Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Rebecca Harris.)
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to raise the important issue of parental involvement in primary school pupils learning about the Equality Act, which was passed in 2010. The Act, which I welcomed, supported and voted for, has nine protected characteristics: age; disability; gender assignment; marriage and civil partnerships; pregnancy and maternity; race; religion or belief; sex; and sexual orientation. Accompanying the words of the Act is guidance, and the “Sex and Relationship Education Guidance 2000” is also referred to and relevant. In particular, paragraph 1.13 states:
“In the early primary school years, education about relationships needs to focus on friendship, bullying and the building of self-esteem.”
Paragraph 1.31 further states:
“Sexual orientation and what is taught in schools is an area of concern for some parents. Schools that liaise closely with parents when developing their sex and relationship education policy and programme should be able to reassure parents of the content of the programme and the context in which it will be presented.”
The Children and Social Work Act 2017, which I supported and voted for, puts relationships and sex education on a statutory footing and requires all primary schools to teach age-appropriate relationship education.
I recently read a post that said:
“It’s not about homosexuality, heterosexuality or transsexuality—stop promoting sexuality to our children full stop. Let kids be kids.”
We need to protect the innocence of our children at all costs, and I believe that this is not only a parent’s right but their duty and their job. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that to prevent that by enforcing teaching against the will of a parent is not acceptable in any way, shape or form?
I will deal with that later.
The relationships and sex education set out in the Children and Social Work Act does not come in until September 2020, although primary schools can introduce it a year earlier. There was also draft guidance on how the Act should be implemented, and I supported and voted for the statutory instrument associated with that guidance. This legislation builds on the provisions of the Equality Act and, although it has relevance, as I shall explain later, it is the Equality Act and the nine protected characteristics that I shall be talking about today, not least because that is quoted by the headteacher of the school in my constituency where the controversy has arisen.
The Equality Act does not require primary schools to actively teach the nine characteristics. According to the guidance accompanying the Act,
“schools are free to include a full range of issues, ideas and materials in their syllabus, and to expose pupils to thoughts and ideas of all kinds, however challenging or controversial, without fear of legal challenge based on a protected characteristic.”
I support and welcome the guidance, but therein lies a problem. In Birmingham, there are 258 primary schools. Thirty-nine are in my constituency. Some are local authority-maintained, others are part of academy chains, but that is pretty irrelevant in the context of this debate. In many of the 256—not 258—schools, headteachers introduce pupils to what is in the Equality Act in ways that they believe meet the requirements of the guidance. Recognising that some of the nine characteristics may pose challenges for communities who have more conservative social attitudes, and taking into account the demographic composition of their own school, they have chosen to engage with their parents to explain the nine characteristics. They hold workshops about the individual characteristics and ongoing consultations with parents, showing them the type of materials that the school proposes to use, and they engage with parents about what age is most appropriate for the various characteristics to be introduced to pupils.
That seems eminently sensible to me, and it seems to be in line with references in the Children and Social Work Act and the draft guidance, which refers to “age appropriateness” in the context of religious background and the need for ongoing consultations. I unreservedly support and applaud those 256 headteachers, and parents are overwhelmingly supportive because there has been no appreciable backlash by parents at those schools.
At two schools, however, there has been a major reaction among parents that has become increasingly bitter and polarised. One of the schools is in my constituency, and the other is in an adjoining constituency represented by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood).
What does the hon. Gentleman think has caused the crisis at this moment, given what he said about other schools where this has not been an issue? I would suggest that it is due to at least two individuals of whom I am aware, who have been whipping this up, creating a myth and creating fear. This issue has never been raised by any of my schools or constituents. I represent a diverse constituency, as he does, yet both the individuals involved in the Birmingham process have recently arrived in Cardiff, and I suddenly began to receive emails referring to the English education system, rather than the Welsh. Does he think that that is a coincidence, and why it has become an issue now, but not in areas in the rest of the country that are equally diverse?
I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. I cannot give him an answer because I can only refer to what is happening in Birmingham. I shall continue to refer to that.
In a Westminster Hall debate on 25 February, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood referred to the fact that parents were complaining that there had been no consultation whatever about how the nine protected characteristics were being imparted to children and that children, some as young as four or five, were telling parents about what they allegedly had been taught in lessons. That caused the parents considerable concern. At the school in my constituency, a similar situation occurred. There was no consultation with parents. The headteacher made it plain that no consultation was going to take place and no collective meetings with parents were held. She said that she or her deputy would meet individual parents on a “one-to-one” basis to listen to their concerns, but when such meetings took place the same answer was always given—namely, that the school was only carrying out the Equality Act.
I have already given way on a couple of occasions. [Interruption.] Well, the hon. Member will have plenty of time to make a speech, because this debate could go on until 7 o’clock.
Understandably, some parents were unhappy with the response and felt that the school had no regard for their concerns.
I have made it clear that I am not giving way.
The parents therefore had their own meeting and, after asking the brother of one parent who is in the property business and is well educated and articulate, to be the co-ordinator, they began their protests, on which I will touch in a minute. The common theme that links these two schools is that parents at both schools were neither consulted nor involved in how the nine protected characteristics were to be imparted to children. Parents were excluded entirely from the process, although the Equality Act is not an exam subject, for example, like English or mathematics.
All schools call regular meetings of parents when they want to inform them about important issues. It is part and parcel of school life for regular meetings to take place with parents, but no meetings with parents were held at the two schools.
I will not.
The question that those who have sought to characterise the disputes at both schools as a clash of cultures should be asking is, what have the headteachers and their staff at 256 primary schools got right with the support of their parents, while in two schools it seems to have gone very wrong? I turn briefly to the protests outside the school in my constituency.
No, I will not.
The school is in an area with a very large Muslim population. Nearly all the children who attend are from Muslim families. When the protests began outside the school in my constituency I did not take sides or make public comment. I took the view that parents of young children do not protest against their child’s school unless they have some grievance. Parents protest against many things, including the Government and the local council, but to protest against their child’s school is rare, and there has to be some particular reason for it.
I went and saw the headteacher. I asked questions and put suggestions to her. I have deliberately not put her responses in the public domain, because I believe that if I had done so it would have inflamed the situation, but I did tell the leader of the council what they were. Three officials from the Department for Education were present, and they took detailed notes, which presumably were conveyed to the Minister. I have known the headteacher for a number of years, and I respect her academic achievements at the school, which follow the excellent work initiated by the previous head, Anne Bufton, at the school. Before leaving the meeting with the headteacher, I did say that if she or her staff felt threatened by the protests outside the school then she should apply for a restraint injunction to get them moved elsewhere, and I explained to her the procedure for doing that. No such injunction was sought until more than a month later.
I then invited, through my Muslim assistant, the leaders of the protest to come and see me at my house. I was shown copies of letters written to the headteacher expressing their concerns, which were not replied to. I saw statements from parents saying that the headteacher would not have a parents meeting, but would talk to parents only on a one-to-one basis. I saw statements saying that, when such meetings took place, the individual parents were told that what the school was doing was the Equality Act. I saw letters and statements that, time and again, emphasised that the protesters—mostly young mothers—were not seeking to undermine the Equality Act, not least because it protected Muslims from Islamophobic criticism, and that all they were asking for was meaningful consultation about what was the appropriate age for the nine protected characteristics to be introduced to their children. They told me that they had ongoing contact with the appropriate police superintendent every day a protest was organised. They told him when the protest would start and finish, and they always asked for the police to be present to ensure that no laws were broken by the demonstrators.
I thank hon. Friend so much for giving way. I spent a couple of hours with the headteachers of the schools. Does he agree, while he is talking about the demonstrations, that the probable reason why the headteacher did not have a public meeting was that, in those public arenas she has been called a paedophile and worse?
There are 256 primary schools throughout Birmingham, as I said, where meetings take place all the time between parents and teachers. I do not accept the argument that there could not be parents meetings at the other two schools in Birmingham. If the headteacher or any other teachers felt that such a meeting could develop an unpleasant atmosphere, all they had to do was ask the police to be present. They would gladly have been present. Otherwise, they could have asked for local councillors and the MPs to be present, but no such things happened.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I have given way a lot, but I will in a moment.
After each demonstration, the parents had email correspondence with the police superintendent to seek written confirmation that the police were satisfied with the way the protest had been conducted and they asked each time whether any arrests had taken place or cautions been issued. I have seen copies of the email correspondence and confirmation by the police superintendent—whom I have known and dealt with for many years—that no arrests were made or cautions given. I make the point again that, during the time the demonstrations have taken place, no arrests have been made because, according to the police, no laws have been broken.
