HC Deb 28 July 1998 vol 317 cc176-211

Lords Reason:

The Lords disagree to amendment No. 14 made by the Commons for the following Reason: Because it fails adequately to protect vulnerable young people.

3.53 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)

I beg to move, That this House does not insist on its amendment to which the Lords have disagreed.

Madam Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to consider the Lords reasons for disagreeing to amendments Nos. 98, 107, 108, 140 and 237.

Mr. Straw

These amendments relate to amendments tabled at the House of Commons Report stage in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen), to equalise the age of consent for homosexual and heterosexual activity at the age of 16. [Interruption.] Madam Speaker, shall I continue?

Madam Speaker

Yes; I am listening intently. There is a lot of difficult procedure for us to follow, and I am listening very carefully.

Mr. Straw

If it is acceptable, Madam Speaker: it will take me about 10 minutes to explain my position. I was anxious that you should not spend the whole of that time sitting on the end of the Chair.

Madam Speaker

I was not specifically waiting for something—although I am always prepared.

Mr. Straw

I know that you are always prepared, Madam Speaker—like a good girl guide.

Madam Speaker


Mr. Straw

Or a brownie. We had better not go down that path just now.

On 22 June, on a free vote, the House backed the amendments by 336 votes to 129. My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth was supported in her amendment by my hon. Friends the Members for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg) and for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) and by the hon. Members for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) and for Witney (Mr. Woodward)—all of whom have shown great moral conviction on a very difficult issue for all concerned.

The amendments were to the Crime and Disorder Bill, which is one of this Parliament's major measures on law and order, giving effect to 12 manifesto commitments that will have a significant impact on the safety and well-being of our constituents. Overall, the Bill has been widely and enthusiastically welcomed by the public and police. It received substantial support on both sides of the House on Second Reading and on Third Reading, both of which were unopposed.

The Bill completed its Committee stage in June. Almost five weeks ago—on 24 June, after its Report and Third Reading—it was sent from the House to another place.

Business managers and I had originally planned that the Commons amendments to the Bill—which began in the Lords—should have been debated at the beginning of July, so that there was adequate time to resolve any disagreements between the two Houses, should any arise, before the end of this month. However, that more relaxed timetable did not prove possible, not least because of the intervention of two sets of Northern Ireland legislation.

For very good reasons—I can go into the matter in more detail if hon. Members so wish—we have always aimed to achieve Royal Assent to the Bill by the end of this week. Apart from those clauses that are due to come into force on Royal Assent itself, a full implementation timetable was due to start on 30 September. The overall timetable contains about 25 separate items in the Bill, including pilots on the Bill's major youth justice reforms, and starting three other linked pilots, all of which have already been chosen, announced and published; crime and disorder partnerships, which will work locally to reduce crime and disorder; and measures to implement the provisions on football hooliganism, which were rightly pressed by the shadow Home Secretary when the matter was dealt with on Report. Unless we have Royal Assent by the end of this week, those provisions cannot come into force before the beginning of the soccer season.

The Bill also contains provisions on sex offenders. As the House knows, there is currently a gap in the law on sex offenders who were sentenced before the Criminal Justice Act 1991 came into force. Under current law, it is not possible for any licence to attach to those offenders once they are released from prison—something which has caused major constituency difficulties for many hon. Members on both sides of the House.

The sex offender order is designed to fill that gap. The police will be able to apply for such an order in respect of a registered sex offender who has previously served a sentence and who is anticipated to represent a threat to public order. If we do not get Royal Assent, we cannot put the sex offenders order into action as quickly as possible. Many other measures will also be deferred if we cannot get Royal Assent by the end of this week.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth and colleagues who supported the amendment have generously and readily accepted the imperative of achieving Royal Assent for the Bill by the end of this week. I should not have asked them to support our move or asked the House not to insist on the amendment had I not first attempted to develop an alternative approach that could have met the will of this House immediately to equalise the age of consent while also meeting the concerns of the other place to protect vulnerable young people. However, I am satisfied that there is no compromise solution that could be debated and resolved during the rest of this week that would be acceptable to another place and to this House.

Before I come to my proposals for dealing with the will of the House on the issue as expressed on 22 June, it may be helpful if I set out the background to the issue and explain why the Government accommodated an amendment on the age of consent in the Bill.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

My right hon. Friend is assuming that the Lords would allow the Bill to go down rather than concede to the overwhelming will of the House of Commons. That is a fundamental issue. Why does he assume that the Lords would succeed, particularly as I understand that the proposal will be reintroduced in the next Session, although the Lords could delay that as well? We cannot assume that the problem will be solved if the hereditary peers go, because the life peers also voted against the amendment.

Is this not another capitulation to an unelected Chamber, comparable to what has happened over fox hunting? Under previous Governments, the leaders of the House of Lords have told Cabinet Committees—including those of which I was a member—not to proceed with certain proposals because they would be obstructed. Is not that the real issue—not the Crime and Disorder Bill, which the Lords could hardly reject, or even gay rights, important though the issue is and one that I have always supported, but whether the House of Commons, particularly on a free vote, is to have its will over a House that, on this matter, is elected by nobody, accountable to nobody and representative of nobody?

Mr. Straw

I intend to set out arrangements by which this House will be able to achieve its will over the other place—by invoking the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 if necessary. However, the provisions of the Parliament Act are not available on Bills that begin their journey through Parliament in the other place. Although I fully subscribe to the Labour manifesto pledge to remove the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords—we shall bring forward proposals in due course to give full effect to that commitment—whether we like the fact or not, even if the hereditary peers had not been allowed to vote, the other place would still have voted down the amendment, so this is not the best issue on which to challenge the authority of the other place. That can be done in a different way.

On the two significant crises about the authority of this place over the other place, the issues were Government legislation. The situation is made more complex by the fact that we are dealing with a free vote in both Houses.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)


Mr. Straw

If my hon. Friend will allow me, I should like to expand on a further point.

I do not know what the outcome would be if we went in for ping-pong with the other place, but we would certainly not get Royal Assent by the end of this week. That would not be satisfactory. Even if we abandoned the idea of Royal Assent by the end of this week, there is no certainty that the other place would decide to concede the point made by this House on 22 June. The net result could be that, unless we took other steps, the whole Bill, which has been supported on both sides of the Chamber, would be aborted. I do not believe that it is either appropriate or necessary to take that risk.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Will the Home Secretary give way?

Mr. Winnick


Mr. Straw

I must give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) first; then I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow. (Mr. Dalyell).

Mr. Winnick

I regret, of course, the decision made last week, but I agree that the Bill must go ahead. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if the House of Lords, or whatever it might then be called, were elected, it would have as much electoral credibility and legitimacy as the elected House of Commons, and that, bearing in mind how the life peers voted, such an elected Chamber would still have been likely to come to the same decision? Is that not a danger to the authority of the House of Commons?

Mr. Straw

That is an important point of view to be weighed in the balance when we deal with stage two of the manifesto proposals in respect of the other place. However, I happen to believe that other issues, too, will probably arise in which the question of clashes between the House of Lords and the House of Commons will come into play.

Mr. Dalyell

The Home Secretary and his officials have surely had brought to their attention the letter in The Times from a number of distinguished Law Lords, including Lord Ackner and Lord Wilberforce. What is the answer to their question why the amendment was not introduced at a much earlier stage? Why was it brought into the Bill at such a late stage? As one who has taken a view different from that of many of my colleagues, I am curious to know the answer to that question.

Mr. Straw

I shall explain in a second, why the amendment was introduced; the reason relates to proceedings before the European Court of Human Rights. As for the time scale, it was always judged that it was appropriate for the matter to be debated in this House first, before it went to the other place. Had it not been for the intervention of Northern Ireland legislation, there would, in my judgment, have been ample time for the matter to be batted backwards and forwards between the two Houses.

The debate took place on 22 June, the Bill came out of Standing Committee on 11 June, and our original plan was that it would come out of Committee in, say, early June, complete its Report stage by mid-June and, if possible, be considered by their lordships by the end of June. There would then have been ample time for further consideration.

I also make another point, to which I shall return in due course—that the issue of the age of consent, although very important, is a simple one. The question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) is more complicated, but the age of consent is a simple issue that has been discussed on very many occasions in the past. With great respect to their lordships, I thought that their least persuasive argument in favour of the position that the majority in that House took involved the late stage in the proceedings at which they had to deal with the issue. It is not as if the issue had not been for many years a well-known question, on which people had been able to form rather settled conclusions.

It would be helpful if, before turning to my proposals for dealing with the amendment, I set out the background and explained why the Government accommodated an amendment on the age of consent within the Bill before us.

Hon. Members may be aware that Mr. Euan Sutherland and Mr. Christopher Morris, with the backing of Stonewall, the gay rights organisation, took the United Kingdom Government to the European Court of Human Rights to argue that we were in breach of the European convention on human rights in setting a differential age of consent for homosexual and heterosexual activity.

We learned last summer that the European Commission of Human Rights was about to issue a preliminary finding in favour of Mr. Sutherland. Our legal advice was that it was nigh on certain that that finding would be confirmed by the full court in due course. Such a court ruling would in practice have obliged the United Kingdom Government and Parliament to legislate for an equal age of consent.

Because we thought—correctly, as it happened—that on a free vote an overwhelming majority of the House of Commons would favour setting the age of consent at 16, we judged that to contest the preliminary ruling would serve no purpose whatever, and would waste much public money on legal costs. We therefore sought an agreement with Mr. Sutherland, Mr. Morris and Stonewall by which they would stay their proceedings in the European Court of Human Rights on the basis of undertakings that we would provide.

Those undertakings, which were collectively agreed by the Government, were contained in a document lodged with the European Court on 21 October 1997. A copy of the full text of the undertakings has been placed in the Library—they are a matter of public record.

