HC Deb 22 June 1998 vol 314 cc754-811

`.—(1) In subsections (1A) and (1C) of section 12 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956 (buggery), for the word "eighteen" there shall be substituted the word "sixteen".

(2) In subsections (1) and (6) of section 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 (amendment of law relating to homosexual acts in private), for the word "eighteen" there shall be substituted the word "sixteen".

(3) In section 13 of the Criminal Law (Consolidation) (Scotland) Act 1995 (homosexual offences)—

  1. (a) in subsections (1) and (5)(c), for the word "eighteen"; and
  2. (b) in subsection (8), for the word "18", there shall be substituted the word "sixteen".

(4) In paragraphs (1) and (5) of Article 3 of the Homosexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 1982 (homosexual acts in private), for the word "18" there shall be substituted the word "17" .' .—[Ann Keen.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

7 pm

Ann Keen (Brentford and Isleworth)

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: Amendment (a) to the proposed clause, in line 2, after 'sixteen', insert `(except when one party is in a position of authority, influence or trust in relation to the other, in which case both parties must have attained the age of eighteen).'.

Amendment (h) to the proposed clause, in line 2, after `sixteen' insert `(except when one party is over the age of twenty-one years, in which case the other party must have attained the age of eighteen).'. Amendment (b) to the proposed clause, in line 3, leave out 'and (6)'.

Amendment (c) to the proposed clause, in line 4, leave out 'word "eighteen"' and insert 'words "eighteen years'.

Amendment (d) to the proposed clause, in line 5, leave out 'word "sixteen"' and insert `words "sixteen years (except when one party is in a position of authority, influence or trust in relation to the other, in which case both parties must have attained the age of eighteen years)".'.

Amendment (i) to the proposed clause, in line 5, leave out 'word "sixteen"' and insert `words "sixteen years (except when one party is over the age of twenty-one years, in which case the other party must have attained the age of eighteen years)".'.

Amendment (e) to the proposed clause, in line 5, at end insert— '(2A) In subsection (6) of that section, for the word "eighteen" there shall be substituted "sixteen, or as the case may be, eighteen".'.

Amendment (f) to the proposed clause, in line 10, at end insert— `(3A) In that section, after subsection (8) there shall be inserted— (8A) Where one of the parties to a homosexual act is in a position of authority, influence or trust in relation to the other, subsections (1), (5) and (8) shall have effect as if "eighteen" were substituted for "sixteen".'.

Amendment (j) to the proposed clause, in line 10, at end insert— '(3A) In that section, after subsection (8) there shall be inserted— (8A) Where one of the parties to a homosexual act is over the age of twenty-one, subsections (1), (5) and (8) shall have effect as if 'eighteen' were substituted for 'sixteen'.":. Amendment (g) to the proposed clause, in line 13, at end insert—

'(4A) In that Article, after paragraph (5) there shall be inserted— (5A) Where one of the parties to a homosexual act is in a position of authority, influence or trust in relation to the other, paragraphs (1) and (5) shall have effect as if '18' were substituted for '17'.".'.

Amendment (k) to the proposed clause, in line 13, at end insert— '(4A) In that Article, after paragraph (5) there shall be inserted— (5A) Where one of the parties to a homosexual act is over the age of 21, paragraphs (1) and (5) shall have effect as if '18' were substituted for '17'.".'.

New clause 4—Circumstances in which certain sexual acts are lawful`.—(1) In subsections (1B) of section 12 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956 (buggery), the words "(a) when more than two persons take part or are present; or (b)" shall cease to have effect. (2) In subsection (1) of section 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 (amendment of law relating to homosexual acts in private), the words "(a) when more than two persons take part or are present; or (b)" shall cease to have effect. (3) In subsection (2) of section 13 of the Criminal Law (Consolidation) (Scotland) Act 1995 (homosexual offences), the words "(a) when more than two persons take part or are present; or (b)" shall cease to have effect. (4) In paragraph (2) of Article 3 of the Homosexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 1982 (homosexual acts in private), the words "(a) when more than two persons take part or are present; or (b)" shall cease to have effect.'.

New clause 8—Abuse of position of trust

`(1) It shall be an offence for a person to whom this section applies to have unlawful sexual intercourse with a girl under the age of 18 years. (2) This section applies to a person in a position of authority, influence or trust in relation to the girl with whom he has sexual intercourse. (3) A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for not more than two years.'.

Government amendment No. 1.

Amendment No. 6, in clause 119, page 95, line 14, at end insert— `( ) section (circumstances in which certain sexual acts are lawful)(3);'.

Amendment No. 61, in page 95, line 21, at end insert— `( ) section (Abuse of position of trust)' .

Government amendments Nos. 2 and 3.

Amendment No. 7, in page 95, line 31, after `Sections', insert `(circumstances in which certain sexual acts are lawful)(4),'.

Amendment No. 62, in page 95, line 31, after `Sections', insert

`(Abuse of position of trust)'.

Government amendment No. 4.

Amendment No. 8, in schedule 8, page 157, line 21, at end insert— `113. In section 1 of the Sex Offenders Act 1997, there shall be inserted the following subsection— (4A) Notwithstanding the provisions of this section, a person subject to the notification requirements of this Part by reason of an offence which ceases to be an offence after the commencement of sections (Reduction in age at which certain sexual acts are lawful) and (circumstances in which certain acts are lawful) of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 shall no longer be subject to those notification requirements after the commencement of those sections.".'.

Government amendment No. 5.

Amendment No. 9, in title, line 5, after `trial:' insert `to bring the criminal law affecting homosexual acts more in line with the criminal law affecting heterosexual acts;'.

Ann Keen

This debate is about equality. The purpose of new clause 1 is to make the age of consent equal for everyone. It is an all-party clause, which will be decided, as I believe it should be, on a free vote.

It is fundamental in any democracy that the rights and responsibilities of all citizens are protected equally under the law. The question is whether that principle of equality should extend to gay men. We are one of the last nations in the European Union yet to legislate for equality on the age of consent. Just over a week ago, the Finnish Parliament passed a similar law, on a unanimous vote, without one speaker opposing it. A spokesperson for the Parliament said: The politicians were more interested in other serious issues affecting the Crime Bill.

Many of us taking part in this debate and the campaign as a whole regard the case for equality as so obvious that a full debate is needless, but I know that there is some opposition in the House. Not only do we have a tradition of full debate in the House, but I believe that it is important to have the arguments for new clause 1 recorded.

The debate is definitely not about whether 16 or 18 is the right or wrong age for sexual activity to commence; it is about the abolition of discrimination, upholding the rights of individuals and supporting a community in which responsible people seek to behave within the law, a community that feels the right to challenge archaic laws. Our legal structure discriminates against a part of our society. It has asked the House to reconsider an aspect of the law that perpetuates that inequality. I am confident that by objectively considering the facts before us on its behalf, we can uphold its request and amend our position to reflect today's values.

When the age of consent was last debated in 1994, I listened from the Strangers Gallery. I heard the impressive contributions of the main proposers of the amendment: Edwina Currie, Neil Kinnock and the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan). I heard the dire protections of the opponents of equality and I heard our Prime Minister make his memorable speech. I heard the dire predictions of the opponents of equality, that any change in the law would lead to innocent young men being recruited into homosexuality. Of course, that has not happened—the sky has not fallen in—but in 1994 there was a fudge. The age of consent for gay men was reduced from 21 to 18, and the inequality remained. I believe that the law should be clear, certain and enforceable.

The uneasy compromise of 1994 has already been challenged in the European Court of Human Rights. In the case brought by Euan Sutherland and Chris Morris, who were 16 and still criminalised by our law, the European Commission of Human Rights condemned our unequal age of consent. Such an inequality is a violation of article 8 of the convention—the right to privacy—and of article 14, which provides that the rights set out in the convention are to be enjoyed by all citizens without discrimination.

The court did not accept that disapproval of homosexuality can ever in itself constitute an objective or reasonable justification for inequality of treatment under the criminal law". In our country, with many different religions and cultural traditions, there will, of course, be those who regard lesbians and gay men as abnormal. I recognise that those views are sincerely held, but, as the European Court has said, they cannot be the basis of our criminal law. As the Wolfenden report said so long ago: There must be a realm of private morality that is in brief and crude terms not the law's business. It cannot be the role of the state to work out people's sexuality for them. It is for individuals to work it out for themselves. The purpose of the criminal law in this area should not be to put police into bedrooms or to coerce gay men to be heterosexual. The purpose of the law is to protect the vulnerable and punish those who exploit them.

My hon. Friends will agree that adolescence is not an easy time in life. For young gay people, it is often an especially difficult period. The higher age of consent for young gay men adds to their worries. The threat of criminal prosecution serves only to add to their sense of isolation and loneliness. How dare we rob young men of their teenage years, denying them years that they should use to prepare for adulthood?

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)

As I understand it, my hon. Friend's new clause is to allow sexual intercourse to be legal for a person aged 16. It is not in any sense preventing people from being homosexual, heterosexual or whatever. It is purely to allow a 16-year-old to have sexual intercourse legally, not to deny anyone's sexuality.

Ann Keen

My hon. Friend's point is incorrect. The purpose of the new clause is to make everyone equal under the law.

New clause 1 is not only for gay people but for their parents. The current law provides no support to the parents of young people trying to come out to their parents. The law brands their children as not only different but criminal in its eyes. I have received many letters from gay men that talk about their experiences of growing up in society literally as criminals. These young men were terrified of revealing their developing sexuality, and faced abuse and bullying.

One such young man was 16-year-old Albert Kennedy, who, in 1989, fell to his death from a top of a car park in Manchester while trying to escape a car load of what are described as "queer bashers." Albert was a depressed teenager. His short, tragic life had been filled with rejection. The threat of being branded a criminal could not have helped ease his mind, and it fuelled the prejudice of those who sought to persecute him. The Albert Kennedy Trust, a registered charity, was set up in 1989 in his memory, with the aim of ensuring that no lesbian or gay teenager need feel alone or unwanted, and that there is help to provide a positive home environment. Those who run the trust are adamant that equalising the age of consent and removing the threat of criminal prosecution is essential if we are to prevent future tragedies such as Albert Kennedy.

The London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard is another organisation which helps young gay people. It has been in operation for more than 25 years, and has gained much respect and recognition. I visited its premises recently and discussed many issues with the voluntary staff. They told me about the silent calls made to the organisation by those who are too afraid to speak. Even if they speak to the voluntary staff across the Switchboard lines, they feel that they are breaking the law. Some of these young people try to pretend that they are older than they are. Some Members should visit the Switchboard. It is an excellent organisation. Having visited it, some Members may have a better understanding of the situation.

I also have the support of the Hounslow youth counselling service, and I met some of its members on Friday. It is an organisation in my constituency which offers counselling and support to young people.

Members opposing the new clause have every right to express their own views but I ask them to listen to those organisations that work with and for young people on a daily basis. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, along with other organisations and expert charities linked with the protection of young people, including Barnardos, has also expressed its support for the new clause, stating: continuing discrimination stigmatises young people growing up gay and hinders them from developing a positive identity. Young people should and must be helped, not prevented from coming to terms with their sexuality.

As it stands, the law does not protect young gay men against exploitation. It creates fear and secrecy, not openness and support. Young men are fearful of being open with their parents or those adults to whom they would normally look for information, help and support. Prejudice protects abuse; it does not prevent it. I do not want our children to grow up to live in a world that has laws that discriminate and offend the right for everyone to be himself or herself. Fearful of being branded criminals, many young gay men are unable to seek health advice and sex education.

In the past 10 years, we have learnt much about reducing sexual health risks. We know that personal health depends on good self-esteem, accurate health information, access to advice and support. All those essentials are undermined by our unequal age of consent. We compromise reputable agencies that cannot give practical support and advice, because to do so would condone sexual relations between young men that the law brands as criminals.

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West)

The hon. Lady mentions an unequal age of consent. She says also that the purpose of the new clause is to equalise the age of consent. That being so, why does she include the offence of buggery in subsection (1)? The age of consent for buggery is already equal at 18. The effect of her new clause would be to permit buggery of 16-year-old girls as well as boys. Will the hon. Lady explain why she seeks to do that?

Ann Keen

I have already explained that I do not think that it is for the law to police people's bedrooms. We need to bring about a more open society where people can discuss their sexuality but with consent.

As I was saying, in the past 10 years, we have learnt so much. All professional medical and nursing opinion has stressed the importance of changing the law. The British Medical Association has said: Of prime concern to the medical profession as a whole are the concerns that the present law may inhibit efforts to improve the sexual health of young homosexual men". Nursing organisations have agreed with that sentiment, and say: An equal age of consent would also enable the mental and emotional health needs of young homosexual men to be better met.

Before entering Parliament, I was a district nurse. I worked with families and people who were affected by HIV and AIDS, and I was adviser to the centre of sexual health and HIV studies at Thames Valley university. With years of first-hand experience in the nursing and medical professions, I have been able to consider very carefully matters relating to health risks and the age of consent. I am convinced that the law as it stands is a serious threat to the health of young gay men.

We should send one clear message to all young people. We need to say that we value the health of all our young people equally, and we will treat everyone equally. I pay tribute to organisations such as the Terrence Higgins trust, the National AIDS Trust, Body Positive, London Lighthouse and many other groups that have done, and continue to do, so much work in the gay community to promote safer sex. I agree with the sentiments that are set out in the Green Paper entitled "Our Healthier Nation": good health is no longer about blame, but about opportunity and responsibility … tackling inequalities generally is the best means of tackling health inequalities in particular".

7.15 pm

The law should give equal protection to all. It has been suggested that boys are more immature than girls, although there is some variance in the age of maturity. The important thing is that medical opinion is clear that young men of 16 are not particularly confused about their sexuality, or less mature. The law as it stands permits a young man of 16 or 17 to sleep with his girl friend, even to marry her. Yet if he is gay he cannot enter into any consensual sexual relationship with somebody of his own age. That is a ridiculous double standard.

Of course unwelcome sexual attentions of a serious nature warranting criminal prosecution are equally offensive whether the victim is a man or a woman, gay or not. No means no, and the same law should therefore apply to all.

The BMA report to which I have referred makes it clear that all the reputable research evidence shows that adult sexual orientation is usually established before the age of puberty in boys and girls. Other research tells us what common sense suggests, which is that the young gay man seeks relationships with people of his own age. One year is the average difference in age for gay partners when they have their first sexual experience. The myth of the vulnerable, confused young man was rejected by the Wolfenden report more than 40 years ago. It stated: Our medical witnesses were unanimously of a view that the main sexual pattern is laid down in the early years of life and the majority of them held that it is usually fixed by the age of sixteen. The myth has been seen as such by professional medical and child care experts ever since. I hope that together we can finally lay that myth to rest.

The principle of equality has already been accepted in many European and Commonwealth countries. Only a month ago, the South African supreme court swept away its discriminatory anti-gay sex laws, following the principles of the new South African constitution, which guarantees the rights of all minorities including lesbians and gay men. The example of South Africa is a powerful one precisely because it is a country which has had to learn to reconcile immense differences. It has had to find a way of including all its citizens in a new nation where the rights of all minorities are protected.

The point that I make about the experience of other countries is not that we should slavishly follow them, but that in no case and in no society have negative predictions about the age of consent come to pass. We have to find our own path for our own country. The question before us is whether to treat citizens as second-class and less valued because their sexuality is different. We have to make that choice together tonight.

The right to vote and the right to speak openly and freely are privileges that we take for granted. Let me remind the House how those rights were gained: at one time or another, Members of the British Parliament have taken brave strides to uphold the rights of individuals, and have convinced Parliament as a whole to introduce legislative change. This debate relates to the age of consent for a specific section of our community—the gay population.

Controversial? Yes—but no more so than was the Representation of the People Act in 1918, the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975, or the Race Relations Act in 1976. This is yet another campaign for equality, and I am privileged to speak on behalf of so many people. These have been busy and interesting times, and I have met some wonderful people. To have been in both Gay Times and Good Housekeeping in one week was indeed an experience, although my family believes I have no right to be in either.

Many politicians who have served in the House have done much to advance the cause, including the former Member, Leo Abse, who is a constituent of mine and with whom I had the pleasure of speaking at the weekend; Humphrey Berkeley, who also lived in Brentford and Isleworth and who sacrificed his political career for this cause and continued to work for equality until his recent death; and many other right hon. and hon. Members who advanced the cause of equality. Of those outside the House, I pay tribute to Sir Ian McKellen, Michael Cashman, Antony Grey, the former director of the Homosexual Law Reform Society, Angela Mason and all at Stonewall and other organisations.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ann Keen


I pay special tribute to all those individuals who have stood, with pride, to be themselves.

Mr. Gale

Hon. Members are not supposed to read speeches in the Chamber.

