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Section 28 Repeal: 20th Anniversary

Volume 741: debated on Wednesday 29 November 2023

[Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the 20th anniversary of the repeal of section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988.

I can’t tell you how glad we are to see you, Mr Sharma. Thank you for stepping into the breach.

When I became the first openly gay person in Britain to be selected to fight a parliamentary seat more than 27 years ago, my Conservative opponent described being gay as a “sterile, disease-ridden… occupation” and warned that Exeter’s children would be in danger if I won. During that election campaign, the tabloids ran one of their favourite kinds of story at that time, full of concocted outrage about a secondary school teacher in Exeter who was undergoing a sex change. The school was managing the situation perfectly well, but that did not stop my opponent calling for that teacher to be sacked.

When I talk to young people today about that recent history, they look at me aghast. The late 1960s and 1970s, following the decriminalisation of gay sex in 1967, had seen steady improvements in the lives of LGBT people. Prejudice and discrimination persisted, of course, but it was a time of hope and optimism that gave the 18-year-old me the confidence to come out to my friends and family, but there were already stirrings of a backlash as LGBT people began to ask for the same human rights and protections as everyone else. When a tabloid discovered that a school had a book in its library that portrayed parents of the same sex, which by then was the reality for some children, all hell broke loose. Self-appointed family values campaigners, Conservative politicians and much of the media fell over themselves in outrage. They said that that innocuous book promoted homosexuality

“as a normal and acceptable way of life”.

In her 1987 party conference speech, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher claimed that

“children are being cheated of a sound start in life”

due to being

“taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay.”

During that 1980s moral panic, public attitudes towards LGBT people, which had been improving for decades, went into reverse. In 1983, the proportion of the public who thought that sex between adults of the same sex was always wrong had fallen to 50%, but by 1987 it had gone back up to 64%. The result was section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which banned the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities and the portrayal of it as a “pretended family relationship”.

Section 28 was never actually used to prosecute anyone, but its chilling effect created a culture of shame and silence, and blighted the experience of a generation of young LGBT people. To my party’s shame, Labour did not oppose section 28 at the time, but by 1997, under Tony Blair, we had a manifesto commitment to repeal it.

The period that my right hon. Friend describes is the period when I was at school, and I am quite ashamed to say that my peer groups and I had fairly homophobic attitudes because of the lack of education. It took us until we went to university in the ’90s, in the period he describes, when the abolition of section 28 was raised, to overcome them. My children, who are at school now, have wonderful attitudes and are very welcoming to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual people, and in their peer groups have people who have been able to come out at school. They would not have done that when I was at school.

I completely agree, and I will come on to talk a bit more about that in a second. Our first attempt to repeal section 28 in 2000 was thwarted in the House of Lords, but we eventually got it scrapped in the autumn of 2003—happy anniversary, everyone!

Repealing section 28 was part of a bonfire of discrimination and out-of-date laws applying to LGBT people. In my view, that was among the proudest and historically significant achievements of the Blair-Brown Governments. It included an equal age of consent, civil partnerships, an end to the ban on gays in the military, gay adoption, the ban on discrimination in the provision of goods and services, the Gender Recognition Act 2004 and the Equality Act 2010. What is more, those advances were not reversed by the Cameron, May or even Boris Johnson Governments, but in the past year or two there have been worrying signs of a renewed moral panic, fuelled, as in the 1980s, by powerful elements in the media and politicians who should know better, targeted particularly at transgender and non-binary people.

We are not alone. We only have to look at Republican states in America, Orbán’s Hungary or Meloni’s Italy to see LGBT people under sustained attack, but Britain’s fall from equalities leader to laggard has been dramatic. Until 2015, the UK was consistently ranked among the best countries in Europe to be LGBTQ+; this year, we have fallen to 17th.

I thank my right hon. Friend for securing this critically important debate, not least because I, too, grew up under section 28 and was not able to be open about my sexuality. I was an incredibly repressed, closeted young gay man, and I was not fully able to express that. That did huge amounts of harm to me and my peer group. Does he agree that there has not been backsliding in all parts of the UK? In fact, in Wales, where I grew up and where I am proud to represent a diverse community, we have a fully inclusive relationship and sexuality education curriculum that represents the full breadth and diversity of our communities and society and encourages respect in an age-appropriate and culturally appropriate way.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. That is the difference a Labour Government make. I am sure some of our SNP colleagues will be making the same point about Scotland a little later.

The current Westminster Government have repeatedly broken their long-standing promise to ban the psychological abuse known as conversion therapy; they have abandoned the pledge made by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) when she was Prime Minister to reform the gender recognition process; they have used spurious constitutional arguments to block Scotland’s democratically agreed gender recognition reforms; and they have threatened to repeal the Equality Act, in effect, to cancel trans people. Stonewall, our main LGBT charity, which was founded in response to section 28, faces a constant onslaught from the Government and their allies in the press. Unsurprisingly, in this atmosphere, hate crime against LGBT people has rocketed. Britain’s supposedly independent Equality and Human Rights Commission has been packed with political cronies and it is now being investigated by the United Nations. Ministers brief almost every week that they intend to reverse LGBT-inclusive sex and relationship education in schools—their modern-day equivalent of section 28.

Can I say first of all that I understand exactly the need for this debate and for people to make their own choice? However, I do say respectfully—I hope the right hon. Gentleman will understand what I am saying—that there is also a need for parents to have a say in the teaching of their children and what happens to them in school. I say that as a plea. I have had hundreds and hundreds of emails from constituents on this issue. I very much respect the right hon. Gentleman and what he is trying to do, but I just ask for the same consideration to be given to parents and their children.

