HC Deb 25 July 2000 vol 354 cc1063-84

Lords amendment to Commons amendment No. 180: in line 4, at beginning insert— ("In exercising any function which may affect the provision of sex education in maintained schools, every local education authority must have regard to the guidance issued by the Secretary of State under section 403(IA). (7) Except to the extent provided in subsection (6), ").

1.56 am
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the Lords amendment to Commons amendment No. 182.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Malcolm Wicks)

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment. I am pleased to say that we are now close to the end of our consideration of the Bill. I hope that the amendments will not detain the House for long tonight.

Hon. Members will recall that the amendments on sex education made in this House focused on protecting children from inappropriate materials, including those produced by health authorities. We have to consider two amendments to amendments agreed in this House. The first, to amendment No. 180, is a Government amendment that ensures that when local education authorities carry out any activity that may have a bearing on the provision of sex education, they must have regard to the Secretary of State's guidance on sex and relationship education.

The Government tabled that amendment in another place in response to amendments tabled by Baroness Young that would have provided that, if a local education authority gives training and advice to teachers or governors on the subject of sex education, it should have regard to the fact that marriage provides a strong foundation for stable relationships and is the most reliable framework for raising children. The Government believe that the amendment was unacceptably narrow and that it would be wrong to focus on marriage as a single issue in that way.

We recognised, however, that it was important to consider the role of LEAs. They play a key part in supporting schools; for example, by providing information, training and advice. We thought it right for LEAs to have regard to the principles set out in our guidance when performing that role, and had already sent copies of our sex and relationship guidance to every LEA to encourage them to do so.

Both in principle and to ensure the successful passage of the Bill, we believed it right to table an amendment to make it clear that LEAs must have regard to that guidance when carrying out activities that may affect sex education. The amendment does not change the existing provision that, of course, the key responsibility for sex and relationship education must remain with the head teacher and the governing body, and that the local authority has no duty in the policy or delivery of sex education.

The second Lords amendment, tabled by the Bishop of Blackburn, inserts an addition to amendment No. 182, passed in this House, to provide that the Secretary of State's guidance should secure that children learn the nature of marriage and its importance for family life and the bringing up of children. The amendment would preserve the remainder of Commons amendment No. 182, at the heart of which is the protection of children from inappropriate teaching and materials. It is consistent with our guidance, and with our personal, social and health education framework.

In the other place, the Opposition tabled an amendment to stipulate that the guidance must be designed to secure that pupils are taught that marriage provides a strong foundation for stable relationships and the most reliable framework for raising children. We believed that the amendment carried risks of stigmatisation for many children in schools.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Wicks

Not at the moment.

The Government therefore supported the Bishop of Blackburn's amendment, which, as I have said, is consistent with the Government's guidance and the PSHE framework, and resisted the Opposition amendment. The amendment was carried in another place and I encourage the House to support it. Our sex and relationship education guidance recognises the significance of stable relationships as well as marriage. It is thus rooted in the reality of life for many of our children. That reality was echoed by the Bishop of Blackburn when he introduced his amendment in another place.

Today, there has been much comment during the debate on the Local Government Bill. The Minister for Local Government and the Regions has set out our position on that measure. Recent events do not change the provisions in the Learning and Skills Bill or the guidance that the Secretary of State has issued. Nor do they diminish the serious responsibility behind our actions—to support heads and governors in delivering effective sex and relationship education.

Our guidance is clear: schools should consider the needs of all pupils when developing a policy on sex and relationship education. Teaching on such matters needs to be sensitive so as not to stigmatise children because of their home circumstances. As we have emphasised repeatedly, schools need to be able to deal with homophobic bullying.

In agreeing to these amendments, the House should wish the Bill well on its way to Royal Assent.

2 am

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead)

It is rather appropriate that we are discussing amendments on the Learning and Skills Bill immediately after the debate on the Local Government Bill. The measures have two aspects in common. They were both the subject of crushing defeats for the Government in another place. Valiant efforts were made by Baroness Young and Baroness Blatch on sex education provision in the Learning and Skills Bill, and by Baroness Blatch on the measure in general. Both Bills, and the amendments that we are discussing tonight, relate to the debate on section 28.

The Learning and Skills Bill, of course, relates to the reorganisation of post-16 education and training. It may be a pity, therefore, that, in its last gasp in the House, it is subject not to a debate on the threat to school sixth forms, which the Bill introduces; not to a debate about the changing of sixth form funding, which the Bill introduces; not to a debate about the abolition of training and enterprise councils and the relationship of business men to the Learning and Skills Council; not to a debate about the sudden introduction of city academies brought into the Bill at the last minute by the Government; and not to a debate about the introduction of Connexions, a scheme which means that not every young person will have careers guidance in the future.

Instead, the amendments that we have before us tonight relate to sex education. The fact that these amendments are before us tonight is entirely the fault of the Government and their obsession with the repeal of section 28, contrary to the commonsense views of the mainstream majority of people in this country—because the clause to which these amendments refer was inserted in the Bill as an attempt by the Government to achieve a compromise in another place, which would have enabled them to repeal section 28. It was nothing to do with the Government's views on marriage, or on sex education generally.

The clause and the amendments have everything to do with section 28. 1 accept that, in her closing remarks in the debate in another place on 18 July, the Minister, Baroness Blackstone, said with reference to the speech that had been made by Baroness Blatch: I was disappointed by her remarks. I thought she was being unduly cynical in her suggestion that the Government are bringing forward these amendments simply in order that Section 28 of the Local Government Act should be repealed. The Government are bringing forward these amendments because, unlike the previous government, they believe that it is right that pupils in our schools should get the best possible sex education"—[Official Report, House of Lords, 18 July 2000; Vol. 615, c. 871.].

