HC Deb 21 February 1994 vol 238 cc74-119


'.—(1) In section 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 (amendment of law relating to homosexual acts in private), for "twenty-one" in both places where it occurs there is substituted "sixteen".

(2) in section 80 of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980 (homosexual offences), for "twenty-one" in each place where it occurs there is substituted "sixteen".

(3) This section shall come into force on the date this Act is passed.'.—[Mrs. Currie.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Chairman

With this, it will be convenient to consider the following: New clause 5—Age at which homosexual acts are lawful

'.—(1) In section 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 (amendment of law relating to homosexual acts in private), for "twenty-one" in both places where it occurs there is substituted "eighteen". (2) In section 80 of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980 (homosexual offences), for "twenty-one" in each place where it occurs there is substituted "eighteen". (3) This section shall come into force on the date this Act is passed.'.—[Mrs. Currie.]

New clause 6—Amendment of the law relating to sexual acts between men'. (1) In section 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 (amendment of the law relating to homosexual acts in private) for "twenty-one" in both places where it occurs is substituted "seventeen". (2) In section 80 of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980 (homosexual offences) for "twenty-one" in each place where it occurs there is substituted "seventeen". (3) No proceedings shall be instituted except by or with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions against any man for an offence under sections 12, 13, 15 or 16 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956 or for aiding, abetting, counselling, procuring or commanding its commission whether either of the men was at the time of its commission under the age of twenty-one. (4) This section shall come into force on the date on which this Act is passed.'

Mrs. Currie

The purpose of the new clause is to make the age of consent the same for everyone. I understand that it will be the subject of the first of a series of Divisions.

This is an historic debate. It is the first time in over a quarter of a century that the age of consent for homosexuals has been discussed by the House of Commons. The taboo of silence that has denied the sexuality of young gay men has been decisively broken. Tonight's free vote establishes the question as a matter of conscience—as it should be—and the huge number of hon. Members who will support the new clause will demonstrate that it is not an issue for gay men alone, and no longer a minority issue, but one of human rights, which touches us all.

Homosexuality in this country is subject to enforced discrimination, which is now out of date, indefensible and way out of line with the rest of the civilised world. The age at which gay sex is permitted in Britain, at 21, is the highest in the world, other than in places like Byelorussia and Serbia, where it is still totally illegal. Most nations have the same age of consent for straight and for gay sexual activity —and have done for years, even centuries—with no problems at all. They do not bother to make any distinction, even when the age is lower than it is here.

We need only cross the channel to see that this is the case. In France, Greece, Poland, Sweden and Denmark the common age is 15; in Italy, it is 14; in Malta, Spain and Holland, it is 12. Those are prime destinations, it should be pointed out, for the 33 million Brits who go abroad every year on holiday or business. Germany has announced that it will equalise the age of consent at 16; the Republic of Ireland did so last year, at 17. None of these nations is troubled, as we appear almost uniquely to be, by the notion that a common age of consent causes peculiar difficulties. The fact is that it does not.

The United Kingdom is likely to have to change its law before much longer, for a case has been brought before the European Court of Human Rights on equality grounds, with an excellent chance of success. The Government have already been told that they have a case to answer, and they must give their response before the end of March. The European Court of Human Rights, which we helped to set up in 1953, is likely to rule in favour of equality, as it has done in similar cases in respect of other countries, which have complied. Surely it is better for us to change our law in the House of Commons, on a free vote, than to be forced to conform, possibly in an election year.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Does my hon. Friend agree that this issue, of all issues, is one of principle and that the Committee ought not to take a decision on grounds of expediency or comparisons? Should not the House of Commons protect the young men of the nation?

Mrs. Currie

Of course, it is a matter of principle. If my hon. Friend bears with me, I shall deal with his point in a moment.

This is an all-party new clause, and other hon. Members will put forward their points of view. As a lifelong Tory, I can only say that I believe that the state should be kept out of the personal lives of the men and women of this country. Everyone is entitled to his or her privacy. What my neighbours get up to in private is their business and not mine, and it is not for the state to interfere. If we are to have a nation at ease with itself and a nation at the heart of Europe, the unpleasant homophobic nature of current legislation must be changed—and the sooner, the better.

I may be told that public opinion is not with us. If there is one thing that is very clear it is that the polls are confusing and that we should not rely on them. The poll in yesterday's Sunday Times showed that many people still want to ban homosexuality altogether; others want equality, but at a different, higher, age. Since the age of consent for the rest of us has been 16 since 1885, that is somewhat unrealistic. It is interesting that once respondents know a gay man, attitudes change dramatically and bigotry disappears. We in this Chamber all know at least one gay man—possibly more. In any case, we are here to lead public opinion as well as to follow it.

In a poll last year, 83 per cent. of the public stated that they were in favour of capital punishment. That did not stop a huge majority of hon. Members voting the other way a few moments ago. Our constituents send us here with our brains intact, and we should be using them.

7.15 pm
Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher)

My hon. Friend and I are both positive Europeans, but I do not see what the situation elsewhere in Europe has to do with this debate. I do not think that her analogy with what goes on in other countries is relevant. Does she agree—if not, perhaps she will explain why—that there is no equality between homosexuality and heterosexuality?

Mrs. Currie

I was merely pointing out that in countries where there has been a common age of consent for a long time, none of the problems that we are told will arise if we have a common age has arisen.

Mr. Brazier

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. Currie

No. I must move on, as this is a very short debate in which many hon. Members want to take part.

In this country there are also people who dislike, even abhor, homosexuality. They are entitled to campaign for those opinions. We have all been bombarded with St. Paul and Leviticus, and we have been accused of joining the forces of Satan. Such views are held with passionate sincerity—of course they are—but the people who hold them are not entitled to insist that their prejudices be written into British law. Oscar Wilde pointed out that one cannot make men moral by law; that all one can do is criminalise their preferences. We have no right to do that.

We can argue long and hard about principle—

Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South)

My hon. Friend cannot be saying seriously that we should allow anybody to indulge any preference. I do not think that she can mean genuinely what she has just said. Surely she recognises that there are many activities—for example, child abuse—which individuals find pleasing but which the rest of society does not recognise as valid. [Interruption.]

Mrs. Currie

I think that my hon. Friend's remark has been treated with the contempt it deserves.

The law is not only prejudicial and discriminatory; it is painfully effective. Hon. Members on my side of the debate cannot argue that the law is ignored. On the contrary, it is widely, if erratically, employed. Between 1988 and 1991, there were more than 2,000 arrests for offences involving consensual sex with men under 21 years of age. Even in 1992, as the research of the House of Commons Library shows, men were still being committed to prison for consensual acts with other men. The fear of being arrested and questioned, and perhaps cautioned or charged, is real and ever present.

Last year, three young men—Will Parry, Hugo Greenhalgh and Ralph Wilde—announced that they were to take their case, on equality grounds, to the European Court. Two of them—Hugo and Will, who are lovers—spoke openly on television. I understand that they were promptly reported to the police by a self-appointed guardian of public morality, Mr. Stephen Green. The police may have been deeply embarrassed about the whole affair, but because the complaint had been made it had to be investigated. The young men found themselves in Rochester Row police station for several hours, and they were subjected to the most intimate and intrusive personal questioning. Eventually, they were released, and no prosecution has been brought.

Had such an episode occurred to a heterosexual couple, we should all have been appalled. We ought to be just as disgusted that in 1994 this can still happen to gay men.

Ms Dawn Primarolo (Bristol, South)

Does the hon. Lady agree that it is totally unacceptable that the Committee should take the view that young men ought to be protected longer than young women? If young women, with the age of consent set at 16, are suitably protected, there is no reason whatever why the same age should not apply to men, whether heterosexual or homosexual.

Mrs. Currie

I agree entirely. Time permitting, I shall deal with that matter in greater detail.

Who can doubt the intimidatory effect of incidents of the sort that I have just mentioned? Intimidation and deterrence are, after all, the purpose of this law. The result is extremely damaging. It inhibits young men from seeking help, whether through counselling, health advice or sex education. The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, which supports the new clause, tells us that young gay men are noticeable by their absence from the citizens advice bureaux. They are too scared to come forward and ask for help. That applies even if they have been subjected to muggings or theft. Giving evidence against an assailant would involve identifying themselves as breaking the criminal law, so they do not come forward. Thus, the law has the opposite effect to what many hon. Members want.

We are all genuinely worried about protecting vulnerable youngsters. It is a concern shared by all hon. Members. But a law that keeps people silent and means that they are unable to lodge a complaint is not a protective shield. It is an enforcer of their silence. It is a gag, and it is likely to leave them that much more open to abuse, pressure, harassment, blackmail and extortion.

Mr. Marlow

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. Currie

No, I shall not.

It is not as if the law enforcement agencies are looking for work. We should be wary of burdening them at a time when genuine crime is causing so much worry. In my view as a Tory, our police force, magistrates, courts and judges should be well enough occupied pursuing the real thugs and thieves who are creating misery and mayhem throughout the land.

Mr. Marlow

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. Currie

I cannot resist my hon. Friend.

Mr. Marlow

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. She is seeking to persuade hon. Members to vote to legalise the buggery of adolescent males. Does she think that that is what our constituents have sent us here to do?

Mrs. Currie

I merely repeat that I do not consider the private sexual practices of other people, including the hon. Gentleman, to be any business of the law. The debate in recent weeks has taught me that one person's sexual perversion is another person's preferred sexual practice. We should all be careful about pronouncing on what goes on next door.

I shall now turn to the subject of health education. It exasperates me that the moment that anyone mentions gay sex, AIDS comes up in the next breath. When we see a heterosexual couple. we do not instantly think of gonorrhoea; we see people trying to form a long-term relationship, caring about each other and falling in love. Nevertheless, as a former Health Minister, I have a particular concern. How can we advise young gay men about the dangers of AIDS, how can we talk to them straight about safer sex, when what they are doing is supposed to be strictly against the law? When the campaign against AIDS began in 1986, Ministers had to take a deep breath and tell health care workers to ignore the law, and to reach out to men at risk in whichever way they could. That was highly unsatisfactory and hostile to any type of progress.

The Government tell us that they want to reduce the level of sexually transmitted disease—so do we all. The British Medical Association, whose council recently voted overwhelmingly to support the new clause, considers: criminalisation of homosexual activity may inhibit health education and healthcare. It continues: There is no convincing medical reason against reducing the age of consent for male homosexuals to 16 years, and to do so may yield positive health benefits. The World Health Organisation said: People who hide their sexual orientation for fear of discrimination or alienation … are placed in situations that are not conducive to safe sexual practices. On 22 January, The Lancet stated: All young people need safer sex education but the needs of young homosexual men are not being met. This worrying disparity may arise both directly and indirectly from the current legislation. A survey in 1992 for the North West Thames regional health authority of the HIV prevention initiatives in the United Kingdom, most of which are paid for by the Government, showed that most agencies conducted no work for young gay and bisexual men; when asked why not, half the agencies reported that it was due to the possible illegality of the work.

Mr. Brazier

Has my hon. Friend seen the figures from America, where different states have a range of approaches to the age of consent and gay rights? Does she know that in those states and cities, such as San Francisco, where the laws are most liberal, the incidence not only of AIDS but of hepatitis A, hepatitis B and gay bowel syndrome is vastly higher than in those states that have tight laws on homosexuality?

Mrs. Currie

I am after not gay rights but equal rights for everyone. If my hon. Friend considers my argument for one moment, he may agree that, if we are to improve health education for young people, it is deeply unhelpful when the law makes them criminals first. We must make progress on the matter.

My arguments do not apply only to sex education. According to the Government's "The Health of the Nation" White Paper, Ministers also wish to reduce the incidence of suicide and attempted suicide, which in Britain is among the highest in the world. The best way to achieve the two objectives of a fall in the rate of HIV and AIDS and in the rate of suicide is to have open, intelligent, well-trained, well-informed talk, advice and support. The worst way is to turn our young people into criminals in the way that we do. When colleagues say that changing the age of consent will give the wrong signals, I hope that they will also recognise that young men and those trying to help them receive the wrong signals from the law as it stands. Those against the new clause cannot have it both ways —either the law is ineffective, in which case it serves no purpose but to institutionalise ignorance and it should be swept away, or it works and it hurts, in which case it is dangerous and unfair.

We have already heard it said tonight that there is a difference in maturity between boys and girls. As a former teacher, it seems to me that differences exist at 11 and 13 years of age, but they have largely disappeared by the time young people reach 15 and 16. That was the conclusion of the Wolfenden report back in 1957. It said: Our medical witnesses were unanimously of the view that the main sexual pattern is laid down in the early years of life and the majority of them held that it was usually fixed in main outline by the age of 16. Many held that it was fixed much earlier. If there were any truth in the idea that boys are not as mature as girls in their later teens, that would be an argument for a higher age of consent for all boys, not just for some of them. There is not a country in the world that takes that line. It is nonsense and, in any case, it is the weakest possible ground for invoking the criminal law against the young people involved.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

On the issue of equality before the law, does the hon. Lady realise that it is neither natural nor normal to carry out homosexual activity? That is why there has to be protection for young boys. It is a different matter if they participate in that which is normal and natural, but if they are guided into activities that are neither normal nor natural, protection is required.

Mrs. Currie

I recognise that my hon. Friend has deeply held and sincere views on the matter and I respect them, but in the past much the same thing has been said about practices such as divorce and contraception, and we do not now make laws banning them. I am not going to persuade my hon. Friend and, with respect, he is probably not going to persuade me.

We are debating not physical maturity but the ability, in law, of a person to understand, and to give or withhold consent. The age at which children in this country are held to tell the difference between right and wrong is 10. Recently, children of 11 years of age were convicted of murder on the ground that they knew what they were doing. The age at which a boy can be held to be guilty of rape was recently reduced from 14 to 10. In law, a young man is old enough at 16 to decide to sleep with his girlfriend and even to marry her, yet, if he is the other way inclined, he is judged to be absolutely incapable of making up his own mind. Frankly, I think that that is nuts. There is no logical or biological argument for discrimination.