Hon. Members


Ann Keen

I sincerely hope that the debate will concentrate on equality and justice for families, friends and constituents. Many of us who represent diverse metropolitan communities, none more obvious than our capital city of London, are well used to welcoming and celebrating the cosmopolitan life style that that diversity brings. However, many hon. Members represent rural areas, smaller towns and communities that are less obviously diverse, and, in such areas, Members of Parliament are less likely to be contacted by gay men. That is because of the feeling of isolation experienced by those regarded as different by their neighbours. It is even more important that they, the silent minority, are represented, because the need for equality is the same.

Mr. Gale

On that point, will the hon. Lady give way?

Ann Keen


We have the opportunity to move forward and to make a change. People rightly feel discriminated against. They feel a strong desire to live within the law and, confident that their case is justified, they believe that their voice will be heard. Tonight, the House can take a decision demonstrating that the voice of the communities we all serve will be listened to. By agreeing to the new clause, we shall signal once again that we have a House of Commons that will deliver equality and justice. We must take a positive step forward in creating a culture in which all law-abiding citizens are given the opportunity to live their lives openly and freely, confident that they will not be discriminated against.

Mr. Gale

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It has been the custom and practice of the House over many years, first, to engage in debate and, secondly, not to read speeches. If we are to be able to debate this subject in a civilised manner, it really is time that hon. Members stopped reading their speeches and started to allow other hon. Members to participate in the debate.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman has been a Member of Parliament for quite a long time and he knows—[Interruption.] Order. It is entirely a matter for the hon. Member who is speaking to decide whether to give way to interventions.

Ann Keen

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I know that many hon. Members wish to speak, and I have given way to hon. Members on both sides equally—that is equality.

Families—mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters—who love and respect their gay family member are pained and angered when prejudice and criminal law discriminate against their loved one. It is about time that families were all equal. Those principles represent the foundation stones of the new clause, and they are the principles which we must endorse.

The House has the opportunity to end discrimination, and we have to make a choice. We can take from the past those values of respect for others that are most enduring and translate them into the modern world, or we can simply cling to those old prejudices that have been most damaging and have forced generations of lesbians and gay men to live as second-class citizens. We have an opportunity to welcome all those men and women as equal members of our society, and, this time, we must take it.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

The hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen) speaks with conviction and sincerity, and we have listened to her with respect, but I would ask her and those who share her point of view to consider for a moment that there is another point of view, and that it is important that it should be expressed in this debate.

I speak, quite unashamedly, for the traditional, orthodox Christian point of view, which holds that homosexuality and lesbian practices are not another and an equivalent normality; and which holds that they are practices that not only are different from heterosexual behaviour, but should not be ranked as equal or equivalent to it. Having said that, I have no wish and never have had any wish to persecute or prosecute any man or woman for his or her personal behaviour. However, the House has to concern itself with many matters. The hon. Lady spoke eloquently about equality and she was right to do so, but there is another duty that is laid on each and every Member of Parliament, which is the duty to protect and to succour the vulnerable.

The hon. Lady spoke of her background and of her experience as a nurse; she spoke with feeling and with great knowledge. Before I entered the House 28 years ago, I was, for 10 years, a schoolmaster, and I want to refer to that period in my life for a moment or two.

During that period, I came across some extremely unhappy young men who had been preyed upon by older men, and whose whole manner and way of life had been changed and distorted as a result. Many of those young men were 15, 16 or 17 years old. I speak as the father of two sons who are now well over that age, and I do not believe that a 16-year-old boy is indeed a fully mature adult. It is important that we take that into account in our deliberations this evening.

The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) has recognised that issue in his amendment. If, by chance, the hon. Lady's new clause is carried this evening—I hope that it will not be, but suspect that it will—I hope that there will be massive support for the hon. Gentleman's amendment, which recognises the plight and the potential plight of the vulnerable and does something about it by stating that those in authority or in a position of trust who take advantage of young men or women should be subject to the full rigours of the law.

It is not easy to talk about homosexuality. The most regrettable aspect of life today is that all forms of sex have been commercially exploited to such an extent that they represent a growing cancer in society. Many of those seeking to protect homosexuals are also, in my view, trying to go further and promote homosexuality. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I stand by my remark. I dare say many Members during the past week have received an envelope bearing the warning: The enclosed homosexual literature is described by its publishers as sexually explicit, and its pornographic content may cause offence". The leaflet inside, put out by the Terrence Higgins Trust, certainly does cause offence. If it fell into the hands of innocent young men, it might tend to deprave and corrupt them.

The commercial exploitation of sex, and television's lack of regard for childhood innocence, have gone a long way towards destroying that innocence. I deeply regret that; but there are still young men and women who are brought up to try to follow a Christian life. If any of them came across this sort of literature, they could find it pretty shocking.

7.30 pm

If we vote against the hon. Lady's new clause, we shall damage no one; but if we vote for it, we run the risk of damaging some people. I am content to accept that some may be born with a genetic predisposition to homosexuality—I am not medically knowledgeable enough to pass comment. I am convinced, however, that many people are not born homosexual—it is for them that we must have a special regard. Would anyone seriously suggest that every sailor who followed a homosexual way of life was born homosexual? One thinks of the old description of the Navy, Rum, sodomy and the lash". [Laughter.] There is nothing funny about it: it is a perfectly reasonable point to make in support of my argument. We all know that in the last century and the early years of this one, there was a high incidence of the practice in certain walks of life—but I do not believe that every young man who followed that way of life was born to it.

It is with regret that I must oppose the hon. Lady's amendment and hope that others will consider doing likewise. Our duty is to protect the innocent. If even one young man would be adversely affected by the amendment, we should take that seriously into account.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

One of the vulnerable aspects of 16 and 17-year-olds who may be seduced or preyed upon by people of their own age group, or by older men, lies in the fact that it would be illegal to rape them, but not to have sex with them in the way that the amendment would allow. Any Member who has had to deal with a case of male rape will know just how difficult such cases are to bring to justice, how profound their effect on the victims are, and how painful such an experience would be for a 16 or 17-year-old.

Sir Patrick Cormack

My hon. Friend makes an exceptionally valid and moving point.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

If my hon. Friend takes the point that someone who has been raped finds it difficult to go to the police, would he agree that it would be even more difficult for someone to go to the police if, by so doing, he might lay himself open to a criminal charge?

Sir Patrick Cormack

I can understand why many people adhere to that point of view. There is never a perfect solution to any problem of this nature. My own view, as I said at the outset, is that homosexuality is not equivalent to normality. Secondly, I do not believe that every homosexual is born homosexual. Thirdly, I do believe that 16-year-olds are especially vulnerable and deserve the protection of this House. That is why I oppose the new clause, and urge colleagues of all parties to think most seriously before they cast their votes.

Mr. Ashton

My amendment—amendment (a)—has been signed by more than 30 Members, some of them senior Members of the House, of all parties. It is not anti-homosexual; it is designed to equalise the age of consent for boys and girls at 18, in certain situations. If my amendment were carried, I would also vote for new clause 1.

Tonight gives us the opportunity to debate the most important report to emerge last year, even though it was never debated in the House. I refer to the Utting report entitled "People Like Us", which concerns safeguards for children living away from home. It makes horrifying reading; I urge every Member to read it thoroughly before casting any votes—I accept that that might prove difficult by 10 pm.

In this country, 200,000 children live away from home; 110,000 are in boarding schools, and 50,000 live at any one time with foster parents; 2,600 15 and 16-year-olds are in prison on remand; many others are in hospital, private children's homes or local authority homes. Many of them have parents overseas to whom they cannot turn; many of them are abused.

The list of abuses is horrendous—even stepfathers are sometimes abusers. The report says: The Review was precipitated by past activities of sexually and physically abusive terrorists in children's homes. Such persistent abusers may be a small proportion of all those who harm children, but they create havoc with their lives. A single perpetrator is likely in a lifetime's career to abuse hundreds of children, who suffer pain, humiliation and torment, and incur permanent emotional damage. It is the fate of such children that led me to table my amendment, which I am glad to note many Members support.

Mr. Rogers

Does my hon. Friend accept that many abusers of children in these circumstances are not homosexual? The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) tried to classify people who might have served in the Navy, and so on, but it would be quite wrong—does my hon. Friend agree?—to suggest that all child abusers are necessarily homosexual.

Mr. Ashton

I said at the start of my speech that the amendment deals with girls and boys. I have spoken about children, and the report is about children, not about homosexuality and discrimination. I am sorry if my hon. Friend has misunderstood practically everything that I have said.

The Utting report was undertaken after the campaign carried out by Esther Rantzen's famous Childline, which said in evidence that it had found a malignant institutional culture in such situations. Utting talks about going through a crash course in human, predominantly male, wickedness. At page 30, it states that two thirds of fostered children in a London borough had been sexually abused, some of whom were seriously at risk. Foster children may suffer far worse abuse by people in charge than young people in other situations.

I first examined the issue through a question in 1994, after the previous debate on this subject. I asked the Home Office to list the age of consent for both men and women in each EC country. Throughout the EC, a higher age may apply where the older person is in a position of authority, influence or trust".—[Official Report, 15 March 1994; Vol. 239, c. 600.] Those are the words in my amendment. I did not make them up—they were used in answer to my question, and the Home Office listed certain countries in which that applied.

I have been asked how I define "authority, influence or trust". In 99 per cent. of cases, those words would define themselves, but I will give an example. Under my amendment, an affair between a teacher and a 16-year-old boy or girl would be perfectly lawful—if the teacher and pupil were not at the same school. If they were at the same school, however, and the teacher could be defined as being in a position of "authority, influence or trust", the parents of youngsters at the school would be angry, and would naturally say that what had happened was not fair, what the public wanted, or what Parliament wanted or intended with respect to equality. In such circumstances, the age of consent should be 18. The amendment does not discriminate against gays; it would lift the age of consent for girls to 18 in such circumstances.

Ms Jean Corston (Bristol, East)

Several hon. Members, myself included, have some sympathy with the points that my hon. Friend is making, but does he accept that many of us would feel uneasy about introducing the criminal law into the matter? He is discussing an abuse of a position of trust. Surely if we are to have a law that confronts abuse of a position of trust at work, it should be an employment matter under the civil law, where there is a lower standard of proof. It certainly should not be dealt with under the criminal law.

Mr. Ashton

I fully understand what my hon. Friend says and will come to that point in few moments, if she will bear with me. I can try only to amend existing law, and if that law provides for two years' imprisonment, that is what I have to put in the amendment. This is not a Second Reading debate; we are discussing my amendment, which therefore has to tie in with existing law—that is the criminal law aspect of it.

The deterrent of law is badly needed in such situations. The report says that young prisoners are often bullied—they are not protected by the Children Act 1989, and have no immediate family support. The report says that young people told Utting and Childline of their bewilderment and alienation when adults whom they trusted betrayed that trust.

Those who are abused often become abusers. The report says that sexual abuse is highly addictive. Boys or girls who are abused, but who are not old enough or physically strong enough to stand up to it and protect themselves, often run away. In February, a newspaper article announced a "Child sex crackdown" by the Government and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health. I was glad to read that, because 242 children a year are estimated to fall victim to these rings in institutions which are complex to investigate and profoundly traumatic". I welcome that, but what is happening?

Children run away. Where do they run away to? They run to the streets and become homeless, rent boys or young girl prostitutes, because they have known nothing else. Some have committed crimes, such as setting fire to empty houses, to get away from an abuser. They say, "I'd be better off in gaol or a young offenders' establishment than in this place." Regrettably, the House seems to have done little about that culture, except to publish a report.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Does my hon. Friend agree that a number of people in our society—male and female, at the tender ages of 15, 16 and 17—are exploitable by virtue of deprivation, their background or goodness knows what else? He is seeking to protect such people, and I support that. Where they are exploited by pimps and users and put to work for their benefit, there is little, if anything, that we can do if they are over 16. Under his amendment, we would at least be able to start to protect the vulnerable in our society, for whom no one apparently cares.

7.45 pm
Mr. Ashton

My hon. Friend has wide legal experience, and I am glad that he has put his name to my amendment. I take on board everything that he has said.

Utting says that, all too often, staff and employees accepted bullying and sex abuse—they took no notice of it. There was a restraint on whistleblowing, and telling the boss, or a council, or objecting to what was going on was frowned on. Utting examined an unpublished Department of Health report which considered 44 residential homes and 50 separate cases. Abuse was endemic among those in a position of particular responsibility, authority and trust", often managers of homes who had been in post at least 5 years.

The report says that abuse was not opportunistic, and victims were 'groomed' and 'counselled' over a long time. When they reached an age at which they could defend themselves, they were put on one side, and another generation came through. For example, Roger Saint, the paedophile, was allowed to foster children over 13 years, even though social workers in his area knew that he had previous convictions. Utting said that some people were experts in convincing parents and evading justice—there was a worrying acceptance by staff and managers.

Another case involved John Allen, of Bryn Alyn private children's home. Some of my hon. Friends said, "Prosecute and go to law.". That happened—cases were taken to a tribunal and then to law, and 2,500 witnesses and 500 separate allegations were involved. After all that, the result was six convictions. The report says that Frank Beck, the head of an establishment in Leicestershire who is now serving life imprisonment, inspired physical and moral fear among staff as well as children. Ralph Morris, who is serving 12 years, was investigated three times and evaded the law.

We have recently taken great steps by introducing a paedophile register, and 110,000 people who have convictions are on it. Utting says, however, that probably as many child abusers have never had a conviction, are not on the register, and are carrying on their activities. Abuse in a private school or when a council is responsible for children makes the headlines, which is embarrassing and a scandal, so local people or parents protest loud and long. When schools or councils find that abuse is taking place, they tend to sack the person involved to get rid of him, so he moves on and carries on as normal.

Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)

I am following what my hon. Friend says with care. I am sure that the House is unanimous on the need to take seriously the abuse of young people. Am I not right in thinking that my hon. Friend's amendments would mean that, if a young person was abused by an older person short of intercourse, but certainly against that young person's will, he would not be protected by the amendments? However, if a young person aged 17 had consenting sex with another young person aged 16, he would be criminalised under the amendments. Is not my hon. Friend trying to hit the wrong target?

Mr. Ashton

The definition refers to authority. I am not presenting a Bill; it is not a Second Reading—it is an amendment. These matters have to be argued in a court of law. We have to define "trust", "influence" and so on—and eventually the courts will do that. In 99 per cent. of cases involving foster parents and stepfathers, for example, the question answers itself.

I have referred to the fact that there are 110,000 names on the paedophile register. Utting was critical when he said that the consequence of that sort of abuse is that the man is simply dismissed, and he moves elsewhere. What about checking applicants for jobs? With today's technology, if I were to hand over my credit card to someone, he could find out my credit rating within two minutes and then decide whether to give me a loan or allow me credit. However, as Utting said, in many cases it took local police authorities weeks or even months to check job applicants for a criminal background. By that time, they had been given jobs and it was difficult to get rid of them. Utting said that most sex offenders abuse children for many years before they are caught.

It is not just a question of sacking people—it is far worse. Often, councils are scared of having to pay out a great deal in damages—criminal injuries compensation. One thing that I am proud of, in my small way, is that about eight years ago, when I was a member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, we held an inquiry into criminal injuries compensation. We looked at different cases and questioned officials.

A man was in prison for having sodomised his wife and stepson, and he had been beaten up by the other prisoners. He put in a claim for criminal injuries and was refused. I asked the officials, "Who put in a claim for criminal injuries on behalf of the stepson?" There was a deadly silence—the answer was nobody. Until then, no one had ever applied for criminal injuries compensation for the children who had been abused, but they soon started after we published our Select Committee report.

The Municipal Mutual Insurance Company has expressed almost terror at what it would cost if all the cases resulted in compensation. I understand that councils have been told, "Don't publicise these cases, or we will have to pay severe damages because you are supposed to look after these children." There has been a culture of hushing things up.

It is obvious that, in such cases, there must be some legal deterrent. It can no longer be, "Don't say anything; keep quiet; we have sacked the man and we hope it will not happen again." I understand that there is a disqualifications regulation for the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Employment, but it does not apply to foster parents. Social services has a system to bar or restrict foster parents. It reports dismissals and resignations, and makes about 100 teacher referrals a year to the Department for Education and Employment.

However, the system is not working. The number of prosecutions for indecent assault on children is going down and down. Last year, the figure fell to 12 per cent., partly because children do not make reliable witnesses. Lawyers harangue them in court, so councils have stopped going to court, and the abuse is perpetuated. That cannot continue.

I understand that my hon. Friend the Minister intends to make some comments on this point when he replies. I shall listen with great interest. If he is thinking about changing the laws on employment, for example, he should remember that that would not cover a stepfather or foster parents.

Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West)

I wonder just what is my hon. Friend's target. He seems to be arguing for an extension of the list 99 procedure—the list that prevents teachers, even when they have not been prosecuted, from continuing as teachers. As my hon. Friend has acknowledged, there is a similar list for social workers. He is arguing for an extension of that ban on employment and contact with children, in a position of trust, to youth workers, stepfathers and so on. That is an entirely different issue from the one that we are debating.

Mr. Ashton

I hear what my hon. Friend says. The Utting report dealt with the points that he makes. Some 5 per cent. of convicted paedophiles get through the net. The system is not working.

I had telephone calls this morning from my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Health and for Education and Employment. They are very good friends of mine. Both of them support the amendments—it is a free vote, so they told me that I could say that in the House tonight. I ask hon. Members to vote for the amendments.

I want to end with a quote from the Childline submission to Utting: Regimes of abuse prosper because people turn a blind eye. Again and again adults consider it much more serious for a fellow adult to face the ignominy of being found responsible for sexual misconduct, than for a child to be assaulted. My amendments are not anti-gay; they are not against equalising the age of consent—they are to protect children.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)

In supporting new clause 1, to which I have put my name, I am well aware, not least because of the feeling around me, that I am not supported by many of my hon. Friends. It is a most unusual, not to say uncomfortable, experience. I had only just got used to standing up in the House without trembling, but now I remember what it was like.

I am also aware of the concerns of my constituents about the new clause. Some of them are in favour; many are not. My constituents are a good reflection of opinion throughout the country—many people support reducing the age of consent, but many others do not. I have consulted medical opinion of all sorts and come to the conclusion that there is no conclusion. Medical opinion is varied; it is not decisive—just as public opinion is not decisive.

Of late, there has been much emphasis on opinion polls and focus groups, but we must not lose sight of the fact that it is sometimes necessary to do not that which makes one popular, but that which is right. That is why I, instead of being popular this evening, am supporting the new clause.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I am happy to ask this question of a colleague who is also a woman Member. Am I not correct in saying that a homosexual act is unnatural and that if the Lord Almighty had meant men to commit sodomy with other men, their bodies would have been built differently? Have not the activities of the homosexual community been one of the main sources of both AIDS and hepatitis?

Mrs. Laing

I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, but it is not for us to interpret one way or another what the Lord God Almighty intended.

Mr. Winterton

Is my hon. Friend a Christian?

Mrs. Laing

Although that is not relevant to the new clause and the hon. Gentleman has no right to ask such a question, I shall answer by saying that I most certainly am a Christian and it is not for me to question what the Lord God Almighty has or has not done.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. Laing

No, I have already given way.

I have explained why I support the new clause. Its effect is not to challenge the Christian teaching of the Church—I would never support any measure that did—nor is it to challenge family life based on Christian marriage and traditional moral principles as the norm in our country and the building block of our society. The new clause does not challenge that in any way whatever.

I have three main reasons for supporting the new clause. First, I believe in equality. Having said that, I do not believe that all people are equal. They are not: every person is different in some way from every other person. The equality that the new clause addresses is equality before the law, and I believe that everyone should be equal before the criminal law. I stress that I am referring specifically and precisely to the criminal law. If new clause 1 becomes part of the Bill, there is no automatic or necessary implication for the treatment of gay people under the civil law with regard to marriage, pension rights or any other such rights. That is not what we are discussing, it is not the matter before us, and it has no relevance to this debate; we are talking about equality before the criminal law.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

My hon. Friend is a very courageous lady, but does she not understand that many of those outside the House who support this measure see it as a first step towards treating such life styles equally in every respect, including pension rights?

8 pm

Mrs. Laing

I take the hon. Gentleman's point. He may be right about some minority groups, but they certainly do not have my support. He may be right, but that is not the point that we are debating.

My second reason for supporting new clause 1 is my concern that young people should be protected. I respect the views of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), which were eloquently expressed. I do not agree with him on every point, but I respect his general view of the matter.

I entirely agree with the intention of the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), who gave a good explanation of his proposal. He is absolutely right to say that, if an adult person has a duty of care towards a young person, there should be no sexual relationship of any sort between them. No harm would be done to the intention of new clause 1 if the hon. Gentleman's amendments to it were accepted. My only doubt is that I am not certain that his amendments, as drafted, would accomplish what he seeks to achieve. However, I agree in principle with the points that he made, which do not contradict those that I am making.

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)

Bearing in mind what my hon. Friend has just said, does she agree that every adult has a duty of care towards children? Does not that have implications for how we should change, or perhaps not change, the law?

Mrs. Laing

I take the hon. Gentleman's point. It is true that every adult has a duty of care towards children, but the law recognises degrees of duty of care. That is a matter of fact in law. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw spoke about particular duties of care, with which I agree. I consider that the amendments would not negate the intention of new clause 1.

It is extremely important to protect young people. It is incredible that some people argue that young boys have to be protected whereas young girls do not. That is nonsense: it does not make sense. Young girls have to learn how to cope with predatory men. Perhaps it is frivolous of me to say this, but it is not only young girls who have to cope with predatory men-—[Laughter.] The reaction of hon. Ladies on the Labour Benches shows that they appreciate that this problem has been faced by half the human race since the beginning of time.

The argument that boys must be protected more than girls is unsustainable. Do boys' parents not warn them of the ways of the world, as girls' parents do? I can tell from the reaction of hon. Ladies on the Labour Benches that I am right in assuming that my mother is not the only wise lady in the world: there must be other wise mothers who give advice both to their sons and to their daughters. It is nonsense to say that there cannot be equality between 16-year-old boys and 16-year-old girls.

Young people need protection, but they are not protected by being turned into criminals. It is that point, more than any other, that we must address this evening. We do not protect young boys or girls by turning them into criminals. If we are to consider this matter properly, we must distinguish between what is legal or illegal under the law and what is encouraged and discouraged by society.

Nothing that is proposed in new clause 1 in any way encourages physical sexual activity among young people before they are sufficiently mature.[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) is disagreeing with me from a sedentary position. Nothing in the new clause encourages young people to become involved in sexual activity before they are sufficiently mature to do so. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) says that I live in a sheltered world.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

No, I said that my hon. Friend is living in a strange world.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. I want to discourage sedentary comments from either side of the House.

Mrs. Laing

I can assure all hon. Members that I live in neither a strange nor a sheltered world: I spend my days in the House of Commons. [Laughter.] We do not help and guide young people in their personal relationships by applying the criminal law.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

I very much admire my hon. Friend's courage in taking this unpopular stance with which I disagree. Having listened very carefully to everything that she has said, I infer that the argument that she is deploying is an argument against ages of consent in general. The purpose of an age of consent is not to criminalise the children who have sex when they have not reached that age of consent; it is to protect the children below that age by criminalising the adults who have sex with them. Does she not recognise that the history of the age of consent for heterosexual sex has been that, as society has evolved and become more civilised, the age—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I also want to discourage long interventions.

Mrs. Laing

I entirely take the point that my hon. Friend has eloquently made, and I do not disagree with him. I believe that what he was about to say was that the age of consent has changed as society has changed.

Dr. Lewis

It has risen.

Mrs. Laing

My hon. Friend says that it has risen, but it has not necessarily risen. I have to tell him that the age of consent in Scotland was always different from that in England, for example. That is why Gretna Green became the place to which people ran away to get married. It is not for me to say that girls born and brought up in Scotland were more mature than girls born and brought up in England—that cannot possibly be true—but these anomalies have existed.

The point of substance that my hon. Friend made, which I am very pleased to address, is that there has to be an age of consent. He is wrong in supposing that I am arguing for no age of consent at all. I am arguing for an equal age of consent, but it is possible that that age of consent could be 16, 18, 21 or anywhere in between.

It is also extremely important that Parliament should not make laws that are unenforceable. If, at the end of the 20th century, where we now find ourselves, we were to try to equalise the age of consent at 18, we would be making a law that was unenforceable, and a law that is unenforceable is bad law. It is not for this Parliament to make bad law. I entirely take my hon. Friend's point, but it only strengthens my argument that the age of consent should be equal for all people and should be 16.

As I was saying before that last helpful intervention, we do not help and guide young people in their personal relationships by applying the criminal law.

My third reason for supporting the new clause is that I believe, as do most people, that sexuality and sexual behaviour should be a private matter. I have every respect for some of the pressure groups that have been acting on behalf of homosexual people—Stonewall, for example, is measured and reasoned in its campaigns—but with respect I have no sympathy whatsoever for militant groups such as OutRage! that want to publicise the cause of homosexuals at all costs. They do no good to the people they purport to represent, and they do no good to our society as a whole. There should be no need in this day and age for massive marches by gay people through the streets of our main cities, any more than there should be any need for such marches by any other group in society which happens to be in some way different from others.

Let us make the criminal law fair and equal, then let us agree that sexuality and sexual behaviour is and should remain a private matter. Let it remain private, and let people who are gay get on with their lives in private and in peace and without making such a fuss about it—that is, if we decide this evening to bring equality to the criminal law in the way in which gay people are treated. Once that has been achieved, there is no reason for the fuss that is often made to go on. Let all the publicity-seeking pressure groups accept that equality will have been achieved, and let them leave the rest of society in peace.

8.15 pm
Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Like the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), last Thursday I celebrated the 28th anniversary of my election to the House of Commons. This is my eighth Parliament and I am proud to be a Member of Parliament but, looking at the House, I sometimes think that the only thing worse than having this House is not having this House.

We in this Chamber sometimes congratulate ourselves on our record of social reform, but we have little right to do so. I listened to the admirable and eloquent speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen). There was one part of what she said with which I disagreed—when she said that, if the House passes the new clause that she has proposed it will be a brave step. It will not be a brave step at all; it will be a belated step, a reluctant step and a step that should have been taken in equity and fairness and decency long ago.

We in this House have witnessed debates in which social reform has been slow, reluctant and belated and in which, again and again, disingenuous arguments have been trumped up to prevent or delay the passage of what in equity should be obvious.

I listened to the hon. Member for South Staffordshire talking about paedophiles preying on young people. Paedophiles prey on young people today under the present state of the law, with an age of consent of 18. They preyed on them when there was an age of consent of 21, and they preyed on them when male homosexual acts were completely illegal. The hon. Gentleman talked about the material which has no doubt been sent to all of us by the Terrence Higgins Trust, describing homosexual acts between men that are illegal before the age of 18. These things are taking place now. It is not as though some terrible door is being opened through which all kind of horrors will rush. Hon. Members have been talking about the situation today.

I have listened to many arguments in many debates in which people tried to hold up reforms that ought not to have been necessary because the restrictive legislation should never have existed. For centuries, the House maintained the denial of rights for the majority by the minority—for example, the denial of rights for women. The majority has always denied the rights of minorities. This House only relatively recently abandoned its denial of membership to Catholics, Jews and atheists. This House has persistently entrenched racial discrimination, and, on the issue before us now, it has a miserable record. A majority, using this House, has sought to impose its sexual orientation on those with a different sexual orientation.

Whenever this subject comes up, new arguments are laboriously dug up to justify the repression of a minority by the majority. The latest argument—the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) deployed it this evening—is AIDS. When homosexual acts between consenting males were made illegal, AIDS did not exist, but they were nevertheless made a criminal offence.

When the Abse Bill—to which my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth referred—was considered by the House 30 years ago, the age of decriminalisation was set at 21. Although AIDS did not exist then, other arguments were made to oppose that Bill.

Four years ago, when the age of consent was lowered to 18, AIDS was part of the sexual scene, but no great plague of AIDS has broken out among 18 to 24-year-olds since that change in the law. Heaven knows, if it had, we would have heard of it already, both in press articles and in the speech of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the whole point about AIDS is that it takes years to reveal itself? It is unlikely that he would see very quickly the effect of AIDS on someone who has contracted it since the younger age of consent was established.

Mr. Kaufman

That is exactly the type of bogus nonsense that one hears constantly on these matters.

I have two further comments on the argument about AIDS. First, the best way of controlling AIDS among people involving themselves in male homosexual acts is to ensure that there is an age of consent that allows people to gain access to information, and enables them without fear of criminality to seek medical advice and medical help. Allowing such access will be one of the extremely desirable by-products of passing new clause 1.

Secondly—I go further—it is a very great myth indeed to imply that AIDS arises only through homosexual contacts. The great wave of AIDS that passed over the planet started in east and central Africa because of heterosexual intercourse. It is therefore a slander on people involved in homosexual sex to say that they and only they will propagate or are subject to AIDS.

Dr. Julian Lewis

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Kaufman

No; many hon. Members are waiting to speak.

Nor—although I understand the motives of my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton)—is it accurate to say that lowering the age of consent will create greater opportunities for paedophilia. Paedophilia has existed whatever the law on age of consent for males or females, and I fear that it will continue to do so even when we have passed new clause 1—as I hope we shall today.

If new clause 1 is passed, it will decriminalise only consenting sexual acts between males that are legal between males and females.

Opponents of new clause 1 assign prurience to the homosexual act. Whenever we debate such matters, words such as "sodomy" and "buggery" are used to make ugly such sexual acts, but it is hon. Members who are being prurient by their action. In the House, whenever we discuss sex of that kind and within that context, those who are seeking to maintain oppression and repression of a minority see only the carnality of the sexual act. They regard such sexual acts as acts of carnality, not as acts of people participating in an act of love according to their sexual nature.

The great lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim wrote a musical called "Passion" about the repressed passion of a woman for a man. In it, the woman speaks in her mind a line to the man, saying Loving you is not a choice". Loving is not a choice. People do not choose their sexual nature; they are endowed with their sexual nature. Opponents of the new clause are saying that of all the billions of creatures on the face of this planet, the only ones to be banned from expressing that love according to their nature are homosexual males aged 16 and 17 and those who love them.

Today, the new clause will undoubtedly be passed—I shall certainly be voting for it. When it is passed, it will be a moment of achievement in which we should take satisfaction. However, when we pass it, the House should not be smug or congratulate itself. Although the new clause will be a belated act of reparation, many more injustices will remain to be put right.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)

The Liberal Democrats have a clear policy agenda that seeks to promote fairness for all people before the law. Our agenda has led us to debate at our party conferences the issue that the House is debating today, and to come down clearly in favour of equalisation of the age of consent, as proposed in new clause 1. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen), who spoke very well. Her speech would have gone down very well with many people in my own party. I pay tribute also to the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) for some of her measured comments on the legal nature of the issue.

As with the other parties, we shall be treating the matter as a free-vote issue. Although I speak as an individual Member on the issue, I am confident that many of my colleagues will agree with the views that I express.

The debate has frequently been examined in terms of politicians sending out a message to the people of the United Kingdom. On the one hand, we are urged to send the message that heterosexuality is the norm, and that the law should be used somehow to discourage homosexuality. Conversely, we are asked to send out a message of equality, saying that the law must be changed to make it clear that we are not discriminatory. Tonight I should like to leave behind the politics of messages, and instead to focus on the proper relationship between the state and 16 and 17-year-old citizens of the United Kingdom.

We have two clear priorities to balance in setting an age of consent for sexual activity. The first is the duty of the state to offer protection to those who are being abused sexually. We must have a legal remedy available for those suffer from unwelcome or inappropriate sexual attention. The second priority is the right of any individual citizen to express his or her sexuality in a consensual way without undue interference from the state.

I do not believe that it is my job as a Member to tell people what they can or cannot freely do in their bedroom, any more than I would be happy for any other hon. Member to come into my bedroom to try to tell me what I should do in my sex life.

Dr. Julian Lewis

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Allan

I give way to the hon. Gentleman, although I am sure that I shall regret it.

Dr. Lewis

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I am sure that he is correct. When he talks about the rights of citizens, will he not just remind himself that we are talking not about citizens or adults but about children of 16 and 17?

Mr. Allan

The hon. Gentleman reminds of a point that I had planned on making later in my speech—that we are talking about citizens who are able to go out and get a job, leave school, get married and pay taxes. Those are the citizens we are talking about.

I do not believe that the current law works well in ensuring that the state performs its duty of protection. Indeed, current law may have the reverse effect—of making young people more vulnerable. The vital fact to remember is that, currently, if a 16 or 17-year-old has homosexual relations, that 16 or 17-year-old is himself committing an offence. In such relationships, the law does not nicely discriminate and prosecute only older people. Two 17-year-olds together would still be guilty of an offence.

Opponents of new clause 1 raise two principal concerns about young men in such situations. The first is the notion that the young man may be experimenting, and may not have settled his sexuality. Arguments have been advanced to the contrary. Moreover, even in situations in which a young man is deemed to be experimenting, I cannot think of anything worse for the law to do than to deny that young man the ability to seek the advice and guidance he needs because he is aware that he has committed a sexual offence for which he may be prosecuted.

