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Relationships and Sexuality Education (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2023

Debated on Monday 26 June 2023

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: Yvonne Fovargue

† Buckland, Sir Robert (South Swindon) (Con)

† Butler, Rob (Aylesbury) (Con)

† Duguid, David (Banff and Buchan) (Con)

† Elmore, Chris (Ogmore) (Lab)

† Fabricant, Michael (Lichfield) (Con)

† Fuller, Richard (North East Bedfordshire) (Con)

† Heaton-Harris, Chris (Secretary of State for Northern Ireland)

† Hollern, Kate (Blackburn) (Lab)

† Kyle, Peter (Hove) (Lab)

† Largan, Robert (High Peak) (Con)

† Longhi, Marco (Dudley North) (Con)

† Mayhew, Jerome (Broadland) (Con)

† Maynard, Paul (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con)

† Shannon, Jim (Strangford) (DUP)

† Smith, Cat (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab)

Smith, Nick (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab)

† Wilson, Sammy (East Antrim) (DUP)

Abi Samuels, Chloe Smith, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

The following also attended (Standing Order No. 118(2)):

Paisley, Ian (North Antrim) (DUP)

Campbell, Mr Gregory (East Londonderry) (DUP)

Second Delegated Legislation Committee

Monday 26 June 2023

[Yvonne Fovargue in the Chair]

Relationships and Sexuality Education (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2023

I beg to move,

That the Committee has considered the Relationships and Sexuality Education (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2023 (S.I. 2023, No. 602).

It is a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Ms Fovargue. Subsection 12(3) of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 dictates that the instrument should be laid as made affirmative.

I wonder if the Secretary of State can confirm if he is treating this issue as a conscience vote? Is his party doing that?


In my opening remarks, I want to recognise the clear will of this House for the Government to deliver on their statutory duty with respect to sexual and reproductive health education in Northern Ireland. In passing the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, the House decided that the recommendations made by the 2018 report of CEDAW, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, should be implemented. Colleagues will recall previous debates in 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022 in relation to ensuring that abortion services were made available in Northern Ireland, and the outcomes of those debates. This debate is not about reopening the ethical issues decided on by the House, but to ensure the implementation of the CEDAW recommendation to make age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate education on sexual and reproductive health and rights covering contraception and access to abortion a compulsory component of the curriculum in grant-aided schools in Northern Ireland, and to monitor its implementation.

Can my right hon. Friend clarify if this would be different in any way from what is currently done in England? Has any assessment been made of how parents feel about how it operates in England?

I can clarify that it will be exactly the same as what is being implemented in England at this point in time. I will talk about parents’ opinions in a moment, so I thank my knighted and hon. Friend for his intervention. In implementing the decision of the House, I have sought to ensure that the education provided will be similar to that already provided in England with regard to contraception and abortion, and these regulations do exactly that.

Sexual and reproductive health education is an important component in ensuring that women and girls are well informed of the choices available to them. The CEDAW report found that relationships and sexuality education in Northern Ireland is

“underdeveloped or non-existent since it is at the school’s discretion to implement the contents of the curriculum according to its values and ethos”,

and that

“Data show that the rate contraception use among young people in Northern Ireland is lower and their rates of sexually transmitted infections are higher compared with their peers in other parts of the United Kingdom. Furthermore, the prevalence of unplanned teenage pregnancy in Northern Ireland is higher compared with other European Union countries, six times higher in deprived areas of Northern Ireland.”

We know that the current system is failing children in Northern Ireland when it comes to sexual education. The Gillen review in 2019 recommended the implementation of a statutory and standardised relationships and sex education curriculum delivery in schools. More recently, investigations have been carried out by the Northern Ireland education and training inspectorate and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. Indeed, the education and training inspectorate collected the views of 14,665 pupils and found that most primary pupils want to learn more about such issues as we are talking about.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that this complies with section 76 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998? What consultation has been carried out to ensure that it does comply with that section?

I happily will, but it will be later in my speech, if the hon. Member will allow me.

The Human Rights Commission recently conducted an investigation into relationship and sexuality education in Northern Ireland and recommended that the Education (Curriculum Minimum Content) Order (Northern Ireland) 2007 be amended to reflect the CEDAW recommendation, and that is exactly what the regulations do. In addition, a 2022 survey commissioned by a sexual and reproductive health charity, Informing Choices NI, highlighted that 78% of Members of the Legislative Assembly agree that that there should be a standardised curriculum regardless of a school’s ethos.

I do not take this decision lightly and I remain fully committed to protecting the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all its dimensions. The devolution settlement does not absolve the Government of their clear statutory duty. It has always been my expectation and preference that the Department of Education in Northern Ireland would drive forward the implementation of this CEDAW recommendation, with the relevant legal powers, policy and operational expertise to do so. We have given the Department of Education and the Northern Ireland Executive every possible chance to move forward and we have engaged extensively to see how we can best support delivery.

The Department of Education has made some progress on this issue and has been working on the relationships and sexuality education progression framework. We assess that that can easily be updated to make it fully compliant with the CEDAW recommendation. However, although some progress has been made, the Department of Education has not acted to implement the required compulsory changes to the curriculum.

This statutory instrument has the following effects. It amends the Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 and the Education (Curriculum Minimum Content) Order (Northern Ireland) 2007 to make age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate education on sexual and reproductive health and rights, covering prevention of early pregnancy and access to abortion, a compulsory component of the curriculum for adolescents. It places a duty on the Department of Education to issue guidance by 1 January 2024 on the content and delivery of the education that is required to be provided and places a duty on the board of governors and principal of every grant-aided school to have regard to the guidance. The Department of Education is also required to publish a report by 1 September 2026 on the implementation of the updated curriculum in grant-aided schools and to lay the report before the Assembly.