I take the hon. Member’s point, but parents already have such powers. I gently make the following point back to him: a significant proportion of young homeless people are LGBT people who have been rejected by their families. While most families are affirming and supportive of their LGBT children, not all families are so, while I take the hon. Member’s point, I make that point back to him. It is the interests of the child that should matter to all of us. Whether we like it or not, some parents have attitudes that actually harm and damage their children, and schools need to be able to manage that in a sensitive and professional way, as I believe the vast majority of schools do at the moment anyway.

The policies reportedly being considered by the Government include banning trans young people from socially transitioning at school, banning them from attending single-sex schools matching their gender, forcing schools to out trans and non-binary young people to their parents, allowing teachers to misgender pupils, and blocking trans children from using bathrooms and changing rooms matching their identity.

Like gay, lesbian and bisexual people, trans and non-binary people have always existed. Gender dysphoria has been an internationally recognised condition for decades. Coming out as trans or non-binary is never easy, and often extremely difficult. That is why, historically, so many trans people have suppressed their gender dysphoria, leading to high levels of mental illness and—all too often—suicide. These children are not a threat to be contained; they should be supported and cared for. What schools need is guidance that will keep all young people, including trans and gender-questioning young people, safe and happy and help them to thrive both in school and beyond.

At an exhibition in the Forum at the University of Exeter to mark the 20th anniversary of the repeal of section 28, Melissa, a trans woman, writes of its impact on her as a teenager:

“The biggest effect was me not being able to actually figure out that I’m transgender, that what I needed was actually possible, what my life could have been. I almost took my life at that age. If I had been told that it was a thing that you could do and be, and there was a possibility, then that would have saved me an awful lot of pain. It made me determined to bring up my kids in a different way. They do have an inalienable right to be gay, and an inalienable right to be trans, and they know it.”

Section 28 marked the peak of the last great moral panic about LGBT people, which began in the 1980s and collapsed beneath the Labour landslide of 1997. My homophobic opponent’s campaign in Exeter helped me to deliver the biggest swing to Labour in the south-west. As I prepare to retire at the next election, it feels as if we are in danger of going full circle, back to the dark days of the 1980s.

In 2009, David Cameron had the decency to apologise on behalf of the Conservative party for section 28. I beg the Minister not to let his Government repeat the mistakes of the past. It will damage people’s lives, and it will lose them votes.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) on securing this important debate. It is with great sadness that I heard the story of his election and the homophobia he experienced. I am pleased to say that I experienced no homophobia when I was selected as an out gay man, which I take as a sign of the progress we have experienced as a society.

I was a child who grew up in the 1980s. Although I was not aware of the political backdrop to the section 28 debate, being out and gay at school was unimaginable at the time. We are here today to mark and celebrate the removal of section 28. While it was never used to prosecute anyone, it sent a signal to the gay community that we were “others”, excluded and not part of normal society. Thankfully, the world has moved on and my party has many out MPs, out parliamentary candidates and out Government Ministers. Being gay in our party is now, thankfully, no longer a barrier to progression.

However, despite the legislation being consigned to the dustbin over two decades ago, there is not a gay Conservative who does not feel disappointment and anger at how we were excluded, and I am thankful that it is gone. Both main political parties have moved our society on through, among other things, the equal age of consent, civil partnerships—I celebrated my own some 15 years ago—equal marriage, progress on tackling HIV, availability of PrEP, the Prime Minister’s recent apology at the Dispatch Box to our LGBT veterans and his acceptance of the recommendations of the Etherton report.

Although I am full of praise for how much my party has achieved, and for parliamentarians who have helped in these struggles, we should be mindful of the challenges we still face: the need for a full ban on conversion practices, the rising tide of homophobic and transphobic attacks, wider access to PrEP and safer sex messaging for young people, and a continued push for greater opt-out HIV testing. The increasing celebration of LGBT people in our society is positive, but we must not forget that dark forces are still present and oppose further progress—dark forces that, shockingly, still wrap themselves in religion.

Having recently travelled to Ghana, where the dreadful anti-LGBT legislation under consideration is driving the LGBT community underground and offers conversion abuse as a get-out-of-jail option, I know there remains much to do around the world. Given that there are over 70 countries in the world where it is illegal to be gay—in some places, it can result in a death sentence—there remains much still to do. This Parliament, with its out and proud gay, lesbian, bi and trans MPs, can and should continue to be a light to others.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) on securing this important debate.

Section 28 was repealed on 21 June 2000 in Scotland—some three years before England—thanks to the Labour party, which was then in power in Scotland. As a Scot, I am very proud that the Ethical Standards in Public Life etc. (Scotland) Act 2000, which repealed section 28, was one of the first pieces of legislation enacted by the new Scottish Parliament. What I am not proud of is those who campaigned so viciously against the repeal of section 28, and the politicians who sat on the fence. However, I want to take a moment to applaud those who took such a brave stand, particularly the then Communities Minister, Wendy Alexander MSP, and many of my SNP colleagues who supported the repeal. However, what I want to talk about today is the campaign against the introduction of section 28 back in 1988, in which I played a small part.

When section 28 was first mooted in 1988, I was 21 and at university in Edinburgh.

I had just come out as a lesbian and most of my close friends were lesbians and gay men. There was a really vibrant gay scene in Edinburgh and we had hoped that maybe society was changing. Section 28 dented our optimism, but it did not stop us campaigning vigorously against it. The wonderful Blue Moon café set up by friends of mine at the Lesbian and Gay Centre in Broughton Street in Edinburgh was the hub of our activism and a group was set up called the Scottish Homosexual Action Group, or SHAG for short. It organised rallies and a march in Edinburgh, and buses went to London for the mass demos here. We also went to the big demonstration in Manchester in February 1988. I was proud to attend all those rallies and marches with my then girlfriend; I wonder where she is now.

The Scottish Homosexual Action Group also organised a big event in Edinburgh called the Lark in the Park, which took place in the Ross Bandstand in Princes Street Gardens. It was a festival of music and comedy with a political agenda and Sir Ian McKellen, who had just come out in response to the proposal of clause 28, spoke in Princes Street Gardens. That event went on for another couple of years and was the precursor of the first Pride marches in Scotland.