The second concern is that the relationship may be an abusive one, typically described as one with an older man. The facts from surveys show that the vast majority of such relationships—like any other relationship—are between people of nearly the same age. However, even if an older man is involved, I cannot think of anything stronger that we could put in the hands of an abuser than the ability to tell his victim, "Don't go to the law, or you'll be prosecuted." I cannot think of anything that would make abuse more likely than providing such a tool to any individual who chose to be abusive. A change in the law is essential.

Mr. Butterfill

Can the hon. Gentleman give us an example in which the younger person in such a relationship has been prosecuted?

Mr. Allan

I was talking about the fear of prosecution, rather than what may happen later. The hon. Gentleman cannot deny that the law as drafted states that such a young man has committed an offence. That fear of prosecution can affect young men and ruin their lives. A change in the law is essential if we are to free young men of 16 and 17 to seek any advice they may need to cope with the sexuality.

If it could sensibly be argued that setting the age at 18 would ensure that no 16 or 17-year-old would ever had sex, there might be some purpose in doing so, but I can remember being that age not so long ago, and I can honestly say that I never consulted lawyers before exploring my sexuality—not that I could have afforded them. I do not believe that the vast majority of young people consider the law before exploring their sexuality. They will go ahead irrespective. The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) strongly advocated not bringing in laws that did not command the respect of the majority of the public.

8.30 pm

In respect of the rights of individuals to carry out their private business free of state interference—a fundamental Liberal issue—there is a strong case for change. The key decision as to the age at which we each believe that people can be responsible for their own sexual behaviour is a personal one. My view is that the age is properly set at 16. As I said, it equates with the age at which one can leave school, pay tax and marry.

Mr. Swayne

But not smoke.

Mr. Allan

The hon. Gentleman is wrong. Of course one can smoke at 16. That is not to say that it is advisable to start having sexual relations at 16, but simply that one should not be prosecuted for it.

There is often confusion that lowering the age at which it is legal somehow makes it compulsory to have sex at 16. That is clearly not the case. I would certainly not advise starting so early, any more than I would advise anyone to leave school or get married at 16. Exactly the same principles apply. However, I do not believe that the state should drag those who choose to do so through the courts and face them with a possible gaol sentence. We must remember that, when we set the age of consent, we are not making sex compulsory after that age; we are saying simply that the state will no longer prosecute people for doing so.

We should set the line of responsibility clearly, and then do all we can to support individuals in taking that responsibility. The current confused age of consent is unhelpful in that respect. It is far more straightforward to tell teenagers that they are wholly responsible for their sexual behaviour at 16 and then help them to prepare for it, rather than saying that only pure heterosexuals have that responsibility.

There is an intellectually coherent argument for having a general age of consent above 16 if one believes that 16-year-olds in general cannot handle the responsibility. It is much harder to argue that a 16-year-old male is sufficiently mature for sex with a partner of one sex, but not with a partner of the other. My experiences of getting to know the opposite sex raised complex issues that made it more rather than less difficult to handle a relationship.

The state can do only so much to protect those over 16 from acts in which they choose to participate and to which they consent. Some of those acts they will regret, and some may turn out to be important opportunities, just as we all make choices that turn out for better or for worse. However, the law should be reviewed for those over 16 but still of a young age.

I agree with some of the concerns outlined by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), particularly in respect of those in care. I am not convinced that the amendments are worded correctly, and I have expressed to the Minister of State my concern about girls of 16 and 17 who are exploited by pimps. I hope that the Government will let us know their thinking in respect of protecting those over 16 who are still fairly young. I hope that the amendments will be taken seriously, and that we will get a substantive reply.

The rights of 16-year-olds to define their sexuality bring responsibilities, and 16-year-olds still have a great deal to learn, whatever their sexuality. We should ensure that they are fully aware of those responsibilities, by providing a comprehensive programme of education before they reach the age of responsibility.

I intend to vote for new clause 1 tonight to ensure that we have a legal code that is clear and rational. For the first time, 16-year-old citizens will be absolutely clear that they are responsible for their own sexual behaviour, without the prospect of the state seeking to prosecute them for certain types of behaviour that they find are right for them. We should do all we can to help young people to exercise their rights responsibly, but we should not seek to constrain them or to shoulder too much of their responsibility, especially when that involves threatening them with prison for acts that they find natural. I urge the House to support new clause 1.

Mr. Stephen Twigg (Enfield, Southgate)

It is a privilege for me to participate in tonight's debate. I pay tribute to hon. Members from all parties who spoke in support of new clause 1, particularly the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing). I do not know whether I will do her popularity among her hon. Friends any good by paying tribute to her very good and witty speech.

I also pay tribute to Edwina Currie, the former Member for Derbyshire, South, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen). Above all, I pay tribute to the thousands of people who over the years have lobbied for this change. They have done so because they believe in human rights, equal opportunities and building a decent society. In particular, I reiterate the words of other hon. Members tonight in praising the work of Stonewall, which was launched 10 years ago and has done so much to bring about tonight's vote under the inspired leadership of its director, Angela Mason.

In the debate in the House in 1994, perhaps the most powerful speech was made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who was then shadow Home Secretary. He said: the issue … is not at what age we wish young people to have sex. It is whether the criminal law should discriminate between heterosexual and homosexual sex. It is therefore not an issue of age, but of equality. By supporting equality, no one is advocating or urging gay sex at 16 any more than those who would maintain the age of consent for heterosexual sex advocate that girls or boys of 16 should have sex. It is simply a question of whether there are grounds for discrimination. At present, the law discriminates". Later in his speech, my right hon. Friend said: it is wrong to treat a man as inferior because his sexuality is different. A society that has learned, over time, racial and sexual equality can surely come to terms with equality of sexuality. That is the moral case for change tonight. It is our chance to welcome people—I do not care whether there are 50,000, 500,000 or 5 million; it matters not a damn—into full membership of our society on equal terms. It is our chance to do good, and we should take it."—[Official Report, 21 February 1994; Vol.238, c.98-101.]

The issue strikes at the heart of the sort of society that we want to build. Since last year's general election, the culture of the House has changed. We have a record number of women Members; we have more relatively young people in Parliament, and we now have six openly lesbian or gay Members. We have come a very long way in the four years since the issue was last debated.

In 1984, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) stood up in Rugby and made a very brave speech in a politically different moral climate, in which he announced that he was gay, and became the first hon. Member openly to acknowledge his sexuality. I was 17 at the time, and I vividly recall the positive impact that his speech had on me. It challenged the conception that being gay is something to be ashamed of, to feel guilty about and to hide. Attitudes have changed a lot in the 13½ years since my right hon. Friend made that speech, and he has played no small part in bringing about that change.

As the law stands, discrimination is entrenched in statute. Young gay men often face bullying, verbal abuse and physical attack, whether at school or in the local community. They often feel isolated and guilty about their sexuality. The law should protect the young and the vulnerable. Instead, the law criminalises for 16 and 17-year-old gay men behaviour that would be legal if they were heterosexual.

There has been much lobbying on both sides of the debate. I have received letters from people with a sincerely held conviction that the change should not happen. I respect those opinions, and have responded respectfully. Unfortunately, like other hon. Members, I have also received some obnoxious and offensive lobbying, including one representation arguing against the change because young gay men are more likely to attempt or commit suicide. The argument, as I understand it, is that, if we discourage or criminalise gay sexuality, we shall reduce the rate of attempted or actual suicide.

Surely the reality is the opposite. Some young gay men attempt to take their lives—successfully in some tragic cases—precisely because of the prejudice, the isolation, the bullying and the discrimination. The best way to tackle that is to foster an open, tolerant and pluralistic society. That is the message that the House will send if we pass the new clause.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

On that point, has the hon. Gentleman heard from the school of the science of acting? About 15 of its students and former students, all former homosexuals, testify how they left such feelings behind them when they chose to abandon homosexual practices. Many of them are now married.

Mr. Twigg

I have heard about that. We should not make laws for such exceptional cases. Many other well respected medical and education bodies referred to by other hon. Members support the new clause.

I welcome the Home Office's decision to review sexual offences laws, and the Government's decision to review child protection procedures. I am sure that we all want laws that protect those who cannot protect themselves. The laws must be workable, and should not discriminate. That is why we have an age of consent, and why there is no support in the House for lowering it below 16. We have proposed an equal age of consent at 16.

In the review of sexual offences legislation, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider two problems that will still exist even if the new clause is carried. First, the penalties for age of consent offences will continue to be different for gay couples from those for heterosexuals. Secondly, under-age gay men will continue to be criminalised, whereas under-age girls are not.

The point of the age of consent, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) said, is to protect those under that age. The criminal should be the one over 16, not the one under 16. Making the younger partner a criminal may discourage some young people from reporting acts of abuse, as other hon. Members have said. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will address those points.

This debate is about human rights. Prejudice and discrimination scar not only those who face it, but our entire society. Some have claimed in the past couple of days that the new clause will send out the wrong message. Far from it; the new clause will send out a positive, unequivocal and tolerant message. It is a positive message to young people that our inclusive society includes all young people. It is an unequivocal message to the school bully that they are the criminal, not the young people who are being bullied simply for being different. Above all, it is a message of tolerance.

I am proud to have played my small part in supporting the new clause. I am proud of the cross-party support for it, including all three main party leaders. I am proud that tonight the House can put itself on the side of decency, openness and justice.

8.45 pm
Sir Norman Fowler

I shall briefly give my personal view.

I hope that I shall be acquitted of the charge of being antagonistic to the homosexual community. As Secretary of State for Health, it fell to me to take the first steps in the battle against AIDS. That is not an exclusively homosexual issue, although some people continue wrongly to maintain that it is. However, it profoundly concerns the gay community. I had the opportunity to work with a range of gay organisations and gay people.

Some say that those who surrounded the House of Commons in 1994, the last time we debated the issue, were typical of the gay community. That is not my experience. I endorse the praise that the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen) gave to organisations such as the National Aids Trust. We cannot judge all the spectators in Marseilles by the activities of the minority. I need no persuasion that the rights of gay people must be protected, and that that is a legitimate concern of the House.

Equally, I am strongly in favour of family life. The best remembered phrase of my parliamentary career concerns the importance of the family and my intention to return to it. I shall continue to advocate the importance of the family, and my belief that it must continue to be at the centre of national life.

In 1994, I voted to reduce the age of consent from 21 to 18, because I believed that the law was out of date and that it was difficult to maintain, with the age of majority at 18, that people should be subjected to criminal prosecution for a further three years. I do not resile from that decision.

However, I do not regard the case for a further reduction from 18 to 16 after such a short time as self-evident, as some have argued, even though I am sceptical about using the criminal law to support a particular attitude—I agree with the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth on that. We should recognise the limits of the criminal law in promoting values, and how the public will view our efforts to use it in that way.

The public recognise the right of Parliament to pass laws to punish the guilty for clear crimes such as murder, robbery or burglary. They are more cautious about allowing us to intervene in the private lives of individuals. In the main, they believe that what consenting people do in private is usually a matter for them, and should not be a subject of criminal law and all that goes with it.

When I was dealing with the AIDS issue, I received a great deal of advice. Religious leaders, newspaper leader writers and Members of Parliament all had their views. One of the most popular messages was that I should concentrate less on seeking to prevent the spread of AIDS by health education, and preach a more moral message. In particular, I was told to tell people—by which advisers usually meant gay people—to desist from the life that they were living.

I tried to put the view that a loving relationship was the right way for someone to conduct their life. However, I never believed that that would be enough. My experience on the issue has convinced me that the public will listen to and take the best medical advice available—preferably from the chief medical officer, or even from the Secretary of State for Health. They will not necessarily accept advice so readily when politicians give the impression that they are trying to tell the public how to run their own personal lives. Frankly, given some of the situations that I have seen in my 28 years in the House of Commons, the public's scepticism on that is well justified—sometimes spectacularly well justified.

None of this is an argument against seeking to set an example or trying to do good, but it is an argument against regarding the criminal law as a way of showing the general view of the behaviour of a group of people of whom at least some of the nation do not approve. That does not seem to me to be the right test as far as the criminal law is concerned.

What is the proper matter for the criminal law? I would suggest that that comes when the actions of an individual or individuals violate the rights, lives and dignity of others. That was the issue that the hon. Member for Bassetlaw rightly addressed, and it is covered by his amendments. When the rights of young people are violated, that clearly must be a matter not only for the criminal law, but of deep concern for the House of Commons—a point to which my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) referred.

I understand the argument for a further reduction, but we are dealing with a criminal offence—an argument made strongly and with enormous eloquence and power by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing). We are dealing with prosecutions and everything that flows from that. No one wishes to retain a criminal sanction unless it is necessary.

I am less persuaded by the argument of the British Medical Association on access to medical advice on, for example, AIDS—a point referred to by the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth, among others. We fought a much bigger battle in terms of drug users and clean needles. The fact that drug use was illegal did not prevent advice from being given. If, in the 1980s, we managed to address a message to every householder in the country on the danger of AIDS and the medical advice that was available, I do not think that it is beyond the wit of man to address a similar, but much more limited, message to young people generally.

Ann Keen

In relation to AIDS advice and the right hon. Gentleman's reference to young people coming forward for advice on drug abuse, is he aware that the young men we are talking about fear so much that they will be branded as criminals that they do not come forward to anyone? A large number of people do not come forward because they fear prosecution, and prosecutions do take place—such as recently in Bolton, where a 17-year-old young man was prosecuted.

Sir Norman Fowler

My point is that that matter can be dealt with in other ways. Drug use is illegal, but that has not prevented us from putting out messages to people who use drugs to tell them that medical advice—franldy, much more medical advice—is available to them. I understand the hon. Lady's argument, but it is not convincing.

Nor do I find the argument on the standardisation of ages between heterosexual and homosexual sex to be remotely the end of the debate. It goes beyond that. The crucial argument surely is that the House must be convinced that, if it takes this action, a group of young people between the ages of 16 and 18 are not put at risk. That may be an inconvenient argument, and it may not fit in with people's views on standardisation. However, the protection of young people must remain a proper and paramount concern of the House of Commons.

In that respect, I have great sympathy with the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw, which refer to both sexes—as they should. We are concerned with abuse by an older person who is in a position of authority, influence or trust. In many ways, the most important service that the hon. Gentleman has done is to refer the House to the report carried out by Sir William Utting and his colleagues for the Department of Health—not 30 or 40 years ago, but between 1996 and 1997.

Bill Utting was the head of the social services inspectorate at the Department of Health and Social Security when I was Secretary of State, and I have the highest possible opinion of his judgment in these matters—I would not necessarily say that about everyone with whom I served in the DHSS. He is quite outstanding. In reference to the risk posed by abusers, he said: Persistent sexual abusers are a scourge of childhood. Their numbers are difficult to estimate but each one who adopts a lifetime career will amass hundreds of victims. They inflict unspeakable psychological and physical harm. Some of their victims will become abusers. Their success depends on their ability to ingratiate themselves with adults and children. They are largely but not exclusively men. They establish themselves as trusted friends, colleagues or employees. Exposure may be a matter of chance, often after many years of abuse.

Mr. Ashton

Some weeks ago, I wrote to Sir William Utting and asked if he would support my amendments. He said that he would—he was very much in favour of them.

Sir Norman Fowler

I read what the hon. Gentleman wrote about that in his letter to all colleagues. I am influenced—the House needs to judge whether I am over-influenced—by that, and by other cases. I shall give one example—the case of Roger Gleaves, the self-styled "Bishop of Medway", who was convicted in the 1970s of offences against young people. I raised his case in the House of Commons in 1975. Two months ago, in 1998, he was sentenced to 15 years for further offences against young people. In other words, he had been pursuing a career of abuse, year after year.

No one can seriously doubt the problem that abusers pose to young people, and here we come up against one of the unsatisfactory features of the way in which we are proceeding tonight. We are debating an amendment to the Crime and Disorder Bill. Obviously, the amendment is within the scope of the Bill—otherwise, we would not be debating it. Whether it is in the spirit of the Bill is an entirely different matter. The way we are proceeding means that the measure is not being given the consideration it might otherwise have had.

That was precisely the argument used by the Home Secretary a couple of hours ago against a new clause—with which he agreed in principle—tabled by the Opposition. Had new clause 1 been tabled at Second Reading, it could have been considered in Committee, and amendments could have been tabled to explore all the implications. Frankly, we are being presented with a proposal on a more or less take-it-or-leave-it basis, at the last stage of the consideration of the Bill in the House of Commons. That certainly allows the House to vote on the issue, but whether it is the best way in which to make law is another matter.