The undertakings have two principal components. First, we undertook at the "earliest appropriate opportunity" to have a free vote in the House of Commons on the equalisation of the age of consent. That is why we accepted that the Crime and Disorder Bill could be used for that purpose, although the scope of the Bill—which was already amending the law on offences—was such that, irrespective of whether the Government had agreed to include the issue in the Bill, it was rightly for the House to decide whether to amend it as some hon. Members sought to do.

Secondly, the undertaking said that, if a majority of the House of Commons voted in favour of a reduction in the age of consent for homosexual acts to 16, the government will bring forward legislation to implement the will of Parliament, such legislation to be introduced in time for the consideration of such legislation to have been completed by the end of the next Parliamentary session"— that is 1998–99— at the latest. Against that background, I invite hon. Members, albeit very reluctantly, to accept the decision of the other place and to remove the age of consent provisions from the Bill. As I explained to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), if the House rejected their lordships' amendments and sent the Bill back to the other place, there is every prospect that that House would again reject the amendments. That would prevent any prospect of Royal Assent until the spillover in late October.

Even in the spillover, there would be no guarantee that amendments to equalise the age of consent would be carried by the other place. In that event, their omission from the Bill would still have to be accepted by the House of Commons as the price of Royal Assent for the rest of the Bill. As the Bill is Government legislation that gives effect to manifesto commitments that all hon. Members of the governing party supported, I am not willing to play poker with it and risk all its provisions.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the amendment could have been detached from the fate of the Bill if the Lords had been prepared to accept an amendment in lieu, which introduced an order power whereby the provision would not come into force except under an affirmative resolution of both Houses of Parliament? If the Lords had allowed the Bill to proceed on that basis, it would have remained open to them to make their decision later. Certainly a number of hon. Members, including me, who voted for the amendment would have felt happy that the provision was at least on the statute book, even though the Lords would still have had the power to determine whether the provision was implemented.

Mr. Straw

I accept that. Indeed, if the right hon. Gentleman does not mind me saying so, that useful suggestion came from me—it was one of the proposals that we considered in some detail. However, it became clear that it would not be acceptable to the supporters of the majority position in the other place, so, in the circumstances that we faced, it was not, frankly, a runner.

As I have explained, the provisions of the Parliament Acts cannot be invoked, as the Crime and Disorder Bill began in another place. In any event, we could not countenance a year's delay in gaining Royal Assent for the Bill as a whole even if those provisions could be invoked.

Mr. Benn

I have listened carefully to my right hon. Friend's arguments; the House may decide to accept his advice. Meanwhile, young people between 16 and 18 may be prosecuted by the police in circumstances totally different from any that have hitherto obtained—the elected House of Commons will have voted for the amendment and the Government will have given a solemn commitment to the European Court that they intend to legislate within a year to change the law. Can my right hon. Friend say whether he intends to indicate to the police that prosecutions in this category ought not to be proceeded with, given the two considerations of a treaty obligation and a free vote of the House of Commons? If that is not so, we shall get into a difficult and dangerous situation.

Mr. Straw

I regret to say that I cannot give such an undertaking. Bills are Bills, and they are mere proposals for law until they become Acts of Parliament. I see no way around that. We seek to give effect to both the letter and the spirit of the undertakings that we entered into last October.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

The kind of prosecutions mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) rarely, if ever, take place in Scotland. The Home Secretary talked about his reluctance to accept the decision taken by the other place. He should also be talking about the profound regret and anger in this place, where more than half of hon. Members voted for a measure that unelected people have rejected.

4.15 pm
Mr. Straw

Speaking personally, I share the anger and regret of my hon. Friend and of many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House. My position in favour of an equal age of consent at 16 is long standing and well known. I can provide some reassurance for my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield by saying that recent parliamentary answers from the Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael), said, to my recollection, that the number of prosecutions is about three a year.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

I hope to catch your eye later, Madam Speaker, but I did not want to lose the point made by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). I raised the same matter in an early-day motion this morning, and I have tabled questions on whether the Government, through the Lord Chancellor or the Attorney-General, have any discretion over decisions to prosecute. Such decisions are taken by the Crown Prosecution Service, but the level at which decisions are taken could be subject to direction. Does the Lord Chancellor have any remit to give sentencing guidance in the interim period while a unique position exists? According to answers that I have had from Ministers, there were 14 prosecutions for people involved with people under 16, although the data are not clear on whether that relates only to the relevant sections of the Sexual Offences Acts, or to other sections.

Mr. Straw

I have no discretion over prosecutions, and it would be entirely inappropriate if I did. Prosecutions are in the hands of the independent Crown Prosecution Service. It is accountable to the Attorney-General, but he must exercise his judgment entirely independently, and that is exactly as it should be. It is constitutionally important that, as long as the law is the law, it stands to be enforced, and enforcement is a matter for the prosecuting authorities. There can be no dubiety about that.

Mr. Joe Ashton (Bassetlaw)

I do not want the Attorney-General to receive the wrong message from the House. I accept that there should be no prosecution of boys aged between 16 and 18, but I hope that we do not bring about an amnesty for older men and child abusers who take advantage and think that they will get away with it.

Mr. Straw

I have made it absolutely clear to my hon. Friend and to the House that there is no question of the law, or prosecuting policy, being changed in advance of any change in legislation. There can be no dubiety about that. To do so would be to render risible our procedures for bringing draft laws to be considered at length by the House before they are passed into law. The debate should not drift down what will be an inevitable cul-de-sac.

I have already explained why we cannot risk the Bill in ping pong before the end of the Session and why the Parliament Act does not apply. Even if it did, we could not risk making use of it as it would delay Royal Assent for a further year.

I propose instead—in return for the House accepting the Government's proposition that we reluctantly accept the decision of the other place—that we should detach the issue from the Bill and deal with it in separate legislation in the next Session. Therefore, the Government will honour the second of the formal undertakings given in the Sutherland and Morris case, by producing legislation on the matter in 1998–99. In doing so, there will be, as before, a free vote on the age of consent so far as the Government are concerned.

The Government are neutral on the matter. That arrangement follows a number of precedents, for example that of the Shops Act 1996, when the Government produced the legislation, provided a menu of alternatives and allowed free votes. The new legislation will be introduced first into this House, to ensure that it has the benefit of the Parliament Act should that prove necessary.

Finally, Madam Speaker—this is my last point in case you want to get back on the edge of your Chair—in the debate in the House on 22 June, my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw moved amendments relating to breach of trust and the protection of vulnerable 16 and 17-year-olds. Although his amendment was defeated by 40 votes, we have never discounted the strength of the argument that he deployed in this House or that deployed in the other place.

The equalisation of the age of consent is a simple issue of removing a basic inequality in our law. It is an issue on which there are strong feelings and diverging views, but it is not technical or complex in itself. That was why we were content for it to be inserted at a relatively late stage in the passage of the Bill. I think that it is generally accepted that abuse of trust is not a simple issue in the same way; we discussed that at some length on 22 June. There are complexities in the definition of abuse of trust, in the behaviour, which is dealt with, in the interlocking with non-statutory safeguards that are already in place, such as professional codes, and in the relationship with current criminal law, under which any coercive sexual activity is already against the law and carries criminal sanctions.

As a consequence of those complexities, but also in recognition of the concern felt by hon. Members regardless of their opinion on the age of consent, the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth, announced on 22 June that I had set up a review group to look into abuse of trust. The group's first meeting will be on 30 July and it will report by the end of the year—hopefully, earlier.

The review will concern both young men and young women, and in a non-discriminatory way. We will take account of the group's decision on whether legislation is necessary. I assure hon. Members that there will be no delay. I have asked the working group to deal with abuse of trust as its first priority and to come up with proposals as quickly as possible. Any right hon. or hon. Members on either side of the House who wants to meet my officials to discuss the matter should write to me, and I will ensure that arrangements are made as quickly as possible. Precisely because the matter is complex, it is to the advantage of the House that we proceed by consensus, if possible.

Mr. Dalyell

On a Scottish point, can my right hon. Friend say whether, since a reserved power is concerned, the review group will also cover considerations of Scottish law?

Mr. Straw

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that excellent question, and I wish that I immediately knew the answer. I am being given a variety of advice by my hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench, and I will try to give him definitive advice, hopefully before the end of the debate.

The position of young people in residential settings is to be a particular concern of the review group, as those young people have least recourse to outside help and advice. The review will consider the protection needed by both young men and young women, on the basis that both sexes should be treated equally.

I know that many hon. Members on both sides of the House will be disappointed that we have not been able to secure an equal age of consent in the Crime and Disorder Bill. I share that disappointment, but to insist on the amendment now would serve no useful purpose. It would not win round the other place; it would only delay the implementation of the Bill or risk its not being passed, which would be a grave disservice to our constituents.

To those who are, as I am, impatient to equalise the age of consent, I repeat that, next Session, we shall introduce legislation to ensure a conclusive resolution of the issue on a free vote and remove the unjustified discrimination that has persisted for too long. On that basis, and with great reluctance, I urge hon. Members to support the motion.

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)

I shall be very brief. I agree with the Home Secretary's advice that the House should agree with the decision of the other place. He cut it so fine in coming to the Dispatch Box that I thought that I might have to move the motion in his stead. As I voted and argued against the amendment in the first place, my reasons for agreeing with the other place are rather different from those put forward by the Home Secretary.

There are two main reasons why we should agree with the Lords on the amendment. First, like other hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) and for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), I took the trouble to listen to part of the debate in the other place. No one can complain about the general quality of the arguments. The House was packed and the different arguments were cogently put and listened to with care. By any standard, there was a cross-section of speakers, including two bishops, a former chief rabbi and an ex-Labour member of the former Wolfenden committee.

Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Norman Fowler

I knew that I should not mention the hon. Gentleman. He can rarely resist the temptation to intervene, so I shall allow him to do so.