One of the interesting things about the campaign against section 28 back in 1988 was that lesbian feminists played a big role. Many of them had never worked with men before or had not done so for many years. Gay men were sometimes a bit taken aback by all these feisty women, but we worked well together in the end. I want to take a moment to remember that that was going on at the height of the AIDS pandemic when young men, including some of my contemporaries at university, were dying of AIDS. I want to take a moment to remember some of those young men, who had such great promise but who did not make it.

Returning to the involvement of lesbians, many lesbian feminists brought to the fight against section 28 experience of direct action from their campaigns against pornography and violence against women. Some of the lesbians involved had children and they took particular offence at their families being called a “pretended family relationship”. Those who were around at the time, or who have studied the history of the period, will remember the lesbians who abseiled into the House of Lords and who stormed “BBC News” live at 6 pm. I remember I was sitting in my flat with my flatmates watching the news when we saw all these women, who were obviously lesbians, shouting about section 28. One of them even handcuffed herself to Sue Lawley’s chair, which was highly amusing. As my friend Julie Bindel reminded me the other day, lesbians even stormed the Ideal Home exhibition just to remind everyone that, as she said, lesbians make the best families. I mention all that because I fear that lesbian activism is rather frowned upon today, unless it has been approved of in advance by straight people and some men who think they can set our boundaries for us. They cannot and should not try to do so.

I want to remind hon. Members of what section 28 actually said. It prohibited local authorities from “promoting homosexuality” or promoting the teaching of

“the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.”

It was all about the state clamping down on any support for the idea that it might be normal to be homosexual.

To be homosexual means to be sexually interested in and attracted to members of one’s own sex. That might not always have been popular, but it has been well understood for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Our movement at that time was a movement for lesbian, gay and bisexual rights; the rights of the same-sex attracted. Yes, we had supporters from the trans community, and I particularly remember the wonderful magician Fay Presto, a trans woman who was very involved in the Lark in the Park. However, section 28 was not about an attack on trans people; it was an attack on the same-sex attracted.

When Stonewall was founded in response to section 28, it focused exclusively at that time on same-sex rights. The initials LGBT or LGBTQ were not used until after the CEO Ben Summerskill left in 2014. As a recent survey by my friends at LGB Alliance shows, many lesbians and gays, including myself, do not like being called “queer”. To me, queer is about being bashed. I was queer-bashed in the 1980s and many of my friends have been queer-bashed. I do not accept the word “queer”. If others want to, that is fine, but many of us do not like it.

I want to make it unequivocally clear that I believe in equal rights for everyone and equal rights for trans people, but the protection of gay people is a separate thing. The protection for gay people and trans people that was achieved in the Equality Act 2010 was a triumph for two distinct and different movements that were campaigning separately. If Members want to know whether that is true or not, they can go back to Stonewall’s 2011 guide to the Equality Act for employers, which is 48 pages long and focuses on the rights of the same-sex attracted. It does not use the acronym LGBT. Human rights and equal rights are for everyone but, as my friend Allison Bailey has said, the rights of lesbians and gay men are not dependent on accepting gender identity theory, and many of us do not.

I therefore disagree with the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), for whom I have the utmost respect, that there is an equivalence between the fight against section 28 and the fight that some lesbians and gay men are undertaking to prevent gender identity theory from erasing the notion of same-sex attraction. I know that there is no equivalence between those two fights because, unlike a lot of the people in this room, I was there in 1988; I was out in 1988, and I was part of the struggle against section 28. I know what I was campaigning for; I was campaigning against an attack on the rights of same-sex attracted people, like me, and on our very right to be who we were.

Section 28 meant that many teenage girls were left confused and ashamed of their exclusive sexual attraction to other girls, with no one to talk to about that. I am afraid to say that that is the situation for many young lesbians today. I have been approached by constituents whose daughters are lesbians and have been told at school that, because they are attracted to girls, they must be a boy trapped in a girl’s body. Many young lesbians feel under pressure to deny their exclusive same-sex attraction and are bamboozled by a welter of indefinable niche identities such as bigender, gender queer and demifluid, which overlap and confuse them. The tragedy is that, in both cases—back in section 28 days and now—it is the state that is enforcing an ideology that undermines the rights of the same-sex attracted. Thank goodness we have organisations, like my friends in LGB Alliance, who exist to promote the rights of same-sex attracted people, now that Stonewall have given up on us. The fight against section 28 was a fight against those who wanted to destroy the reality of lesbian and gay lives; they wanted to erase us from contemporary life. That failed, and I really hope that any attempt to do so in contemporary times will fail.

As I have a bit more time than I thought I would, I want to add a few points, picking up on what other people have said. The first is about the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The Equality and Human Rights Commission was reaccredited for five years by the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions last October. The only reason why Stonewall and others have tried to get this special investigation into the EHRC is that it wrote to the Government asking them to look at the question of protecting the rights of women and of the same-sex attracted. Stonewall is referring the EHRC to the UN because the EHRC will not accept gender identity theory as the defining belief of our times. The EHRC is there to protect the rights of everyone—the rights of all beliefs and none—not just those who believe in gender identity theory. I think it is a real shame that Stonewall’s antagonism towards the EHRC has not been resolved by democratic debate and discussion here, rather than by referring it to the United Nations. I will be astonished if the EHRC loses its A categorisation as a national human rights institution simply for sticking up for the rights of all, rather than for the rights of just one group and for one group’s way of identifying rights.

On the issue of conversion therapy, of course all of us oppose the idea that anyone should be forcibly made to reconsider either their gender identity or their same-sex attraction, but the conversion therapy that worries me most is the one which I have already described: that of young girls who are attracted to other young women or young girls who are uncomfortable with their bodies and uncomfortable with puberty, and who are being told, rather than being lesbians or young women who are just uncomfortable with puberty, that they must be boys trapped in girls’ bodies. That is the conversion therapy that I am really worried about.