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Currie

I shall be delighted to.

Lady Olga Maitland

Does the hon. Lady agree that we are really talking about emotional maturity? A 16-year-old boy may be troubled by his growing sexuality and be unsettled and frightened of girls. He may not be doing well at school and could be strongly pressured by the militant gay lobby. Therefore, he should be protected.

Mrs. Currie

With respect to my hon. Friend, in those circumstances the worst possible thing that we can do is to make the boy a criminal, but that is what we do. There are better ways to protect our young people.

7.30 pm
Several hon. Members


Mrs. Currie

I am conscious of the fact that we have only a short time and that many hon. Members wish to speak.

I wish to tackle one other chestnut that I heard on the radio today. Someone claimed that changing the law would result in rapacious, middle-aged homosexuals hanging around school gates, waiting to seduce young boys. A part of me says that that probably tells us a lot about the peculiar attitudes of middle-aged people rather than about the behaviour of the young. No one seems equally bothered about rapacious, middle-aged heterosexuals chasing young girls. This is still an extraordinarily macho society.

I wonder whether anyone ever talks to young people. Most of them are inevitably and naturally seeking relationships with people of their own age. One year is the average age gap between partners at their first sexual experience. The idea that teenagers might be hugely and secretly attracted—for preference—to some wrinkled old biddy, old enough to be a parent or grandparent, is preposterous and offensive to most people.

Mrs. Peacock

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way [Interruption]—I must tell the House that I am not yet a grandmother. As a mother, how did the hon. Lady study her family and the boys who grew up in it? Does she have any idea of the immaturity of 16-year-old boys? If she does not, some of us do.

Mrs. Currie

I repeat the answer that I gave earlier. Of course, young people are immature, but that is not an argument for making them criminals. It is an argument for talking to them, setting them a good example and respecting their sexuality, especially when they tell us that they know their own minds and wish to be left alone. It seems to me that that is what we should do.

The serious point is this: British courts and juries have at last begun to accept that in sexual encounters consent means consent and no should mean no. Refusal then has the power to turn any unwanted act from a flirtation to a criminal offence and that should apply not only to 16-year-old boys and girls but to anyone, male or female, at any age. Only then can we seriously claim to be shielding the vulnerable or the uncertain, whether gay or straight, with the protection of a sensible and balanced law.

Ms Mildred Gordon (Bow and Poplar)

It is legal for 16-year-old boys to enter into a relationship that could result in their fathering a child, but does the hon. Lady agree that that requires greater maturity and has longer and more serious consequences than entering into a homosexual relationship, if they are so inclined?

Mrs. Currie

I suppose that I agree that all growing up requires more maturity than any of us has at the time. The most foolish thing that we can do is to turn people into criminals at that age. There is no logical, biological or medical basis for treating some young boys differently in law to others and it does not make any sense.

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West)


Mrs. Currie

I am about to finish my speech, so if my hon. Friend will forgive me, I shall not give way.

The image of gay men is at last changing. They are men whom we know, work with and whose work we admire. They are business men, civil servants, artists, actors, soldiers, judges, bishops, priests, peers and Members of Parliament. We all know someone who is gay, even if he has not yet declared himself. It is time to take the dark shadow and turn it into a human being; it is time to seize our homophobic instincts and chuck them on the scrap heap of history where they belong. In a free society the onus to prove that restricting freedom is in the nation's interests is on those who would discriminate. That is impossible to prove. Equality is the only worthwhile and sustainable position. No compromises will satisfy those people whom they affect. There is no such thing as partial equality; people are either equal or they are not.

Tonight, we have the opportunity to be proud of the House and to bring our country into the modern world. We have the chance to remove discrimination and to challenge the injustice facing our fellow citizens; we have the choice of voting for equal rights under the law and for the same law for everyone. The time has come.

Several hon. Members


The Chairman

Order. Before I call the next hon. Member to speak, I must make another appeal. Even more hon. Members wish to contribute to this debate, so short speeches please.

Mr. Neil Kinnock (Islwyn)

I shall do my best to respond positively to your appeal, Mr. Morris, in the interests of the Committee and in defiance of my record.

I support new clause 3, moved by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie), and I pay tribute to the way in which she has worked to ensure this debate. I hope that she will have the reward of achieving a necessary reform to the law.

I support the new clause, which provides for an age of consent for sexual relations common to both men and women, on three main grounds. First, it is equitable to treat both sexes the same. Secondly, it is rational to legislate for equal treatment, in terms of both sexual orientation and enforcement of the law. Thirdly, it is wise to decriminalise consensual sexual activity above the age of 16 at a time when the fearful disease AIDS has to be fought with all the information, counselling and promotion of greater safety in sexual relationships that we can muster or bring to bear as a consequence of our activities in the House.

I shall develop each of those arguments, but I must first emphasise an essential general principle: all that I say and all that is said by everyone who favours reform, whatever age and the amendment that they prefer, refers to consensual sexual relations. The essential purpose of supporting change in the law is to remove the threat of prosecution and punishment for engaging in sexual activity, which to them is natural, from homosexual males above the age of 16. The purpose is emphatically not to provide any opportunity or excuse to anyone—heterosexual or homosexual—who seeks to impose his or her sexual will on anyone else.

I arrived at the decision that I should support the new clause and the common age of consent of 16 in two stages. It became obvious to me, as it did to many hon. Members, that the age of consent, which was fixed at 21 in 1967, has long failed to deal with the realities of sexual orientation and civil liberties. There are significant difficulties in enforcing the law credibly and injustices and dangers inherent in continuing a system that criminalises male homosexuals before the age of 21.

Having reached that conclusion, I was faced with the question, "What is the most appropriate legal age of consent if it is not 21?" The compromise of 18 automatically suggested itself. It is the age of majority and the age at which young men seem most able to decide for themselves about their sexual orientation. In short, it is not only the legal age of majority, but the biological age of maturity. It seemed to me to be a view that was sensible as an alternative to the current legal provision, liberal in terms of the accommodation of personal convictions and sexual orientation and realistic in terms of an individual's right to privacy.

Then, just when I was comfortable with that, the facts began to intervene. I had made the assumption that young men and young women were somehow more able to determine their sexuality at 16 if they were heterosexual. Because of that, I assumed that the heterosexual age of consent could reasonably remain lower than the homosexual age of consent. On reflection, however, it became difficult for me to convince myself that there was a difference in the capacity to decide among 16-year-olds.

If I and the majority of other heterosexual men knew our sexual orientation by the age of 16, why should not homosexuals be equally sure of their sexual orientation? The evidence has long existed to prove that people are sure, as the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South said. The Wolfenden report, published 37 years ago, concluded: The main sexual pattern is laid down in the early years of life and … usually fixed by the age of 16. More recently, the Royal College of Psychiatrists reported its long-held view: there is no developmental reason to treat young men and young women differently in the law relating to the age of consent. Project Sigma, jointly financed by the Department of Health and the Medical Research Council, proffered strong evidence that homosexual orientation was fixed and well understood by homosexuals by their mid teens. The British Medical Association holds the same view.

That evidence and other reliable, responsible material persuaded me that it would be wrong to continue to discriminate in the law between men who are homosexual and those who are heterosexual. It would also be wrong to continue to discriminate in the law between young men who are homosexual and young women who are heterosexual.

As a father, I must say that I was equally exercised about the prospect of my daughter and son engaging in heterosexual relations at 16. No father could think otherwise. Frankly, I just hope that had it been the case that either of my children had proved to be of homosexual orientation, I could have shown them the love and understanding, as their parent, as several parents already do to their children in similar circumstances. I was not offered that test, for which I frankly give thanks. Faced with that prospect, however, as children grow up, who could conclude that we should discriminate in the law between different kinds of young people of different sexes on the basis of sexual orientation when we know that heterosexual relationships carry at least as much danger, as much menace and as much threat to young people's moral values as homosexual relationships?

Mr. Lord

Can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House why he gives thanks that his children are not homosexual?

Mr. Kinnock

For the very reason that is understood by all heterosexuals: homosexuals in our society and in others are a minority. They are regarded as an isolated group. They do not have children. Moreover, in our society, even at the age of 16, they are regarded as criminals if they engage in sexual activity. That is a fair accumulation of reasons for not wanting one's children to be homosexual. We do not, however, have any control over it. That is at the essence of the new clause.

The supposition that somehow homosexuals are made or converted from heterosexuality is not sustained by medical evidence or by any unprejudiced examination of the facts or experience of normal life.

Mr. Butterfill

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Kinnock

I shall do so in a moment, but I want to respond to the appeal of Mr. Morris.

As the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South said, other comparable democracies have based their laws on judgments about discrimination. In Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal and Switzerland the common age of consent is 16. Germany is about to legislate for just such a change. I do not refer to those other countries to offer a simple argument for emulation, but to draw attention to the fact that a common age of consent at 16 has not damaged those societies or corrupted their youth. There is absolutely no rational reason to believe that a change to a common age of consent at 16 would introduce decadence or corruption into our society.

7.45 pm

Whatever the age of consent in any society, it must be capable of enforcement. In our democracy, that means that it must offer justice and practicality. Neither of those conditions is properly satisfied now. The fact that males between the ages of 16 and 21 break the law if they have homosexual relations, and homosexuals over the age of 21 break the law if they have relations with anyone under the age of 21, poses obvious difficulties in deciding culpability. Those difficulties would be intensified if the age of consent were reduced to 18, since it is clear from all sexual relationships that most encounters among young people are with contemporaries or near-contemporaries.

The confusions in the present system, which result in formal or informal decisions not to prosecute homosexuals, are just one reason for the consensus in favour of reform of the age of consent from 21. It would be best for us to ensure that those confusions are not deepened and made even more complex by fixing an age that is not practical or, in reality, enforceable with fairness.

Mr. Butterfill

I agree with much that the right hon. Gentleman has said. On the issue of criminality, I do not recall any girl under 16 being prosecuted for engaging in a sexual relationship. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it should not be the young person who becomes the criminal in this process, but the older person who has sexual relations with him?

Mr. Kinnock

I must reply to that briefly, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that any amount of evidence proves that homosexuals are not made or corrupted by their elders. They are not converted to homosexuality by having sexual encounters with older people who are also homosexuals.

What we need to do, and for which I shall continue to argue, is to extend the protection of decriminalisation to young men of 16 and above who are homosexuals. They are denied that now. I know that the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill) and many other hon. Members want to ensure that young men as well as young women are afforded as much protection as the House can offer. That is why they should have the protection of legality and should not be criminalised into disguising their relations and sexuality.

Mr. John Gorst (Hendon, North)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Kinnock

In all other circumstances I would be glad to give way to the hon. Gentleman, but time does not permit that.

It is clear on the basis of their experience in this matter of criminalisation that the police forces do not feel sufficiently exercised by homosexual activity to adopt policies that oppose a change in the law. Some senior officers have, of course, registered their view that a common age of consent would have the advantage of equity. For them and for others in the police service, the main focus of concern is the opportunity for blackmail and bullying and the reluctance of homosexuals to co-operate with police inquiries. Many of those problems result from criminalising homosexuality and police officers know it. That criminalisation of homosexuality provided the conclusive argument in persuading me to support the change in the law to a common age of consent at 16.

The very fact of criminality inhibits young men from reporting crimes against them. It is also a factor in the emotional misery and isolation endured by young homosexual men. But apart from those psychological pressures, which sometimes end in the terrible tragedies of suicide and attempted suicide, the Health Education Authority, Barnardo's and Project Sigma are just three of the knowledgeable bodies that inform us that the present criminality of homosexual relationships can limit health promotion activities among the social group most vulnerable to HIV infection and AIDS: young homosexual men.

Last month the council of the British Medical Association published a report on the age of consent for homosexual men which is bound to impress all but the most prejudiced minds. In concluding that the age of consent for homosexual men should be lowered to 16, the BMA council said that homosexual young men might not receive appropriate advice if the criminal status of homosexual relationships remains because, they fear, seeking professional advice from doctors, teachers and so on would be to admit committing a crime. Secondly, it said: Support groups or youth organisations for homosexual men aged 16–20, where they exist at all, tend to keep a low profile and avoid drawing attention to themselves because they do not want to be accused of encouraging criminality. Thirdly, 'official' homosexual community organisations and clubs operate a clear over-21 policy to comply with the present law. This means that younger men are denied access to the advice which such organisations can provide and are less exposed to the social climate within the organised homosexual community, which strongly supports 'safer sex'. Finally, the BMA Council said: They feel stigmatised and regarded as not part of the broader society due to to the criminalisation of their sexual behaviour. Those are frequently young people who are locked out. They are faced with appalling trauma, criminalised to the point where they are fearful of reporting offences against themselves, and inhibited from discussing their sexuality with others and gaining the appropriate counselling and advice. Surely we need to change the law to facilitate a change in their approach to protecting themselves and in the protection that we would seek to afford them.

Mr. Gorst

I have not yet decided how I shall vote and the right hon. Gentleman's answer to my question may be decisive. I agree with all that he has said about reducing the age of consent to 16, but one point has not been answered: in our society, should we be so far ahead of public opinion that the public feel that we have gone too far?

Mr. Kinnock

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for how he puts his point. Everyone who has been elected to the House knows that, in some cases, we follow public opinion. But in others, it is our duty to step slightly ahead, although not so far as to make ourselves invisible to the public. If, in 1967, our predecessors in the House had waited for a consensus of public opinion before supporting a change in the law, we would still have total criminalisation of homosexual behaviour.

I am certain that, like me, the hon. Gentleman regards the change that came about 26 or 27 years ago to have been an advantage for our society. In the quarter of a century that has passed, we have come to realise, as the Wolfenden report did a long time before 1967, that people determine their sexual orientation before reaching the age of 16. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me and take the further step of admitting that it is wrong that the behaviour of people following the orientation that is natural to them should be criminalised. I ask the House to do no more in 1994 than it was wise enough to do in 1967, bearing in mind our greater understanding of mores, habits and orientations in our society.