The Government recognise the sensitivity of the topic and that some parents may wish to teach their child about sex education or to make alternative arrangements for sex education to be provided in line with their religious background or belief about the age at which their child or children should access it. In recognition of that, the regulations also place a duty on the Department of Education to make regulations about the circumstances in which a pupil may be withdrawn from education on sexual and reproductive health and rights, or elements of that education, at the request of the parent. That follows the approach taken in England and Scotland.

The amendments to the curriculum come into force on 1 July 2023 in preparation for the 2023-24 academic school year. The rationale behind that date is to allow the Department of Education as much time as possible to progress work on the guidance in preparation for delivery of the education during the school year. The duty on the Department to issue guidance on the content and delivery of the required education comes into force on 1 January 2024. That will allow the Department to complete equality screening under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 in line with its equality scheme, and will allow time for consultation should that be needed.

The question of whether the Department of Education will be required to consult is a matter for the Department, in line with its equality scheme duties. As set out in the regulations, the Government expect that the Department will consult on both the guidance and the provisions for the circumstances in which a pupil may be excused from the education or specified elements of that education.

Consultation with parents is already common practice in Northern Ireland—

What about in circumstances that could well happen in Northern Ireland, such as when not only an individual parent but parents in a school collectively decide that they do not want their children, plural, to take part in such lessons? What would the Department and the education authority’s position be when a sizeable number of people collectively decide not to take part?

It would be exactly the same as in England. The education would take place for those who want it to take place.

A school’s RSE policy should be subject to consultation with parents and endorsed by a school’s board of governors. The regulations do not change that approach and we expect and encourage the Department of Education to engage with and consult parents on the guidance it produces. The Department of Education and the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment have been developing an RSE progression framework that will be adapted and used in the guidance issued by the Department.

Significant stakeholder consultation on the framework has been undertaken by the CCEA. We expect the progression framework will be further developed before being utilised as the guidance that will be issued in January 2024. We expect that to continue and the resources will need to be examined to ensure they comply with the updated curriculum.

It is important to state that the Government believe that educating adolescents on issues such as how to prevent a pregnancy, the legal right to an abortion in Northern Ireland, and how relevant services may be accessed should be done in a factual way that does not advocate a particular view on the moral or ethical considerations of abortion or contraception. Although schools will be under a duty to teach the updated curriculum in the 2023-24 school year, there will be a period of implementation and a need for meaningful engagement with teachers and parents.

Officials in the Northern Ireland Office will continue to work closely with the Department of Education. They have also engaged with the relevant education stakeholders to make them aware of the changes to the curriculum. We understand that further engagement with schools, parents and young people is also important so that they feel reassured about the content of the updated curriculum. I commend the regulations to the Committee.

It is a pleasure to serve for the first time under your chairship, Ms Fovargue. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for being here in person and delivering the statutory instrument to the House.

The regulations will ensure that Northern Ireland’s curriculum meets the rights and standards on sex and relationship education, bringing it into line with the curriculum in the rest of the United Kingdom. With these regulations, the Secretary of State is making it a statutory duty to implement recommendation 86(d) of the report of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. As a result, age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate education on sex and reproductive health and rights, covering prevention of early pregnancy and access to abortion, will become a compulsory component of the curriculum for adolescents in Northern Ireland.

The Labour party fully supports these measures. They are a critical step in ensuring that all parts of the United Kingdom meet their human rights obligations to children in this area. All adolescents deserve age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate relationships and sex education.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is important to get the tone right in the way the information is developed? Schools will have the freedom to present it in a way that they think is appropriate not only for the child’s age but for the type of children attending that school.

Having been a governor of several schools, I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention because it allows me to say that as chair of a school for seven years, I can tell him that schools provide that kind of service in a very sensitive and appropriate way and they strive for parental engagement wherever possible.

For too long, relationships and sex education has been unavailable to adolescents in Northern Ireland. In May 2019, Sir John Gillen’s independent review into how the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland deals with serious sexual offence cases made a series of recommendations. They included the need to include in the school curriculum for RSE matters such as consent, personal space, boundaries, appropriate behaviour, relationships and sexuality.

In April this year, an evaluation by Northern Ireland’s education and training inspectorate found that 44% of schools reported that they were delivering the topic of consent “to a small extent”, or “not at all”. Earlier this month, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission published a report into its investigation of relationships and sexuality education in post-primary schools. It found that the curriculum on relationships and sexuality education does not meet human rights standards. According to the NIHRC, most schools are not providing

“age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate education on access to abortion services”.

The investigation also found that:

“Some schools actively contributed to the shame and stigma surrounding unplanned pregnancy and abortion, by making statements such as ‘abortion is not a means of contraception and those who knowingly engage in casual sex must bear the consequences of their actions’”.

It revealed that some schools are teaching children that homosexuality is wrong.

In England, Scotland and Wales, compulsory RSE that embeds reproductive rights and choices within curricula—implementing the CEDAW recommendations —is already in place. In the Labour party, we welcome the fact that today’s regulations will help to ensure that the curriculum for children in Northern Ireland meets that standard too. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has welcomed the new regulations and emphasised that implementation and monitoring will be critical. Schools must support and develop their capacity to deliver RSE, and the commission and other expert independent organisations have offered their expertise to help with that. I urge the Minister to continue to engage with the NIHRC, and to ensure that the changes are implemented and monitored effectively, so that children in Northern Ireland can enjoy the same rights, education and choices as those in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Thank you for calling me to speak, Ms Fovargue. I spoke to you beforehand, and to others as well. I wish to put on record, very clearly, my concerns—opposition, even—relating to the regulations before us.