Well, I must tell the House that the reality of the Government's position was, unfortunately for that Minister, given away this morning on Radio 4 by the Minister for Local Government and the Regions—who spoke in the previous debate—when she made it clear that the references to sex education and guidance in the Learning and Skills Bill had been introduced only as a compromise, with the specific intention of making it easier to repeal section 28, by making section 28 redundant and making any attempt to retain it perverse.

In that, of course, the Government failed, as a majority of their lordships chose to reflect the views of parents and others on that subject. However, in this entire debate we have seen the hypocrisy of the Government, and we have seen how very out of touch they are with the British people.

The debate so far on this clause and amendments has focused not only on the practical implementation of guidelines on sex education, but in particular on the extent to which the importance of marriage should be reflected in the guidance given, and should be set out on the face of the Bill.

This is an issue on which we see clearly how much the Government rely on spin rather than substance. When the review—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We cannot have these interventions, especially from the Front Bench.

Mrs. May

When the review of the national curriculum took place, and it was initially revealed that the Government did not intend even to refer to marriage in parts of the curriculum such as personal, social and health education and sex education, there was a public outcry. I dare say the Daily Mail had something to say about that—and that might have had something to do with the fact that the Government then responded, given that we know the Prime Minister's views on responding to the concerns raised by the Daily Mail—and the Secretary of State made soothing noises to the effect that of course the Government were going to reflect the importance of marriage and family life in the curriculum.

Indeed, anyone reading the publication issued by the Home Secretary entitled "Supporting Families" would have been forgiven for believing that the Government were indeed strong on family values. It says: This Government believes that marriage provides a strong foundation for stable relationships…we do share the belief of the majority of people that marriage provides the most reliable framework for raising children. It seems that the Government's views on the importance of marriage and of marriage as the most reliable framework for raising children were absolutely clear in that Home Office document.

As ever with this Government, the words that they produce in glossy brochures do not reflect the reality of their deeds. Those words do not appear in the amendments—indeed, attempts here and in another place to insert them were resisted by the Government. Their actions show that they are not interested in family values or in recognising marriage. Their words say one thing, their actions another.

Perhaps nobody told the Government that this could be a touchstone issue. The Prime Minister seems to recognise the importance of the family as a touchstone issue. The memorandum from "TB" dated 29 April 2000 and headed "Touchstone Issues" says: They are roughly combining "on your side" issues with toughness and standing up for Britain. They range from: the family—where partly due to MCA— the married couples allowance— and gay issues, we are perceived as weak…all of these things add up to a sense that the Government—and this even applies to me—are somehow out of touch with gut British instincts. The memorandum concludes: On the family, we need two or three eye-catching initiatives that are entirely conventional in terms of their attitude to the family. Despite the rubbish about gay couples, the adoption issue worked well. We need more. I should be personally associated with as much of this as possible. I do not know whether the Secretary of State or the Prime Minister would see sex education as an eye-catching initiative on the family, but if they did, they palpably failed in that regard.

The Government were not prepared even to repeat their own words about the importance of marriage and stable family relationships as the most reliable framework for raising children. Those were the Government's words, but they have not been prepared to bring them before the House in the form of amendments to the Bill to ensure that it reflects the views of people in this country.

The Minister said that that phrase was rejected because it stigmatised children. I suggest to him that he speak to the Home Secretary, because they were the words of this Government. They were set out in the document entitled "Supporting Families". [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), says that I should examine the context of that statement. It also refers to strong and mutually supportive families and relationships outside marriage. It is entirely right that it should refer to such relationships, but the hon. Lady should learn the meaning of the words that the Government wrote. They said: we do share the belief of the majority of people that marriage provides the most reliable framework for raising children. They do not refer to the only framework, or to the only reliable framework for raising children, but to the most reliable framework for raising children. The Government are now rejecting those words by saying that they stigmatise children. I suggest that Education Ministers talk to the Home Secretary, who wrote the words and gave the impression that the Government were interested in family life and the importance of marriage. Once again the spin, the glossy brochures and the headlines have not been reflected in the Government's actions.

The amendments relate to the guidance on sex education that the Secretary of State must issue. We have a number of concerns about those proposals. The first concerns the suggestion that the Secretary of State will issue guidance to which governing bodies and head teachers must merely have regard.

Ministers have again pretended that the measures will replace section 28 and that they have greater force than they really do. They require governing bodies and head teachers not to follow the guidance, but merely to look at it when drawing up their school's sex education policy. It is incumbent on Ministers, who are trying to pretend that the Bill will ensure that marriage and family life are being taught properly in sex education lessons, to show how that will be the case if people are required only to "have regard" to the guidance issued by the Secretary of State.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

For the avoidance of doubt, will my hon. Friend confirm that to have regard to the guidance is neither a direction nor a regulation?

Mrs. May

I am happy to confirm precisely that point. My hon. Friend has, perhaps, put it more succinctly than I have. Heads and governors are not required to take any particular action on the school's sex education curriculum. The Secretary of State may revise his guidance at any time, so we are not even confident that the guidance referred to in the Bill will remain in place.

I turn now to the amendment moved by the Bishop of Blackburn, which adds to the guidance provision the requirement that when children in maintained schools receive sex education, they learn the nature of marriage and its importance for family life and the bringing up of children… I knew that the Government were control freaks, but I was not aware that they were going to mandate children to learn certain things. One can mandate teachers to teach certain things, but ensuring that children learn them is an entirely separate matter.

There are flaws in the guidance provision that has been inserted into the Bill. The main flaws from the Government's point of view are that it does not replace section 28 and it does not do the job for which it was intended. It introduces some guidance to schools on sex education and the context in which it should be taught. It is a great pity—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ah."] I am so glad that Labour Members share my disappointment at the views of their Front-Bench colleagues. It is a great pity that, having for so many months tried to pretend that they are in favour of marriage, family life and family values, the Government, when challenged, were not prepared to have the courage of their convictions and insert a clause to that effect in the Bill. They rejected the words of their own Ministers about the importance of marriage.

