Thursday 30 June 2022
[Ms Nusrat Ghani in the Chair]
Police Conduct and Complaints
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Sixth Report of the Home Affairs Committee, Session 2021-22, Police Conduct and Complaints, HC 140, and the Government response, HC 1264.
It is a rare pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani, in this packed Chamber here today. I have the honour—as someone who is not Chair of the Home Affairs Committee—to present our report and findings, largely because I am the only one who has been on the Committee long enough to remember the report’s origins and who sat through all of the sessions. I am delighted to pick up that baton and take the challenge.
The Home Affairs Committee started its investigation in 2015. We had wanted to have a proper inquiry and report for some time, which we eventually did under the esteemed chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson), who chairs the Committee now and will speak later.
The Independent Office for Police Conduct was created in January 2018 to handle complaints against police officers and forces in England and Wales. It replaced various predecessors that had failed to keep public trust in the idea that police officers who fall below the high standards required of them are properly punished for breaches of codes of behaviour and conduct. The IOPC has a really important role, as we would all agree and as I am sure the Minister would emphasise, in maintaining public confidence in the police service in this country, where we police by consent. I will touch on some of the recommendations of the inquiry, what we found and why we did the inquiry, and also on an update from the head of the IOPC. I am largely going to leave the Government’s response to the Minister.
One thing that the Minister can now take credit for is that the Government have at last responded to our Macpherson inquiry report, which we produced a very long time ago. One of our recommendations was to get on with producing the Government’s response to our Macpherson inquiry report, and that happened a few weeks ago, but it was not a good exercise in responding speedily to a Select Committee report. I will leave that there, but the Minister might care to comment later.
It should be clear that a police officer accused of, for example, mistreating a member of the public or bullying colleagues or subordinates should be subject, like any other person working in the public service, to investigation and sanctions if proven to have done so. Public confidence is undermined if misconduct is not appropriately recognised, dealt with and punished. The Committee inquiry looked at whether the new IOPC was fulfilling its remits: bringing officers more quickly and successfully to book for conduct unbecoming and restoring public confidence in the police complaints and discipline system.
During the inquiry numerous examples of questionable policing conduct occurred—and far worse. Sadly, we are all too familiar with the high profile and appalling cases that have hit the headlines in recent months and years. The murder of Sarah Everard by a serving police officer who used his office to trap her is probably by far the most egregious example. Other prominent cases include the photographing of the bodies of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman by two officers who were supposed to be guarding a crime scene. In both cases, officer behaviour was criminal and substantial jail sentences have rightly followed, including a whole-life sentence for the killer of Sarah Everard.
Criminal activity goes beyond the bounds of the police conduct and complaints process, but there is behaviour below the criminal threshold that goes well beyond the bounds of acceptable professional conduct. At Charing Cross police station in London, the IOPC revealed a series of revolting sexist, misogynist and racist messages between serving police officers as well as a culture of bullying and racism. Three officers lost their jobs and others received internal disciplinary action, from retraining to official reprimand. The IOPC has recently ordered a fully independent investigation into the behaviour of six officers who stopped and searched a car belonging to the athletes Bianca Williams and Ricardo dos Santos, who were stopped in Maida Vale in 2020. It was able to do that under new powers that have just come in to allow the IOPC to investigate without referral and for it to present its own case at police misconduct hearings.
I want to spend a little time now on Operation Midland. Indeed, the genesis of this report was some hearings that the Home Affairs Committee undertook back in 2015 regarding Operation Midland, which hon. Members will remember was a high-profile case of a completely incompetent, bungled and wasteful investigation over a long time of some high-profile figures in politics and the military. We investigated and interviewed some of the senior officers involved in that case. High-profile figures such as Lord Brittan, Field Marshall Bramall—sadly, both are now dead—and Harvey Proctor were the subject of long-running police investigations. At the inquiry, we heard from Lady Brittan, Lord Brittan’s widow.
We heard about the appalling miscarriage of justice; key figures had been hounded by an incompetent police operation and an appalling waste of resources on the basis of flimsy evidence produced by the now-revealed and now-jailed fantasist Carl Beech. That was despite repeated warnings from officers and others, who have also been badly treated by the Metropolitan police, that the long-running and costly investigation was never going to go anywhere and the evidence was not there. However, it resulted in no penalties and no punishment against the main senior officers involved. Indeed, several were promoted and some remain in lucrative and senior positions within the police service.
The Home Affairs Committee has a long-standing interest in the case and since we took testimony from some of those officers back in 2015, those testimonies have been completely and utterly discredited. Operation Midland was succeeded by Operation Vincente, and then Operation Kentia, commissioned by the IOPC, looked into the way the Met had handled the whole process. We had a further damning report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services in 2020. The judge, Sir Richard Henriques, was commissioned to investigate the Met, but he also made very severe criticism of the way the IOPC had investigated the case. He said:
“The operation was conducted in a completely disordered and chaotic manner and was littered with mistakes, all of which could and should have been avoided by officers who were subsequently promoted.”
The force did little to improve practices for nearly three years. As Sir Richard says,
“So far as I know not one of my recommendations has either been accepted or rejected by the Metropolitan Police.”
A district judge was knowingly misled into issuing search warrants against the Brittans and there are reasonable grounds to believe that criminal acts have been committed, not by those being investigated but by the investigators, as Sir Richard Henriques found. It took almost three years for the IOPC to publish its findings in the Operation Midland affair. The lead investigator contacted Sir Richard 20 months into the investigation and readily conceded her lack of knowledge, training or education in relevant criminal proceedings. In Sir Richard’s review of Operation Midland he said he had called for a rigorous investigation and indicated that there were many questions to be asked. The IOPC failed in both respects.
HMICFRS’s report found that senior officers were preoccupied with restricting access to the Henriques report and that the Met had no plan to enact the reforms, took
“an underwhelming approach to learning the lessons”
and did almost nothing for three years. I emphasise again that no officers have been penalised as a result of Operation Midland and the subsequent unravelling of the appalling circumstances that allowed it to take place and ruin the lives of certain individuals and their families over many years.
We use that as an example because the IOPC should have been on that. It should have taken a high-profile case of clear deficiencies in police processes and accountability, looked at it properly and found that certain individuals were sorely lacking in the carrying out of their duties—but it failed to do that. Sir Richard Henriques claimed that it was a complete whitewash of the actual circumstances. That is why it is so important that we have a police complaints body that can be relied on and inspire confidence in the public. If high-profile figures, who have a recourse to parliamentary and other platforms, can be dragged down by an incompetent police operation that was not apprehended by the IOPC, what hope have our constituents with legitimate complaints about the way that they have been dealt with by the police that the IOPC will investigate fairly and thoroughly?
Our inquiry found that trust in the police was particularly low among young people, as well as among black and other minority ethnic members of our society. There is a particular problem in London. We heard in the last few days that the Met is being put in special measures. There are issues that we flag in our report that need to be considered as part of the rehabilitation of the image of the Metropolitan police and how it regains the trust of the public.
There is an old argument that such cases arise from the actions of a few bad apples spoiling the entire barrel. The volume of high-profile and successful complaints against police officers tests that argument to destruction. The police themselves no longer hold to the bad apple theory. Earlier this year, the acting Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Stephen House, told the Home Affairs Committee,
“It is not a few bad apples. You cannot simply say that Wayne Couzens and a couple of other people have done something wrong. I would suggest that that has been the spearhead of the problem, but
there is a wider issue within the organisation, which we acknowledge and we are dealing with.”
I hope that is the case.
A robust independent regulator, able to quickly resolve complaints and impose sanctions that fit the misconduct of officers, is essential to public trust. Since its foundation, the IOPC has gone some way to restoring that trust—we acknowledge that in our report. The time taken to resolve complaints has reduced significantly, with the majority now dealt with in less than a year. However, the Committee’s inquiry, while recognising that success, identified a number of areas for further improvement. Just this week, we have had further information from the head of the IOPC, Michael Lockwood, about the continued progress it is making. The Home Office will be publishing its annual report with more detail in due course; the Minister may wish to comment on that.
Michael Lockwood pointed out in that letter that 90% of all independent investigations that it started were completed with 12 months. That compares favourably to the 68% of investigations completed within 12 months in the final year of the Independent Police Complaints Commission. However, while the target was 50 days for completion of the inquiry, the actual result—78 working days for completion—fell well short. In addition to that, Michael Lockwood said that the IOPC made 171 learning recommendations, which were shared with all the forces in England and Wales or directed to national organisations such as the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the College of Policing. Where a learning recommendation is issued under that power, the recipient is required to provide a response. Out of the 96 recommendations issued where a response has been received, 94% were accepted. That is a high level and is to be welcomed.
The issue of police officers’ co-operation with investigations was raised by the Committee. The guidance sets out what the IOPC considers co-operation should look like in general terms, and what police witnesses can expect. In its response to the Committee’s report, the IOPC reported progress on the number of cases awaiting a decision for more than 12 months. I think we can take that as a win for the Committee and, indeed, for the way Select Committees do their work, because Michael Lockwood goes on to say:
“Your letter to the Director of Public Prosecutions regarding these issues has helpfully brought about a greater focus and collaborative effort between our respective organisations to better understand the root causes of possible delays. We are clear there is a shared responsibility to work towards improved timeliness in decision making post investigation. To this end we are collating additional information on our cases with the CPS and agreeing how we might put in place better systems for sharing information and escalating cases.”
The IOPC made further recommendations to the England and Wales police forces about working together to develop guidelines and commissioning research into the trauma caused—predominantly to people from black, Asian and other minority ethnic backgrounds, including children and young people—by the use of stop and search, which is a topical issue that has come up in the House recently. As a result of the report, the IOPC has undertaken widespread consultation. It is clear from Michael Lockwood’s words that our report has served a positive purpose and hit home, and the IOPC has picked up many of our recommendations. So far, so good, but there is still a lot more of the job to be done.
It is an inevitable part of any complaints system that those whose complaints are not upheld will be discontent. There is none the less a perception that complaints against police officers are unlikely to succeed and that investigations are over-complex, take too long and frequently result in limited action, even against officers who have been found guilty of misconduct. It should be clear that a police officer accused of mistreating a member of the public, or of bullying colleagues or subordinates, should be subject to investigation and—if proven to have done so—sanctioned, just like any other person working in a public service. Public confidence is undermined if misconduct is not appropriately punished, and the Home Office and the Home Secretary need to ensure that that message is received and acted on at the highest level of our 43 police forces, particularly as a new commissioner is chosen for the Metropolitan police.
During our inquiry, the question arose as to whether the IOPC should be staffed by investigators who are not former police officers. Opinion was divided on whether those who had previously served in the police should be excluded because they would potentially be marking their own homework or that of their colleagues. On the other side of the argument, we acknowledge that ex-police officers bring skills learned on the job and an understanding of police culture that is beneficial in investigations. It seems that an appropriate balance of former serving officers and investigators with other backgrounds is the right one to strike, but it may be that the IOPC should seek to widen its pool of potential candidates to include those with investigative experience from other spheres, including former military personnel.
At a more technical level, the IOPC has been headed since its creation by a director general without the support and oversight of an independent chair of the board, with Michael Lockwood effectively acting in both roles. He has held that post and been responsible for driving some of the improvements in the speed of investigations, as I have already mentioned. Mr Lockwood was relaxed when he gave us evidence on whether the time had come for more normal arrangements to be made for the organisation’s governance, as we would typically find in any business. It is now very rare, and often frowned upon, to find the same person occupying the roles of chair and chief executive of a board of a company. The Committee therefore recommended that the Government consider appointing a chair to the IOPC. We are glad to see from its response that the question will be considered in an upcoming review, and we hope that a fully accountable governance structure can now be put in place.
Perhaps the most worrying evidence we heard was of obstruction and delay in dealing with complaints, with the IOPC blaming officers for delays, and policing organisations blaming the IOPC. We recommend the creation of a culture, led from the top, that requires rapid, open and non-defensive responses to complaints about conduct. Quick and fair decisions are essential both to satisfy members of the public who complain about conduct and to clear the names of police officers who may be falsely accused of breaching standards, whose reputations can only suffer from long, dragged-out cases, and whose careers may be in limbo while an investigation is ongoing.