Mr. Bradshaw

I want to put the record straight. Indeed, bishops were present for the debate, and the Bishop of Bath and Wells made the best speech of the evening. However, having spent my first long period in the Lords since coming to this place and having been inculcated with the idea that the Lords was a centre of wisdom, I can say that I have never in my life heard so much ignorance, bigotry and bile. My opinion of the views that were expressed and the way in which they were expressed is very different from that of the right hon. Gentleman.

Sir Norman Fowler

Strangely enough, I did not expect that the hon. Gentleman and I would agree in our assessment of the House of Lords. I expect that we can conceivably edge towards common ground in agreeing that a cross-section of views was expressed in the other place, that the arguments were listened to with care and that the Lords was absolutely packed from the beginning of the debate to the end.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

Before we leave the subject of the House of Lords, I have a question for my right hon. Friend. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) said that the other place is unrepresentative of the British nation. Has my right hon. Friend noticed the Gallup poll in The Daily Telegraph today, which shows that only 25 per cent. of the population want to lower the age of consent for gay sex to 16 and does he agree that the House of Lords therefore showed last week that it is in touch with the nation?

Sir Norman Fowler

I was not thinking of leaving the subject of the House of Lords, and I should like to return to the important point that my hon. Friend makes.

The debate in the other place was conducted as one would have hoped that a debate in any second Chamber would have been conducted. A cross-section of speakers took part. There was a free vote—not on party lines. As anyone who listened to the debate knows, that point was vigorously made, not by a Conservative peer, but by Lord Stoddart of Swindon. [Laughter.] I know that old Labour is very unfashionable—it must be very sad for old Labour—but I do not remember that, in my time as a Minister, Lord Stoddart was one of my greatest supporters when I laid measures before the House. He said: This is not a party political issue. It is a cross-party political issue. There are people of both parties, and none, who take differing views on the amendment."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 22 July 1998; Vol. 592, c. 964.] It is incorrect to say that the issue was carried by the hereditary peers. Life peers predominated among those who contributed to the debate and those who voted. In the Division Lobbies, a former Labour Prime Minister, Lord Callaghan, voted against the change alongside the former Labour Northern Ireland Secretary and Defence Secretary, Lord Mason, while Tories such as Lord Newton and Lord Tugendhat actually voted in favour.

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Dr. Harris

The right hon. Gentleman suggests that the House of Lords is a broad cross-section, but what does he feel was the average age of those taking part in the debate? I believe that, if he considered that, he would recognise that one need not be young—obviously, hon. Members throughout the House share my view on that, and vote accordingly—to believe in human rights on the basis of sexual orientation, but the House of Lords shows that it certainly helps.

Sir Norman Fowler

I do not know. Lord Callaghan may be over 60, or over 70—I cannot remember his age—but I would say, with some humility, that he has a dear sight more experience than even the hon. Gentleman.

People are starting to debate whether, if we are to have a second Chamber, it should be appointed or elected. There is an interesting conflict on the subject. I heard what the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said. One must expect that, whatever type of second Chamber we have, it will disagree with the House on occasion, for perfectly sensible reasons. Moreover, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) said, at least two opinion polls have shown that the House of Lords more accurately reflects current public opinion on this subject than did the vote in the House of Commons.

Mr. Benn

In my opinion, this is about not the House of Lords but equality. I listened to bishops who believe that it is all right to join the Army and kill people at 17, but not to have sex with someone at 17. I heard Members of the House of Lords say, "Young people are not fit to make the judgment"—but they did not say, "Whatever age you are, you are not fit to elect us, because we are here for life."

This is about democracy; and democracy in Britain is more important than a delay to the Crime and Disorder Bill or even—dare I say it—than the issue that we are discussing, on which I am wholly committed. We should not mock the idea of an elected second Chamber. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said that, if we had two elected Chambers, they might disagree; but, if he thinks about it, he will realise that, if we had held elections to two elected Chambers last May, the public would have elected the same sort of Members to both.

That is the issue that we are discussing—democracy. I hope that the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) does not mock the idea just because The Daily Telegraph commissions an opinion poll which tells us that people agree with the tabloids, when they are whipped up to do so.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. Nevertheless, the debate will be in good order if it remains within the substantive context of the amendments.

Sir Norman Fowler

I was about to make the same point, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I believe that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) has now made his speech, in any event. His major argument seems to be with the hon. Member for Walsall, North, not with me. In no way am I mocking democracy, but I do say that the case for changing the House of Lords has not been proven and that, even in this short debate, the divisions on what might replace the House of Lords have become apparent. I am perhaps not as concerned as the Home Secretary may be when he advances the Government's proposals—if they have any—in this area.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a danger in getting too excited about this issue? Observing that prosecutions are simply not taking place following consideration of the matter by the European Court of Human Rights, will my right hon. Friend explain what possible difference it will make to anyone whether we say yes or no to the proposition?

Sir Norman Fowler

It makes a difference because the law sets out what is legal and what is not. My hon. Friend has put that point to me several times and I understand from where he comes—it is not an entirely unexpected position. However, I think that it makes a very substantial difference whether we make this change. My hon. Friend will no doubt wish to make his point in a moment in his usual inimitable fashion.

I shall deal now with the second reason why I believe that it is right to accept the Lords amendment. When we debated the matter in this Chamber a few weeks ago, I made the point—to which the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) also alluded—that the effect of introducing the amendment at such a late stage was to present to the House a more or less "take it or leave it" proposition. We did not have time to scrutinise properly any amendments that might have protected young people, whether boys or girls. That concern was expressed in the debate, and the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) received wide support. Wide concern was also expressed about the report of Sir William Utting on the abuse of young people—I emphasise again that we are talking about boys and girls.

If the clause had been in the Bill from the start, proper consideration could have been given to the issues. It is a great pity and a great sadness that that was not the case. [Interruption.] I do not know whether the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) wishes to intervene—he did so last time, but it was not a spectacular success and I advise him not to do so again.

The Home Secretary now says that new legislation will allow the House to consider properly any safeguards that are proposed. We shall have the time and the opportunity to do that. To be frank, I should prefer there to be no Bill and I oppose the change. I made my views clear on the last occasion. However, if there is to be legislation, the Home Secretary's proposal seems to be the right and proper way to proceed. We must not insert a clause into the Bill at a late stage because that does not allow many important issues to be considered properly.

I shall vote to accept the Lords amendment and I welcome that part of the outcome that the Home Secretary has advanced. However, I also congratulate the House of Lords on performing its traditional and valuable function of making the House think again.

Ann Keen (Brentford and Isleworth)

I assure my right hon. and hon. Friends and other hon. Members who supported the amendment that the right approach was taken. The House voted to recognise and value all young people in this country, regardless of their sexuality. The House does not wish to criminalise young people in a democracy, and the overwhelming vote on 22 June ensured that that would not occur.

I, too, reluctantly accept what has happened in another place. I have some pleasure in doing so because it means that we shall not be sending the amendment back to the other place where the facts may be distorted yet again and the noble Lords may again use offensive language in presenting their cases. They have done much damage within a short time to many young people and their families in this country. For that reason, if for no other, it is right not to send the matter back and for us to enjoy some aspect of democracy at the end of this Session.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for the way in which he has conducted the matter and for his undoubted assistance and help in, and commitment to, equalising the age of consent. I shall be proud when the Government introduce a Bill in the next Session and, if necessary—I hope that it is not—evoke the Parliament Act 1911, so that the democratically elected Members of this House of Commons can present their case, at the end of which the law will be changed.

Mr. Beith

The Liberal Democrats support the Crime and Disorder Bill. Although its claims have been somewhat exaggerated, we, too, want to see it on the statute book quickly. There was a free vote in both Houses on the issue which is the subject of the amendment. I was one of the large majority of my right hon. and hon. Friends who voted in favour of the amendment. That was not a view at which I arrived lightly, and some of my constituents do not share it, but, on grounds of equality of rights and of the general uselessness and unhelpfulness of applying the criminal law in the area of teenage behaviour, I felt it right to vote as I did.

Despite my disagreement with its conclusion, it is perfectly reasonable that the other place should invite the House of Commons to think again about the matter. However, it is not reasonable that its view should prevail over that of the elected House on an issue of fundamental principle and rights. It is part of the second Chamber's job to invite us to think again. It is doing so in circumstances, not perhaps of its choosing, when we appear unable to insist on our right without imperilling the Bill to which the matter has been attached.

This House would usually be saying to the other place in our response to its view of our amendment that we have thought again about its proposition, but that we are still of the same mind and wish the view of elected Members to prevail. We might have said that we had thought again about the matter and believe that the concerns of the other place might be addressed in various other ways. It is notable that its reason for rejecting the Commons amendment related to the vulnerability of young people. It was apparent in the vote on the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) that that concern was shared to a significant extent in the House—not to a sufficient extent to allow it to be carried but to such an extent that, even among those who did not vote for it, the Government rightly set about some work to determine whether it could be carried into law in a non-discriminatory way and would usefully add to the protections that already exist in the law for vulnerable young people. I certainly take the view that that work is valuable and I hope to see some result from it.

We could have told the other place that we would think about what it had said, but that we still believed that our view should prevail. Other things being equal, that is what I would expect the result of a free vote to be, but we are not in a position to do that without derailing the Bill.

The Government could have introduced another Bill and taken it quickly through the House, but that could lead to the other place arguing that it is not right that it should be expected to agree with a Bill that had been rushed through so rapidly. Another option, which I raised in an intervention and which would have been helpful if those in the other place who are pursuing the matter were prepared to accept it, would be to separate the matter from the Bill by means of an order-making power so that this part of the Bill would come into effect only when both Houses had voted to allow it to do so. The rest of the Bill would have proceeded into effect and the other place would have had that key for the lock and, without its turning it, the measure would not have come into effect. By the time that it had that opportunity, some progress could have been made on the concerns that the amendments with regard to the vulnerability of young people and those in positions of trust are intended to address.