If passed, the new clause would help to protect young men. It would provide them with a basic legal framework for making vital decisions about themselves without the danger of criminality. We all know in our hearts that morality is not learnt from criminal law. No one will adopt a homosexual way of life just because he is free to do so at the age of 16, rather than 21 or 18. But if we do not make that change, lives will continue to be broken by continuing criminal prosecutions, fear and the underwriting of prejudice by criminal sanctions.

Let us tell young people that a heterosexual life, in the sense that it is what most of us live and want to live, is the norm; that it is and will remain the basic human relationship upon which the family is founded. But let us also tell young homosexuals that we still have regard for them and want them to live in a society that accepts their nature and will give them the same chance as others for personal happiness. We shall not tolerate discrimination against them and they need not feel fear and outlawed. Let us tell them that they can participate as fully as anyone else in the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship

The new clause is about all that. It is also about encouraging respect for those who are different—one of the basic tests of our democracy. It is about tolerance, equality before the law, and the free, secure and pluralistic society which we want to build, whatever else divides us in the House. I hope that the new clause will enjoy the support of the Committee.

Sir Anthony Durant (Reading, West)

I support new clause 5, which seeks to lower the age of consent to 18.

May I point out that there are only three activities left that are restricted to the age of 21: first, holding a licence for a heavy goods vehicle; secondly, engaging in homosexual acts between males; and, thirdly and most interesting to hon. Members, being elected as a Member of Parliament. Those are the only three activities that still disbar people under the age of 21.

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Sir Anthony Durant


Sir Nicholas Fairbairn

May I remind my hon. Friend that there are many other such activities, including going to an X-certificate picture without one's parents?

Sir Anthony Durant

I know something about the film industry and believe that one can do that at the age of 18, but I shall not argue with my hon. and learned Friend.

The argument seems to range between the ages of 16 and 18. Some people would like to leave the law as it stands, but I do not support that view. Much of the argument on this subject is simply based on opinion. Many young people are still sexually uncertain and often disturbed between the ages of 16 and 18.

In a talk-in programme on the radio yesterday, an interesting man said that when he was at university he shared a house in which everyone was homosexual except him. He did not become homosexual, but said that he felt under pressure—[Interruption.] I merely pass on that information for the Committee's consideration.

The organisation known as Relate, which used to be known as the Marriage Guidance Council, was quoted in The Guardian of 14 January. Sixteen is rather young, as during early and middle adolescence sexual orientation is not always settled and there is often a lot of confusion. Eighteen therefore is a more appropriate age … So many young people embark on sexual relationships far too early and get hurt. Those were the words of Relate's director, and we should consider that valid point.

8 pm

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Did the hon. Gentleman feel certain in his own sexual orientation at the age of 16? If so, and assuming that it was a heterosexual orientation, does he not think that a young man of 16 could feel certain that, in his sexual orientation, he was gay?

Sir Anthony Durant

I do not agree. I believe that youngsters in that age group are confused about their sexuality.

Mr. Banks

Was the hon. Gentleman?

Sir Anthony Durant

I do not remember that I was. [Laughter.] The hon. Gentleman should remember that I am a pensioner.

If the age of consent is reduced to 16, we shall have to amend section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which concerns teaching the subject of homosexuality in schools.

The Home Office Policy Advisory Committee document, "Report on Age of Consent in Relation to Sexual Offences", stated: between the ages of 16 and 18 girls are more mature than boys in their approach to sexual relationships and that, insofar as it is possible to generalise, boys have caught up with the girls in the process of maturing by the age of 18 … This last line of argument could suggest that boys under 18 should be protected from heterosexual intercourse as well as homosexual relations. However, we feel that it is far easier for them to cope with the usual complexities"— and those complexities exists, as we heard from the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock)— of youthful heterosexual relationships, which are accepted by parents, friends and society, than the greater complexity of homosexual relationships with all the difficulties and pressures involved.

Mrs. Currie

My hon. Friend omitted to mention that that report was published in 1981—13 years ago, at a time when it seemed impossible to budge the age of consent even below 21. Is it not more appropriate today, at a time of AIDS and of recognition that there should be sex education for young people, to consider whether criminalisation of any kind is useful?

Sir Anthony Durant

I accept my hon. Friend's point that the report is old, but it remains of importance and I am prepared still to consider the advisory committee's findings. It made valid points that I pray in aid because they support my own view.

There is concern among many people about older men approaching young boys. I know that has never been proved one way or the other, but it is part of our duty. as Members of Parliament to protect the young and, whether or not we have evidence of such a thing happening, there is a chance that such situations do arise.

Ms Eagle

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Anthony Durant

I must continue, because the Chair gave an edict about getting on with it, and I have decided to get on with it.

An interesting article by the Archbishop of York appeared in The Independent on 18 February: For young people the absence of clear boundaries can be particularly damaging. One of the interesting results from the Wellcome survey of sexual attitudes is the number who felt that they had had sexual experience far too young … Those who are persuaded that there are no distinctions to be drawn between homosexuality and hetrosexuality will find no difficulty in reducing the age of consent to 16. As one who holds that there is a distinction, rooted not only in those biological differences but in the belief that there are proper and improper uses for the human body, I would not want a signal to be sent to young people that sexual choices are of no concern to anybody but themselves. Nor do I want to maintain unreasonable laws that are largely ignored and which sometimes, in the hands of the vindictive or the unscrupulous lead to tragic convictions. I hope Parliament will reduce the age of consent to 18, thus signalling that homosexuality in young men is neither to be treated as uncontroversial nor to be penalised beyond the age of maturity. A reduction of three years will provide an opportunity to assess the social consequences. That is why I am keen that we should consider reducing the age of consent to 18, to move some way towards the change for which some people are pressing, but also to the age of male maturity.

My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) kept quoting Europe at me, but I do not take much notice of that. We are still a sovereign state and this Parliament must take the decision—not people sitting in Brussels or anywhere else. I believe that 18 is the right age, and I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to support new clause.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in support of new clause 6, which proposes that the age of consent for gay relationships should be 17. Tonight's debate is limited to relationships between men, but an identical new clause is proposed that would make 17 the age of consent for heterosexual relationships.

One important consideration is already reflected in criminal law. There should be no prosecution or criminalisation of young people under the age of 21—and the law has parallels—who are part of a relationship. The criminal is the person who, with age and authority, enters into a relationship with a considerably younger person. That should be the sole criminal offence retained on the statute book, with one addition. Sex with youngsters of either sex below a certain age should be an absolute offence. In that way, we would protect youngsters below the age of 14, 13 or whatever it might be. I take the view that the age of majority also ought to be 17, but we cannot debate and vote on that today.

Out of fairness, it would be appropriate and otherwise unjust to specify a different age in any case for different parts of the United Kingdom. I am conscious that a different legal situation obtains in Northern Ireland.

If any new clause is passed, it will be returned by the Government in a redrafted form. We would be presented with the Government's version of the decision of the Committee.

Mrs. Currie

indicated dissent.

Mr. Hughes

The hon. Lady indicates otherwise, but my understanding is that the Government would want a technically more perfect option.

Mrs. Currie

We all took a great deal of careful advice, and I was assured that the clauses are in order. It may happen—and I hope that it will—that the Government will take note of the views expressed by the Committee, because there might have to ge a good deal of other messing around. Tonight's debate, however, concerns the age of consent.

Mr. Hughes

If the new clause is in order, the hon. Lady is right. I share her view, and I hope that we will return to deal with the rest of the muddle. We should take the Bill as an opportunity to sort out other aspects.

Right hon. and hon. Members are clear that they speak only from their own position in this debate. I must be clear not to misrepresent others. My party's view is that the age of consent should be reduced to 16, equally for both sexes.

I agree entirely with the principle of equality. My only concern—I address my comments to colleagues who may yet be undecided, as I have been for a long time, about how to vote on these options—is whether 16 is too young. The hon. Member for Reading, West (Sir A. Durant) addressed that issue. The task for us, therefore, is to try to resolve the matters that are not capable of proof, only judgment. We cannot tonight have a convincing answer that says that one conclusion is inevitable, or that the argument is only on one side.

It seems to me that there are three considerations that we should weigh. The first is equality; the second is protection of the young and vulnerable; the third is criminality. I shall speak briefly first on the subject of equality. The question that we are all asking ourselves is whether the circumstances and situations are similar for young men who want a relationship with another young man, and for young men and women who want relationships with each other. Are they similar, if not identical? One could argue the question either way. The most telling argument, however, is that some young people who, at the moment, are criminalised by the law and who, even if the law were changed to 18, would still be in a different position in relation to the criminal law, know that they will still be treated like second-class citizens. If a group in our society can show with justification that the law treats them differently, we must address that. The more important point is that if we retain on the statute book something that discriminates because of orientation between one person and another, we are making a statement about the inequality as citizens of that group for all their activities at whatever age.

Mr. Butterfill

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hughes

No. Another hon. Member asked first. Let me finish this point.

It seems to me that there is an absolutely overwhelming requirement to be just to people for whom the law at the moment is unjust.

Mr. Butterfill

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I should like to press him on the question of criminality, on which I pressed the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock). I am slightly puzzled. Can he give an example where a young person in a relationship involving an older person has been prosecuted? I agree entirely that it would be wrong for the young person to be prosecuted.

Mr Hughes

It may be my own inadequacy, but I am not entirely clear about the hon. Gentleman's question. I intend in a moment to deal with criminality. I hope that I will answer the question. I apologise in advance if I do not answer it entirely.

Another thing that follows from equality. If we come to the conclusion that we need to treat heterosexual and homosexual people in relationships equally, it follows that, as a society, we should allow settled couples to register as being settled couples. The state should allow that. If we believe in stability of relationships, as opposed to changing relationships, we should address that question at some stage, whether for tax purposes, immigration or whatever.

Mr. Devlin


Mr. Hughes

No. Of course, there is a separate argument about marriage. The answer to both questions is that marriage is something that is specifically taken and inherited from a position of Christian faith. It applies also in other faith doctrines. In many countries, a civic ceremony, entirely separate from the religious ceremony, recognises partnership. Some countries do just that, too. I do not want to be distracted by this, but I shall make the point that we must not be naive or dishonest about pretending that there are no other issues on the agenda. The important point is to decide the matters that are subject to equality.

Mr. Nicholls

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

8.15 pm
Mr. Hughes

No, because I have been asked, as we all have, to be as brief as possible.

I hope that hon. Members will come to the conclusion, as the right hon. Member for Islwyn did, that equality is a principle which is not only difficult to oppose but one that must be supported. Of course, that would mean, as of tonight, a law at 16, because for heterosexual relationships that is what it is.

My second point is about protection of the vulnerable. We clearly have a duty in the House to protect young people as they grow up. There must be an absolute age, below which any sexual relationship with a youngster is one to which that youngster cannot give consent. Anyone who engages in a relationship with that youngster must be punished, and punished hard. There is then an age when people are growing up. It is impossible to police a protection mechanism to keep young people from each other. It is practically impossible, unenforceable and, I would argue, unworkable, to prevent 15, 16 and 17-year-olds from having relationships between each other, or between one age and another of close age. We should not try to do that. We certainly should not criminalise those who are having a relationship with someone of their own near age range as part of their experimental period of growing up.

We should, of course, seek to ensure that young people —the point has been made in interventions—are not the victims of significantly older people who go looking for young people, not because they want a permanent relationship but simply for their own personal gratification. Young people need that protection when they are growing up. That applies also to young women, who are equally in need of protection against the older person seeking to seduce them for personal pleasure.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Dail discussed this issue in the teeth of formidable opposition in Dublin and elsewhere. They reached the conclusion, led by Ms Geoghegan Quinn, that there should be a common age of consent of 17 years. Does he think that a common age of consent of 17 years would be an acceptable compromise?

Mr. Hughes

I share the view that the Irish Parliament came to recently. The opinion poll that was published yesterday in The Sunday Times showed that 42 per cent. of people think that the heterosexual age of consent should be raised. We delude ourselves because we are hooked on the wrong phrase. It is not an "age of consent", but an age of protection. 'It is an age during which we protect young people. After that, we say that it is up to them to protect themselves, that education must be their protection, and the law should not intervene.

Dr. Michael Clark (Rochford)

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman is talking about protection of young people. Will he address for a moment what I call the speed limit syndrome? By that, I mean that when a speed limit is 30 mph, it is most unlikely that there will be prosecutions of anyone going up to 40 mph—perhaps there would be beyond that. Therefore, if the age of consent for homosexual acts should be 16, is not it possible that there would be no prosecutions above the age of 14? Therefore, we have by default allowed the age of consent to go down to 14, which is not what we want in the House.

Mr. Hughes

I understand that point entirely. I can address it personally as someone who trained as a barrister and prosecuted for the Metropolitan police and the Thames Valley police, and also defended people. There was always a practical realisation that, under the present law, it was a completely arbitrary system. Some people were picked up and prosecuted, others were not. We would have to ensure that the law is enforced, so far as it could be, in a uniform way. I accept entirely that if the Committee votes tonight for 16, that is what we will require to be the age below which those who exploit young people should, without equivocation, be prosecuted. I argue for what I hope is the more intelligent outcome—the growing-up period during which one prosecutes not the young person doing the experimenting but the older person doing the exploiting. That is a fundamental principle: one prosecutes the adult who knows better.

Let me make one point about the Church of which I am a member, and respond to the quotation from the Archbishop of York. This is not a debate about what the Church teaches or about the Christian ethic. It is not a debate about the one verse in which Christ could be said to have said anything on the subject. There is a difference between personal morality and public law. The Church does not have a common view.

Moreover, the view taken by eminent members of the Church—that 18 is the right age, or that it should be the common age across the sexes—is not a view which they necessarily regard as a final resting place. There is no obvious accurate conclusion. The Church seeks to give wisdom and judgment. I hope, therefore, that the House will not conclude that there is one clear Christian view. This is a difficult area of ethical teaching and everyone must decide today what the law should be, not what morality or the Church should teach.