The IOPC could do more to use its powers actively to call to account officers who appear not to co-operate with investigations, and chief constables should also do all in their power to ensure that officers do not treat complaints as an inconvenience or a triviality. IOPC reports on cases below the level of the egregious examples I gave earlier in my speech now result in learning recommendations for forces, and a strong focus is needed to ensure that the learning available is adopted and embedded within the police.
On the delay issue, I would cite an example from my own experience. Some years ago, I was the subject of a police investigation as a result of a wholly vexatious complaint from a constituent. That later became the subject of an inquiry by the Standards Committee that found that the chief constable of Sussex had been in breach of parliamentary protocols and of privilege. I subsequently lodged a complaint with the forerunner of the IOPC, which took well over three years to investigate. During that process, the possibility of criminal behaviour by one of the investigating officers was raised, because he had frustrated the investigation process to play for time.
When the complaint body reported, it upheld four of my five complaints, casting a good deal of blame on the officers involved, right up to the chief constable of Sussex. The problem was that when the report eventually came out, every single senior officer who was a subject of the report had retired and no action could be taken against them. It is that sort of frustration that people feel, and there is no excuse for such long, drawn-out investigations. Such investigations are not in anybody’s interest, be they the complainer or the target of the investigations. I am glad that measures, which the Minister may want to mention, have been put in place to allow retrospective action to be taken if it so happens that police officers are no longer employed directly in the police force.
I will touch briefly on the Committee’s other main conclusions. I mentioned that we recommended that the role of chair and chief executive should be split, and the Government have responded to that. We urge the Government to consider police complaints as part of the review of the police and crime commissioner model that is currently under way, and to make an early assessment of PCC involvement in the police complaints system.
PCCs are an under-utilised resource. They exist to be democratic bodies that are accountable to local residents and taxpayers, and have developed a good deal of knowledge. My own PCC, Katy Bourne, is one of the most experienced and respected of the PCCs, and has undertaken a lot of helpful initiatives and is very public facing. We should involve PCCs more in how we deal with complaints, because they do not want to have lots of complaints against their own police constabulary. It would inform their work better if they were more integrated with the complaints that come in, as he or she could see whether there is a problem that they need to do something about at a senior level. That is an important Committee recommendation for the Home Office on the work it is currently undertaking.
It may be too soon to understand whether PCC involvement in the police complaints system is realising the benefits that the Government hope for, but we are concerned that the Government are not doing enough to monitor the implementation of the new PCC complaints model or to encourage uptake. We note that there are enhanced opportunities for PCCs to play a greater role in the local complaints process following the reforms in 2020. The three models present a unique opportunity for PCCs as part of their complaint handling responsibilities proactively and systematically to support more effective complaint systems within their forces, although what they do should not delay complaint handling processes any further.
We urge the Government to fund PCCs adequately, so they are able to take on those models as a minimum requirement in their complaint handling roles. This will provide PCCs the opportunity to work more closely with their forces, for example, to record and systematically monitor the root causes of complaints and recurrent issues that affect their communities disproportionately and how their forces resolve those issues. The input of PCCs and their commitment to do something about the issue within their local constabularies should be a win-win situation for PCCs and for the complaints process.
The Government’s recent changes to the police complaints and discipline system were intended to simplify and speed up the process. None the less, the language used to explain systems to members of the public who wish to make complaints remains too complex and technical, which contributes to public disengagement and lack of confidence in the system.
The Committee recommended that the police discipline system needs to be simpler and more transparent. All key stakeholders in the policing sphere—the IOPC, the National Police Chiefs’ Council, the forces, the College of Policing and the Crown Prosecution Service—should be required to publish plain language versions of the systems available in different languages and accessible formats, which should be made available online and in print.
I mentioned earlier that there is a clear absence of urgency and a culture of non-co-operation from some police forces involved in investigations. Appropriate sanctions must therefore follow for any officer with disciplinary proceedings, whether serving or retired. Specific reforms were made to the discipline system under the implementation of the 2020 reforms, including the possibility for former officers to face disciplinary proceedings if allegations came to light within 12 months of their leaving the force, but that still may not be thorough enough.
The example of the IOPC taking seven years to clear one police officer of misconduct is an exceptional case, but demonstrates why the IOPC must focus its efforts on concluding investigations as quickly as possible. Quite aside from the effect on an individual’s morale, the removal of officers under investigation from frontline duties for lengthy periods may add to the strain on police resources generally, as well as blighting that officer’s career. The IOPC must also take care that its power to reinvestigate cases already concluded locally is used sparingly and when there is a clear public interest in undertaking further inquiry.
We recommended that a culture needs to be created within police forces—established by and led from the top—that requires rapid, open and non-defensive response to complaints about conduct, both to deal with misconduct where it arises, and to clear the names and reputations of officers who have not transgressed. This should not just be a finger-pointing exercise. It must be a learning exercise as well.
From my experience—such as on the child safeguarding programme or with the work of the former Secretary of State for Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), on accidents at work and patients who have suffered severe consequences—this is not just a question of whether it was an incompetent police officer, or surgeon in the health case, or child protection officer; it is about asking how the system allowed it to happen. That is the so-called black box approach, and we need to see far more of it in policing to encourage people to come forward when there are problems, so that we can make the problems right without those people being scared doing so because somebody will point a finger at them and everybody will automatically be blamed. It can be down to the system that stands in the way of people doing their jobs as best they can.
The IOPC must use its powers effectively to minimise delays to investigations at an early stage of the process. It should proactively call to account those responsible for delays or who refuse to co-operate with investigations. Police forces, individual officers and their representative organisations must take more responsibility for rooting out bad behaviour and lifting the cloud of complaint against officers who have done their exceptionally difficult job properly.
We welcome the super-complaints process and are encouraged by the Home Office’s pledge to review the designated bodies that can submit super-complaints on systemic issues in policing in order to include a broader range of organisations, including disability organisations. We urge the Home Office to highlight on its super-complaints website that the 16 designated bodies should collaborate with non-designated bodies as appropriate to make a complaint on matters raised by non-designated bodies.
We recommend that the Government monitor and review biannually how effectively local policing bodies are holding their chief constables accountable for implementing IOPC recommendations in their forces, and report the outcomes to the Select Committee. We urge the Government to review how the IOPC, the HMICFRS and coroners’ learning recommendations are reported to the public in a more joined-up and meaningful way, and we recommend that data be published centrally in order to simplify and streamline access to this important information.
There are a lot of sensible and proportionate recommendations there. In many cases, the Government and the Home Office have responded favourably.
Our report and the evidence we published alongside it contains many examples of what police misconduct feels like to members of the public who experience it. Aside from the high-profile examples I have given, most cases are more routine, more local and more capable of quick resolution. Typical complaints may be about how the police have treated a person—rudeness, use of excessive force, abuse of rights or wrongful arrest, for example. There is no excuse for those complaints not to be turned around much more rapidly.
As I said at the outset, our society is policed by consent. We give police officers considerable powers to do a job that is often difficult, dangerous and always essential to our safety and security, and the vast majority of officers perform that duty in an exemplary manner. The granting of those powers comes, however, with a duty to the public, who the police serve—that the police will conduct themselves according to the highest possible standards of professional behaviour.
Officers who commit crimes are subject to the full force of the law. Steps have been taken to ensure that those who fall below those standards are identified, and that sanctions are taken, ranging from retraining to dismissal from the force. The IOPC deserves credit for those steps. It also requires our exhortation to go further and faster to re-establish full trust in our constabularies. Part of the job is done, but there is more to go.
Before I call other colleagues, I must put it on record that I was also once a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee, so I look forward to the Minister’s response. I can confirm the long-standing membership of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton)—maybe we should refer to him as the “Father of the Committee”.
It is a pleasure to serve under you this afternoon, Ms Ghani. I think it is an excellent idea to recognise the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and his long-standing membership of the Home Affairs Committee. His institutional memory of what has happened on that Committee has certainly been important not only in putting together this report, but in our work on policing.
The hon. Member has set out clearly and effectively the findings and recommendations of our report. It is quite clear that the Home Affairs Committee inquiry looked at the role and remit of the IOPC in relation to the police complaints and discipline system, and explored the continuing disquiet at the way in which police forces in England and Wales investigate and deal with complaints about the conduct of forces and individual officers. Importantly, we sought to consider what changes might be required to improve public confidence in the police complaints and discipline system.
We thought it was important to undertake parliamentary scrutiny of that important role, given, as the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said, the establishment of the newly created IOPC in January 2018, and because the Committee had not looked at the topic for nine years, since the publication of its last report on the matter—I do not think the hon. Gentleman was a member of the Committee at that point. Our report has covered several different areas, which were set out effectively. I will focus my contribution on a couple of areas that we looked at in the Committee that will hopefully complement what the hon. Gentleman said in his opening remarks. First, I will focus on the treatment of vulnerable adults, specifically people with autism, and how they interact in the police complaints process.
A well-functioning conduct and complaints system is essential to maintaining the trust in the balance created by the founding Peel principles between the police and public. Despite the welcome reforms and improvements, some submissions to our inquiry demonstrate that there is continuing dissatisfaction with the handling of police complaints, and that much more work is needed to address both complainants’ and officers’ concerns. In our report, we noted that the IOPC impact report 2020-21 stated that 43% of people surveyed were confident that the IOPC did a good job, compared with 44% in 2019-20. Obviously, there is still a lot of work to do.
In the evidence heard and received during the course of our inquiry, individuals with autism and parents of children with autism outlined systemic issues in their treatment in the police complaints and criminal justice process. Many felt they had been badly let down by the IOPC and the police, and that that had caused distress to families and friends.
Fiona Laskaris, whose autistic son Christopher was unlawfully killed by a drug addict in 2016, told us:
“the IOPC urgently needs to start engaging in a meaningful way in cases involving people with disabilities, and particularly… with autism”.
Fiona argued that cases involving people with autism
“warrant an enhanced level of independent scrutiny”
and suggested the existing statutory safeguarding duties to protect vulnerable adults who come into contact with the police were not working.
We received anonymous evidence that one autistic person, who had experienced frequent contact with the police, including being arrested for alleged attacks, was not treated as a vulnerable adult, even though they informed the police they were autistic and had requested an appropriate adult for assistance. The anonymous submission claimed that the police “never acknowledge or check” their autism awareness card, even when their wallet is being searched, which always happens when the police seize personal items.
The Home Secretary wrote to the Committee on 9 December 2021 and said,
“Many police forces have developed additional training programmes”
“various autism alert card schemes, apps, and the creation of easy-read ‘widget-based’ sheets (using icons or pictographs) to aid communication in custody suites.”
She highlighted the IOPC statutory guidance for forces on complaint handling, which outlines the
“importance of accessibility as well as the duty under the Equality Act 2010 to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that a disabled person does not suffer any substantial disadvantage when accessing a service.”
The Home Secretary said it was
“important that those dealing with complaints recognise the particular vulnerabilities of individuals with autism”.
In spite of these welcome statements by the Home Secretary, some evidence to our Committee suggests that autistic people are still not always been treated fairly by the police.
I want to say a little more about super-complaints, which the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham commented on. In her evidence to the Committee, Fiona Laskaris, who I mentioned earlier, proposed that the super-complaints process could be used to investigate system failures in the treatment of vulnerable adults, specifically people with autism. Since November 2018, the super-complaints process has enabled designated public and charitable organisations to ask HMICFRS, the IOPC and the College of Policing to consider investigating what they think are systemic issues affecting policing in England and Wales.
Our report expressed concern that of the 16 organisations designated by the Home Office that can raise such issues or concerns on behalf of the public, no specialist organisation represents complainants with disabilities, including autism. The Home Secretary wrote to the Committee in December 2021 and pledged to review the designated bodies that can submit super-complaints on systemic issues in policing to include a broader range of organisations, including disability organisations. We welcome that commitment, but nearly two years on, I hope the Minister can confirm when the Government will review the super-complaints system. As we have heard, the Home Secretary confirmed to the Committee that a designated body should collaborate with non-designated organisations and, where appropriate, make a complaint on the basis of the matters raised.
Our recommendation was that the Home Office should highlight on its super-complaints website that the 16 designated bodies should collaborate with non-designated bodies as appropriate to make a complaint on matters raised by those non-designated bodies. We are pleased that the Government have made that change on their super-complaints website, but we urge them, the IOPC and other relevant policing bodies to make the public aware that the super-complaints process is accessible to all groups and interests.