The Government considered those options, but chose another—that of introducing a Bill in the next Session of Parliament, to which, in any case, they are committed by the nature of their undertakings in response to the situation created by the European convention on human rights. They gave undertakings, it was necessary that they should do so, and those undertakings will have to be carried out. I understand why they reached that conclusion and I in no way seek to disrupt the process of effecting that. However, some points have to be made clear.

First, the Bill must be a Government Bill. It would not be reasonable to hand the problem over to a co-operative Member at the beginning of the next Session of Parliament. That would be to expose it to all the risks that are attendant upon private Members' legislation and to deny it the protection that Government legislation has in its timetabling. It would be to invite yet another constitutional crisis whereby the Government have to consider whether to depart from their usual practice and give extra time to a private Member's Bill.

The spirit of what the Government have said seems to show that the Bill to be introduced in the next Session should be a Government Bill and that its ability to proceed should be protected in the usual way of Government business, while the issue remains a free vote issue for Labour Members as for Liberal Democrats.

The measure should not be tacked on to some sexual offences provision. It is about not paedophiles or marauding sexual offenders, but young people being treated differently according to their sexual inclination, despite being the same age as those who face no legal penalty for actions which, however ill-advised or however much their elders might advise them against, are not against the law.

4.45 pm
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify exactly what he is saying? Is he saying that there should be a Government Bill which would relate only to the question of the age of consent and that it should be whipped through the House?

Mr. Beith

It is my suggestion, and I understood this to be what the Home Secretary said, that the Government introduce a Bill at the beginning of the next Session and that, as in the case of the Shops Bill, there should be a free vote on the central issue, in this case of whether the age of consent should be equalised at 16. I see Ministers nodding assent that that is their position.

Once the principle has been decided, as someone who has been a Member of the House for a long time, I would expect the Government to ensure that the legislation was enacted and was not subject to mere delaying tactics over a long period to prevent that from happening, and that, when the matter was again put to the other place, perhaps with some of their concerns having been addressed in the meantime, it will accept that that is the will of this Chamber.

Some secondary issues, which may clarify my reply to the hon. Lady, relate directly to the content of such a Bill. For example, if we merely change the law on the age of consent without doing anything else, it would be technically possible for some to have their names on the sexual offenders register for some years for something that is no longer a criminal offence. That is not acceptable, and it is a detail that could reasonably be remedied in the Bill. Even those who take a different view from me on the issue would not feel it right for someone to be labelled as a sexual offender when what he had done was no longer a criminal offence. Such matters could be dealt with in the Bill.

The Home Secretary referred to the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw and the concerns that they raised. That will clearly need separate legislation because the matter is non-discriminatory in its intended scope. That was the hon. Gentleman's intention. Only the proceedings of the House tied him in framing the amendment. He was clear that his intention was to protect vulnerable young people, male or female, from sexual predation from males or females. I share much of his concern on that point and I hope that we shall make progress on that, but I think that it will require separate legislation to deal with it.

When we have, as we have here, an issue concerning the widening of liberty, after due consideration the will of the Commons should prevail and the Government must provide the opportunity to make that possible. On that basis, I encourage my right hon. and hon. Friends to accept that the Government are taking a reasonable way forward in the matter.

Mr. Ashton

I welcome the Home Secretary's decision to bring the new clause back as a separate Bill so that it has better scrutiny, because there is no doubt whatever that the unusual way in which it was introduced left much to be desired.

We were told as long ago as last November that the Government would introduce the measure as part of the Crime and Disorder Bill. I tabled a question to the Home Office asking whether it would be part of the Bill, and was told that that was not the intention at that stage. I am not saying that the Home Office was not telling the truth; that was its intention at that time. I was asked to appear on television programmes such as Panorama, the presenters of which were absolutely certain that it would be part of the Bill.

At that stage, it was impossible to get hold of a copy of the Bill, which had not even had its First Reading. Indeed, as late as January, it was difficult to get hold of a copy. The question was always whether the provision would be in the Bill or not, and there was no definite answer.

I kept my eyes open to see what was happening with the Bill. I asked people in the Lords, whom I had known for many years in this House, whether the new clause would be tabled in the Lords. It was not. The Lords did not debate the matter and it was never put to them. It was simply tacked on to the back end of the Bill.

Although I have great respect for my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), whom I have known for many years, I am sure that, if other legislation had been put before the House in that way, he would not have found it acceptable. He has often said that war can be declared without the House debating it, and he is right; but effectively that is what happened with the new clause. There was no Second Reading or scrutiny in Committee. I kept an eye on it, wondering what would happen once the Bill came here from the other place. I shall tell the House what happened.

On Friday 12 June, the new clause was tabled, but not a soul knew about it. Although there was speculation that it was to be part of the Bill, it appeared in none of the Saturday or Sunday newspapers but was tabled quietly and discreetly on Friday 12 June, on a day when most hon. Members had gone home. That was done because, as everybody knows, there must be two weekends between tabling a new clause and debating it. The debate was then fixed within the absolute minimum time—a week the following Monday. That was a day when the football was on the television—[HoN. MEMBERS: "What rubbish!"] Nothing happens by coincidence in this place. I have been here for 30 years, in which time I have been a Whip and on the Front Bench. I can tell my hon. Friends who have not been here for quite as long that this place functions like an efficient machine.

It was impossible even to see the new clause until Monday 15 June. When I saw that the subject was to be debated—it was announced at business questions—I rang the Committee Clerk and asked when the new clause would be tabled. He told me that it had already been tabled the previous Friday. I got hold of a copy of it quickly and went to see the Committee Clerk, Mr. Paul Silk—I hope that he does not mind me mentioning his name. Those who say that the amendments are not watertight should be aware that the Committee Clerk drafted them for me and did a magnificent job. However, we could not table the amendments until Tuesday 16 June. Given that the new clause was to be debated the following Monday, that left only Wednesday and Thursday to scrutinise the amendments and get people to sign them.

I am not saying that it was an impossible job. I went to the Susan Hamilton agency, which is on the premises, and had 600 letters explaining the amendments and 600 envelopes typed. Amendments are no longer published every day as they used to be; we have to wait until Thursdays to have them published, so nobody knew that my amendments had been tabled. I sat stuffing letters into envelopes until midnight. A good Christian movement charity called Care asked whether I wanted some help, so Care finished putting the letters in the envelopes—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) laughs, but I am describing the difficulties of a Back Bencher taking on a Government. My hon. Friend may be in the same position one day and he will then see the difficulties for himself.

Mr. Ben Bradshaw

I do not want to malign Care, but my hon. Friend might like to know that a young girl from my constituency wanted to work for me at the beginning of this Session. It had all been set up, but, at the last minute, Care discovered about my sexual orientation and she was prevented from doing so. We know exactly where Care is coming from. The irony is that my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen) has a placement from Care in her office.

Mr. Ashton

It is the oldest trick in the book to denigrate by abuse when one does not have a brief. With all respect to my hon. Friend, that is what the media do and what cheap-jack lawyers do when they have no brief—they denigrate witnesses—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) is an expert on verbal abuse, but let us not get sidetracked.

I am trying to explain to my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter, without being patronising, that when a Back Bencher takes on the Government, he has a job on. The Bill with which my hon. Friend was involved was given time and maximum help by the Government. He was very privileged, because I know of no other Back-Bench issue, whether it is fox hunting or whatever, that has had such a fair wind behind it. That has been his experience; when the situation is reversed and he finds himself taking on the Government without such back-up, he will be glad to accept help from anybody, without examining what he or she has done or not done. I was one Back Bencher taking on the Government.

Let me continue the story. The 600 letters had to be distributed, and I had to get people to sign the amendments. I could have got 100 people to sign them, but I chose very experienced people like my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who sits on the Speaker's Panel, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), who is chairman of the Liaison Committee, and others who have been in the House for a long time. They readily signed the amendments, although I could not get enough signatures because of the shortage of time.

I am trying to illustrate how this Back-Bench provision was railroaded through the House—"railroaded" is the only word for it. Let us look at what happened on the day. We were promised a free vote. We had a free vote on the main clause, but when my amendments were called, the Chief Whip said, "The free vote is off. There is no free vote on your amendment." There was enormous confusion about that. We managed to get the amendment called, although when the Government tabled the new clause, they timetabled it. If Government business is timetabled, it gets three hours and one vote. Thus, the only vote that would have been allowed under the Government's proposal was a vote on the new clause—a Government-backed vote. My amendments could not have been voted on. However, I raised the matter with Madam Speaker and she agreed with the then Leader of the House that my amendments would be called. No end of barriers were put in the way of that so-called free vote.

Mrs. Dunwoody

There was not too much confusion, because Government Whips were standing at the entrance to the Lobby making it clear that it was a Government vote. When I pointed out that it was a free vote, it seemed to come as a considerable surprise.

Mr. Ashton

My hon. Friend is an experienced Member. She came here in 1966 and has seen everything that can happen, so her remarks are of great value.

On the first free vote, which would have been the only free vote had it not been for the Speaker's ruling, there was a majority of 207. Within 15 minutes, that majority had fallen to 40, with at least 50 people abstaining—the Government Whips were telling people not to vote in what was originally a free vote. One Whip even voted against reducing the age of consent to 16 and then had to vote against my amendment because the free vote was taken off.

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak)

Does my hon. Friend know of an hon. Member who voted contrary to how he or she wanted to vote on that night? I heard no complaints that people were railroaded into voting against their will. Should not the Government have given a new clause that had such strong support in the Chamber the best possible avenues to be debated and to become law? Is not one of the outcomes of that the fact that the Home Secretary has given assurances that the points raised in the amendments will be looked at carefully by the Home Secretary's panel?

5 pm

Mr. Ashton

My hon. Friend makes a wide intervention covering three points—something that he would have been better off doing in the debate. I shall try to deal with them. There was not a free vote on my amendment; people were dragooned against their will. I could name them, but I shall not, for fear of embarrassing them. He can check the voting records—people on the payroll vote were told to vote against my amendment, and did. It still lost by only 40 votes, and at least 50 hon. Members were told, "Stay in the Corridor if you don't want to vote." They were whipped against my amendment.

