HC Deb 10 February 1999 vol 325 cc346-84

'( ) In sub-paragraph (2)(b) (offences in England and Wales) of paragraph 1 of Schedule 1 of the Sex Offenders Act 1997 (sexual offences to which part I applies)—

  1. (a) after the words "(a)(iv)" there shall be inserted the words "and (vii)"; and
  2. (b) after the word "over;" there shall be inserted—
  3. "(bb) paragraph (a)(v) and (vi) does not apply where the other party to the offence was 16 or over".'.

The Second Deputy Chairman

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 5, in page 1, line 20, at end insert— '( ) In sub-paragraph (2)(b) (offences in Scotland) of paragraph 2 of Schedule 1 of the Sex Offenders Act 1997 (sexual offences to which part I applies) for the word "18" there shall be substituted the word "16".'. No. 7, in page 1, line 23, at end insert— '( ) In sub-paragraph (2)(b) of paragraph 3 (offences in Northern Ireland) of Schedule 1 of the Sex Offenders Act 1997 (sexual offences to which part I applies)—

  1. (a) for "(d)" there shall be substituted "(i) and (iii)"; and
  2. (b) after the word "over;" there shall be inserted— "(bb) paragraphs (b)(ii) and (d) do not apply where the other party to the offence was 17 or over".'.

Mr. Allan

The Home Secretary gave a very pleasing and gracious response to the previous amendment, which I hope will set the tone for debate on another simple group of amendments, which would make changes consequential to the lowering of the age of consent from 18 to 16.

In preparation for considering this matter, I looked at the words of wisdom of the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael), who spoke for the then Opposition on the Sex Offenders Bill in 1997. He must look back on those debates in Committee as halcyon days compared with working with the internal machinations of the Welsh Labour party. In Committee and on Report on the 1997 Bill, the right hon. Gentleman moved similar amendments to the ones that we are considering in trying to deal with the issue of offences between homosexuals aged 16 and 17 and whether they should appear on the sex offenders register. The response from the then Conservative Minister, Timothy Kirkhope, implied that the amendments should be rejected, primarily because the age of consent had not at that point been lowered. He argued: I am aware of the arguments for reducing the age of homosexual consent to 16, but the fact remains that Parliament has decided that for homosexual offences the age of 18 must remain the threshold. That being so, I am not prepared to lift registration where the offence is committed against someone who is a minor for those purposes."—[Official Report, 25 February 1997; Vol. 291, c. 241.] If clause 1 is agreed unamended, and the Bill subsequently enacted, the lawful age of homosexual consent will become 16. Therefore, individuals of 16 and 17 years old will no longer be minors for the purposes of buggery and indecency offences. I argue strongly that we run the risk of putting on the sex offenders register people who are committing consensual, non-criminal acts. That very much works against the register's principle, which is to be careful about who it targets. It is an active register which targets people who are likely to commit further criminal offences. It would make no sense to register people who have committed acts that are no longer illegal and who represent no danger to the public.

We hope that the Government will see the logic of the amendments and the risk that they may run if they are not prepared to accept them or similar ones. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), I am perfectly happy to concede that drafting errors may render the amendments unacceptable to the Minister at this stage. I hope that he will consider the principle of the issue: whether a sex offenders register, which I think everyone supports, and which is designed to be active and to enable the probation service, the police and other agencies to monitor people, should include those who have committed an act that is no longer a crime, particularly 16 or 17-year-olds whose acts will be legal subsequent to the passing of the Bill.

I hope that the Minister will respond positively and at least consider the anomaly, so that the sex offenders register hits the right targets. That was very much the spirit of the comments of the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth. The amendments would boost the sex offenders register and treat people fairly, ensuring specifically that those who should no longer be on the register are omitted from it.

5.15 pm
Mr. Boateng

I hear what the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) says. I appreciate the way in which he put his case. Amendment No. 4 would introduce further changes to the age limits for exception to the Sex Offenders Act 1997. Clause 1 is about the equalisation of the age of consent, and not about amending other legislation such as the Sex Offenders Act, unless that directly follows as a result of the change in the age of consent. The rationale behind registration under the Sex Offenders Act is based on the age of majority or adulthood, which is commonly accepted as 18 years of age. It is not based on the age of consent. Therefore, I do not find myself compelled by the hon. Gentleman's logic to accept his amendment.

The Committee will find under offences that attract age-limit exceptions to registration in schedule 1 to the 1997 Act, that offenders who are guilty of indecent assault on a woman and on a man do not have to register if the victim is 18 years old or over and the sentence is under 30 months. Offenders guilty of assault with intent to commit buggery must register only if the victim is under 18 years old. Such provisions relate to girls as well as boys, where the age of consent is already 16.

The hon. Member for Hallam will see that this matter is not about a form of discrimination between boys and girls, men and women, or their sexuality. It arises from the different bases of the register and of the age of consent. One is about majority and adulthood, the other about the age at which it is possible to consent to a sexual act. For that reason, I am unable to accept the amendment.

As the hon. Member readily recognises, the amendment is technically flawed. Although we could not accept it for that reason, we cannot accept it anyway due to the separate basis of the Sex Offenders Act. To amend the Act as he suggests would go beyond what is necessary for amending the age of consent, and open up wider issues concerning the Sex Offenders Act. We do not consider this Bill as a vehicle for piecemeal amendments to the Sex Offenders Act, which is already subject to review. To make the age of consent of the other party a determining factor for registration would mark a new departure in the Sex Offenders Act. Although I appreciate the spirit in which the hon. Gentleman moved the amendment, and give an undertaking to refer it in substance to the sex offenders review, I am not able to accept it for the reasons that I have given.

