Reforms to post-16 education and training may be delayed as MPs and peers square up for a fight over sex education in schools.
Ministers this week faced the possibility that the Learning and Skills Bill could be delayed for weeks amid bitter disagreement between the House of Lords and the House of Commons on how homosexuality ought to be portrayed in sex education lessons.
This could upset timetabling for the bill, which is due to take effect from April next year. The bill provides for the replacement of the Further Education Funding Council with a new Learning and Skills Council and 47 sub-
regional councils. It also reforms quality inspection for post-16 education, including plans to let schools inspectorate Ofsted take charge of further education college inspections.
But because the bill started in the House of Lords, the government cannot invoke the Parliament Act to limit the Lords' power to delay legislation.
So, in a situation reminiscent of the then Teaching and Higher Education Bill, the Learning and Skills Bill could bounce repeatedly between the Lords and Commons, with each overturning the others' amendments on sex education.
Matters came to head last Thursday during the bill's third reading in the Lords, when peers debated a government amendment put forward by higher and further education minister Baroness Blackstone.
Peers saw the amendment as a government attempt to circumvent their opposition to repeal of the controversial section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act. They had rejected the government's attempt to repeal section 28 in February.
Peers object to clause 2(b) of the government amendment that gives "stable relationships" - the sexual orientation of the couple is not specified - equal status with marriage as "building blocks of community and society".
A Conservative amendment, by Baroness Young, made it clear that marriage alone was the "key building block of society". It was passed by 190 votes to 175, seriously undermining the government amendment.
Baroness Young further neutered the government's amendment. Successful amendments say that children should learn about the stability of family relationships. Another seeks to censor "inappropriate" teaching materials in sex education. Others, if they stand, mean that sex education guidance can be revised only if approved by the Lords and Commons.
Baroness Young told peers: "Today, we are standing for the protection of children and the support of parents. When their children are in school, they do not want homosexuality to be promoted; nor do they want their children to be subjected to the literature which many of us have seen.
"I recognise that some in the House today would like to find a compromise on this difficult issue and they believe that this (government amendment) provides one. The government's amendment is not a substitute for section 28 but, equally important, it is not a compromise on the central issue."
Baroness Blackstone, whose response was described as churlish, said that Baroness Young's amendment had "demolished" the carefully constructed safeguards against prejudice built into the government amendment. She said that Labour MPs would seek to delete Baroness Young's amendment when the bill goes to the Commons for its second reading next Thursday.