Sir Anthony Durant

At no time when I quoted the Archbishop of York did I in any way suggest that he represented the Church. He represented his own views.

Mr. Hughes

I am making the point that there is not a common Church view—only individual views within the Church. The Church should anyway take the view that it was more important for it to concentrate on love, fidelity and monogamy than on the details of this issue.

Why do I favour 17 rather than 16 or 18? It is because some of us are nervous that 16 is too young. More important, we must take into account the fact that, in England and Wales, someone of 16 still has to go to school —he or she cannot leave until after their 16th birthday. At age 16, therefore, one is still under authority. It seems to me that the time at which to give young people the full rights of adults is the time at which they can make full choices about schooling, education, work, training and so on. That is when they reach the age of other entitlements.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

They can make love in the school holidays.

Mr. Hughes

Of course, and I have made it clear that there should not be any criminality attached to such activity at that age.

Mr. Tony Banks

Behind the bike sheds?

Mr. Hughes

Behind the bicycle sheds or anywhere else. There may be a consensus in the House about the relevant age being the age soonest after which youngsters are no longer compulsorily at school. The hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) reminded us that in Ireland the age is 17.

The choice before us is between 16 and 18, or, if both are defeated, 17. I believe that the Committee will reach a view in favour of 16 or 18 and that the 17 option is unlikely to remain available. We must, therefore, choose between 16 and 18 even if we prefer something else. I hope that, as a result of tonight's vote, we shall choose equality at 16, but return—I ask the Home Secretary to make sure that we do—to the question whether that equality should be at 16 or 17. I believe that there may be widespread support, from gay people included, for a re-examination of that issue. We can then have a debate not about criminality but about the right way to order without discrimination private activity in Britain today.

Mr. Howard

In what I hope will be a relatively brief speech, I propose to seek to set the debate in historical context and to give some personal views.

I should make it clear at the outset that the Government regard this as an issue which should be decided by a free vote. They will respect the wishes of the House. I should also make it clear, however, that the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill is not a sexual offences Bill and the Government have no intention of embarking on any wide-ranging programme of sexual offences reform within it.

The present law relating to homosexual conduct between adult males in private owes its origin to the report of the committee chaired by Sir John Wolfenden, which was asked to examine these matters in 1954. The committee reported in 1957. Among its central conclusions, to be found at paragraph 71 of the report, was that a boy is incapable at the age of 16 of forming a mature judgement about actions of a kind which might have the effect of setting him apart from the rest of society. Wolfenden proposed that the relevant age should be 21, and the Sexual Offences act 1967 translated that proposal into law.

When the Home Office Policy Advisory Committee referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Sir A. Durant) revisited Wolfenden's arguments a quarter of a century later, it did not depart significantly from its predecessor's analysis of the key issues. In answer to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie), I do not think that that analysis is necessarily devalued by the fact that the report was published in 1981. That committee received a similar variety of expert evidence on the psychological and sexual maturity of young men between the ages of 16 and 21. It was also able to reflect on the experience gained by the police and prosecuting authorities of the Sexual Offences Act 1967.

The committee could not reach a unanimous view. But the majority of its members concluded, like Wolfenden, that the key question was to determine an age at which most young men could be said to be mature enough to take a decision on these matters for themselves. The committee's conclusion, which was informed by the public consultation which preceded its report, was that the age of consent should be reduced to 18. Although current medical opinion seems more rather than less certain that sexual orientation is fixed in both sexes by 16 in most cases, there will still be some young men for whom homosexual experience after that age will have profoundly influential and potentially disturbing effects.

It is also still unquestionably the case that most parents hope and expect their sons to follow a heterosexual lifestyle and hope that in due course they will build a family life of their own. The committee put it in the following way at paragraph 38: The majority of parents would surely wish their children to grow up with the desire and possibility of marriage and children, and anything which puts this expectation at risk would be deplored. I believe that those arguments still hold good. It is still true that in following a homosexual way of life a young man sets himself apart from the majority. From a certain age, he should be free to take that decision and no persecution or discrimination should flow from his decision, but he should not be misled into thinking that his decision will have no effect on his dealings with society at large. At the very least, he deserves time in which to make up his mind.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend confident that a young man as confused as the one whom he is portraying will be greatly assisted by having what he is experimenting with deemed to be criminal? Does he not accept that the way in which society at present handles the whole question of homosexuality creates so many barriers and pressures that the young man would well understand that he was entering into a minefield, without the sanctions or otherwise of criminal law?

Mr. Howard

I do not agree with the second part of my hon. Friend's question. This is one of those matters on which a young man needs time. In answer to the first part of my hon. Friend's question, that young man is likely to be assisted by that extra time.

Mr. Bill Walker

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that we must also consider the parents of that young man? The vast majority of parents are concerned about the protection of such young men. That is why the law was set as it was, and the consideration is still relevant today.

Mr. Howard

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) that the views of parents need to be taken into account. He put that question as a parent and I speak as a parent, as did the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock), who made an especial point about that in his speech.

Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North)

I understand, although I no longer agree with, the Secretary of State's assumptions about maturity at age 18 as compared with 16, which would apply to almost any decision that a young person makes. The Home Secretary's whole argument seems to be based on two assumptions. Will he confirm that those assumptions are, first, that between the ages of 16 and 18, young men are converted to homosexuality rather than discovering that they are homosexual and, secondly, that that conversion can be stopped by the threat of criminal action? Will he confirm that, because it underlies everything that he has said, as he will realise when he re-reads his speech.

Mr. Howard

I do not accept that the argument that I put to the Committee rests on that assumption at all. I have said that there are likely to be, not all, but a number of young men between the ages of 16 and 18 who do not have a settled sexual orientation and who may benefit from the extra time which may be available if a new clause other than the one which the hon. Gentleman supports is passed by the Committee. That is the essential point that I am making and it is rather different from the assertion that lay behind the hon. Gentleman's intervention.

8.30 pm
Ms Marjorie Mowlam (Redcar)

If we want young men to grow up happy, secure and stable, and if the picture the Home Secretary paints is something that some young men go through between 16 and 18, how does it help them by making it a criminal act?

Mr. Howard

One of the functions of the criminal law in that area, which I suspect everyone in the House accepts, because everyone is arguing that there should be a minimum age, is to protect the young and the vulnerable. That point was made earlier from the Opposition benches. It was a phrase used by the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). That is an important factor and one to which the House must give full weight in considering the matter.

Mr. Alan Howarth (Stratford-on-Avon)

My right hon. and learned Friend made the point that a person's sexual activities were an aspect of their dealings with society at large. Does he accept that the age of consent is a civil rights issue? Does he agree that unless it can be demonstrated that to bring the age of consent for male homosexuals into line with the age of consent for heterosexuals and for female homosexuals would do some distinctive damage to society, we ought to do it? Does he agree that no evidence has been produced which justifies discrimination against male homosexuals?

Mr. Howard

That is precisely what is under discussion and precisely the point that I have been addressing in the remarks that I have made and in the interventions that I have answered. The point that I have put merits careful consideration and in my judgment, as I shall make clear in a moment, is a compelling argument for not reducing the age of consent to 16.

There are two further arguments—

Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey)

I have been listening to what the Home Secretary has said about the maturity of 16-year-old boys and I do not understand why he is making a distinction between those who are homosexual and those who are heterosexual. Is he not arguing that there should be a difference in the ages of consent for men and for women and that the age of consent for all boys should be 18 rather than 16? I do not understand the distinction that he is drawing between the two orientations.

Mr. Howard

I shall try to explain. It is based, as I have sought to explain, on the factor recognised by the Wolfenden committee and by the Policy Advisory Committee which later considered the matter on behalf of the Home Office. The point that led them to the view that it was appropriate to have a different age of consent for men than for women was not simply that one may mature later than the other, but because of the consequences of homosexual activities. That is the point at issue and the point which Opposition Members seem to find difficult to understand.

Ms Abbott


Mr. Tony Banks


Mr. Howard

I shall put it again in the words of the Wolfenden committee. [Interruption.] It is an important point which merits consideration whatever view one takes of it. The committee said: a boy is incapable at the age of 16 of forming a mature judgment about actions of a kind which might have the effect of setting him apart from the rest of society. The consequences of such a decision go to the heart of the issue and it is that consequence which led the Wolfenden committee and the Policy Advisory Committee to reach the conclusions in their reports.

Miss Joan Lestor (Eccles)

If the age of consent becomes 18 and, in the Home Secretary's words, young men may be unsure of where they stand between the ages of 16 and 18, how on earth will they find out what they are unless they experiment? But if they experiment, he will send them to prison. Prison is hardly the place to get people out of homosexuality. [Interruption.]

Mr. Howard

I am afraid that the hon. Lady—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker(Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. The House must settle down. I must draw to the attention of people in the Gallery that there must be no clapping or demonstrations whatever.

Mr. Howard

I am afraid that the hon. Lady has totally misunderstood the point made by the Wolfenden Committee and by the Policy Advisory Committee. It is a serious point and one which merits being taken seriously by the Committee.

Mrs. Currie

Will my right hon. and learned Friend give way?

Mr. Howard

No, not at the moment. There are two further arguments. I want to deal in particular with the two points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South.

Two further arguments have been put with especial frequency in the discussions leading up to the debate and I want to deal with them. They both concern equality, although to my mind the analysis offered by Wofenden and by the Policy Advisory Committee, which I have just discussed, offers a more robust basis for what the criminal law can and should do in the area than an over-simple reliance on parity, either as between the sexes or as between countries.

Equality of treatment under the law between homosexuals and heterosexuals does not in my view represent an end in itself. Whatever the scientific evidence about the age at which sexual orientation is fixed, it would be wrong to ignore the instinctive and deeply-held concern of many people that a decision to have homosexual sex is quite different from a decision to have heterosexual sex. Both Wolfenden and the Policy Advisory Committee recognised the general desirability of avoiding unnecessary discrepancies in the law's treatment of men and women, but both eventually supported recommendations that acknowledged that such discrepancies were still justified. In my view, therefore, we shall not offend against any fundamental political or civil right if we continue to reflect in the criminal law a public understanding of the difference between homosexual activity and heterosexual activity.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

If the Home Secretary is being quite honest about that, why does he not address the point about female sexual orientation in respect of which there is no age limit? The Home Secretary's argument is destroyed when no protection is offered so far as women are concerned.

Mr. Howard

It does not destroy my argument. I said at the outset that the Bill is not a vehicle for the wholesale reform of our law relating to sexual offences. We are dealing with a particular set of new clauses which relate to one question before the Committee and that is the question that I am addressing.

Mrs. Currie

Does my right hon. and learned Friend realise that he is in danger of making a circular argument? If he is saying that young men who might be gay should wait because they face so many difficulties, and he then says that he intends to maintain and vote for those difficulties, he has a problem.

With regard to equality, if people in this country and Members of this House in years gone by had not voted for equal rights, neither my right hon. and learned Friend nor I would be Members.

Mr. Howard

My hon. Friend distorts—unwittingly, I am sure—my argument. I did not say that it was important to have a separate age of consent so that people should have time to consider the difficulties which they might face. That was the argument made by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South. It is not a question of legal impediments or other difficulties of that kind. It is a question of confirming themselves in a way of life which, in the words of the Wolfenden committee, will set them apart from the rest of society. That serious point was not addressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South in her question to me.

Mr. Tony Banks

Will the Home Secretary give way?

Mr. Howard

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, but then I must conclude.

Mr. Banks

I have two quick points. First, the Wolfenden report was written 30 or 40 years ago and things change. Secondly, and more importantly, the Wolfenden report says that those young people would be set apart from society. Does that not say something about the discrimination that society holds against young gay men? It is a problem of society, not of those young men.

Mr. Howard

No, I do not believe that it does. Again, I refer the hon. Gentleman to a point made by the Policy Advisory Committee, which found an echo in the remarks of the right hon. Member for Islwyn. The Policy Advisory Committee concluded that the majority of parents would surely wish their children to grow up with the desire and possibility of marriage and children. It is a fact that the way of life that we are currently discussing involves an abandonment of those possibilities which sets those people who choose it apart and which requires the criminal law to give all the protection that it can to the young and vulnerable before they are confirmed in that orientation and before they take that decision.

As I said earlier, once that decision has been taken, once society has fixed the relevant minimum age, those people should be free to pursue their lives in private without discrimination of any kind. However, it is a legitimate and important function of the criminal law to protect the young and the vulnerable before that orientation is fixed and determined.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Howard

I said that I would not give way any more and I now intend to conclude.

There is a second element of equality on which some reliance has been made. It has been suggested that we in this country should change our age of consent because it has been changed in other countries. That is a rather extraordinary argument, particularly as there is no consensus in other countries about what that age should be. If we are unusual in Europe in respect of our age of consent for homosexuals and we are satisfied that there is good reason for us to do so, we are entitled to maintain that position. That is an issue which we can and should decide for ourselves.

I have sought to describe the main features of the expert consideration of this issue by the Wolfenden committee and the Policy Advisory Committee. Having said that, the essence of this debate is that it concerns a subject which defies decision by expert committee. Each of us must vote according to conscience and the merits of the arguments as we see them.

For my part, I believe that reducing the age of consent from 21 to 18 strikes the right balance. On the one hand, we should not criminalise private actions freely entered into by consenting mature adults. On the other hand, we need to protect vulnerable young men from activities that their lack of maturity might cause them to regret. I believe that those arguments are the key considerations in this debate. They do not rely on abstract considerations of equality, but address directly the fears and aspirations of our constituents. I shall accordingly vote against new clauses 3 and 6, but in favour of new clause 5.

8.45 pm
Mr. Blair

I shall support new clause 3 moved by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie). I congratulate her and my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) on the way in which they have spoken to the clause.

