Section 28 reform to be shelved after Lords defeat

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The government is set to shelve its plans to abolish Section 28 after suffering another crushing defeat on the issue in the House of Lords last night.

The government is set to shelve its plans to abolish Section 28 after suffering another crushing defeat on the issue in the House of Lords last night.

Peers voted by 270 to 228 to reject the Government's latest attempt to scrap the controversial clause in the 1986 Local Government Act, which bans councils from promoting homosexuality.

Although ministers insisted that the Government remained committed to scrapping the measure, they are likely to delay any further attempt to abolish it until after the general election. The move will anger some Labour MPs and gay rights campaigners, for whom repeal of Section 28 has become a cause célÿbre.

Downing Street said the Government would now consider its options. But ministers are reluctant to have another showdown with the Lords on the issue, which would put at risk the passage of the Local Government Bill to improve the performance and ethical standards of councils. The proposal to scrap Section 28 forms part of the Bill.

Hilary Armstrong, the Local Government minister, said: "We are very disappointed that the House of Lords has voted against the overwhelming will of the House of Commons. We are now considering our options, but we remain fully committed to modernising local government and also committed to the repeal of Section 28."

Shortly before the Lords vote, Tony Blair told Labour Party activists in London that the Government remained committed to the abolition of Section 28 but declined to be drawn on how ministers would seek to overturn a defeat.

Peter Tatchell of the Outrage! group said: "We urge the Government to stand firm against bigotry and discrimination by reintroducing the repeal of Section 28 this autumn."

A close result had been expected in last night's vote, but in the event the Government lost by a decisive margin of 42, despite trying to appease its critics by bringing in new guidelines on sex education which highlight the importance of marriage. The vote was a setback for Mr Blair, who had diluted the strength of the Government's opponents by creating 30 new life peers since February, when peers voted against repeal by 210 to 165.

David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education, believes privately that the Government should not devote further time to trying to overturn the defeat. "He doesn't think it is worth the candle," a close ally said.

Mr Blair is expected to call a general election next spring, and is unlikely to want another big battle on the issue in the run-up to polling day, and will probably delay the move until after the election.

The Government's commitment to scrapping the measure was called into doubt when Mr Blair admitted in a leaked memo that Labour was seen as "weak" on the family, partly because of "gay issues". This had contributed, he said, to a perception that he and his Government were "out of touch with gut British instincts".

Although the 14-year-old law has never been invoked, the battle to remove it from the statute book has aroused strong emotions on both sides. Supporters of Section 28 argued that it defended the traditional family as a building block of society, while its opponents warned that the clause encouraged homophobia and the bullying of children.

Baroness Young, the former Tory cabinet minister who has led the battle against the Government's plans to repeal Section 28, was "delighted" after last night's vote, saying she had won a much bigger majority than she had ever expected.

"It shows once again that the House of Lords is speaking up, certainly for parents, for children, and the British public at large," she said. "It was a huge cross party coalition and it crossed religions."

Baroness Thatcher, the former Prime Minister, said: "It was due to Janet's [Lady Young's] belief and determination that we won this vote and people are absolutely behind her. She has been terrific from the start to the finish and we owe a great deal to her."