On veterans, I was in the House when the apology was made. One of my ex-girlfriends was thrown out of the Royal Military Police—after very distinguished service—for being a lesbian. An apology is one thing, but what the Government really need to do is give these people compensation. Not only did being thrown out cause people terrible distress, but it undermined their employability, and they lost their pensions. I really appeal to the Government to look at the recommendations of the independent review and to start giving compensation to people such as my friend.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) on securing the debate. I also thank him for his words; some of them meant a lot to me, and I am sure they meant a lot to anybody who was watching as well.

My speech will not be a complete response to everything I have heard, and I will probably reserve my response to some things to a later date. I will just make a few short comments, because I am still figuring out how I want to talk about some of these issues and what I want to say. That is because I am in two minds, and I am struggling with the best approach. On the one hand, I value signals and the things the Government and politicians do to set standards and set the tone. Unfortunately, I have witnessed first hand what can happen when these debates become public and become toxic—what can happen when the less than decent people in our society choose to take things from the words that are spoken. I have personally felt what happens when people feel empowered to target people and to go after those they feel are different and vulnerable. It is not pleasant, it is not nice and we should all work to stamp it out, no matter where it is and no matter our political views.

It is also important to have role models. Some hon. Members here today are the first LGBT person to be selected, to be elected or to serve—whatever it is—in their part of the country, and that it is extremely important. I speak to a lot of young people, and it is so important for them to see us simply being there and to know that we are there.

I do think it is a valid point that we should ensure that our set standards and ways of talking about things are rigidly stuck to. To pick up the point the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) made about Wales, he is absolutely right—and I will, hands down, say this every day of the week and twice on Sunday—that the Welsh Labour Government have done some terrific work on LGBT, which I thank them for. However, he should also look at the hate crime numbers in Wales, because although the Government and what is going on in the Senedd might be great, what is going on in the streets and the valleys is not necessarily anywhere near that, and it is certainly a far cry from where we want it to be.

One reason for that is that we have to take the public with us on this journey. While it is important to have role models, to set the standards and to have signals, I value the words that other people say—however hard they sometimes are to receive—because it is important that we know what the public are saying. Members may think what they will about my hon. and right hon. colleagues on the Conservative Benches, but they are nothing if not prolific vote-garnerers. If they say something, take a view and represent a perspective, it is because it is out there. Whether we like something or not, we sometimes have to hear it, listen to it and respond to it in as constructive a way as possible.

I have no qualms, and absolute confidence, that our side of this argument will win out—whether I will be an MP when that happens is probably a lot less likely. It will win out, because the one thing that will always be outed is the truth. The right hon. Member for Exeter is right: we have always been there—homosexuals and trans people have always been there. Whether it is the Romans, the Assyrians or the Babylonians, they are there in the historical texts.

We just need to find a way to talk about the trans issue and gender identity and to get the balance right between what parents might want or feel at the time and what is needed to push society forward. All I can say is this: right now, things are so toxic and so bad that it is an incredibly miserable time for a lot of people out there. We should all reflect on that for a short while. Hopefully—fingers crossed—we can all be in the same Lobby one day getting that ban on conversion therapy and getting this legislation through. We can have the society we know we can have—one that is fair, equal and prosperous.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Sharma. I am very happy to have the opportunity to speak in this important debate, and I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) for bringing it forward and for sharing his own experience. Even though I was an adult at the time and do remember it, it is almost impossible to think that, only 27 years ago, he had the experience that he outlined as a candidate in an election—it is horrific, and it is probably difficult to imagine because it is so horrific. That was not very long ago, and I am grateful that we are not in that place any more; the hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) obviously had a very different reality, and we can all applaud that.

We need to think back to how things were and to remember that it would, unfortunately, be very easy to find ourselves in that position again. The right hon. Member for Exeter talked about LGBT people simply asking for the same human rights as others and about how that caused a bit of a furore. Again, that is incredible, and it is difficult for us to comprehend. It is not much to ask, is it, that people should have the human rights that we all take for granted? That, however, is not what happened at the time, and public attitudes went into a swift reverse.

From listening to the other contributions, it seems that quite a lot of us in the Chamber are of a reasonably similar vintage. I have said before that there were no gay people at my school; obviously, there were, but it was not okay for anybody to say that at the time. That is a terrible thing. It is very different now, and my own children have a very different experience at their school. The public outlook, the outlook among young people and the way we talk about these things is very different. Not so long ago, that would have been impossible, and it would have been absolutely out of the question for their experience to have been anybody’s reality.

I think the statistic is that 75% of the public surveyed at the time said that it was “mostly or always wrong” to be gay. That is a pretty astonishing statement for people to be agreeing with in such numbers. We heard about the memorable episode of the storming of the news studio; I was watching the television that night—I was a schoolgirl—and it really did make an impression on me. This issue was not talked about, and we did not hear about it or really know what was going on—but we certainly did after that happened. I am not suggesting that we all go and storm news studios—not just now—but I am pointing out that it was very difficult for people to get into the news agenda and into the media to explain what these changes meant in reality. Again, I suspect that that is quite difficult for us to comprehend now.

We know that section 28 was never used to prosecute anyone, but it none the less caused horrendous harm, but I am worried about the way these issues can still cause people significant harm. I know that the Minister responding is very thoughtful on these issues, and I appreciate that we have travelled a distance, but I worry about some of the issues the right hon. Member for Exeter talked about, such as conversion therapy and gender recognition. It is very unedifying to think that deliberate culture wars and constitutional game playing can sometimes be fostered on some of these issues, which should not be played with like that—people’s lives are affected when politicians behave that way. The hon. Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis) eloquently pointed out that, whoever a person is and whatever their views, it is never acceptable to abuse others. If we take that thought as widely as possible when discussing these issues, we will all be in a better place and better able to make sensible progress.