Let us be clear about the issue before us tonight. It is not at what age we wish young people to have sex. It is whether the criminal law should discriminate between heterosexual and homosexual sex. It is therefore an issue not of age, but of equality. By supporting equality, no one is advocating or urging gay sex at 16 any more than those who would maintain the age of consent for heterosexual sex advocate that girls or boys of 16 should have sex. It is simply a question whether there are grounds for discrimination.

At present, the law discriminates. There is no doubt about the personal misery that such discrimination brings: to young people frightened to admit their own sexuality and of the fear of imprisonment, and to any man who is homosexual and who knows that the criminal law treats that in a different and more incriminating way.

The argument—and the only argument—advanced to justify that discrimination and its attendant tragedy is that it is necessary for the protection of young people. Without it, it is said, young men unsure of their sexuality may be preyed upon by older homosexuals and induced to become homosexual when they otherwise would not. I will attempt to deal with that argument tonight.

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn (Perth and Kinross)

I hope that the Committee will not be misled by the fact that heterosexual activity is normal and homosexual activity, putting your penis into another man's arsehole, is a perverse—

The First Deputy Chairman

Order. We can well do without talk like that.

Mr. Blair

I do not think that I will answer that intervention.

Mr. Bill Walker

On a point of order, Mr. Lofthouse. For those of us who wish to speak in the debate, may I ask whether it would be in order to describe what it is that we are debating—the actual act? [HON. MEMBERS: "We all know."] We may all know, but would it be in order? Would it be in order to describe an unnatural act so that we can be absolutely certain that there is no doubt outside this Chamber about what we are debating?

The First Deputy Chairman

It is a matter of the words and language that are used. Long interventions do not help.

Mr. Blair

I was trying to deal with the argument put forward by the Home Secretary earlier. I have great difficulty with the very premise of that argument. I do not believe that sexuality is determined by persuasion. The overwhelming evidence—scientific or indeed merely experience of life—suggests that being homosexual is not something that people catch, are taught or persuaded into, but something that they are.

It is not against the nature of gay people to be gay; it is in fact their nature. It is what they are; it is different, but that is not a ground for discrimination. The vast bulk of evidence suggests that, at 16, boys and girls, particularly nowadays, are aware of their sexuality and that, what is more, that sexuality is normally developed with those of their own age, not with predatory elders.

However, let us assume for the purposes of argument that there is a small minority that fits into the category that has been described. How would use of the criminal law assist such a situation? How would that deal with vulnerable young people of whatever sex? For those who are confused about their sexuality, how does the criminal law help to resolve that confusion? Indeed, it merely complicates it. It deters many from seeking the information, advice and help that they need.

If we are in any doubt about that, let us listen to organisations that deal day in and day out with the problems of young people, such as Save the Children Fund, and the National Children's Bureau. They say that the real danger is not young, sexually uncertain men being preyed upon by older men, but young boys and men who are gay but, are afraid to seek the advice and help that they may desperately need. That is the evidence that was given by the British Medical Association, which backs up that view on the ground of better health education.

We talk about predatory older men. That happens—if it does happen—not just with young men but with young girls, yet no one would advance that as a reason for raising the age of consent. Moreover, where such predatory conduct takes place—let us assume for the purposes of the argument that it does—it takes place in circumstances that we all know: in parts of our inner cities and around some railway stations late at night, where young boys and girls sell sex for money and shelter. Surely the question that we should ask is why those young people are in those circumstances when it is not the criminal law but a roof over their heads, a decent family and home and a chance of a job that will help them.

The point that has been made about other countries is not that we should follow what happens in other countries, or the fact that the majority of other countries in Europe do not discriminate should mean that we necessarily blindly follow their path; it is, first, that many of those countries are among the most conservative, usually, in such matters, which makes their decision on equality all the more telling, and, secondly, and most important, that there is no evidence to suggest that any of the adverse consequences forecast as attending a move to equality here have happened in those countries—none, not a single shred of evidence, not anywhere.

On practical grounds, and even accepting that there is a small percentage of cases in which there is a fear of predatory conduct, can it be said that the fear that, without the sanction of criminal law, there might be an unquantifiable number of young men who will engage in homosexual relations who otherwise would not is a reason for perpetrating discrimination against all homosexual men when we know that the vast majority of young people are not in that situation, when, if anything, the protection that they need is the removal of the stigma attached to their sexuality, when independent organisations that deal with young people want it removed, and when equality is the norm in neighbouring countries without any of the adverse consequences claimed for it?

That is why the real objection is not reason but prejudice. It was shown by the point of order that was made earlier. In the end, all the concern, however ostensibly objective—let us assume that some of it is genuinely motivated—is traceable to that very subjective prejudice. Let us be clear that people are entitled to think that homosexuality is wrong, but they are not entitled to use the criminal law to force that view upon others. That is where the real practitioners of political correctness lie—not in those who merely seek equality of treatment but in those who insist that the law must discriminate in favour of their view of the conduct of others. That is why, also, the so-called compromise of 18 is misguided. What is the rationale behind maintaining the stigma but at a different age? It is an issue not of age but of equality.

I inform hon. Members who may have genuine doubts about which way to vote that, because it is an issue of equality, and because it concerns the equal rights of our citizens, this is an issue not just for those who are gay but for all of us who are concerned about the type of society in which we live. Recent newspaper discussion has suggested —I understand it—that moves to equalise the ages of consent might fall foul of the recent controversy that is well known to us. That is precisely what should not happen. It is precisely at this moment that we should have the courage to change.

Yes, there is a powerful mood in this country that the social fabric has been torn, that standards of behaviour have fallen, and that our system of values has become confused and disoriented. Yes, it is the case that any strong society needs good and decent principles to sustain and motivate it. But it should be a society that makes sense of the passage of time, that learns from and evaluates its progress, that has confidence to build its own future, not takes refuge in the prejudices of the past because it is afraid to change them. A society of genuine standards and principles allows individuals the freedom to develop to the full. A society of prejudice and discrimination can merely make them conform.

That is the choice. We should seek the best of the old and the best of the new. Some change is good; some change is bad. We should distinguish between the two. I deplore, as we all do, for example, the greater lawlessness in society, the increased violence, and the abusive behaviour of today. I should like to return to a better time when those issues were less. But I have no desire to return to a time when women were inhibited from going to work, when sex could not be openly discussed and debated, when young people were not taught at school how life is given and created, and when gay men hid their sexuality in fear.

Some change is indeed progress. Let us recognise it when it happens. After all, 100 years ago there was no universal suffrage for men, and no votes for women. Fifty years ago there were no laws against racial intolerance. Each change was fought for, but resisted by prejudice wrapped in a coat of reason.

It is not that, over time, our basic values should change —of course not—but it is through experience and thought that our understanding of what those values should encompass has been enlarged. Indeed, I go further: the most basic civilised value is the notion of respect for other people. That is what creates and sustains any decent society. That is why crime is wrong; that is why violent and abusive behaviour is wrong; that is why racial abuse is wrong. It is also why it is wrong to treat a man as inferior because his sexuality is different.

A society that has learned, over time, racial and sexual equality can surely come to terms with equality of sexuality. That is the moral case for change tonight. It is our chance to welcome people—I do not care whether there are 50,000, 500,000 or or 5 million; it matters not a damn —into full membership of our society, on equal terms. It is our chance to do good, and we should take it.

Mr. Michael Alison (Selby)

Far and away the weakest aspect of the speech of the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) was the fact that, in 10 or 15 minutes, he managed to beg the essential question that we are debating. He isolated two categories: the older, convinced and committed homosexual—whatever the nature of his condition, genetically or otherwise—and the youngster of 16, 18 or 21 who is, likewise, a committed, finally developed and fully oriented homosexual.

We are not concerned, however, with those whose sexual orientation is crystallised and fully formed; we are concerned precisely with the "in between" group, between the ages of 16 and 18, for whom the Home Secretary pleaded. He pleaded for a little more time for them, precisely because they have not reached the stage of crystallisation in which the hon. Member for Sedgefield wanted to protect them—and defend them from penalisation.

9 pm

Even if we take that very small, determinate group—which is not really the proper focus of tonight's debate —in isolation, as the hon. Gentleman did, I very much doubt whether he can demonstrate satisfactorily that the law as it stands, which makes involvement in a homosexual act consensually in the age range of 16 to 21 an offence, impinges seriously and oppressively on that group. A written answer on 17 January made it clear in 1990, 1991 and 1992 there were respectively nine, 10 and 12 prosecutions for homosexual offences between those aged 21 and over and those under 21.

It simply is not credible that young men in the relevant age group—here I refer particularly to the great mass who may be uncertain about their sexual orientation and are not crystallised and fully formed in the category that the hon. Gentleman sought to defend—cannot, because of the law as it stands, consult their parents, if they so wish; or nurses, doctors, teachers or social workers. It is incredible that the law should be held to inhibit them from doing so and that they should believe that those individuals may report them to the police and invoke prosecutions. The number of prosecutions can almost be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Sir Ivan Lawrence

The evidence is even stronger. On 11 February, the Home Secretary was asked on how many occasions over the past decade any male under the age of 21 years had been prosecuted, or prosecuted and convicted, for the offence of buggery. The answer was practically none.

Mr. Alison

My hon. and learned Friend supports the argument that I am trying to sustain. The hon. Member for Sedgefield and others who have spoken, including my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie), have entirely failed to convince us that the law is an oppressive, tyrannical, vicious instrument, rather than—as my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Sir A. Durant) suggested, following the Archbishop of York—a helpful, short-term, protective guideline which helps exactly the people with whom the hon. Member for Sedgefield did not deal. I refer to the mas of undetermined, seeking, evolving, immature youngsters between 16 and 18 who have not made up their minds. They are not deterred by the law from seeking advice about their health and development.

Mrs. Currie

I thank my right hon. Friend for his courtesy at lunchtime, when we discussed the matter outside the House.

If it is true—I do not believe it is—that the law is so ineffective, why should we bother to have a law? If the law does not cause all the difficulties, why not just sweep it away? If we are trying to protect young people, why should we turn them into criminals?

Mr. Alison

My hon. Friend does not fundamentally appreciate the sublety and nature of the law. The law stands on the statute book, but the Crown Prosecution Service has the difficult but critically important task of deciding in what circumstances it is going to prosecute and apply the law.

In that area, one gets the best of both worlds from the point of view of the youngster who is seeking guidance and direction at an early stage in his sexual development and maturity. The framework of law is there, but it is at the discretion of the Crown Prosecution Service whether to invoke it. The evidence is that it rarely invokes it.

Mr. Gorst

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Alison

I must get on, as my time is constrained.

The law is rarely invoked in such a way as to make it difficult for a youngster who has problems of sexual health between the ages 16 and 18 to consult people who can give helpful advice.

I come back to the group that the hon. Member for Sedgefield entirely ignored. That is those who are evolving in their sexual orientation and have not finally made up their minds exactly what they are or how they are. Those people need the protection of the law and, at the same time, the discretion and the advice of a lot of sensible people. What would be done for that vulnerable group by removing the constraint of law which at present applies to them? My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South must demonstrate some positive advantage to outweigh the significantly hazardous disadvantages which may accrue.

I draw the Committee's attention to three significant disadvantages. The first may be the removal of a desirable pointer or guideline of the sort which the Home Secretary properly stated is one of the functions of law. It is there as a guideline which may rarely be thrown into action by the Crown Prosecution Service, but it is there. Why remove it, if there is some suggestion that it might help in guiding people?

The second is that there is no doubt that there is a hazard that youngsters might be exposed to the appalling hazard of AIDS. We should at least focus on that possibility.

I leave the Committee with a couple of significant statistics. The average age for first anal intercourse among homosexuals—I use a more discreet euphemism than was used by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross (Sir N. Fairbairn)—is 20.9 years. That form of intercourse is profoundly relevant to the possibility of acquiring AIDS. That mean age is so close to the prescribed age in law of 21 as to suggest that it is not without its relationship to the existing age boundaries. If the boundary is moved down to 16, there is a risk that the average age for that AIDS-inducing form of sexual intercourse may move down into the more vulnerable age group.

The second factor that is relevant to health is that, according to the Public Health Laboratory included Service, over 75 per cent. of all AIDS cases come from male homosexuals. The AIDS dimension cannot be overlooked if we are removing a protective barrier for vulnerable youngsters.

Mr. Jerry Hayes (Harlow)

My right hon. Friend raises a good point, but he should be aware that there are 3,000 young men between the ages of 16 and 21 who are HIV positive—the figures come from Government-sponsored reports—and that there are 300 young men between those ages who have fully blown AIDS. Most of those are going to die because they are so afraid of being prosecuted.

Mr. Alison

My hon. Friend has failed to listen to the evidence that I have given of the criminal statistics, aided and abetted by his intervention. There simply are not enough criminal prosecutions every year to suggest that most youngsters are even aware of the existence of the law on homosexuality. The Crown Prosecution Service hardly ever brings prosecutions and it cannot be said that youngsters are inhibited from seeking health advice.

I have in my hand a pamphlet published by the Health Education Authority entitled "The Best Sex Guide". It lists a range of sexual options apart from penetrative sex, which is the most hazardous in terms of AIDS. The guide includes sexual options which technically come within the definition of gross indecency and, therefore, are potentially criminal. The guide does not even bother to say, "If you indulge in this you may be breaking the law." The pamphlet is distributed among teenagers. The authority simply does not believe that the law has any inhibiting effect. So it is pointless to say that the law is an inhibiting factor.

Mr. Alan Howarth

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Alison

No, I must get on. It is not fair on other right hon. and hon. Members.

As for the argument that youngsters do not seek advice because they might land in the hands of the police, the pamphlet from the Health Education Authority lists at least four centres committed to confidentiality which people can contact if they want health advice. No reference to the police is likely to result. It is spurious to suggest that youngsters in the relevant age groups cannot seek health advice because they fear prosecution by the police.

My last point is to refer to an important quotation by the right hon. Member for—the most difficult part of my speech is going to be pronouncing his constituency—

Mr. Kinnock

Islwyn. It is easy.