I was finally, when I met with protesters at my house, shown a petition signed by 229 parents expressing no confidence in the headteacher. I subsequently spoke to the police superintendent, whom I had spoken to regularly throughout the protests. After listening to the different accounts of the headteacher, the parents who were protesting and the police, I came to the conclusion that the parents who were protesting had some valid reasons for doing so, as the headteacher seemed totally unwilling to have meetings with the parents to address their concerns and to seek a compromise to resolve the conflict.
I have given way on many occasions.
I told the protesters this and I also told them that they had made their point and that the protests should end. I reiterated this when they came to see me at my surgery, which was filmed on phone camera and put into the public domain in an abridged version. [Interruption.]
Order. I absolutely understand the strong feelings that exist on this subject, but there is no way—I say this as much for public interest as for any other reason—that this debate will be curtailed. It can run until 7 o’clock, so any right hon. or hon. Member who wishes to catch my eye has an extremely good chance of doing so. The hon. Gentleman has the Floor now, and whatever hon. Members think about his decision to give way or not, he has a right to be heard and he will be heard.
I am obliged to you, Mr Speaker.
I have to say that the breakdown in trust between the headteacher and the parents has not been helped by certain tweets that the headteacher has put out. She is, of course, perfectly entitled to tweet what she wants to, as is everybody else, but to call parents who are participating in highly organised police-supervised protests a “mob” which needs to be “sorted” and accuses Muslim parents—mostly young women—of “homophobic hatred” and to say that
“if we allow parents to think consult means demand resignations if we don't get our way”
is not exactly helpful in reducing tension because it is immediately recycled on multiple social media sites, which builds up a frenzy of hatred against parents. As I have said, they are mostly young mothers who have done nothing wrong. They are good mothers who want to express concern about what their children are telling them.
I will not give way anymore.
If parents say they have concerns, and if they have sought to raise those concerns with the headteacher and have not been allowed to do so, I believe it is incumbent on a Member of Parliament to articulate those concerns. That does not mean to pass judgment, but if they have concerns, they are entitled to have them addressed. So far as the parents at these two schools are concerned, there has been no engagement and no meetings, whereas 256 other schools in Birmingham are doing things differently.
What is this “homophobic hatred” that these parents are supposed to be spreading? That is massively serious. Let us look at some of the police witness statements. As I have said, the police were at every protest. These statements are not hearsay or recycled versions that have been fed to social media to feed the frenzy; they are legal daily reports by police officers who were present. They say the chants were repeated over and again, and what were those chants? “Our children, our choice.” “Listen to parents.” “Let kids be kids.” “We are not homophobic.” “Parent governor step down.” “Headteacher step down”. That is not nice for the headteacher or the parent governor, but I do not accept that as being homophobic.
No, I have given way on a lot of things.
Furthermore, the police who were present wore body cameras and were asked by the organisers of the protest to check whether any placards contravened the law. I understand that only one placard was deemed inappropriate at an early protest, and the people carrying the banner were told not to bring it again.
I make these points because I believe the parents have not had a fair chance to put their side of the dispute. They have been branded professional agitators, accused by a councillor of not having children at the school, called a “mob” and told that they are spewing out homophobic hatred. These mothers have been smeared, and the fact that the local Member of Parliament, having weighed up the evidence and listened to all sides of the argument, came to the conclusion that the people protesting had just reason to complain and protest merely added a target for the witch hunters and increased the lust for a sacrifice, irrespective of the facts.
I return to a couple of specific questions, which I supplied to the Minister before the debate. I ask these questions because I suspect many primary school head- teachers watching this debate, like their colleagues in Birmingham, want to know whether they are inadvertently contravening the law in how they impart the nine protected characteristics of the Equality Act to their pupils.
As I have said, 256 of 258 primary schools in Birmingham are, in different ways, ensuring that their pupils know when they transfer to secondary school that any form of discrimination, victimisation, prejudice or bullying of other people who fall within the nine protected characteristics is unlawful. They do this by engaging with parents to explain the nine characteristics, by having workshops about the individual characteristics, by having ongoing consultations with the parents and showing them the type of material they propose to use, and by engaging with parents about what age is most appropriate for the various characteristics.
I will come to that point in a minute.
The parents want clarification. First, they want to know whether it is permissible for headteachers to partner with parents to decide how the nine protected characteristics are imparted to pupils, bearing in mind that parents cannot have any veto over which characteristics are taught. Secondly, they would like to know whether the nine protected characteristics have to be taught all together, or whether they can be spread out and imparted to pupils throughout their time in primary school, taking into account at what age the head and/or parents consider it most age-appropriate for each protected characteristic to be imparted to the children.
I ask those questions because many primary heads are looking at what has happened at the two schools where controversy has arisen and do not want to be accused of discrimination, which is of course illegal, in the way they deal with the Equality Act and the nine protected characteristics. I would be grateful for clarity from the Minister, because this will affect the relationships education provision that comes in in 2020 and that can be introduced in September 2019, which is much more specific about the terms “consultation” and “age appropriateness”.
I have no opinion on the ages at which primary school children should be introduced to the provisions of the nine protected characteristics. For example, I attended a recent meeting held by the headteachers’ union here in the Commons, in Committee Room 9. A headteacher—he may have been a deputy head—from Manchester argued forcefully that the whole “age appropriate” concept should be scrapped completely and that children aged two should be introduced to the provisions of the protected characteristics. If the parents of the children involved are happy with that, who am I to say it should not happen? But parents, who in international law have the prime responsibility for the upbringing of their children, have to be partners with schools in the making of such decisions.
Likewise, I have no prescribed views about what teaching materials should be used. I believe that schools and parents should make the decision after proper consultation, which is what is currently happening in most schools. In respect of the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) from a sedentary position earlier, yes, I have now read most of the books that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) has given to me. Some of them are very good—“The Little Mermaid” is particularly good, and I have just got a copy for my grandchild—but my Muslim constituents would like to talk through some of the other books with the school to understand what the concepts are. They cannot talk it through with the school if the school will not have consultation.
I regret the controversies that have arisen around the two schools in Birmingham. I believe they could have been avoided if the schools had taught the provisions of the Equality Act in different ways and taken the parents’ concerns into account. For my part, I apologise unreservedly for any offence caused to any person of whatever sexual orientation by anything I have said or written. In particular, I apologise unreservedly to members of the LGBT community in Birmingham and throughout the country for anything I may have said or written that has caused offence to them. I assure you, Mr Speaker, that it most certainly was not intended.
I had not intended to speak, but decided to do so in the light of what I have heard today. Let me first say that I come from an Irish Catholic background, so I know from experience what cultural conservatism can be like. I know some of the terrible things that happened in the Irish Catholic culture, going back over many years—at its most obscene, the Magdalene laundries. But ultimately that changed because brave Catholics challenged their own culture. Ireland is now a tolerant country with a gay Prime Minister; that would have been thought unachievable and impossible in decades gone by.
With regards to what has been happening in Birmingham, I am the first to respect cultures, including cultural conservatism. I believe that there should be engagement without hesitation, but I do not accept what has been said today—that there has been no engagement by the head, Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson, with parents. I think there has been engagement, but I also think we need to distinguish between two things: on the one hand, there are those who feel uneasy; but on the other hand, there are those who have been deliberately stirring this up.
This is not just happening in Birmingham. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) referred to what is happening in Cardiff, and we are seeing a network develop in a number of cities around the country. To be frank, that network is absolutely wrong because, as a very good Muslim friend and constituent of mine said, “Jack, if we go down the path of dividing and demonising, or in any way suggesting that we would ever do that, our country and our city are a poorer country and city.” I never want to see the day when we in any way feed the view that there is something wrong about two men living together or two women living together.
I remember a man who came out to me in the old Transport and General Workers Union many years ago. He was desperate, in tears and afraid to speak out. But now Birmingham is the city of pride—pride with a small p and Pride with a big P. We have tens of thousands marching in Birmingham, celebrating our diversity: our rich cultural diversity, our rich ethnic diversity and our diversity in terms of sexual preference. Long may that always be the case.
I stress again that I absolutely understand that one has to engage, listen and explain, but if there are forces on the march the kind of which we thought were history in our country, we have to say, “No, you’re wrong.”