I thank everybody who assisted the Home Affairs Committee in our inquiry. We will be watching what happens on our recommendations in this area, and following progress over the months and years to come on this important issue, as we know police misconduct and complaints have been in the news a lot in recent times, and it is very much an issue that the public care about.
Thank you, Ms Ghani; it is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I was on the Home Affairs Committee at the same time as you, and I agree with you that we should perhaps call the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) the Father of the Committee.
Absolutely. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson), who chairs the Committee, and the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham for securing this important debate, and I thank the wider Committee for its important and timely scrutiny of this issue. Like both Members have said, it is very much in the news at the moment—it is top of the agenda, and rightly so.
It is also right that we thank those who submitted evidence, written or oral, to the inquiry to help shine a light on this issue. In particular, my right hon. Friend referred to the anonymous submissions, which are very significant. I thank her for highlighting the issue of autism and disability. Will the Minister say where we are with the super-complaints and the 16 designated bodies? We do not have anybody representing those with disabilities; will the Government be making any recommendations to get an organisation that does? What will they do to strengthen that process?
I thank the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham for highlighting his personal experience, of which I was unaware, with respect to Operation Midland. As he said, we are in privileged positions, so the fact that it took him three years to get a resolution, with doors closed on him and the closing of ranks right up to the chief constable of Sussex, is deeply worrying. That was the situation despite our being in positions of power and privilege—even more reason for us to ensure that the Government respond appropriately to this debate and take on the Committee’s recommendations.
The official Opposition believe that the Committee’s report is a timely and thorough examination of the police complaints process, and that the Government must properly heed its recommendations. All Members—Government and Opposition—support the long-standing principle of policing by consent in this country. That principle is fundamental to maintaining public support in our criminal justice system, and law and order more widely.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham referred to the horrible murders of Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry. The fact that the police officers took those horrific pictures of the bodies was used by the defence team during the trial. This is not just about the complaints; it is about the impact of those complaints and what that can lead to with respect to justice for victims of crime.
The principle of policing by consent separates our policing system from many of those around the world. It is a principle that must be protected and strengthened. But the process must be underpinned by robust and well-functioning systems of complaint and redress for members of the public who believe that proper procedures have not been followed, whether on purpose or inadvertently. That is vital in maintaining public trust in our police, and in ensuring that the hard work of the great majority of police officers is not undermined and that, when mistakes arise, they are learned from.
It has been said during the debate—no doubt the Minister will reiterate it—that police officers regularly go above and beyond, in some instances risking their lives, to keep the public safe and fight crime. We have experienced that here in Westminster, and we continue to experience it across the country. However, as the Committee’s report notes, appalling examples of misconduct, such as the one that occurred with the murder of Sarah Everard, and the disgraceful, misogynistic, racist and bullying behaviour of a substantial number of officers at London’s Charing Cross police station, add to a long list of serious breaches of public trust. That is why we, the official Opposition, agree with the Committee that there is a strong need for cultural change right from, to ensure that lessons are learned from past mistakes, that proper action is taken to address poor or unprofessional behaviour, and that police forces up and down the country demonstrate that they understand that public trust in policing needs to be earned and constantly maintained.
I am pleased that the Committee has highlighted the advances that the IOPC has made since it replaced the Independent Police Complaints Commission. However, serious concerns remain about the transparency of the IOPC’s operations. I note that the Committee has particularly highlighted the poor communication with regard to its inquiries, including with Lady Brittan over the false allegations made against her late husband, Lord Brittan. It is vital that the IOPC, as well as the Government, takes note of this cross-party Committee’s recommendations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) is sorry that she cannot be here, but during yesterday’s ministerial statement in the main Chamber on the Metropolitan police, she was clear that the Home Office must not stand back from this issue. It needs real leadership to drive reforms through. The Home Secretary and her Department must engage seriously with police reform to stop appalling scandals of the kind we have seen in recent years.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), the shadow Home Secretary, has also been pushing for reform, having been the Chair of the Committee when this inquiry was initiated. Sadly, we have heard yet more examples today that show why it is important to shine a light on these issues.
Labour has consistently called for an overhaul of police standards. We want to see: much stronger vetting processes, better training, including on issues such as misogyny and racism, quicker and more robust misconduct proceedings, and better guidance on the use of social media, including WhatsApp, by police officers and staff. In the wake of the Child Q case, we also called for updated national guidance—which we are yet to see—on the strip-searching of children. When the Minister gets to his feet, I would be grateful if he could confirm what steps his Department is taking in each of these areas.
We know that there are several ongoing inquiries and reviews into policing, including the Casey and Angiolini inquiries, and the HMICFRS review of vetting. These are important pieces of work, and the Opposition look forward to reading their conclusions and recommendations. However, we could be waiting months for these inquiries to conclude, with the implementation of any recommendations taking even longer. As has been said in this debate, that is not okay. As my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central emphasised yesterday, we must have action now to address these issues. We cannot afford to wait.
Can the Minister also outline what progress the Home Office has made in implementing the Committee’s recommendations? In particular, could he provide an update on the steps taken in response to recommendation 9, which relates to the speeding up of complaints, investigation and disciplinary processes? In far too many cases, police officers who are disciplined for misconduct remain in their posts for months, if not years, while misconduct proceedings are set up. That was certainly true in the recent Charing Cross case, and the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham mentioned that his case took three years and that the officers involved had actually retired by that point. That does not give us confidence. Wherever standards in policing fall short, they should be dealt with as quickly and efficiently as possible. Can the Minister outline what steps are being taken in this specific area?
Police officers up and down this country do incredibly important work, including in my area of Bradford, which is covered by West Yorkshire police. Members from across the House will have countless stories of police officers and staff going above and beyond, running towards danger and serving their communities. I want to put on record my thanks to West Yorkshire police, because we had the loss of Jo Cox, but the police step up and protect us as MPs, so that we can do our job, including in this place. It is in the interests of us all—politicians, police and the public—to ensure the highest possible standards for our police service. Serious work is needed, which includes reforming the police complaints system.
Again, I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North, who is the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, and the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham for securing this debate and for keeping up the pressure on this very important issue.
It is a great pleasure, Ms Ghani, to appear before you for the first time and also to appear for the first time before someone who was elected to the Commons on the same day that I was. That happy day in 2015 seems an awful long time ago. [Laughter.] I am very grateful—
I am also grateful to the assembled members—current and former—of the Home Affairs Committee for contributing to this debate. I am particularly grateful to the current members, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) and my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), for securing it. It is an immensely important topic. We have had some interesting contributions, which I will take away and digest.
As a number of Members have said, the police perform a unique and critical role in our society. The public look to them for protection and reassurance and, in certain circumstances, through us, authorise them to sometimes use lethal force against our fellow citizens. The public rightly expect all who serve to uphold high standards of conduct and professionalism. As I have said on many occasions—pretty much since I was appointed deputy Mayor for policing more than a decade ago—public confidence and trust are integral to the long-standing model of policing by consent. It is fundamental to the very essence of policing in the United Kingdom. I have worked hard during my career in fighting crime to ensure that we cleave to that model and do not drift towards the warrior model of policing that we see in other jurisdictions.
A range of elements come together to form the full picture when it comes to securing and maintaining public confidence. One of those is an effective conduct and complaints system. As Members have said, the vast majority of police officers already act with the highest standards of professionalism. It is therefore all the more disappointing and, in some instances, completely shocking when the behaviour and actions of a few undermine the hard work of their dedicated colleagues. When things do go wrong it is vital that the systems in place are robust and fair, and stand up to scrutiny.
I note the positive comments in the Committee’s report on the February 2020 reforms made to the police conduct and complaints systems and the significant improvement in the IOPC since 2018. Of course, we accept that there is more to do. With policing—indeed, with any major public service—complacency is something we must fight against with all our might and energy. We must strive constantly for improvement; the public deserve nothing less.
As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham mentioned, the Independent Office for Police Conduct was launched in 2018 following reforms to the IPCC, which scrapped the old commission structure in favour of a single head of the organisation. The new structure resulted in the director general having a combined role that includes chairing the unitary board. The aim of having a single role was to both streamline and demonstrate the independence of decision making to enhance public and police confidence. Scrutiny of and support for the director general is provided by the unitary board, on which the non-executive directors must be in a majority. There is a senior independent non-executive director.
Since its launch in January 2018 and under Michael Lockwood’s leadership, the IOPC has completed more than 91% of the core independent investigations started since then within 12 months. The average length of all investigations has fallen from more than 11 months in 2018 to less than nine months now. I understand that the backlog that was inherited on the conversion to the IOPC has been eliminated. That is huge progress, which, I am happy to say, was also highlighted in the Committee’s report. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham asked about the number of former police officers on the staff: it is 28%. That is a number that we need to keep an eye on, as he said, in terms of their expertise.
Last year, the Home Secretary announced that she was bringing forward the first periodic review of the IOPC, in response to pressure from my hon. Friend and others. Such reviews of the Government’s arm’s length bodies typically consider the effectiveness of an organisation and its fitness for purpose. We agree that the existing governance structure, along with the Home Affairs Committee’s specific recommendation on the director general’s role, should be looked at as part of that review. The review has not started; however, we are currently working on the arrangements, including identifying an independent reviewer. We will update the Committee when we are able to confirm further details.
The Government are clear in our determination to listen and act on issues important to the general public and their confidence in policing—including accountability, which is crucial to public trust. As colleagues will recall from the Committee’s report, the IOPC is already making a concerted effort to uphold confidence in the police complaints system, which includes greater transparency in the publication of investigation outcomes, actively listening to policing bodies and communities about their concerns, improved investigation timeliness and thematic reviews.
The legislative reforms in 2020 to overhaul the police complaints and disciplinary system were wide ranging, and were designed to simplify processes while increasing transparency and independence. The reforms have significantly reduced the bureaucracy in handling low-level customer service matters, which account for the majority of complaints. The most serious cases continue to be dealt with under robust processes, including independent investigations by the IOPC.
We continue to engage with policing stakeholders across the piece, including the National Police Chiefs’ Council, and we welcome the ongoing engagement of the Police Federation and other staff associations. We have agreed to review the impact of the reforms, including considering the role of police and crime commissioners in policing complaints. As part of that wider review, we will look at the issues raised by the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North about super-complaints.
Recent high-profile cases of misconduct have shone a light on the culture that exists in some areas of policing. Aside from examples of appalling behaviour that has no place anywhere, let alone within an institution entrusted to protect the public, there is a wider impact on how policing is perceived. When standards are not met, it not only undermines the excellent work done by thousands of officers, staff and volunteers day in, day out, but risks damaging the legitimacy of policing in the eyes of the public. It is therefore crucial that there are effective systems and safeguards in place to ensure that all officers adhere to the high standards expected of them and that breaches of those standards are identified quickly and dealt with appropriately.
Although the Government have overseen significant progress in the police complaints system in recent years, we do agree that forces, individuals and their representative organisations must take further responsibility for rooting out bad behaviour. The College of Policing is currently undertaking a review of the code of ethics. The review will provide clear expectations that everyone in policing has a duty to challenge and report behaviour that undermines the profession and damages public confidence, and to be open and accountable and learn from mistakes at an organisational and individual level.
As part of the 2020 integrity reforms, the Home Office introduced a duty of co-operation for police officers. The duty provides clarity on the level of co-operation required by an officer where they are a witness in an investigation, inquiry, or other formal proceedings. Failure to co-operate is a breach of the professional standards and can be dealt with by police forces accordingly.
The Government will respond in due course to Bishop James Jones’s report on the experiences of the Hillsborough families and the report of the Daniel Morgan independent panel. The Government will also consider calls for a broader duty of candour for public bodies and authorities—an issue raised by various Members.
Colleagues may also recall that the Home Secretary has announced the Angiolini inquiry, which a couple of Members referred to, part two of which is expected to consider wider policing matters, such as barriers to whistleblowing, vetting practices, and professional standards and discipline, including workplace cultures. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham pointed out, since 2017 it has been the case that retired police officers can be brought back to face gross misconduct proceedings.
