Inside Parliament: Guillotine raises Aids fear: Former minister defends compulsory education about HIV in schools - Waldegrave challenged on claims that he misled Parliament over Iraq

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Indy Politics
The right of parents to withdraw children from classes on the risks of HIV and Aids was fiercely contested in the Commons yesterday by a former education minister.

Alan Howarth, Conservative MP for Stratford-on-Avon, worked closely in his ministerial days with colleagues at the Department of Health promoting its 'don't die of ignorance' anti-Aids campaign in schools. But he doubted whether his successors maintained such contact.

'I find it quite incredible that ministers in the Department of Health should have connived at a policy which takes education about HIV and Aids out of the national curriculum,' Mr Howarth said during consideration of the Education Bill, which does exactly that.

He was protesting at the Government's imposition of a guillotine on MPs' consideration of Lords' amendments to the Bill - the effect of which, he feared, would be to preclude any debate on the sex education issue.

Frequently debates on timetable motions are ritualistic affairs in which opposition parties restate a well-aired case. But Mr Howarth pointed out that the sex education policy was only introduced to the Bill on 6 July during its Third Reading in the Lords and with 580 amendments to be pushed through under the guillotine was unlikely to be discussed.

'With the greatest respect to their lordships, they don't have constituents. I believe this change goes way beyond their proper responsibility as a revising chamber.'

Education on HIV, Aids and other sexually transmitted diseases will be dropped from the national curriculum. It should be covered in future in sex education lessons which schools will have a duty to provide but from which parents will have a right to withdraw their children.

Citing a Policy Studies Institute report that showed 96 per cent of parents wanted sex education in schools, Mr Howarth said the 4 per cent did not have the right to risk the increased spread of a lethal virus. He did not believe those who withdrew their children would always be 'discerning', as Baroness Blatch, Minister for Education, had claimed.

'Some will be highly conscientious people, but some will be prejudiced, some will be ignorant and some, I fear, may be those who abuse their children. That is a case that the NSPCC have put to us . . . I do not believe that the rights of parents in this field outweigh the rights of children, or the rights of society'.

Ann Taylor, Labour's education spokesman, said the sex education proposals were 'damaging and wrong'. The main purpose of the Bill is to get more schools to opt out of council control and become grant- maintained. Labour has opposed it throughout. With just eight and a half hours to deal with the 580 amendments, Mrs Taylor accused the Government of 'reducing parliamentary proceedings to a farce'.

The guillotine was approved by 288 votes to 222. Proposing it, Eric Forth, Under-Secretary of State for Education, said reforms in the Bill should not be delayed. The Commons had spent 150 hours discussing it and the Lords 114 hours. He said that 300 of the amendments were technical, but made no mention of the change on sex education.

At Question Time, the issue was not so much what MPs had never debated as what they had never been told. William Waldegrave, the minister for open government, was challenged by Marjorie Mowlam, his Labour shadow, over claims at the Scott inquiry that he had misled Parliament about the export of weapons equipment to Iraq when Minister of State at the Foreign Office.

Ms Mowlam asked Mr Waldegrave, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, to comment on his ability to deliver the openness he has promised in central government 'in view of the fact that his integrity as a minister has been seriously questioned by evidence produced last week that he misled the House over the Matrix Churchill affair'.

Intervening, Betty Boothroyd, the Speaker, ordered Ms Mowlem to withdraw the unparliamentary charge. 'No minister misled the House,' Miss Boothroyd insisted. Mr Waldegrave, who will appear before the Scott inquiry in the autumn, said he hoped Ms Mowlem would 'await the full evidence before she tries to make political capital out of what are very important matters'.

Testing the boundaries of parliamentary language is a favourite sport of MPs. While to suggest a minister has 'misled' is beyond the pale because it shouts liar, what about 'stool-pigeon'? Miss Boothroyd's ruling that it too was unparliamentary prompted Tony Banks, Labour MP for Newham NW, to ask for a return to the inclusion of a list of banned expressions in Erskine May, the Commons rule book. 'Blackguard, curmudgeon, dog, rotter, and cad,' were a few he could recall. Miss Boothroyd replied: 'There are expressions which are totally unacceptable in a House of grown-up individuals who should be able to express themselves and debate in mediocre language.' Hopefully she meant 'moderate'.

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