Teaching about LGBT existence and relationships, and showing respect and legitimacy to all regardless of their sexual orientation, is something that has not been a feature of our school system for very long. That is because of the odious and appalling effects of section 28, which was passed in the 1980s in a circumstance that was very similar to some of the scare stories that we are hearing about the possible dire effects of simply teaching relationship and sex education in schools—something that we should have been doing generations ago. If we had done it generations ago, there would have been an awful lot more happy and well-adjusted people than those who have been monstered in the way they have for the way that they are in a system that was disfigured by the effects of section 28. Many years later, we are finally making progress on LGBT rights in law and reaching fantastic levels of formal equality in our law. That is one of the most important social reforms that the previous Labour Government were responsible for, and it has been continued, to their credit, by Administrations subsequently. I know of the Minister’s own personal commitment to this agenda.
Yet here we are in the middle of a similar kind of moral scare that is being whipped up by people who have a different agenda from the wellbeing of children and their adjustment to the facts and experience of 21st-century life in the UK. We have seen it exposed on television and in some of the closed Facebook groups of the individuals involved that are making claims about the sexual orientation of the teachers at this school, using language that I would not use in this Chamber. We have seen it in the mob reactions outside the school. It is not appropriate, however we do these things, that young primary school pupils should have to run a gauntlet of screaming demonstrators simply to get to school, with that noisy, vociferous, aggressive kind of shouting and chanting. That will be traumatic for any kind of young primary school pupil, and we should not be subjecting them to it. To be honest, no parents who believe that they are acting in the best interests of their children should be making them run such a gauntlet.
We know—I exempt my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr Godsiff) from this, although I wish he had let me ask him a question—that the motivations of some of those involved in this are reactionary. They are returners to an era where LGBT people should get back in the closet and hide and be ashamed of the way they are. We are not going to get back in the closet, or hide, or be ashamed of the way we are. Nor are we going to allow a generation of pupils who are now in school to go through what pupils in the ’80s had to go through because this Chamber let them down.
Nor are we going to allow this to happen in the name of religion. I am a humanist, and married to a Catholic. She does much work with LGBT religious organisations to try to put together across religions coalitions of moderate, decent, sensible religious people who recognise the right of LGBT people to exist, to have access to respect and dignity, and to have their rights in law. We must not put together this view that if somebody has a religious objection, then somehow there can be no debate about it from then on in. There are multiple views in religions about the legitimacy of LGBT rights. It is only on the far extremist fundamentalist fringes that we get the kind of hostility that is being shown on some of the Facebook groups of these campaigners. I would like to know a lot more about the network that is behind this, because it is a deliberate, reactionary attempt to take back progressive advance and decency for children.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way; she is speaking incredibly movingly. As somebody who lives closer, I think, than anybody else to the schools particularly in question and lives in the community amongst the people who go to that school, I want it to be said on the record that she is absolutely right in what she says about this being on the fringes, because I do not recognise the Muslim community that I live amongst as being part of that mob.
I thank my hon. Friend. She has a great deal of experience in this, not least because she lives amongst the community that is being portrayed in such a way.
We must not give in to this kind of organised campaign, which is effectively being organised from the outside. The Equality Act—which was passed in 2010, so has been on the statute book for nine years—actually says that schools have a duty not to discriminate against LGBT people. That includes discrimination against pupils who are LGBT—to be fair, that would probably not be very apparent at primary school level—pupils who are perceived to be LGBT, and pupils with LGBT parents, carers and family members. These are the diverse parents that we have in our communities now, and the children that they send to school, or the potentially LGBT children in school, do not deserve to be treated with anything other than equality and respect. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] All that is meant by the teaching on relationship and sex education is that this diversity needs to be represented. It is not propagandising and it is not trying to “turn people gay”, which I have heard mentioned—I am not sure it is possible to turn people gay; there certainly would be no gay people if you had to be taught about being gay to be gay. [Laughter.] What we are talking about is respect, their rights, their right to be equally welcome in school, not to be bullied or treated as if they are lesser, not to be made to feel that somehow there is something wrong with them, not to feel suicidal, not to be called “faggot” or “lezzer” in school and not to be humiliated. That is what we are talking about when it comes to relationship and sex education—plain, simple decency.
It is an honour and a privilege to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), who made a very personal and passionate speech with which I wholeheartedly agree.
I was sorry that we even had to come here today to take part in this debate. I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr Godsiff). I listened to his apology. I am always more than ready to listen to an apology, but much of his speech contradicted that, and indeed contradicted what he had said on that recording, which I have viewed.
I am glad that my hon. Friend has now read the books—at least some of them—and that my office was able to help with that. I find it unfortunate that he made comments and waded into this debate without having looked at the books, as they are at the heart of the issue. I have looked at the books; I have looked at the material that causes so much alleged offence, but there is nothing that I think could cause offence. In fact, along with many other inclusive educational and teaching materials and books, they teach about all the range of difference that we have in our lives, and they certainly do not get into the details of sex or anything biological; we are talking about things that are age-appropriate, that are directed at younger children. It is about understanding the world around them—that there may be children in their class who are Muslim or Jewish or black or white or a woman or a man or gay or lesbian or trans. This is the world we live in. This is the reality we live in. This is the country we live in.
I live in just as diverse a community as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green. I am pleased to say that at the weekend I went to the Grangetown festival in my community, and was able to visit the Pride Cymru stall, right in the heart of one of my largest Muslim communities; and there, mixing in that community, were the LGBT community different churches, different mosques, different Hindu temples, and different community organisations. They were all just getting on with their lives and making a difference to their community, supporting young people and running diversionary activities for those who might be caught up in knife crime, or other difficulties, in the community, and supporting each other, and working together as a community. They were not interested in dividing each other over the nature of their sexuality, their sex, their race or their religion; they were all working and living together, so there is a different way we can live.
I have watched the scenes in Birmingham with horror. I believe that people have been whipped up into a sense of true moral panic about some problem that does not actually exist. It has become extremely unpleasant and extremely divisive, as we have seen, and that is spreading, as has been said, to other parts of the UK.
I want to draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention, and that of the House, to some of those who have been involved in instigating some of the language, protests and division we have seen. At least two of them have come down to Cardiff recently, one of whom, thankfully, was spotted and a talk was cancelled. A woman called Dr Godfrey-Faussett—in fact, she is being investigated by the British Psychological Society for her comments—said in a YouTube clip last year that there was a
“totalitarian endeavour to indoctrinate our children in sexual ideologies.”
She runs the so-called Stop RSE campaign, and has talked about a “war on morality”.
Another group is the so-called Islamic RSE, run by a gentleman called Ustadh Torofdar. I have seen for myself the guide—the handy guide—that can be handed to parents on how they should in effect infiltrate governing bodies or parent teacher associations, and on how they should influence activities in their schools by alleging a whole set of things that are going on in their schools—of course, no evidence is presented—and suggesting that parents may want to get involved and raise these concerns. It gives form letters to be sent to MPs, the media and schools, with all sorts of wild and fanciful allegations about somehow trying to corrupt young people. I will not read out the letter: I have got it, but some parts of it I just find so offensive.
I had never received a letter of this nature in my constituency ever—I have been an openly gay MP for six and a half years in an extremely diverse constituency—or any of these things until the last few months. They are originating from these groups, which are collaborating. As has been said by my hon. Friends from Birmingham, they often involve individuals who do not even have children at these schools. This is the very nature of a moral panic, and it is a very good example of one. I think we need to look at what is really going on here, rather than any actual perceived problem or issue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey spoke about the legacy of section 28. I grew up in a school in south Wales, and I certainly was not out about my sexuality at the time. Like me, many LGBT people struggle with these issues for their whole life, and it can affect when they come out, how they come out and to whom they come out, as well as all sorts of other things in their life. I do not want young people living today to go through these experiences—it is just simply horrific—but I know that things can change. Last year, I went back to a Pride parade in the town where I went to school, and that would simply have been unthinkable when I was at school 25 years ago, when I saw lesbian friends of mine being called “dirty lezzers” and everything else, with all sorts of homophobic abuse going on.
That relates to a time and a place, and to a set of attitudes and a set of laws, that I thought we had got well beyond, and I am sorry to see chinks occurring in different places. We have to remember that this is in the context of a wider debate, with deeply concerning comments being made, including, I am sorry to say, by some of the candidates for the Conservative leadership and, indeed, by newly elected MEP Ann Widdecombe. These are really horrific things that, quite frankly, should be from a bygone age. We have made such progress in this House on so many issues, such as marriage equality or the way we conduct ourselves here. Of course, we are the most LGBT diverse Parliament in the world, and we should be celebrating that. I very much hope that it is setting an example to young people in our country that they can be who they are, because God made them, too, just like everybody else.