I again thank members of the Committee for securing this debate. I am grateful for the opportunity that it has provided me to underscore just how seriously we take this issue. This is not an end point in our work on police integrity and the complaints system. As I said in my opening remarks, the maintenance of trust and the model of consent require constant attention and adjustment as we face different circumstances and incidents. The Committee has my undertaking that we will report to it on our progress on this issue. We will take seriously its report and weave it into the work that we do. We will continue with the work programme to reinforce the fundamental foundation of policing in this country, which is the trust and confidence that the British public have and the consent that they give to the policing model.
Thank you, Ms Ghani. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in this debate, which has felt more like a Home Affairs Committee alumni reunion at times, given that you, Ms Ghani, and the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah), and the two Back-Bench speakers are all former or current members of the Committee. Only the Minister and his Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra), have never added to the greatness of that Committee or benefited from being members of it in the past. But who knows? Those days might lie ahead, as many of us have found out.
This is a good report from the Select Committee. I think that the Government response to it was better than many others and made some helpful observations. It is clear from the Minister’s words that the considerations that we have raised are very much forming part of further research, reviews and reforms that the Home Office is looking at in relation to various other aspects of policing. That is very much to be welcomed. We also very much welcome his commitment to continuing to keep the Committee informed on that progress, because it is germane to much of the work that the Home Office and Home Affairs Committee do in relation to so many aspects of policing.
As I said earlier, it has probably never been more important that we do much more to restore public confidence in the police, which has suffered some quite severe blows from bad apples, and more, in recent months and years. It is in everybody’s interests if we can do that. I hope this report has put the IOPC’s work and the importance of an effective and efficient complaints body firmly on the radar, particularly for the Home Office. We absolutely need a complaints system that has urgency, speed, thoroughness and credibility at its heart, and that absolutely acknowledges that it needs to be able to do its job with the confidence of the public, whom the police are there to protect. Therefore this is not an end point. I am glad that the Minister has realised that there is more work to be done. It is a subject for constant attention and adjustment.
In closing the debate, I thank all the police for the extraordinary bravery and the importance of the work that they take for granted and do day in, day out, and that we should not take for granted. The vast majority of police officers, who serve to protect us, do an outstanding job. It is in their interests, perhaps more than most, that they are scrutinised by a complaints system that is robust and respected and inspires confidence in the public whom they police, if we are to continue with the greatly valued system of policing by consent, which we have had in this country since Peel and which we very much hope will continue. The IOPC plays an important part in that, so getting it right is absolutely vital. I am pleased that we have had the opportunity to put all those comments on the record today. Thank you, Ms Ghani.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Sixth Report of the Home Affairs Committee, Session 2021-22, Police Conduct and Complaints, HC 140, and the Government response, HC 1264.
Relationship and Sex Education Materials in Schools
[Peter Dowd in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered relationship and sex education materials in schools.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) and the hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) who have co-sponsored this debate, and the Backbench Business Committee, which has been so generous with the time allowed—we will try not to take it all up.
Let me start with a health warning: my speech is not suitable for children. That is sadly ironic, given that all of the extreme and inappropriate material I am about to share has already been shared with children in our schools. As a former biology teacher, I have delivered my fair share of sex education. Teaching the facts of life often comes with more than a little embarrassment for teachers and pupils alike. I remember teaching about reproduction when I was about 30 weeks pregnant with my first baby. One child asked me if my husband knew I was pregnant. Another, having watched a video on labour and birth, commented, “Miss, that’s really gonna hurt, you know.”
Just as children do not know about photosynthesis or the digestive system without being taught, neither do they know the facts of reproduction. Thus, it is important that children are taught clearly and truthfully about sex. Of course, there is a lot more to sexual relationships than just anatomy. Many people believe that parents should take the leading role in teaching children about relationships, since one of the main duties of parenting is to pass on wisdom and values to children. Nevertheless, in some families parents cannot or do not teach children about relationships, and it is also sadly the case that the internet now presents children with a vast array of false and damaging information about sex.
There is widespread consensus that schools do have a role to play in relationships and sex education. That is why the Government chose to make the teaching of relationships and sex education compulsory in all secondary schools from September 2020. According to the guidance, the aim was to help children
“manage their academic, personal and social lives in a positive way.”
Less than two years later, my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary has written to the Children’s Commissioner asking her for help in supporting schools to teach RSE because we know that the quality of RSE is inconsistent.
The Education Secretary is right that the teaching of sex education is inconsistent. Unlike maths, science or history, there are no widely adopted schemes of work or examinations, so the subject matter and materials vary widely between schools. However, inconsistency should be the least of the Education Secretary’s concerns when we look at the reality of what is being taught. Despite its good intentions, the new RSE framework has opened the floodgates to a whole host of external providers who offer sex education materials to schools. Now, children across the country are being exposed to a plethora of deeply inappropriate, wildly inaccurate, sexually explicit and damaging materials in the name of sex education. That is extremely concerning for a number of reasons.
First, if we fail to teach children clearly and factually about relationships, sex and the law they will be exposed to all sorts of risks. For example, if sex is defined as, “anything that makes you horny or aroused”—the definition offered by the sex education provider, School of Sexuality Education—how does a child understand the link between sex and pregnancy? Sex Education Forum tells children they fall into one of two groups: menstruators or non-menstruators. If a teenage girl’s periods do not start, what will she think? How does she know that is not normal? How does she know to consult a doctor? How will she know she is not pregnant? Will she just assume she is one of the non-menstruators?
The book for teachers, “Great Relationships and Sex Education”, suggests an activity for 15-year-olds in which children are given prompt cards and have to say whether they think certain types of sexual acts are good or bad. How do the children know what acts come with health risks, or the risk of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections? If we tell children that, “love has no age”—the slogan used in a Diversity Role Models resource—do we undermine their understanding of the legal age of consent? Sex education provider Bish Training informs children that:
“Most people would say that they had a penis and testicles or a clitoris and vagina, however many people are in the middle of this spectrum with how their bodies are configured.”
As a former biology teacher, I do not even know where to start with that one.
As adults, we often fail to remember what it is like to be a child and we make the mistake of assuming that children know more than they do. Children have all sorts of misconceptions. That is why it is our responsibility to teach them factually, truthfully and in age-appropriate ways, so that they can make informed decisions.
Another concern relates to the teaching of consent. Of course it is vital to teach about consent. The Everyone’s Invited revelations make that abundantly clear. But we must remember that, under the law, children cannot consent to sex. Sex education classes conducted by the group It Happens Education told boys of 13 and 14 that the law
“is not there to…punish young people for having consensual sex”
“It’s just two 14 year olds who want to have sex with each other who are consensually having sex.”
It is not hard to see the risks of this approach, which normalises and legitimises under-age sex. Not only are children legally not able to consent; they also do not have the developmental maturity or capacity to consent to sexual activity—that is the point of the age of consent.
The introduction of graphic or extreme sexual material in sex education lessons also reinforces the porn culture that is damaging our children in such a devastating way. Of course it is not the fault of schools that half of all 14-year-olds have seen pornography online—much of it violent and degrading—but some RSE lessons are actively contributing to the sexualisation and adultification of children. The Proud Trust has produced a dice game encouraging children to discuss explicit sexual acts, based on the roll of a dice. The six sides of the dice name different body parts—such as anus, vulva, penis and mouth—and objects. Two dice are thrown and children must name a pleasurable sexual act that can take place between the two body parts. The game is aimed at children of 13 and over.
Sexwise is a website run and funded by the Department of Health and Social Care and recommended in the Department for Education’s RSE guidance. The website is promoted in schools and contains the following advice:
“Maybe you read a really hot bit of erotica while looking up Dominance and Submission…Remember, sharing is caring”.
Sex education materials produced by Bish Training involve discussion of a wide range of sexual practices—some of them violent. This includes rough sex, spanking, choking, BDSM and kink. Bish is aimed at young people of 14 and over and provides training materials for teachers.
Even when materials are not extreme, we must still be careful not to sexualise children prematurely. I spoke to a mother who told me how her 11-year-old son had been shown a PowerPoint presentation in a lesson on sexuality. It was setting out characteristics and behaviours and asking children to read through the lists and decide whether they were straight, gay or bisexual. Pre-pubescent 11-year-olds are not straight, gay or bisexual—they are children.
Even School Diversity Week, a celebration of LGBTQIA+ promoted by the Just Like Us group, leads to the sexualisation of children. Of course schools should celebrate diversity and promote tolerance, but why are we doing that by asking pre-sexual children to align themselves with adult sexual liberation campaigns? Let us not forget that the + includes kink, BDSM and fetish.
My hon. Friend is giving a very illuminating speech. The material that she is talking about talks about the detailed practice of sexual acts. She is a former biology teacher herself. Are there not proper boundaries that teachers have to respect in teaching sex education, so that it does not get into talk about behaviours that really strays into a relationship that teachers and children should not have?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. There is guidance, which I will come on to, but the problem is that the guidance is often very vague and open to interpretation. I will absolutely come on to that in my remarks.
Even primary schools are not immune from using inappropriate materials. An “All About Me” programme developed by Warwickshire County Council’s Respect Yourself team introduces six and seven-year-olds to “rules about touching yourself”. I recently spoke to a mother in my constituency who was distraught that her six-year-old had been taught in school about masturbation. Sexualising children and encouraging them to talk about intimate details with adults breaks down important boundaries and makes them more susceptible and available to sexual predators, both on and offline.
Another significant concern is the use of RSE to push extreme gender ideology. Gender ideology is a belief system that claims that we all have an innate gender, which may or may not align with our biological sex. Gender ideology claims that, rather than sex being determined at conception and observed at birth, it is assigned at birth, and that doctors sometimes get it wrong.
Gender theory sadly has sexist and homophobic undertones, pushing outdated gender stereotypes and suggesting to same-sex-attracted adolescents that, instead of being gay or lesbian, they may in fact be the opposite sex. Gender theory says that if someone feels like a woman, they are a woman, regardless of their chromosomes, their genitals, or, in fact, reality.
Gender ideology is highly contested. It does not have a basis in science, and no one had heard of it in this country just 10 years ago. Yet, it is being pushed on children in some schools under the guise of RSE, with what can only be described as a religious fervour. Department for Education guidance states that schools should
“not reinforce harmful stereotypes, for instance by suggesting that children might be a different gender”,
“Resources used in teaching about this topic must…be…evidence based.”
Yet a video produced by AMAZE and used in schools suggests that boys who wear nail varnish or girls who like weight lifting might actually be the opposite sex. Resources by Brook claim:
“‘man’ and ‘woman’ are genders. They are social ideas about how people who have vulvas and vaginas, and people who have penises and testicles should behave”.
Split Banana offers workshops to schools where children learn ideas of how gender is socially constructed and explore links between the gender binary and colonialism. A Gendered Intelligence workshop tells children that:
“A woman is still a woman, even if she enjoys getting blow jobs.”
Just Like Us tells children that their biological sex can be changed. PSHE Association resources inform children that people whose gender matches the sex they were assigned at birth are described as cisgender.
Gender theory is even being taught to our very youngest children. Pop’n’Olly tells children that gender is male, female, both or neither. The Introducing Teddy book, aimed at primary school children, tells the story of Teddy, who changes sex, illustrated by the transformation of his bow tie into a hair bow. The Diversity Role Models primary training workshop uses the “Gender Unicorn”, a cartoon unicorn who explains that there is an additional biological sex category called “other”.
Numerous resources from numerous sex education providers present gender theory as fact, contrary to DFE guidance. However, it is not just factually incorrect resources that are making their ways into schools; visitors from external agencies are invited in to talk to children about sex and relationships, sometimes even without a teacher present in the room.
Guidance says that, when using external agencies, schools should check their material in advance and
“conduct a basic online search”.
However, a social media search of organisations such as Diversity Role Models reveals links to drag queens with highly sexualised, porn-inspired names, or in the case of Mermaids, the promotion of political activism, which breaches political impartiality guidelines.
In some cases, children are disadvantaged when they show signs of dissent from gender ideology, as we saw in the recent case, reported in the press, of a girl who was bullied out of school for questioning gender theory. I have spoken to parents of children who have been threatened with detention if they misgender a trans-identifying child or complain about a child of the opposite sex in their changing rooms. I have heard from parents whose child’s RSE homework was marked down for not adhering to this new creed.