It was a bit rich for the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth, who tabled new clause 1, to say on the BBC this morning that the trouble with the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw was that they were a bit rushed. I think that the whole operation has been rushed from beginning to end—

Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter)


Sir Norman Fowler

Yes, rushed. The hon. Gentleman should consider the problems that would arise if we always legislated in this way. Those of us who have serious questions to ask find this way of doing business objectionable—if he does not understand that, he does not understand the process of Parliament, let alone what we are talking about.

Mr. Shaun Woodward (Witney)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

9 pm

Sir Norman Fowler

May I continue?

On the basis of the evidence that the hon. Member for Bassetlaw has put before the House, I support the amendments that he has tabled. The previous Government established the Utting review because of the continuing revelations about widespread abuse of children in children's homes over the preceding 20 years. The Utting committee estimated that about 200,000 of the 12 million children under the age of 18 in England and Wales lived away from their parents' homes for at least 28 days. It set out areas of risk, such as children's homes, foster care, boarding schools and a range of others.

On the basis of the Utting report, I believe that there is a strong case for improving the safeguards for children who live away from home. I have no illusions that that will be easy—we shall not cure the problem simply by passing the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw, but the House can at least attempt to prevent the problem from getting worse. However, my fear is that, if we were to pass new clause 1, we should present a grave risk for those children who live away from home.

I shall certainly vote for the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw, but I should add that it is not only people in positions of authority who may be guilty of abuse. Many others may be guilty too, and they will not necessarily be caught by the definition in amendment (a). Such people are predominantly male; they pose an enormous threat to young people in the age group. I believe that those young people, about whom I am most concerned in this debate, need protection. We have heard a great deal about equality, and I respect what I have heard, but we have heard rather too little about how young people's rights will be protected.

We voted to reduce the age of consent from 21 to 18 only four years ago—that was an important step. I am in no doubt about what the result of the vote this evening will be—I have no illusions whatever about that—but I hope that the House does not come to regret passing new clause 1. I believe that it poses such a risk that I shall vote to keep the age of consent at 18.

Mr. Michael

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen) and all those hon. Members who have contributed to the debate—we have seen the House at its best, dealing maturely and responsibly with an issue about which hon. Members have passionate views. It is perhaps slightly worrying that the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) has made two speeches in one day that have allowed us to hope that discussions between those on the Front Benches can be both constructive and robust.

The package of new clauses and amendments boils down to four issues. First, is it the will of the House to equalise the age of consent? Secondly, how should we increase the protection for 16 and 17-year-olds from an abuse of their position by those who owe them a duty of care? The third proposal is to increase the age of consent if one of the parties is more than 21. The fourth proposal concerns a separate issue—the definition of "in private" for the purposes of homosexual activity.

The first issue—the age of consent—is the main issue for tonight. We promised to give the House an opportunity to decide on a free vote whether we should have an equal age of consent at 16. The new clause has been tabled by Back Benchers from both sides of the House but, by assisting with the drafting, we have ensured that it provides a real and genuine opportunity. That is why I have added my name to the related amendments Nos. 1 to 5. If the House supports new clause 1, it will be essential for the consequential amendments to be carried, and it will be the Government's policy to ensure that they are. By adding my name to the amendments, I intended to signal that purpose.

This is a subject on which many hon. Members hold strong personal views, and it is right that Parliament should debate it freely. As we regard it as a matter of conscience for individual Members, the Government do not have a formal policy on the issue. However, I must make it clear that I will vote in favour of an equal age of consent, as I did in 1994. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has always made it abundantly clear that his personal view is that equalisation of the age of consent is a matter of basic fairness and equality. On 21 February 1994, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who is now Leader of the Opposition, and the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) who leads the Liberal Democrats, voted for 16 as the age of consent following a debate in which the present Prime Minister, then the shadow Home Secretary, gave a seminal speech on the topic. I therefore live in hope of being in a crowded Aye Lobby when the Question is put.

My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg) quoted the Prime Minister in that debate, and I must underline one part of the quotation. My right hon. Friend said: By supporting equality, no one is advocating or urging gay sex at 16 any more than those who would maintain the age of consent for heterosexual sex advocate that girls or boys of 16 should have sex. It is simply a question whether there are grounds for discrimination."—[Official Report, 21 February 1994; Vol. 238, c. 98.]

The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield hesitated about whether 16 or 18 should be the age of consent, and said where he came down following his thoughts on the matter. I must point out to him that it is an issue not of age—it is easy to make an age argument one way or the other—but of equality. The law discriminates, and there is no doubt that that causes misery for some people. It is because of that unfairness and inequality that the homosexual age of consent is the subject of a case that is pending before the European Court of Human Rights.

Before anyone suggests that this debate is about Europe taking decisions for us, let me remind the House that the argument is about a breach of a principle contained in a convention to which Governments of both parties have been committed and which was written largely by British lawyers. It is the strength of the Human Rights Bill that the principles of the convention will be written into our law and our citizens will be able to seek redress in our courts rather than having to go to Strasbourg. However, that is not the case at present, so the matter is before the European Court.

The European Commission has already considered the case and found that the differential in the age of consent for homosexuals and heterosexuals breaches the convention right of privacy and the right not to be discriminated against in private life. The Government reached an agreement with the applicant that the case would not be pursued pending parliamentary consideration of the issue. The tabling by Back Benchers of the new clause provides the opportunity for such consideration.

Mr. Butterfill

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, for the act of buggery, the age of consent is the same for both men and women–18, at the moment—so that does not need to be equalised? I use the word "buggery" not in the pejorative sense that the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) suggests but because it is the legal term incorporated in the new clause tabled by the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen).

Mr. Michael

There are a number of complications in the law, to which I will turn in a few moments. It is best if we concentrate on the main point of principle. Advocates of an equal age of consent have made a case persuasively and with eloquence. Significantly, supporters come from a wide variety of parties, and the new clause was moved by a mother whose remarks showed both care for people and concern for principle. Principles frequently clash in this House, as do the interests of different groups. So, I invite all hon. Members to support new clause I because it is right and not because it is in the interests of one group.

As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said before the election in a speech in the Grand Committee Room on 19 February 1997: These are not issues for any sectional interest but for the whole of society. They touch on how we treat other people, what responsibility we show to others in return for the rights we all expect for ourselves. The test for any democracy is what freedom the majority allows to those with whom it may disagree, not merely to those with whom it agrees. The only argument for the discrimination inherent in the differential age of consent is to protect young people from predatory men. The overwhelming evidence is that sexuality is of people's nature: it is not something that is caught or that people are persuaded into.

For those who are confused about their sexuality, there is no evidence that the criminal law helps them to solve their dilemmas. Often it simply drives them away from the information, advice and help that could enable them to make their own choices maturely. Predatory behaviour must be dealt with firmly and quickly. It is a scandal that we have failed to protect our young people from adults—mostly men, sometimes women. The Government have made massive progress in offering the genuine, effective protection that children and vulnerable adults have a right to expect. I am a member of the ministerial group, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, on action following the Utting report, to which the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield referred. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that Ministers are passionate about the issue and the need for progress.

I hope that the House will get the principle right on new clause 1 and agree to an equal age of consent by a massive and conclusive majority. We need to consider the serious issues aired under the second set of amendments on abuse of trust, which were tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton). New clause 8 and amendments Nos. 61 and 62, which deal with girls, are clearly intended to make up a comprehensive package on abuse of trust. The main debate today has focused on treatment of homosexuals, but my hon. Friend rightly believes that we need to ensure effective protection for boys and girls at the vulnerable ages between 16 and 18.

I have a good deal of sympathy with my hon. Friend's approach. Boys and girls are already free to marry at those ages, but they can be victims of the unscrupulous, and they may be persuaded or influenced to enter into relationships rather than doing so of their own free will. It is particularly important to protect those who are vulnerable, and those who are in care. I made it clear during the Committee stage of the Bill that the Government intend to provide that protection; there is no difference between us and my hon. Friend on that point. Even before he tabled his amendments, we had acknowledged the need for changes in the law. There are already safeguards in pre-employment checks and professional codes—such as the code that stops teachers entering into relationships with pupils—but they do not cover all cases, and some of them are not strong enough.

Our priority is to protect the vulnerable and to reinforce the duty of professional care. We are looking carefully at what needs to be done, but we must get it right. I have discussed the issue with my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Education and Employment and for Health, and we have made it a matter of priority. We have set up an interdepartmental working group to identify the additional safeguards needed to prevent those who are unsuitable to do so from working with children. That group will also identify the measures necessary to protect 16 and 17-year-olds who may be vulnerable to abuse by those in positions of trust.

Mr. Gale

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Michael

Some areas of specific concern, such as residential schooling and care, will be considered with extreme care.

Mr. Gale

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Michael

The work will be wide-ranging; will not be limited to one sector—

Mr. Gale

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Michael

In a moment. I do hate giving way in the middle of a sentence.

The work will be wide-ranging; will not be limited to one sector and will examine existing safeguards in the public, private and voluntary sectors and the need for new measures as part of an integrated approach. To answer the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Southgate, let me say that we will consider the issues that he raised, such as the fairness of the law and its effectiveness.

Mr. Gale

The Minister has told the House that he intends to support a clause that many of us feel will weaken the protection available to young people. He has also said that yet another working party is considering the protection of young men and women in institutional care. He has given no indication whether he will support the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), which I most certainly support, and the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen) declined to give way on the subject when she opened the debate. Will the Minister tell us why he is prepared to support one measure without simultaneously putting the other in place, as is his ministerial responsibility?

Mr. Michael

I wish that the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) would listen to the debate instead of trying to interrupt in the middle of sentences. I have tried to make it clear that I believe that new clause 1 is right, and is not about the abuse of positions of trust. I am making it equally clear that serious issues were rightly raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw in his important speech. I am trying to respond to those points effectively.

If, instead of trying to score debating points, the hon. Member for North Thanet looked at the way in which we have dealt with the needs of victims and vulnerable witnesses, he would find that the outstanding piece of work that we published a fortnight ago addressed those issues comprehensively. He should take that as the example of how we wish to deal with the issues, and should realise that the Government deserve more respect from him, rather than his unhelpful interventions.

We expect the group about which I have spoken to make its final recommendations by the end of the year. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept my assurance that the Government consider the protection of the vulnerable an absolute priority. However, it is important to examine the whole area rather than proceed according to a piecemeal approach. There are human rights issues involved, and questions of definition and scope. We must look carefully before taking action. There are plenty of pieces of law that give the impression of tackling a problem but which fail to do so. There are draconian punishments for those whom we fail to catch; they are pointless in law. We need to do much more to protect and prevent.

I cannot accept my hon. Friend's amendments, because they would create a new set of difficulties and anomalies. I refer not to my hon. Friend's intentions or to the broad sweep of his amendments, but to the way in which those amendments would work in practice. First, his amendments to new clause 1 would ensure that, if the abuse of trust was part of a homosexual relationship, not only the abuser but the victim would be committing a criminal offence. That cannot be right: it would increase the power of the abuser and make the abuse much less likely to be reported. It takes us back to the arguments that make the reduction in the age of consent something that is in the interests of young people.

9.15 pm

Secondly, the amendments would not apply in cases where an older woman takes advantage of a younger boy—such things do happen, as I am sure my hon. Friend would concede. Thirdly, the drafting is imprecise and creates other difficulties, which I would be happy to go through with my hon. Friend at greater length than the House would wish me to do here. If we are concerned about those vulnerable to undue influence from those with authority over them, this concern applies potentially as much to marriage as to sexual intercourse.

The essence of the concern is that the consent is not wholly free of influence. For instance, should we make unlawful a marriage between a 16 or 17-year-old and a person in a position of authority, influence or trust? They are major issues, and we should not contemplate taking [Mr. Michael] such steps at this late stage in the Bill's progress when there has been no opportunity fully to consider the implications. For instance, the amendments would make it unlawful for a 17-year-old girl to marry her boss. I am sure that that is not what is intended.

I hope that I have made it clear that there are too many problems with my hon. Friend's amendments as they stand, and as they are technically drafted, for them to be accepted tonight. However, I respect both his intentions and his attempt to draft amendments in order to give the House a chance to act.

Mr. Ashton

My hon. Friend is gabbling at breakneck speed, and I cannot keep up. I do not know why he is doing that. Why can he not take things much more slowly, so that we can understand what is happening?

The amendments were drawn up at my request by the Clerk of the Committee examining the Crime and Disorder Bill, who is an experienced lawyer. I do not claim that the amendments or proposed new clause 8 are perfect, but they do not have the wide-ranging implications that my hon. Friend claims.

The Minister—and the Secretary of State before him—said that the Crime and Disorder Bill would be back before the House by the end of July and would become law. The Minister now says that the working party will keep trundling along and may produce a report at the end of the year. Perhaps we will debate that and perhaps there will be another Bill.

I have been in the House a long time and have heard Governments say that they will act, only for things to remain in limbo. With respect, the Minister has not replied to my amendments regarding restraint on abuse—although he virtually said that the existing situation is not working. Can we have a date? Will there be a new Bill? When will it be presented? Can we have—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not make a second speech.

Mr. Michael

I think I made it clear—if I did so too quickly, I apologise to my hon. Friend—that I accept the purposes behind his amendments. However, I hope that I have outlined also the damaging complications in this very complicated piece of interrelated legislation. I also made it clear that it is important to have legislation that works. For instance, the Bill deals with issues such as anti-social behaviour and sex offender orders. We spent much time on those issues in opposition so that we could bring before the House considered ways of dealing with them. It should be recognised that, as a result of our putting in that time, and moving quickly as soon as the opportunity arose, the Bill as a whole is a most reforming piece of criminal justice legislation, tackling youth justice and a variety of issues.

Similarly, we have dealt with the needs of victims and vulnerable witnesses. The House has debated that issue frequently over many years. We have got on with the job since coming to power.

Mr. Ashton

Cannot the Lords achieve the same aim in an amendment that could come back to this House?

Mr. Michael

No, I do not believe that there is time to do that properly without placing the whole Bill at risk, including the reform of youth justice, protection for people through dealing with anti-social behaviour and dealing with some aspects of predatory behaviour through the sex offenders order. I am sure that my hon. Friend does not want to slow down the process of getting those matters into law.

Mr. Bermingham

No one is trying to sabotage the Bill. We are merely seeking to protect a small group of people from a small group of predators. Is it beyond the wit of the Minister and the Home Office to take that on board?

Mr. Michael

No, of course it is not. That is why we are doing so much on the issue. That is why, for instance, we put sex offender orders in the legislation. That is an aspect of protecting children against the activities of predatory adults.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Surely this matter could be dealt with in the House of Lords, where there is enough legal expertise for a sensible amendment to emerge and come back to this place.

Mr. Michael

I understand why the hon. Gentleman would wish that. Once he has considered what I have said about the complex effect of the amendments—particularly the fact that they would introduce a new element of inequality to a new clause that seeks to end inequality—I hope that he will accept that they would not achieve what he wants to achieve.

Mr. Gerald Howarth


Mr. Michael

These issues need to be thought through with great care before we embark on legislation.

Mr. Howarth

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Michael

I shall give way for the last time. Many hon. Members wish to speak.

Mr. Howarth

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, because it was hellish difficult to get in between two sentences.

If he accepts the logic of the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), which I also signed, he will find that they provide some protection in respect of hon. Members' concerns. If he feels that, although inadequate in their present form, they should be enacted in an adequate form but that he cannot do that now, he should call on the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen) to withdraw the motion.

Mr. Michael

No, because it is the drafting and tabling that relate the two issues. I do not believe that new clause 1 will have the result that the hon. Gentleman thinks it will. It deals with a separate point, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw is right to say that 16 and 17-year-old boys and girls—he is right to place that joint emphasis—need protection from predatory adults. The two issues are brought together in the debate by the juxtaposition of the amendments. I see them as two separate issues, but I have sought to respond to the debate in respect of both.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Michael

Many hon. Members wish to speak. I said that I had given way for the last time. It is better to get it right than to get it wrong quickly and give the impression of having done something by accepting amendments that would not achieve the ends which my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw says he seeks. He raised important issues. I hope that he, and those who agree with him, will accept our assurances about our intention to deal with the issues and will not press the amendment.

Mr. Anderson

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Michael

I have said already that the intervention that I accepted from the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) would be the last one. If I were to take further interventions I would be eating into the time of Back-Bench Members who wish to take part in the debate.

I hope that I have said enough, without delaying the House further, to show why the amendment to increase the age of consent where one of the parties is over 21 is wrong and would not succeed in its purpose.

I turn to new clause 4 and the related amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) and others. New clause 4 and the associated amendments seek to remove one of the two qualifications that now exist to the proposition that consensual homosexual activity involving parties of the age of consent is lawful if done in private. I am sympathetic to the intention behind the new clause and amendments and to the strong feeling on the part of many people that the law in this area is discriminatory. I understand the argument that it is wrong to penalise homosexual activity that takes place between consenting parties of the age of consent in the privacy of the home just because more than two people are present.