Mr. Alison

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, for whom I have always had the greatest admiration, enhanced this evening by the fact that he picked out one paragraph of the guidance from the British Medical Association. I want to quote that paragraph again so that it goes on the record twice. It can be seen to have a different perspective and significance according to which way one looks at it. The guidance said: Official homosexual community organisations and clubs operate a clear over-21 policy to comply with the present law. This means that younger men are denied access to advice which such organisations can provide and are less exposed to the social climate within the organised homosexual community which strongly supports 'safer sex'". If we remove the 21 limit, as my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) proposes, and reduce it to 16, the incentive for what are described as official homosexual community organisations and clubs to retain an over-21 membership policy will be entirely removed. They will drop their membership age limit to 16. They will draw into that particular vortex exactly those whose sexual orientation is not properly determined and is open to alteration and redirection in the context of a highly organised, self-conscious community. If it does introduce young men to safer sex of a homosexual kind, it will have the effect of predetermining them perhaps to lose precisely that option of family life and normal parenthood which is what they should have held open for them.

Therefore, I hope that the Committee will ignore the limited and exclusive advice in human rights terms advanced by the hon. Member for Sedgefield, which relates purely to those who are already predetermined and committed to a particular orientation, whatever their age. I hope that the Committee will focus on the needs of those who are bobbing about in an uncertain sea of sexual development between the ages of 16 and 18 and who need every support and protection that they can get, precisely as my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary advised us to do.

Mr. Mike Watson (Glasgow, Central)

I should like to begin by asking your permission, Mr. Lofthouse, to depart from a tradition in this Chamber by sipping occasionally from the glass behind me, which contains nothing more exotic, and nothing more pure, than London tap water. I make that request lest, at some future date, the House of Commons considers the introduction of an upper age limit for consenting males roaring themselves hoarse at football matches on Saturday afternoons. I damaged my vocal chords while attempting, albeit futilely, to exhort Dundee United to a place in the quarter finals of the Scottish cup. I am afraid that, two days later, I am still paying the price.

9.15 pm

Like all other hon. Members who have spoken, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie), not just for her speech this afternoon but for the sterling work that she has done over a considerable time on this and other issues relating to gay and lesbian equality. when we are dealing with the question of the introduction of an equal age of consent, the fundamental issue is, first and foremost, one of equality, but it is also one of human rights or, as has already been said, of civil rights. We must bear in mind that the European Court of Human Rights is considering a case arising from the British Government's being in contravention of articles 8 and 14 of the European convention on human rights. As the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South said, it is appropriate that we should decide tonight to bring the law into line with the convention rather than wait to be forced to do so in two or three years' time.

The question whether there should be an equal age of consent is not just one of equality, although that is important. It is quite wrong and quite unsustainable that we should criminalise and stigmatise young gay men for doing what their heterosexual friends do quite legally. For almost all purposes, the age of majority is now 16.

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Watson

Not at this stage.

In Scotland, 16-year-olds have even more rights. A 16-year-old may choose to set up a business or marry or join the armed forces, but if he is gay he cannot legally have a sexual relationship of his choosing. In 1994, that is nonsense.

An equal age of consent would protect young gay men in a variety of ways. First, as has been said, it would improve opportunities for safer-sex education, thereby leading to a reduction in the spread of HIV. The comments of the hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Hayes) were treated with some mirth by several of his hon. Friends. That reaction shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the link between the issue that we are debating and the spread of HIV and AIDS—something about which nobody thought in 1967. This is the first opportunity to look at the legislation since the AIDs pandemic became widely known.

Dr. Spink

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Watson

Not at this stage.

An equal age of consent would also enable young gay men more freely to seek advice and support from people and agencies—perhaps, in the first instance, teachers. In the past two or three weeks, other hon. Members and I have received from many agencies letters outlining their experiences. They are very concerned. The citizens advice bureaux, for example, have produced evidence suggesting that younger gay male clients face significant difficulties in gaining independence—particularly in securing access to accommodation. Those difficulties are exacerbated by the age of consent itself, which can act as a barrier to young gay men who want to pursue their perfectly legitimate rights.

After all, a gay man under 21 is at present behaving illegally if he has an active sexual relationship. It is entirely understandable that men in that position feel inhibited from seeking the advice of organisations such as the citizens advice bureaux. The discrimination that they face manifests itself in a number of ways. The citizens advice bureaux have reported disturbing instances of discrimination against lesbians and gay men in several areas, particularly in respect of social security matters. They cite as an example a bureau in Humberside, which reported that a client had been forced to leave work because of continuous harassment about his sexuality. His unemployment benefit was suspended, and he asked the bureau to help him with his appeal. The adjudication officer submitted: Some people are bound to be the subject of humour because they are different—for example, overweight, bald or of Irish extraction. That quotation highlights the prejudice and discrimination that my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) outlined at the conclusion of his excellent speech. We are dealing with prejudice and discrimination, and new clause 3 gives us the chance to end it.

The citizens advice bureaux have also reported that gay clients can be very isolated and can gain from using the services of their local offices, but many—particularly, for obvious reasons, those between the ages of 16 and 21—are not doing so. If we accept the new clause, we shall remove a significant barrier for young men who want to be able to pursue their rights.

An equal age of consent would achieve other objectives. It would protect people who are vulnerable by facilitating increased openness and support in their families; dealing with the matter in the family is often one of the most difficult aspects. It would also reduce the enormous stress and misery involved and, as hon. Members have mentioned, the suicide risk, which the current law and the isolation that it causes can create. It would also remove the stigma of second-class citizenship, which a differential age of consent encourages and allows to fester. That is not an important argument. Equalising the age of consent at 16 would legalise fully consenting, private sexual behaviour for gay men between 16 and 21 years of age. As I have said, such behaviour is legal for heterosexuals, and those gay men who have practised it have faced prosecution only rarely in recent years, and rightly so.

Dr. Spink

The hon. Gentleman has twice misled the Committee. He claimed that it is legal for heterosexuals to indulge in the act of buggery, but it is not and never has been legal. It should not be made legal for teenage boys.

Mr. Watson

That was not what I said. The hon. Gentleman was clearly not listening. I was talking about adult sexual activity.

People between the ages of 16 and 21 enjoy rights and are protected by other legislation from sexual assault and exploitation. The law that is under discussion, the Sexual Offences Act 1967, is riddled with inconsistencies. If there is a fear that so-called predatory men will prey on young boys, what lessons can we learn from the effect of legislation in other countries? There is no evidence that in the countries that hon. Members have listed in the debate where the age of consent is lower than in this country—in all cases, it is lower—vast hoards of men prey on younger men or, indeed, boys.

We should also ask why the same argument does not apply to young women. Hon. Members should consider the inconsistencies. If a female schoolteacher seduced a 17-year-old girl, the teacher could, depending on the circumstances, lose her job, but she would not face any criminal prosecution. If a male teacher seduced a 17-year-old boy pupil, he would lose his job and, most likely, his freedom for a period of up to two years. If he seduced a 17-year-old girl, however, the law would have nothing to say about that.

It is also argued that boys take longer to mature than girls. If Conservative Members did not advance that argument in all seriousness, I would find it an amusing argument and I might not be so concerned about it. If 16 year-old boys are, as a rule, confused about their sexuality, why are they allowed legally to marry at 16? Should the law not say that it is understood that the young man and the young lady want to be married, but that it regards them as being confused—

Mr. Bill Walker

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Watson

No, I shall not. The hon. Gentleman is trying to make a speech and I am sure that he will have time to do so later.

There is an ambiguity. If hon. Members argue that 16-year-old males are confused, they should also argue that males should not be allowed to marry at that age. It is nonsense. The argument has very little validity because experience shows otherwise.

The Committee should respect the view of experts on such an important aspect of the legislation. We have already heard that the BMA believes that the criminality of the sexual activity of young men between the ages of 16 to 21 is harmful. There is also other eminent evidence: the Royal College of Psychiatrists has considered the matter in detail, and we should give weight to its opinion. It has concluded unequivocally: there are no psychiatric or developmental reasons why the minimum age for homosexual practices should be other than 16 years. It has also stated that sexual orientation is not capable of major realignment after the early teens. We should bear in mind that that is very much in line with the experiences of homosexual men, with whom many hon. Members have had communications in recent months. We should consider the experiences that they pass on to us and learn from them.

An age of consent of 21, 18 or 17 criminalises young men, whom the law claims to protect. Ultimately, the law does not act as a deterrent and does not stop younger men from having sex with other men if their sexuality tells them that they should do so or if they want to do so. A majority of young men know that, and that is the experience which they have communicated to us. We owe them a duty to recognise that fact.

Criminal law should have no place in a matter of private morality and that is what we are debating. The Sexual Offences Act 1967 put British legislation ahead of that in most other European countries. Today, we are lagging behind all those countries and we are in the shameful position of having the highest age of consent in Europe. Hon. Members who oppose what I have been arguing for will say that all those countries are out of step with us, but that is ridiculous.

We must acknowledge the arguments that have been communicated to us. We have the opportunity to introduce legislation that will bring this country into line with our European neighbours. Our citizens have a right to protection from the prejudice and discrimination that I described. When hon. Members uncover discrimination and prejudice, they have a duty to end it at the first possible opportunity. New clause 3 provides that opportunity this evening and the Committee should not shirk from taking it.

Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones (Watford)

I support new clause 3, which was moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie). I thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and others who have enabled the Committee to have this important debate.

I listened with great respect to my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) and my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Sir A. Durant), who tabled a new clause in favour of the age of 18.

It is generally expected that when hon. Members pronounce to the House of Commons on a subject, they will lay claim to some expertise or familiarity with the subject on which they are about to opine. It is our loss that no hon. Member will do so tonight and I am no exception. I hope that hon. Friends will agree that when one lacks personal expertise in a matter the sensible thing to do is to seek advice from those who have such knowledge.

Is the British Medical Association opposed to the new clause? As the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) told us, it is not. It argues in favour of lowering the age of consent to 16, on the ground that criminality places young people at greater risk of HIV transmission. I listened to my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby but, with respect, as a layman I am entitled to lay at least equal weight on the opinion of the British Medical Association.

Is the Royal College of Psychiatrists opposed to the new clause? No. Again, as the right hon. Member for Islwyn reminded us, it argues that there are no psychiatric or developmental reasons for the minimum age to be other than 16.

Both Barnardo's and the Terence Higgins Trust believe that the stigma of criminality places young people at risk and diminishes the effectiveness of HIV prevention initiatives in the United Kingdom. Even the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, in a characteristically prudent and understanding declaration, stated that Roman Catholics may reasonably argue for the age of consent to be 16, 18, 21—or even higher.

I have been unable to find any organisation of probity to which hon. Members might look for advice in such matters which argues aginst the age of 16. Indeed, even my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Sir G. Gardiner), who is not in his place and who often seeks to advise Conservative Members, has not pronouned on the matter or given it so much as two minutes of his valuable time.

Those Conservative Members who have lived through the experiences of the past 10 years will need no reminding that expert opinion, however convincing or overwhelming, is no substitute for the judgment that individual Members must make. I repeat that I shall certainly respect the point of view of those who do not support new clause 3. In the past decade, we Conservative Members have flown in the face of expert opinion too often, and with success, to cast aside our own judgments that lightly. I hope that my hon. Friends will at least give some weight to the expert opinion that I have just cited.

Mr. Gorst

Will my right hon. Friend also tell us what weight to put on the sincere prejudices that exist throughout the nation? They may not be well informed, but we should at least bear them in mind, for the practical reason that if we go too far ahead of public opinion that policy will fall on its face.

9.30 pm
Mr. Garel-Jones

My hon. Friend put that question to the right hon. Member for Islwyn and I agree with the answer that the right hon. Gentleman gave. The House of Commons must, of course, be very careful not to run ahead of public opinion in any matter, and, in particular, in matters of personal conduct of this kind. In my judgment —other colleagues will make their own judgment—I suspect that we have reached the point where it would be right for the House to send a message to the rest of our fellow citizens on this matter. I hope to elaborate on that later.

I hope that my hon. Friends, who do not have any particular expertise, will give at least give some weight to the scientific and expert opinion that I have cited. I should like to give a few practical reasons why I believe that the Committee should turn away from the apparent attraction of the soft option of the age of 18, as proposed in the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West and directly lower the age of consent to 16.

First, the age of 18 is not a happy compromise. Compromises work only when all parties agree with them. In this case, the homosexual community will be gravely disappointed if the Committee decides to vote for the age of 18. It will bring this matter back to the House of Commons again and again. The vote for 18 will not make the issue go away, but a vote for the age of 16 will.

Mr. Andrew Bowden (Brighton, Kemptown)

In common with many of my hon. Friends, I am not sure how to vote tonight. We have all agonised greatly on this issue. My right hon. Friend has touched on an issue that is of concern to many of the public and to many in the Chamber. If we opted for the age of 18 instead of 21, there would still be a barrier between the ages of 16 and 18. If we opted for the age of 16, would we find that soon more and more pressure was exterted to bring the age of consent down to 15, 14 or perhaps even lower?

Mr. Garel-Jones

I am glad that my hon. Friend has raised that point because it is important. My right hon. Friend the Member for Selby seemed to imply that the law was some kind of guideline. I do not wish to see the House of Commons passing laws that are guidelines. It should pass laws that are rigorously enforced. My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) has raised an important point, because if we vote for the age of 18, the danger will be that the law will continue to be applied as it is now, haphazardly, based on the judgment of individual police officers, and so forth. I have no doubt that, if the Committee takes the wise and prudent decision to vote for the age of consent to be lowered to 16, it will be agreed —I see hon. Members around me nodding—that the law should be rigorously enforced and all the weight of our enforcement agencies should be placed behind it.

Secondly—this is not a killer point in any way—most countries of a similar cultural background, such as New Zealand, Sweden, France, Belgium and Holland, have opted for equality of treatment between the sexes in this matter and have chosen ages considerably lower than those that we are considering. Do hon. Members believe that the whole moral fabric of those nations has been undermined?