Children believe what adults tell them. They are biologically programmed to do so; how else does a child learn the knowledge and skills they need to grow, develop and be prepared for adult life? It is therefore the duty of those responsible for raising children—particularly parents and teachers—to tell them the truth. Those who teach a child that there are 64 different genders, that they may actually be a different gender to their birth sex, or that they may have been born in the wrong body, are not telling the truth. It is a tragedy that the RSE curriculum, which should help children to develop confidence and self-respect, is instead being used to undermine reality and ultimately put children in danger.
Some may ask what harm is being done by presenting those ideas to children, and, of course, it is right to teach children to be tolerant, kind and accepting of others. However, it is not compassionate, wise, or legal to teach children that contested ideologies are facts. That is indoctrination, and it is becoming evident that that has some concerning consequences.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way, and for the progress she is making on this. I was intrigued, but another question is that in contested areas like this, it actually leads further than that. It is not just a sense of indoctrination; there are also physical consequences, because children will end up going through medical processes that lead them to almost irreversible problems later on, should it turn out to be something that is a problem for them. Does the hon. Lady think that is also a potential consequence of what has been going on?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The problem is that these ideas do not just stay as ideas; they have serious physical consequences. There has been a more than 4,000% rise in the referrals of girls to gender services over the last decade, and a recent poll of teachers suggests that at least 79% of schools now have trans-identifying children. That is not a biological phenomenon. It is social contagion, driven by the internet and reinforced in schools.
The Bayswater Support Group, which provides advice and support for parents of trans-identifying children, reports a surge of parents contacting them after their children are exposed to gender content in RSE lessons and in assemblies. A large proportion of parents say their child showed no sign of gender distress until either a school assembly or RSE lessons on those topics. Children who are autistic, who are same-sex attracted, who do not conform to traditional gender stereotypes, or who have mental health conditions are disproportionately likely to identify as trans or non-binary.
I have heard evidence from the Bayswater Support Group as well. Parents who had questioned children who came home from school after the school had supported their wanting to transition were contacted by social services because that could be construed in some way as harm towards the child, which is frightening given that they still have parental responsibility.
My hon. Friend mentioned physical aspects. Is there not also a mental health aspect? Teenagers and young children have so much to cope with these days—much more so than when we were going through puberty and growing up. They have all the pressures of social media. Almost to be forced to question their sex—if they do not, there is something wrong with them—puts extraordinary pressures on children, adding to all that they have to go through as teenagers already.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It does nothing but add to the anxiety and difficulty that many teenagers already face. That is why it is more important than ever that parents and schools tell children the truth about sex and relationships and gender.
When we think about the vulnerability of children with autism or same-sex attracted children to some of these ideas, we can look at resources from the Chameleon sex education group, which tells Tom’s testimony. Tom, a female, says:
“I guess I always felt different. Even on my first day of school I remember not feeling like other kids...I didn’t realise at the time it was because of my gender identity.”
When autistic and vulnerable children who are already struggling to fit in and feel accepted are presented with an explanation for their difficulties, it is not surprising that they are attracted to it.
Katie Alcock, senior lecturer in developmental psychology at the University of Lancaster, told me that children with autism right through the primary and secondary years struggle with the idea that other people think differently to them, and that something can have an underlying essence that is different to its reality. So teaching autistic children that their feelings of awkwardness might stem from being born in the wrong body is a failure of safeguarding.
In fact, children who tell a teacher at school that they are suffering from gender distress are then often excluded from normal safeguarding procedures. Instead of involving parents and considering wider causes for what the child is feeling and the best course of action, some schools actively hide the information from parents, secretly changing a child’s name and pronouns in school, but using birth names and pronouns in communications with parents.
One parent of a 15-year-old with a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome said she discovered that without her knowledge, her daughter’s school had started the process of socially transitioning her child, and has continued to do so despite the mother’s objections. Another mother said:
“It’s all happened very quickly and very unexpectedly after teaching at school during year seven and eight. As far as I can understand the children were encouraged to question the boundaries of their sexual identity as well as their gender identity. Her friendship group of eight girls all adopted some form of LGBTQ identity—either sexual identity or gender identity. My daughter’s mental health has deteriorated so quickly, to the point of self harm and some of the blame is put on me for not being encouraging enough of my daughter’s desire to flatten her breasts and for puberty blockers.”
As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said, some parents have been referred to social services when they have questioned the wisdom of treating their son as a girl or their daughter as a boy.
Socially transitioning a child—changing their name and pronouns, and treating them in public as a member of the opposite sex—is not a neutral act. In her interim report on gender services for children, paediatrician Dr Hilary Cass remarks that although social transition
“may not be thought of as an intervention or treatment,”
“an active intervention because it may have significant effects on a child or young person’s psychological functioning.”
The majority of adolescents who suffer from gender dysphoria grow out of it, but instead of safeguarding vulnerable children, schools are actively leading children down a path of transition. If a child presented with anorexia and a teacher’s response was to hide that from parents, celebrate the body dysmorphia and encourage the child to stop eating, that would be a gross safeguarding failure. For a non-medical professional to make a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, exclude the child’s parents and encourage the child to transition is just such a failure.
In some schools, children are not only taught about the concept of gender theory but signposted to information about physical interventions. Last year, sixth-formers at a grammar school sent a newsletter to girls as young as 11, detailing how to bind their breasts to “look more masculine” and outlining how surgery can remove tissue if it hurts too much. Also, schools have played a major role in referrals to gender identity clinics, where children are sometimes set on a path to medical and surgical transition.
I was really pleased to see the Health Secretary announce today that he is commissioning a more robust study of whether treatment at such clinics improves children’s lives or leads to later problems or regret, because schools may think that they are being kind, but the consequences of full transition—permanent infertility, loss of sexual function and lifelong health problems—are devastating, as has become clear following the case of Keira Bell.
Anyone hearing for the first time what is going on in schools might reasonably ask, “How can this be allowed?” The answer is that it is not allowed. DFE guidance tells schools:
“Resources used in teaching about this topic must always be age-appropriate and evidence-based. Materials which suggest that non-conformity to gender stereotypes should be seen as synonymous with having a different gender identity should not be used and you should not work with external agencies or organisations that produce such material.”
However, many teachers just do not have the time to look into the background of every group that provides sex education resources, and when faced with teaching such difficult and sensitive topics, they understandably reach for ready-made materials, without investigating their source.
Furthermore, those teachers who are aware of the harms are sometimes afraid to share their concerns. A lot of teachers have written to me about this situation, with one writing:
“I left my job in a Primary School after we were asked to be complicit in the ‘social transitioning’ of a 7 year old boy. This was after Gendered Intelligence came into the school and delivered training.”
Relationship and sex education in this country has become a wild west. Anyone can set themselves up as a sex education provider and offer resources and advice to schools. Imagine if someone with no qualifications could set themselves up as a geography resource provider, insert their own political beliefs on to a map of the world—perhaps they would put Ukraine inside the Russian border—and then sell those materials for use in schools. I do not believe that some of these sex education groups should have any place in our educational system.
Indeed, the guidance says that schools should exercise extreme caution when working with external agencies:
“Schools should not under any circumstances work with external agencies that take or promote extreme political positions or use materials produced by such agencies.”
Yet all the organisations that I have mentioned today, and many others, fall foul of the guidance. What is more, the Government are actually funding some of these organisations with taxpayers’ money. For example, The Proud Trust received money from the tampon tax, and EqualiTeach and Diversity Role Models have received money from the DFE as part of anti-bullying schemes. We have created the perfect conditions for a safeguarding disaster, whereby anyone can set up as an RSE provider and be given access to children, either through lesson materials or through direct access to classrooms.
Yet parents—those who love a child most and who are most invested in their welfare—are being cut out. In many cases, parents are refused access to the teaching materials being used by their children in school. This was highlighted by the case of Clare Page, which was reported at the weekend. She complained about sex education lessons that were being taught in her child’s school by an organisation called the School of Sexuality Education. Until this year, that organisation’s website linked to a commercial website that promoted pornography. Mrs Page’s daughter’s school refused to allow the family to have a copy of the material provided in lessons, saying it was commercially sensitive.
Schools are in loco parentis. Their authority to teach children comes not from the state and not from the teaching unions, but from parents. Parents should have full access to the RSE materials being used by their children. We have created this safeguarding disaster and we will have to find the courage to deal with it for the sake of our children.
My hon. Friend is making a compelling argument. She must have talked to the Department for Education about the matter before the debate. What I find difficult is everything else—she talked about geography and biology—is heavily inspected, and a school that departs from clear facts and teaches something different would immediately get a bad report and probably be put in special measures, yet when it comes to this subject, there seems to be no controls. Is that the case or is it just that the Department thinks this is something that only schools can judge?
I hope that the Minister will answer those questions, but my right hon. Friend is right. That is the source of the problem: the regulation and inspection criteria is not the same for these subjects, but it is even more of a problem for them because they are contested. As a science teacher, if I were to google a video of sodium being put in water, I will not find anything that anyone disagrees with or that departs from the truth. The trouble with some of these topics is there is such a wide range of contested views that we need a set of regulations and an accepted curriculum even more so, but I will come on to that.
The Health Secretary rightly compared the fear of causing offence, which may happen, with fears of being called racist when discussing the Rotherham grooming gangs. Exposing children to extreme sexual practices and ideology, telling them it is all about choice, connecting them with adults they do not know, cutting out parents, labelling parents as harmful or even referring them to social services, hiding information about a child from those who love them most—there are strong parallels here with grooming practices, and I have no doubt that children will be more susceptible to being groomed as a result of the materials they are being exposed to.
How have we gone so wrong? We seem to have abandoned childhood. Just as in the covid pandemic when we sacrificed young for old, our approach to sex education is sacrificing the welfare and innocence of children in the interests of adults’ sexual liberation. In 2022, our children are physically overprotected. They have too little opportunity to play unsupervised, to take responsibility and to mature and grow wise, yet at the same time they are being exposed to adult ideologies, being used as pawns in adults’ political agendas and at risk of permanent harm. What kind of society have we created where teachers need to undertake a risk assessment to take pupils to a local park, but a drag queen wearing a dildo is invited into a library to teach pre-school children?
Parents do not know where to turn, and many I have spoken to tell me how they complain to schools and get nowhere. Even the response from the DFE comes back the same every time telling parents that, “Where an individual has concerns, the quickest and most effective route to take is to raise the issue directly with the school.” The complaints system is circular and schools are left to mark their own homework.
Ofsted does not seem willing or able to uphold the DFE’s guidance. Indeed, it may be contributing to the problem. It was reported last week that Ofsted cites lack of gender identity teaching in primary schools as a factor in whether schools are downgraded. There is a statutory duty on the Department to review the RSE curriculum every three years, so the first review is due next year. I urge the Minister to bring forward that review and conduct it urgently. I understand that the Department is in the process of producing guidance for schools on sex and gender, so will Minister tell us when that will be available?
While much of the RSE guidance is sensible, terms such as “age appropriate” are too woolly and difficult to interpret. The guidance produced on political neutrality has been helpful, but this is not fundamentally a political issue. It is a matter of taking an evidence-based approach to what knowledge and ideas a child is able to process at different stages of their development. We do not try to teach babies to read or teach quantum mechanics to six-year-olds, because they are not developmentally ready, and neither should we teach about sexual pleasure or gender fluidity to pre-pubescent children or about extreme sex acts to adolescents. The RSE guidance and framework must be rewritten with oversight by experts in child development and put on a statutory footing to determine what should be taught, when and by whom. The DFE should consider creating a set of accredited resources, with regulatory oversight by Ofqual, and mandating that RSE be taught only by subject specialists. The Department has previously said in correspondence that it is
“investing in a central package to help all schools to increase the confidence and quality of their teaching practice in these subjects, including guidance and training resources to provide comprehensive teaching in these areas in an age-appropriate way.”
Can the Minister say when that package will be ready?
In the light of the Cass review interim report, the Department must write to schools with clear guidance about socially transitioning children, the law on single-sex facilities and the imperative to include parents in issues of safeguarding. The Department should also conduct a deep dive into the materials being used in schools, the groups that provide such materials and their funding sources.
My hon. Friend is making a fantastic speech. There is an awful lot of work that needs doing on this subject. There is an old saying: “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man.” While the Department is working on this issue, children are unfortunately being exposed to this material. The damage could be being done as we speak. We could do with action to withdraw some of this material with immediate effect while we do those deep dive studies. I think it is so important. It is happening now—as we sit here, children are being exposed to things in their school that they should not be. We need to do something immediately.
