Section 28 abolition faces defeat by Lords

Fran Abrams,Westminster Correspondent
Wednesday 02 February 2000 01:00

Ministers are bracing themselves for defeat over plans to abolish Section 28, which bans the promotion of homosexuality by local councils.

Ministers are bracing themselves for defeat over plans to abolish Section 28, which bans the promotion of homosexuality by local councils.

The measure will almost certainly be lost until after the next election if peers vote against it next week, parliamentary business managers said last night.

Ministers who met yesterday to discuss their next move after a Lords defeat said they might try to revive the reform in a new one-clause Bill. The Government could then invoke the Parliament Act to overrule the peers, but that move would be subject to a 12-month delay.

Most observers expect an election in the spring of next year, which would scupper the new Bill.

Because the existing Local Government Bill was introduced in the House of Lords, ministers cannot use the Parliament Act to force it through.

It also encompasses wide-ranging reforms including elected mayors and local cabinets, which will go through if the Section 28 measure is dropped.

Although no one has ever been prosecuted under Section 28 of the 1986 Local Government Act, the issue has aroused strong feelings on both sides. Gay rights campaigners will be furious if the rule remains, because they say it stops teachers from helping pupils who are bullied on acount of their homosexuality. Church groups have protested against the abolition, though, claiming it would allow teachers to encourage homosexual experiments among pupils.

Tory peers, many cross-benchers and some Labour lords will oppose the Section 28 move at the committee stage of the Local Government Bill, which begins on Monday.

They are widely expected to defeat it. Last night Lord Orme, the former Labour MP for Salford, confirmed he would vote against the Government next week, as would some of his colleagues.

"Many of us consider this to be a conscience issue," he said. "There is a whipped vote but the Prime Minister made clear that people who feel strongly about it would do their own thing anyway."

Ann Taylor, the Government Chief Whip, had planned a free vote on the issue but was rebuked by John Prescott and later imposed a three-line whip.

Peter Tatchell, who runs the gay rights group Outrage!, said he had long predicted that peers would oppose the repeal of Section 28.

"The Government's decision to introduce the repeal via a Lords Bill was an act of legislative irresponsibility," he said. He added that a one-clause Bill would be unsatisfactory because the move should be accompanied by legally binding guidelines for schools on dealing with gay issues. No kind of sexuality should be promoted, he said.

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