HC Deb 25 July 2000 vol 354 cc1034-62

Lords Reason:

The Lords disagree to Commons amendment No. 377 for the following Reason: Because the prohibition on the promotion of homosexuality contained in section 2A of the Local Government Act 1986, as amended by Clause 91 of the Bill, should remain in force.

Ms Armstrong

I beg to move, That this House does not insist on its amendment to which the Lords have disagreed.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to consider Lords amendments Nos. 27 to 29 and 39 to 41.

Ms Armstrong

The House may already know that, following events in the other place last night, the Government have decided not to seek to reintroduce in this Bill the repeal of section 28. I want to start by explaining the reasons for that decision and then to reflect on last night's events.

The House will know that the Bill contains many measures that are vital to the reform of local government. Part I contains new powers for councils to promote the well-being of their communities, and everyone has welcomed those. Parts II and III will replace council structures, give people real choice over how their communities should be governed and tighten up standards of conduct. The clauses on welfare services will improve the quality and diversity of support services to vulnerable people.

As important as the repeal of section 28 is—it is important and it remains important to the Government—we cannot afford to lose the hard work that the Government and Parliament have put into those parts of the Bill; nor can we afford to delay the benefits that they will bring to our communities, so we have decided, with extreme reluctance, not to seek to reintroduce the repeal in this Bill. Therefore, at this stage, for all the reasons that I have outlined, we will not ask the House to oppose the Lords proposals and insist on the Commons amendments.

The arguments in favour of retaining section 28 were never very strong. Much of the concern about the repeal was whipped up by sections of the media, fed by the opponents— [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The House must listen to the Minister.

Ms Armstrong

As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, my father used to sit in that Chair, and he always said, "No one should ever go into the Chamber having had a drink, because it always shows."

Much of the concern about the repeal was whipped up by sections of the media, fed by the opponents of repeal on a diet of exaggeration, misinformation and sensationalism.

We acknowledge that parents in particular are concerned that effective safeguards are in place to ensure that children and young people are taught in an appropriate and supportive way in schools. That is why we worked with the Churches and others to bring forward the comprehensive measures in the Learning and Skills Bill.

From last night's debate in the other place, we learned again of the difficulty that the unelected House has in passing any legislation that strengthens the rights of the gay and lesbian community. We learned again of the corrosive effect that misinformation and misrepresentation can have on public opinion, stirring up unnecessary fears and then playing those back as a reason to justify obduracy and intolerance.

Most importantly, we learned what lies behind the sentiments of the hard core of section 28 enthusiasts. The leaders of the campaign against repeal like to mask their views behind concerns for educating young children and protecting taxpayers' money. We have dealt with the first concern in the Learning and Skills Bill; the second never amounted to much. Why, therefore, do the enthusiasts continue to argue for the retention of section 28? 12 midnight

Every now and then, the mask slips. It slipped last night. Baroness Young said that, if section 28 was repealed, it will be legal to promote gay rights in citizenship lessons, which, I understand, are shortly to become compulsory.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 24 July 2000; Vol. 616, c. 102.] In other words, the champions of section 28 made it clear that it is not only the promotion of homosexuality—whatever that means—that causes them problems, but teaching children that minorities, like everyone else, have human rights and that they should be regarded as equal citizens.

We also heard about fears that bordered on paranoia—for example, that teachers might promote homosexuality through English and history lessons to get round the Government's guidelines. What does that reveal about the trust that section 28 enthusiasts place in our teachers, and in the parents and others who sit on governing bodies and control what is taught in our schools?

During the many debates that we have held on section 28, the Government have been accused of being obsessed with the issue. But who are the real obsessives? What sort of world do they think that we live in? What sort of education do they want our children to receive? We heard the answer last night.

Section 28 was born out of a climate of prejudice and discrimination. It was introduced by a Conservative Government who were intent on dividing our society. The defenders of section 28 want to perpetuate a society in which gay men and lesbians are regarded as second-class citizens with second-class rights; a society in which legitimate concerns for children and young people are replaced by irrationality, fear and intolerance; a society that creates the climate for homophobic bullying and other violent assaults on gays and lesbians. Those views unfortunately held sway last night. They must not be allowed to triumph.

Labour Members remain committed to the repeal of the unnecessary and divisive legislation. Legislation on children is clear; section 28 adds confusion, which led to problems in the past. We believe that the section must go.

Mr. Don Foster

The Minister said clearly that the Government believe that section 28 should be repealed as quickly as possible. What measures do the Government intend to introduce to ensure that that happens?

Ms Armstrong

We are committed to repealing section 28. I have discussed that with colleagues throughout the Government today. We will continue to consider the precise way in which we intend to repeal the legislation. We want to ensure that we get it through not only this House, but the House of Lords. We will, therefore, have to introduce the most appropriate measure, as soon as we are able, to ensure that we repeal the legislation and make it clear that we want both a tolerant and supportive society for all our citizens, and proper respect and protection for children at school.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

With respect, the Minister has not answered the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster). Members on both sides of the House who support her view want to know whether she can guarantee that the Government will repeal section 28 in the lifetime of this Parliament by any means other than insisting on the measure.

Ms Armstrong

Given the views of the House of Lords, which is blocking repeal, I am unable to give that assurance. The hon. Gentleman has been a Member long enough to know that, whatever we do about the House of Lords this side of the election, the procedures of this House do not allow any Minister to guarantee that the Government will get legislation through in any given period. We are not in a position to give such a guarantee and—unlike others, perhaps—I am not prepared to mislead the House in any way. However, the House must understand that we will find ways in which to repeal the legislation.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

I listened carefully to my right hon. Friend's reply to the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris). Can she say categorically whether the Government will introduce in the next Session, which will start in November, a Bill that will carry into law the Labour party manifesto commitment to repeal section 28?

Ms Armstrong

As I explained to the hon. Members for Bath (Mr. Foster) and for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), whatever we do—even if we introduce a simple Bill in the next Session—we will be unable to guarantee that it will get through both Houses and pass into law this side of the general election.

Mrs. Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale)

Constituents have written to me in confidence to express their heartfelt feelings—their desire for us to repeal the legislation. My right hon. Friend will be aware that they are vulnerable people and that we must represent them here. The last thing that they need is the door slamming in their face because of procedural matters relating to the House of Lords. Surely she agrees that it is our duty to find a procedure that will finally remove the legislation from the statute book. Section 28 must be repealed.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. The hon. Lady is making a speech, not an intervention.

Ms Armstrong

We are determined to find the most effective way to get legislation to repeal section 28 through both Houses and on to the statute book. It is our responsibility to find a means to do that that we know to be effective. As my hon. Friend says, we must not wind people up only to disappoint them, and we are considering ways to introduce effective measures to ensure that section 28 goes. I have made the Government's views absolutely clear to the House. Those views are shared across the Government and we want to find ways to repeal this pernicious and prejudicial legislation. We will do what we can to achieve that, but we must be effective.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

This is one of the most cowardly acts by the Government. They believe that it is far more important to save the provisions in the Bill that bully councils into accepting structures than it is to save a principle that the Minister has spent 15 minutes arguing for.

Ms Armstrong

The hon. Gentleman may well read his remarks tomorrow and think about them. He, as a council leader, and members of his council have urged on me the importance of the promotion of well-being and the duty of community planning contained in the Bill. His friends on the Local Government Association are determined that the Bill should go through. They want to ensure that we repeal section 28, and so do I. Sending the Bill back to the Lords would not achieve either the repeal of section 28 or the passage of the Bill.

Mr. Stephen Twigg (Enfield, Southgate)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will not be distracted by Conservative Members who want to uphold bigotry and prejudice—we have no doubt about that. I believe that the overwhelming majority of people on both sides of the House want to secure the repeal of section 28 at the earliest opportunity. Let us do that in a way that can be successful. From working with my right hon. Friend over the past three years, I have no doubt of her commitment and that of the Government to doing what the people on the Tory Benches do not want them to do.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg) that in the House we refer to each other as hon. Members.

