HL Deb 03 February 2000 vol 609 cc347-50

3.28 p.m.

Lord Tope

asked Her Majesty's Government: What is their reaction to the comments in the press of the Chief Inspector of Schools, Mr Chris Woodhead, on the Government's intention to repeal Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, just in case it has escaped your Lordships' notice, there will be a full opportunity to debate the issue in detail during the Committee stage of the Local Government Bill on Monday. Chris Woodhead was speaking personally and he was technically correct in that Section 28 does not affect schools. This and the previous Government have repeatedly pointed out that that is the case and the message may be getting across to some schools.

Regrettably, however, there is ample testament from teachers, parents, pupils and social workers that Section 28 confuses and inhibits teachers and can prevent an effective response to serious problems. That is why we propose to proceed to repeal it.

Lord Tope

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for reminding us of Monday's opportunity. I believe that the words used by the chief inspector were to the effect that Section 28 has not had a negative influence on teachers' ability to tackle homophobic bullying. Would the Minister agree that there is ample evidence that it has had such a negative effect and is not the fact that the chief inspector is apparently unaware of that, a more serious indictment of his failure to create an atmosphere in which teachers and pupils can confide their real concerns to him?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord in that Chris Woodhead does not seem to reflect the view of teachers. Forty-four per cent of them felt that they had difficulty in meeting the needs of gay and lesbian pupils as a result of Section 28 and 28 per cent felt that the section may leave them open to legal proceedings. That is ample evidence of the need to alter this pernicious clause.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, many of my colleagues will be shocked by the way in which the Minister dismissed the comments of the Chief Inspector of Schools, who I believe has given excellent service to this and the previous Government. Has the Minister seen the marvellous exhibition upstairs which has been put together by my noble friend Lady Young? Does he agree that it contains materials which were depraving and corrupting, upon which public money had been spent and which was being peddled around to very young children in our schools and youth centres?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, many noble Lords will be aware of the exhibition and of the material that is being peddled around. That material has not been produced by or for the Department for Education and Employment, local education authorities or schools in most respects. Some of the material is sensible, good guidance to teachers, social workers and youth workers and I would very much approve of it. However, I should not want to see other parts of the material used in schools and youth clubs.

The guidance which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education is in the process of producing—he is doing so in consultation with a wide range of opinion, including the Churches and everyone involved in sex education—will soon be available. It is important to deal with these issues in a sensitive and detailed way and not attempt to do so by a few ambiguous and at times damaging lines in local government legislation, such as was tried by the previous administration.

Baroness Massey of Darwen

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the number of organisations set up by parents of gay young people because they are concerned about the bullying of their children? Furthermore, is he aware of a report published some years ago by a gay teenagers' group which describes the misery caused by bullying in schools?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, yes, I am aware of several parents' organisations which have brought the issue to the attention of Ministers and education authorities and of the wide range of reports from people who have suffered from homophobic bullying in schools. I am also aware of the report to which my noble friend referred and of the wide range of organisations which, as a result of their experience with young people, and in particular the abuse received by them, support the repeal of Section 28. I hope that on Monday the Committee will do the same.

Earl Russell

My Lords, does the Minister agree that Mr Woodhead's opinion of the effect of Section 28 must be contingent on his opinion of its meaning? Does he also agree that, as in 12 years no one has tested the meaning of the section in court, any opinion of its meaning must be conjectural and therefore personal?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, in my opening remarks I said that Chris Woodhead had spoken personally. One of the many defects of the section is that it is not clear and has never been tested by the courts. If it were so tested, it would not achieve any of the objectives which its original proponents sought from it.

What it has done is create an appalling atmosphere among teachers and social workers who believe that they cannot touch on some of the most difficult problems which people bring to them and that they cannot give them information, education and counselling. That the effect, not its legal effect, and it is therefore inappropriate for the face of primary legislation.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, may I ask the Minister an unemotive question? In the context of the repeal of Section 28, does he accept that the Act as it stands, without amendment, confers absolute discretion on a local authority to promote anything considered to be likely to improve social well-being?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, no, I do not believe it does in that absolute sense. I am pleased that the noble Lord attempted to take some of the emotion out of the debate and I, too, shall attempt to do so on Monday.

The position is not that if we remove Section 28 there will be a vacuum. If we remove Section 28, school governors and teachers who are responsible for sex education in schools will be subject to the very detailed guidance which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education is producing as well as the guidance which already exists from the Department of Health. That is the way to deal with this sensitive problem.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, will the guidance also cover local authorities?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, yes, the education aspect of the guidance will cover the education role of local authorities.

Baroness Thornton

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is even more surprising that Mr Woodhead can make such a statement when the 1997 report from the Institute of Education makes it clear that the existence of this legislation sends a confusing message to teachers and affects the lives of young people with whom they seek to work? I cannot believe that he is not aware of this report and its comments.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am aware of the report from the Institute of Education and believe it to be well founded on the experience of school teachers and head teachers. That is one of the main motivations behind our desire to see the repeal of the section and to provide a sensible, calm and caring context in which sexual relationships are advised on by school teachers, social workers and youth workers. The continuation of the section has a pernicious effect and we ought to remove it.