I am not arguing about that, because that is politics and what the game is all about. All that I am doing is revealing to hon. Members what happened and why there should be proper scrutiny of the measure. It should go through Second Reading, Committee, Report and Third Reading like other legislation, and it is totally unfair that a highly controversial issue affecting everyone in the community was not scrutinised.

The House set up a system of Special Standing Committees. I was a member of the Modernisation Committee, which said that it would sometimes be helpful to have a mini-Select Committee or a Special Standing Committee to which people could give evidence at the start of consideration of a Bill. People in positions of trust or supervision could have given evidence to such a Committee, as could Stonewall, but there has not been even a Select Committee investigation into this matter. That is the essence of democracy. People talk about democracy in the House of Lords, but there is another aspect of democracy, which is the public having a say and being able to give evidence. There was no question of any sort of Special Standing Committee.

I accept that there was a slight problem with my amendment—not a legal problem, but a difficulty in that abusers who are caught are not prosecuted, at any age. Public schools do not want the bad publicity of a prosecution, because parents would take their kids away; councils, as with Islington council, carry such stigma after prosecutions that they go to great lengths to avoid them; and insurance companies put great pressure on councils not to have a prosecution, because they would have to pay compensation to the abused youngster. There is clandestine agreement not to prosecute so that the abuser is sacked, but does not go for unfair dismissal because he does not want publicity, and then rings up the network and moves, for example, from Nottinghamshire to Derbyshire next door.

Those questions should be examined, but there was never any move to examine them or any time given for that. The debate lasted three hours in this place and two and a half hours in the other place.

My amendment would also protect young women aged 16 or 17 who are being harassed at work by their boss. At present, they have to go through the paraphernalia of going to a tribunal, but, under my amendment, they could say to their boss, "Hands off, I'm under age." None of this has ever been examined—it is all being bounced through. That is not democracy, any more than the House of Lords is democracy, which is why I support my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Ann Keen

My hon. Friend is confusing the argument, because the age of consent is a totally separate issue—it is about human rights equality. Many of us find offensive the suggestion that those who agree with equalisation of the age of consent have no care for the protection of all young people, especially the vulnerable. Everyone wants that to be discussed, and we want that law to be enforced properly.

Mr. Ashton

I have never said that, and I said in my opening remarks in the previous debate that gays were not child abusers, but the age of consent is a major deterrent to anyone who is thinking of abusing a young person. They know that is against the law and carries severe penalties. [Interruption.] I am being called "crazy"—abuse again.

In 15 minutes, I have raised half a dozen points that were never debated or analysed, or considered by a Committee. They were simply thrown in and bounced through; that is not democracy, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is absolutely right to say that we should start from scratch with a proper Bill and thorough scrutiny.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham)

I am grateful for the opportunity to support the Lords opposition to the Commons amendment and the Government's proposal for a separate Bill, which we will now be able to discuss at much greater length.

The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) brought into sharp focus some of the problems surrounding the change in the age of consent. I support what he said, but would go further, which is why I supported the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) in the brief and heated debate on 22 June. I seek assurances from the Home Secretary that the working group will take on board a point that was brought home to me by the national missing persons helpline, of which I am a trustee. It raised the issue not of youngsters who are abused by people in a position of trust, but of youngsters who have left home and are even more vulnerable.

Such youngsters can sometimes be brought into a life of abuse through the rent boy, or even rent girl, system, where youngsters are almost offered for sale to those who are looking for sex with young people. As the age of consent comes down, the vulnerability of such people increases and the age at which youngsters could be abused also comes down. I accept that there is a law governing that form of abuse, but it is not being used. The staff of the national missing persons helpline regularly have to deal with youngsters who find themselves in such a situation. I am sure that they will take up the Home Secretary's offer to meet him and his officials to discuss the issue, which comes into sharp focus in discussions of any reduction in the age of consent. I hope that the working party will take all that on board.

I am most grateful to the House of Lords for the opportunity to bring this issue to the notice of the House and, I hope, have it dealt with effectively in the new legislation.

Mr. Benn

I shall be brief. There are separate issues here; my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) raised the abuse of anyone of any age by people in positions of trust. That has nothing whatever to do with the age of consent—a mentally handicapped person aged 45 and in care could be abused.

My hon. Friend talked about things being railroaded into the Bill—I shall come to that in a moment—but if ever there was a railroading it is his amendment, which has nothing to do with the age of consent. There are vulnerable people who need to be protected, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, given enough time, will introduce legislation to deal with such protection.

On the question whether we should agree with the Lords, you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, warned us that the debate is about the opposition of the House of Lords to a Commons amendment, but dare I say that the motion states that we do not insist on resisting the Lords opposition? We have to give some attention to the source of that opposition.

There is a history to this matter. The Conservative party likes the House of Lords, because it has always had a Conservative majority. This is not a party matter, but, as Conservative Members know very well, Labour Governments have four years in office and Tory Governments have five, because the Lords can always turn its power of delay into a veto. I have sat in Cabinet many times; as I mentioned in an intervention, I have heard a Labour Leader of the House of Lords say, "I do not think that we should proceed with that—the Lords will delay it and that will wreck our legislation." I have a marked objection to that.

I also have an objection to the authority of the second Chamber. Although I was brought up as a member of the Church of England and should have due respect for the bishops, I know what a bishop has to say to become a bishop. He does not only take an oath of allegiance, like us; he says, "I accept Your Majesty as the sole source of ecclesiastical, spiritual and temporal power." Bishops thus declare that they do not believe in democracy in order to become bishops. That was imposed on them by Henry VIII. When I hear a bishop talking about consent of any kind, I bear in mind the fact that the man got where he is by swearing that he did not believe in what this whole place is about—although, of course, there are good bishops and bad bishops.

The next question concerns accountability. When I was elected as Member for Chesterfield, everyone in Chesterfield knew my view on the age of consent, because I had introduced a Sexual Equality Bill in 1989. People with an interest in the subject have written to me, and I am still writing back to them. The voters elected me, not necessarily because they agreed with my view on sexual equality, but in the knowledge that it was my view. Next time around, they can decide whether they still want me on the same basis. Their lordships, however, are not accountable to anyone—not even the appointed peers. Of course, every hereditary peer is descended from a peer who was appointed, so there is not much difference. A king used to do the appointing; the king has now moved to No. 10 Downing street, but the basis is the same. Hereditary peers are appointed in the same way as life peers.

If I were in an aircraft and the pilot said, "I am not a pilot myself, but my grandfather was a pilot", I would leave the plane at once. If I went to the dentist and he said, "I am not a dentist, but my dad was a dentist in the 1920s—open your mouth", I would not listen to him for five minutes. Now we are told that we must respect their lordships' opinions. I respect the opinions of peers as citizens, but I do not accept that they have a right to frustrate the House of Commons.

I know that the Crime and Disorder Bill is important, but, as I have said, I think that democracy is more important than any single Act passed by a democratic House. I challenge the Lords to throw the Bill out. They have been prattling about law and order ever since I was born. Do hon. Members imagine that they would insist on their amendment and destroy the Bill? Of course they would not; if they did, they would be putting their heads on the block and inviting the abolition of their House.

We should have taken a stronger line, and I am disappointed that we did not. We did the same with the fox-hunting legislation: we ran away from the Countryside Alliance and the House of Lords. We have got into the habit of accepting that that place has merit, has judgment—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I think that the right hon. Gentleman has taken licence enough. Amendments from the other place, whatever the Bill, are debated not on the basis of whence they came, but in terms of the long title of the Bill.

Mr. Benn

You have been generous, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You have given me a certain licence, because I have had some experience. When my blood turned blue some years ago, I was thrown out of this place—which was a funny thing to happen—but I turned it red again, and came back.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw said that the measure had been "bounced". Responding to one of our hon. Friends, he used the phrase "When you have been here as long as I have… ". Dare I say the same to him? Homosexuality has been on the agenda of the House of Commons for years. I do not remember Oscar Wilde, but I believe that he was engaged in an activity that the House of Lords would have regarded as entirely undesirable. I remember the setting up of the Wolfenden committee, and the debates on that committee. I remember the debates on clause 28—and, as I have said, I introduced my own Bill. The idea that those poor peers were taken by surprise, finding out that there was such a thing as homosexuality—when they had all been to public schools where it was rife—is ludicrous.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw feels that the Bill was not properly handled. If I had been Home Secretary—an opportunity denied to me, alas—I would have put the measure in last October. I am sure that the Home Secretary will follow my advice; but do not let anyone tell us that it was a big surprise to the Lords to discover that such practices are engaged in even by 16-year-olds.

When the Question is put, I shall shout "No" on principle. I do not suppose that it will be possible to find another Teller, but I shall at least have the satisfaction of making my voice heard in support of democracy. I very much hope that everything that the Home Secretary said will prove true—I am sure that he is right—and that, in the autumn, this matter will be disposed of once and for all, along with the Chamber that has caused all the trouble.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)

I supported the amendment that we discussed on 22 June. I would have preferred the amendment passed by the House of Commons to stand, but—in sharp contrast to the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn)—I utterly defend the right, indeed the duty, of the House of Lords, while it is the second Chamber, to ask the House of Commons to think again.

This is not the first occasion on which we have discussed that matter of principle in recent weeks. Having accepted that the House of Lords was right to send back to us, twice, the issue of tuition fees for students from England and Wales at Scottish universities, to be consistent I must also accept—and I do accept, as a matter of principle—that the Lords have a right and a duty to send back this amendment, although I happen to disagree with them.

5.15 pm

I appreciate that—as the Home Secretary explained—if the House disagrees with the other place today, the whole Bill may well be lost. However much hon. Members may care to speculate on the way in which the House of Lords may or may not react if the amendment goes back to it, there is no doubt that it is our duty to protect the rest of the Bill. Conservative Members did not vote against the spirit and general intention of the Bill. Along with some of my hon. Friends, I served on the Standing Committee. We discussed the Bill for many hours, and, although some of us disagreed with the details, we did not disagree with the principle. We do not want the Bill to fall.