Ms Armstrong

We have consistently worked with anyone who is interested in finding a way forward that reassures parents and repeals section 28, which has supported prejudice. We want to tackle intolerance and prejudice.

Mr. Corbyn

I thank the Minister for giving way a second time. She will recall the number of attempts that have been made ever since section 28 was introduced to get rid of it, and this is yet another. I want to hear from her exactly by what means the Government intend to introduce clear legislation with a chance of getting through before the end of this Parliament. Otherwise, people will feel that once again the whole issue has been fudged, and the criminalisation of young people will continue as a result of this legislation.

Ms Armstrong

I assure my right hon. and hon. Friends that we are determined to find the most effective way of getting rid of section 28. It is because I want to work with others in the House to ensure its repeal that I am not able to tell my hon. Friend the precise way of doing it. We must work effectively with all supporters of repeal. I am determined to do that, and will continue my efforts. By so doing, we will get rid of section 28 more quickly than we would if I made declaratory statements tonight that might not in the end deliver this objective as quickly and as effectively as we want.

Mr. Waterson

Some Ministers are capable of making a graceful retreat, but the Minister is not one of them. As she well knows, we support aspects of the Bill and tried to improve them in Committee. It is no good going on about the good things in the Bill and how they would be prejudiced by holding the line on section 28. The plain truth is that this proposal should never have been tacked on the end of the Bill in the first place.

12.15 am
Mr. Stephen Twigg

The hon. Gentleman has just told the House that the measure should not have been included in the Bill. In 1988, however, it was perfectly acceptable to implement the provision that we seek to repeal via a local government Bill. Was that an error on the part of the then Conservative Government?

Mr. Waterson

The hon. Gentleman will know, as he served on the Standing Committee—with some distinction, but in considerable silence—[Interruption.] Admittedly, he spoke more often than most. Anyway, as the hon. Gentleman will know, I have always suspected that the Government tacked this proposal on to the Bill simply to draw attention away from the major changes that they sought to make to local government.

The Minister's next point was that this had all been got up by the media, which had produced a storm of opposition across political parties and across the country, and had persuaded all major religious leaders to oppose the Government's plans. That is not convincing either. Almost as unconvincing was the Minister's blaming what she called the unelected House. According to the leader of her party in the House of Lords, that House now enjoys greater legitimacy as a result of the reforms. The Minister spoke of the chances of anything happening this side of an election to continue reform of the Lords. That is in the hands of the present Government, who have signally failed to do anything.

The Minister talks of "obsessives". Who are the real obsessives? I believe that they are sitting on the Government Benches tonight.

I will not get into the argument about homophobic bullying yet again, but—hopefully for the last time—let me make this point: bullying, whatever its cause or excuse, is wrong, and any teacher worth his or her salt should crack down on it ruthlessly.

There is an element of covering old ground in this debate, and I will not cover as much of it as I could. I will say, however, that it is the Government who have chosen to waste so much valuable legislative time on this issue. As I have said, the Minister referred to obsessives. The Government's actions reveal their obsession with the "PC" aspects of the proposal, and with the views of the chattering classes.

Ann Keen (Brentford and Isleworth)


Mrs. Fitzsimons


Mr. Waterson

I am spoilt for choice. I shall give way first to the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen).

Ann Keen

Can the hon. Gentleman explain the "obsessive" desire of Conservative Members and those in another place to disregard the strong advice of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Childline, Barnardos and all the other children's and young people's organisations? Why are they so obsessive about denying the evidence adduced by those bodies, and their recommendation that the evil situation brought about by section 28 should be ended by the repealing of that section? Why oh why do Conservative Members continue to ignore that advice?

Mr. Waterson

I am afraid the hon. Lady is plain wrong. Only the other day, in a written answer, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes), the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, pointed out that the NSPCC and Childline did not have corporate views on the issue. The hon. Lady should do her homework.

As I have said, it is the Government who have chosen to proceed on this course. It is they who have got themselves into their present position. Conservative Members believe that this is simply a smokescreen to draw attention away from the major parts of the Bill.

The Government suffered a crushing and well-deserved defeat in the Lords last night. It was a victory for common sense. As on other issues, it was the House of Lords which stood up for the British people against a patronising, out-of-touch Government run by and for a liberal elite.

Mrs. Fitzsimons

Would the hon. Gentleman care to put it on record that he agrees with, I think, the majority of people that homophobia is wrong, evil and pernicious? Does he agree that the problem is that the debate surrounding the issue has legitimised homophobia, and will he dissociate himself and his party from any such sentiments?

Mr. Waterson

With respect, I think that it is that sort of argument which has clouded the issues.

I feel sorry for the Minister, because she has been left to carry the can this evening. Not a single member of the Cabinet is present. [Interruption.] Here we are. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, right on cue, as befits the master of theatrics in our country, has appeared, but, apart from him, not a single member of the Government is on the Front Bench—not the Deputy Prime Minister, who leads the Department of the Minister for Local Government and the Regions, nor any other Minister.

The Prime Minister is rapidly backing off this piece of legislation.

Mr. Stephen Twigg

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Waterson

No, I will make some progress.

If we turn to the famous memo that was written by the Prime Minister himself, are we to presume that he no longer regards this as an eye-catching initiative with which he would want to be personally associated? To quote his memo: It is bizarre that any Government I lead should be seen as anti-family. If it is so important to the soul of the Labour party that the section be abolished or repealed, why was it not a pledge in the manifesto? At least the Liberal Democrats can claim that it was in their manifesto. They take some pride in that, even though, as I have said, it is unlikely to appear in their Focus leaflets in Eastbourne or anywhere else. [Interruption.] I should be happy to give way on that point.

There has been a sudden flood of guidance on the issue of sex education. We welcome those guidances as far as they go, but, in part, they are designed to get the Government off a hook of their own making.

Both Lord Whitty in the Lords yesterday and the Minister tonight seem to have been labouring under the misapprehension that it is all about protecting minority rights. They have that protection elsewhere in law. The provision has only ever been of a narrow effect. That was made clear by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), who was the Minister dealing with section 28. He said: I recognise that there may be a need for teachers to touch on the subject of homosexuality in the classroom. He went on to say: objective discussion of homosexuality in the classroom, in the way that I suggested a short time ago, would be perfectly proper, because it is not promotion of homosexuality.—[Official Report, 15 December 1987; Vol. 124, c. 1019.] That is borne out by the memorandum attached to that legislation.

Dr. Harris

As the hon. Gentleman is aware, section 28 states that it will not be permissible to teach the acceptability of homosexuality, which is clearly saying that homosexuality is unacceptable. How can that be an objective discussion of a sexuality which someone has not chosen but happens to be? How is it an objective discussion to deny someone the ability to teach that something is acceptable?

Mr. Waterson

That is not what the section says. We have had debates on that very subject and quoted teachers who said that they felt able under the legislation to discuss homosexuality with pupils on the general level, but also with specific pupils who had that particular issue to raise, so I do not think that there is anything in that point.

In passing, I commend Conservative councils such as Kent, which said that, if the measure passed, they would make their own local rules to have the same effect.

To answer the point made by the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mrs. Fitzsimons), section 28 has never been about prejudice, bigotry and intolerance. It has a limited but important impact. It is a guarantee to parents and to council tax payers that local authorities will not spend public money on promoting homosexuality in schools. That is how to cut through the verbiage and the posturing.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of all is that the Government have not learned the lesson of this pitiful debacle. They have still not seen the light. They have promised—although they will not tell us how—that they intend to return to the repeal of section 28 at some vague time. Frankly, instead of talking in those terms, they should apologise to parents, teachers and religious leaders throughout the country. They should apologise to the House and to the Lords for wasting so much precious legislative time on this metropolitan obsession. Above all, they should apologise to the British people for trying to foist this tawdry piece of political correctness on them.

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South)

It was not my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions—who has spoken so strongly and forcefully in this debate—who dropped this poisonous incubus into the Local Government Bill. Conservative Members and their supporters in the other place have whipped up the issue, making it the issue that it has become. No amount of posturing or crocodile tears, with statements that they are concerned about issues such as homophobic bullying, can disguise the fact that they have deliberately orchestrated and augmented the bigotry that has surrounded section 28. In 1986, when the Bill was first debated, Lord Willis described clause 28 as the first page of a "charter for bigots". A charter for bigots it was, and a charter for bigots it remains.