We have to think about the other side of this. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green voiced concerns about the rights of parents and the rights of certain conservative religious communities, but there is no hierarchy in equality. All the protected characteristics are there alongside one another for a reason, and we should be promoting all of them, not just one, or selectively, or in certain circumstances, or only because it might not offend one constituent group or another. We have to remember that at the heart of this is the wellbeing and safeguarding of young people, including young people in the very schools the hon. Gentleman refers to.
In 2001, in Holy Cross church in the Ardoyne district of north Belfast, there was a concentrated campaign not only against Father Aidan Troy, the priest there, but against that community. Recently, I met two girls who had been primary school pupils at the time, and they are still, 18 years later, suffering the trauma of that experience. Even if we can put aside for one moment the substantive argument, does my hon. Friend not agree that it is simply impossible and unconscionable that we allow primary school children to be subjected to this sort of concentrated mob abuse? That cannot be allowed, surely.
I wholeheartedly agree. It beggars belief that we may be creating situations that will continue to affect that cohort of children, not just at the schools we have been discussing, but plenty of others. The reason the wider LGBT community is so concerned is the signals that are sent when they see Members of Parliament and a teacher being subjected to abuse, when they see mobs outside schools and when they see the types of poster that have been displayed. It makes people feel that perhaps they cannot be who they want to be and live as they want. For young people in particular, that is a massive issue.
In this country, Stonewall was largely founded on the issue of section 28, and we will celebrate the 30-year anniversary at Pride this year. I am proud that one of the founders of Stonewall, Lisa Power, lives in my constituency and is a good friend of mine. I am deeply concerned when I look at the statistics that Stonewall has shared about mental health and the issues young people face: 84% of trans young people have deliberately harmed themselves; the figure for the LGBT community is 61%. Two in five LGBT pupils are never taught anything about LGBT issues and half of LGBT pupils in schools say there is no adult they can talk to about issues affecting them. That litany of self-harm, depression and, in the most extreme circumstances, taking one’s own life should be the concern of anyone in this country who cares about the wellbeing and safety of our young people.
Rather than focusing on some mythological and non-existent situation, we should be focusing on the actual issues that affect young people, because there will be LGBT Muslims and LGBT non-Muslims in those schools: there will be, because they are in our society. One of the saddest things is that every time I speak on these issues, I get emails, phone calls and messages, particularly from gay Muslim men, who tell me about horrific experiences they had growing up. I do not want anyone to go through that, and that is why I think it is absolutely right that the Government introduced the changes in the law, absolutely right that they carried them through as they did, and absolutely right that this House overwhelmingly voted for them.
We heard a lot of legal references from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green, but little mention of the fact that this House—this sovereign Parliament—passed law stating that there should be LGBT-inclusive education in this country. That is what matters. It is the law. People are of course entirely free to believe and understand their scriptures and religions in any way they choose in their own private life. I might fundamentally disagree with them—I have had many scriptural arguments with fellow Christians who do not agree with my views on human sexuality—but in this country our state sets the law and the guidance. As you will remember, Mr Speaker, I and my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) engaged in sometimes impassioned debates on equal marriage. As a gay Christian and one who believes fervently in my understanding of my own faith, it is for me to argue with God and with fellow Christians, but the law of this land should protect all and it should protect all characteristics equally, not one over another at certain times, when certain people do not like it and a moral panic is whipped up by those from outside.
I hope that we can move on. That are many parts of this country with equally diverse religious communities and diverse understandings of life and how we should all live together. I want a country where we all live together in harmony, peace and respect for one another, not one where children and teachers are subjected to horrific protests outside their schools, and where some of the basic principles that this House has established over many years are questioned.
I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty). I rise to put one point to the Minister.
I welcome the fact that we are having this debate and I share my hon. Friend’s dismay at the scenes in Birmingham, but it is right that we talk about this issue and discuss the concerns that have been raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr Godsiff) is right to remind us that religion or belief is among the protected characteristics identified in the Equality Act 2010.
In the debate on the regulations on 20 March, I raised concerns that were being voiced, particularly by representatives of the Orthodox Jewish community. I chair the all-party group on faith and society. After the debate, I asked the Minister whether he would ensure that officials from his Department and from Ofsted attended a meeting to discuss the implementation of the regulations with representatives of a wide range of faith groups. I am very grateful to him for arranging that: the representatives came and the meeting took place.
One idea that emerged from the meeting, mentioned in a letter I copied to him, is a requirement to subject local plans for implementing the regulations in each area to consultation with the local standing advisory committee on religious education—the SACRE. I recognise that in some areas there may well be a question about the capacity of the committees to undertake such a consultation. In other areas, however, they are certainly well up for doing it. The SACRE is in most areas, I think, quite a wide and representative body that is currently focused purely on religious education. The suggestion that emerged was that its remit might be extended to take in local plans for implementing the relationships and sex education statutory instrument. I wonder whether the Minister will be able today, or separately, to respond to that specific idea, which came out of the meeting he very helpfully supported after that debate in the House.
I represent a constituency where education is completely devolved, but I wish to enter into reflective mode for Members. I grew up in the west of Scotland in a Catholic/Presbyterian Irish Catholic household. Like many other Members with similar backgrounds, I attended a state denominational school at both primary and secondary levels. I went to a school where being heterosexual was the only way you were allowed to be. No other opportunity was permitted, so the very idea that there is any question that people are going to be “forced to be gay” does not reflect the reality of those who lived in a situation where we were told we could be nothing but straight. That is an historic reality. However, reflecting on history, times do change.
Unlike many Members on the main Opposition Benches, I represent a constituency that is profoundly un-diverse. It is profoundly white. It is also profoundly Christian: half and half between the Roman Catholic faith and the national Presbyterian Church of Scotland. We know, and I am sure many Members will know, what religious intolerance can breed. It is called the Reformation. It reminds us of the role of religion, and the separation of religion and the law. Only last year in Scotland, we celebrated 100 years of the Education (Scotland) Act 1918 —the Catholic Education Act. I admit that I have only recently returned to the faith of my ancestors. I am a person of dubious faith, and anyone who says that they are fundamental in their beliefs—no matter how or who they worship—seriously needs to look at themselves and give themselves a good talking to because, without doubt, there can be no question but that you cannot fully understand the diversity of humanity around you, and especially parliamentarians who seek to understand the people they represent. I say to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr Godsiff) that I hope that they also reflect on the young gay men and women entering that school today, the ones who may vote for them or who may not vote for them, and how they understand this debate.
There is also the role of parents. I was brought up by a single parent. Did he make me gay? I do not think so. Did he make me like whisky? I think he did. He also made me question—
Well, I will leave that one. He also made me question how we defend the rights of those who are minorities—he always did. I want to reflect on my personal experience. The only reason I wanted to speak today was that I, as a Scottish constituency MP, can add something to this debate—we have heard from hon. Members from Wales who are concerned about the targeting of certain emails, and I heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) that she has received emails about this debate and how it reflects on the Scottish education system. In Scotland, we have the Scottish Government’s LGBTI Inclusive Education Working Group. It should be noted that the Roman Catholic Bishops Conference of Scotland is clear that it could never again see a situation in which a pupil leaves his school in Scotland having had prejudice-based bullying, and it fully signed up to the Scottish Government’s Inclusive Education Working Group.
If anything is to be gained from this debate, we need to reflect on the lived experience of young gay men and women entering your schools. Their parents may not like the fact that they will grow up to be gay. That is a reality. We cannot detract from it, whether they live hiding in a closet or openly as young Christian gay people or young Muslim gay people—or Hindu, Jew or secular. We cannot enable them to go back into the closet knowing that we believe, as elected representatives, that they should not have a place in the education system. We are not enforcing gayness on folk. That is a ridiculous proposition. We live in a majority heterosexual normative world. That is the reality. What we are saying to these young men and women is that we do not want them to be bullied, be prejudiced, to self-harm, to take their lives, to go into lives filled with alcohol and drugs, or to kill themselves. That is what we do not want and, if anything, we should offer them a listening ear today and not a judging one.
I was always taught as a child, by my parents and at all the schools that I went to, not to judge somebody according to the colour of their skin, what school they went to, what accent they spoke with, whether they were a man or woman, whether they were rich or poor, or, for that matter, whether they were straight or gay. I was taught simply to judge them according to the strength of their character, which would be evinced not by the words that they used, but the things that they did in their life. I approach this debate presuming that that is what all education should be. It should be about teaching people to judge people according to the strength of their character, what they stand for and what they do with their lives, and not some part of their personality, which is almost certainly indelible and which was not acquired by—I don’t know—watching Graham Norton, passing through the aftershave department, or whatever prejudice people may have about how people come to be gay.