I should like to make an international point which it may be easy for hon. Members to dismiss. A case has been brought before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. I hasten to reassure my hon. Friends that the Council of Europe is not a European Community institution but an institution of which Britain is a founder and much-respected member. I cannot anticipate the court's judgment but I fear that, in a year or two, we risk being found in contravention of articles 14 and 18 of the convention.

It will not have escaped the Committee's notice that the whole of the speech of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary was, as far as I could discern, predicated on the Wolfenden report, published 27 years ago, and on the comments on that report by the Home Office Policy Advisory Committee published 13 years ago. With the greatest respect to my right hon. and learned Friend, as the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) said, the passage of time should be taken into account, particularly as the scourge of AIDS has arisen since both those reports were published.

What ccncerned me most was the fact that, throughout my right hon. and learned Friend's remarks, he made no mention of his intention rigorously to enforce the law if the Committee votes for the age of consent to be lowered to 18, as he intends to vote. He did not mention the guidance that he would give police officers about enforcing that law. My hon. Friends will be concerned that he did not say how much of the public resources he intended to devote to enforcing the law.

I fear that, if we vote for 18, we shall end up with the worst of both possible worlds—a newly enacted law that is not properly and rigorously upheld but is perhaps used, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby said, as a guideline. My hon. Friends and I are not in the business of voting for guidelines. We want laws that are rigorously enforced and applied. Moreover, young people will still be at risk and in fear of criminality, and this controversial issue will return to the House again and again.

Mr. Alan Howarth

My right hon. Friend referred to the scourge of AIDS. He will agree that the best way to avert that is not to criminalise the sexuality of young males. Does he agree that all young people, whatever their sexual orientation, should be entitled to good-quality sex education? Does he agree in particular that education about HIV and AIDS should be restored to the national curriculum?

Mr. Garel-Jones

Of course I agree with my hon. Friend's points.

Mr. Brazier


Mr. Garel-Jones

I want to conclude. I would, of course, give way to my hon. Friend, but other hon. Members want to speak.

I shall direct a few remarks specifically at my side of the Committee. I have addressed right hon. and hon. Members only once since I left Government. On that occasion, I was perhaps unwise enough to make a passing reference to "back to basics". I said then, and repeat now, that I am as willing as any of my right hon. and hon. Friends to take a nice warm bath in my own prejudices but that I did not believe that giving homilies to lone mothers even began to address the problems that we needed to address as the party of Government in the coming decade.

The Conservative party has always had the good sense not to tie itself to any dogma, or to have its political philosophy set in tablets of stone. [Interruption] There are currents in this debate, some of which go across the Committee, and some of which are on one side of it. My party has had the good sense not to set its philosophy in tablets of stone. I have no problem with "back to basics" because the basic instincts of Tory Members of Parliament and of the Conservative party have been and are right—whether in relation to education, law and order, defence or, as important, the balance that must be struck between individual liberty and collective responsibility. I have no difficulty with that.

Another Tory instinct is as basic as any of those—the instinct of decency and common sense. That instinct has prevented our party from ever allowing any group, class or section of the community to have hatred directed against it. That instinct has ensured that no Le Pens or Jimmy Swaggarts have been able to gain credence on the political right in Britain. It is to that best instinct of the Conservative party that I appeal tonight, in asking my right hon. and hon. Friends to support new clause 3.

Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

I rise to support new clause 3, moved by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) and seconded so well by my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock), and strongly supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam).

I begin by remembering our late and much-loved colleague Jo Richardson. In the last painful illness that she faced, she deeply wished to be present to vote for new clause 3. Perhaps we shall do something tonight to pay tribute to her memory.

The kernel of tonight's debate is the argument about equality. It was well put from both sides of the Committee, and I will not dwell on it further. Suffice it to say that I believe in the fundamental principle that we are all equal before the law. At present, the law does not permit that in the case of young gay men.

This country has laws that say that one may not discriminate on the grounds of race or gender. Perhaps those laws are not always implemented as Parliament wished when it passed them, but they say that one shall not discriminate. But the law discriminates in respect of the relationships of young gay men. To my mind, that means that it should be changed.

I shall address three or four of the points that have emerged in opposition to the new clause. The Home Secretary argued that perhaps the age of 16 is too young and that a young man needs time to come to a full decision about his sexuality and relationships. I fear that his argument was based on two fundamental misconceptions. The first was that somehow young men can be enticed, encouraged or converted into being gay. That is not so. We are who we are. No amount of attempts by anyone to convert us into something else would pose a threat or danger.

The second assumption underlying the Home Secretary's argument was that the consequences of homosexual activity would set someone apart from the generality of society. I must tell him that he was in danger of lapsing into tautology, because by keeping the law in a discriminatory fashion and placing the age of consent at 18 —at 21, it would still discriminate and enshrine discrimination into the statute book—automatically means that young gay men will be set apart from society. If we remove that discrimination from the statute book, it may go some way towards giving young gay men the self-respect and the self-dignity to which they are entitled and should have.

9.45 pm
Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)

Is my hon. Friend aware that the age of consent for girls at 16 was fixed not for sexual reasons, but for reasons of pregnancy and marriage, because that is when a girl could carry a child and get married? At the age of 16 a man could possibly support a family. If there is to be no discrimination on age grounds, why is it 18 for buying alcohol in a pub or working a night shift down the pit? Why do we not have everything at 16, as my hon. Friend would like?

Mr. Smith

We could perhaps argue about other activities that might be proper and right at the age of 16. I must say to my hon. Friend that the law on going into a pub is equal for men and women of all sexualities and all shapes and sizes. I want the law for sexual relationships to be exactly the same. I do not believe that the argument that the Home Secretary advanced holds water.

A second argument has been advanced. It was a question genuinely posed by the hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst), who spoke about what he called the sincere prejudices that are held throughout the nation. I do not believe that his reading of the public mood on this issue is necessarily as clear cut as he appears to assume. I must also say that those prejudices may be sincerely held, but none the less they are prejudices. One of our duties in a democracy is to protect the rights of minorities, even though those minorities may be unpopular. That is a democratic duty which is placed on us.

Mr. Gorst

I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that people are entitled to hold prejudices but that they are not entitled to hold prejudices that affect anyone but themselves.

Mr. Smith

I am delighted to hear what the hon. Gentleman says because it clearly makes the case for the new clause tabled by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South.

The third argument that has been advanced genuinely and sincerely by many people is that by changing the law we shall ensure that older men may seek somehow to exploit or abuse younger men. That is a serious argument and deserves serious consideration, but I believe that it ignores three important points. First, overwhelming the problem of abuse is the problem of the abuse by older men of younger women. That is something about which we should rightly be concerned.

Secondly, we are talking about a change in the law of consent, and consent means consent. There is no scope, and there should be no scope, for the exploitation or abuse of one individual by another. Where there is agreement and consent, however, is it right that the law should come knocking on the bedroom door and intervene in the personal relationship of two mature individuals making up their own minds about what they want to do?

Thirdly, the argument about older men ignores the perversity of the law as it stands, which is that it may actually diminish protection for young men. A young man who is abused and exploited by an older man may be frightened of going to the police to report the incident. He may be worried—his fear may be misplaced, but it is real —that he may be brought to book for what has happened. Because that fear exists, the older man who made the advance and attempted the exploitation may be allowed to go free to do the same again. I do not think that the argument that setting the age of consent at 21 or 18 protects younger men holds water.

A fourth argument has been advanced, and it has been touched on by one or two Conservative Members. It is a deeper and I suggest less worthy argument. It is that being gay is abnormal and therefore unnatural and illegitimate. To those people, I would say this. Yes, we are different. We have a different sexuality. But that does not make us in any way less valid or less worthy citizens of this country. Yet the law at present says that we are.

A century ago, A. E. Housman wrote: Oh who is that young sinner with the handcuffs on his wrists? And what has he been after that they groan and shake their fists? And wherefore is he wearing such a conscience-stricken air? Oh they're taking him to prison for the colour of his hair. In this country we do not discriminate against people on the ground of the colour of their hair. We do not discriminate against people because they happen to be left-handed. We do not discriminate against people because they are of a different race. But we do discriminate against them because their sexuality is different. I argue that we should not.

I would also argue that it is a question of a fundamental principle of democracy. As long ago as 8 June 1984, the Heads of State of the seven major industrial democracies, including the former Prime Minister, Lady Thatcher, signed a declaration on democratic values.

The second foremost point of that declaration said: We believe in a rule of law which respects and protects without fear or favour the rights and liberties of every citizen, and provides the setting in which the human spirit can develop in freedom and diversity. The protection and the endorsement of that principle of diversity is what the new clause is all about. Let us back equality tonight, not because it is easy, not necessarily because it will win great applause from the tabloid press, but simply because it is the right thing to do.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

On a point of order, Mr. Morris. I know you to be a fair and balanced Chairman of the Committee, but may I point out that throughout the three-hour debate, one Member only has been called, my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison), who has made the case against either of the clauses? I am sure that you would wish there to be a balance in the argument.

The Chairman

I do not accept the hon. Lady's chastisement and I am sorry that she felt it necessary to raise the matter.

Rev. Ian Paisley

The proposer of the new clause, the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie), has asked us to turn our eyes towards Europe. I understand that she has European ambitions and so she already has her eyes on Europe. The previous meeting of the European Parliament in Strasbourg passed a resolution which bore out the words of the Liberal Democratic party spokesman, the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). If we go down the proposed road, there will be other matters with which we shall have to deal. I take it that that was his message.

The resolution says that certain things must be swept away. First, it says that there should be an end to different and discriminatory ages of consent for homosexual and heterosexual acts. Of course, there is no agreed age in Europe, as we know. Ages of consent go down as far as 12. I wonder how many hon. Members would vote for reducing the age of consent to 12. Secondly, there is to be no prosecution of homosexuality as a public nuisance or a gross indecency. Thirdly, there is to be no barring of lesbians and gay couples from marriage or from an equivalent legal framework and there should be a guarantee of the full rights and benefits of marriage allowing the registration of partnerships. Finally, the most serious change of all is that any restrictions of the rights of lesbians and gay men to be parents or to adopt and foster children should end.

There is a road that the Committee can go down tonight, which has been signposted by that resolution which was passed overwhelmingly in the Strasbourg Parliament in its previous session. I do not think that the Committee should look to Europe. The Committee should look to its own citizens, to its own well-being and to where we should want our country to go. I have listened to the speeches in which some principles were paraded as if they bore the stamp of infallibility.

It has been argued that private morality should not be a matter for the House. If we followed that principle, how many Acts of Parliament would have to be destroyed? It is very interesting that we are told tonight that there must be liberty for males to carry out an unnatural act. However, in the law of this land, that unnatural act is banned between male and female. I have not heard it argued that that law should be removed. That law is to stand. However, the law relating to males must be taken away.

10 pm

This country must realise that the unit of society, and the cement that holds it together, is the family. As goes the family, so will go the nation. If we do not have the cement of the family, society will disintegrate and be destroyed. I plead with the Committee not to despise, reject or to brand the cement of society as some kind of prejudice. The normal sex act within the marriage vow, bringing together male and female and producing offspring, is the happy way; it is the divine way; it is the creative way; and it is the best way. As one of the apostles said, it is the more excellent way.

How can the Committee argue today that we need to deal with an age limit? We have been told that this is not really a matter of age, but of equality. To the hon. Members who have argued that, I ask whether that is not so of everything that they have said. That includes the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), who spoke so eloquently from the Opposition Front Bench. Everything that he said in respect of 16 could be argued for 14.

As a father, I know the difficulties that occur when raising a family. If any father were to tell the Committee tonight that his children had no sexual thoughts until they were 16, that person would be laughed out of Committee. I am sure that the hon. Member for Sedgefield thought many thoughts before he was 16.

Let us come down to the hard facts. What has been argued tonight in Committee does not stand up. The right hon. Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones) told us that if we vote for 16 tonight, the problem will go away and we will never have to discuss it again. That is wishful thinking. The right hon. Gentleman thinks that the European thing has gone away, but it has not and it never will. He will learn that in the days to come.

We cannot say that 16 is the time. Similarly, we cannot say that 14 is the time. We should be trying to save young men and young boys from going down the homosexual road. We should be bringing them to the joys of true marriage and raising a family. We should dedicate ourselves not to the destruction of young boys but to their deliverance. They need to be delivered.

I was in my office for a moment between the two debates this evening when the phone rang. It was a gay rights lobbyist. He started to tell me a story. He said that, at 12, he discovered that he was different from other people; that he was homosexual. I asked him one question, "When you were 12, did you follow every impulse that you had?" He said, "Certainly not." I then pointed out to him that it is the duty of society to persuade, to educate and to seek to bring those who have that problem to a place of deliverance.

Some people say, "No one ever changes; we were born this way; and this is the way that we have to remain." That is not true. Homosexuals have been converted from homosexuality and some of them have good marriages and are bringing up families. I know that from personal pastoral experience. The right hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) said that the time when we must work is the time before they are crystallised. We have a responsibility and an opportunity tonight.

The hon. Member for Derbyshire, South, with a swipe of her hand, dismissed the Hebrew scriptures, the Christian scriptures and Almighty God. That was just with a wave of her hand. Those of us who have been at the coal face, as it were, of our young people and who have been working with them—there are 1,200 young people in my church and I know what I am talking about—know the difficulties and the temptations. It is my prayer for them that they will learn the "more excellent way", the joy of having a happy marriage, the joy of bringing up their own families and the joy of living in normality, not in abnormality. I hope that hon. Members keep that point in mind as they vote tonight.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

The hon. Member for Antrim, South (Rev. Ian Paisley) made the surprising assertion that people do not change. That is certainly not the view that is expressed in the gospels. The gospels speak of the sinner that repenteth. I hope that, in his consideration of these matters and the mosaic beliefs of the Judaeo-Christian morality which underlies our law, the hon. Gentleman will concede in his heart that it is not necessary for that law to be underpinned by the criminal law of this country and that the criminal law today does not protect our young people from the greatest scourge that modern society has known, the threat of AIDS.