Conservative Members are pretending that the provision is nothing to do with bigotry and everything to do with protecting children and the rights of people in schools, but they have paid no attention whatsoever to the details of the Learning and Skills Bill or to the guidance that the Government have introduced, including the very wise amendments tabled in the other place by the Bishop of Blackburn. If Conservative Members had any honesty, they would admit that, bit by bit, any rationale for defending section 28 has been stripped away, both by the changes that the Government have made and by the way in which their opposition has been conducted, particularly in the other place.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) accuses hon. Members of being obsessive about the issue. How dare he say that? If it were an issue of protecting the position of black people in society, would he accuse us of being obsessive? If it were an issue of protecting the position of Jewish people in society, would he consider it obsessive? If it were a question of protecting the rights of women in society, would he consider it obsessive?

Mr. Stephen Twigg

Does my hon. Friend agree that, unfortunately, some of them would—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. If the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) is giving way, he should himself resume his seat.

Mr. Marsden

I give way.

Mr. Twigg

The point that I was seeking to make to my hon. Friend is that those of us who have listened to the debates on the Race Relations (Amendment) Bill will know that, sadly, some Opposition Members would consider concern with those issues to be obsessive.

Mr. Marsden

My hon. Friend may be right in that assessment, but I would exempt the vast majority of Opposition Members from it.

Mr. Twigg

What about the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth)?

Mr. Marsden

I am not looking at that hon. Gentleman.

The important issues that have to be addressed in our consideration of the Bill are protection, fundamental rights and public health. One of the dangers and detrimental effects of retaining section 28 is that it seriously hobbles the advice that local authorities are able to give. If Conservative Members, particularly the hon. Member for Eastbourne, are serious about not wishing to promote a climate of homophobia, they could do no better than go to Baroness Young and tell her to call off her dogs of war from the Christian Institute, whose members are going across the country fomenting difficulties.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Marsden

No, I will not give way.

Labor Members, like all people of sense and reason in this place, want to see the end of section 28 as soon as possible. We accept that that has to be done in a manner that does not allow the bigots in the other place a field day by going round this course again. One thing, however, is extremely important. I said that Members of the other place had dropped a poisonous incubus into the Bill. I stand by that. Baroness Hamwee said last night: I regard Section 28 as bad legislation. If it is not repealed today, what effect will that have? Reference has already been made to the certificate attached to the Bill. Will the Bill, when enacted, be incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights? Will it contravene our own Human Rights Act, which comes into force into October?—(Official Report, House of Lords, 24 July 2000; Vol. 616, c. 1181 Those were powerful and relevant comments. They will be taken on board and, whether or not section 28 is ruled null and void in the near future by action in this House, which is what many of us profoundly wish, my belief is that, one way or another, it will be consigned to the dustbin of history, where it so deservedly belongs. It will be so consigned not just because of the views of the British people on fairness and tolerance, but because it is bad law and it contravenes the Human Rights Act.

12.30 am
Mr. Don Foster

I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden), not least because in his closing remarks he referred to the words spoken in another place last night by Baroness Hamwee. She made the Liberal Democrat position clear. As the hon. Gentleman has just said, she put a number of questions to Lord Whitty about whether the Bill could be said to comply with the European convention on human rights if the content of section 28 were retained. The House should be aware that, in response to Baroness Hamwee, Lord Whitty made clear the Government's view that if section 28 continued to be part of the Bill, the legislation would not conform with the convention.

Although I do not agree with the position of the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) on this issue, I am delighted that he at least had the good grace to draw attention to the fact that the Liberal Democrats were the only political party that had the courage to include their commitment to repeal section 28 in their general election manifesto. Lest there be any doubt, let me say that the Liberal Democrats remain absolutely committed to the repeal of section 28.

I have enormous regard in many ways for the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), but he misled the House when he suggested that the Liberal Democrats had been involved in a deal on section 28. He is simply and absolutely incorrect on that issue. We have been and we continue to be implacably opposed to section 28. The Liberal Democrats will do everything possible to bring about the abolition of section 28 at the earliest possible opportunity. We recognise, of course, that the procedures both in this House and in another place will make that difficult. That gives credence to our view that it is a matter of urgency that we get on with the further repeal of the House of Lords as quickly as possible.

Dr. Harris


Mr. Foster

Yes. Perhaps that was an inadvertent slip, but it is one that I happen to believe in.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne accused the Minister of not being prepared to make a graceful retreat. I am delighted that the Minister is not making a graceful retreat on this issue.

Mr. Shaun Woodward (Witney)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, not least because he was referring to what was said by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), whose comments from the Conservative Front Bench traduced what the children's charities are saying. They are saying that the problem is real. To suggest that those involved in a charity such as Childline do not worry about the issue is a gross distortion of reality. The hon. Gentleman, his party and others who support the failure to repeal section 28 must bear that responsibility, and recognise that tonight, there are children who are not protected and who are suicidal and that, in the next year—[Interruption.]—some will die—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is not addressing the House—he is making an intervention.

Mr. Foster

None the less, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman says, because he draws our attention to a very real issue. It has been suggested, both in this House and in another place, that there is no evidence that section 28 has had any impact in causing homophobic bullying.

In reality, however, there is real evidence that section 28 has a direct impact on many young people. For example, many teachers—whether by design or through misunderstanding—have been put in a difficult position, or have chosen not to deal with homophobic bullying. There is clear evidence that such bullying has led not only to serious problems for individual children but, in at least one well documented case, to the loss of life. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to draw attention to that matter.

Section 28 was undoubtedly born of prejudice against gay and lesbian people. There are four reasons for Liberal Democrats' consistent opposition to it. First, we genuinely believe that the legislation is based on discrimination on the grounds of people's sexual orientation. Secondly, we are firmly of the view that the provision is redundant in respect of schools.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford)

About 45 seconds ago, the hon. Gentleman said that section 28 was the source of all sorts of evils. Now he says that it is irrelevant. He cannot hold both positions. He might hold one or the other, but not both.

Mr. Foster

The hon. Gentleman is wholly wrong— [Interruption.] If he wants an explanation, I shall give him one.

There is no doubt that the existence of section 28 on the statute book has led some teachers—rightly or wrongly, because of their interpretation of the legislation—not to take action in the face of observed homophobic bullying. There is evidence to back up that claim; it is a fact.

Dr. Julian Lewis

Name a school.

Mr. Foster

I have previously referred to the research carried out by my noble Friend Lord Tope, and I made it clear that my noble Friend is prepared to send details of that research to any right hon. or hon. Member who wants to study it.

The hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) made the accusation that I could not say that the provision was redundant. It is redundant. As hon. Members are well aware, in recent legislation the House has provided that decisions on sex education in schools should be made not by local education authorities but by the teachers, parents and governors of individual schools. The provision is thus redundant because it refers to activities that are assumed to be the responsibility of LEAs but in which they cannot, in fact, be involved.

Thirdly, section 28 is a meaningless piece of legislation for the simple reason that it is impossible to define the word "promote" in the phrase "promote homosexuality". Indeed, I would go so far as to say that it is not possible to promote homosexuality. Some people seem to suggest that that is of exactly the same order as, for example, promoting an interest in train-spotting—or even in joining the Conservative party. The two things are simply not the same, and it is simply not possible to promote homosexuality.

Fourthly and finally, as I said, I believe that section 28 has led to confusion in the minds of many teachers as to how to address the issue of homosexuality in our society.

I hope that it is absolutely clear to the House that we are implacably opposed to the continuation of section 28, and that we will work with all those, of whatever political party and of none, whose desire it is to see it abolished. Further, we wish that abolition to take place as quickly as possible.