I have never wanted a tolerant society; I hate the idea of being tolerated. It feels like people are saying, “Oh yes, all right, if you have to—if you really have to—you can live with somebody else and love them.” I have always wanted a world and a society that was based on respect. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) is absolutely right to say that when all of us in this Chamber were growing up—a lot of people are a lot younger than me, including you, Mr Speaker—it was not a world of respect for people’s different sexualities. It was a world where people would shout “Faggot”, “Queer, “Shirt-raiser”, “Bender”, and all these kinds of things at you.
What was particularly difficult was that you brought it into yourself—you sort of believed it—and it took a terrible struggle for many people to be able to tell another single human being. You might be thinking this other person might be gay and that they might have feelings for you, and then you suddenly find oh, my God, no, you’ve completely and utterly got it wrong, and then you end up being beaten up. Or it might be because you are terrified of what your parents might think. When I told my mother, she said she should always have known because I walked oddly. [Laughter.] You’ll all check later, won’t you? She didn’t mean it in a mean way at all; it was just the reactions people had in a different era.
I want to talk about why I am so proud of being a member of the Labour party—this is not a criticism of people who are not members of the Labour party. There was a man, Edward Carpenter, who campaigned for homosexual freedom in a generation when you got sent to prison and given seven years with hard labour for homosexuality. On his 80th birthday, every member of the Labour Cabinet in the 1920s sent him a birthday card. I feel proud of being part of a Labour movement that has always wanted to do right by people who are gay.
There is a little story of a young man in the 1920s from the Rhondda. He worked on the railways. His name was Thomas. I don’t know his surname. He was arrested in London and taken to court for soliciting—“importuning” was the word that was used at the time. There did not have to be any proof of anybody having touched anybody. The only proof that he might have been homosexual and committed an offence was that he had a powder puff in his pocket. He said it was his mother’s, but the police did not believe him, and he was carted off and charged and he went to the magistrates court. Again what I am proud of is that the local MP for the Rhondda stood character witnesses for him. This was in the 1920s.
I take enormous pride in the fact that we have tried as a movement to build through the years that sense of respect and eventually were able to change the law in many different ways. We brought in civil partnerships. Many young people who were gay throughout the 20th century thought they would never be able to live with another person, let alone be able to publicly acknowledge that they were entering into a union for life. The Conservative party then had the opportunity to bring in equal marriage as well, which is a matter of enormous pride for the whole of this Parliament. There are very few people now in this Parliament who oppose any of those measures, or adoption for gay couples or individual gays. If we go to a secondary school these days, we will see kids who are openly gay at school, and it is not a problem. Some will be camp; some will not be camp—it is not a problem. That is a source of immense joy.
But I have an immense fear, too, and this is why today’s debate really matters. I want to say in generosity, I hope, to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr Godsiff) that the reason this debate hurts so many of us is that we had hoped we had made progress that would never be pushed back. We have only to look at Berlin in the 1930s. It was the most liberal place in the world for gay men, and then people were sent to the concentration camps, and thousands of them died in the late 1930s and 1940s. Some of us fear that all this could be rolled back. We will fight—not physically, of course; we will do it probably with drag queens and feather boas, and all the stereotypes you can gather—and with rugby players and football players one day, please God. We will fight to make sure this is not rolled back.
Part of the fight is, of course, with religion. I say this as somebody who was ordained a priest. I hope that the former Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, now a Member of the other place, will forgive me if I remind him that two weeks after he ordained me, which involved the laying on of hands, he was asked by a newspaper what he thought about homosexuality in the Church. He said that he had never laid hands on a homosexual, and I just had to say to him, “Well, you did—the very first one you ordained, in fact.” He is now a magnificent man: he came to my civil partnership, and I have deep affection for him.
We have had this battle in the Church of England, and it is an ongoing battle in the Catholic Church. I think that there are many more open minds than there were 15 or 20 years ago. The Pope himself has a more liberal mind on these issues, and he would be furious at the idea that Catholicism, and the name of Christ, could ever be invoked to lead to bullying or to people not valuing themselves because of their sexuality.
Incidentally, just as people cannot “catch” homosexuality, I do not think they can be cured of it. [Laughter.] I know that we smile and laugh at that, but terrible pain has been brought to so many individuals by the whole gay conversation therapy theory, and I truly hope that it will never be a thing of the future.
I know that this is a difficult issue for many who are Muslim. As it happens, my constituency is not diverse at all; it is more like the constituency of the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire—
I mean the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes). I am sure that there is no segregation between the two.
In fact, despite my having been ordained, my constituency is, according to the last census, the second least religious constituency in the country, but there are people of faith among my constituents. I often speak to them, and I think that, in the main, they have found a profound generosity in recent years, but this is still a difficult issue for many Muslims. There are those who struggle to find new, liberal ways of expressing Islam in a modern world. Many Catholic Members of both this House and the other place have often voted for equality although their Church has voted in a different way, so my biggest hope is that Islam will find a way of reconciling itself with the modern era—with the things that we know, which, I would argue, our God has taught us to understand in the last 100 or 200 years about ourselves, about humanity and about human sexuality.
I hope that Muslims will be campaigning outside all those schools to make sure that every child knows that sometimes there are two daddies and sometimes there are two mummies. They may not be your parents, but they may be the parents of someone else in the family or someone else in the school, and you should not spit at them, and you should not denigrate them, and you should not laugh at them, and you should not call them names, and you should not bully them.
In the end—and here I use a religious term again—equality is a seamless garment. The tunic worn by Christ on the cross was a seamless garment, which is why the soldiers could not tear it apart when He was taken down from the cross. The equality that we demand for people regardless of their religion, or their political allegiance, or the colour of their skin, or their gender must also apply in equal measure—in full and equal measure—to our sexuality.
It is a privilege to follow so many moving and powerful speeches. I did not come to the Chamber intending to make a speech; I had hoped to ask my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr Godsiff) a couple of questions, but having heard what he said, I was moved to rise to make just a few points.
My hon. Friend sought to characterise what has been happening outside Anderton Park school as an issue of consultation. I have to say, on the basis of what I have seen, that the message that comes across from those protests is not principally about consultation. Yes, the issue of consultation is in there, but the protests are actually about an objection in principle to LGBT-inclusive education. If that is not the case, how else can we read a placard that says, “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”? What is that if not an objection in principle to LGBT-inclusive education?
However, it is not just the fact that those views are being expressed, but the aggression with which they have been expressed, that has upset and profoundly offended so many people of, I believe, all races and all religions in Birmingham. The level of abuse that the headteacher has suffered—the things that have been said through megaphones not just at Anderton Park but before that at Parkfield school—is utterly outrageous, and I think we have a responsibility in this place to stand up and say that that is simply not on.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green has said that if he has upset or offended anyone then he apologises, and I am grateful he has said that and welcome that, but I do hope he will reflect on whether when on camera he turns to one of the leaders of those protests—a man who does not even have a child at that school—and says, “You are right; no more nor less, you are right,” those words were wisely chosen, because I do not believe that the message that that gentleman has given is right.
Dialogue between parents and schools is obviously a good thing in any part of the curriculum, but there are also some principles at stake here and they deserve repeating. Sometimes this issue is talked about is if it is about sex education, but it is not; it not about sexualisation at all. It is about relationships education, and to me there is one word and theme that has come up several times in this debate so far and that is absolutely central to all relationships education, and that is the importance of respect. I am sorry, but I disagree with my hon. Friend: I do not think that there is any age-appropriate threshold for respect. I believe that from the word go children should be taught to respect other people, whoever they are and whatever they are. I do not believe we would be right in adopting a curriculum or an approach which implies to young people that if they go to school with a friend who has two daddies or two mummies, instead of one daddy and one mummy, somehow he or she or his or her parents are less deserving of respect than the other child’s parents.
I just think that that is a principle which should be taught from the word go. We should have no problem in upholding that principle. It is a principle on which I will not compromise, and it is the reason why, I am afraid, on this issue I am on the other side of the fence from my hon. Friend.