Like my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), I am really proud that the repeal of section 28 was one of the first actions of the newly devolved Scottish Parliament. It is incredibly powerful to know that, because at the time we were in a very different place.

I looked at some interesting information from ASLEF, and one of the statements it made really struck me:

“In this 21st century, there was still a piece of legislation that made it illegal for any local authority department—including schools—to say it was okay to be lesbian or gay.”

Members should think about that: that was almost yesterday—it is a really short time since that changed. I also found a quote in the ASLEF information from someone who had been badly impacted. He said that he was made to feel he was “abnormal and inferior” and that he had been left with mental scars that he would carry forever. This issue has had a significant and profound impact on people.

It is important that we have noted that this all happened when the AIDS epidemic was all over the television—I am sure we all remember the public information films. Every single household got one of those “Don’t die of ignorance” leaflets. That all fed in, in a very unfortunate and deliberate way, to the terrible narrative the public were fed, stigmatising people with HIV and AIDS and promoting hatred of people who were gay or lesbian.

The hon. Lady just touched on an important point, which I omitted from my speech for time reasons. One of the great damages caused by section 28 at the time of the AIDS pandemic was that it prevented schools from giving vital public health information to young people about sexual relationships. That was probably the most heinous impact of it, because it had life and death consequences.

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. The impact that that had, including on the wellbeing of young people, should not be underestimated. There was absolutely no way that schools could possibly deal with homophobic bullying, because they were not able to deal with this issue at all. From whatever angle you look at the wellbeing of young people, there was a huge issue, and its impact continues to this day. We should not pretend that no homophobic bullying goes on now, but we are in a very different climate, and it is at least possible to deal with it. That is profoundly important.

I would like to talk a bit about education and the “Time for Inclusive Education” campaign, which is a very positive education initiative in Scotland. It is vital that all our young people are afforded the opportunity to have proper, appropriate and wide-ranging inclusive education. It is part of who they are, and part of who everyone in the community is, that they will have relationships, and all those relationships need to have a grounding in being safe, being well and looking after one another. If we exclude parts of our young people’s communities from that, we are not doing the right job, because there is no place for homophobia, biphobia, transphobia or any other kind of bigotry in our schools—or anywhere else in society, for that matter. I therefore very much applaud the TIE campaign. I note that the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) talked about his children’s attitudes to LGBT education; we are in a different place, and their world outlook is very different from the outlook he experienced when he was at school. That is very much my experience as well.

Some of the information I saw from the Law Society was very interesting. It was fascinating to look at some of the challenges its members had pointed out in terms of the impact the regulations had on their mental health and their professional development. This issue followed people beyond school and caused significant fear among many people about the impact it could have on their jobs, their family and their friendships, because it enabled the atmosphere to be so toxic. As we look at the way things are now and at how things have moved on, it is certainly to be applauded that we are in a very different place. It is important for all political parties to realise that we need to be clear and to be strong on these issues, and I am very proud of my party for taking a strong line on them. We need to have equality and we need to work for that.

Although we have that progress to be proud of, I do have concerns. Some of the narratives and some of the storm clouds that are gathering should cause us to worry. It is our job in Parliament to speak up and speak out to make sure we do not allow troubling and hateful attitudes to take hold. Although I am pleased with where we are, I would be grateful to hear where the Minister thinks we are. I am also keen to hear where he thinks the Conservative party is going on conversion practices and whether he appreciates the responsibility all of us here have to speak out without fear or favour.

Thank you, Mr Sharma, for coming to our rescue and saving our debate this afternoon—we very much appreciate that.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) on securing this debate marking the 20 years since 18 November 2003, when the repeal of section 28 came into effect. It is very fitting indeed that he should lead the debate: as many Members here will know, and as he referenced in his speech, he was brave enough to stand as an openly gay parliamentary candidate in 1997 and endured a vicious and abusive campaign.

I pay huge tribute to my right hon. Friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle), Lord Cashman and others who did so much to pioneer gay rights—leading the way, speaking out when it was much more difficult to do so, taking risks and campaigning ceaselessly to create a society in which no one is disadvantaged because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Of course, they are still campaigning.

My right hon. Friend described in detail the build-up of negative views and attacks on gay people in the lead-up to the introduction of section 28. He set out clearly that we are, worryingly, hearing echoes of the section 28 times from the present Conservative Government, leading to fear and prejudice, particularly against trans people. He detailed clearly the tirade of attacks that make things ever more difficult for young trans people.

The hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) described the change we have seen in society, but noted that further action is needed and spoke of the challenges across the globe. The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) described her campaigning against section 28 and reminded us of the toll that the HIV/AIDS epidemic took on the gay community. She also reminded us that the Labour Government in Scotland repealed the Scottish equivalent of section 28 three years before the UK Government did.

The hon. Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis) mentioned the dangers of toxic speech and its effect on people, including himself, as well as the importance of role models. The hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), speaking from the Scottish National party Front Bench, mentioned how easy it would be to allow backsliding and how our job is to speak up and not allow hateful attitudes to take hold. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), who is a good friend, reminded us of the common-sense approach of the Welsh Government, who insist that all children should have fully inclusive LGBT education because that is the society we live in.

On a personal note, celebrating the repeal of section 28 brings back some awkward memories of 30 years ago for me. At the time, I was teaching in a large comprehensive school and in a relationship with another female teacher. Same-sex relationships were little acknowledged, and we knew very few other same-sex couples, so we were already quite isolated. Then, in 1988, the Thatcher Government introduced the homophobic law, section 28, which stipulated that local authorities must not “promote homosexuality” or

“promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.”