The Minister has made it clear that the Government are anxious for section 28 to be abolished, but she has failed to tell us how quickly that is to be done, or by what mechanism. We shall work with her as long as it is absolutely clear that the Government's desire is to see the abolition of section 28 at the earliest possible opportunity—and I say to her that that can be achieved. It can be achieved by the introduction of a single clause Bill, even during the spillover period of this Parliament, at least to test the waters. It would be an example of good faith on the part of the Government, and show that they were prepared to work with those who, like us, oppose section 28, to see whether that would be an appropriate mechanism.

I very much hope that before this debate is out, we shall hear more from the Minister about a commitment to speed, and some indication of the procedure by which we shall achieve the end that I believe she and I share.

Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

I shall speak on the narrow point of strategy that has been discussed this evening. I was in local government for 25 years before I entered the House, and I know and understand the importance of the Bill to many of our colleagues in local government, and the powers that it can confer on local councillors to do good in our communities.

However, I was also in local government in 1987. I was chief executive of a local government organisation when the clause that eventually became section 28 appeared, and I was therefore an officer advising local authorities on its effects. To be frank, we know why it was brought forward—as part of a homophobic campaign, as other campaigns have been waged against other minority groups in advance of elections and for political gain.

Dr. Lewis

I think that the hon. Gentleman's memory is slightly at fault. I remember that the provision was brought forward in the light of publications like "Jenny lives with Eric and Martin", which were being put into schools, to the dismay of many parents.

Mr. McDonnell

There was an element of publicity surrounding publications like that, but I thought that the debate had moved forward from then, because in the discussions that took place about such publications, many of us learned many lessons. I believed that local government must come to terms with its powers and its relationship with schools as the education authority across a range of such matters. At that stage, I thought that we had moved forward. The first few years after 1987 were difficult, but after that there was an informed debate.

I genuinely thought that all political parties had moved on. I thought that we had all learned lessons about our relationship to minority groups, about mutual respect, and about how legislation should be used to protect, rather than undermine, human rights.

That is why I say, just on this narrow strategic or tactical point, that although I respect the need for the local government legislation, I also respect the role that the House should play in the protection and promotion of human rights. I pay tribute to Members, such my hon. Friends the Members for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) and for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg), who have worked hard to shape the legislation so that it satisfies all concerned.

12.45 am
Mr. Woodward

Last year, the shadow cabinet of the Conservative party thought that, as a matter of human rights, this issue was worth two minutes' discussion. It thought that the views of every children's charity, the National Union of Teachers and all those interested in the protection of children merited just two minutes' consideration. What does my hon. Friend think about that in the context of human rights?

Mr. McDonnell

I was hoping that when we debated this issue 13 years on from 1987, we would come at it with mature reflection about the implications for our communities—the minority and the majority—and that we would have learned lessons from what has happened. The Lords have thrown out every compromise that has been offered to them—in some cases, the compromises went too far—and sent us the message that section 28 should remain in force. If there is to be a constitutional battle between the elected House and the unelected House, let us have it on the issue of human rights.

As a matter of tactics, we should send the Bill back to the Lords. If we have to stay another couple of weeks to debate the issue and confront the unelected House on a key issue—[Interruption.] Hon. Members may laugh when I suggest that perhaps we should work for an additional fortnight. Most of my constituents will have at best two weeks' holiday this summer, so why do we not stay here to confront the House of Lords? Why do we not draw a line in the sand on this fundamental issue of human rights? On that basis, I give notice that I shall not vote to accept this part of the Bill. I will call a Division, because we should send the Bill back to the Lords to say clearly that we will not accept an unelected House undermining our promotion of human rights.

Mr. Gummer

The problem is that the Government have not convinced the majority of people of the sense of repealing section 28. I say that, even though I have a long record of taking what many would describe as a liberal view on this issue. However, in her representation of the debate in the other place, the Minister missed out some serious speeches and, in particular, that of the Bishop of Winchester, who cannot in any circumstances be referred to as a bigot. It does not help our discussion of the issue if both sides of the House merely shout "bigot" at each other.

We have to face up to the fact that the majority of people in Britain have not been convinced that it is sensible to allow the promotion of homosexual behaviour in schools. Every test of public opinion has shown that fact to be true. It is also true that, in the past, the House of Lords has shown itself to be more liberal than the House of Commons. The reform of the laws that made homosexual behaviour criminal was very much made possible by the House of Lords. Criticism of the other House in these circumstances seems to be unjust and historically inaccurate.

Are we taking seriously the debate that took place in the other place? Some people are bound to express themselves badly on such matters and others have a deep-seated antagonism to this particular minority. However, it does not help the debate to suggest that everybody who has doubts about the repeal of the section is in that category. I beg the right hon. Lady to take seriously the fact that people such as the Bishop of Winchester speak for the majority, and in a democracy she needs to convince the majority before she makes this change.

Ms Armstrong

The right hon. Gentleman said that we had failed to convince people on the question whether local authorities should promote homosexuality in schools. We have made it clear in the Learning and Skills Bill that local authorities have no role at all in the teaching of sex education in schools. There is a role for governors, in consultation with parents, to determine what is taught and how it is taught, and they must take account of guidance from the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. The right hon. Gentleman continues to push the point about section 28 when it is absolutely clear that the law does not relate to what he is speaking about.

Mr. Gummer

The right hon. Lady is missing the point, which is simply that the Government seek to repeal section 28 when it is clear that the majority of people in Britain do not support that. The House of Lords, in its decision, has echoed the voice of the majority. I merely say to the right hon. Lady that if she is to be credible in this matter, she needs to be able to show that she has the support of the majority, which she should be able to do if her case is as watertight as she makes out. What worried me about her opening remarks is that she simply spoke loudly about people who have genuinely sought to discuss the issue.

I want to put three simple points to the right hon. Lady. If section 28 does not mean anything, why has she tried to introduce this measure so often, with such obsessive pressure? If, on the other hand, it is meaningful, why is it wrong to say that society is tolerant but is not neutral on the matter because it does not want homosexual activity to be promoted? That is not a homophobic position; it is a perfectly reasonable position which happens to be shared by the majority of people in Britain. If the right hon. Lady does not think it reasonable, she must convince the majority of her position. She has not done so.

Thirdly, we may live in a secular society, but it is serious when the Government decide that they will ride roughshod over opposition from the Churches and other faith groups. Again, I recommend that the right hon. Lady read the speech by the Bishop of Winchester, who expressed the deep Christian view of the majority of churchgoers in this country, who should not be ignored or called bigoted. The right hon. Lady suggested that every one of those people was bigoted. That is a great pity, and I hope that she will withdraw the remark.

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak)

She did not say that.

Mr. Gummer

I hope that when the right hon. Lady reads Hansard, she will realise that it is at least reasonable to infer that from what she said. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I am trying to be as polite as possible; the right hon. Lady made it clear that she thought that everybody on the other side of the argument was bigoted. I am prepared to say that I may be mistaken, but she ought to read her words.

If the right hon. Lady maintains her view, will she explain to the House whether she wants homosexual behaviour to be promoted? Is that what she wants? If not, what is wrong with having a section that prohibits it? She has not answered that question because she has never faced up to it. I remind her that when I tried to get the Government to agree to insert specific words about the promotion of marriage, they turned down that amendment. Would not it be an odd world in which we were allowed, by the repeal of a measure, specifically to promote homosexuality, but not specifically to promote marriage?

Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter)

I do not want to rehearse the arguments all over again; they have been rehearsed quite enough times. Most Labour and Liberal Democrat Members, and even some Conservative Members who, sadly, do not have the courage of their convictions, share my depression.

I should, however, correct the false assertion of the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) and, I am sorry to say, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), about the position of the Churches. As far as I am aware, the only Church leader in the United Kingdom who has spoken clearly against the repeal of section 28 has been the Catholic Cardinal Winning in Scotland. The majority of the Church of England bishops in the House of Lords yesterday voted with the Government. [Interruption.] Conservative Members can check Hansard if they have the energy. I have it in front of me; the ratio of Church of England bishops who voted with the Government was about 6:2. So, please, no more of Conservative Members trying to claim that they talk on behalf of the Churches. The Churches are divided. Many decent Christians, such as myself and other Labour Members, believe that the legislation is pernicious and needs to go.