The right hon. Member for Chesterfield may agree with this point. The Bill, which we debated so carefully in Committee, abolishes for ever the death penalty for all the remaining crimes to which it still applies. If the Bill is lost, that is one provision that will also have fallen by the end of this week. As in other instances, there is good and bad in the legislation, but—strangely—I agree with the Home Secretary: there is more good than bad in it.

Unfortunately, the Government's business managers—I do not know to whom they are accountable—

Mr. Straw

Neither do I.

Mrs. Laing

I have every sympathy with the Home Secretary. It is a great pity that the Government's business managers did not manage this piece of business rather better. We could have had an opportunity to debate the matter fully, in the House of Commons, in the other place, in the House of Commons again and in the other place again, for however long it took to sort out the way in which this Parliament—as a whole Parliament—was going to deal with the matter. We are now at the end of a Session, however, and although I can blame the Government's business managers, we can do nothing about the legislation at the end of July.

I have heard it said that the Home Secretary has discussed the whole issue with some of the amendment's sponsors. No one has discussed it with me, but I accept that the Home Secretary has undertaken to introduce legislation that would have the same effect as the amendment that the House of Commons overwhelmingly agreed to.

Mr. Leigh

My hon. Friend is an interesting barometer, as a Conservative Member who supports the legalisation for gay sex at 16. Is she aware that various supporters of the legislation—homosexual organizations—want to attach to the new Government Bill other provisions, such as the repeal of clause 28, which banned the promotion of homosexuality in schools? Labour Members shake their heads—but if that were so, would my hon. Friend support a new Bill in the next Session? [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I use this opportunity to apologise to the hon. Lady and to tell her that she should not be tempted to stray into territory that is well outside the scope of the amendment.

Mrs. Laing

I note your warning not to stray, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I never do.

I would not vote to repeal clause 28; nor would I align myself with some of the militant gay rights people who protested outside the other place last week. However, I agree with the sensible and reasonable promoters of the amendment who have conducted themselves with great honour and dignity throughout. I welcome the Home Secretary's assurance that the Government will present a measure in the next Session, because that will give the House and the other place an opportunity to debate the issue of duty of care, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton). I supported his amendment of 22 June, and I support the principle that he and the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen) mentioned—that the law should protect young men and young women.

The House has sent a clear signal that it does not approve of discrimination on the ground of sexuality. I have been surprised by the number of complimentary letters and messages that I have received in the past month on this matter.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

They were not from me.

Mrs. Laing

I nevertheless received many messages.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Is my hon. Friend aware of the recent sheaf of opinion polls, not least the one in today's issue of The Daily Telegraph, showing that their lordships are more in tune with public opinion than is the House?

Mrs. Laing

I am aware of that, but I have said many times that I do not believe in opinion polls and do not trust them. I do not know anyone who has ever been questioned by an opinion pollster. At many public meetings, the issue of opinion polls has been raised in the context of their being a measure of the popularity of Labour Members. At those meetings I have asked year after year whether anyone has ever been questioned by a pollster or whether anyone knows someone who has been so questioned. The answer has always been no. I give as much credence to today's opinion polls as I give to any of the others.

Mr. Robathan

I used to take exactly the same line as my hon. Friend and always said that I did not believe in opinion polls. However, on 1 May last year I had to change my mind.

Mrs. Laing

I take my hon. Friend's point, but I still do not believe in opinion polls.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Perhaps we can take the argument a stage further. Would my hon. Friend agree that, even if public opinion opposes the equalisation of the age of consent for homosexual activity, she has a right and a duty to express her opinion as she thinks fit, and to vote accordingly? That is part of the purpose of this place and she need not be embarrassed about it.

Mrs. Laing

I thank my hon. Friend for his wise words. As usual, he is right. As I and other hon. Members have said, it is sometimes the duty of hon. Members to lead, not to follow. If we spent the whole of our parliamentary life simply following opinion polls and bowing to popularity, we would not be doing our duty or fulfilling the purpose for which we have been elected.

Dr. Harris

Rather bizarrely, I find myself in agreement with the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). The hon. Lady should be reassured by the fact that there is just as big a majority in favour of equalisation as there is in favour of reducing the age of consent to 16. Since a measure to increase the age of heterosexual consent to 18 would probably be unworkable, opinion polls pose a dilemma for us all. Thank goodness we have our consciences to follow.

Mrs. Laing

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point about opinion polls—answers to such polls depend very much on the questions. One of the first rules that an apprentice solicitor or barrister is taught is that he must never ask a question to which he does not know the answer. We would delude ourselves if we assumed that opinion pollsters asked questions without intending to achieve a particular answer. The past five minutes of debate have put opinion polls firmly in their place, even those that appear in The Daily Telegraph.

Mr. Robathan

The same goes for focus groups.

Mrs. Laing

I agree with my hon. Friend. I also agree with the Home Secretary and with my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler). Although they approached the question from different angles, they reached the same conclusion. I urge the House not to disagree with the other place.

Dr. Harris

The Home Secretary's opening speech seems some time ago. I was struck by his sincerity, and no one can doubt that he supports the move to reduce the age of consent. We can all see the reluctance with which he advises hon. Members not to insist on the amendment. If he retains that sincerity and can reassure me on some small points and some rather larger ones, the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) will not get a second Teller for a Division.

People feel strongly about this issue and, as on 22 June, I was again today struck by the eloquence of the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen) who, without notes, delivered a strong speech in favour of the stance that we both hold. She advised the House to accept the Government's reluctant advice not to insist on the amendment. The campaigning records on this issue of the hon. Members for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg) and for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) are far longer than mine. However, there are different shades of view between us on the best way forward and they must be recognised.

The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) and I supported the cross-party, Back-Bench amendment. At the enjoyable press launch of that amendment, we spoke passionately about our belief in the equality and respect for human rights that the amendment would introduce. I said that I approached the matter from a human rights perspective. I was attacked at school, although not often, for being a member of a minority because I was the only Jew in the school. I remember with horror the hard time that was given to boys who were thought, usually incorrectly, to be homosexual. I recall with shame that at an early age, I did not distance myself from snide remarks in the playground.

It behoves us all to remember that we are discussing a minority that is still subject to entrenched discrimination of a kind that no other minority has to tolerate. Such prejudice is often based on ignorance or on strongly held although misguided religious views. I regret that I was not invited to join the press launch of the compromise agreement that the Government have urged us to support, especially as I withdrew my early-day motion calling on the Government to press for the retention of the amendment because I accept their argument about the need to retain the Bill.

I felt on 22 July that I was following Stonewall's line. It issued a press release on 22 July calling on the Government to do everything in their power to ensure that the House's view would prevail and that the age of consent amendment would be included in the Bill. I now know that Stonewall has changed its view and supports the Government's current plan. We must respect the views of Stonewall: it has campaigned on this issue far longer than I and other hon. Members have. If it had told me of its change of view, I would have withdrawn my early-day motion sooner.

5.30 pm
Ann Keen

I do not know why the hon. Gentleman says that, because we have been in touch on numerous occasions. That contact has been made.

Dr. Harris

I do not want to start a debate about whether contact was made. I asked Labour co-signatories to the amendment whether there was any news about the negotiations, and I was told that there was no news. I contacted the Home Secretary's office twice last week, and I asked at business questions whether the talk in the press of consultation with the signatories to the amendment included all parties. The hon. Member for Epping Forest also made that point. I was not given that assurance at business questions, but the Home Secretary's office told me that he would do his best during this busy period to contact me and ask me for my opinion on the position. Perhaps because of the speed of events and his other duties, especially yesterday, he was regrettably unable to do that.

I was concerned that on "Breakfast with Frost", the Home Secretary said that he had consulted the signatories: perhaps he meant to say some of the signatories. I am taking this opportunity, with your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to ask the questions that I would have asked the Home Secretary had I been consulted on this compromise.

The key point is that, if we follow the Government's advice, it will appear to the outside world that those of us calling for liberalisation and equality in this area of the law have been defeated. Regardless of the motives of those who voted against equality in the other place, Baroness Young's victory in defeating the equalisation measure will be seen—and has been by people who have contacted me both from the gay community and from among the prejudiced—as a victory for homophobia. That is sad, although I do not attach any blame to the Government.

When we consider where to go from here, we must bear in mind the fact that this defeat for us and victory for homophobia will have several effects. First, it will make it more difficult—but not, I trust, impossible—to implement the full agenda for equalisation of the criminal law, including, for example, the decriminalisation of the victim in age of consent matters. I refer to the abolition of the unique provision of this law that makes a criminal out of the victim of an act that is currently a crime, and of the unique provision that makes illegal all gay sex in private with more than two people present. That will now be more difficult to achieve, and we shall have to make greater cross-party efforts to maintain the momentum.

Secondly, we shall also have to face the fact that, in the next few months, there will be more homophobia in society, be it deliberate and malicious, or instinctive and based on ignorance. My postbag on this issue has never been particularly large, but it has changed markedly and is now more homophobic and nasty—that is the only way in which to describe, some of the letters I receive on this subject. I fear that there will be a backlash fuelled by the public defeat of liberalisers, of which the gay community may be a victim. If the Government accept that analysis, they will be very concerned, as will many hon. Members.

Thirdly, I fear that the Lords will be emboldened when this issue is considered again. That makes delay of the next attempt more likely. Next time, the Government must at least threaten to use the Parliament Acts.

Mr. Robathan

The hon. Gentleman accuses those who dislike the amendment that the Lords rejected of being homophobic. He said that it was a victory for homophobia. Does he accept that many of us who believe that the homosexual age of consent should remain at 18, far from having a fear or dislike of homosexuals, happen to believe that the matter is best left to individuals, and that we should protect people between the ages of 16 and 18 from people for whom they may not be ready? We do not have a fear of homosexuality: we think that we should protect young people.