I completely agree. That is why I am calling on the Department to conduct this review urgently. It is incumbent on parents and teachers to speak out when they see those resources and express their concerns. Unfortunately, at the moment, many teachers and parents are powerless, which is why we very much need the help of the Department.
What is the Minister’s view on the amendment to the Schools Bill introduced in the House of Lords that would require schools to allow parents to view the materials being used in RSE? Another solution might be for the DFE to create a statutory obligation that schools can only use resources published online. That would put the onus on third-party providers to produce responsible, high-quality material and make it available for public and academic scrutiny. Does the Minister not agree that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and that parents have the right to know what their children are being taught, especially in matters of sex and relationships?
RSE in schools is not fit for purpose. I have no doubt that there are many schools and many teachers doing an excellent job of delivering RSE in a way that helps to prepare children for adult life, as was intended. However, from the sheer volume of evidence I have seen—I have spoken for 32 minutes, but I honestly could speak for two hours with the materials I have been given; however, I will allow other hon. Members to come in shortly—and the number of parents who have contacted me from all over the country and from all different types of schools, it seems clear that RSE is exposing far too many children to adult sexuality and adult ideology and is doing them harm.
Most teachers and headteachers mean well, but they are overwhelmed by political pressure, too busy to investigate the source of teaching materials and too confused by guidance that is at times weak and contradictory. At the moment, it is left to dedicated parents groups such as the Bayswater Support Group, Transgender Trend, the Safe Schools Alliance, Parents for Education and the Family Education Trust to support parents, guide them to complaints procedures and help them to engage with schools. However, it is the Department for Education that imposed the mandatory requirement for schools to deliver RSE, so it is fundamentally the responsibility of the Department to ensure that schools are equipped and held accountable to deliver it well.
I look forward to hearing from the Minister how the Department plans to clean up this mess and give our children the protection they deserve.
Order. Before I call Lloyd Russell-Moyle, I want to indicate that I will call the Opposition spokesperson at 4.08 pm; he and the Minister will have 10 minutes each. There will be a couple of minutes for Miriam Cates to respond at the end. Informally, that is about six minutes a speech. However, if we have too many interventions or the interventions are too long, we will have to cut that back.
I want to start with some things that I agreed with in what I have just heard. I agree that education materials in our schools should be made public. I agree with that for all subjects, actually, and not just in schools. I think of the scandal in universities, where academic journals are behind paywalls, so we cannot look to see what academics on public money are researching in this country without paying huge amounts. I totally agree on that point.
I totally agree we needed better guidance from the Government on the issue. In fact, when we introduced RSE or RSHE, one of the big problems was that the Government guidelines were late and delayed, and some of the problems we saw in places such as Birmingham, where parents were protesting outside schools, were because the guidelines were not clear enough, often putting too much on teachers having to negotiate with parents, rather than the Department protecting teachers by saying “These are exactly the things that should be covered.”
I totally agree that we need to have an education facilitated in schools with subject specialists. It is an ongoing scandal that we have biology teachers teaching this wide area when, as the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) has said, this is so much more than the metaphorical condom on the banana that students have in the last year of secondary school. It is about the relationship, the emotional aspect and mental health, so I totally agree.
Actually, the inclusion of this in a wider citizenship and RSHE portfolio, by which we developed an education pathway for trainee teachers during the last Labour Government, was important. The destruction of citizenship education over the last 10 years and, therefore, the training of teachers specialised in such areas has been a great failure. I know there has been some reversal of that, but I am afraid that that is the situation we are in now. We have fewer subject specialists in citizenship and RSHE because of the choices made in 2010. I agree on the principle that we need to reverse that.
Where I disagree, I am afraid, is on some of the hon. Member’s examples. I did not plan to say this, but during the pandemic, my second cousin—a 15-year-old boy—died in a tragic accident of auto-asphyxiation. It devastated the family, as can be imagined, and happened in the pandemic when we were only allowed six people at the funeral. If he had been taught about risky sex acts—he was 15, not a pre-pubescent child—and how to make sure he did things safely, rather than just learning something from the internet that then led to the end of his life, he might still be around and his family might not be devastated. So, actually, because of that personal experience I do have a problem with saying that we should not teach any of this to our children.
The hon. Member picks out examples of the dice or whatever that might sound frivolous, and I cannot judge how exactly things played out in those schools—she might well be right that it was played out by some teachers incorrectly—but the principle of learning about things before people are legally able to do them but when they are physically able to engage in them, which 15-year-olds are, I am afraid, could have been lifesaving.
My sister, who is a teacher in Essex, has worked hard to try and incorporate some of those teaching methods into the school’s RSHE, focused on an age-specific approach and on stories of people such as my cousin and others, so we can talk about the dangers of some of these things. We cannot know about the dangers of things if we do not talk about them, or if we say that they are just things that families need to talk about. I am afraid most families will not do that because those kinds of things are darn embarrassing to talk about—but also because you never think your child will do something like that. I disagree with that element of what we heard today. I do agree that there needs to be oversight and I do agree that there need to be checks to make sure that we are not just promoting risky activities; we need to be talking about the risks of risky activities. Then, when people are of age, they can make their own choices.
I want to reflect on the things I was planning to say in this debate in the last few seconds I have. The UK Youth Parliament ran a campaign for years to try to get RSHE better taught. Elements of the campaign were about emotions and relationships, and it was also about LGBT inclusive education—and that does include T. We have seen the Fédération Internationale de Natation ruling that competitors will not be able to swim unless they transitioned before they were 12, so we are in a difficult and complex world that we have to navigate. Broad-brush bans from the Department are unhelpful; we need to be content specific and school specific. The Department needs to show more leadership, but we cannot exclude talking about trans people or these complex issues in schools because that, I am afraid, would be very dangerous.
I thank the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) for his speech, which I know was deeply personal and very difficult to give. It really illuminated what we are talking about and showed that our overall approach has to be to prevent harm. I think we are all addressing the subject in that spirit, but we are now in a deeply unsatisfactory position in executing the delivery of this content and we need to do better.
One of the reasons I championed the importance of relationships and sex education in schools was that I had become concerned about the increasingly sexualised environment in our society, which sees young people exposed to sexuality and sexual practices before they are sufficiently mature to handle them. As my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) said, social media and the internet mean that we are all just one click away from pornography. The content of some of that material is of a much more exploitative nature than perhaps was available pre-internet, which is why we need to equip all our children with the tools to protect themselves.
We need to be able to teach young people about sex in a way that emphasises emotion and intimacy, and all the issues around consent and enjoyment. Their introduction to it can be about the purely physical aspects, which can be harmful and mean that behaviours can be normalised before children are able to properly understand what a healthy sexuality is based on: intimacy and consent. We have an environment that is difficult for both girls and boys, and we need to ensure that we address the emotional needs of both sexes, which are different.
For me, the importance of RSE is all about emphasising the primacy of consent and respect. I want boys to feel that they are able to call out sexually abusive behaviour by their peers when they witness it, because we know from recent campaigns that being a victim of sexually aggressive behaviour starts in schools.
I heard a horrendous example when I visited a local school on International Women’s Day. I was with a group of 13-year-old girls. Sometimes such visits go really well and there are loads of questions, but this was one of those really difficult ones, so I just lobbed it out there and asked, “How many of you have been harassed?” The answer was every single one of them, and for most it had happened in school. That abuse is exactly what we are talking about. I want to make sure that girls feel empowered to call that out and not just have to accept it.
The girls told me that they are pressurised into sharing intimate pictures, which are then shared by phone. One girl said to me, “If you make a stand, you just attract more attention to yourself and end up getting more harassment, and if you comply you’re easy. What are we supposed to do in those circumstances?” One difficulty with making sure that we start to tackle these issues at an age-appropriate time is, when is that time? The exposure to this content is unregulated and children can be exposed to it at a very young age.
I had high hopes that RSE would empower our girls and be an important tool in the war against sexual violence, but I have been horrified by some of the content highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge that is being delivered in schools. As she said, anyone can be a provider. The DFE needs to get a hold on that if it is going to protect our children from harm. My hon. Friend highlighted the dice game, which I was utterly appalled to see. It reduces sex to just being about penetrative acts. Forgive me, but at the risk of being romantic and sentimental, a healthy sexual relationship is about fulfilment for both parties—it is not just about physicality.
As the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown said, this is about safety and safe sex. A dice that displays objects and where they can be inserted is not a healthy approach to teaching people about safe sex. We hear that young girls now think that the way to avoid getting pregnant is to have anal sex—that that is safe sex—but that is not without other risks. We can teach people to have a healthier approach to their sexual relationships without sex being reduced to physical interaction.
I have more to say, but at the risk of crowding other Members out, I will stop there. If we are to churn out healthy children with a healthy respect for each other, and a safer environment for both girls and boys, the Department for Education needs to get a proper hold on making sure that good content in this field is circulated, and bad content is exterminated.
I thank the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) for bringing forward this debate. It is not an easy subject to talk about, to be truthful. It is not one I feel at ease with, but I wanted to come here to support the hon. Lady, because I realise what she is trying to do.
Relationships and sex education is an essential issue, and a crucial topic for young people to understand. We must all realise that there is a time and a place for relationships and sex education in schools. However, underpinning that is the right of a family to pass on their morals and values, and not to be undermined by teachers who do not know individual children and cannot understand the family dynamic.
I am clear about what I want to see when it comes to sex education: no young person should be unaware of how their body works, but similarly, no teacher nor programme should seek to circumnavigate the right of a family to sow into their child’s life what they see is needed. That is especially the case in primary school children—I think of innocence lost. The Government’s relationship and sex education paper states that,
“Regulations 2019 have made Relationships Education compulsory in all primary schools. Sex education is not compulsory in primary schools and the content set out in this guidance therefore focuses on Relationships Education.”
Despite that, a worrying number of schools across the United Kingdom have felt it necessary to teach children not only about sex, but about gender identity and trans issues. Conservatives for Women has said that children are being encouraged from as young as primary school to consider whether they have gender identity issues that differ from their biology—being male or female—as the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge outlined. That leaves children confused for no other reason than the misunderstanding, and it makes them believe that they should be looking at their own gender issues. My humble opinion—I am putting it clearly on the record—is that children in primary schools are too young to be taught sex education at that level.
It may have already been mentioned by the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates), but there was a poster put out in primary schools by Educate & Celebrate, stating:
“Age is only a number. Everyone can do what they feel they are able to do, no matter what age they are”.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is pretty alarming?
I share the hon. Lady’s concerns, as does the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge, who set the scene very well.
How can we expect our children to understand such complexities, and why should we force them to at an early age? It was clear to me that the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge was saying that this age is too young. As grandfather of five—soon to be six—I look to my grandchildren, who are of primary school age. I can say that the last thing that their parents, or indeed their grandparents, want is someone else teaching them about these sensitive issues. It should be for a family to decide the correct time and what approach they take.
I appreciate that the health and education systems are devolved, that the Minister here has no responsibility for Northern Ireland—I always mention Northern Ireland in these debates, because it is important that we hear perspective on how we do things in our own regions across this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—and that the extremity of what is being in schools does not currently apply to some devolved Assemblies, but there is no doubt that this could evolve. I want to reinforce with the utmost passion the importance of the family unit, which is exactly what some of the curriculum is destroying. I know that my concerns about that are shared by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), and others in the House.
Nobody knows a child better than their parent, and I for one do not understand why the decision to teach children about sex and relationships has been taken out of the hands of families—parents and grandparents—wholly without their consent. The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge gave examples; I am concerned about similar examples back home in Northern Ireland.
I believe that sex education in high schools should be taught within the parameters of biology—that is the way it should be—and that pupils should be taught the value of understanding themselves emotionally. However, the problems arise when the curriculum allows teachers to seek to mould minds, rather than allowing children to formulate their ideas and feelings. We must bear in mind that there is a line between what a child should be taught in school and what a parent chooses to teach their children at home.
The Northern Ireland framework for sex education states that it should be taught:
“in harmony with the ethos of the school or college and in conformity with the moral and religious principles held by parents and school management authorities.”