Is not the real issue facing us that, once again, the overwhelming will of the democratically elected House of Commons has been thwarted by an unelected House of Lords which is riddled with homophobia? Does my right hon. Friend the Minister agree—I hope that she will assure us in her winding-up speech—that the Government have a moral obligation to deal with the matter in a stand-alone Bill as soon as possible, to respect the House's overwhelming will?

I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell). I do not see what would be achieved by a ping-pong session between this House and the House of Lords all summer, giving Baroness Young more publicity for her homophobia and bigotry. That is the last thing that we and vulnerable young gay and lesbian people need. I beg him not to do what he said he would do.

May I point a way forward for my right hon. Friend and her fellow Ministers? Does not this problem show that the time has come to stop pussyfooting about extending human rights legislation? Is there now not an overwhelming case in Britain for a Government Bill or a manifesto commitment—I do not mind which—to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation wherever it occurs, to deal with the subject once and for all? Would that not also have the advantage of putting clear blue water between a Labour party that is committed to basic human rights for all and a Tory party that is mired in homophobia and hypocrisy?

Mr. Simon Thomas

The tone of some of the comments, particularly the sedentary ones, has been especially unpleasant and not made for healthy debate. As somebody on the Opposition Benches who has supported the Government throughout on the matter, I am disappointed that they have not been prepared to press forward and seen fit to take the Bill through both Houses again.

We have heard much from Conservatives Members, who are great traditionalists, about the will of the people, but if this House cannot express the will of the people, what is the point of it? As this House has many times made its view on repeal of section 28 very clear, surely the matter should be taken forward. It is a great pity that, for practical reasons at this stage in the Session, we cannot do so. It is also a pity that, more than anything, the section 28 issue has characterised the Bill. There are more important issues in it that the Lords and Conservative Members could have tackled.

The Government could have done one of two things when it came to section 28. They could have let it wither on the vine. It has already been superseded by the role of governors in sex education in schools. It would certainly have been superseded by European legislation on equality. In fact, we voted earlier on a motion on such draft regulations.

However, having chosen to open the debate, the Government must accept that they have triggered an upsurge of prejudice and fear. I have seen that fear during many difficult discussions in my constituency, especially with Christian groups. I believe that, for the most part, that fear is born, not out of prejudice, but out of ignorance of what section 28 is or is not achieving, and of the Government's intentions. With respect, I suggest that the Government left a gap at the start of the process, when it was not clear what the Bill would contain and many ordinary Members of Parliament had difficulty determining the path that the Government had plotted for us. There was a lack of leadership and the Government are reaping the consequences of that.

I urge the Government to show that leadership. From the Prime Minister down, they have made it clear that they want the repeal of section 28, and it is clear that they have the support of the majority of Members of Parliament. Therefore, there is the parliamentary will to achieve that end. It is incumbent on the Minister for Local Government and the Regions to state tonight how the Government intend to proceed. I understand that she cannot make any guarantees and I respect that, but Ministers have had time in the past 24 hours to consider the next step. Will that next step consist of a short, sharp Bill, or of amendments to other Bills?

The Government should make it a priority to cure a pain in our public policy that is thwarting sensible discussion of what should be taught in schools. Irrelevant though the issue is, it is distorting that debate. The Government should give a clear commitment tonight that they will sort the matter out, once and for all, that they will allow Parliament to sort it out, and that it will not be left to drag on for much longer.

1 am

Mr. Corbyn

I was a Member of Parliament in 1987, when the awful clause 28 was introduced. I remember the homophobic speeches that were made at the time, the prejudice displayed by the Government of the day, and the effect outside Parliament. Homophobic bullying was given easy passage, which resulted in the isolation and punishment of many young gay and lesbian people, who were left in terror. Ask anyone who works with organisations such as Childline about that period and what has happened since then, and they will say the same.

There is no division of opinion among Labour Members on whether we should get rid of section 28. The issue has been discussed for a long time within the Labour party and the broader community. Many of us have fought elections, and been elected, making a clear stand against section 28 and the homophobia goes with it. I am proud that my party has done that.

However, the issue tonight is essentially one of tactics. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) made a powerful speech in which he, rightly, pointed out that the European convention on human rights and our own human rights legislation will ensure that if the Bill is enacted in its current form, it will probably be outlawed at some point, because of the implicit ban on the promotion of homosexuality that it contains. My hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) said, rightly, that the issue has to be addressed and asked the Minister for Local Government and the Regions to state, specifically and clearly, how it will be dealt with. I asked my right hon. Friend for a similar assurance during her opening remarks, but I am sorry to say that I am not satisfied with her answer.

If the House of Lords rejects the Bill and we send it back and there is a ping-pong match between the two Houses, the Lords might, at some point, realise that the Commons is serious about the Bill, serious about human rights and serious about getting rid of section 28. If we do that now, that will be a clear and immediate response. I say with the greatest respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter that doing that will not give Lady Young massive publicity; instead, she will have been challenged immediately. However, if we delay, those who want to retain section 28 will have longer to campaign on the issue.

Coming back to a Bill in the spill-over period would be a good thing; coming back to a Bill in the next Session would be less good, but it would at least show a commitment. However, if we do not address the issue at all in this Parliament and return to it only in the next Parliament, we shall have negated our responsibility to get rid of section 28, which is an issue on which many of us were elected.

The way to deal with this issue is to say to the House of Lords, "Sorry, you are not correct on this. We are determined to get rid of the prejudice within our society, which has been encouraged by section 28."

Mr. Stephen Twigg

There is no doubt that the overwhelming majority of Members want to see the repeal of section 28. If we believed that by sending it back to the House of Lords tonight through the Bill we could achieve its repeal, we would do so. The judgment upon which my right hon. Friend the Minister has made her case tonight is that we shall not be able to bring about the repeal of the section by taking that course. Nothing that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) has said tonight has persuaded me that we can do so. Let us unite as people who want to repeal section 28 and get rid of it at the earliest opportunity.

Mr. Corbyn

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. We are united in wanting to get rid of section 28. We are discussing how we should do that. With great respect to my hon. Friend and the Minister, I have not heard anything tonight that suggests that delay will make it easier to get rid of the section. I suggest that, if anything, delay will make that slightly more difficult.

We were elected in May 1997 with a large majority. Issues such as this should have been dealt with immediately. If that approach had been taken, the repeal of the section would have been achieved more quickly than is likely now.

Mr. McDonnell

We are having a tactical discussion and trying to find a way forward. Does my hon. Friend agree that a simple commitment from those on the Government Front Bench, announced tonight, that a one-clause or simple Bill would be brought forward within weeks—in other words, in the spill-over session—would send a message to the Lords that we are serious?

Mr. Corbyn

If the Minister is able to help us with that, my hon. Friend's suggestion might take us some way forward. There is no reason why the Government could not prepare a short one-clause Bill now, publish it immediately, and show that we are determined to get rid of the obnoxious section 28 as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, my right hon. Friend has not encouraged me to believe that that is likely to happen.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

I understand the passion with which the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) expresses himself on this issue. In fairness, he should understand that others of a different persuasion feel equally passionately about it. This is the place where we try to resolve such difficulties. If the hon. Gentleman is looking for someone to blame, he should focus on the occupants of the Government Front Bench. As has been said repeatedly, the issue was not the subject of a Labour party manifesto commitment. The Government chose to tack it on to the Bill in the hope of sneaking it through Parliament.

I pay tribute to Baroness Young, who, by common consent, except among Labour Members perhaps, has fought a remarkably courageous campaign, with enormous fortitude and with enormous support from the people of Britain. It is widely recognised that last night, despite packing the other place with more cronies—another 30 since this issue was last debated there—the other place spoke for the people and parents of Britain.

It was not simply a Tory victory last night. Baroness Young would not have won had she not had the support of Labour peers, Cross-Bench peers, the bishops and the Muslim community. Those who are supporting the retention of section 28 constitute a broad coalition of the British people. Those who are in favour of its repeal are members of the Labour and Liberal parties. The issue is not about homophobia and it does not involve a tolerance of bullying. None of us on the Opposition Benches has any truck with bullying. That must be rooted out wherever it occurs in our schools.