Perhaps we should read some more leaked Government memos to find an explanation. [Interruption.] That woke them up. Perhaps each one is wondering whether the memo that they leaked will be quoted now.

2.15 am
Mr. Fabricant

Where is TB?

Mrs. May

Where indeed?

In his memo, Philip Gould—a name well known to Labour Members—cited the problems that the Government were having and said: The cost of all this has been high. We are outflanked on patriotism and crime; we have been assailed for spin and broken promises; we are not believed to have delivered; we are disliked on the Left for being Right-wing, on the Right for being politically correct. Labour Members did not need somebody like Philip Gould to tell them that. They could have found it out on any doorstep, while canvassing on any street, by asking people's views on the Government; it is reflected in any conversation that one has.

Mr. Gould went on to say: We have got our political strategy wrong…We quickly seem to have grown out of touch. Our Ministers simply do not seem as in touch as they were in Opposition…We need to be far simpler and more professional. We need to get back in touch. We need to reinvent the New Labour brand. One way in which the Government could have done so was through the marriage provision in the sex education amendments. Refusing to accept the amendments tabled by Baroness Young shows that they are completely out of touch with the attitudes of most people in this country—with mainstream and commonsensical views.

The Government have tried to portray themselves as a Government of family values. They have palpably failed to do so. They have tried to pretend that they believe in marriage, yet, when put to the test, they have refused to do what was necessary to put that belief into action. This Government are living by spin and spin alone. They have been shown to have no convictions, no principles, no values. Their action on this Bill shows that they do not believe in anything. They are living by spin, and by spin this Government will die.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

Like much of Second Reading, Report stage and Third Reading, very little of that 18-minute speech by the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) was about the substance of the Bill. I am sure that the House noticed, even at 17 minutes past 2, that children were hardly, if ever, mentioned. The entire emphasis of what we are supposed to have been debating for the past couple of hours rests on young people. Fifteen minutes of the nine and a half hours on Report and Third Reading was spent on the substance of the Bill—I am sure that the Minister would concur—yet the hon. Lady had the audacity to say that matters have not been conducted properly.

Conservative Governments—of whom the hon. Lady was not a member, although certainly many of her hon. Friends on the Front Bench were—had 18 years in which to put guidance on sex education on to the statute book. Apart from the national curriculum, in which there was some good advice, nothing appeared. It is sheer hypocrisy when the first thing said by the spokesperson—and the other members—of a party that says that it wants to free schools and give power back to head teachers and governors, giving them freedom over the curriculum, is that there must be statutory requirements to ensure that every school delivers a curriculum on sex education exactly as they think it should be.

I do not wish to hold the House up for long. The amendments, the guidance in the Bill and that which the Secretary of State has produced will not make a jot of difference in the vast majority of our schools. Their governors, heads and staff are already giving students the most appropriate and effective sex education and guidance.

My sadness tonight arises from the fact that the Minister for Local Government and the Regions did not, as she said on the "Today" programme, "get the balance right, " even though the Government truly wanted to get rid of section 28 and replace it with guidance that commanded a consensus among most Members of both Houses of Parliament.

As they go home tonight happy to have defeated the Government, especially on section 28, the hon. Member for Maidenhead and her right hon. and hon. Friends should reflect on the following account. I remember sitting beside the hospital bed in Leeds of a young man who had attempted suicide because, as a homosexual, he had not been able to get the support in school that he should have been able to get. I worry that such fear will persist in our schools and among our teachers. Conservative Members may feel that they have done a good job tonight, but I can assure them that they have not. In most schools, what they have done will make no difference, but for a small minority of our children, it might make all the difference.

The Liberal Democrats will not oppose the amendments, because we believe that the Bishop of Blackburn has got it just about right. There is no balance to be struck between family life versus something else. We should honour all children, whatever their circumstances, and we should make sure that we support every family that a young person lives in and is nurtured by. Remember the Conservative Government and the appalling debacle of the family lives of their Ministers—that shows the hypocrisy of what we have seen tonight.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

On the first anniversary of my taking the oath, I am glad to have just gone into the Lobby on the winning side for the first time.

I wish to comment on the amendment to clause 117 from the perspective of both children and parents. It is neither politically incorrect nor anachronistic to say that until children enter the world on their own, schools and learning institutions stand in loco parentis. There is a real connection between schools' and parents' responsibility to teach, and none of us should be ashamed that, as parents, we have that role. One of the things shared by all of us who have the privilege of being parents is a determination to give our children stakes in the ground—not least because in due course, our children will make their own decisions. They must not do so in the absence of principles that they can hold on to and standards that they have been taught by their parents and in schools and other learning institutions—I recognise that the Bill deals with post-16 education. We must give those who are charged with teaching children, including parents, the opportunity to ensure that children learn about the nature of marriage and its importance to family life.

Although the noble prelate the Bishop of Blackburn has negotiated a concession from the Government, I do not accept that it is a measure that the vast majority of parents in this country want for their children. They want their children to learn that marriage provides the most reliable framework in which to bring up children. As we attempt to pass good legislation, it is incumbent on us to ensure that we are not driven by a so-called politically correct agenda, but that we reflect in law a responsibility that parents want to have available to them. That is why it is critical that we ensure that children are taught about marriage, the value of marriage and its being the most reliable way in which children can be brought up—and that that is reflected in the Bill.

I regret that the Government have not gone far enough. It is a shame that they have decided that they must try to tilt the balance back towards a series of potential interest groups, without taking full cognisance of the power of what parents think and wish to see reflected in the Chamber as we consider appropriate legislation.