That is what we do in Northern Ireland, and I think we can all hold to that statement as being not too far away from what we should be doing—but those moral and religious principles held by parents and school management have become somewhat ignored.
It is crucial that we do not unduly influence young people or pupils’ innocent minds by teaching extreme sex and gender legislation. I have seen some material taught in Northern Ireland, such an English book that refers to glory holes, sexual abuse of animals and oral sex. That book was taught to a 13-year-old boy, whose parents were mortified whenever they saw it, and the young boy had little to no understanding of what was going on. I wrote to the Education Minister in Northern Ireland, asking how that book could ever be on a curriculum and what possible literary benefit—there is none—could ever outweigh the introduction of such concepts.
There needs to be a greater emphasis on the line between what is appropriate to be taught at school and at home, and a greater respect for parents and what they want their children to be taught. Family values should be at the core of a child’s adolescence education, as it is of a sensitive nature and needs to be treated carefully, with respect and compassion.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) and for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), and the hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield), on securing this important and timely debate. I also thank the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) for sharing his experiences. I acknowledge the pain in his contribution; there is a lesson in there, I am sure.
I approach this debate not as an academic, although I have taken care to speak at length with educationalists and professionals over the last year about some of these matters. I also do not bring lived experience or trauma; I was fortunate with my own upbringing and introduction to sex through education, and in my life, but I recognise that that is not everybody’s experience. I seek to approach the issue as a parliamentarian, as we all do, representing those who have brought concerns to us—concerns for the safety of those who speak to us, about misunderstanding, and for the safety and wellbeing of others.
I have spoken to teachers who have been put on the spot when it comes to making decisions in school about the materials they are being asked to use. Reference has already been made to the Cass review and the dangers of putting teachers in a position where they must make a clinical decision although they are not clinicians. I have spoken to parents who are desperate and feel disarmed, without the tools to reach and help their own children, who they see are confused on matters of identity, sexuality, sex and gender. My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge made an important point: we must not lose sight of the fact that teachers are in loco parentis. Sending a child to school and conveying them into the care of another person involves a special level of trust, so to see that damaged in this way is compelling for me as a parliamentarian.
We want our schools to be safe places with trusted teachers, where learners can flourish and grow. One expert told me that good sex education includes helping learners to understand the sexed body; to make decisions about health, contraception and their own boundaries; and to understand the law, so that they can keep safe, seek help when needed and respect the boundaries of others. The expert also told me that it is important to help learners to understand how to critique messages.
I cannot add to the case laid out by my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge that children and learners are being systematically exposed to inappropriate materials that confound and frustrate those three objectives. I support her belief in the principle of sunlight as disinfectant, and I welcome the support of the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown in recognising the importance of visibility of materials to parents, governors and those who have an interest in the issue. I also fully support the urgent review of guidelines with the appropriate tightening that my hon. Friend called for.
As we have heard, this is a contested area. It is not a settled matter, which is the reason we are having the debate. I want to mention gender and gender identity, because the materials cited and delivered often use or reflect a certainty that simply is not there. I want to make one key observation about this in the couple of minutes I have left. In the debates that I have heard, we all agree on three things: we want children to be true to themselves; we want them to be accepted; and we want them to be respected and valued as individuals. There is no question about that, but it starts to be problematic when I hear phrases such as “my truth” and “moral relativism”, creeping into the materials that we see, because this is existentialism—anyone can look that up.
We can go back a long time to see the weaknesses in existentialism and the risks associated with it. It was Søren Kierkegaard who outlined some of the risks and conclusions of this form of thinking. He pointed out that existentialism ends in three things. The first is inauthenticity, yet we have said that one of our objectives is to be authentic. Secondly, he said that alienation is another consequence of existentialism and moral relativism, yet we have said that we want children to be accepted, not outcast. Thirdly, he warned against the degradation of individuals into objects or things, and we heard my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock talk about how sex is more than just gratification and the use of another person to satisfy our desires. It cannot be that we use a philosophy to deliver something that confounds its very purpose. If we seek true-to-self acceptance, respect and value as individuals, we cannot us a morally relativist approach that promises exactly the opposite of those things: inauthenticity, alienation and the degradation of the individual as an object.
I will conclude by saying that we are talking about materials, which are the tip of the iceberg. The process of how they came about, and the thinking behind them, needs the Minister’s urgent review.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) for securing this really important debate, although there is clearly a separate legislative process in Scotland, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) just said. I recognise the support and assistance that she has offered me during my time in this place, and the support from other Members present.
While this debate is England and Wales-focused, it is important to highlight the Scottish perspective. This is not a matter of moral outrage or social conservatism, which is a label that is often used. This, for me, is essentially, fundamentally, about safeguarding. Safeguarding has been a constant in my professional life, from my early days in mental health care and looking after vulnerable people through that lens, right up to working with children and young people in cancer care. The principles are about engendering a broad awareness in an organisation of the kinds of issues that may be faced and the kind of red flags that may be seen. It is a shared responsibility and one, I believe, that everyone in society should participate in. It is not something that we should in any way put at risk.
Awareness has increased in recent years because of misdeeds in religious circles, among sports coaches and teaching staff, and indeed, from my experience, in healthcare, where people have used their position of influence and authority for nefarious purposes. Those who will abuse will find a way, and that is just a matter of fact. Predators will go to great lengths to access those they prey upon.
How have we responded as a society? We have had “stranger danger” education, public awareness, and the introduction of safeguarding legislation and policies. We have dealt with concerns in an open and non-judgmental way. We have set up multi-disciplinary practices through child protection teams and vulnerable adult teams. We have not jumped to conclusions and ascribed labels to individuals, but we have taken the necessary steps to explore any circumstance to ensure that, if there is harm, it is limited and is stopped where that is the case. We have the disclosure and barring service down here and Disclosure Scotland in Scotland to ensure that those with a criminal history of a predatory nature are identified and prevented from entering certain spheres of life.
In my professional life, I have had enhanced disclosure in every single job that I have had. It has never been a particular issue, but there are implications of the use of deed poll to change one’s identity, along with growing concerns about GRC identity changes. On the DBS in particular, I met with an organisation this morning that told me of privacy concerns whereby people who use that method, or indeed deed poll, may be able to circumvent the disclosure of prior history. I suggest that the national insurance number could be used as a constant identifier to deal with that.
But there are other ways that we find out about these nefarious practices: disclosure from the child or the young person themselves, witnesses, evidence and indeed criminal investigation. In that vein, a teacher in Scotland was recently sent to jail for three years for molesting two young boys, one aged 11 and one aged 12. That investigation was peppered with the sexualised language that that teacher used with those young men. Like all predatory behaviour, this was about power, control and manipulation, and it included that sexualised use of language.
In terms of parents and safeguarding, we must look out for changes in the behaviour of the young person—whether they become withdrawn or start to use overly sexualised language. Those are the red flags that are normally identified by professionals working with young people, whether social workers, teachers or indeed healthcare workers. If we introduce the type of language and knowledge that the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge mentioned in her opening remarks—the dice game is utterly shocking; it is dehumanising and reduces sex to the penetrative act—
Does this not boil down to the very simple point that knowledge without context or consequence is dangerous? Children at these ages, who are often in doubt about who they are, where they are and what they do, and who are sometimes shy and retiring, are very vulnerable to that knowledge leading them down a road, without the understanding of the context and consequences that will come from the decisions that are made, which they may be too young to judge. If that principle were applied, a lot of what my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) has said would disappear from the curriculum because it would be inappropriate.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very important point about capacity. It is simply impossible for someone who is seven to have the ability to comprehend their adult sexual being. It is simply unattainable.
Introducing such sexualised language will camouflage or mask the red flags and that is dangerous. There is no place for adult sexualised language in pre-puberty education.
I will try to keep my comments brief, as I can see the time racing by. I will make reference to Wales, but the issues are pertinent to all of us. This year, the Welsh Government are introducing a new curriculum that will have fully inclusive LGBT education for all pupils, with no right to withdraw. That is so important. We have all stressed that status is important, as is proper timetabling and training for teachers. We have the protected characteristics of the Equality Act; all of those in the LGBT community should be given respect. It is particularly important for children to learn how to relate and how to cope with peer-group pressure and bullying, particularly homophobic and transphobic bullying.
It is important that materials that present society as it is are part of the curriculum, so that children who come from same-sex couple homes do not feel that they are different or odd, and that means not just in the relationship curriculum but in materials across all subjects. Age appropriateness is important, and governors have the opportunity to look at materials, which is commonly done, and should be practised across the board. Parents should do the same, so that they can see exactly what is being presented. It is really important to remember that we do not live in a vacuum. In our day, it was just whispers in the playground and nasty bullying; now, it is a whole range of stuff on the internet, including pornography, plus massive bullying via the internet, through social media.
I am an ex-secondary school teacher. Children are going to bring things into school that we might not even know the words for, frankly, so teachers need to be prepared. They need to be prepared on how to combat that and how to discuss the issues. We need materials that are positive, down to earth, factual and not sensational.
I will not, as I am so short of time—normally I would. We need to gradually increase the degree of explicitness, as is age appropriate. However, it is absolutely essential that the information is taught in context and that, if children raise issues about violent behaviour and different types of sexual behaviour, teachers can talk through the dangers and consequences. That is a valid discussion. Talking about a particular piece of material on its own is not necessarily the context in which it might be taught.
I would like to move on to the issue of trans individuals. Young people will know of or will have encountered trans individuals—they will certainly have heard about them. They need clarity, because there is so much transphobia out there. They need to have the topic talked about. It is perfectly valid to do that in a school context.
The idea that any young person even begins to think about themselves as trans on a whim is fanciful. It is a very long way from beginning to think like that to telling somebody, never mind going any further. Obviously, a teacher needs to know their limitations and be able to access professional help, counselling and interventions. It is not for a school to make any decisions about a young person in that way.
Children are exposed all the time to all sorts of materials and it is absolutely right and proper that, in a responsible way, those in schools listen, take things seriously and present down-to-earth, factual alternatives to some of the stuff they are being shown.
So let us be clear about this. The overwhelming majority of schools and staff, parents and governors, are highly responsible. If there are instances where inappropriate materials are used, those are the things that need to be dealt with. We should not take a sledgehammer to crack a nut. I would be very wary of rolling back on progressive, fully inclusive LGBT education. We can call out individual problems that have occurred in individual schools in individual types of material.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I thank the hon. Members for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates), and my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) for securing this important debate.
We have had a range of views and insights from Members today. The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge spoke about the quality of RHSE guidance and curricula and the age appropriate material and its importance. She went on to give a range of examples and she put a number of questions to the Minister. We all look forward to his response.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) spoke with his trademark passion about a range of relevant issues, including the importance of specialisms in schools and quality materials. I thank him for speaking from the heart about his own personal experience with his loved ones. He gave a very tragic example of why we have to get this right in our schools.
The hon. Member for Thurrock spoke about recognising the impact that the internet has on schools and children, and about the importance of teaching consent at a time when we see significant harassment of women and girls. Other Members spoke about the perspectives from Northern Ireland and Wales, which I am grateful for. The importance of engagement with parents and the visibility of materials that schools use were also mentioned.
There are a great many ways in which good quality relationships, health and sex education can and must address the challenges that our children face. Some of those challenges could define the next generation. Sadly, most of them disproportionately affect young women and girls, so I want to make sure we discuss the full breadth of issues that this debate allows.
Labour Members believe strongly that quality RHSE must be part of the curriculum for every school. The 2019 statutory guidance was an important step forward, but the evidence suggests that too many young people are not getting access to the information that is needed both in school and at home. The pandemic has undoubtedly disrupted the introduction of the 2019 statutory guidance, but there is more that the Government can and should do to prevent a looming crisis.
On the specific issue of information on gender identity for trans and non-binary people, which some Members have raised in the debate today, I would stress the importance of regularly reviewing and updating guidance and signposting by the Department for Education, and the need for training and support for all teachers and staff.
I will make progress because I am conscious of time.
I would also point out a recent Sex Education Forum survey, which said that almost 40% of students had been given no information about gender identity or any information relevant to people who are trans or non-binary, so I am very reluctant to accept the opposing argument. In fact, the bigger problem appears to be the lack of information on this issue.