The Government knew that they were losing ground on the issue. To placate some of the more reasonable members of the Cabinet, they produced the proposals for guidelines for sex education. They tried to do a deal with some of the bishops. They bought off some of them, but not all.

It is astonishing that the Government refused to accept an amendment which drew on the very words of the Home Secretary in the Government's own document "Supporting Families". If Labour Members have a complaint, it is about their own Government.

I can tell the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) that four bishops voted with my noble Friend last night and four voted against, but the former Archbishop of York perhaps gave the casting vote in support of those who were in favour of the retention of section 28.

Mr. Bradshaw


Mr. Howarth

As the hon. Gentleman would not give way to me, I will not give way to him.

Mr. Bradshaw

Name the bishops.

Mr. Howarth

The names are all in Hansard. The bishops who voted for retention were the Bishops of Bradford, Manchester, Rochester and Winchester. Those who voted against were the Bishops of Bristol, Oxford, Portsmouth and St. Albans. The hon. Gentleman can read that in Hansard, just as I did.

Another point made was that charities such as Childline, the NSPCC and Barnardos were in favour of the repeal of section 28. That is contradicted by an answer given by the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes), on 19 June at column 5W. She was asked what discussions had taken place with (a) Childline, (b) the NSPCC and (c) Barnardos about the repeal of section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988. She replied: The Government have had no discussions with Childline, the NSPCC or Barnardos about the repeal of section 28. I understand that the organisations do not hold official positions on the repeal.—[Official Report, 19 June 2000; Vol. 352, c. 5W.]

I shall not detain the House further, save to repeat that it was a coalition in their lordships' House last night which secured the protection of children, which parents throughout the country want. May I say to the Prime Minister that the campaign for repeal is an eye-catching initiative, with which he is personally associated, and he will be associated with that endeavour right up to and including the next election?

Mr. Woodward

I shall speak briefly as a trustee of Childline, as a former deputy chairman of Childline, and as someone who has been responsible for child protection. Childline has counselled 1 million children in the past 12 years. Whatever the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) may wish to say about Childline or however he may wish to traduce it and the other charities involved in child protection, it is a gross distortion of what the charities have said and the evidence that they have produced.

The truth is that children are not protected by the current law. Those Opposition Members who have no interest in listening to facts and no interest in listening to children's charities are wilfully damaging, not protecting, children in Britain today. Nobody in Britain wants the promotion of homosexuality. People in Britain want tolerance, fairness and understanding.

Mr. Howarth

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Woodward

I will not give way, and the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) knows well why I will not do so. Every time I have asked him to give way, he has petulantly refused to do so. I shall return the compliment. He cannot face criticism. His comments are based on ignorance, intolerance, prejudice and a failure to consult children's charities.

1.15 am

If Conservative Members had once done children's charities the courtesy of spending time with them, they would have learned—[Interruption.] Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen moan about this, but I have never seen a single Conservative Front-Bench spokesman at the offices of Childline. They have never consulted the children's charities. Why are they not interested? They had a two-minute discussion in shadow Cabinet in which they decided that it was so-called good family values—or short-term political opportunism—to ignore the evidence of every single children's charity and every single teacher who said that the section was a mistake. They do not care about the damage that they do. They do not care about the children who, in the next 12 months, will be suicidal and who will take their own lives.

Conservative Members will not listen, but if they care one jot about children, if they care one jot about a Sarah Payne—[Interruption.] Listen carefully. [Interruption.] Those of us who are involved in child protection know that unless one listens to the problems that are raised by the children and their families they become a serious matter, sometimes ending in death.

I can tell Conservative Members that there will be children who will telephone Childline or the Samaritans and talk of suicide and despair, and if the House chooses, out of prejudice, intolerance and short-term political gain, to ignore those children, it will fail our country in a way which is singularly irresponsible.

Dr. Harris

I have three points in refutation of some of the points made by Conservative Members. First, it is not the view of any medical organisation, psychological or psychiatric authority that homosexuality can be promoted. That is like saying that femaleness can be promoted. It cannot. Unless hon. Members have discovered some new developmental biological insight, or developmental psychological insight—

Dr. Julian Lewis

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Harris

I did not intervene on Conservative Members, so I shall not take interventions from them. Unless they can show such research, section 28 is founded on scientific nonsense.

Secondly, section 28 does not allow for young people to be told that homosexuality is acceptable as "a pretended family relationship". That means that young people should be told that homosexuality is unacceptable and that anyone who is homosexual and has any kind of family relationship is somehow unacceptable. That is what is unacceptable to those of us who believe that gay and lesbian people have a right to private family lives and to the freedoms and privileges that other British citizens rightly enjoy. That is why that part of section 28 is anathema.

Thirdly, Conservative Members have attempted to say that they care deeply about the problems of bullying, including homophobic bullying, while supporting section 28. There is clear research on the effect of section 28 on the mental health and freedoms of young people who are teased for being gay or lesbian or because they are felt to be gay or lesbian.

Research by the College of Ripon and York St. John presented this month at a conference of the British Psychological Society shows that a large proportion of lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils who are bullied by their classmates try to commit suicide, and that 17 per cent.—nearly one in five—display symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder in later life. The authors of the report clearly link that to section 28.

Dr. Rivers, one of the authors of the report, states: I would suggest that there are fewer guidelines to censure bullying when it's over the issue of sexuality. He believed that repealing section 28 would help. He said: Section 28 is a major stumbling block to discussing sexual orientation and homophobic bullying. The research evidence therefore suggests something that Conservative Members will not accept: section 28 helps homophobic bullying. They can ignore the scientific research, but they must recognise that they are doing so.

What about the decision that faces us tonight? I have a great deal of respect for the Minister for Local Government and the Regions and her commitment to repealing section 28. I also pay tribute to Labour Members who have spoken in favour of the Government's view. However, we must consider the current position. We are three years into the tenure of an all-powerful Labour Government, who have a huge majority and have defied the law repeatedly through illiberal measures on asylum seekers, the imposition of tuition fees—there was a great deal of ping-pong on that—the loss of the right to trial by jury, and the reduction in some disability benefits. They have fought and defeated the Lords on those issues, yet no progress has been made on repealing section 28.

Perhaps we are worse off than when we started because we have handed our opponents a victory, which will succour prejudice, give momentum to the view of those who oppose the human rights of lesbian and gay people, and kindle homophobia and the sort of hate crimes that we have witnessed in their severest form recently. Could the Government have taken action earlier to avoid our current position?

The Government must urge the repeal of section 28. They could have made it a manifesto commitment. A vote against the Government's position tonight will send a message to those in charge of manifestos that the House of Lords shows greater respect to Government manifesto commitments. If, like us, the Government had included their policy to repeal section 28 in their manifesto, we would probably not be in our current position.

The Government could have introduced the provision in their first Bill on local government. It would have been better to do it immediately and associate a popular Government with an important measure, which may not be populist according to the tabloid press. We would be further away from a general election and there would be less electoral leverage for the more intolerant parts of the media, and less of a chance for our opponents to whip up homophobia around election time.

The Government could have repealed section 28 in a House of Commons Bill, which would have allowed for the operation of the Parliament Act. I know that they were urged to do that. The Library report states clearly that if a House of Commons Bill had been introduced earlier in the Session, the Parliament Act—the cure for Lords obstinacy—could have been used.

It did not take a rocket scientist to realise that the House of Lords would oppose repealing section 28. It does not take much to realise that headlines in the newspapers—even The Guardian—which suggested that, if the Government lost, they would make the announcement that they made today, would improve the Lords' chances of defeating the measure. That happened on measures such as the reduction of the age of consent. The Government should give no clue to their future tactics because that aids our opponents.

Another option was proper reform of the House of Lords, ridding it of the hereditaries. Sixty-four hereditary peers voted against repealing section 28. That figure is far greater than the majority that was achieved in the House of Lords. If the Government had not conceded on hereditary peers, or if they had proceeded more quickly to fuller reform, we would not be in our current position. If the Government had secured a proper turnout of Labour peers the first time, and fewer than the 18 rebellions, through pressure that the Whips are more than capable of exerting, the provision would not have been lost in the House of Lords. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. There is far too much noise in the House. This important debate is of concern across the nation and the hon. Gentleman should be heard.