I grew up in a relatively white, and middle-class we could say, suburb of Brighton: a town called Lewes. The people of Lewes will hate me calling it a suburb of Brighton, but it is. And I could have lived my life as a child never really interacting with people of different faiths, and never really interacting with and learning about different kinds of family units. I grew up in a family of a mum and a dad who were married before I was born and who remain married now, but the reason why I understand that there are different family units and people of different religions is that from the very get-go at school we read books and were told stories about different families. When the school was going to introduce a book about a child who was perhaps Muslim, it did not call an all-parents meeting to consult and say, “We’re going to be introducing a book which will introduce a character this semester or term who might not quite look like the kind of characters that you see every day in Lewes.” No, the school got on with it, and parents accepted it because leadership was shown not just by schools but by many people in the community making it clear that that was the right thing to do.
These are often rather mundane books. Many of these stories and educational methods are pretty mundane and may be about a mermaid or two penguins, or whatever the particular story is about; they are not actually that exciting. When they are being introduced, do I expect the headteacher to have to call an all-parents assembly to consult on that particular fiction book that is going to be introduced, and which is at the right reading level and of course is generally appropriate for those children? No, I do not. Actually, I think it is rather dangerous to expect teachers to have to teach on that basis. It would be ridiculous if they had to call an all-school assembly every time they wanted to introduce something new in biology, for example, or if they were going to teach arithmetic this month rather than just equations.
The approach that we need to adopt in treating this issue is one of talking about all the different ways the world works through storytelling and narrative telling. This is not about telling individuals what goes in and what goes out; it is about talking about what love means. That is also important for keeping our children safe. If we do not teach children the basic facts about what appropriate relationships are, what friendships mean by comparison with loving relationships, or how relationships between adults differ from relationships between children, we allow them to be vulnerable to predators, either at that young age or later on in life.
The hon. Gentleman is making a really excellent speech. My daughter has just come back from school—the Scottish schools finish up pretty soon—with a whole bundle of things that she has learned in primary 1. A lot of that is about relationships and it is pretty basic stuff. Does he agree that if some children in a class are not taught the same things as all the others, they will find out about them from the other children in the class anyway? They might as well all get the same information and a good, responsible education from their teachers.
Quite! We all know how the game of Chinese whispers works, and the danger is that if children learn things second hand, the message will have been garbled or lost by the time it reaches the third child down. If we are going to teach our children about these ideas of respect and if we are going to keep them safe, we need to do that in a whole way.
I was taught by my parents that of course it did not matter who you fell in love with. I can remember as a child hearing nursery rhymes about falling in love with different groups of people. That is the kind of family I grew up in, and I feel very proud to have had parents who introduced those concepts. My sister is a happily married heterosexual, and she had those songs sung to her as well when she was young. They did not make me gay, but they made me feel comfortable with who I was. Let us be honest, however. Parents are loving, but there is no qualification to be a parent. There are some good parents and some bad parents. My mother is a linguist and an English teacher, but she knows absolutely nothing about physics or maths—she dropped out of science at GCSE—and if I had been taught science by my mother, I would not have been able to go on to do my physics and chemistry A-levels, as I did. We understand that parents are the primary lovers of their children, but they are not always the best people to give them a holistic, rounded education, because they have not experienced all the different elements and aspects of the world.
People in positions of responsibility, whether they are teachers or Members of Parliament, have a responsibility in these debates to show leadership. It was the Labour Government between 1997 and 2010 who showed leadership. If we had followed the mob and listened to what the opinion polls were saying at the time, it is unlikely that we would have made much progress at all on LGBT rights. We would not have made progress on abolishing section 28, for example, because Brian Souter was busy ploughing money in to garner public opinion in one way. We as politicians have to recognise that public opinion can be whipped up by dangerous forces, and we have a moral responsibility to sometimes make a judgment, not on whether there has been consultation—that was a totally vacuous argument that had no content to it—but on the content of the objections, to analyse and review them. That is something that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr Godsiff) has failed to do in this debate even once. Not once did he articulate the problems with the content of the curriculum.
Like many Members in this debate, my hon. Friend is making a powerful and moving speech. Does he share my concern that although lots of parents are perfectly satisfied with what is being taught in schools and perfectly happy that their children are being taught about respect and about different families, the kind of protests we have seen could result in those parents feeling unable to express that view because they feel intimidated and unable to stand up for the things that they would like their children to be taught about and that children themselves want to be taught?
I totally agree. It is even more important that a Member of Parliament, and I would not want to tell anyone how to do their job, should not go and plonk themselves down on one side of the debate without analysing—my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) gave resources to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green—the content of what is being discussed. It is extremely dangerous not to show that leadership, and that is why the debate was wrong from the beginning. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green has been deeply wrong in how he has handled the issue. Pandering to the mob is never right. It is always easy for an MP to do, but we go in the wrong direction if we do it.
Let us remember that one of the things that instigated section 28 was the book “Jenny lives with Eric and Martin”. It is a pretty mundane and boring book: Jenny goes and has an ice cream; Jenny has a book read to her by one of her fathers. It is hardly high literature. There was a backlash, against a backdrop of rising right-wing tension—[Interruption.] I thought you said something, Mr Speaker. Of course, that led to the introduction of section 28. I do not think that we are on the verge of section 28 being introduced again, but we must be vigilant about bringing people along on that journey.
I shall conclude with two points. First, there is a place for parents on that journey, not to consult them on whether something should be included in the curriculum or not but, to some extent, to make up for the fact that we had section 28 for so long. Many parents failed to receive that level of education and understanding. There is a purpose in reaching out to the community.
Secondly, before I became an MP, I wrote an education resource for the Council of Europe on how we talked to educated children under 10 about sexuality and different families. The Council of Europe hardly draws its members from purely progressive countries—it includes Russia, Turkey and Poland—and the resource was accessible in all those countries. I am proud of that resource, which a team helped to write. People in the Council of Europe, including British Ministers, helped to lead a debate at that level to change attitudes and run campaigns to change minds and educate people.
We have not really received an apology. What we heard was a defence of the position taken by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green, with a little apology at the end. I wish that he had just been honest about having real problems with the content of the teaching or said that he had not decided to take one side or the other. What we now have is a very disappointing outcome.
This has been an extraordinary Adjournment debate and, Mr Speaker, worth your waiting 10 years in the Chair to hear, I would argue.
There were powerful speeches by the hon. Members for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), and for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), with a powerful and moving speech by the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), who was right that we were not going to allow another generation of children to go through what previous generations endured. As the hon. Member for Rhondda said, what is wanted is not to be tolerated but to be respected or, as the hon. Member for Wallasey said, plain, simple decency.
There were well argued and persuasive speeches by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), and the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle). I listened carefully to the speech by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr Godsiff), who opened the debate.
This Government agree that parents, as the primary educators of their children, should be involved in their child’s education in schools. The Government trust schools to deliver a broad and balanced curriculum that will prepare pupils for life in modern Britain, and we firmly believe that proper dialogue between schools and parents supports mutual understanding and ultimately benefits the progress of pupils. Schools should in particular consider whether aspects of their curriculum may be sensitive to the parents of their particular cohort and, if so, should ensure that they have properly engaged them on this content. But we must also remember that schools have been given the responsibility to educate, and ultimately it is for schools to decide what is taught, and how.
Equality for all is written into our laws. The Equality Act 2010 provides a legal framework to protect the rights of individuals and advance equality of opportunity for all. It provides Britain with a discrimination law that protects individuals from unfair treatment and promotes a fair and more equal society. Schools are required to comply with the relevant requirements of the Equality Act. Chapter 1 of part 6 of the Act applies to schools. As an example, part 6 of the Act makes it unlawful for a school to discriminate against, harass or victimise a pupil or potential pupil in relation to admissions or in how the school is run. The content of the school curriculum is exempt from the duties imposed on schools by part 6 of the Equality Act. Excluding the content of the curriculum ensures, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green pointed out, that schools are free to include a full range of issues, ideas and materials in their syllabus and to expose pupils to thoughts and ideas of all kinds, however challenging or controversial, without fear of legal challenge based on a protected characteristic.
Schools are, however, subject to the public sector equality duty in section 149 of the Act, which means that in discharging their functions they must have due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination, harassment, victimisation and any other conduct that is prohibited by or under the Act, and have due regard to the need to advance equality of opportunity and foster good relations between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it. Relevant protected characteristics are age; disability; gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation.
We know that many schools choose to teach pupils about the Equality Act and the protected characteristics in the context of duties on schools, such as the requirements to promote fundamental British values and the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of their pupils. Schools are perfectly entitled to teach about the Equality Act in this context, and the Department thinks it is right that pupils leave school with a proper understanding of the importance of equality and of respecting difference. To answer the question on age appropriateness asked by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green, schools that choose to teach about the Equality Act and protected characteristics should of course consider the age appropriateness of all elements of this and plan their curriculum accordingly.
