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Stuart Bell
"I'm asking for a free vote."
 real 28k

Tuesday, 25 January, 2000, 13:45 GMT
Section 28 row intensifies

The bill lifting the ban is being debate in the Lords

MPs may be allowed to have a free vote on government proposals to lift Section 28, the ban on the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities.

The government has been on the offensive over repealing the ban in the wake of growing opposition from clergy, Conservative groups and some peers.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Tony Blair's spokesman said the Chief Whip, Ann Taylor, would hold discussions on whether a free vote could take place on the issue.

Section 28 was introduced in 1988
He said: "It wouldn't be the first time something like that has happened.

"Nearer the time the chief whip will have the usual discussions, but it's not impossible."

The government is anxious to avoid the sort of confrontation sparked by the Scottish Executive's decision to repeal Section 28.

Opponents in Scotland included the owner of the Stagecoach bus group, Brian Souter, who donated 500,000 to a campaign against lifting the ban, and Cardinal Thomas Winning, the leader of Scotland's Roman Catholics.

In recent days, the campaign against a repeal has grown in England with the Right Reverend James Jones, the Anglican bishop of Liverpool, joining the debate in favour of keeping the ban.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, has also called for safeguards in schools, and warned against homosexual relations being given an equal footing to marriage.

Free vote

Prime Minister Tony Blair has appealed for a "rational and sensible" debate on the issue as Downing Street underlined that a repeal would allow teachers to discuss issues concerning homosexuality without fear of prosecution.

The Local Government Bill, which will repeal the ban, is being debated in the Lords on Tuesday although peers are not expected to debate the proposal relating to Section 28 until next month.

But Labour MP Stuart Bell, who represents the Church Commissioners in the Commons, opposes the repeal and has warned of a rebellion if MPs do not get a free vote on the issue when they debate it later this year.

Shaun Woodward switched parties over the issue
He told the BBC: "We have to remember that we are dealing here with children, we're not dealing with mature adults in discussing these matters and Section 28 does say intentionally promoting homosexuality."

He expressed concern that a repeal of the bill would put homosexual marriages on the same basis as heterosexual marriages within teaching at schools.

Section 28 was introduced in the Local Government Act of 1988 to prohibit "the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" and ban local authorities from the intentional "promotion of homosexuality".

Opponents to the ban have argued that it prevents teachers combating homophobic bullying.

One of the strongest campaigners for the ban to be repealed is the former Tory frontbencher Shaun Woodward, who cited the Conservative's opposition to a repeal as one of the reasons he defected to Labour.

The Conservatives are strongly opposed to lifting the ban under the new bill, issuing a three line whip to vote against the government's amendment.

Shadow environment secretary John Redwood insisted Section 28 was "a commonsense approach which prevents the abuse of taxpayers' money and provides parents with guarantees they want on what is and is not taught in the classroom".

The Conservative's former leader of the Lords, Baroness Young, who is leading the fight against repeal, said there was huge public concern about the issue.

She is planning to stage an exhibition in the House of Lords of photographs, literature and a video of the material being shown to school children about homosexual lifestyles.

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See also:
25 Jan 00 |  Scotland
Section 28 backers lose support
20 Jan 00 |  Scotland
When gay became a four-letter word
18 Jan 00 |  Scotland
Section 28: Your questions answered
21 Jan 00 |  UK
Brian Souter: Stagecoach's straightman

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