Dr. Harris

I pay tribute to Liberal Democrat peers who have twice voted to repeal the measure—the turnout was 100 per cent.—and to the Labour peers who spoke so eloquently.

There is another option. As other hon. Members have suggested, the Government could insist on getting their way and, although I respect the views of the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), that would not give Baroness Young further opportunities. Conceding defeat would give succour to our opponents. Baroness Young and her colleagues want the Government to concede defeat, but I could not abide giving them that victory tonight. If we insisted on the Lords reconsidering, that would send a signal from the Prime Minister that the matters referred to in the memo are of no consequence to Labour Members and Labour Ministers. I hope that an honourable Labour Government will not give way on human rights to the so-called family lobby; gay issues, as referred to in that memo, are a human rights matter.

We have lost again on a human rights issue. What signal does that send out from the Government? I am afraid that they have sent out other similar signals. With a few honourable exceptions, Labour Members voted against a proposal made from these Benches to ban discrimination in employment on the ground of sexual orientation, and for nearly three years after taking office, the Government continued to sack gay members of the armed forces even though they knew that they would have to stop doing so. They also voted against a proposal made from these Benches to allow pension sharing and voted to allow the extension of sentences for all hate crimes, not just racially motivated crimes.

The Government have apparently wavered on abolishing the offence of gross indecency and have in terms ruled out giving adoption rights to lesbians and gays. Also, we must ask, where is the age of consent Bill? It could have passed into law on 23 February had the Government business managers introduced it into the House of Lords earlier. If the Lords had accepted the Bill, it would have become law; under the Parliament Act, it would have become law had the Lords rejected it.

Mr. Bradshaw

That is an argument for supporting my suggestion to move forward with an overarching Bill to outlaw all discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation rather than for indulging the hon. Gentleman's pet scheme of playing ping-pong with the bigots in the House of Lords.

Dr. Harris

My hon. Friends and I would welcome an overarching Bill, but one has not been promised tonight. I invite the Minister to give such a promise, but, given the Government's record on some of these issues, she is unlikely to do so. I do not doubt the hon. Gentleman's personal commitment, but he should examine the voting records. It would be useful if he and others sent Ministers the message that they want more progress to be made on these matters.

There are other options. The hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) and I have invited the Minister to make specific suggestions. There could be a new Bill in the spillover period, though I fear that that might not work. At least she could offer such a Bill now. There could be a new Commons Bill in the next Session, which would offer the promise of using the Parliament Act. There could be an overarching equality Bill. The Government could show that the memo culture of worrying about gay issues does not apply to them. The Minister could at least guarantee that a pledge to repeal section 28 will appear in the next Labour manifesto. Can she give such a guarantee or say that that is her wish?

Unless we get a guarantee, all that tonight will represent is a victory for intolerance and prejudice, a failure of Government policy and a failure of Labour party policy. That will give aid to our enemies. Amendments such as that tabled by the Bishop of Blackburn, which were not the first preference of Members on these Benches, will have been accepted for nothing. No alternative has been offered by the Government and the atmosphere is one of suspicion.

I want the Minister to do what the opponents of this measure do not want her to do. They want her to continue with her line of offering nothing substantial except a vague commitment. We want her to offer a clear commitment.

1.30 am
Ms Armstrong

We have had a wide-ranging debate. Hon. Members on this side of the House and below the Gangway have made substantial points in support of the repeal of section 28. Those points have been made before, but are none the less very strong indeed. My hon. Friends the Members for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden), for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) and for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg) made strong speeches making it absolutely clear that, whatever the official legal position, young people who think that they are gay or lesbian have faced difficult consequences because of the way in which they have been treated at school.

Most Conservative Members have made it clear that they do not believe that homophobic bullying should go on in schools, and I am pleased that they have done so. However, they refuse to listen to any of the evidence that shows clearly that such bullying does occur and that section 28 is used—probably wrongly—to legitimise the reasons for not tackling the problem. Whatever their position in the House, those who want to see the end of such activity should take careful note of the clear evidence of many children's charities across the country, because the introduction of section 28 has had a negative effect. That may not have been the intention of some Conservative Members when they passed the legislation in 1988. However, that has none the less been the consequence.

It was interesting to listen to the meanderings of some Conservative Members. I remind them of what their party leader said in February 1999. He must wish that that was long enough ago for people to have forgotten what he said. He told his party that it must be seen as "open, inclusive and compassionate" as opposed to its past "elitist" image. The Tory party is now tearing up its proposal for a common-sense revolution. It has also torn up its commitment to openness, inclusiveness and compassion.

Many of my hon. Friends and some Opposition Members urged me to send the Bill back to the Lords. My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) made his position clear, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) and the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris). They do not understand the procedures of the Palace of Westminster. If we send the Bill back, we risk not only not repealing section 28, but the whole Bill. If we remove the Baroness Young clause and send the Bill back to the Lords, who vote on it and once again insert it, the Standing Orders and guide to proceedings of the House of Lords make it absolutely clear that if the Lords insist on their disagreement, without offering alternatives, the Bill is lost.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington said clearly that he respected the Bill and the issue of human rights embodied in the repeal of section 28. I share his respect for both those things. It is because we want the battle on human rights to constitute the dividing line between us and the Tories, between this House and the House of Lords, that I know there is simply no point in sending the Bill back in the way that he wishes. We could have no battle with the House of Lords: it could simply reaffirm its position and there would then be no opportunity for the House to consider or debate the Bill again. On that basis, I urge my hon. Friend to think again.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon gave us a litany of what the Government might now do, and all his suggestions are real possibilities. However, accepting those suggestions tonight without securing consensus across this House and with the House of Lords might not be the most effective way of ensuring that we get rid of section 28.

Those who know me well are aware that I am not in favour of gesture politics. [Interruption.] I said, "Those who know me well"; I do not think any Tories know me well. I am not in favour of gesture politics. I want actual repeal of section 28, and the extension of human rights in this country. I want to be part of making that a reality, and I believe that Liberal Democrats, Welsh nationalists and my hon. Friends share my determination. I want to work with them to find an effective way of guaranteeing the repeal of section 28.

We will repeal the section. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon said that we could do it this way and that way; he said that we could do it by putting something into the manifesto. We need to consider all the possibilities properly and to come up with a method that works, rather than one that just throws the issue up in the air. The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) attacked us for doing that.

We are determined to get rid of section 28, and determined to find the most effective way of doing so. The Government are committed to that; I believe that the House is committed to it; and I ask Members to support the Government.

Question put That this House does not insist on its amendment No. 377, to which the Lords have disagreed:—

The House divided: Ayes 381, Noes 36.