I was disappointed to hear the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) suggest that my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) had not mentioned children. If he had been listening to her, rather than seeking to ensure that his prepared comments fitted, he would have heard her mention children often. Children should be our central concern in this context. It was somewhat tendentious when he described a tragic attempted suicide as a result of someone's homosexuality. It should be remembered that children and young people who are heterosexual can also go through such traumas and tragedies. It is important that we do not try to draw false analogies from such cases for the sake of argument.

I find it difficult wholeheartedly to support the amendment, but, as far as it goes, it is much better than what went before. I wish that the amendment stated that marriage was the most reliable way in which to raise children. However, the amendment is as good as we shall get tonight.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

I am delighted to be able to take up the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien). During the short time that he has been a Member of this place he has added a great deal to our proceedings and has made a substantial contribution to the effectiveness of the Opposition when confronting the massed ranks of the Government—although some members of those ranks seem to have gone to bed now.

We are debating an important issue, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) on setting it out comprehensively and effectively. She rightly paid tribute to Baroness Blatch, who has done sterling work in opposition, and was also a fine Minister.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) attacked the Conservative party. He said that we Conservatives were in government for 18 years and had done nothing about this issue. We did do something about it when there was a problem. The problem arose when left-wing Labour councils were beginning to produce inappropriate teaching material. That is how section 28 came into being. We now have the new guidelines on sex education, which run to about 33 pages, because they are the quid pro quo with which the Government have sought to placate worried parents.

By saying that they would repeal section 28, the Government tried to appeal to another interest group and appease the minority lobby. However, to reassure middle class, middle Britain, they decided to introduce the guidelines to show that they care about family life and marriage. They want to have it all ways. They want to appeal to every interest group without nailing their colours to the mast.

2.30 am

The astonishing thing about the guidelines is that the Government are reluctant to back the institution of marriage as the most reliable foundation for bringing up children. It is monstrous that the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks), who is usually a courteous Minister, would not give way to me. He must answer the point that if the Government are not prepared to use the words of the Home Secretary in the document "Supporting Families", which was sent out to the nation as evidence of the Labour Government's concern for family life in Britain, they are not entitled to be taken seriously in their support for the institution of marriage and for inculcating in our children the idea that marriage forms the most reliable framework for raising children.

The Government have unquestionably betrayed the full force of the argument by not fully supporting the concept of marriage. In the guidance that has been issued, they bracket together marriage and stable family relationships. They yoke those two together because they do not want to offend or stigmatise those who are not married, for fear of losing their votes.

The House will be relieved to hear that I shall not rehearse the arguments that I advanced earlier in our discussions on the subject. I drew attention to the publication from the Office for National Statistics, which contained research findings showing that there was a clear increase in emotional disorder among young people from homes where the head of the household was a single parent or where the parents were cohabiting. The incidence of emotional disorder among those young people was up to three times higher than in households where the parents were married.

I do not believe that we as a nation should be morally neutral on the issue. We owe it to our children to give them a lead. It is a sad reflection on our times that we are even having the debate. In previous years, it was taken for granted by the nation that marriage formed the most reliable framework for raising children and a strong foundation for stable relationships. The debate illustrates that that is not so now. We can no longer take it for granted; indeed, the Government do not wish to take it for granted, so far has the family fallen into crisis in this country, as the Bishop of Southwark observed.

We cannot afford to be morally neutral. As adults, we owe it to our children not to run away from our responsibilities. We should set out in the clearest terms to them how we believe it is best for children to be brought up. That is the difference between the Opposition and the Government. We believe that emphasising marriage with a clarion call is the answer; they are afraid to do so because they fear that it will alienate some of their natural supporters.

Essentially, the argument centres on the two amendments, one proposed by my right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Young, which mirrors the amendment that I introduced in this place and contains the precise words used by the Home Secretary, and the other containing the words of the Bishop of Blackburn, which were designed as a compromise. Anyone can see that they are less robust than the words in the amendment proposed by my noble Friend. My noble Friend, who was defeated on the matter, welcomed the Bishop of Blackburn's amendment, as I do—but it is not as strong as it could be.

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South)

Given everything that we have been told tonight about the Churches' support for section 28, why does the hon. Gentleman think the Bishop of Blackburn introduced his amendment?

Mr. Howarth

I am coming to precisely that point. I was about to quote the Bishop of Blackburn, and the hon. Gentleman has kindly given me a trailer. In the House of Lords on 18 July, the bishop said: this Bench remains full square— I emphasise the words "full square"— about the importance of marriage. It has consistently done so and nothing that I have said in this House on any occasion during the passage of this legislation or the Local Government Bill can call that into question.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 18 July 2000; Vol. 615, c. 857.] I do not doubt that that is what the bishop believes, or that other bishops also believe that, but I cannot square that statement with the way in which the Bishop of Blackburn and eight other bishops voted down the amendment proposed by my noble Friend Baroness Young, which spelled out the central importance of marriage much more clearly than did that tabled by the Bishop of Blackburn. Why on earth did nine bishops of the Church of England—who, as the Bishop of Blackburn said, remain full square behind the importance of marriage—vote against an amendment that spelled out clearly and unambiguously how important marriage is?

Mr. Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd)

Tell us.

Mr. Howarth

The hon. Gentleman invites me to explain. Unfortunately, or fortunately, I do not sit on the Bishops Benches, but I have written to the Archbishop of Canterbury asking him to explain to Christians throughout Britain how on earth the Church of England can send out such a confusing message. By their votes, the bishops ensured that my noble Friend's amendment was defeated, so they have some accounting to do for the way in which they voted. After all, they are members of the other place. That is why I asked the Archbishop of Canterbury why they voted as they did.