The right hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) read a passage from the advice of the Health Education Authority. What he did not read was the advice of that Government-appointed body, which has told the Committee that it believes that it is hampered in its job by its inability to speak to those people——

It being three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the first new clause relating to the age of consent for sexual acts between men in Great Britain, THE CHAIRMAN put the Question already proposed from the Chair.

The Committee proceeded to a Division; but the Tellers in the Aye lobby having left the doors before all the Members wishing to do so had voted, THE CHAIRMAN directed the Committee to proceed again to a Division.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 280, Noes 307.

Division No. 136] [10.23 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane Allen, Graham
Adams, Mrs Irene Alton, David
Ainger, Nick Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale)
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey) Armstrong, Hilary
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Ashby, David
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Fisher, Mark
Austin-Walker, John Flynn, Paul
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) Foster, Don (Bath)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Foulkes, George
Barnes, Harry Fraser, John
Barron, Kevin Fyfe, Maria
Battle, John Galbraith, Sam
Bayley, Hugh Galloway, George
Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret Gapes, Mike
Beith, Rt Hon A. J. Garel-Jones, Rt Hon Tristan
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Garrett, John
Bennett, Andrew F. Gerrard, Neil
Berry, Dr. Roger Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John
Betts, Clive Godman, Dr Norman A.
Biffen, Rt Hon John Godsiff, Roger
Blair, Tony Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair
Boateng, Paul Gordon, Mildred
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham) Gorst, John
Bowis, John Graham, Thomas
Boyes, Roland Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)
Bradley, Keith Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Brandreth, Gyles Grocott, Bruce
Bray, Dr Jeremy Gunnell, John
Brown, Gordon (Dunfermline E) Hague, William
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thorpes) Hain, Peter
Brown, N. (N'c'tle upon Tyne E) Hall, Mike
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Hampson, Dr Keith
Burden, Richard Hanson, David
Byers, Stephen Harman, Ms Harriet
Caborn, Richard Harvey, Nick
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE) Hayes, Jerry
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Henderson, Doug
Canavan, Dennis Hendry, Charles
Carlile, Alexander (Montgomry) Heppell, John
Carrington, Matthew Hill, Keith (Streatham)
Chisholm, Malcolm Hinchliffe, David
Clapham, Michael Hoey, Kate
Clark, Dr David (South Shields) Hogg, Norman (Cumbernauld)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W) Home Robertson, John
Clelland, David Hood, Jimmy
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Hoon, Geoffrey
Coffey, Ann Howarth, Alan (Strat'rd-on-A)
Cohen, Harry Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Connarty, Michael Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd)
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Cook, Robin (Livingston) Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Corbett, Robin Hughes Robert G. (Harrow W)
Corbyn, Jeremy Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Corston, Ms Jean Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne)
Cousins, Jim Hutton, John
Cox, Tom Illsley, Eric
Cummings, John Ingram, Adam
Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE) Jackson, Glenda (H'stead)
Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr John Jackson, Helen (Shef'ld, H)
Currie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire) Jamieson, David
Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon) Janner, Greville
Dafis, Cynog Jenkin, Bernard
Dalyell, Tam Johnston, Sir Russell
Darling, Alistair Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Davidson, Ian Jones, Lynne (B'ham S O)
Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral) Jones, Martyn (Clwyd, SW)
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly) Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'I) Jones, Robert B. (W Hertfdshr)
Denham, John Jowell, Tessa
Devlin, Tim Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Dewar, Donald Keen, Alan
Dobson, Frank Kennedy, Charles (Ross,C&S)
Donohoe, Brian H. Kennedy, Jane (Lpool Brdgn)
Dowd, Jim Key, Robert
Duncan, Alan Khabra, Piara S.
Eagle, Ms Angela Kilfoyle, Peter
Elletson, Harold Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil (Islwyn)
Enright, Derek Kirkwood, Archy
Etherington, Bill Leighton, Ron
Ewing, Mrs Margaret Lester, Jim (Broxtowe)
Fabricant, Michael Lestor, Joan (Eccles)
Fatchett, Derek Lewis, Terry
Field, Frank (Birkenhead) Litherland, Robert
Fishburn, Dudley Livingstone, Ken
Lloyd, Rt Hon Peter (Fareham) Rendel, David
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford) Robertson, George (Hamilton)
Llwyd, Elfyn Robinson, Geoffrey (Co'try NW)
Loyden, Eddie Roche, Mrs. Barbara
Lynne, Ms Liz Rooney, Terry
McAllion, John Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
McAvoy, Thomas Ruddock, Joan
McCartney, Ian Rumbold, Rt Hon Dame Angela
McFall, John Salmond, Alex
MacKay, Andrew Scott, Rt Hon Nicholas
McKelvey, William Sedgemore, Brian
Mackinlay, Andrew Sheerman, Barry
McLeish, Henry Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Maclennan, Robert Short, Clare
McMaster, Gordon Simpson, Alan
McNamara, Kevin Skinner, Dennis
McWilliam, John Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)
Madden, Max Smith, C. (Isl'ton S & F'sbury)
Maddock, Mrs Diana Smith, Rt Hon John (M'kl'ds E)
Mahon, Alice Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Mandelson, Peter Soames, Nicholas
Marshall, Jim (Leicester, S) Soley, Clive
Martlew, Eric Spellar, John
Maxton, John Squire, Rachel (Dunfermline W)
Meacher, Michael Squire, Robin (Hornchurch)
Meale, Alan Steel, Rt Hon Sir David
Mellor, Rt Hon David Steinberg, Gerry
Michael, Alan Stern, Michael
Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley) Stevenson, George
Milburn, Alan Stott, Roger
Miller, Andrew Strang, Dr. Gavin
Moonie, Dr Lewis Straw, Jack
Morgan, Rhodri Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Morley, Elliot Turner, Dennis
Morris, Rt Hon A. (Wy'nshawe) Tyler, Paul
Morris, Estelle (B'ham Yardley) Vaz, Keith
Mullin, Chris Waldegrave, Rt Hon William
Murphy, Paul Walker, Rt Hon Sir Harold
Newton, Rt Hon Tony Wallace, James
Norris, Steve Waller, Gary
O'Brien, Michael (N W'kshire) Walley, Joan
O'Hara, Edward Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Olner, William Watson, Mike
O'Neill, Martin Wheeler, Rt Hon Sir John
Pickthall, Colin Wicks, Malcolm
Pike, Peter L. Wigley, Dafydd
Pope, Greg Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Sw'n W)
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lew'm E) Williams, Alan W (Carmarthen)
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle) Wilson, Brian
Prescott, John Winnick, David
Primarolo, Dawn Wise, Audrey
Purchase, Ken Worthington, Tony
Quin, Ms Joyce Young, David (Bolton SE)
Radice, Giles
Randall, Stuart Tellers for the Ayes:
Raynsford, Nick Mrs. Marjorie Mowlam and Mr. Andrew Rowe.
Reid, Dr John
Aitken, Jonathan Bellingham, Henry
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby) Bendell, Vivian
Allason, Rupert (Torbay) Benton, Joe
Amess, David Beresford, Sir Paul
Ancram, Michael Bermingham, Gerald
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Blackburn, Dr John G.
Arbuthnot, James Blunkett, David
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Bonsor, Sir Nicholas
Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv) Boswell, Tim
Ashton, Joe Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia
Aspinwall, Jack Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes
Atkins, Robert Brazier, Julian
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Bright, Graham
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley) Browning, Mrs. Angela
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North) Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)
Baldry, Tony Budgen, Nicholas
Banks, Matthew (Southport) Burns, Simon
Bates, Michael Burt, Alistair
Batiste, Spencer Butler, Peter
Beggs, Roy Butterfill, John
Bell, Stuart Callaghan, Jim
Campbell-Savours, D. N. Hannam, Sir John
Cann, Jamie Hardy, Peter
Carlisle, John (Luton North) Hargreaves, Andrew
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Harris, David
Carttiss, Michael Hawkins, Nick
Cash, William Hawksley, Warren
Channon, Rt Hon Paul Heald, Oliver
Chapman, Sydney Heath, Rt Hon Sir Edward
Churchill, Mr Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael
Clappison, James Hicks, Robert
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford) Higgins, Rt Hon Sir Terence L.
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian) Hill, James (Southampton Test)
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ruclif) Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas (G'tham)
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey Horam, John
Coe, Sebastian Hordern, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Colvin, Michael Howard, Rt Hon Michael
Congdon, David Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford)
Conway, Derek Hughes, Roy (Newport E)
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st) Hunt, Rt Hon David (Wirral W)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon) Hunter, Andrew
Cope, Rt Hon Sir John Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas
Couchman, James Jack, Michael
Cran, James Jessel, Toby
Cryer, Bob Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Cunliffe, Lawrence Jones, Barry (Alyn and D'side)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Jopling, Rt Hon Michael
Davies, Quentin (Stamford) Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Davis, David (Boothferry) Kilfedder, Sir James
Day, Stephen Kirkhope, Timothy
Dickens, Geoffrey Knapman, Roger
Dicks, Terry Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash)
Dixon, Don Knight, Greg (Derby N)
Dorrell, Stephen Knight, Dame Jill (Bir'm E'st'n)
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Knox, Sir David
Dover, Den Kynoch, George (Kincardine)
Duncan-Smith, Iain Lamont, Rt Hon Norman
Dunnachie, Jimmy Lang, Rt Hon Ian
Durant, Sir Anthony Lawrence, Sir Ivan
Dykes, Hugh Legg, Barry
Eastham, Ken Leigh, Edward
Eggar, Tim Lennox-Boyd, Mark
Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter Lidington, David
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatfield) Lightbown, David
Evans, John (St Helens N) Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
Evans, Jonathan (Brecon) Lord, Michael
Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley) Luff, Peter
Evans, Roger (Monmouth) Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Evennett, David McCrea, Rev William
Faber, David Macdonald, Calum
Fairbaim, Sir Nicholas McGrady, Eddie
Fenner, Dame Peggy MacGregor, Rt Hon John
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight) Maclean, David
Forman. Nigel McLoughlin, Patrick
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) McNair-Wilson, Sir Patrick
Forsythe, Clifford (Antrim S) Madel, Sir David
Forth, Eric Maginnis, Ken
Foster, Rt Hon Derek Maitland, Lady Olga
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman Major, Rt Hon John
Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring) Mallon, Seamus
Fox, Sir Marcus (Shipley) Malone, Gerald
Freeman, Rt Hon Roger Mans, Keith
French, Douglas Marland, Paul
Fry, Sir Peter Marlow, Tony
Gale, Roger Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Gallie, Phil Marshall, John (Hendon S)
Gardiner, Sir George Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Garnier, Edward Martin, Michael J. (Springburn)
Gill, Christopher Mates, Michael
Gillan, Cheryl Mawhinney, Rt Hon Dr Brian
Golding, Mrs Llin Merchant, Piers
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles Mills, Iain
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Grant, Sir A. (Cambs SW) Mitchell, Sir David (Hants NW)
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N) Moate, Sir Roger
Greenway, John (Ryedale) Molyneaux, Rt Hon James
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N) Monro, Sir Hector
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) Moss, Malcolm
Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn Mudie, George
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie Nelson, Anthony
Hanley, Jeremy Neubert, Sir Michael
Nicholls, Patrick Steen, Anthony
Nicholson, Emma (Devon West) Stephen, Michael
O'Brien, William (Normanton) Stewart, Allan
Onslow, Rt Hon Sir Cranley Streeter, Gary
Oppenheim, Phillip Sumberg, David
Orme, Rt Hon Stanley Sweeney, Walter
Ottaway, Richard Sykes, John
Paice, James Tapsell, Sir Peter
Paisley, Rev Ian Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Parry, Robert Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Patchett, Terry Taylor, Rt Hon John D. (Strgfd)
Patnick, Irvine Taylor, John M. (Solihull)
Patten, Rt Hon John Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E)
Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Temple-Morris, Peter
Pawsey, James Thomason, Roy
Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V)
Pickles, Eric Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
Porter, Barry (Wirral S) Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Porter, David (Waveney) Thornton, Sir Malcolm
Portillo, Rt Hon Michael Thurnham, Peter
Powell, Ray (Ogmore) Townend, John (Bridlington)
Powell, William (Corby) Townsend, Cyril D. (Bexl'yh'th)
Rathbone, Tim Tracey, Richard
Redmond, Martin Tredinnick, David
Redwood, Rt Hon John Trend, Michael
Renton, Rt Hon Tim Trotter, Neville
Richards, Rod Twinn, Dr Ian
Riddick, Graham Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Rifkind, Rt Hon. Malcolm Viggers, Peter
Robathan, Andrew Walden, George
Robertson, Raymond (Ab'd'n S) Walker, A. Cecil (Belfast N)
Robinson, Peter (Belfast E) Ward, John
Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne) Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Ross, William (E Londonderry) Wareing, Robert N
Rowlands, Ted Waterson, Nigel
Ryder, Rt Hon Richard Watts, John
Sackville, Tom Wells, Bowen
Sainsbury, Rt Hon Tim Welsh, Andrew
Shaw, David (Dover) Whitney, Ray
Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey) Whittingdale, John
Shepherd, Colin (Hereford) Widdecombe, Ann
Shersby, Michael Wiggin, Sir Jerry
Sims, Roger Wilkinson, John
Skeet, Sir Trevor Willetts, David
Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick) Wilshire, David
Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S) Wolfson, Mark
Spearing, Nigel Wood, Timothy
Speed, Sir Keith Wright, Dr Tony
Spencer, Sir Derek Yeo, Tim
Spicer, Sir James (W Dorset) Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Spink, Dr Robert Tellers for the Noes:
Spring, Richard Mr. Richard Page and Mr. Bill Walker.
Sproat, Iain
Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John

Question accordingly negatived.

THE CHAIRMAN then put the Question necessary to dispose of another new clause relating to the age of consent for sexual acts between men in Great Britain which had been selected by him.

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