Division No. 292] [1.38 am
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N) Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Rushcliffe)
Ainger, Nick
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Clelland, David
Allen, Graham Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey
Amess, David Coaker, Vernon
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale) Coffey, Ms Ann
Arbuthnot, Rt Hon James Coleman, Iain
Armstrong, Rt Hon Ms Hilary Collins, Tim
Atherton, Ms Candy Colman, Tony
Atkins, Charlotte Connarty, Michael
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Cormack, Sir Patrick
Banks, Tony Corston, Jean
Barnes, Harry Cran, James
Bayley, Hugh Crausby, David
Begg, Miss Anne Cryer, John (Hornchurch)
Beggs, Roy Cummings, John
Benn, Hilary (Leeds C) Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)
Bennett, Andrew F Darvill, Keith
Bercow, John Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)
Beresford, Sir Paul Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice)
Bermingham, Gerald Davis, Rt Hon Terry (B'ham Hodge H)
Berry, Roger
Betts, Clive Dawson, Hilton
Blackman, Liz Day, Stephen
Blears, Ms Hazel Dean, Mrs Janet
Blizzard, Bob Denham, John
Blunt, Crispin Dobbin, Jim
Boateng, Rt Hon Paul Dobson, Rt Hon Frank
Borrow, David Donohoe, Brian H
Boswell, Tim Doran, Frank
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia Dowd, Jim
Bradley, Keith (Withington) Duncan Smith, Iain
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)
Bradshaw, Ben Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)
Brady, Graham Efford, Clive
Brazier, Julian Ellman, Mrs Louise
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Ennis, Jeff
Brown, Russell (Dumfries) Evans, Nigel
Browning, Mrs Angela Fabricant, Michael
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Fallon, Michael
Buck, Ms Karen Field, Rt Hon Frank
Burden, Richard Fisher, Mark
Burgon, Colin Fitzsimons. Mrs Lorna
Burns, Simon Flight, Howard
Butler, Mrs Christine Flint, Caroline
Butterfill, John Flynn, Paul
Caborn, Rt Hon Richard Forth, Rt Hon Eric
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings)
Cann, Jamie Foster, Michael J (Worcester)
Caplin, Ivor Fox, Dr Liam
Casale, Roger Fraser, Christopher
Cash, William Fyfe, Maria
Caton, Martin Gale, Roger
Cawsey, Ian Garnier, Edward
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S) George, Bruce (Walsall s)
Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet) Gerrard, Neil
Gibb, Nick
Chaytor, David Gibson, Dr Ian
Chisholm, Malcolm Gill, Christopher
Chope, Christopher Gillan, Mrs Cheryl
Clapham, Michael Gilroy, Mrs Linda
Clappison, James Godman, Dr Norman A
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields) Godsiff, Roger
Goggins, Paul
Clark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands) Golding, Mrs Llin
Gordon, Mrs Eileen
Clark, Paul (Gillingham) Gray, James
Green, Damian Lewis, Terry (Worsley)
Greenway, John Liddell, Rt Hon Mrs Helen
Grieve, Dominic Lidington, David
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E) Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S) Linton, Martin
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)
Grogan, John Lock, David
Gummer, Rt Hon John Loughton, Tim
Hain, Peter Love, Andrew
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale) Luff, Peter
Hall, Patrick (Bedford) Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Hamilton,Rt Hon sir Archie McAvoy, Thomas
Hammand,Philip McCabe, Steve
Harman, Rt Hon Ms Harriet McCafferty, Ms Chris
Hawkins, Nick Macdonald, Calum
Hayes, John MacGregor, Rt Hon John
Heal, Mrs Sylvia McGuire, Mrs Anne
Heald, Oliver McIntosh, Miss Anne
Healey, John McIsaac, Shona
Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David Mackinlay, Andrew
Henderson, Ivan (Harwich) Maclean, Rt Hon David
Hepburn, Stephen McLoughlin, Patrick
Heppell, John McNamara, Kevin
Hesford, Stephen MacShane, Denis
Hill, Keith Mactaggart, Fiona
Hodge, Ms Margaret McWalter, Tony
Hoey, Kate Madel, Sir David
Hope, Phil Mallaber, Judy
Hopkins, Kelvin Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Horam, John Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Howard, Rt Hon Michael Martlew, Eric
Howarth, Alan (Newport E) Maude, Rt Hon Francis
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot) Maxtor, John
Hoyle, Lindsay May, Mrs Theresa
Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford) Meacher, Rt Hon Michael
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) Meale, Alan
Humble, Mrs Joan Merron, Gillian
Hurst, Alan Michael, Rt Hon Alun
Hutton, John Miller, Andrew
Iddon, Dr Brian Moffatt, Laura
Illsley, Eric Moonie, Dr Lewis
Ingram, Rt Hon Adam Moran, Ms Margaret
Jack, Rt Hon Michael Morley, Elliot
Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead) Morris, Rt Hon Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Jamieson, David Moss, Malcolm
Jenkin, Bernard Mountford, Kali
Jenkins, Brian Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle) Naysmith, Dr Doug
Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield) Nicholls, Patrick
Norris, Dan
Jones, Rt Hon Barry (Alyn) O'Brien, Stephen (Eddisbury)
Jones, Helen (Warrington N) O'Hara, Eddie
Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak) Olner, Bill
Jones, Martyr (Clwyd S) Organ, Mrs Diana
Jowell, Rt Hon Ms Tessa Osborne, Ms Sandra
Keeble, Ms Sally Ottaway, Richard
Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth) Palmer, Dr Nick
Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree) Paterson, Owen
Key, Robert Pearson, Ian
Kidney, David Perham, Ms Linda
King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth) Pickthall, Colin
Kumar, Dr Ashok Pike, Peter L
Ladyman, Dr Stephen Plaskitt, James
Laing, Mrs Eleanor Pollard, Kerry
Lait, Mrs Jacqui Pond, Chris
Lansley, Andrew Pope, Greg
Laxton, Bob Portillo, Rt Hon Michael
Leigh, Edward Pound, Stephen
Lepper, David Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Leslie, Christopher Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Letwin, Oliver Prescott, Rt Hon John
Levitt, Tom Primarolo, Dawn
Lewis, Ivan (Bury S) Prior, David
Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E) Prosser, Gwyn
Purchase, Ken Spring, Richard
Quinn, Lawrie Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Randall, John Starkey, Dr Phyllis
Rapson, Syd Steen, Anthony
Raynsford, Nick Steinberg, Gerry
Reed, Andrew (Loughborough) Stevenson, George
Reid, Rt Hon Dr John (Hamilton N) Stewart, David (Inverness E)
Robathan, Andrew Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
Robertson, Laurence Stinchcombe, Paul
Roche, Mrs Barbara Stoate, Dr Howard
Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne) Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin
Rooker, Rt Hon Jeff Streeter, Gary
Rooney, Terry Stringer, Graham
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W) Sutcliffe, Gerry
Rowlands, Ted Swayne, Desmond
Roy, Frank Syms, Robert
Ruane, Chris Tapsell, Sir Peter
Ruddock, Joan Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Ruffley, David
Russell, Ms Christine (Chester) Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
St Aubyn, Nick Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Sarwar, Mohammad Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Savidge, Malcolm Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Sawford, Phil Taylor, Sir Teddy
Sayeed, Jonathan Temple-Morris, Peter
Sheerman, Barry Tipping, Paddy
Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk) Todd, Mark
Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E) Townend, John
Smith, Angela (Basildon) Tredinnick, David
Smith, Rt Hon Chris (Islington S) Trend, Michael
Smith, Miss Geraldine (Morecambe & Lunesdale) Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Smith, Jacqui (Redditch) Turner, Neil (Wigan)
Smith, John (Glamorgan) Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent) Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Soley, Clive Tyrie, Andrew
Southworth, Ms Helen Viggers, Peter
Spellar, John Vis, Dr Rudi
Spelman, Mrs Caroline Walley, Ms Joan
Spicer, Sir Michael Wareing, Robert N
Waterson, Nigel Wilson, Brian
Watts, David Winnick, David
Wells, Bowen Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Whitehead, Dr Alan Wood, Mike
Whitney, Sir Raymond Woodward, Shaun
Whittingdale, John Woolas, Phil
Wicks, Malcolm Worthington, Tony
Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W) Yeo, Tim
Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen) Tellers for the Ayes:
Williams, Mrs Betty (Conwy) Mr. Tony McNulty and
Wilshire, David Mr. Don Touhig.
Abbott, Ms Diane Hughes, Simon (Southwark N)
Allan, Richard Keetch, Paul
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Kirkwood, Archy
Ballard, Jackie McAllion, John
Beith, Rt Hon A J Moore, Michael
Brake, Tom Oaten, Mark
Brand, Dr Peter Öpik, Lembit
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Rendel, David
Burstow, Paul Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies (NE Fife) Stunell, Andrew
Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Corbyn, Jeremy Thomas, Simon (Ceredigion)
Cotter, Brian Tonge, Dr Jenny
Davey, Edward (Kingston) Tyler, Paul
Fearn, Ronnie Wallace, James
Foster, Don (Bath) Webb, Steve
George, Andrew (St Ives) Willis, Phil
Gidley, Sandra Tellers for the Noes:
Gorrie, Donald Mr. John McDonnell and
Harvey, Nick Dr. Evan Harris.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Subsequent Lords amendments and reasons agreed to.