In terms of how RHSE is delivered, there is obviously a balance to be struck. I accept that this is a sensitive debate. That is why guidance must be clear and regularly updated. Support and materials for those teaching in the classroom must be forthcoming. This is about being realistic, proportionate and compassionate.
As we have heard in the debate today, children increasingly face a wild west when it comes to RHSE. Too much is happening in unregulated and unsafe spaces online. Not enough is happening in controlled environments such as classrooms and in conversations with parents. This is feeding a disturbing culture in which sexual harassment is becoming normalised. The same survey by the Sex Education Forum found that a third of children had not learnt how to tell whether a relationship is healthy. More than a quarter had learnt nothing about the attitudes and behaviours of men and boys towards women and girls. One in three said they did not learn how to access local sexual health services, and four in 10 learnt nothing about FGM.
Ofsted’s 2019 report on sexual abuse in schools put it best when it said that
“Children and young people were rarely positive about the RSHE they had received. They felt that it was too little, too late and that the curriculum was not equipping them with the information and advice they needed to navigate the reality of their lives.”
I recently had the pleasure of meeting Nimue Miles, who is passionate about improving sex education to combat violence against women. She said of her own experience that sex education
“doesn’t cover coercion…They don’t cover modern day issues like social media…They also don’t cover sexist jokes, objectification and the impact of pornography.”
Of course, those are complex and delicate issues, and as Ofsted has pointed out, teachers cannot be left to handle them alone. That is why improving the guidance and materials given to teachers is so important, and we must make sure that is delivered.
I therefore have some questions for the Minister. How many of the 10 recommendations made by Ofsted’s review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges have the Government implemented? Will he commit today to provide and improve training for teachers and staff and deliver the materials they need, in one place and in a timely manner, to aid lesson planning during the academic year? What steps is he taking to help schools and colleges shape their curriculum? When does he expect to fulfil the pledge set out in the schools White Paper to
“create and continually improve packages of optional, free, adaptable digital curriculum resources for all subjects”?
How will the Minister improve the advice he is providing to parents and carers about how to support teachers’ work at home? What conversations has he had with the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport about defining categories of harmful online content on the face of the Online Safety Bill, and has he made representations that the scope of that Bill should cover all services likely to be accessed by children?
Labour strongly believes that relationship, health and sex education must be an indispensable part of any curriculum. We want to see young people leaving school ready for work and for life, and such education is an essential part of that aim. As it stands, RHSE provision is failing our children and leaving them open to a world in which sex and relationships are misunderstood, harassment is commonplace, and unhealthy and damaging behaviours are rife.
We have a responsibility to our children to ensure they can meet the world as it is now, not as we think it should be or how it was before. Most importantly, we have to give them the tools to shape the world as it will be, and to protect themselves and look after each other in a compassionate and inclusive way. At its most basic, relationship and sex education is about legislation and guidance, but in reality, it is about the information and power we give to young people to shape their world. I hope we can spend more time looking at it in that way, so that we can deliver better futures for all our young people.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates), along with my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) and the hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield), on securing today’s debate. I extend my thanks to everybody who has spoken in the debate; I apologise if I do not have time to respond to every single point that was made, but I think I can respond to many of the points made by the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan).
I have listened carefully to some of the examples that have been given by Conservative and Opposition Members, in particular those cited by my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge. There is no doubt that some of those things are totally unsuitable for school-age children: “age is only a number” is clearly an unsuitable phrase to be used in the context of consent, and the Department has been clear that the Proud Trust’s dice game is unacceptable for use as a school resource. I have to say that, despite a lot of coverage of that particular issue, we are unaware of any individual cases in which that game has been used in schools.
High-quality relationship and sex education is important, and—as my hon. Friend has set out, based on her own experience—can play a key role in keeping children and young people safe, equipping them to understand and resist harmful influences and expectations. It can do so only if it is taught well and appropriately, and good teachers working in good schools that engage expertly with parents can find the right balance. To support teachers to deliver in the classroom, we have run expert-led teacher training webinars that covered pornography, domestic abuse and sexual exploitation—topics that teachers told us they find difficult to teach. We also published additional guidance to schools on tackling abuse, harassment, and other sensitive topics.
It has been almost three years since the Department published statutory guidance on relationship, sex and health education, and almost two years since relationship education became a compulsory subject for all schools and relationship and sex education became a compulsory subject for all secondary schools. As has been acknowledged, primary schools can choose to teach sex education in order to meet the needs of their pupils, but if they do so, they must consult with parents on their policy and grant parents an automatic right to withdraw their child from sex education lessons.
Does the Minister agree that, given that point about parents wanting to see the material, it is disturbing that my colleagues and I have heard reports from headteachers that they are not allowed or enabled to share that material from some of the groups because it is deemed “commercially sensitive”?
It is concerning, and I want to come to that in more detail, because I think I can help provide some clarification.
At the heart of RSHE is the need to keep children healthy, happy and safe. The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) gave a very powerful example of where more education could make a difference in terms of safety. I sympathise with his deep hurt. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock also spoke passionately about safety and the centrality of consent. That includes knowing the law on relationships, sex and health, teaching about relationships from primary school onwards and ensuring that younger children understand the importance of building caring friendships and learn the concept of personal privacy, including that it is not always right to keep secrets if they relate to being safe, and that each person’s body belongs to them.
In the schools White Paper, the Government committed to keeping children safe by strengthening RSHE, as well as our statutory safeguarding guidance “Keeping children safe in education”. The hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey) spoke about the centrality of safeguarding in that. That will support schools to protect children from abuse and exploitation in situations inside and outside school. The guidance is updated annually, and it is clear that schools and colleges should be aware of the importance of making it clear that there is a zero-tolerance approach to sexual violence. Sexual harassment is never acceptable. It should not be tolerated and never be passed off as banter, just having a laugh, part of growing up or boys being boys. Failure to do so could lead to an unacceptable culture of behaviour, an unsafe environment or, in the worst-case scenarios, a culture that normalises abuse, so that children accept it as normal and do not come forward to report it.
The RSHE statutory guidance advises schools to be alive to issues such as sexism, misogyny, homophobia and gender stereotypes and to take positive action to tackle those issues. As part of relationships education, all primary school pupils are taught about the importance of respect for relationships and the different types of loving, healthy relationships that exist. Pupils will also be taught about boundaries and privacy and how to recognise and report feelings of being unsafe. To support teachers to deliver those topics safely and with confidence, we have produced RSHE teacher training modules, which are freely available on gov.uk. We have also committed to developing a further package of support for teachers to deliver lessons on sensitive topics, such as abuse, pornography and consent. That package includes teacher webinars delivered from March 2022 onwards and non-statutory guidance, which offers practical suggestions for supporting children and young people to develop healthy, respectful and kind relationships. The guidance has been informed by an evidence review, stakeholder input and an expert teacher group, and we will publish it this autumn.
The Ofsted review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges found that online forms of sexual abuse are increasingly prevalent, with 88% of girls and 49% of boys reporting being sent unwanted sexual images and 80% of girls and 40% of boys pressured to provide sexual images of themselves. The review also showed that children, even in primary schools, are accessing pornography and sharing nude images. We want to make sure that children receive appropriate teaching in schools on topics that are relevant to their lived experience, rather than going online to educate themselves. Through the RSHE curriculum, pupils will be taught about online relationships, the implications of sharing private or personal data—including images—online, harmful content and contact, cyber bullying, an overreliance on social media and where to get help and support for issues that unfortunately occur online. Through the topic of internet safety and harms, pupils will be taught to become discerning customers of information and to understand how comparing oneself with others online can have an impact on one’s own body image. The Department is reviewing its guidance on teaching online safety in schools, which supports teachers to embed teaching about online safety into subjects such as computing, RSHE and citizenship. The guidance will be published in the autumn of this year. The Online Safety Bill will also ensure that children are better protected from pornographic content, wherever it appears online.
The statutory RSHE guidance sets out the content that we expect children to know before they complete each phase of education. We have, however, been clear that our guiding principles for the development of the statutory guidance were that all the compulsory subject content must be age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate. It must be taught sensitively and inclusively, with respect for the backgrounds and beliefs of pupils and parents, while always with the aim of providing pupils with the knowledge they need. Given the need for a differentiated approach and the sensitive and personal nature of many of the topics within the RSHE curriculum, it is important that schools have the flexibility to design their own curricula, so that it is relevant and appropriate to the context of their pupils. The Department’s policy, therefore, has been to trust the expertise of schools to decide the detail of the content that they teach and what resources they use.
As mentioned previously, we have made a commitment in the White Paper to strengthen our guidance in this respect. We will also review and update that guidance regularly—at least every three years. We are confident that the majority of schools are capable of doing this well and have been successful in developing a high-quality RSHE curriculum that is appropriate to the needs of their pupils, but, in the context of this debate, it is clear that that is not always the case and that there are genuine concerns about many of the materials that have been used.
I stress that allowing schools the flexibility to make their own decisions about their curricula does not mean that they should be unaccountable for what they teach. Schools are required by law to publish their RSHE policies and to consult parents on them. As their children’s primary educators, parents should be given every opportunity to understand the purpose and content of what their children are being taught. In the RSHE statutory guidance, which all schools must have regard to, we have set out a clear expectation for schools to share examples of resources with parents. Schools are also bound by other legal duties with regard to the delivery of the wider curriculum. All local authority maintained schools are required to publish the content of their school curriculum, including the details of how parents or other members of the public can find out more about the curriculum that the school is following. There is a parallel requirement in academy trust model funding agreements for each academy to publish the same information on its website. It is our intention that that should form part of the new standards for academies.
My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge raised the point, which my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) echoed, that last week, in a Committee debate on the Schools Bill in another place, peers highlighted the fact that some schools believed that they were unable to share resources with parents because intellectual property legislation placed restrictions on them. We are clear that schools can show parents curriculum materials, including resources provided by external organisations, without infringing an external provider’s copyright in the resource. For example, it is perfectly possible for a school to invite parents into the school to view materials on the premises. Although of course we have to be mindful of not overburdening schools with repeated requests, we do expect schools to respond positively to all reasonable requests from parents to share curriculum material. We therefore expect schools to share RSHE content and materials with parents openly and transparently, where requested. We are clear that they should not enter into any contracts with third parties that seek to restrict them from sharing RSHE resources with parents.
The RSHE train the trainer programme, which we delivered from 2020 to 2021, brought to light several examples of good practice, including in schools that had engaged with parents effectively, but I apologise that I will not have time in this debate to address those.
Many schools draw on the expertise of external organisations, as we have heard, to enhance the delivery of RSHE, and many will use resources that are produced externally. To help schools to make the best choices, the Department published the non-statutory guidance, “Plan your relationships, sex and health curriculum”. That sets out practical advice for schools on a number of topics, including using externally produced resources. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge quoted from it.
Concerns have been raised today about what schools teach pupils on transgender issues. School should be a safe and welcoming place for all pupils. We believe that all children should be supported while growing up. However, we recognise that gender identity can be a complex and sensitive topic for schools to navigate and that there is sometimes tension between rights based on the two protected characteristics of sex and gender reassignment. We are working with the Equality and Human Rights Commission to ensure that we are giving the clearest possible guidance to schools on transgender issues. We will hold a full public consultation on the draft guidance later this year. Given the complexity of the subject, we need to get this right and we want to take full account of the review being conducted by Dr Hilary Cass.
I realise that my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge will need time to respond, so I conclude by saying that I hear very clearly the concerns that have been expressed. As a parent of both a girl and a boy, I know that we need to address these issues and to do so in a way that can reassure parents but continue to deliver high-quality relationships, sex and health education.
Thank you, Mr Dowd. I thank the Minister for his response. I am looking forward to seeing the consultation on the guidance. I thank everybody who contributed today. This has been a very good debate. We have had some surprising areas of agreement. I think that most of us have agreed that this is a very important topic. The key phrase that has come out is “age appropriate”. I personally do not think that it should be up to schools, teachers or, potentially, parents to have to decide that. I think that we need child development experts on the case to determine which materials are suitable for which time.
I will conclude by reflecting on the speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price). Family is key to this, and parents’ values and parents’ choice are so important. We must never teach relationships and sex education in schools outside the context of respecting parents’ choice and parents’ values. Parents are the people who love and are most invested in children, and theirs are the views that we should most take into account.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered relationship and sex education materials in schools.