As I said to the shadow Minister before we started—and the Secretary of State will not be surprised to hear this—it is heart-warming to see the level of interest of mainland MPs in this issue for Northern Ireland education. Yet, when I raised the issue of funding for pre-school education, I did not receive the same interest in the Chamber, so it is really good to see Members taking the time to come along and take an interest in education when that has quite clearly been something that they were not really interested in in the past. I expect that I will see the Members present today at other Northern Ireland debates, and I look forward to their renewed support when it comes to fixing the framework and getting back to a United Kingdom at all times—not just when it is expedient to push an agenda.

I rise to highlight multiple concerns with the RSE regulations, the speed of the regulations, and the disregard for people in Northern Ireland, who I represent and who have come to me about this—church groups, education authorities, headmasters and teachers. The Secretary of State is aware, from the Northern Ireland Office, of the concerns of the DUP, and of individual constituents who have raised issues—who are numerous—from across this whole part of Northern Ireland. Indeed, I have had various letters from numerous people outlining the issues very clearly.

I have multiple questions, Ms Fovargue. I am sure that we will try to get this done before the votes at 7 o’clock if we can, but, if not, it is important that we have on record our concerns about these things.

The first is to grasp an understanding of the reason that the Minister is seeking to railroad this issue through with no consultation and with inappropriate information. I have read the standard response: “To enable schools to factor in a programme for the new deadline”—a deadline that the Minister imposed on himself. Yet, when schools have asked how they are supposed to operate on slashed budgets—and still afford staff, pay rises and increased utility costs—the Secretary of State does not seem in such a rush to enable them to know how they will run their statutorily obliged learning schemes with those severely underfunded budgets. There is interest in some things, but no interest in others—the really important core issues. If the Minister would give a frank and open answer about the real purpose behind this steamrolling, it would certainly be useful, moving forward.

Schools have expressed concern to me and my colleagues—those who will speak as members of the Committee and those who are attending—about the fact that schools are statutorily obliged to consult parents over RSE policy. That cannot take place, and yet again parents in Strangford and across Northern Ireland have not been given the same consultation facility as those in the Secretary of State’s constituency. The question is clear: why are parents in Strangford unable to consult on how their children are taught about sensitive issues? I am not saying that they should not be taught about sensitive issues, but parents, teachers and the Churches want to have the input that the Secretary of State’s constituents are allowed to sow into their children’s education. Again, the Secretary of State has forced his will on a majority, overriding their rights. That is how my constituents, constituents from other parts of Northern Ireland and I see it.

One might wonder how constituents in other areas would feel if this were done to them on an issue about which many care so desperately—the protection of children’s innocence and childhood. I am a grandfather of six grandchildren—two are at school, and some are at nursery and about to attend school. From a personal point of view I am aware of exactly what this measure means and of the impact it will have on all children across Northern Ireland.

When it comes to the ability of parents to withdraw their children from such lessons, the wording is so vague that it would be laughable if the education of my granddaughters and other children were not at stake. The Department must formulate its own withdrawal policy, but that does not need to be in place at the time that a new regulation is enforced. Again, the measure does not give the protection that the Secretary of State referred to. This is a clear lesson about the nanny state’s policy on raising children and the value placed on the autonomous nature of the family unit. The Government have shown their hand. Gone is the right of the parent, and in its place the Government are educating morally as well as academically, ignoring the input of parents, teachers, schools and the Churches. That is what these regulations do. Where will it end, and why are they being rolled out and enforced so quickly?

Is there a reason why the standard convention requiring 21 days between the laying of an instrument and its being brought into effect was not followed? Hon. Members must ask that question, regardless of their opinion or lack of opinion. Why has the protocol of the House been set aside in this case? What has made this issue so urgent?

Schools cannot implement this change without consultation, so what is the point? The Secretary of State imposed the deadline, so he can change it; it is very simple. It will be very interesting to hear his reply to my comments and those of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim and my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim.

As we get older, we sometimes become cynical, but it is not just age; sometimes we become cynical about life. Many of my constituents are equally cynical. They have contacted me in droves—the Secretary of State should be under no illusion about the depth of opposition to this measure from right across my constituency, and from all religious persuasions and political parties—to tell me that this is just another tool to beat the DUP into submission. The slashing of the budget was not enough to pressure us into sacrificing the integrity of Northern Ireland and our future. Perhaps the Government think that the imposition of yet another socially grey measure will force us into that. I hope that is not the case, but nothing I have heard so far from the Secretary of State has convinced me otherwise. It will certainly not convince my constituents, who—I say this respectfully—have lost all faith in a Secretary of State who seems so removed from the needs of the area under his responsibility and more focused on politically forcing movement. In other words, political machinations are at work.

The House must consider why the most relaxed abortion regime in Europe has been imposed on us. There is pressure for it to be relaxed to abortion on demand until birth throughout the United Kingdom. I always said it was going that way. The realisation of that is coming forth with zest, with a scant debate allowing zero discussion of the regime. The Government have been allowed to pass legislation of importance without acceptable scrutiny, and those who press for such legislation now will have to accept it when the shoe is on the other foot.

I think back to the recent outcry when the Government made the decision—rightly, in my opinion—to overturn the Scottish Parliament decisions on gender recognition. My colleagues were up in arms about the circumnavigation of devolution yet had been silent and complicit when that was carried out by the Secretary of State in Northern Ireland a number of months previously—double standards, forked tongues and two opinions about the same thing. The silence of the House on holding the Government accountable to due process set a precedent. Yet again, on this issue, that will ultimately affect how the Government view and treat devolution.

I am following what the hon. Gentleman is saying with great interest. I understand his anger, but—I know he will not agree with me—it follows logically that if he and his colleagues want to have a greater say in what is going on in Northern Ireland, because he is criticising the Secretary of State for taking this action, surely the answer is simple: return to Stormont.