That crucial need to respect difference would of course be a simple expectation of members of our society were all differences easily compatible. The true test of the concept of respect for difference lies in cases where our differences may appear to bring us in direct conflict with others. The fundamental expectation that we respect other people is therefore at times hard to achieve and all the more crucial for it. This has been seen in action in recent months, as some differences have seemed to divide us. We have seen protests from parents relating to the teaching of equality in our schools, with a particular focus on teaching lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender content. The media would like to portray this as religion versus LGBT. I do not doubt that some people on both sides of the debate, without links to the schools involved, are exploiting the situation due to their own lack of tolerance for the other side, but I truly believe that, for the majority, there is a real respect for their fellow citizens who are different from them.
Central to this debate are deeply held views on what is right to teach children about LGBT people and relationships at different ages.
Is the Minister as worried as I am about the emerging evidence of an organised campaign to disrupt the introduction of RSE in schools, which is now spreading from Birmingham to other places? Will he reassure us that his Department will crack down on those attempts with the utmost determination?
This Government, supported by Members on both sides of the House, introduced the regulations making RSE compulsory in schools—an amendment to the Children and Social Work Act 2017 introduced that requirement.
Today, we are publishing the final version of the guidance, which was put out for consultation. We are determined to press ahead with this policy, which has been carefully crafted with help from across the House. Individual Members helped us to devise and write the policy; Ian Bauckham, an experienced headteacher from Kent, helped us to draft the guidance; and, of course, officials from the Department for Education worked extremely hard in crafting the guidance. We will, of course, press ahead with the policy.
I apologise for not being here for the earlier part of the debate, but I am pleased to have arrived in time to hear the hon. Members for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) and for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who encouraged me to stay to the end.
I have a specific follow-up question on the point raised by the hon. Member for Wallasey. What, precisely, are the Government able to do to counter what appears to be an organised campaign? For instance, can the Minister provide materials to Members of Parliament, such as me, who are now getting representations on this issue from, in my case, a local mosque?
We will certainly be providing materials to schools, together with the guidance published today, on how to consult and engage with parents on this issue. At Education questions yesterday, the Secretary of State made clear his view on the importance of teaching about LGBT issues in schools, including primary schools, and I have written articles, and so on. We will continue to make the case for the importance of RSE.
I think we are all excited by the Minister moving slightly leftwards, and I am grateful to him. Is it not also worth pointing out the irony that many parents who are particularly concerned about their children growing up might want to know that good sex and relationships education nearly always leads to children delaying their first sexual experience, making fewer risky decisions when they do so and making more informed choices? Surely that can only be in the interests of every single child.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and he puts it better than I could. He will have seen the guidance, which was published in draft and is now in its final form, and it sets out the important aspects of all the issues he has cited and what we believe should be taught in our schools.
I press the Minister a little further on the points raised by my hon. Friends about the organised campaign against the introduction of guidance. As I mentioned in my speech, I have seen a guide from an organisation called Islamic RSE that advises parents to get into governance bodies and tells them how to handle headteachers and how to do this and that in quite a cynical way. I have also seen a deeply misleading form letter attacking the Government’s entire policy.
Does the Minister have any plans to issue guidance to schools about this orchestrated campaign and, indeed, to work with the Welsh and Scottish Governments, who will undoubtedly experience this, too? I have raised this with officials in my own city.
I am happy to work with the hon. Gentleman. Of course, we work with the devolved Administrations on this and other issues in relation to education. The guidance was carefully crafted to build the widest possible consensus for this policy, which is why it went through this House with an overwhelming majority and the other House without a Division. Those people who are opposed to it are at the other end of that consensus. I am afraid that it is unlikely that we will bring those extreme ends of the debate into that consensus, but I am very content that we have secured the support of the Catholic Church, the Church of England and organisations such as Stonewall for the guidance we have created.
I thank the Minister for describing the people who have objections as being at the real fringes. The difficulty is that if there is a requirement on headteachers to consult, and that opens the door for these fringe elements to hijack and disrupt, how should headteachers respond? Will the Department issue guidance to prevent that from happening? Will he ensure that even when consultation happens, it is not consultation with a veto by those fringe groups, but consultation to bring people along, as this is happening and it is not a question of if, when and how; this is just so that everyone can understand how. That is what we mean by consultation in this case. This is a bit unclear.
I will come to these points later in my comments, but let me say that consultation is not a vote. Ultimately, the decision about the content of the curriculum is for schools, and as I have said, we are today issuing materials, with the final version of the guidance, to schools to help them in the process of engaging with parents. But I listened to the comments about campaigning and standing up to the campaigns against RSE, and we will consider what hon. Members have said in this debate.
Will the Minister be taking any guidance from Nazir Afzal, the former Crown prosecutor in the north-west, who I understand has been brought in to mediate over the protests outside the schools? He is a practising Muslim. He is a very sensible man; he is the chair of the governors at Hopwood Hall College in my constituency. I wonder whether the Minister will be taking any of his advice.
I will take the hon. Lady’s advice, under advisement. Our senior officials are working on the ground, daily, for both schools involved in this dispute in Birmingham and with Birmingham City Council in trying to find a solution to this problem. We are working hard to try to assuage concerns, but ultimately we will be on the side of the headteacher in making these decisions, because we believe the content of the curriculum is a matter for schools.
Central to this debate are deeply held views on what is right to teach children about LGBT people and relationships at different ages—not because of bigotry or intolerance, not to push an agenda, but because they believe they know best for the children involved. This reveals the truth about equality and respect: sometimes it is hard. And when opinions differ, we should talk; dialogue is what moves us forward. That is why we are strengthening the requirements on schools to consult parents. From September 2020, all primary schools will be required to teach relationships education and all secondary schools will be required to teach relationships and sex education—RSE. We have set out in the regulations for these subjects that schools will be required to consult parents on their relationships education or RSE policies. That requirement means that the dialogue we consider so important in reducing misunderstanding and getting this teaching right will be happening in every school.
It is important to note that relationships education is not about sex, as was pointed out by the hon. Member for Rhondda. It is about learning the importance of kindness and respect for others, and providing children with the foundations to understand difference and be able to build constructive relationships with those who may appear different from them. We are encouraging as many schools as possible to start teaching the new subjects from September 2019. Whether or not schools do so, we recommend they start planning their consultation with parents now, to ensure this is done in good time and effectively. As I have said, we are publishing supporting materials to help schools to get this right.
Schools are not required to consult parents on any teaching they choose to give about the Equality Act. However, when such teaching involves young children, and when schools know that their pupils’ parents have strongly held beliefs related to the content, it is absolutely right that schools engage with parents, listen to their views and reflect. To answer the question from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green, I think it would be appropriate for a school to work with parents to determine how Equality Act teaching is delivered in the school, if that works for them. That does not mean that headteachers should spend excessive time consulting parents or that consultation should go on in perpetuity. Schools are well practised at consulting and engaging their parent bodies on aspects of their activities, and if they have good practices in place, they can and should be used to consult parents on this topic. If schools feel that their current engagement processes are not effective, the introduction of the new subjects is a good opportunity to learn from good practice in other schools and to improve.
Consultation does not mean that parents can veto curriculum content; it means sharing a proposed approach, seeking views and using those views to inform a final decision. It is not a vote. Consultation does not mean abandoning teaching about respect for difference. I do not believe that is what parents would want and it is not what schools should feel they must do. Consultation certainly does not mean that schools should be on the receiving end of intimidating behaviour, protests or bullying. The Department has been clear that protests outside primary schools are unacceptable and should stop.
The RSE legislation is clear that it is parents whom schools must consult. We do of course encourage schools to recognise and reflect on their important foundational role in local communities. If schools consider it useful to engage members of their wider community on any of their activities, including the teaching of relationships and sex education, we would support that activity. Consultation does mean the consideration of whether the strongly held views of a school’s parent body should lead it to adapt when and how it approaches certain topics with pupils. It is only right for parents to be able to share their views on how and when their child will be taught topics that are sensitive to them. Schools should consider those views and balance them with their views on the needs of pupils and the wider school community. Ultimately, it is for schools to decide their curriculum, having taken these views on board.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising that issue—I was going to respond to his earlier question—and we will consider his suggestion. That is not a promise, but we will certainly consider and take seriously what he has put forward.