It is important, however, that Parliament should recognise that there are differing views and that there are likely to remain concerns about sexual activity in public places, and not only gay activity. There are different approaches to the issue. In the past, Stonewall put forward a set of proposals which would involve repealing the offences of buggery and gross indecency and amending the Public Order Act 1986 to cover harassment, alarm or distress caused, among other things, by indecent behaviour. The Criminal Law Revision Committee, which considered the issue in 1984, came up with different proposals which would involve creating a new offence. That illustrates the need to consider such issues in the round.

There are inequalities, and those inequalities need to be addressed. However, particularly in an area as complex as sexual offences legislation, a problem can rarely be solved by one simple amendment. We need to examine the consequences of making changes and consider whether, by dealing with one problem, we may not be creating others.

I refer again to the fact that I recently announced our intention to review the law relating to sexual offences more generally. There are many anomalies in the existing legislation, which in many respects reflects attitudes and views that are no longer accepted in modern society. The review of this area of legislation is long overdue, but matters are not helped by piecemeal reform such as that proposed by the amendment. There are also technical defects in the amendment.

My response is not intended to deny the importance of the House dealing with these issues but to say that the time is not right. There will be unfinished business after tonight's debate. In an earlier debate, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary explained the urgency of seeing the Bill through all its stages as soon as possible. It contains many proposals that will affect directly the lives of all our constituents who are plagued by crime and disorder in local communities.

The protection of children and vulnerable adults will be at the forefront of the Government's proposals. There will be areas of the law that need review following the decision of principle, but let tonight's decision be a clear and simple one—to agree an equal age of consent.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. There is now less than an hour left for the debate to run, so short speeches from hon. Members on both sides of the House will be appreciated.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

It is clear that there is a majority in the House to equalise the age of consent at 16. I agree with the view that, even if one disapproves of homosexual practice, we should ideally not be using the criminal law to make a judgment on it. I subscribe to the liberal position that people should be free to behave as they wish, as long as that does not impact on the freedom of others.

However, it is the duty of the House to have regard to the consequences of the laws we make. It is also our duty to protect the interests of those whose judgment has not fully matured. Even from a liberal perspective—here I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack)—we hold the interests of children in trust in the House.

I have considered the issue carefully in the light of my instincts and beliefs. I do not believe that the House can pass without qualification the new clause tabled by the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen).

Every responsible body that has considered the issue has acknowledged the need to protect children. I hope that the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth will pay attention as I quote the 1957 Wolfenden report, because she gave a totally different interpretation to it. The report states: While there are some grounds for fixing the age as low as 16, it is obvious that however 'mature' a boy of that age may be as regards physical development or psycho-sexual make-up, and whatever analogies may be drawn from the law relating to offences against young girls, a boy is incapable, at the age of 16, of forming a mature judgment about actions of a kind which might have the effect of setting him apart from the rest of society. The Wolfenden report concluded that 21 was the right age, because to fix it at 18 would lay them open to attentions and pressures of an undesirable kind from which the adoption of the later age would help to protect them, and from which they ought, in view of their special vulnerability, to be protected.

Mr. Woodward

Will my hon. Friend give way?

9.30 pm
Mr. Blunt

If my hon. Friend will wait, I shall address the point that I believe he is about to make.

Society has clearly changed in the past 40 years, but the consideration of protecting vulnerable individuals remains valid. I believe that it is a legitimate judgment to believe that 18 to 21-year-olds are more mature than they were in 1957 and that they are wiser in the ways of the world, having enjoyed the benefits of television and the information age and of more liberal attitudes in society generally. That is why, had I been a Member of Parliament in 1994, I would have supported changing the age of homosexual consent to 18. However, 16 and 17-year-olds still need special consideration.

In 1979, the Home Office policy advisory committee's working party had a minority view that supported the reduction to 16, but with the compromise that a young man of 16 or 17 should be protected by the criminal law from the advances of a man in authority over him. I believe that it is self-evident that an adult over the age of 21 has an authority over 16 and 17-year-olds.

In 1985, the Howard League for Penal Reform took as its base assumption that the individual should be free to regulate his or her sexual conduct in private, provided there is protection for the young or immature from exploitation or undue pressure. It recommended the introduction of a whole new system, which would have ensured legal protection from sexual exploitation for everyone under the age of 18, by creating offences of unlawful indecency and unlawful sexual contact with children under the age of 14, or with young persons under the age of 18 if the age gap between the participants was more than two years.

It is the issue of protecting minors from exploitation by adults that is at the heart of our debate tonight. The principle of an equal age of consent, qualified by the protection of the young from adults, is already enacted in law in respect of sex between adults and children in five European Union countries. Is the House going to pass the new clause without regard for the consequences?

Mr. Woodward

Is my hon. Friend aware that the NSPCC, Childline and many other agencies have addressed the issue of child protection? The NSPCC's movement on that issue in the past few years is crucial. It considers it absolutely vital that, if we are effectively to protect children, we need an equal age of consent.

Mr. Blunt

I respect my hon. Friend's point of view and that of the NSPCC, and I shall go on to explain why I support an equal age of consent while also supporting the protection of young boys, aged 16 and 17, from adults over the age of 21. That is the aim of the amendments tabled in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait). I hope that, if we have the chance to vote on them, they will commend themselves to the House.

The Utting report, cited by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), combined with accounts from any police vice squad in the country, the experience of the sex industry in Holland and the changes to the gay sex industry here since we changed the law in 1994, show graphically what will happen if the House passes the new clause unchanged.

I support the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw. It deals with the abuse of trust, and covers both boys and girls. It meets any conceivable objections to differences between homosexuality and heterosexuality. It is, however, both limited and specific. It is self-evidently common sense, and it should command the support of everyone in the House.

The amendments in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham would go further. They would prevent the exploitation of boys of 16 and 17 by men over the age of 21. This is not some new or unique principle. Exactly the same sort of law exists in Austria, where the age of consent is 14 and where it is illegal for a male over the age of 19 to commit homosexual acts with a male between the ages of 14 and 18. I accept that our amendments discriminate, just as Austrian law does, between homosexual and heterosexual practice. We are dealing with different forms of behaviour; I believe it right that our law should discriminate in that limited way between homosexual and heterosexual practice.

Issues to do with marriage, the upbringing of children, and the lack of psychological and sexual equivalence between boys and girls aged 16 and 17, have led me to conclude that my amendments should apply only to homosexual relationships. I concede that it is arguable that they could apply equally to the exploitation of young girls by older men. However, the everyday experience of adolescents, combined with scientific observations, makes it clear that boys of this age are self-evidently less mature, sexually and in judgment, than their female counterparts. While I accept that, in law, we should tolerate people's choices to follow a homosexual life style and practice, I maintain that those are not equivalent to heterosexuality—nor should we pretend that they are.

Mr. Bradshaw

The hon. Gentleman perpetuates the myth that being gay is a life style choice. It is no more a life style choice than is his sexual orientation.

Mr. Blunt

I am afraid that I cannot accept that. In our culture, the choice of a homosexual orientation tends to become the dominating influence on a person's life: it defines homosexuals in a way that heterosexuality does not. I am not condemning that choice; I believe that it should be tolerated. I do not, however, believe the two choices to be the same.

It is also clear that there is a much greater strand of homosexuality than of heterosexuality which depends for its gratification on the exploitation of youth. [HON. MEMBERS: "Shame!"] I am sorry if Labour Members do not like the truth, but I do not intend to run away from the difficult issues.

Ann Keen

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Blunt

The hon. Lady did not give way to me.

My conclusion is that we have a duty to protect boys of 16 and 17 from exploitation by men of 21 and over. To those who say that my amendment will be struck down by the European Court of Human Rights, I would answer: that has not happened to Austria. My amendments also comply with equalising the age of consent. The ECHR will have to draw the line somewhere—unless we go for absolute equivalence, an idea which I reject.

This discrimination is defensible and, at the very least, should be tested. It properly belongs, as the Government have acknowledged, in the margin of appreciation, recognised by the European Court of Human Rights, allowed to democratic states to legislate in controversial areas. That is why I commend my amendment to the House and ask hon. Members to support it, if it is put to the vote. If it is not accepted, I should not want to be associated with the consequences of accepting new clause 1.

I urge hon. Members to consider the consequences of their actions before they vote. If, like me, they consider that there is a case for homosexuality to be tolerated as equally as possible, but balanced by regard for the consequences, they will support my amendment.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

Given the lateness of the hour, I shall not take interventions in the next few minutes so that other hon. Members can speak in the debate.

The views that I put to the House shall be put as a Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church of England and putting forward its views on the matter. I should not want it to be thought, however, that I do not entirely subscribe to those views.

Mr. Bradshaw

Will my hon. Friend give way on that point?

Mr. Bell

I said clearly that I would not give way.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has made it clear that he does not support further lowering of the age of consent for homosexual practice. He believes that that would send a signal that homosexual practice is on a par with, and equal to, heterosexual relationships, a point which the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) made earlier. The archbishop has made it plain that he recognises that there are valid arguments on both sides, but his view remains that it would not be desirable to send out such a signal.

In a statement this weekend, the House of Bishops made it plain that all who have leadership responsibility in our society, in Church and state, have a particular duty to support young people in their personal development, to protect them from harm and exploitation, and to offer them a vision of what is good. Legislation affecting sexual relationships should therefore offer protection, set an example of what is good, and be rooted in sound moral values.

There is particular need in our culture to support young people. Pressures are at work to legitimise any and every life style, irrespective of any difference of value and quality between them. The Church believes that those pressures should be resisted. The House of Bishops recognises the complexity of the issues facing legislators and the House, but it is concerned that the proposal to lower to 16 the age of consent for homosexual relationships may send wrong messages to young people and to our society as a whole. It is particularly important for it to be understood that actions may be legal without being morally right or socially desirable. I shall refer briefly to that point later.

Although the House of Bishops accepts that there is a debate within in it about the right way forward on this issue—as, indeed, there is in the wider Church—it believes that there is a widespread desire that a broader agenda of moral vision should provide the context for the debate and for the consideration of other social issues. We all need to work for greater stability and flourishing in our personal lives, the building of family life and the deepening of community life.

For those reasons, the majority of the House of Bishops opposes the new clause to lower the age of consent for homosexual relationships. If something is morally wrong, the fact that the House votes to make it legally right does not make it anything other than morally wrong. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) referred to Church and state, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), who is not in the Chamber, referred to the Utting report. Over the past 30 years, the state has withdrawn from issues of morality.

Like the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) and other hon. Members, I voted four years ago for the age of consent to be reduced from 21 to 18. Hon. Members are being asked further to reduce the age of consent to 16. It is my view that soon we shall be asked to vote for a reduction to 14—a point which was touched on by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), among others. The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) did not want marches by organisations such as OutRage! In Paris yesterday, 20,000 people marched for civil marriage for homosexual couples and for the legal right to adopt children. This is a further undermining of family life, which has been and will continue to be the basis of our society for years to come.

There must be a line in the moral sand. It is the view of the House of Bishops, so clearly stated, that its position is a reflection of a modern, confident Church which is prepared now to state clearly where it stands on morality and to invite the state to join it in a partnership. That can begin tonight by Members opposing the new clause and by marrying Church and state to follow a different route—one that will help younger generations and those who are still children.

9.45 pm
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

I want to speak tonight from the perspective of human rights. New clause 1, to which I put my name, and new clause 4 are supported by Members from all political parties. It is important to make clear notes in these debates and not to hold them upside down. I am reminded of what happened in the 1994 debate in the other place, when an elderly bishop said that he did not realise they were talking about 18; he thought it was 81—and even he recognised that that could not be fair.

There is a danger not only of upside-down reading, but of upside-down thinking. The basic starting point in addressing the issue is that there should be equality in law. There need to be overwhelming reasons to move away from equality and non-discrimination.

The sponsors and supporters of new clause 1 are not asking those who oppose it to approve of homosexual acts; they are not even asking them to accept them. All they are asking, as a minimum, is that they are not criminalised and that we do not legislate against the expression of love between people who have reached a fixed sexuality in their lives. It is for that reason that, in determining my vote, I cannot accept the views of the Archbishop of Canterbury or those bishops—and they are split on this issue—who do not want the House to accept new clause 1.

Mr. Leigh

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Harris

I will do so later in my speech. Indeed, I would prefer to give way on a point about new clause 4, on which there has been little debate. I am responding to points made by hon. Members, who have not given way, on new clause 1.

We do not yet live in a theocracy, so we are not bound to take note of a majority view in the House of Bishops, especially when the bishop charged by the Synod with dealing with this matter and tackling the issue of homosexuality for the Church itself, Bishop Harries of Oxford, favours a reduction in the age of consent to 16—for the reasons that we have heard tonight from the supporters of new clause 1.

The Archbishop of Canterbury and other bishops are entitled to their view. The proposers of the new clause do not ask them to drop their view based on the Bible. Nor does the fact that adultery is not criminal in this country mean that those who agree with that feel that those of a religious persuasion should drop their prima facie objection to it. Many of us would be concerned about that. The question is whether the criminal code should legislate against these matters, and I believe that it should not.

On the basic premise of moving towards equality and non-discrimination in other matters, I want to speak briefly about medical issues, which have been raised in the debate. I speak as a member of the British Medical Association council and the proposer of a motion at a meeting last year, when it unanimously restated its belief in equality in the age of consent at 16—and in a whole range of other equality issues. The council is joined in that belief by bodies such as the Health Education Council, the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and other royal colleges. Each established medical body believes, on the review of evidence, that there is no medical reason to oppose an equalisation in the age of consent at 16.

I regret that I must disagree with the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), who spoke so powerfully, but did say that there were medical divisions. On the review of all the evidence, the established medical bodies have come down firmly in favour of equalisation. It is now medically accepted that homosexuality is fixed at an early age and not at an age greater than 16. People such as the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) state that that is not the case, but stating that does not make it so. Those who believe that the earth is flat do not make it so by declaring that it is flat.

Mr. Blunt


Mr. Brazier


Dr. Harris

I shall not give way on this point, because I wish to make progress.

The same applies to the journalist in The Daily Telegraph, who, in a flat-earth way, makes certain medical statements as if they were fact when they are not accepted by medical opinion. I was outed in The Daily Telegraph as a doctor who believes in equality, and outed as a liberal, to which I confess without any shame. I am delighted that I have now been named in The Daily Telegraph in a capacity other than that of bridge player.

The other medical question is whether sexuality can be changed by participation in sexual activity. Medical authorities do not accept that, among the multifarious factors, sexual practice, especially in teenage life, has any effect on sexuality. European countries that have a lower age of consent do not have a higher rate of homosexuality. The medical and psychological evidence supports my case.

The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack)—he could be described as the hon. Member for the 19th century—referred to the problem of predation. As has been said, that problem affects young women and girls as much as, if not more than, it affects young boys. There is no evidence to suggest that a greater proportion of those involved in paedophilia are homosexual. The vast majority of paedophile criminals are heterosexuals who exploit young boys as well as young girls.

The issue of AIDS has been raised, particularly by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire.

Mr. Brazier

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Harris

No, not on this point, because I want to make progress.

The Terrence Higgins Trust did a remarkable amount to reduce the incidence of HIV transmission. Although the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), who is no longer present, did well in getting across to the wider population the message about the dangers of HIV infection, the Conservative Government can be criticised for not sending enough targeted messages about the dangers affecting homosexuals of all ages. It is not through homosexual acts, but through unsafe sexual practice with someone who is infected, that the virus is transmitted. We must get that message across.

I have worked as a doctor in the field of HIV; people with AIDS have died in my arms. I do not want a return to the years when people were not able to obtain critical information about sexual health because, in seeking such information, they ran the risk of being criminalised. Young people have a right to such information.

From a medical perspective, I entirely share the views of the Minister of State on the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton). The amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Reigate are incompetent. Amendments to criminalise homosexual behaviour between people over 21 and those below the age of 18 would make a legal relationship between a 17-year-old and a 20-year-old suddenly illegal and criminal on the date of the birthday of the older person in the relationship. It would be some birthday present to criminalise a previously non-criminal relationship. Those amendments must be opposed by the majority of hon. Members, who, I believe, want to equalise the age of consent at 16.

I deal now with the subject of new clause 4, which has cross-party support. It has not been advertised widely in advance of this debate. That was deliberate on the part of its proposers, in order to avoid detracting from the main message that should emerge from this debate, which is the equalisation of the age of consent. Although it has been advocated quietly, however, it is a critical new clause.

New clause 4 would delete a gross violation of privacy and a gross violation of the right to freedom from discrimination. It seeks to delete the provision in the Sexual Offences Act 1967 that means that consenting homosexual acts by adults in private can never be private, no matter how many doors they are locked behind, when more than two people are present—not more than two people participating, but more than two people present. I think that many Conservative Members, and not only those who take a libertarian view in supporting this, believe that an Englishman's house is his castle.