The fact that the Bishops were not prepared to be as robust as their words would suggest that they intended to be, is a crisis for the Church of England, but I pay tribute to the Bishop of Winchester, who has been unambiguous on the matter throughout.

Whether we like it or not, family life in Britain is in crisis, and we in Parliament must do something about it. I fear that the Government have not been resolute; they have been infinitely too timid. They continually look over their shoulder, or stick their finger in their mouth and lift it up to the wind to find out which way the wind is blowing, or which focus group has sway at a particular time. They are more concerned about that than standing up for principles. As my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead says, the Government have no principles. They are motivated entirely by their consideration of how the focus groups tell them they should be behaving, instead of adopting a programme that is principled and clear.

The Bishop of Blackburn's amendment is an improvement on what we had before, but the mess that we are in is entirely of the Government's making. The amendment is the quid pro quo for the repeal of section 28. In so far as it goes some way to resolving the matter I welcome it, but I hope that when we return to government we shall be able to address the problem properly.

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who has fought long and hard on the issue, on another outstanding contribution to the debate. We are discussing an issue that affects the many, not the few.

I am sure that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, like me, noticed that, in the previous debate, a score of Labour Members leapt to their feet to make speeches on a minority issue. However, when it comes to a majority issue, such as marriage, which affects the majority of people in this country, not one Labour Back Bencher wants to make a contribution to the debate. The entire debate is being led by those of us on the Conservative Benches. That tells us all we need to know about the Government and the Labour party. The Government's agenda is driven by the few, not the many. We witnessed another example of that tonight.

Labour Members have bandied about the accusation of bigotry against anyone who dares to disagree with their point of view. That is an outrageous abuse of the courtesies of Parliament, let alone the truth and the facts. Let us remind ourselves of genuine bigotry. Bigotry is historically applied to major events such as the crusades, with Christians versus Muslims, the 30 years war between Protestants and Catholics, and racial and ethnic bigotry. We witnessed such bigotry in the last century in German attacks on the Jewish race. Those were serious cases of bigotry, which led to millions of people losing their lives.

What we heard about earlier constituted an abuse and a devaluation of the word bigotry. We were considering prejudice at worst. In the case of this evening's debate, we were considering mere differences of opinion. I have not met an hon. Member whom I regard as bigoted about gender politics.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there were homosexual victims of the Nazis, and that they were victims for no other reason than their sexuality?

Mr. St. Aubyn

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, but those victims were a tiny number in proportion to those who were affected by racial bigotry. We should keep the matter in a proper perspective.

Mr. Gordon Marsden

How many homosexuals would have to have died in the death camps for them to be significant?

Mr. St. Aubyn

The hon. Gentleman—whom I know well; I have known him for many years—is deliberately and mischievously misinterpreting my point. As I said earlier, the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) made a valid point. However, the thrust of my argument was that millions died as a result of ethnic and religious bigotry and that we should therefore keep matters in perspective. We are in danger of losing the thread of the amendment.

Mr. John Austin (Erith and Thamesmead)

How little bigotry is acceptable?

Mr. St. Aubyn

We have to use such terms carefully. Tonight's discussions have been about differences of opinion. When Labour Members dress those up as bigotry, they overplay their case and undermine any credibility that their argument might have had in the first place.

Several hon. Members


Mr. St. Aubyn

I should like to make some progress— [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. It would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman dealt more directly with the amendment that we are considering.

Mr. St. Aubyn

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You are right to call the House to order. We are considering sex education guidance. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) was incorrect to say that the previous Government ignored the issue. They not only spelt out in statutory terms the way in which local authorities should deal with homosexuality, but set out clear guidelines to schools in circular 5/94.

2.45 am

Many Conservative Members are reluctant to go beyond giving mere guidance to schools because we recognise that governors, teachers and parents show more common sense than politically motivated representatives of LEAs in dealing with those issues and many others that schools have to consider. I have reservations about issuing guidance that emanates from a Secretary of State and tells individual schools how to deal with a specific subject. Far too much direction comes out of the Department for Education and Employment: the more top-down direction of schools there is, the more demoralised teachers become. Since the Government came to power, we find that half the teachers in the profession are thinking of leaving in the next 10 years. That would critically undermine not only sex education in our schools, but all education and the development of standards, which was one of the previous Government's great triumphs.

Tonight's debates have clearly shown that a metropolitan attitude prevails on the Labour Benches and pervades ministerial offices. That attitude has no place in many schools, which do not want the Department to be able to produce guidance that would undermine their perspective on the relevant issues. We had no compunction about favouring the proposal that identified marriage as the most reliable framework for raising children. Do Labour Members challenge that statement? If so, they challenge the views of Labour Ministers. However, if we agree, should not we enshrine that principle in legislation?

Hon. Members spoke earlier about the effect of section 28 on homophobic bullying. I am grateful for the Government's draft guidance, which was out for consultation until mid-April and suggested how their proposed new guidance would look. Paragraph A.10 clearly states: Section 28 does not apply to schools and should not affect the delivery of sex and relationship education in schools. It does not affect the activities of school governors or of teachers. It does not prevent the objective discussion of homosexuality in the classroom, and schools can provide counselling, guidance, advice and support to pupils. None of that is prevented by section 28. The premise of the earlier debate on the subject was false and the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough described a false position. No doubt the tragic case to which he referred had many sad causes, but clearly section 28 was not one of them. According to the Government's own guidelines, that legislation cannot affect the delivery of such advice and education in an individual school.