Dr. Harris

I said that it would be seen as a victory for homophobia regardless of the motives of those who voted against equality. Some people may have voted against equality not because of prejudice—homophobia is a prejudice, not fear. The expert evidence from the British Medical Association and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children shows that there is no physical, medical or social reason for such discrimination: it is discrimination pure and simple. Well-intentioned people may give other reasons for their view, and I would not use such a pejorative term of hon. Members. However, I have received letters saying that homosexuals should burn in hell. It is fair to the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) to make that distinction. The result of the vote in the Lords gives power to, and boosts the morale of, people who hold the nastiest views.

With the benefit of hindsight—and even this all-powerful Government do not have the gift of hindsight—it would have been better not to attempt reform in this Bill, as it was not going to succeed. When the issue is reconsidered, the Government should bear in mind the fact that an atmosphere has now been created.

The nub of the matter is that every effort should be made in future legislation to dissociate this measure for equality from measures relating to child sex abuse and abuse of trust, however important they may be—I believe such measures are important. They are separate issues. I made that point in an amendment to early-day motion 1612, which calls on the Government to ensure that in future legislation the equalisation of the age of consent at 16 is not linked directly with the issues of child abuse and abuse of trust which are not directly related to the ending of discrimination against gay men. It is anathema to people who feel that they are discriminated against to associate actions to bring their treatment in line with our treaty obligations in the European Courts and with decent human rights with action on child sex abuse. Although, sadly, we cannot prevent the association being made in the press, that terrible crime is not associated with homosexuality. It is an abuse of power, and is committed almost entirely by heterosexual men, mainly because they make up a greater proportion of the population.

I have read carefully the letter that the Home Secretary sent to the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth. I note that the Government's compromise is the minimum that the Government had to do to fulfil their legal obligations in the European Courts. I welcome the Government's undertaking to fulfil those legal obligations. I received a copy of this letter from a colleague: I was not sent one myself, which is regrettable. It says: The Government will honour paragraph 2 of the formal undertaking given in the Sutherland and Morris case, by bringing forward legislation on this matter in the next session (1998/9). In doing so, there will be, as before, a free vote on the age of consent so far as the Government is concerned.… The legislation would be introduced first into the Commons in order to ensure the benefit of the Parliament Act if this proves necessary. The only more minimum minimum action—if that is not a contradiction in terms—would be to use private Members' legislation. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), I welcome the fact that the Government do not intend to use such a chancy procedure. I also welcome the fact they will introduce the measure in the Commons first, and allow the Parliament Acts to be used if necessary. That may be required to get it through in that Session, and is, perhaps, above the minimum minimum action to meet the legal obligation.

I am concerned about that paragraph in the Home Secretary's letter. It says that legislation will be introduced, and that there will be a free vote on the age of consent. That implies that other legislation may not be on a free vote, and may include measures on other issues as well as the age of consent. A later paragraph in the letter refers to the discussion on the breach of trust, relating to the amendment proposed in June by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton).

The Home Secretary said that he would set up a review group to look at the issue. He also said: We will take decisions in the light of the conclusions of the review as to whether legislation will be necessary. As I made clear earlier, I am seeking some reassurance—which was apparently given at the press conference last night, but is not contained in this letter—that legislation on the age of consent will not be directly associated with, but will be entirely separate from, any measures to deal with child sex abuse or the recommendations of the Utting report, which clearly need to be implemented. If the Home Secretary cannot reassure me on that point, I fear that, over the summer and into the autumn, it will become easier to associate human rights for gay men with child sex abuse.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, who speaks from the Front Bench on these issues, referred to the need to ensure that people on the sex offenders' register for acts that would no longer be illegal would be removed from that register. The Public Bill Office drafted an amendment with the aim of ensuring that people convicted under the Sex Offenders Act 1997 would not be subject to registration requirements after Royal Assent to a measure that decriminalised their offence. I do not believe that it is difficult for the Government to frame such legislation—it is a consequential amendment to the main measure. It could be introduced without widening the scope of the Bill to include extraneous matters.

I ask the Home Secretary to comment on the undertaking given by the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael), on 22 June, in response to a debate on my new clause 4 about privacy provisions. He said that there would be a review of those measures that appeared to be discriminatory, and I was pleased to hear him say that from the Dispatch Box. He said that there would be a review of discrimination in criminal law, with a view—I hope—to the Government bringing forward legislation if they saw fit to end that discrimination.

In that debate, I mentioned the Labour party's manifesto commitment to end unjustifiable discrimination wherever it existed. I hope that the Home Secretary will confirm that any new Government measure to deal with the age of consent will not prejudice any future Government measure, which I hope will be introduced very soon, to clear out all the discriminatory measures in the Sexual Offences Acts 1956 and 1967. I want an assurance that a Bill to deal with sexual offences will not kick these other issues into the long grass. Without that, there would be a risk of multiple amendments being tabled to that Bill to show the Government how strongly not only the gay community, but many other people—including some Labour Back Benchers—feel about the discriminatory nature of the current privacy provisions of those laws.

I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to what I think was an inadvertent answer to a written question from me, when I asked about convictions under the Act. He replied that

such an act is not regarded as taking place in private if two or more persons are present."—[Official Report, 22 June 1998; Vol. 314, c. 358.] Hansard should be corrected to read, "three or more persons"; otherwise, people might think that the right hon. Gentleman held a much more illiberal view than that which I believe he holds.

I want to reiterate the point made by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield about the problem of continuing prosecutions and convictions for a consenting victimless act between gay men between the ages of 16 and 18, without there being any benefit to the cause of justice. I do not ask for the law to be changed or for the Government to interfere in the decisions made by an independent prosecution service; I merely ask whether the Attorney-General could request that, in the interim, decisions to prosecute could be made at a high, albeit independent, level within the Crown Prosecution Service. I do not expect the Home Secretary to answer me now; indeed, I intend to table a written question on the matter. The decision should not be left to individual junior prosecutors who may, sadly, be fuelled by the current debates on the issue.

5.45 pm

I recognise the Government's reluctance to ask the House not to insist on their amendment. I urge the Home Secretary to respond to the points that I have raised. I hope that, in future, he will try to retain cross-party Back-Bench support for the views that we know that Ministers hold as individuals, and which are held by the vast majority of hon. Members. We need to get legislation on the statute book as soon as possible.

Sir Teddy Taylor

I feel rather inadequate in this debate, so I simply want to ask the Home Secretary three pedestrian and practical questions. I appreciate that many of my hon. Friends believe that far greater issues are involved. I, like you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, have had the pleasure of listening to rabbis, bishops and former Prime Ministers on the radio saying, in effect, that the whole moral fabric of the country is involved. Others argue that freedom and liberty are involved. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), whom we greatly respect, said that a great issue of democracy is involved. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) talked about something called homophobia. I do not know what on earth it is, but I am sure that there is none of it in Southend. However, it is obviously an issue that some hon. Members think is terribly important.

I do not want to deal with those issues, because we are practical people in Southend. We simply want to know what the effect will be of accepting the view of the other place. The number one question in Southend is, if we do not insist on our amendment, will young men between the ages of 16 and 18, who voluntarily engage in homosexual acts, be prosecuted and perhaps fined or sent to prison? It is a simple question. We have heard some fantastic speeches from hon. Members who feel that great issues are involved, but practical people in Southend want to know the answer to that question. Will we continue to prosecute until new legislation passes into law? Will we continue to fine people or to send them to prison if need be?

Most people would assume that that would be the case, but those who are desperately anxious for a change in law do not seem to be too worried about it. They agree with the Government's decision to put off dealing with the matter until the next Session. Why are they not worried? Will the Home Secretary tell us whether we shall continue to prosecute, fine or send to prison those aged between 16 and 18 who are breaking the law? Will we say to them, "Don't do it—you'll be breaking the law and you could be in terrible trouble"?

My second brief question is based on rumour. Some hon. Members have the advantage of receiving faxes from researchers, from Conservative central office or whatever, but other Back Benchers, such as me, simply hear rumours. My constituents ask me about the rumours. They say, "Teddy, is this actually happening now?" The rumour is that people are not being prosecuted. That may be absolute nonsense and the Home Secretary may be glad to tell me so. However, I have been told that people are not being prosecuted for voluntarily engaging in homosexual acts. If people abuse or attack others, they can still be prosecuted—but they are not being prosecuted for voluntary acts. I said to my constituents, "I'll find out the answer and come back to Southend tonight and tell you."

The Home Secretary has three competent junior Ministers with him who will be able to give him advice. He also has excellent civil servants. My constituents in Southend want to know how many people, over the last six months—no, let us say 12 months, which is quite a long period—have been prosecuted for voluntarily engaging in homosexual acts.

The third question that my constituents have asked me—I hope that the Home Secretary realises that it is terribly important, as he is responsible for the Bill's passage—is what such a provision has to do with the European thing. I asked the Library what it has to do with Europe, and was told, "Teddy, it's nothing to do with the Common Market—nothing at all."

Apparently—I am sure that cleverer hon. Members, especially the Liberal Democrats, will already be aware of it—there are two European Courts. First, we have a thing called the European Court of Justice, which is what is called "the Common Market court". Secondly, we have something called the European Court of Human Rights, which apparently has something to do with the European convention. In the past, if the European Court of Human Rights said something, the British Government could tell it to go and jump. However—as we have a very responsible Government—we normally do not do that. Although we took the view that something to do with security in Northern Ireland was none of the court's business, and told it to go and jump, usually we did not want to do that.

Things have changed. As you will know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, our Home Secretary and other Ministers have very kindly put the European convention on human rights into British law. I do not know whether that is a good thing or a bad thing, as I do not follow such matters, although I should like to know—it is terribly important—whether including it in our law means that we can still disregard the views of the European Court or disregard what is in the convention.

