Nick supports LGBT Community and Acceptance Teaching in schools

Nick Herbert

I join hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on initiating this debate and on his moving and inspiring speech in which he explained the importance of the subject.

I am pleased to be able to take part in the debate both as an ordinary Member of this House and as chair of the all-party group on global LGBT rights—one of the largest APPGs in this Parliament. Much of our work focuses on the need to ensure that the terrible abuses of LGBT+ people around the world do not happen and on pressing for action to deal with it. In doing that, we have to ensure that we uphold the highest standards in our own country. After the conclusion of equal marriage legislation in England and Wales, which was followed rapidly by Scotland, it was easy to think that the legislative journey was largely complete in most of the United Kingdom and that we could lift our sights and look at what was happening globally. Of course, there is unfinished business in our own country: equal marriage in Northern Ireland, for a start.

There are also continuing concerns about the bullying of young people and discrimination in the workplace, and particular concerns about the lack of role models in certain sports and the need to ensure that young people and their heroes fully reflect the diversity of today’s society. So much work still needs to be done, particularly in schools.

We know from Stonewall’s school survey that there has been an absence of the kind of sex and relationships education that children need to ensure that they can be safe and that they understand that relationships can be different but are just as valid, and that if they themselves are different it is nothing to worry about. All that is immensely important, so I welcome the guidance that the Government issued this year. It was intended to strengthen sex and relationships education guidance in secondary schools and relationships education in primary schools.

However, there are issues that we need to consider. The first has been brought into sharp relief by the protests outside Birmingham schools. I attended a meeting of representatives of Parkfield school in Birmingham that was organised in this House a month or two ago.

I had already been pretty horrified by the film that we all watched on the news of the protests that took place outside the schools. I was even more alarmed when I listened to the evidence of the leaders of the schools and heard about the pressures that they felt they had been put under by the parents. They raised an issue that I want to put to the Minister; I do this in as neutral a way as I can, but I want to understand what the Government’s view is. Although relationships education has effectively been made discretionary for primary schools, the view of the headteachers was that it should not be. They felt that the fact that it was discretionary placed a huge burden of responsibility on them and made them the targets of parental protest.

It would be easier for those leaders if it was very clear to every school what it was required to teach. There might be good reasons why the policy was framed in such a way by the Government, so I am not criticising them, but I want to understand what the rationale is, and I question whether the guidance offered to schools needs to be more explicit or whether more effort needs to be made to ensure that the guidance can be implemented by schools without their fearing any kind of repercussion.

The second issue concerns protests outside schools. My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham said much that I agreed with, but I did not agree when he said that he respected the right to demonstrate outside schools. I question whether it is ever right to have protests, particularly of the kind that we have seen, outside school gates. I note that the new Secretary of State for Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson), said that there was no place for protests outside schools, and I agree—particularly when it comes to primary schools.

When the protests are vociferous and bullying, they must be intimidating to parents, and if they are intimidating to parents, what can their children—their young children—be thinking? Most of us who saw the film and the way in which the parents conducted themselves outside the schools—the manner in which they hectored—found it disturbing. We are, of course, all proud of living in a country where peaceful protest is permitted. The fundamental nature of our democracy allows that, but we have always understood that where protest spills over into harassment, it is not acceptable. It becomes criminal. Good policing relies on the ability to exercise a judgment about where the line has been crossed. There is a real question about whether such protests should be allowed right outside the school gate because they are harassing, so it is important that that issue is looked at.

The third issue I want to raise concerns resources. The new guidance is, as I said, welcome, but a question has been raised by Stonewall, which does excellent work in this and other areas, about whether there is sufficient resource to ensure that schools can receive the training and information that they need to implement the new guidance. The Government’s estimate of the amount of money needed was a sum considerably in excess of the £6 million being made available. Today the Chancellor has made the immensely welcome announcement of a spending uplift for our schools. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend the Minister will be able to say whether he thinks more resource will be available to schools, to ensure that that important new guidance can be implemented effectively.

I was heartened by the statement of the new Education Secretary that headteachers should be “able to teach about Britain as it is today.”

I think that headteachers, school governors, chairs of governors and teachers need to know that the strongest possible lead is being given by Ministers and this place about the importance of same-sex relationships education. I question the extent to which we should license any suggestion that it is right to prevent teaching that same-sex relationships are valid. We have, I think, got past the point where we believe it is acceptable to sell goods on a discriminatory basis. We have outlawed that.

We have outlawed discriminating against people in the workplace. In many areas of public life now, we are absolutely clear that discrimination on the grounds of sexuality is simply unacceptable, so I question why it might be acceptable to prevent a school from teaching children even of a relatively young age that same-sex relationships are valid. I am not sure that we should be tolerant about those who try to prevent that, if we are going to uphold the values that we hold dear in this country. To allow the importance of that kind of teaching to be swept aside seems to me potentially to be subjecting young children to understanding the wrong thing at a formative age.

We should be resolute about universal values of equality, right from the top, and transmit those values to every school. I am afraid that if there are those who say they do not want that validity to be taught, we have to face that down, just as we do if people say they would like to be able to exclude gay couples from their bed and breakfasts, or to be able not to employ a gay person, or to be able not to offer a service to gay couples. We do not tolerate that any more. Why should we tolerate what I have described? We have to be clear about that precisely because the age in question is such an important one, at which children should be taught about our common values.

My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham mentioned the Catholic Church. A few months ago, I attended a meeting in the Vatican with my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), who is the secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights. It was intended to be a meeting with the Pope but in the end it was with the Cardinal Secretary of State. It was to discuss with Baroness Helena Kennedy, the International Bar Council and others the Catholic Church’s stance on homosexuality.

Our proposal was that the Church could and should at least condemn violence against LGBT people. It has immense influence and importance in many regions of the world—particularly south America and southern Africa. It is a shame that there is not a stronger stance on the part of leaders of the Catholic Church against something that, whatever our views on homosexuality and the validity of homosexual relationships, we should all be able to agree on: that violence against anyone is wrong. The Catholic Church should be able to say that, and it would be immensely powerful if it could.

In my work as chair of the new global equality caucus, tying up parliamentarians from across the world to promote LGBT+ rights, I go to many different countries to talk to parliamentarians about those issues. Next week I will be talking to Czech parliamentarians about same-sex marriage. The following week I will be in Tokyo talking to Japanese politicians and others from the Asia-Pacific region about equality issues. We have to be able to hold our heads up high in doing that, and I think for the most part we can, but this is unfinished business in our schools. I am grateful for the robust stance that the Government have taken, but they must see it through with the clearest possible guidance, leadership and support for the teachers who are being oppressed in Birmingham and elsewhere, and with the resources to match.

SpeechesChris CookLGBT, Schools