The answer is even more simple: get the protocol and the Stormont deal right, making that acceptable to Unionists. As the hon. Gentleman has brought the subject up, for far too long the Conservative party has pursued a policy that ignores the viewpoints of Unionists. He is a Unionist and understands our point of view—that is my opinion—but I cannot understand why we do not have a process that we are part of. The Stormont brake does not deliver that, nor the legislation of legal importance that we want to see in place. Where does that lie? It lies with the Secretary of State and Government here. To be clear, the first thing we wish to see happen is an Assembly back to normal and working—that is our wish.

Most Members do not get involved in the Northern Ireland question—although the hon. Member for Lichfield clearly has—but the issue is being used as a baseboard for UK legislation. The processes that Members turn a blind eye to for Northern Ireland can and will be used by successive Governments as a precedent—I say that again, because it is important: this sets a precedent. A precedent that has been set before will be set again.

My constituents remain unimpressed—I say this seriously—with the Secretary of State. He, one constituent said to me, seeks to sow discord and crash our society in Northern Ireland. Some right hon. and hon. Members on the Back Benches might not wish to hear that, but it has to be said; it is being said in Committee whether they want to hear it or not. That is the point I am making. I hope that our comments will be listened to for once, as we have a Delegated Legislation Committee to do just that.

I remain unimpressed by a Government who will not take decisions on funding for education in Northern Ireland but will dictate that access to abortion must be taught this incoming year without thought to parental choice or the basic right to practise our faith. That is what the Churches are telling me. Hon. Members might not want to hear that, but I am telling the Committee that the Churches are saying this is a step in the wrong direction. They wanted to be consulted in the process, but it has not happened. Again, there is that opinion.

Those are personal issues, which may be of little import to the House, yet this House should be unimpressed that their Government have carried out a number of unscrutinised legislative works without push-back from those in every party whose job it is to scrutinise legislation and to hold Government to account. The Committee, and by extension the House, should be holding Government accountable as to why they cannot give an answer to the three questions I have for the Secretary of State.

First, given the terms of the SI protocols, why was the 21-day convention breached and what is the precedent set here that will allow Government to override procedure at whim? That is what this does. We have to express real concern. Secondly, why does the instrument not place a duty on the Department of Education to have regulations in place to facilitate parents withdrawing their children from sexuality education by the implementation date of the policy, and what steps is the Northern Ireland Office taking to ensure that the Department does in fact have such regulations in place? My constituents want the right not to be involved and to withdraw their children. I am not convinced by what the Secretary of State has said so far. Thirdly, why is this House passing legislation without the basic steps in place, again ignoring the viewpoints of elected representatives and people of Northern Ireland from all political parties?

The age-old argument of the slippery slope cannot be overstated in this case. Again, the Government are using this as a stick to beat the DUP into submission. The problem is that it is not the DUP taking this beating: it is the people of the Province that we represent and all those political parties, churches, parents and teachers. The future of our nation is being beaten into submission by a Government who refuse to acknowledge the legitimate concerns about legislation that affects children receiving adequate passage through the legislative process. Informing people that, “If you had the Assembly up and running, this would not need to come through this method” when the fact is there is no need, even in these circumstances, for the disregard of protocol and procedure is inaccurate and, again, should be challenged.

The procedures followed for this piece of legislation are unacceptable. The job of this Committee in this House is to call for an explanation and hold the Government to account, and that is what this DL Committee should be doing. I ask Members present, regardless of their opinion on the issue itself, to join me in doing so. We will divide the House and this Committee when it comes to it, and we feel that that is important. This is not a proper mechanism for bringing forward such monumental change, and the Secretary of State cannot get away with pushing the boundaries in Northern Ireland as a precursor. Northern Ireland remains a part of this United Kingdom. We in Strangford should benefit from the appropriate mechanism of democracy in the same way as constituents do in Daventry, Hove, Banff and Buchan, and Swindon.

This legislation is not right. It is opposed by schools, parents and churches of all denominations alike. They have a right to express that—just not to the Secretary of State or Government it would seem. On behalf of my constituents in Strangford, the teachers and parents who have contacted me in droves with emails, letters and phone calls, and the good people who have expressed real concern, I wish to register my opposition to what is coming forward today. Again, with respect, the Government and the Secretary of State are pushing a policy that they know is abhorrent to the many people in Northern Ireland who oppose it. What a disappointment it is for us to see it again proven that the Secretary of State does not really care about the people of Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—what does he do? He works against the people of Northern Ireland, and that is a fact.

First, the Secretary of State hit the nail on the head at the beginning of his speech: this is a sensitive issue. Yet he has trampled all over it like some kind of rogue, rampaging political elephant, not caring two hoots about the sensitivities. I will justify that statement in a moment.

Secondly, there is no point harking back and saying, “Well, if you wanted to do this—if you want it done in Northern Ireland and if you want the Northern Ireland input—get the Assembly up and running.” Many people take that view. The Assembly is not up and running because this Government have decided to dispense with the central pillar of the Good Friday agreement—namely the need for the consent of both communities, with the Secretary of State arrogantly dismissing the concerns of the Unionist community. In fact, maybe I should thank him because in the last local government elections he probably added about 5% to our vote because the way he dismissed people’s concerns angered them so much. Again, we are seeing this tonight.

This is a sensitive issue yet the regulations were brought in with speed and without consultation. It does not respect the deep faith that people—parents, teachers and school boards of governors—have, and it does not even provide for a parental opt-out. In fact, the Secretary of State has already admitted that the parental opt-out might not be available by the time this comes into force. Why the speed? In fact, on this sensitive issue, we have even circumvented the normal process in this House.