I have been a member of the Education and Employment Select Committee for the past three years and I cannot remember a single witness describing section 28—or, indeed, the previous Government's guidance, which is to be updated—as an obstacle to a head teacher or any teacher preventing homophobic or other bullying in a school. Therefore, I was not surprised to learn in evidence given to the Committee only a couple of months ago by Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools that no head teacher has ever raised the issue with him either.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon mentioned scientific evidence in the earlier debate. I have studied the evidence to which he referred, but not in as much detail. Like much scientific evidence, it is no doubt professionally produced. However, it is not convincing. Anyone who can produce a good argument can usually find some scientific evidence to back it, but there may also be scientifically gathered evidence to refute it. Surely the experience of head teachers as expressed to the Office for Standards in Education, to hon. Members and to those who have served on the Education and Employment Select Committee is far more weighty evidence than a scientific study that was driven from the start by a desire to prove a particular point of view for whatever reasons—no doubt they were noble ones.

Dr. Harris


Mr. St. Aubyn

The hon. Gentleman wants to intervene to talk about that evidence, and I encourage him to do so.

Dr. Harris

Even the chief inspector admitted that his approach was hardly scientific, because during his inspections he did not ask any head teachers whether they reported this problem, whereas the research to which I referred asked people what their experience had been. The chief inspector produced no evidence to back up his view.

Mr. St. Aubyn

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for enabling me to emphasise my point. If one asks questions in a certain way, a certain response may be expected. That invalidates the opinion poll exercise even more than I had realised. If, with no hidden agenda, one talks to teachers and they do not raise the issue as a problem, in all seriousness it is probably not a genuine problem. That is where the argument against the Conservative position on this issue falls down. What we have heard this evening is moral bullying: Labour Members claim to take the moral high ground and then bully Opposition Members into accepting the measure by sheer force of numbers, even though they represent a small minority view within the population as a whole.

I have some problem with the argument that section 28 could not be effective because it is not possible to promote homosexuality. Again, the Government's guidelines, the consultation period on which has just finished, recognise that it is possible in sex education to promote some attitudes and some forms of behaviour rather than others. I welcome the idea that we should promote responsible behaviour by teenagers with a view to discouraging unwanted pregnancy. This country has a serious problem of far too many teenage pregnancies. If, as a result of this new guidance, we discourage teenagers from taking risks and following patterns of behaviour that result in unwanted pregnancies, we will have performed a service for them and improved their chances of having a successful life and establishing a stable family environment in which they can, in due course, bring up children and enable them to have a good education.

I should be grateful for the Minister's comments on the issue of human rights. I presume that because the guidance to schools has no statutory force, it is merely guidance and there would be no comeback if schools went outside the proposed framework, because no human rights issues are involved. However, our discussions have raised some of those issues.

We must consider the human rights not only of some of the groups whose position has been championed by Labour Members, but of parents, teachers and children. Children have the right to be given objective and fair instruction, and not to be exposed to a point of view and a relentless argument with which the vast majority of families do not agree.

This issue comes down to a matter of trust. From what we have seen, the Government have lost the trust of the people of this country on this important issue. In her winding-up speech on the previous Bill, the Minister for Local Government and the Regions said that she wanted the Government to get away from gesture politics. We all know that everything about the handling of this issue has been to do with that. It was entirely unnecessary to broach the issue of section 28, as is made clear in the Government's own guidelines. The fact that they did so showed that they were trying to appeal—with a gesture—to a specific part of what they saw as their core vote. As so often, not knowing what they believe in, they ended up showing that they believe in nothing at all.

We need to reconsider our whole approach to how we give guidance to schools. We need a more diverse schools system. Tonight we could be having a debate about how we could develop free schools; we could be having a debate about how the very minor concept of city academies, which the Government have floated in the Bill, could be expanded into a much more dynamic and diverse schools sector. Instead, we have been dealing with what is a very narrow amendment.

Let me explain something to the Minister for School Standards, who is clearly somewhat confused. It had not occurred to him that city academies were the thin end of the wedge of the full Conservative policy of free schools. Had we approved a much more fully fledged city-academies approach, the need for the amendment would have fallen by the wayside. Let us suppose that we developed genuinely free schools, genuinely rooted in their home communities—schools whose values and approaches were driven from the bottom up, rather than from the top down. It was, of course, the top-down approach of extreme Labour local education authorities that demanded the response of section 28 in the first place, 12 years ago. If we were to develop the bottom-up, grassroots approach to education—always under the overarching discipline of a national curriculum and a system of inspection by Ofsted—we could trust the common sense of the British people to deliver the right sort of education about sexual development for our children. We would not need guidelines.

When we achieve that, under the next Conservative Government, we can look forward to less regulation, less direction, and less interference in the daily lives and the very good job that nearly all teachers do in our schools today.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

I have no desire to detain the House unnecessarily, but I consider three points worthy of amplification.

As ever, my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) presented his arguments in primary colours. He gave us an unusual but stimulating view of Germany in the 1930s, and, warming to his theme, brought to the debate his usual eloquence and style, if not alacrity.

My first point is that this should not be a partisan matter. We have all brought certain prior assumptions—indeed, certain prejudices—to the debate: all of us, by the time we become Members of Parliament, have such prejudices. It is nonsensical, in a frail and faulty world, to pretend that people on this side of the Chamber are more prone to such prejudices than those on the other side. I think that those Labour Members who are examining their consciences will acknowledge that.

There is a second reason for us not to be unnecessarily partisan. Surely we can all reach an agreement about the value of marriage, which is well proven as the best means of bringing up children. Statistics and studies have been quoted. I refer Members to the work of Patricia Morgan at the Centre for Policy Studies, but many other studies show that children brought up in a marriage have the best life chances. It affects their education, their social development, and a number of other factors. Surely we can reach a common view about the desirability of promoting marriage in our schools.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

Notwithstanding the overwhelming evidence produced by report after report that marriage tends to be the most reliable framework for the raising of children—although that is not always the case—the Government refuse to accept that evidence wholeheartedly. They are doing so only very grudgingly.

