 2000 : Column 404

Lady Young has done so much to promote the cause of religion in this House. I supported her very strongly when she sought to insert into the education Bill a measure which provided that education should be mainly Christian. In the light of the right reverend Prelate's amendment, perhaps my noble friend Lady Young will agree to withdraw her amendment. Indeed, we might then be getting somewhere. Of course, I do not want to promote homosexuality in schools, or indeed anywhere else, but I want to promote tolerance, understanding and help for the young people concerned, just as I have consistently sought to support racial and religious equality and opportunity throughout my political life.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page