Normally regulations are laid before Parliament and come into effect after 21 days. These regulations came into effect on the day they were laid, with the paltry excuse of, “Oh, we have to adhere to a timetable because we have to work towards the 1 January 2024 deadline.” That deadline was not imposed by anybody. It was a decision made by the Secretary of State. It is really odd. If that decision was made to ensure that the regulations come into effect in schools, does he really think that a new curriculum and everything else will come in the middle of a school year?

The idea that this had to be done by 1 January, and that was the justification for circumventing parliamentary procedure, is just not sustainable. Indeed, the other House has already asked the Government why there is a need for the 1 January deadline. If it leads to the House being circumvented and safeguards for parents not being in place, there is every reason to ignore it.

We have not only circumvented the procedures of this House but not had any consultation. Members have asked about the differences between what will happen in Northern Ireland and what happens in England. The first difference is that when the guidelines were introduced in England, there was full consultation. They were made on the basis of consulting all interested parties. That will not be the case in Northern Ireland. Indeed, we do not yet know what guidance will be given to schools, or what the opt-outs for parents are likely to be. We do not even know whether the regime in Northern Ireland will be similar to the regime in the rest of the United Kingdom. Since the curriculum and the guidance here is up for review, whatever comes in in Northern Ireland could be out of sync with what happens in England. We have not been treated the same as England.

When the abortion legislation went through, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children took a judicial review. In that review, the judge made it quite clear that although there had been consultation on the principle of abortion in Northern Ireland, there had been no consultation on education and how it would work out in the education system. The judge specifically said that the Secretary of State would be mindful of the opportunity for consultation, but he has ignored that as well.

There has not been any consultation with the various stakeholders, who have made a very strong case for consultation. The Presbyterian Church has pointed out that its members on boards of governors will be implementing this guidance. At the end of the day, if there are legal cases, complaints and accusations that the law was broken, it is not the Minister, the Department of Education or the education authority, but the boards of governors that will be held responsible. Whether that is in Catholic maintained schools, state-controlled schools, voluntary grammar schools or integrated schools—whatever it happens to be—they will be the people held responsible, yet they have not been consulted about any of this.

There is a very strong case for consultation. A judge has instructed—or suggested—that there should be consultation, and each of the providers has also made a case. Since they will be responsible, why were they not consulted in the first place? Consultation is even more important because, as the Secretary of State says, we do not have the legislative Assembly, in which these things could be debated. I thought that would have strengthened the case for consultation, not weakened it. That is why I say that he has trampled over this issue like some rogue elephant, not concerned at all about the impact that it has.

Thirdly, the measure does not respect faith. Let us look at why the Secretary of State has said that it is so essential. It is not that there was not action being taken. Schools already have relationships and sex education. The question is whether it is adequate, or whether it meets the standards that CEDAW has demanded. The Education Minister—in fact, even CEDAW has accepted this—was already starting to do work. Schools have the teaching, there was action being taken in the Department of Education, and the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment was already preparing new materials. Work was being done.

Here is the crucial thing: the objection was that what was happening in schools had a value base to it. Schools, teachers and various parents were demanding that this education should not be a valueless exercise. Quite frankly, the reason it is sensitive is that values do get attached to it. I will read out the answer from the CEDAW report:

“Most children in Northern Ireland attend denominational schools, either Catholic or Protestant. Church representatives play active roles in school management boards, and the result is that relationship and sexuality education, although a recommended part of the primary and post-primary statutory curriculum of the Department of Education, is underdeveloped…it is at the school’s discretion to implement the contents of the curriculum according to its values and ethos.”

That is the crux of the issue, and that is why all members of the Committee should be concerned about the issue. Because what does the Department now say? It says that what goes on in schools is not good enough. Why, and what is the specific complaint? Because schools, boards of governors, teachers and parents insist that this part of the curriculum has attached to it some of their religious values—what their faith dictates.

Sex and relationships education is not some mechanical thing. The Catholic Church notes that the Department says, for the purpose of legislation, that the education should be

“age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate,”

but the Church points out:

“In every major democratic jurisdiction, issues such as abortion, gender bioethics, human sexuality, are highly contested scientific and ethical issues, subject to democratic debate and shifting electoral and legislative positions.”

On a point of order, Ms Fovargue. I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman. My hay fever is playing up and I just wonder whether I have permission to take my jacket off. It is very warm.

It is going to get hotter!

Here is the crux of the matter: if the Secretary of State insists on having valueless sexuality education—if that is the objective—then he is challenging those who teach it, he is challenging the parents whose children receive it and he is challenging the ethos of the schools. This is where the problem arises. In responding to the complaints of CEDAW—it does not like values being brought into this; it wants it to be value-free—the Secretary of State is saying to teachers, parents and the people who control various schools across Northern Ireland, “Your views don’t count any longer. They can’t count.” Either values are reflected in education or they are not, and we are going to demand in the curriculum and the guidance that people do not bring their values into it. In a free society, that is wrong. In a society where we have strict laws against discrimination, it is contradictory.

I want to challenge the Secretary of State. Where does that leave the likes of St Killian’s, a Catholic school in my constituency? I have great admiration for the work that it does. I commented on a speech made at its prize distribution one year—I go every year—and the principal said to me, “Why are you surprised that the speaker, in front of all the parents and children, should make such a value-based speech? After all, an important part of our education is not just to teach them to be good mathematicians or biologists or linguists, but to teach them the values that we hold dear and that their parents hold dear.” The impact of the regulations is that those people are discriminated against. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim pointed out, the Northern Ireland Act 1998 prevents that. It says that there should be equality of religious belief, political belief and so on. Section 76 says, “And you cannot discriminate against people on that basis.”