3 am

Mr. Hayes

I take a slightly more generous view than my hon. Friend does of these things. I think that there are many decent and honourable Labour Members who would agree with our assumptions about marriage and with our conclusions that marriage is the best way of bringing up children. Although I certainly acknowledge that, sadly, that agreement does not seem to have been embodied in some of the Government's actions or embodied sufficiently in their approach to the Bill, I do not think that one could argue that the Minister, for example, does not take these matters seriously. He always takes seriously matters affecting our children and our schools.

There should be some consensus in the Chamber, not only about what we bring to this debate but about our conclusions on the value of marriage and its place in our society. I do not accept the received wisdom that Governments do not make a difference to the way in which society regards marriage. I think that Governments can affect that perception through the tax and benefit system and through a range of legislation. I certainly think that Governments can affect the way in which we bring up our children. Values and attitudes are as important as anything else that schools deliver to children. Values and attitudes are very much about moral assumptions, social assumptions, assumptions about relationships and, yes, assumptions and judgments about sexual activity.

I do not for one minute buy the moral relativism that is part of the agenda of some people on the left. As I said, I suspect that some Labour Members do not buy it either.

The second point that I wanted to make is about our concern for young people.

Mr. Willis

There is something in what the hon. Gentleman is saying. However, almost every objective study on social disadvantage and social exclusion among young people has concluded that such young people, particularly those who are involved in crime, feel bad about themselves—they have an appalling self-image. Given that the majority of young people in our inner-city schools come from homes in which there is not a traditional marriage relationship, what message does the hon. Gentleman think that he and his colleagues are sending to those young people? Are they not telling them, "The relationships and homes that you are living in are very much less valued"? How will that help to give those young people the confidence that they need to go out into the world?

Mr. Hayes

The hon. Gentleman will understand that the lack of self-worth that he has described is reinforced—indeed, it may be caused—by the lack of stability, certainty and order in those children's lives. The point about stable family relationships and marriage is that they provide order in children's lives and thereby increase their sense of belonging, stability and self-worth.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

The point that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) was urging on my hon. Friend amounts to nothing more than this: if someone comes from an unsatisfactory background, the last thing one should do is tell that person that that background is unsatisfactory because it will damage his or her feelings of self-worth. Surely it is only honest to show people what advantage they can have if, in future, for themselves, they improve on the background from which they suffered in their youth.

Mr. Hayes

My hon. Friend's point is valid in the sense that we do have to provide for young people role models and images of what they may aspire to. The message that we should want to transmit to our young people—through education, but in other ways as well—is that they can aspire to a life that is stable and certain and based on principles such as loyalty and duty. Loyalty and duty may be unfashionable concepts. When one talks about loyalty and duty, some people think that one is being archaic. However, they are important—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. I am beginning to think that the hon. Gentleman is straying far too far from the amendment, which is about sex education. May I suggest to him that he returns to the point of the amendment?

Mr. Hayes

I am happy to do so, Mr. Deputy Speaker. 1 was putting sex education in the context of marriage—stressing the importance of marriage—as the amendment is specifically about that subject, and emphasising why marriage was an important role model for young people, but I will move on.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting and putting on the record that concepts of duty and loyalty are possible only within marriage and not within a loving relationship between people who are not married?

Mr. Hayes

Of course I would not make that point. Of course, those concepts are not only possible, but often occur in other relationships. They occur in relationships that are outside the family. They occur in professional relationships. They occur in all sorts of relationships, but as you have made clear, Mr. Deputy Speaker, we are dealing specifically with the subject before us, and the subject before us is marriage in relation to children and sex education.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

Is it not the case that marriage is the ultimate test of loyalty and commitment? That is what distinguishes marriage from any other relationship. It is the Government's unwillingness to accept that there is a difference between co-habitation and stable relationships, as they would put it, and marriage that is at the heart of our complaint about the way in which the Government are handling the issue. Marriage is by definition a statement of loyalty. It is a statement of commitment, which co-habitation is not.

Mr. Hayes

I certainly believe that. In fact, I get married as often as I possibly can for exactly that reason, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right. Marriage is that test of commitment, that test of loyalty and duty. That is why it is important.

I must move on before interventions oblige me, or at least encourage me, to stray from the subject at hand. The third point that I want to make is about section 28. It seems to be undeniable that the cocktail that we have before us in the form of an amendment was mixed in order to pacify and placate interests in the House of Lords that were unsympathetic to the abolition of section 28. There is no question about that. That has been made clear during tonight's proceedings.

For that reason, I ask the Minister: would we have the amendment before us had it not been framed in that context? Would the amendment have been tabled on Third Reading in the Lords if we had not had the prevailing tide, if you like, of the possible abolition of section 28? In that sense, I ask the Minister to think again even at this late stage about whether he can put together something more convincing, not just for the House of Commons but for people beyond the House?

My final and concluding point is that guidance is not sufficient. It seems to be important, because of what I said earlier—[Interruption.] I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford, a former member of the Liberal party, who takes a rather different view. I made my decision about liberalism at an early age; he made his rather later.

I take the view that it is important for guidance to be issued. As I said, I do not take a morally relative view about the matter. I do not take the view that in a frail and faulty world one can always trust all people's discretion.

Mr. St. Aubyn

Does my hon. Friend not share my reservations that perhaps not this but a future Secretary of State might develop guidelines with which neither he nor I would be happy, and that the more these guidelines are entrenched in law, the more damage they might do if they end up being the wrong guidelines from the wrong Secretary of State?

Mr. Hayes

That is almost an argument against any legislation because we entrust in Government and, in particular, in Secretaries of State much discretion to bring to the House, to debate and to persuade the House to enact guidance on a whole range of things not just in the education sector, but in all other aspects of life, which we honour and follow.