As the Secretary of State set out in his recent letter to the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, schools must have the flexibility to respond to events. For example, following consultation with parents on equality teaching or relationships education, a school may decide that for its pupils it is right to introduce teaching about LGBT people and relationships in the later years of primary. That would be an entirely reasonable decision. Subsequently, however, events may mean that that decision has to change. For example, if homophobic, biphobic or transphobic bullying becomes a problem in the school, the headteacher may reasonably decide that some teaching about LGBT issues at an earlier stage is required to ensure pupils understand that such bullying is not acceptable. Alternatively, a pupil with same-sex parents may join the school in an earlier year group. In those circumstances, it would be right for the pupil’s peers to understand about families with same-sex parents—
I will give way to all Members in just a moment.
As I was saying, it would be right for that pupil’s peers to understand about families with same-sex parents, to ensure that the pupil feels included and that their peers understand and respect their family. We can all agree that in those circumstances, the school would be right to change its approach and to teach the issue earlier.
Many of my colleagues will have anticipated what I am going to ask, which is: how will schools know whether they have pupils with an uncle or aunt in a same-sex relationship, or with a friend who has same-sex parents? Surely, it is appropriate that every child, from the earliest age, should know that there are all sorts of different families—some with one parent, some with two parents, and some with two mums or two dads. The school is not going to know everybody’s experiences, and everyone should know that it is right to respect difference, irrespective of where we come across it.
As I said, we consulted very widely on the content of the draft guidance and brought in experts such as Ian Bauckham—a very experienced headteacher —to help us draft that guidance. We wanted to form the widest possible consensus on landing this policy, and that is what we have achieved very successfully, and it is something that Governments of the past have not achieved. It is important that we try to get that consensus, which means leaving to schools the decision about when these issues should be taught. It is important that schools decide when it is appropriate to teach these very sensitive issues in their community, but what is clear from the guidance is that it is a requirement that children will learn and be taught about LGBT issues at some point during their school career. This is the way to ensure that the policy has the widest possible consensus—although we cannot bring into that consensus those at the polar ends of this debate.
I thank the Minister for his measured and clear response to the questions I put to him. Although what he has said today may not be acceptable to other Members in this House, it will be hugely beneficial and helpful to the teachers in 256 schools in Birmingham who are now reassured that what they have been doing is, in fact, correct. I thank him for that.
Thank God for devolution! To provide clarification for some of my colleagues from English constituencies—and for my own mind—can the Minister tell us whether single parents who happen to be homosexual will now need to self-identify to members of staff from schools across the length and breadth of England to ensure that their children get access to equal, inclusive education?
No, what I am saying is that we need to leave these very sensitive decisions to the teachers on the ground and to the headteachers of the schools themselves, because they are best placed to make decisions that cannot be made at a national level and that will apply to all schools in all communities. What we are clear about is that children must be taught about LGBT relationships, and that they must be taught the relationships curriculum. No other Government have delivered such a policy. It is the right policy, but I strongly believe that it needs to have the consensus of the religious organisations, as well as Stonewall, to enable it to land effectively in our schools; and I believe that it is landing successfully in our schools.
I agree with the Minister to the extent that it should, of course, be up to the school and the teachers to make the decision about what is age-appropriate. However, he seemed to be suggesting that it was only once homophobic bullying had arisen in a school that a school would start talking about respect for gay people and that it was only once a gay couple who are parents of a child appeared in the school that this subject should be taught. I am sure that that is not what he really means. I hope he can clarify his point.
I was trying to give an example of a situation where, after consultation, a school may well want to change their policy because of events that have happened in the school. It might be that the school had, ab initio, decided to teach about LGBT issues at an earlier stage in the primary school curriculum. Schools are perfectly entitled to do that. If a school wanted to change its policy, it might consult parents. It would then be the policy of the school going forward, regardless of whether any of those issues arose and regardless of whether the school knew or did not know about the parental background of its pupils.
I have to say that I share the concerns that have been expressed. If the Minister is being praised by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr Godsiff) on this, then I do worry about where things are headed. The problem is that if we create loopholes or opportunities for very, very radical activists—as we have seen in this case—to try to undermine headteachers, to intimidate and to undermine the overall Government guidance, then they will take those opportunities. I want to be assured that the Minister will provide full backing in ensuring that all children, regardless of their age, are getting this education—that it is not, for example, being done on the last day of year 6 or through some other way of circumventing the law, because I am sure that that is what, in some circumstances, these people will try to do.
The law is very clear: these issues have to be taught. We will support schools very strongly in delivering this curriculum. We are saying that they need to consult parents, but then, having done so, it is not, as I said, an election-style decision like voting an Act of Parliament through this House. Once the school has gone through that consultation and taken on board the views that have been expressed, it is then for it to decide, in its best judgment, what it thinks is the right material to be taught and when. We will stand by the schools that take that decision.
Until we got to that passage in the Minister’s speech, I thought I understood what the situation was, but he seemed to be saying that he is going to give very radicalised fundamentalist-type campaigns options to make as much fuss as possible to prevent the teaching of LGBT equality and relations until it is easier to do it. I fear that what he said a few minutes ago—I hope that he will be able to put me right on this—is almost an open invitation to these organisations that are already spreading disruption across the country to do even more of it. We cannot compromise with such organisations, and if he does not stand up to them now, he will regret it.
I think that the hon. Lady is being unjust in how she is interpreting what I have said. I made it very clear that the school should consult parents. I made it very clear that the school is not bound by a vote of those parents—that ultimately the decision on the content of the curriculum, and how and when it is taught, is a matter for the school—and that we will support the school in that decision once it has been reached. We have also made it very clear that we do not support protests outside schools that require young children to—to use her phrase—run the gauntlet of screaming and shouting protesters. We absolutely do not support those protests. We supported Birmingham City Council in taking out the injunction against those protests. I think she is being slightly unfair in the way that she has heard my speech.
I am slightly concerned that we are getting caught up in the wrong way about age-appropriateness. The Minister referred to the times when this education would be introduced, full stop—in other words, it could be brought forward or delayed. My understanding is that this education around being safe, around safeguarding of children and around what are appropriate relationships should start from the very beginning of school and go all the way through. Age-appropriateness is about what is age-appropriate at each level and how we address it at each level, not about whether it is introduced at each level. We need to be clear about this, because there was a danger that he started to sound like some of the few fanatical bigots that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr Godsiff) sided with rather than the people with progressive morals that we want to side with.
Relationships education is required to be taught from the very beginning of primary school, but of course it does have to be age-appropriate. It is about friends, and sharing, and learning about the importance of family. [Interruption.] No, there is no intention of delaying the introduction of relationships education. What is a matter for the school is when more sensitive issues are taught. That really is ultimately a matter for the school to decide. In doing so, it should consult parents, but that does not mean that parents have a veto on the decisions that it takes.
Can the right hon. Gentleman clarify for me what we mean, in this context, by “sensitive”? Do we mean talking about families with single parents, and so on, or are we talking about trans issues? What is “sensitive”? I am a bit confused, and I am worried that that word will be used as a hook on which to hang things that we might not want to put on it.
That, again, is a matter for the judgment of the school. The school will know its communities, and that is why we are saying—and it is a requirement—that on these issues the schools should be consulting parents. All the best schools in the country consult their parents on a wide range of issues, and they may even consult them on issues such as arithmetic. It is very important to have parental engagement with a school. I know schools that talk to parents about how reading is taught in their schools—if they are introducing a new phonics scheme, they will want to talk to parents about such issues. So I think parental engagement is important on this particular curriculum.
The Secretary of State and I are clear that we support any school that, having engaged with parents and listened to their views, takes a reasonable decision to teach their pupils about LGBT people and relationships. The guidance on relationships education and RSE makes it clear that pupils should receive LGBT-inclusive relationship and sex education during their school years. The Department strongly encourages primary schools to teach about families with same-sex parents. In most cases that will be possible and will be an important part of the education about respect for difference that is right for all pupils. I hope that in all cases, parents will have discussed these topics with their child’s school and have an understanding of their approach. I hope that they will have satisfied themselves that the school is teaching the right things at the right age to complement what they teach their child on the importance of respecting other people.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green for his views on this important topic. Parents are the primary educators of their children, and on matters such as equality, respect and relationships, schools complement what the child is taught at home. It is therefore crucial that schools and parents engage in constructive dialogue to understand each other’s views. Only through open communication can trust be built and maintained, and proper respect shown for difference.
Question put and agreed to.