That language was hateful, threatening and intimidating, and I was conscious that the force of the law could be used against me. Back in 1988, there were no anti-discrimination laws that covered a person’s sexual orientation, meaning that they could be fired just for being gay. All of that made it difficult for gay teachers to be open about their sexuality, thus taking away valuable opportunities to provide positive role models for young people. It undoubtedly delayed my own coming out, and I just got into the habit of never mentioning anything at all about my personal life to anyone at work. In fact, it was not until 1995 that I came out to my friends and family, and I was very conscious that, standing for town council in a multi-member ward, I would be putting my fellow Labour candidates in a position of having to defend me. But they were great about it.

Perhaps the worst thing about section 28, and the fear that it instilled in gay teachers like me, was that it made it very difficult to challenge homophobic bullying effectively. At the time, homophobic insults in the classroom were commonplace, thus making the lives of many students a misery. If we had called out those comments as homophobia, we risked being accused of promoting homosexuality. When a pupil made a homophobic remark, I did not want it to go unchallenged, but all I could manage was something feeble, like, “Don’t you think that could be a bit hurtful to some people?”

If the classroom was hard, the staff room was even worse, especially when trying to challenge male teachers exchanging homophobic banter. Some colleagues were already quick to mock me as a lefty feminist, so could I risk the suspicion of being gay, when that could be used against me in my employment? I am ashamed to say that I did let comments go unchallenged. I could and should have spoken up, and I am immensely grateful to all those who were brave, who did speak up and who helped society to become more accepting of LGBT people.

We owe it to today’s young people and the teachers who are delivering LGBT education to give them our full backing and ensure that there is no backsliding in this important step towards creating a genuinely inclusive society. But, of course, it was not just teaching that was affected by section 28. It set back local council initiatives and fomented prejudice and hate, and who knows how much misery, how many additional suicides, how many late diagnoses of HIV and how many additional deaths it led to?

Thankfully, the Labour Governments of 1997 to 2010 faced down fierce opposition and championed LGBT rights, including by repealing section 28. Not only did Labour repeal section 28, with the repeal taking effect on 18 November 2003, but we achieved an equal age of consent; ended the ban on LGBT people serving in our armed forces; ended discrimination against lesbian and gay partners for immigration purposes; created civil partnerships, allowing same-sex couples to have the same rights as married couples; gave LGBT individuals and couples the right to adopt children; awarded statutory rights to fertility treatment on the NHS for lesbians; banned discrimination in the workplace and vocational training; outlawed discrimination in goods and services; included homophobia in the definition of hate crime; brought in the Gender Recognition Act; and brought in the Equality Act.

By 2010, it was encouraging to see a growing acceptance of LGBT issues by the Conservative Government. We were pleased to support their legislation for same-sex marriage, although far too many Conservative Members voted against the Bill, some of whom, it must be said, have since apologised. Sadly, as Opposition Members have already said, LGBT+ people have been badly let down by the recent Conservative Government, who killed off their own LGBT action plan, disbanded their LGBT advisory panel, cancelled their international LGBT conference and have still not honoured the promise to ban the insidious practice of so-called conversion therapy. Instead of standing up for LGBT+ rights and bringing people together, the Conservatives have stoked a culture war and pitted different groups against each other.

Hate crimes against LGBT+ people have soared in the past decade. In 2022-23, almost 30,000 hate crimes on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity were reported. It is not difficult to see the connection between that shocking increase in hate crime and the bandying about of LGBT-phobic remarks, particularly transphobic remarks, especially by people of influence, including, sadly, Conservative Members.

Hate crime figures are not just statistics. Behind each number is a real person who has been attacked or even killed, and many more who live in fear. Not long ago, I was speaking to a trans woman in my constituency, and this is what she said to me about the debate on the Equality Act that we had in this very room:

“As a transwoman I find the idea of this change to the equalities act terrifying. The change that has been suggested is purely out of contempt and malice.”

May I just finish the quote from my constituent? She went on to say:

“I have been a patient with the NHS for my gender affirming care since 2017-18. The soonest I will be offered surgery is still at least 12 months away. Despite being fully transitioned in all but 1 final surgery, this will segregate me and make me vulnerable to violence. This isn’t moving goal posts to protect cisgender women: this is just cruel.

Every time politicians open their mouths to peddle hate to stoke up a culture war, I become more afraid to open my door for fear of the people they have riled up. You do not protect anyone by taking rights away from minorities.”

I take issue with the hon. Lady on that point. I am one of the people who support amending the Equality Act to make it clear that sex means biological sex, and it is not because I have any hatred against trans people—it is because I want to ensure the rights of women to safety, dignity and privacy and the right of lesbians and gay men to freedom of association. Does the hon. Lady oppose those rights?

As the hon. and learned Member would acknowledge, there is already provision in the Equality Act for specific spaces for biological women, where that was deemed appropriate. She knows that perfectly well. Things like women’s refuges provide one of the obvious examples of a biological single-sex space—

That is not the case. Many once single-sex women’s refuges now have male-bodied individuals in them. That is why some other people have set up women-only spaces. Equally, lesbians are now unable to run lesbian-only events without men insisting on being admitted. As a lesbian, does the hon. Lady not find that concerning?

The point is that we know perfectly well that there are one or two extremely far-reaching and far-thinking women’s refuges that have a very inclusive policy, but the vast majority are very aware of the importance of that single-sex space. I think the hon. and learned Member knows that. I am sure she understands why we want to make sure that trans women feel fully included and fully accepted in our society. We can manage to find a way to do that without prejudice and hate and without whipping up hate against each other. I hope she would agree with me on that point.

Thank you. I would like to leave the Minister some time.

I say to the Minister that if the Government have the will, it is not too late for them to act. The Minister, a fellow Welshman and a fellow member of the LGBT community, will be taking the flak, but I am sure he would like to do some of the things we are going to suggest. We would like him to be able to push hard with his colleagues to carry this out. I say to him that it is not too late for the Government to act.