That is the essence of our opposition to the regulations. What is appropriate? Who is going to decide what is appropriate? The Secretary of State says, “Oh, there’s going to be significant consultation,” but since he has already agreed that the outcome must be that what prevails in schools at present can no longer prevail, then the outcome of the guidance is very clear: teachers are going to find themselves constrained in what they teach, how they teach it and the values that they attach to it—in fact, they will not be allowed to teach them. This will be some mechanical thing. “You want an abortion? You can have an abortion. You want to find out where you can get it? There’s all the addresses where you can get it. Does it matter what the reason is? No, it doesn’t, because we can’t teach anything about values.”

That is why—my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford has said the same—I have had so many teachers, parents and boards of governors say to me, “This legislation can’t possibly be allowed.” The Secretary of State knows that this is sensitive, but he is prepared to walk over it all. I would like to hear from him how he intends to square the circle that, on the one hand, this has to be value-free, but on the other hand it is riven with value views. How does he square that circle? Whose side will he fall on? What will be the sanctions for those schools whose teachers or boards of governors say, “This is totally against our ethos. We can’t do this. We have got to bring our values into it”? What are the sanctions going to be? Does he want to make them all criminals? That has just been ignored in all this.

The last issue is the whole thing about parental opt-out. The Secretary of State has said, “There will be parental opt-out provided for, we’ll have consultation on it and we’ll bring in guidance.” That will not be in place for 1 January, so the education could be in place—schools could be required to teach it, parents could be required to have their children go to it—and there would be no guidance on the grounds on which people can withdraw their children from it. It is not enough for the Secretary of State to say, “Well, there will be eventually.” If the grounds are so curtailed, it will not be an opt-out anyway, will it? And if the grounds are so wide, why is he introducing the legislation? He could find in some rural areas that parents totally refuse to do it. What about a small school with two or three teachers where all the teachers say, “This goes against our faith and our beliefs. We feel that we cannot give a class on abortion without injecting some values into it”? Who will teach it in that school? Will that school be penalised? Will the teachers be penalised? What will happen? Those are all questions that have been glossed over.

I can see why the Secretary of State did not want consultation. I can see why he wanted to tighten the timetable in this House. I can see why he is so vague about what is appropriate, about what opt-outs there will be for parents, and about the rights of those who feel that their faith is affected by value-free relationship and sex education in schools. I do not want to emphasise the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford, but progress is being made in the Assembly. I do not know when it will be up and running—I suppose that it will take longer than the Secretary of State hopes, because of the inactivity in dealing with real concerns about the Windsor framework—but why is this the most pressing problem for it? There is no legal case, as far as I know. There is no uprising by the population. I never had a letter or email about this issue until the Secretary of State introduced this legislation.

Why is priority being given to this legislation? Believe you me, Secretary of State, if you think that by introducing it you will get a debate about how we should all get back into Stormont so that these things cannot be imposed on us, it will not work. The exact opposite will be the case. This is seen as pure vindictiveness. It has no justification. It is full of problems that have not been addressed and that, significantly, the Secretary of State did not address in his opening speech. I hope that he will address the issue of where the fairness is in this. Where are the safeguards for people who hold strong views on these issues and who will be affected by this legislation that he has introduced?

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue, and to follow the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim.

The hon. Member for Lichfield posed a question, which I suppose he thought got to the nub of the issue, along the lines of, “If you were back in Stormont, you could sort this out yourselves”—basically, “Sod off and do it.” That is the implication. This issue has nothing to do with Stormont; it has everything to do with how law should be applied consistently across the United Kingdom and how law should be made, whether Stormont is in place or not.

I was hoping that the Secretary of State would answer the series of questions that have been posed. As you well know, Ms Fovargue, Delegated Legislation Committees, by their very nature, usually happen in less than a quarter of an hour—matters are agreed and the legislation goes through because law is being applied consistently. This particular piece of delegated legislation was subject to special scrutiny. The 44th report of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee poses a whole series of questions for the Secretary of State to answer. I had hoped that he would answer them to save me having to speak. I had hoped, too, that the shadow Secretary of State might pose them, but it appears that the report has fallen on deaf ears among those who are here to hold the Secretary of State to account.

I am not a voting member of this Committee, but I will pose those questions. I asked the Secretary of State a question about section 76. He promised he would come to it, but he did not bother; it was not in his speech. I know the answer. I was told a very long time ago, “Never ask a question unless you know the answer.” The answer is patently obvious. The Secretary of State knows that he could not give an affirmative answer to the question that I asked.

The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee report details five issues. The first is that the implementation schedule was rushed. The second is that there has not been a full public consultation comparable to the consultation when similar policy changes were made in England—again, that is contrary to what the Secretary of State said. The third is that regulations to ensure that parents have a right to withdraw will not be in place when the policy is implemented. The Secretary of State has indicated that that is a matter for the Department of Education. Again, that is very different from what is in place in England.

Fourthly, the report states that what constitutes

“age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate”

guidance—what will actually be taught—has not been defined. Fifthly, the report points out that the regulations were brought into force the same day that they were laid before Parliament, breaching the convention that at least 21 days should be allowed between the laying of an instrument before Parliament and its being brought into effect. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim has dealt with that, so I will not go into it.

Essentially, the Secretary of State is duty-bound to make good policy, and the 44th report of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee says that this is bad policy. That may come as a surprise to a number of Conservative Back Benchers, but they are being asked tonight to vote for something that their Government, in the other place, said is bad policy. They should perhaps take some time to reflect on that.

I want to deal with a couple of the issues that the report puts on the record. Why does the Secretary of State believe that this policy has not been rushed, given that the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee states:

“Considering these points together, we are concerned that the implementation schedule may be rushed”?

It goes on, in paragraph 28:

“When taken alongside the other concerns on timing, the House may wish to press the Minister to bring forward the necessary legislation to push back the implementation date. This could allow time for a public consultation and would ensure the policy can be fully developed.”

I want to know why the Secretary of State has not considered that point. It was made by his colleagues in the other place and was the advice they gave him after serious scrutiny of the regulations.