Mr. Leigh

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Harris

I will give way in a moment.

Certainly, the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) will take that remark literally. I will not press this too much further, but the right hon. Gentleman would not like the Secretary of State coming into his bedroom to see what he was up to as a consenting adult in private; and I am sure that the Secretary of State would not want to be there. This is a serious matter that strikes at the heart of the rights of consenting adults in private to do what they wish without the state intervening.

Mr. Leigh

At times, this debate has seemed unreal, not least because of the 13 speeches given, only three have opposed the new clause. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that people outside will be astonished by what he is saying? Every opinion poll—NOP, the Wellings survey—shows that 73 per cent. of the nation is opposed to new clause 1 on good moral and religious grounds, yet the hon. Gentleman, who is a doctor, is supporting gay sex by adults—not only by consenting adults in private, but by groups. Does he appreciate how out of touch he is with the real world?

Dr. Harris

If it is asked whether there should be equalisation of the age of consent, opinion polls show a majority in favour. The House is above making legislation according to selective opinion polls. If we operated on that basis, we should not have seen the huge majority, rightly, against the reintroduction of capital punishment, among other things. We should not pander to prejudice, however inadvertently it is held by the population. This matter is a litmus test for the liberality of Government, political parties and individual Members, in which to prove that they will not kow-tow to apparent or real prejudice in society.

The provision that new clause 4 seeks to delete was introduced in 1965 into the Bill that was later adopted by Leo Abse. It was passed in the other place by a group of homophobic peers—that is clear from a reading of the record. Many Labour Members have as their hero Hugh Gaitskell, but on this issue, the real heroine was Baroness Gaitskell, who tried to make it clear to the peers who were prejudiced that the very acts referred to earlier were legal if performed by heterosexuals, were not punishable on a felony and by imprisonment, and there was no reason why they should be for consenting adults of any sexuality in private.

The major problem with this debate is that it is impossible—from some of the sedentary comments made by some Conservative Members, one can see why—for Governments to tackle the issue raised by new clause 4. Unlike the issues related to new clause 1, the subject of new clause 4 has not been debated in this House since 1967. The provision added by the peers in 1967—the extra provision covering privacy—was specifically not recommended by the Wolfenden report in 1956. This House, to its shame, has never revisited it since. Therefore, one cannot say that new clause 4 is being rushed.

There are other examples of discrimination which I shall not go into, but of which I know the Minister of State and the Government are aware. However, I should like to explain why we, the proposers of new clause 4, want more progress made than the Minister outlined.

We should like Ministers to recognise—which, to the Government's credit, I think that they have already partly done—that we are debating a matter neither of anomalies nor of some strange historical quirks, but of outright discrimination, of the type that the Labour manifesto promised to abolish. Labour pledged to end unjustified discrimination wherever it occurs", even in matters that are difficult to debate, such as sexual offences law.

We should also like the Government to reaffirm that those discrimination issues do not touch upon child protection issues. We are debating issues concerning consenting adults acting in private, and the waters should not be muddied by raising other issues. We should therefore be grateful if the Minister would make a separate statement on reviewing the laws dealing with discrimination and ensure the right to equality for homosexuals and heterosexuals. The statement should be separate from a discussion of paedophilia and protection of the young—matters which many hon. Members of all parties are concerned about.

Dr. Julian Lewis

As a doctor, and therefore an expert in medical matters, will the hon. Gentleman answer a simple question? Is it or is it not the case that engaging in anal sex increases the chance of catching AIDS?

10 pm

Dr. Harris

The hon. Gentleman needs to know that engaging in any sex—compared to abstinence—increases the risk of catching various diseases. We do not criminalise, for example—although the analogy is not very strong—dangerous sports. Neither, for the reason that he gave, should we criminalise consenting acts in private by people capable of giving consent. It is not the case that homosexual acts are inherently dangerous—which is why not one person in the ruling council of the British Medical Association or even one recognised medical or nursing establishment would agree with the hon. Gentleman's views, which cannot be based on a review of medical evidence. I feel that his views are based on an exploration of his own prejudice.

I urge Ministers to acknowledge that current legislation is discriminatory and not merely anomalous; to espouse the principle that the state should not seek to criminalise or intervene in consenting acts in private by adults and not involving injury; to clarify that consenting homosexual activities above the age of consent should not be associated directly in law with paedophile offences, and that there is no reason to do so; and, finally, to agree to a full review of discriminatory sexual offences, with a clear view to ending such discrimination during this Parliament.

I invite the Minister to give those undertakings to hon. Members from both sides of the House—including Conservative Members—who support new clause 4.

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South)

New clause 1 is about equality and social justice, not about privileges, special treatment, positive discrimination or removing safeguards for the vulnerable. The new clause is about ensuring our fellow citizens' equality before the law. The litmus test of a civilised and pluralist society is how it treat its minorities. We all belong to a minority of one sort or another.

The new clause is also not about whether hon. Members share or approve of the outlook of a specific minority. It is about whether, in a civilised society at the end of the 20th century, hon. Members should deny equality. Many hon. Members—not least Conservative Members—are disciples of J. S. Mill, who believed in keeping the state out of the private sphere of people's lives. Elizabeth I would not make windows into men's souls, yet Conservative Members often seem very unwilling not to make windows into the bedroom.

Like Conservative Members, current law makes such windows. What has been the result of maintaining a discriminatory age of consent? Today, one national newspaper said that it was three decades of fear, shame and damage generated by an unequal law. The unequal law isolates some teenagers. It also encourages intolerance among and between teenagers.

A national survey of homophobia in schools consulted 1,000 head teachers, 80 per cent. of whom reported verbal bullying. More than 25 per cent. reported assaults on pupils who were believed to be gay or bisexual. Surveys of gay teenagers confirm the same figures, and, as hon. Members have heard tonight, a significant proportion of them are pressured almost to suicide.

A discriminatory age of consent frets and fetters those who would give support to young people. My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen) and others have referred to the views of Barnardos, Save the Children and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Above all, a discriminatory age of consent compounds the sense of isolation that affects many gay teenagers. Some Opposition Members may think that it is all about life style choices and metropolitan glitz, but it is not easy being a gay teenager in a small northern town, in the valleys or in the shires.

I remember a summer evening in France a number of years ago when I was 17 and a school friend told me and those of us who had gone on holiday together that he was gay, nervously waiting to see what the reaction would be. Thank God it was positive and supportive. I could not speak tonight without discharging a debt to his courage on that occasion. Today 16 and 17-year-olds up and down the country are wrestling with the same fears and decisions. We could assist them in coming to terms with and making their decisions. We should not load them down with premature criminality.

To maintain an unequal age of consent sends a message of discrimination that, however conscientious, civic-minded and productive members of society gay people are, they must continue to accept second-class status. It is a message that inevitably devalues their self-worth and humanity. Societies that are content to afford that status to minority groups consistently run the risk that, when turmoil or upheaval affects them, those discriminated against become the scapegoats.

Some have tried to suggest that maintaining a discriminatory age of consent is what the public want. I remind hon. Members that at various times the status quo wanted to keep slaves, public hangings and bear baiting, and to treat women as chattels and deny them an independent role in society. Society is what it is today because, at diverse times and in diverse places, the House has had the courage to move on.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) said, in the past few days we have had the rather vague statement from some bishops about sending out wrong messages.

Mr. Bradshaw

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Marsden

I am sorry, but I do not have enough time.

The House is here to enact legislation for all faiths and for none. If we are talking about our Christian inheritance and belief, as some have done this evening, let me say that I share it, however imperfectly, as do many who support this change. Unfortunately, I do not have the marvellous hotline to the Almighty that some hon. Members have in respect of man-made law. I recall, however, a few phrases in the Bible, such as: Judge not, that ye be not judged"; and: In my Father's house are many mansions".

That is why, gently, I suggest that my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough goes to the Primate of All England and that, when the Primate of All England goes into his private chapel in the palace over the river, he looks into his own heart and asks himself about the wrong messages that have been sent out to generations of young people struggling with their faith and sexuality by attitudes within the Church that have shut them out like the Samaritans of old.

Hon. Members must also look into their hearts and think about the message that they will send after tonight's vote to those who serve them in this place who are gay, lesbian or bisexual, to those among their constituents who come to them for help, to those among their friends, political supporters and associates, to their families and to those who are known and unknown, visible and invisible in their sexual orientation. Will they say, "Oh, we are sorry, but we have decided that we have to continue to make you feel just that little bit smaller, just that little bit more fearful, just that little bit more excluded"?

If there are people here willing to do that, so be it, but let them not delude themselves that they do not do it to real people of flesh and blood. Shakespeare said it all in "The Merchant of Venice": Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? … If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us. do we not die? I came here not to out the bard, but to praise him. I should like hon. Members to reflect on the wise words of Mr. Shakespeare and on the words of E. M. Forster, who said that we should "only connect". I ask hon. Members to reflect and to only connect.

When I wrote a few words about my sexuality recently in my local paper, among the correspondence that I received was a letter from a support group for parents of lesbian, gay and bisexual children. Like Shakespeare, they put the issue more eloquently than I could: We are all born in the same way and go when the time is right. It is what we can do in between with the very short time we have that matters most. Let us do this by treating all people as equal—and this means starting with our daughters and sons, doesn't it? I urge the adoption of the new clause.

Sir Peter Lloyd (Fareham)

The hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) spoke with considerable feeling. We can all sympathise with individuals in the circumstances he described.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen) on tabling the new clause. I did not agree with everything she said, but I wholly agreed with the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton). I hope that he will press his amendments and that the House will adopt them. The Minister may be right to say that the wording of the amendments is not correct, but that can be considered at greater leisure in another place.

The amendments deal with a far narrower issue than will the review the Minister says he wants to set up. It is not beyond the powers of their Lordships to judge whether they give effect to what the hon. Member for Bassetlaw and those who support him want. Let the Lords decide. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]

Some of my hon. Friends cheer me slightly too early. In 1994 I voted for 16 and I intend to do the same this evening. That is not because I believe that there is a particular age for male or female, heterosexual or homosexual—

Mr. Leigh

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I know that you and Mr. Deputy Speaker have a difficult task organising debates, but it must be placed on the record that there have been 15 speeches, and only two or three have given the clear case against gay sex at 16.

Madam Speaker

Order. If the hon. Gentleman or any other hon. Member has a complaint, the Order Paper is available. They should put an early-day motion on the Order Paper criticising me for my selection. I shall see that it is debated without delay.

Sir Peter Lloyd

I hope that I can finish my speech first.

Whatever age is selected, it will be too low for some young people and too high for others. There must be clarity in the law, and we have to settle on the age or ages that seem to provide maximum protection with the minimum harmful side effects.

I do not accept that, simply because 16 is the age of consent for heterosexual relationships, it must be the same for homosexual activity, but the distinguishing features are not so great as many of those who oppose the new clause think them to be. Teenage girls become pregnant, with devastating effects on their lives. That would argue a higher age of consent for girls, but, whatever the logic, raising it would surely not reduce their sexual activity at all. Indeed, it would only bring the law into contempt and make it harder for young girls, to obtain advice and guidance.

Similarly, homosexual activity carries considerable health risks, which again suggests a higher age than 16, but—again—if a young person is so inclined, the law is less likely to stop him from starting that activity than it is to discourage him from seeking medical and moral advice. It is generally accepted that girls mature physically earlier than boys, and so they do, but that is a double-edged argument. If physical maturity is to be the determining point, the age of consent for girls at least would have to go down below 16.

Some of my hon. Friends say, "Ah"—particularly my female hon. Friends, I find—"the real point is that girls are so much more psychologically mature at 16 than boys." I am unconvinced of that—not as unconvinced as I was when I was 16, but I see no particular reason to think that boys are in much greater danger from older men than girls are.

It is said that boys can be sexually very ambivalent in their teens and thus particularly vulnerable to seduction by older men, which can make them permanently homosexual when they might otherwise have worked through their doubts and proclivities to a normal homosexual orientation, as most people would regard it. [HON. MEMBERS: "Heterosexual."' A normal heterosexual orientation. I am grateful. I will not have to tamper with Hansard.

10.15 pm

The evidence seems to be that those who are not homosexually inclined find homosexual activity repugnant; that those who are generally know it well before they are 16; and that those who are confused and ambivalent are not going to be fixated for life, one way or another, according to the nature of their sexual experience, if any, at the age of 16 or 17. Indeed, for those going through a temporary phase, the knowledge that they are doing so under the threat of prosecution—of their partner, if not of themselves—cannot be conducive to a satisfactory resolution of their uncertainties.

If the reply is that 16 and 17-year-olds are never prosecuted in practice—and that the law is just to ensure that older, exploitative partners can be—there are better and more honest ways of doing so, as provided by the amendments to new clause 1 and new clause 8, tabled by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw, which I hope will be extended in the House of Lords.

The age of consent properly seeks to protect children before they reach an age where they themselves can choose to be sexually active. Both sexes are now reaching that point earlier, largely because of earlier physical maturation. It makes no sense at all to extend that age of consent far beyond the point where many have, rightly or wrongly, started to engage in sexual relationships of their own volition—the majority heterosexual, the minority homosexual.

What is needed is a law that ensures that the young of both sexes are not drawn into relationships of either kind by older people exploiting positions of trust and influence. That is why I support amendment (a). The Government are unhappy with the wording, so let them put it right—it is a narrow point—in the House of Lords. I hope that they find a set of words that will ensure that the measure also covers those who organise or financially benefit—

It being six and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on consideration of the Bill, MADAM SPEAKER, pursuant to the Order [16 June] and the Resolution [18 June], put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair.

The House divided: Ayes 336, Noes 129.

