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Chief political correspondent John Morrison
"Labour MSPs talk of splits have been made so public"
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Wednesday, 23 February, 2000, 20:11 GMT
Gay law row threatens coalition

The executive is keen to defuse Section 28 controversy

The debate over whether or not to repeal Section 28 is now threatening to split Scotland's coalition government.

A Scottish Executive sub-committee attempted to come up with suitable wording to replace the controversial legislation which forbids schools from promoting homosexuality as an "accepted family relationship".

We have got a good education system, good teachers who can deal with these topics... we don't need Section 28
Nora Radcliffe, Lib Dem
But by Wednesday afternoon all efforts had failed and the cracks in the Labour/Lib Dem coalition began to emerge.

Although the split is not along party lines, the Labour group is largely in favour of a compromise and is keen to introduce new guidelines, but not a new law.

However, the Lib Dems want Section 28, introduced by the Conservatives in 1988, to be abolished and nothing put in its place.

The party's Nora Radcliffe said: "We have got a good education system, good teachers who can deal with these topics. We don't need Section 28 and we don't need a replacement Section 28."

Party differences

The SNP is more inclined to introduce some form of written guideline and possibly a new law to clarify the situation but Scottish Tories are adamant the status quo should remain.

Labour ministers within the executive are anxious to have the issue defused before the party launches its campaign for the Ayr by-election on Friday.

They back the idea of a fresh clause, which would be inserted into the Ethical Standards Bill, designed to reassure parents and other concerned parties that the repeal of Section 28 would not lead to homosexuality being promoted in schools.

During a two-hour cabinet meeting on Tuesday, which was heated at times, First Minister Donald Dewar ordered the sub-committee urgently to come up with a suitable wording for the clause.

He told them to come up with a solution which would satisfy not only the different factions within the executive, but also parents, equal rights campaigners, and the European Court of Human Rights.

Family values

The sub-committee has been tasked with finding a form of words which underlines the importance of family values, marriage and stable relationships.

Mr Dewar had intended to outline to parliament, perhaps as early as Wednesday afternoon, the executive's intention to include this clause in the final bill.

But that could be scuppered if the committee cannot agree in time.

Education Minister Sam Galbraith has insisted there will be no statutory legislation to replace the outgoing law, despite calls for such a move.

Sam Galbraith Sam Galbraith: No new legislation
He maintained that Scottish education had always been free from statute, and there was no reason for that to change.

The months of controversy and negative publicity surrounding the issue are reported to have caused concern among the Labour Party hierarchy at Westminster, and ministers are keen to quell public unease.

The Ayr by-election is likely to be so close that any further adverse publicity could ensure opinion swings against Labour.

Tiny majority

The constituency represents Labour's smallest majority in the Scottish Parliament.

During recent visits there, Mr Dewar has seen public anxiety and hostility that Section 28 was going to be repealed with no safeguards.

The first minister wants to reassure the people of Ayr, and the Scottish public in general, that such a scenario is not a possibility, and that sufficient guidelines will be in place before the law is repealed.

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See also:
22 Feb 00 |  Scotland
MP rekindles Robertson row
21 Feb 00 |  Scotland
No replacement for Section 28
20 Feb 00 |  Scotland
Parents appeal in sex education debate
19 Feb 00 |  Scotland
Ministers split over Section 28 repeal
10 Feb 00 |  Scotland
Section 28 review group membership
17 Feb 00 |  Scotland
Blow to Section 28 repeal plan

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