I would like to know whether the Secretary of State can tell us what will actually be taught. He cannot tell us—he has already confirmed that. Paragraph 43 of the report states:

“When we asked NIO how ‘age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate’ guidance would be determined, NIO responded that this was a matter for DE.”

The report concludes:

“On such a key point, this is not an illuminating response; at the least, it would have been helpful for NIO to have liaised with DE to provide more detailed information. Questions remain about how this key aspect of the legislation will be implemented.”

I would like to know how the Secretary of State intends to do that, because what is taught goes to the crux of the matter. Say a child asks, “Is it possible for me to have an abortion, because I don’t want a child?” or “because financially it would be too great a burden?”. Would such a question be allowed to be asked and answered? The law prohibits a person from having an abortion for financial reasons, or because they just do not want a child; they have to have a specific legal reason. Will the Secretary of State answer whether those matters will be taught, or will children just be told, “You can have an abortion for any reason”? He knows that those matters have not yet been addressed in any way through the drawing up of a schedule of what should be taught.

Will the Secretary of State deal with the issue of the right of a parent to withdraw their child from such education? The 44th report puts it this way:

“The House may wish to enquire further why the instrument does not place a duty on DE to have regulations in place to facilitate parents withdrawing their children from sexuality education by the implementation date of the policy, and what steps NIO is taking to ensure DE does in fact have such regulations in place.”

On conscientious objection by teachers, the report says:

“We asked NIO whether teachers would have the right to ‘conscientiously object’ to delivering the approved material. Again, NIO said this would be a matter for DE, although NIO noted that a ‘large majority’ of schools currently outsource RSE to third party providers.”

What steps is the Secretary of State taking to consult providers of outsourced RSE? Most scripture unions are outsourced across schools. Would those organisations find that they are in breach of the law? What rights will be put in place to protect outsourced RSE?

The report said that outsourcing was one of the things that CEDAW complained about; it said that the outsourcers were bringing in the values as well.

I thank my right hon. Friend for expanding on that point. No guidance has been presented this evening by the Secretary of State on the issue of objection. What about teachers who wish to object? The report goes into the issue; it says that information

“on how key terms will be interpreted, on the rights of teachers to conscientiously object and on funding…has not yet been determined or, at least, has not been made available to Parliament.”

The following is in bold:

“This is unfortunate; it would have helped if NIO had liaised with DE to ensure more detailed information was available, even on matters not specifically the responsibility of NIO. The House may wish to press the Minister for further specifics.”

I press the Secretary of State for further specifics on this subject, which his colleagues in the other place posed those questions about, because they were totally absent from his speech. He has a duty in these Delegated Legislation Committees to answer such questions.

The Secretary of State said that the regulations complied with the Northern Ireland Act, but failed to explain how, given that they do not comply with either section 75 or 76 of the Act. The regulations discriminate against religious education. What he proposes is not a neutral policy; in effect, regardless of the ethos and religious or moral values of a headteacher, board of governors or school, certain things will not be allowed to be taught because they are of a religious nature. The Secretary of State has failed to explain that, and really needs to go back on this, because he and the Northern Ireland Office will ultimately find themselves in court on this matter—he knows how litigious lawyers in Northern Ireland are on sections 75 and 76. The Government have nailed their colours to the mast on protecting the architecture of the Belfast agreement, but the regulations ride a coach and horses through two of the most important protective rights: sections 75 and 76 of the Northern Ireland Act. The Secretary of State answered my question with the words, “Yes, I will address that in a moment,” but he did not, because he knows in his heart that the regulations breach sections 75 and 76 of the Northern Ireland Act.

A number of Members have said, “Suck it up, guys. This is what happens in England.” Of course, it is this is not the same as what happens in England. We ask the Secretary of State to do what was done in England. Do not take my word for it; take the words of the Government Members in the House of Lords. Paragraph 54 of the report says:

“It is striking that full public consultations were carried out when comparable regulations were introduced in England, and when similarly controversial regulations on abortion were introduced in NI. NIO has not offered any convincing reasons why these Regulations should be treated differently.”

Those are not my words, but the words of the 44th report, and I am really surprised that the Secretary of State thought he could bluff the regulations through tonight. I am also saddened that the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Hove, did not challenge him on these matters, because they are key issues that need to be responded to. As the report says, it is striking that the same thing did not happen in England, and that the regulations are being treated differently in Northern Ireland.

My right hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim mentioned the submissions from Catholic bishops, the Presbyterian Church and boards of governors. I do not intend to dwell on those points, but I will say this: the report blasts what this Committee is doing, calling it bad policy. Paragraph 56 says that we can

“help to improve confidence in the policy”,

and we must work to do that. It says:

“Given that this is a controversial policy with a wide range of interested parties and strongly felt views, a public consultation would have been appropriate as a matter of good policy making.”

It would have been good policy, good practice and appropriate to have a consultation and put the horse in front of the cart. But no, the Secretary of State has tonight said, “There might be a consultation later; I will just rush this through.” He could poll us tonight, and then decide that the regulations should be put out to consultation. He is under no pressure whatsoever.

I am sure the shadow Secretary of State would support a consultation—I did not hear him give any reason why he would not—and Members on the Government Benches have indicated to me that they feel this is a conscience issue, so why does the Secretary of State not go for a consultation and come back to this matter afterwards, if he is so convinced that he has it right? After all, there is the persuasive argument that the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee strongly believes that this matter should be put to consultation. I have never seen such a report from a Committee in my 14 years in the House. It castigates colleagues on the Government Benches, and the Government, and we should be cognisant of that.

This is not a minor issue, but it does not really matter whether we are talking about abortion or education around abortion; this is about how policy is made, and the Government have got it wrong tonight. I urge colleagues to consider that, and to say to the Government, “Let’s do the right thing; let’s get the consultation right.” There is a former Solicitor General here, the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon. I am sure that he knows, when something like this is done, that it is not right.