Division No. 311] [10.19pm
Abbott, Ms Diane Crausby, David
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N) Cryer, John (Hornchurch)
Ainger, Nick Cummings, John
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)
Alexander, Douglas Cunningham, Ms Roseanna
Allan, Richard (Perth)
Allen, Graham Curry, Rt Hon David
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale) Darling, Rt Hon Alistair
Armstrong, Ms Hilary Darvill, Keith
Ashton, Joe Davey, Edward (Kingston)
Atkins, Charlotte Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)
Ballard, Jackie Davidson, Ian
Banks, Tony Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)
Barron, Kevin Davies, Rt Hon Ron (Caerphilly)
Beard, Nigel Dewson, Hilton
Begg, Miss Anne Denham, John
Beith, Rt Hon A J Dismore, Andrew
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Dobbin, Jim
Berry, Roger Donohoe, Brian H
Blair, Rt Hon Tony Doran, Frank
Blears, Ms Hazel Dowd, Jim
Blizzard, Bob Duncan, Alan
Boateng, Paul Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)
Body, Sir Richard Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)
Borrow, David Edwards, Huw
Boswell, Tim Efford, Clive
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Ellman, Mrs Louise
Bradley, Keith (Withington) Ennis, Jeff
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Ewing, Mrs Margaret
Bradshaw, Ben Fabricant, Michael
Brady, Graham Fatchett, Derek
Brake, Tom Fearn, Ronnie
Brinton, Mrs Helen Field, Rt Hon Frank
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Fisher, Mark
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E) Fitzpatrick, Jim
Browne, Desmond Fitzsimons, Lorna
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Flint, Caroline
Buck, Ms Karen Follett, Barbara
Burden, Richard Foster, Don (Bath)
Burstow, Paul Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings)
Butler, Mrs Christine Foulkes, George
Byers, Stephen Galloway, George
Cable, Dr Vincent Gapes, Mike
Caborn, Richard Gardiner, Barry
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) George, Andrew (St Ives)
Campbell, Menzies (NE Fife) Gilroy, Mrs Linda
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Godman, Dr Norman A
Campbell-Savours, Dale Godsiff, Roger
Caplin, Ivor Goggins, Paul
Casale, Roger Golding, Mrs Llin
Caton, Martin Goodlad, Rt Hon Sir Alastair
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S) Gordon, Mrs Eileen
Chisholm, Malcolm Gorrie, Donald
Clapham, Michael Grant, Bernie
Clark, Dr Lynda Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
(Edinburgh Pentlands) Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Clarke, Charles (Norwich S) Grocott, Bruce
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S) Grogan, John
Clelland, David Gunnell, John
Clwyd, Ann Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Coaker, Vernon Hall, Patrick (Bedford)
Coffey, Ms Ann Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)
Coleman, Iain Hanson, David
Colman, Tony Harman, Rt Hon Ms Harriet
Connarty, Michael Harris, Dr Evan
Cooper, Yvette Harvey, Nick
Corbett, Robin Heal, Mrs Sylvia
Corbyn, Jeremy Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)
Corston, Ms Jean Heath, Rt Hon Sir Edward
Cotter, Brian Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N)
Cousins, Jim Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)
Hepburn, Stephen Mahon, Mrs Alice
Hesford, Stephen Mallaber, Judy
Hill, Keith Mandelson, Peter
Hodge, Ms Margaret Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Hoey, Kate Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)
Home Robertson, John Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Hood, Jimmy Marshall-Andrews, Robert
Hope, Phil Martlew, Eric
Hopkins, Kelvin Maxton, John
Howarth, Alan (Newport E) Meale, Alan
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) Merron, Gillian
Howells, Dr Kim Michael, Alun
Hoyle, Lindsay Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)
Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford) Milburn, Alan
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) Miller, Andrew
Hughes, Simon (Southwark N) Mitchell, Austin
Humble, Mrs Joan Moffatt, Laura
Hurst, Alan Moonie, Dr Lewis
Hutton, John Moore, Michael
Iddon, Dr Brian Moran, Ms Margaret
Illsley, Eric Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)
Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead) Morgan, Rhodri (Cardiff W)
Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough) Morley, Elliot
Jackson, Robert (Wantage) Morris, Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Jamieson, David Mullin, Chris
Jenkin, Bernard Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hassle) Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Johnson, Miss Melanie Murphy, Paul (Torfaen)
(Welwyn Hatfield) Naysmith, Dr Doug
Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside) Norris, Dan
Jones, Helen (Warrington N) Oaten, Mark
Jones, Ieuan Wyn (Ynys Môn) O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C) Olner, Bill
Jowell, Ms Tessa O'Neill, Martin
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Organ, Mrs Diana
Keeble, Ms Sally Osborne, Ms Sandra
Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston) Palmer, Dr Nick
Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth) Perham, Ms Linda
Keetch, Paul Pickthall, Colin
Kemp, Fraser Plaskitt, James
Kennedy, Charles (Ross Skye) Pond, Chris
Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree) Pope, Greg
Key, Robert Pound, Stephen
Kilfoyle, Peter Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green) Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Kingham, Ms Tess Prescott, Rt Hon John
Kirkwood, Archy Prior, David
Ladyman, Dr Stephen Purchase, Ken
Lawrence, Ms Jackie Quin, Ms Joyce
Laxton, Bob Quinn, Lawrie
Lepper, David Radice, Giles
Levitt, Tom Rammell, Bill
Lewis, Ivan (Bury S) Rapson, Syd
Lewis, Terry (Worsley) Raynsford, Nick
Liddell, Mrs Helen Reid, Dr John (Hamilton N)
Linton, Martin Rendel, David
Livingstone, Ken Robertson, Rt Hon George
Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham) (Hamilton S)
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C) Roche, Mrs Barbara
Llwyd, Elfyn Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Lock, David Rowe, Andrew (Faversham)
Love, Andrew Ruane, Chris
McAvoy, Thomas Ruddock, Ms Joan
McCafferty, Ms Chris Russell, Ms Christine (Chester)
McCartney, Ian (Makerfield) Ryan, Ms Joan
McDonagh, Siobhain Sanders, Adrian
McDonnell, John Savidge, Malcolm
McIsaac, Shona Sawford, Phil
MacKay, Andrew Sedgemore, Brian
Mackinlay, Andrew Shaw, Jonathan
McLeish, Henry Sheerman, Barry
Maclennan, Rt Hon Robert Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
McNulty, Tony Short, Rt Hon Clare
Mactaggart, Fiona Singh, Marsha
McWalter, Tony Skinner, Dennis
McWilliam, John Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)
Smith, Angela (Basildon) Tipping, Paddy
Smith, Rt Hon Chris (Islington S) Todd, Mark
Smith, Jacqui (Redditch) Tonge, Dr Jenny
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent) Touhig, Don
Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns) Trickett, Jon
Soley, Clive Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Southworth, Ms Helen Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Spellar, John Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Starkey, Dr Phyllis Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Steinberg, Gerry Vaz, Keith
Stewart, David (Inverness E) Wallace, James
Stewart, Ian (Eccles) Ward, Ms Claire
Stinchcombe, Paul Whitehead, Dr Alan
Stott, Roger Wicks, Malcolm
Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin Winnick, David
Straw, Rt Hon Jack Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Stringer, Graham Wood, Mike
Stuart, Ms Gisela Woodward, Shaun
Stunell, Andrew Woolas, Phil
Sutcliffe, Gerry Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Taylor, Matthew (Truro) Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Temple-Morris, Peter
Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W) Tellers for the Ayes:
Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W) Mr. Neil Gerrard and
Timms, Stephen Mrs. Eleanor Laing.
Amess, David Greenway, John
Ancram, Rt Hon Michael Grieve, Dominic
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie
Arbuthnot, James Hammond, Philip
Atkinson, Peter(Hexham) Hawkins, Nick
Baldry, Tony Hayes, John
Bell, Martin (Tatton) Heald, Oliver
Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough) Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David
Bercow, John Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael
Beresford, Sir Paul Horam, John
Bermingham, Gerald Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)
Blunt, Crispin Hunter, Andrew
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia Jack, Rt Hon Michael
Brazier, Julian Johnson Smith,
Breed, Colin Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Browning, Mrs Angela King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Kirkbride, Miss Julie
Burnett, John Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Butterfill, John Lansley, Andrew
Cann, Jamie Letwin, Oliver
Chope, Christopher Lidington, David
Clappison, James Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth Loughton, Tim
(Rushcliffe) Luff, Peter
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey MacGregor, Rt Hon John
Cormack, Sir Patrick Maclean, Rt Hon David
Cran, James McLoughlin, Patrick
Dalyell, Tam Mader, Sir David
Davies, Quentin (Grantham) Malins, Humfrey
Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice) Maples, John
Day, Stephen Maude, Rt Hon Francis
Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian
Drew, David May, Mrs Theresa
Duncan Smith, Iain Moss, Malcolm
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth Mudie, George
Evans, Nigel O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
Faber, David Ottaway, Richard
Fallon, Michael Page, Richard
Flight, Howard Paice, James
Forth, Rt Hon Eric paisley, Rev Ian
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman Powell, Sir Raymond
Fraser, Christopher Randall, John
Gale, Roger Red Wood, Rt Hon John
Garnier, Edward Robathan, Andrew
Gibb, Nick Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)
Gillan, Mrs Cheryl Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Rogers, Allan
Gray, James Rowlands, Ted
Green, Damian Ruffley, David
Russell, Bob (Colchester) Tredinnick, David
St Aubyn, Nick Trend, Michael
Sayeed, Jonathan Tyrie, Andrew
Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian Wardle, Charles
Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk) Wareing, Robert N
Smith, Miss Geraldine Waterson, Nigel
(Morecambe & Lunesdale) Wells, Bowen
Soames, Nicholas Whittingdale, John
Spelman, Mrs Caroline Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Spicer, Sir Michael Wilkinson, John
Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John Willetts, David
Steen, Anthony Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Streeter, Gary Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Swayne, Desmond Yeo, Tim
Tapsell, Sir Peter Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Taylor, John M (Solihull) Tellers for the Noes:
Taylor, Sir Teddy Mr. Edward Leigh and
Thompson, William Dr. Julian Lewis.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause read a Second time.

MADAM SPEAKER then proceeded to put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that hour.

Amendment proposed to the proposed new clause: (a), in line 2, after 'sixteen', insert '(except when one party is in a position of authority, influence or trust in relation to the other, in which case both parties must have attained the age of eighteen).'.—[Mr. Ashton.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 194, Noes 234.

Division No. 312] [10.33 pm
Amess, David Cotter, Brian
Ancram, Rt Hon Michael Cran, James
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Curry, Rt Hon David
Arbuthnot, James Dalyell, Tam
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Davidson, Ian
Baldry, Tony Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)
Beard, Nigel Davies, Quentin (Grantham)
Berth, Rt Hon A J Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice)
Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough) Day, Stephen
Bercow, John Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen
Beresford, Sir Paul Drew, David
Blunt, Crispin Duncan, Alan
Body, Sir Richard Duncan Smith, Iain
Boswell, Tim Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Edwards, Huw
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia Ennis, Jeff
Brady, Graham Evans, Nigel
Brazier, Julian Ewing, Mrs Margaret
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Fabricant, Michael
Browning, Mrs Angela Fallon, Michael
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Flight, Howard
Burnett, John Flint, Caroline
Burstow, Paul Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings)
Butterfill, John Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman
Cable, Dr Vincent Fraser, Christopher
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Gale, Roger
Campbell-Savours, Dale Gardiner, Barry
Cann, Jamie Garnier, Edward
Chope, Christopher George, Andrew (St Ives)
Clappison, James Gibb, Nick
Clark, Rt Hon Alan (Kensington) Gillan, Mrs Cheryl
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth Godman, Dr Norman A
(Rushcliffe) Golding, Mrs Llin
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey Gorman, Mrs Teresa
Collins, Tim Gray, James
Cormack, Sir Patrick Green, Damian
Greenway, John Prior, David
Grieve, Dominic Randall, John
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie Rapson, Syd
Hammond, Philip Redwood, Rt Hon John
Hawkins, Nick Robathan, Andrew
Hayes, John Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)
Heald, Oliver Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Heath, David (Somerton & Frome) Rooney, Terry
Heath, Rt Hon Sir Edward Rowe, Andrew (Faversham)
Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David Rowlands, Ted
Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael Ruffley, David
Home Robertson, John Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Horam, John St Aubyn, Nick
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot) Sanders, Adrian
Iddon, Dr Brian Sayeed, Jonathan
Jack, Rt Hon Michael Sheerman, Barry
Jackson, Robert (Wantage) Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Jenkin, Bernard Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)
Johnson Smith, Smith, Miss Geraldine
Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey (Morecambe & Lunesdale)
Jones, Helen (Warrington N) Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Key, Robert Snape, Peter
King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater) Soames, Nicholas
Kirkbride, Miss Julie Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Laing, Mrs Eleanor Spicer, Sir Michael
Lait, Mrs Jacqui Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Lansley, Andrew Steen, Anthony
Lawrence, Ms Jackie Stewart, David (Inverness E)
Leigh, Edward Stinchcombe, Paul
Letwin, Oliver Stott, Roger
Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E) Streeter, Gary
Lidington, David Stunell, Andrew
Lilley, Rt Hon Peter Sutcliffe, Gerry
Linton, Martin Swayne, Desmond
Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham) Tapsell, Sir Peter
Llwyd, Elfyn Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Loughton, Tim Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Luff, Peter Taylor, Sir Teddy
MacGregor, Rt Hon John Thompson, William
MacKay, Andrew Timms, Stephen
Mackinlay, Andrew Todd, Mark
Maclean, Rt Hon David Tredinnick, David
McLoughlin, Patrick Trend, Michael
Mc Walter, Tony Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
McWilliam, John Tyrie, Andrew
Madel, Sir David Wardle, Charles
Marek, Dr John Wareing, Robert N
Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury) Waterson, Nigel
Marshall, David (Shettleston) Webb, Steve
Marshall-Andrews, Robert Wells, Bowen
Martlew, Eric Whittingdale, John
Maude, Rt Hon Francis Wicks, Malcolm
Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley) Wilkinson, John
Mitchell, Austin Willetts, David
Moss, Malcolm winterton, Mrs Ann(Congleton)
Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck) winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
O'Brien, Bill (Normanton) Woodward, Shaun
Olner, Bill Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Ottaway, Richard Yeo, Tim
Page, Richard Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Paice, James Tellers for the Ayes:
Paisley, Rev Ian Mr. Joe Ashton and
Palmer, Dr Nick Mr. Gerald Bermingham.
Abbott, Ms Diane Atkins, Charlotte
Adams, Mrs Irene (paisley N) Ballard, Jackie
Ainger, Nick Banks, Tony
Aisworth, Robert(Cov'try NE) Barron, Kevin
Alexander, Douglas Begg, Miss Anne
Allan, Richard Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Allen, Grahan Berry, Roger
Anderson, Janet(Rossendale) Blears, Ms Hazel
Armstrong, Ms Hilary Blizzard, Bob
Boateng, Paul Harman, Rt Hon Ms Harriet
Borrow, David Harris, Dr Evan
Bradley, Keith (Withington) Harvey, Nick
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Heal, Mrs Sylvia
Bradshaw, Ben Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N)
Brake, Tom Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)
Brinton, Mrs Helen Hepburn, Stephen
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E) Hesford, Stephen
Browne, Desmond Hill, Keith
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Hodge, Ms Margaret
Buck, Ms Karen Hood, Jimmy
Burden, Richard Hope, Phil
Butler, Mrs Christine Hopkins, Kelvin
Byers, Stephen Howarth, Alan (Newport E)
Caborn, Richard Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Hoyle, Lindsay
Campbell, Menzies (NE Fife) Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)
Caplin, Ivor Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Casale, Roger Hughes, Simon (Southwark N)
Caton, Martin Humble, Mrs Joan
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S) Hurst, Alan
Chisholm, Malcolm Hutton, John
Clapham, Michael Illsley, Eric
Clark, Dr Lynda Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)
(Edinburgh Pentlands) Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Clarke, Charles (Norwich S) Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S) Johnson, Miss Melanie
Clelland, David (Welwyn Hatfield)
Clwyd, Ann Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Coaker, Vernon Jowell, Ms Tessa
Coffey, Ms Ann Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Colman, Tony Keeble, Ms Sally
Connarty, Michael Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)
Cooper, Yvette Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth)
Corbyn, Jeremy Keetch, Paul
Corston, Ms Jean Kemp, Fraser
Crausby, David Kennedy, Charles (Ross Skye)
Cryer, John (Hornchurch) Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S) King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)
Darling, Rt Hon Alistair Kingham, Ms Tess
Darvill, Keith Kirkwood, Archy
Davey, Edward (Kingston) Ladyman, Dr Stephen
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W) Laxton, Bob
Davies, Rt Hon Ron (Caerphilly) Lepper, David
Denham, John Levitt, Tom
Dismore, Andrew Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)
Dobbin, Jim Lewis, Terry (Worsley)
Donohoe, Brian H Livingstone, Ken
Doran, Frank Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey) Lock, David
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston) Love, Andrew
Efford, Clive McAvoy, Thomas
Fatchett, Derek McCafferty, Ms Chris
Fearn, Ronnie McCartney, Ian (Makerfield)
Fitzpatrick, Jim McDonagh, Siobhain
Fitzsimons, Lorna McDonnell, John
Forth, Rt Hon Eric McIsaac, Shona
Foster, Don (Bath) Maclennan, Rt Hon Robert
Foulkes, George McNulty, Tony
Galloway, George Mactaggart, Fiona
Gapes, Mike Mahon, Mrs Alice
Gerrard, Neil Mallaber, Judy
Gilroy, Mrs linda Mandelson, peter
Goggins, Paul Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Goodlad, Rt Hon Sir Alastair Maxton, John
Gordon, Mrs Eileen Meale, Alan
Gorrie, Donald Merron, Gillian
Grant, Bernie Michael, Alun
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E) Milburn, Alan
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S) Miller, Andrew
Grogan, John Moffatt, Laura
Gunnell, John Moonie, Dr Lewis
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale) Moore, Michael
Hall, Patrick (Bedford) Moran, Ms Margaret
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE) Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)
Hanson, David Morgan, Rhodri(Cardiff W)
Morley, Elliot Smith, Rt Hon Chris (Islington S)
Morris, Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley) Smith, Jacqui (Redditch)
Murphy, Jim (Eastwood) Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Norris, Dan Soley, Clive
Oaten, Mark Southworth, Ms Helen
O'Brien, Mike (N Warks) Starkey, Dr Phyllis
O'Neill, Martin Steinberg, Gerry
Organ, Mrs Diana Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
Osborne, Ms Sandra Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin
Perham, Ms Linda Straw, Rt Hon Jack
Pickthall, Colin Stringer, Graham
Plaskitt, James Stuart, Ms Gisela
Pond, Chris Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Pope, Greg Temple-Morris, Peter
Pound, Stephen Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E) Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle) Tipping, Paddy
Purchase, Ken Tonge, Dr Jenny
Quin, Ms Joyce Touhig, Don
Quinn, Lawrie Trickett, Jon
Rammell, Bill Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Rendel, David Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Roche, Mrs Barbara Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W) Vaz, Keith
Ruane, Chris Wallace, James
Ruddock, Ms Joan Ward, Ms Claire
Russell, Ms Christine (Chester) Whitehead, Dr Alan
Ryan, Ms Joan Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Savidge, Malcolm Wood, Mike
Sawford, Phil Woolas, Phil
Sedgemore, Brian Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Shaw, Jonathan
Skinner, Dennis Tellers for the Noes:
Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E) Mr. David Jamieson and
Smith, Angela (Basildon) Mr. Jim Dowd.

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause added to the Bill.

It being after six and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings, further consideration stood adjourned.

Bill to be further considered tomorrow.