Will the Minister’s Government now make time to bring forward legislation for an outright ban on all forms of so-called gay conversion therapy to protect all LGBT+ people from this abhorrent practice, or agree to give full support and speedy passage to a private Member’s Bill to do the same? Will he also push his Government to move forward on the consultation that they held back in 2018 on the reform of the Gender Recognition Act to modernise the law on gender recognition by removing the futile indignities that people currently have to go through to obtain a gender recognition certificate, which do not contribute to the integrity of the process? Will the Government also do more to tackle LGBT hate crime as a matter of urgency? Finally, and very importantly, will the Government ensure that the rhetoric they use is not in any way homophobic or transphobic? Action on those four fronts would be a fitting tribute to mark 20 years since the repeal of section 28.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I thank the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) for securing today’s debate. I listened to what he said about his election campaign with regret and, for what it is worth, I apologise.

Unfortunately, I am. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. We are marking two decades since the repeal of section 28, and even though there have been differing views, the tone of the debate has been respectful. I wish there was more of that when we have debates about this area of policy.

I, too, speak from personal experience as a gay man. The Britain of the ’80s and ’90s is a world away from the Britain we call home today. There is no way I would have come out in school in Anglesey, but it is great when I go round the constituency today and see young people proud of their sexuality and their identity.

I stood for election in Wrexham in 1997. Unfortunately —I have spoken about this before—just before the election campaign I was beaten up, and the press got hold of the story. I remember being frightened to admit that it was a gay bashing, and I tried to hide it. It was only a year later that I had the courage to stand up and say that it was because of my sexuality.

In 1988, when section 28 was introduced, only 11% of the public approved of same-sex relationships. Anti-LGBT sentiment was rife across society, schools and the workplace. LGBT people were all but invisible in the media, and I am sad to say that our politics harboured a great deal of the same prejudices.

The Britain of today is a nation transformed. Our cities, towns and counties annually play host to the colour and sounds of a hundred Pride parades. We are a nation of all kinds of families, of out and proud LGBT pupils and teachers, and of inclusive businesses. Our media, from sport to family programming, not only includes LGBT people but celebrates them. I take pride in the fact that this Parliament is the most LGBT Parliament in the world.

And yet, despite those great strides, the harmful legacy of section 28 lingers on. Through a combination of silence and fear, young LGBT people were denied knowledge of what healthy same-sex relationships looked like. They were denied information about how to keep themselves safe when embarking on future sexual relationships. Perhaps most painfully of all, everyone who was part of the LGBT community was marked as “other”. Teachers prohibited from discussing LGBT issues were themselves stifled and negatively affected by the policy, as we so movingly heard from the hon. Member for Llanelli (Dame Nia Griffith). Some were forced to remain in the closet for fear of the impact on their careers and others felt they had no choice but to leave education behind altogether.

The bullying of LGBT people all too often went unchallenged because of the chilling effects of section 28. Compounding that problem further was the lack of positive role models for young people. All but a handful of celebrities were closeted, and LGBT people were confined to the fringes of our media. I am glad to say that that has changed for the better in recent years. LGBT characters and stories are prominent across TV, streaming and books, and the impact of such stories on young people can be profound. To see your own journey and hopes reflected back at you in shows such as “Heartstopper” is both comforting and empowering.

But television is no replacement for formal education about healthy, consenting relationships and sex education. As a society, we have long understood that education is empowering and equips our young people with the tools to succeed, but it is vital that we also instil in them our values of tolerance and acceptance. In 2020, the LGBT-inclusive relationships, sex and health education was introduced in England, and in the vote on that a significant majority was in favour: 538 for and only 21 against. Today, primary-age students are taught the reality of modern Britain: that families come in all shapes and sizes. Some children have two mothers, some children have two fathers. This is a reflection of our diverse society, and of the importance of tolerance and respect in binding our nation together.

The Minister is helpfully describing the type of inclusive education that we all want, but does he agree that there is a significant problem with groups—often some religious fundamentalist groups and others—spreading misinformation about what is actually taught in schools? Teachers do an excellent job in ensuring, in an age-appropriate way, that young people understand the inclusive society that we all live in.

The hon. Gentleman is right. We have to make sure that what we are talking about are facts, not descriptions of things that are not happening just to try to advance a fear.

Older students in their final years of secondary education are also taught the importance of healthy relationships and of consent and safe sex, ensuring that all our young people, regardless of their sexual orientation, are given the knowledge they need to keep themselves safe and healthy. As colleagues will be aware, a review of the statutory guidance on relationships, sex and health education is under way. The review is looking at whether the coverage of the statutory guidance is right, in terms of ensuring that teaching is safe and age-appropriate, making sure it is based on the facts and seeing whether it can be strengthened on certain topics such as suicide prevention and the dangers of vaping.

We expect to release the draft statutory guidance as soon as possible. It will then be open to a public consultation. Following the consultation, a decision will be made about any new or revised contents to be included in the guidance, including the use of resources and whether any further action would be appropriate, with revised guidance to be published in 2024. It is important that all material is factual and age appropriate.

The UK is concerned by the introduction of any legislation that restricts the teaching of the aforementioned age-appropriate relationship and sexual education. The UK deeply regrets introducing similar discriminatory legislation in the form of section 28 in 1988. It was wrong then, and it is wrong now. It is clear that such legislation had a profoundly negative effect on the physical and mental wellbeing of LGBT people, and it was rightly repealed across the UK in 2003. We encourage other countries not to repeat the mistakes of history.

In addition to ensuring that future generations are well equipped with knowledge, we must ensure that they are also safe to be themselves. We believe that no one in this country should be harmed or harassed for who they are. Attempts at so-called conversion therapy or conversion practices to change someone else due to a wrongful belief that a certain identity is preferable are, frankly, abhorrent.

The Minister is a huge advocate for our community represented in this debate today. May I put on the record my frustration, anger and disappointment that we have had repeated promises for almost 11 months now? We have heard “nearly”, or “just soon” or “coming around the corner”. We need to see this ban. Many Conservative Members have campaigned vigorously on this issue since we were elected in 2019, and I hope the Minister can say something positive to leave us all with some hope today.

