On 10 February 2003 The Independent reported that Iain Duncan Smith is facing a damaging double rebellion by Tory MPs and peers over his attempt to resolve the party’s heated debate on gay rights. The Conservative leader’s moves to settle the row over Section 28 could be scuppered because Tory peers intend to overturn plans by Labour MPs to abolish the law, which bans local authorities from promoting homosexuality.
In an interview with The Independent, the former Tory chairman Lord Tebbit said: “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Section 28. I don’t think there is any reason to believe that it creates difficulties.” Tory peers would “stand by the concept that it is an improper use of taxpayers’ money to seek to embed in young children what many people would regard as a perverse way of life,” he said.
Previous attempts by Labour to scrap Section 28 have been blocked in the Lords. The Tories have 213 peers, the largest party grouping in the second chamber, and their leaders believe they could defy the Commons again on the issue next month. Baroness Blatch, the deputy Tory leader in the Lords, has warned Mr Duncan
Smith that the Shadow Cabinet’s compromise plan may not go far enough. She is anxious to ensure the guidelines for schools proposed by the Tories would have statutory force and apply to “third parties” visiting schools.
The Tory leadership accepts that Section 28 stigmatises homosexuality but is proposing guidelines under which parents could inspect all sex education material. Heads would have to ballot all parents if a “small but significant” number objected to it. Nine Tory MPs have signed a Labour amendment to the Local Government Bill
calling for Section 28 to be scrapped. Alan Duncan, a Tory frontbench spokesman on foreign affairs, who has also signed the motion, said: “Section 28 is utterly redundant after the passage of the Adoption Bill, which recognises gay life as an actual family relationship
Two days earlier, on 8 February The Independent reported that Ann Widdecombe was threatening to reopen Tory policy divisions over Section 28. Some senior Conservatives had hoped the issue could be allowed to die quietly next week during the committee stage of the Local Government Bill. But the former shadow Home Secretary has made clear that she will mount a “freelance operation” from the back benches if the leadership failed to press the issue at report stage.
Her warning is likely to persuade David Davis, the shadow Deputy Prime Minister, to table a fresh amendment to the Government’s Bill giving parents a direct say over sex education taught in schools.
Iain Duncan Smith, the Tory leader, and Mr Davis agreed earlier this year to back a new policy on Section 28 that would protect children without stigmatising homosexuals. The Tory alternative will compel headteachers to ballot all parents if 5 per cent object to the content of the materials used for sex education. Bill Cash, the shadow Attorney General, has spent recent days finalising the amendment.
John Bercow, Tory MP for Buckingham, who resigned from the Shadow Cabinet over gay adoption, has been joined by Michael Portillo and other liberal backbenchers in signing a cross-party amendment aiming to abolish Section 28. Several Tories believe that the whole controversy can only do damage to the party. “We walk straight into Labour’s trap if we get too strident about this,” one said. As a result, Mr Davis has been under pressure to table his compromise amendment only in committee, where it would be defeated by the Labour majority, and not bring it back to the floor of the Commons for the report stage.
But Ms Widdecombe said: “I hope we are sensible and bring it to the floor of the House. If we don’t, I and others will conduct a freelance operation to make sure it does.”