My constituents have basically said to me, "This provision is utterly irrelevant. The MPs are wasting their time". But I suppose that it is not the first time that they have done so. I am sure that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, have seen hon. Members jumping up and down, shouting about what we can do for the fishing industry, whereas there is absolutely nothing that we can do for it. Hon. Members jump up and down and talk about banning exports of live cattle, whereas we can do nothing about that. I tell my constituents that hon. Members jump up and down and talk about agriculture because there is not much left for us to do, and it is far better to talk about issues that we think require some attention.

The famous Sutherland case was heard, but not completed, in the European Court of Human Rights. I should like to know whether the Home Secretary thinks that Parliament should have the ability, if it so wishes, to establish differing ages of consent. My understanding is that, since we incorporated the European convention into British law, we simply do not have the power to do so, even if we wanted it.

I appreciate that hon. Members feel strongly about the issue. I appreciate that bishops feel strongly, both ways, about it. I appreciate that rabbis feel strongly about it. I heard one rabbi on the radio, and he was getting very agitated indeed about it. I appreciate also that former Prime Ministers get very excited about it. However, I would really like to know whether what we do will make the slightest bit of difference. I think that, as we have incorporated the convention into British law, there is nothing that we can do about it.

As someone who has been an hon. Member for years and years—hon. Members are probably fed up of hearing me—I think that it is sad and depressing that hon. Members are getting agitated, marching in the street and claiming that they want to do something about an issue, whereas their power has gone and our democracy has essentially been dying.

I therefore hope that the Home Secretary will give me straight and specific answers to three questions: first, will people still be prosecuted; secondly, how many prosecutions have there been in the past year; and, thirdly, do we have the power to establish separate ages of consent for men and women, bearing in mind the fact that the European convention on human rights is now part of British law? If he will answer those questions, I think that my constituents will be reassured. Regardless of whether our freedom and liberty and the nation's moral fibre will be undermined, and regardless of whether homophobia breaks out in constituencies—Liberal Democrat or not—across the country, factual answers to those questions would help greatly.

Mr. Straw

With the leave of the House, I should like to respond to some of the points that have been raised in this cameo debate, as it has become. I should tell my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) that I have rarely been as entertained by a speech as I was by his.

I should reply first to an important point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), who asked whether the review group that I have established to examine the issue of breach of trust—which was raised first by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton)—will also be concerned with Scots law.

The answer to my hon. Friend's question is that the Scottish Office will be represented on the group and will take account of its conclusions, as the matter deals with an area of law that will be devolved when the Scottish Parliament comes into being. Meanwhile, it is theoretically open to the Westminster Parliament to legislate on matters relating to Scots criminal law. However, we would do so only on essential issues, and when it is clear that such changes would have the full consent of the Scottish people. We shall consult with our Scottish colleagues in the light of the review. I hope that that satisfactorily reassures my hon. Friend.

Mr. Dalyell

Thank you very much.

Mr. Straw

That is the first time than an hon. Member has intervened in a speech only to thank me and nothing else.

In his very entertaining speech, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield asked a question that I should perhaps deal with briefly by telling him of a wholly unexpected duty that I assumed when I became Home Secretary—administering the Oath of Homage that full bishops have to make to Her Majesty before taking their see. Although the oath surprised me, it is not an affront to democracy; it is rather a natural consequence of the Anglican Church being the Church by law established. I am not proposing that the Government should introduce a Bill on that matter to be decided on a free vote.

I tell my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield that the oath is not quite as harsh as he described—it is a little more mellow—although it certainly ensures that there is no ambiguity about new bishops of the Church of England recognising Her Majesty and no one else as the head of the Church. I have had some research done on the oath that I am now required to administer to new bishops, and my right hon. Friend may be interested to know that it was drafted—to my surprise—not by Henry VIII, but by Elizabeth I, in the first year of her reign, in 1558.

My right hon. Friend said that democracy is more important than the Bill. I think that it would be a defeat for democracy if we were to lose the Crime and Disorder Bill. At the general election, every Labour Member stood on a manifesto stating that, if we were elected, this Bill implementing 12 manifesto commitments would be implemented as soon as possible. I tell the House, with respect, that the problem about following any advice other than that which I have offered—a reluctant but temporary acceptance of the Lords decision—is that we would not only delay achievement of Royal Assent, but could entirely put at risk the Bill, which would have obvious consequences.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) asked me two questions, the first of which was whether legislation on the age of consent would be separate from any legislation on breach of trust. The answer—which was implicit in the ante-penultimate paragraph, on page 3, of my letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen)—to that question is that it remains to be seen. We shall await the outcome of the review to determine whether legislation is required and is the most appropriate vehicle for that legislation. This Bill, a separate criminal justice measure or a separate stand-alone Bill could provide that vehicle. We cannot anticipate the most appropriate vehicle, but will have to wait to see the review's results.

Dr. Harris

I realise that the Home Secretary cannot or will not give an undertaking, and I appreciate the reasons for that. However, does he accept the point that I made—that it will create difficulties for some of us if an amendment to equalise the age of consent and provide equal human rights is directly associated in legislation with issues such as child sex abuse or breach of trust?

Mr. Straw

Many Bills deal with diverse subjects.

Sir Norman Fowler

Like this one.

Mr. Straw

Indeed. The public do not necessarily associate one part of a Bill with another, except in the sense that the whole Bill deals with Home Office criminal law matters. As I have made clear today and in my letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth, the review and the legislation will concern both young men and young women and in a non-discriminatory way. That is an important assurance.

I understand the point about the sex offenders register. We need to have discussed and resolved that issue before any Bill is brought forward, but it is more complicated than the hon. Gentleman suggests, partly because of the way in which criminal convictions are recorded. I accept the principle of his point, but further consideration is necessary.

6 pm

The hon. Member for Southend, West—or is it Southend, East? I have great affection for both.

Mr. Robathan

Good Tory seats.

Mr. Straw

It does not matter. The Kursaal is the same, whether it is Tory or Labour. I spent many happy days in Southend, usually trying unsuccessfully to impress girl friends.

The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) asked three questions. First, he wanted to know whether, if we accept my recommendation to comply for the time being with what the Lords have decided, 16 to 18-year-olds may continue to be prosecuted. The answer is yes, they may, because that is the law of the land. As long as the law of the land stands, people are open to be prosecuted. Secondly, he wanted to know whether it was our policy for people not to be prosecuted. The answer is no. Prosecution policy is a matter for the Crown Prosecution Service and the Director of Public Prosecutions, who are, rightly, statutorily independent of Ministers. They are supervised by my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General. In that capacity, Law Officers are also independent of Ministers. That is entirely right.

The hon. Gentleman asked how many people had been prosecuted and convicted in the past year. From the memory of the Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael)—I hope that he has got this right and it is as well that the reshuffle has come and gone, if he has not—there were six prosecutions in the past year, of which four led to convictions. That is not particularly surprising given that we are talking about acts of consensual sex. The police cannot prosecute unless someone retrospectively believes that they have been victimised and goes to the police.

The hon. Gentleman's third question was about the difference between European treaties—such as those of Rome, Maastricht and Amsterdam—and the European convention on human rights. I think that the hon. Gentleman knows, but perhaps not so many people in Southend know, that there is a difference. The European convention on human rights was drafted principally by two common lawyers, one of whom was David Maxwell Fyfe, a distinguished Conservative lawyer who later became Lord Chancellor for about eight years. The purpose of the European convention was to write into European law the human rights that we have taken for granted in this country. After several years, we are one of the few countries not to have incorporated it. The relevant Bill is still awaiting Royal Assent and will probably not receive it until October this year. Had it become law, we might have avoided some of the problems that have arisen with the European Court of Human Rights.

Mr. Bercow

The Home Secretary has just helpfully told us, from the recollection of the Minister of State, the number of people who have been prosecuted for consensual homosexual activity. May I stretch him a little further and ask how many people were arrested for engaging in consensual homosexual relations, but released without charge?

Mr. Straw

I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman that off hand, but I shall be happy to write to him. If he wants to table a question, I think that there is still time for it to be answered before we rise for the recess.

Dr. Harris

There are still two questions that the Home Secretary has not answered. Perhaps he will just note that he has not answered them and promise to write to me. First, at what level will decisions to prosecute in the interim be made in the Crown Prosecution Service? I accept that that is not his departmental responsibility, but I should be interested to know what he thinks. Secondly, how does the matter relate to the review and possible legislation on other discriminatory matters on sexual offences? The existence of such issues and the possible need of remedy were acknowledged by the Minister of State on 22 June.

Mr. Straw

I have laboured the point about the independence of the prosecutors. I cannot intervene on that. The law is there. The duty of prosecutors is to make their decisions in the light of the evidence presented to them and the code of the Crown Prosecution Service. On the second point, the review will deal with the issue of breach of trust first raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw. There are always arguments about whether the law should be changed in other respects. There may be a wider review of sexual offences.

Mrs. Lait

I hope that the Home Secretary will confirm that his officials will be willing to talk to people from the national missing persons helpline on the issue that I raised.

Mr. Straw

I shall be happy to arrange that. If any hon. Member from either side wants to make representations, I shall be pleased to receive them and to make arrangements for groups of Members to talk to officials involved in the review group, if that would be convenient.

The defeat by the Lords has placed the House in great difficulty. It caused great anger and concern and great upset to my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth and other hon. Friends, as well as the hon. Members for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), for Witney (Mr. Woodward) and for Oxford, West and Abingdon, who so courageously and vocally supported her. Speaking personally, not for the Government, I should like to place on record my great admiration for my hon. Friend and her colleagues. I am very grateful to them for their response to my representations over the weekend. My recommendation is the best way forward, preserving the Bill and ensuring that it receives Royal Assent by the end of the week. The Government are committed to introducing legislation in the next Session to ensure that the House is able to take a conclusive view on the age of consent.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House doth not insist upon its amendment.

Subsequent Commons amendments not insisted upon.

Forward to