I encourage colleagues to press the Government on the issue. Paragraph 60 of the report says about the 21-day breach:

“The House may wish to press the Minister for further justification on why the 21-day convention was breached. We also ask NIO to consider carefully any possible future breaches of the convention.”

Why has the Secretary of State breached the 21-day rule? He was under no obligation to do that. I am sure that the lawyers on the Government Benches want to know why. What is the compelling reason for breaching the rule? It just appears absurd to me.

The report concluded that

“It would have been helpful for NIO to liaise with DE”—

that is, the Department of Education—

“to ensure that more information was available.”

The regulations will force all schools, regardless of their ethos, religious background, moral views or views of the headteacher or board of governors, to teach children between the age of 11 and 16 that they have the right to abortion. That is the law. We are also teaching them how to obtain one, without their parents’ consent. The regulations will remove parental responsibilities in this area.

Further, the regulations will prohibit the presentation of any opinion opposed to abortion. The explanatory note states that schools must

“not advocate or promote any particular opinion, on sexual and reproductive health and rights in accordance with the recommendations in the Report of the Inquiry concerning the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland under article 8 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women”.

That is religious discrimination. Forcing schools to promote and facilitate abortion is not a neutral or value-free position. The Government are forcing schools to take on a position that is not normally theirs. The regulations are aimed exclusively at suppressing the expression of a particular viewpoint; they threaten the conscience and rights of teachers and of boards of school governors; they are against article 9 of the European convention on human rights; and they also contravene the terms of section 76 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which prohibits public authorities, such as the Department of Education, from discrimination based on religious belief and political opinion.

If the Government pursue this route, they will end up in court. I encourage them to pull back from that and to get this matter right. On the other hand, section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 recognises the religious character of the role played by boards of governors in Northern Ireland when it lists them among the institutions that are exempt from the statutory duty to have due regard to the need to promote equality between religious beliefs and political opinions. I am asking this House to keep to the law, to make good law and to make law consistent with what was laid down in 1998, and not to drive that law in the opposite direction. These regulations have been condemned by both sides of the community in Northern Ireland; that point has been made well this evening.

The regulations seek to impose an ideologically based view of abortion on schools in Northern Ireland, contrary to legal protections against religious discrimination. They have also been rushed through without consultation and in breach of parliamentary convention. This is bad law, so I ask the Secretary of State to pull back from this tonight, and to make good law.

We have heard a wide range of strongly held personal views, and contributions on all aspects of the regulations from members of the Committee from all parts of the House. I will answer some of the questions raised.

To clarify completely for the hon. Member for North Antrim, my officials undertook an equalities screening under section 75 and considered section 76. The provision of such information has no discriminatory impact on religious groups, and the curriculum will not affect the ability of parents to provide advice and guidance to their children that is in keeping with their religious views.

The right hon. Member for East Antrim asked a couple of questions that I will pick up right at the beginning and re-emphasise later on in my speech. He mentioned the Court of Appeal judgment in relation to the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children. I am pleased that the judgment recognised that the UK Government have acted lawfully. The Government are committed to ensuring that women and girls are able to access abortion services, to which they have a right, and which are available in all other parts of the United Kingdom.

On the Court case, the judge’s comment was that education was not covered in the consultation on abortion, but there would be an opportunity for that to be covered when the Secretary of State brought forward regulations. He did not consult with anyone, even though the Court indicated that he should.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his points, but I think I made mine equally strongly. Another question was: what consideration was given to allowing conscientious objections by teachers? A large majority of schools in Northern Ireland outsource relationship and sexuality education to third-party providers, due to limited professional learning opportunities and limited teacher confidence in delivering RSE. The question of whether teachers object to teaching scientifically accurate education on sexual and reproductive health and rights, including access to abortion and contraception, will be a matter for the Department of Education, as it has overall responsibility for education in Northern Ireland.

No, I will not. A number of points were made about the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, and I thank it for its consideration of these regulations. I am grateful for the opportunity to provide further information on those issues. On the coming into force date of the regulations, the Department of Education’s position is that it must follow the direction of the former Education Minister, which meant that it was unable to progress work on this issue. To allow the Department to get on with implementing the CEDAW recommendation, our assessment was that this aspect of the regulations needed to come into force immediately. In addition, section 12(3) of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 dictates that the instrument should be laid before Parliament under the made affirmative procedure.

On the points raised on consultation, the Department of Education advises that significant stakeholder consultation has been undertaken on the RSE progression framework, which it has been developing with the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment over a number of years. We expect that document to be updated and used as guidance by the Department. Consultation with parents on RSE is already common practice in Northern Ireland, and the Department of Education requires each school to have in place its own written policy on how it will address the delivery of RSE. A school’s RSE policy should be subject to consultation with parents and endorsed by a school’s board of governors. These regulations do not change that approach, and we expect and encourage the Department to engage and consult with parents on the guidance it produces and the circumstances in which a parent can opt their children out of the specified education. I talked about the section 75 and section 76 duties.

On when the regulations come into force, only the duty on the Department of Education to produce guidance came into force on the day that the regulations were made. The 21-day convention does not apply to the made affirmative procedure, so I followed that procedure, as dictated by the primary legislation that placed this duty on me. I am confident in the legal arguments around that.

I absolutely believe that the Department of Education should press forward with implementing and updating the curriculum, and these regulations are designed to do that. I will conclude by saying that I had no desire to debate this subject today, but the House made its decision in 2019—nearly four years ago. This has not been rushed.

Question put.


That the Committee has considered the Relationships and Sexuality Education (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2023 (S.I. 2023, No. 602).

Committee rose.