Therefore, I do not take the rationalist view that if we leave people unfettered and unrestricted, they will always make the right judgment. I just do not agree philosophically with that view. On the contrary, I tend to support the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), who said clearly that the problem with guidance was that it might not be followed, and did not have the weight of regulation or direction. It might lead to a curate's egg of provision in schools across the country.

Mr. St. Aubyn

Is my hon. Friend saying that, given that we have only guidance which is not subject to the regulatory approvals process or the negative procedure in the House, perhaps the guidance should in all cases be scrutinised by the Select Committee on Education and Employment, to which he in his time made such a valuable contribution?

Mr. Hayes

I hardly deserve that praise, in view of the slightly barbed remarks that I made about my hon. Friend earlier, but, given his characteristic generosity, I expect nothing less from him. He is right to say that the Government would need to be accountable to the House for the guidance. We would need to monitor it carefully to ensure that it was efficacious. There is no question about that, and my hon. Friend yet again makes a valuable contribution to the debate.

I have made my concluding remarks—[Interruption.] I know that that will disappoint hon. Members across the House. I cannot finish without saying that I was disappointed that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) made an intemperate attack on my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead. He brings a great deal of breadth and depth of knowledge about education, but, too often, he lets his own prejudices interfere with that, and we saw that tonight. In the cold light of day, he will regret saying that my hon. Friend did not care about children or young people. None of us would be sitting here, or in my case standing here, tonight, if we did not care very dearly about young people, children and schools.

Mr. Wicks

Of all the Parliaments in all the world, only the House of Commons could in all seriousness at 12 minutes past 3 o'clock in the morning discuss the importance of marriage and family life. It proves that the English still maintain their dry sense of humour. It may well be that the next debate on ragwort, about which I have learned a lot in the past hour, is a more fitting subject. It may be that the ragwort is at its worst at this time in the morning, but we shall hear later.

Despite discussing them at this time of night when our families are asleep, family values are an extremely serious issue. I genuinely regret the way in which the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) introduced the subject. As I think we have seen from a number of speeches this evening, and from speeches in the other place, the matter deserves serious attention. We are talking about our children's well-being and their need for appropriate and sensitive sex education within the context of family and personal relationships. Those things are a crucial part of anyone's education. We are also concerned about the risks that our children face—ignorance about sex, stigmatisation, fear, disease and teenage pregnancy.

We have to grow up as a Parliament in discussing matters such as sex education. In Committee, we managed to have sensible and serious discussions. We did not agree with one another on everything and we occasionally divided, but the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) introduced subjects from the Conservative Benches in a serious way.

Many of us were struck by the contribution made by the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), when he said that as a parent—I hope that I paraphrase him accurately—his main concern was that nothing should get in the way of the provision of objective, thorough, sensible and professional sex education of children. He said that he wanted his children to receive factual, impartial and objective information about those matters, and for nothing to get in the way of its delivery. He spoke for many parents.

3.15 am

In all the controversy and furore over the issue—the debate has often not been about sex education but about matters that were discussed earlier this evening—the Government have sought a decent consensus. During the passage of the Bill, we listened on this and on other matters. We have amended the measure. We took seriously the Bishop of Blackburn's amendment. That is why the Bill states that children should learn about the nature of marriage…and its importance for family life and for the bringing up of children.

We acknowledge the importance of marriage. However, the guidance refers to stable relationships because we also understand that, in the complex family world in which young Britons live, many children are not able to be brought up—for the whole or indeed any of their childhood—within a stable, married couple relationship. Many of us may regret that. However, a third of children are born outside marriage. The parents of a large proportion of our children will divorce. Many children in families where their parents are married suffer if their parents are at war with one another—that point was not brought out in the debate; nor is it often acknowledged as evidence. Many children live in one-parent families or in step-families.

We can be consistent in saying that we need to teach our children about marriage, and in having a sensible understanding of the circumstances in which many of our children are brought up. Many of them are brought up outside marriage, but in perfectly stable relationships where parents are doing a wonderful job. Others have chaotic family circumstances and they suffer as a result. We need to bring some intelligence and sensitivity to bear on the matter.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Wicks

I give way to the hon. Gentleman. I apologise to him for not doing so at the beginning of the debate.

Mr. Howarth

I thank the Minister for his courtesy.

Why did the Home Secretary say that marriage provides a strong foundation for stable relationships and that it is the most reliable framework for raising children? Does the Minister agree with the Home Secretary, or has the Home Secretary got it wrong? Does he not speak for the Government?

Mr. Wicks

The Home Secretary got it absolutely right. Before I was a Member of this place, I was director of the Family Policy Studies Centre and paid some attention to such matters. The Government's family policy document was also right to recognise their diversity, complexity and sensitivity—as I have done, and more important, as our schools and teachers need to do.

We were asked how the guidance will be applied. First and foremost, we acknowledge and emphasise that in schools such matters are for head teachers and governors. We should place confidence in them. Our governing bodies are remarkable examples of local democracy. Parents and teachers elect governors—many of us will have been members of governing bodies. Those people have the welfare of children at heart. It will be for teachers and governors to apply our guidance. That is important.

We also emphasise that parents must be consulted on the school's policy on sex and relationship education. Furthermore, from this autumn, Ofsted will have a statutory responsibility to inspect personal, social and health education. That is another safeguard.

I hope that in the next Session we will learn to discuss such issues in a slightly more sensitive and intelligent way. Although people get excited about these matters because of the values and prejudices that we all hold, we need to enable our children to have proper education about sex, family life and personal relationships. If they do not receive that education, the risks that face them are extremely serious.

I commend the amendment to the House.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendment to Commons amendment No. 182 agreed to.

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