In due course, indeed. I remain deeply committed to tackling these issues. I hope that that is known. I promise that work is still going on in this really complex area. We will be setting out further details in due course. I know that that is frustrating— I get it—and I am aware that the uncertainty around next steps in this space and how this has been reported in the media and on social media will have been really difficult for some. These sensitive issues must be discussed in a respectful and tolerant way, in line with our shared values. But I do absolutely accept the point that colleagues are making.

One of the arguments that has come back when I have lobbying on this is that such a ban or Bill might not be used. In other countries, for example, they have brought in Bills to ban such practices but they have never resulted in prosecution. We have learned today that section 28 never yielded a prosecution either, yet it was an incredibly significant piece of primary legislation. Will the Minister please use what we have learned today as a counter-argument, because although it may not result in many prosecutions, as a signal and a marker for our culture, it is incredibly important, and its value will be felt for generations.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. He will probably not be surprised that I share that view.

It is important that we continue to fund support services that are open to all victims of conversion practices and those at risk, regardless of their background or circumstances. Operated by Galop, the UK’s leading LGBT anti-violence charity, the confidential service combines decades of expertise with patience and empathy. It is open to anyone who is currently or was previously at risk of experiencing conversion practices, and I encourage those affected by such abhorrent practices to contact the service as soon as possible.

More widely, in recent years the Government have taken a number of actions to improve outcomes for LGBT people and to understand past wrongs. As we have already heard today, in July we saw the publication Lord Etherton’s independent review of experiences of LGBT veterans during the ban on LGBT service personnel between 1967 and 2000. The review brought to light the shocking and tragic experiences of many veterans through their personal testimony, and made clear its recommendations for rectifying past wrongs. In July, the Prime Minister made an apology to those veterans and their families, and stated his hope that

“all those affected will be able to feel part of the proud veteran community that has done so much to keep our country safe.”

Those are sentiments that I and all Members present share. Although the Government response to the review is currently being considered, I note that today LGBT service personnel serve their nation proudly in the armed forces, helping to keep us safe during troubling times, and I pay tribute to them.

I made a point earlier about compensation. Yes, LGBT people do serve proudly now, but many people, such as my friend who served proudly before, and lesbians and gay men, were humiliated and thrown out of the Army, and they lost their livelihoods. Are the Government giving active consideration to the recommendation of the review that these people should receive financial compensation?

Like the hon. and learned Lady, I was in the main Chamber when the Defence Secretary made his statement, which he did extremely well. Yes, all the recommendations are being actively considered, and I hope we will be able to provide an update in due course.

As World AIDS Day approaches, it is right that we consider the great strides made and the continued ambition of the Government to end new infections and improve HIV/AIDS outcomes. As the hon. and learned Lady mentioned, it is also right, as this day approaches, that we remember the lives that were so full of promise but which were cut far too short. I am pleased that the Government remain committed to ending new HIV transmissions and HIV/AIDS-related deaths in England by 2030, and our HIV action plan from 2021 sets out how we will achieve our interim ambitions by 2025. As part of that, the NHS committed £20 million to expand the opt-out of HIV testing for emergency services in areas with an extremely high prevalence of HIV, and we look forward to some further announcements, hopefully in the next couple of hours.

As we have heard today, the impact and legacy of section 28, though fading, remains, but we have moved forward in leaps and bounds as a society. Today, LGBT life is visible and celebrated, with our contributions noteworthy and valued. Our young people are provided with the opportunity to learn about who they are and how to be safe as they enter adulthood. Although the question of what to teach and when will always be debated, it is important that that is done in a respectful way and with the inclusion of all our young people foremost in our minds.

Personally, I am driven by the fact that we have come a very long way, with equal marriage, gay men being able to give blood, and IVF treatment, among other things. But I am spurred on by the fact that there is much more to do. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis) said, our society will be much better when it is equitable, fair and prosperous. Today’s debate has shown that, when we treat each other with respect and compassion, we can build that better, fairer and more prosperous society.

Thank you once again, Mr Sharma, for stepping into the breach, rushing over here to save this important debate. As I said at the beginning, the fact that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Equalities is on the side of the angels has made my job a bit harder, because I could not be as rude about the Government as I would otherwise have been. I think he got the message on a number of points.

I am incredibly reassured to hear what he said about inclusive sex and relationship education and the guidance that the Government keep saying is about to come out, though it still has not. There was a briefing again this week in The Times, saying that it was coming next week, including some very worrying suggestions of what it might contain. To hear from a live Minister that he is absolutely committed to inclusive education and guidance is really important.

At the risk of embarrassing the Minister, it is no secret that he is on the side of the angels but he works for a Secretary of State who, certainly on trans issues, is not in the same place. That is apparently one reason why this guidance has not come forward up until now. Let me make a suggestion through the Minister to his Back Benchers. I know what he wants to do about conversion therapy but, if Ministers cannot agree, I suggest to colleagues that we can help them from the Back Benches. During this Parliament, the Minister should not be surprised to see amendments coming through, with cross-party Back-Bench support, to deliver on conversion therapy and the changes required on hate crime. I hope those amendments will gather as much support as possible from Members of all parties. If the Government are not capable of doing this stuff, they should let Parliament do it for them, in their dying days before the election. At least we will have some legacy to say we achieved in this Session, before, as I hope, we have a change of Government that will deliver on these things.

I will leave it there, Mr Sharma. It has been a constructive debate and a refreshingly civilised one. As we know, in the past some of these issues have caused toxicity in this Chamber and elsewhere. I thank colleagues very much for their contributions and their kind words about my speech. Let us hope that we can move forward with mutual respect to progress to a future where everyone is treated equally and with respect.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the 20th anniversary of the repeal of section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988.