Mr. Allan

I am grateful for the Minister's final comments about considering the substance of the amendment in the sex offenders review. That is entirely appropriate.

I sometimes feel that we are talking about entirely different subjects. It is certainly my understanding that there is a distinction between the treatment of men who have had relations with girls aged 16 and 17, and those who have had consensual relations with men aged 16 and 17. To consider that within the sex offenders review may be the most sensible way to proceed, given that hon. Members wish to move on to the clause stand part debate. I want, however, to put on the record that I am not content that we have understood entirely the anomalies, and shall seek to pursue them further with the Minister in his review. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)

I shall be brief. I believe that this is the third or fourth time that I have spoken on this issue. Our debates on the subject are becoming rather like the open and closed-list debates that we had some weeks ago, and I have a shrewd idea that I shall be defeated in the Division Lobby again.

I pay tribute to the sincerity of the arguments that we have heard on the issue throughout the debate. I hope that although many of us may disagree with the Government's proposal, we shall not be regarded as antagonistic to the homosexual gay community, because that is not our intention.

Clause 1 obviously raises the fundamental question whether the age of consent should be reduced to 16. I repeat that Opposition Members will have an entirely free vote on that decision. I shall try to review some of the evidence, but, in doing so, I shall express my personal views.

In 1994, I voted for the age of consent to be reduced from 21 to 18. Eighteen is the age of majority, and it seemed to me sensible that young men should make up their own minds at that age. I did not go back on that judgment. There are some who think that even that went too far, but I agreed with the Bishop of York, who at the time said that it was a sensible step and allowed the evidence to be assessed. The question is whether, after less than five years, we should move to the next step of reducing the age from 18 to 16. My view is that we should not.

It is not altogether possible to separate the principle of reducing the age from the protection for young people set out later in the Bill. I say that because, for many of us—as I think my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) suggested earlier—the protection of 16 to 18-year-olds is the acid test. If the position of 16 to 18-year-olds is made worse, more precarious, we should recognise that and say so.

In other words, I do not find the argument on the standardisation of ages for heterosexual and homosexual sex to be remotely the end of the debate. 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 will not be put at more risk. That, it seems to me, is the acid test. That may be an inconvenient argument, and it may not fit in with people's views on standardisation. However, it seems to me that the protection of young people must remain a proper—I would argue, a paramount—concern of the House.

That is why, in June 1998, I said that I had a great deal of sympathy with the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton). Those concerned abuse by an older person who was in a position—in his terminology—of authority, influence or trust. That is why the Government have now been persuaded to introduce a new offence where a person aged 18 or over has sexual intercourse with a person under that age if the person aged 18 or over is in a position of trust.

The first question that is raised for someone like myself is whether that protection is adequate. In Committee upstairs, the Minister of State—I have read what he said—has sought to set down four principles on the way in which that protection will be offered. In effect, he has limited the group of young people who are entitled to protection and those who are not. In Committee, and again today, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere has demonstrated that we believe that there are some worrying gaps and that a worrying number of groups appear to be excluded, including members of youth organisations and members of Church and religious organisations.

However, a more specific point troubled me when I related the legislation to a case that I knew something about, and which I quoted in June—that of Roger Gleaves, the self-styled "Bishop of Medway", who was convicted in the 1970s of offences against young people. I drew attention to that case in the House of Commons. Then, in 1998, he was sentenced to 15 years for further offences against young people. In other words, he has been pursuing a career of abuse year after year after year. He is a prime example of the type of person that we are up against and need to recognise. However, it is by no means clear to me that the cover that he gave himself on the last occasion, in the period leading to his 1998 conviction—teaching young people first aid at a sports centre—would remotely have come into the definition of protection that has been provided in the Bill.

My next point is much more general. We all remember the words of Sir William Utting, the former head of the social services inspectorate at the Department of Health and Social Security. He served with me; he was an outstanding director. He said that persistent sexual abusers were a scourge of childhood. He said that their numbers were difficult to estimate, but that each one who adopted a lifetime career would amass hundreds of victims. However, his main argument was as follows: Their success depends on their ability to ingratiate themselves with adults and children. They establish themselves as trusted friends, colleagues or employees". In other words, seeking to obtain trust is the characteristic of their operations. That is what they try to do. That is the threat that they pose. It is very difficult to distinguish one group from another in the way that the legislation seeks to do.

Therefore, the issue that goes to the heart of the Bill is as follows. We know that some people will want to take advantage of a reduction in the age of consent. We also know something about the extent of the problem. In our last debate, on 25 January 1999—column 33 of Hansard—I referred to a study edited by Donald West of the Cambridge Institute of Criminology, which found that 12 per cent. of women and 8 per cent. of men reported that they had been sexually abused as children. We are therefore talking about a very large number indeed. My concern is that we risk making the position worse, not better.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

I am certain that it is no part of my right hon. Friend's case—or that of any hon. Member—to suggest that every homosexual is an abuser or anything like that, but underlying the statistics that he mentioned is another statistic, which is not often quoted in the House. Although the vast majority of abusers are male, extraordinarily, 40 per cent. of those abused in children's homes in this country are male.

Sir Norman Fowler

I accept what my hon. Friend says, and I emphasise what he said at the start of his intervention. I certainly do not wish to make a generalised allegation. I am talking about risk and our responsibility in the House. My question is whether that risk will be increased—whether we are making the position worse by taking the proposed step. I fear that we are.

Obviously, I understand the argument for equality and standardisation of ages, but I hope that it is our duty to provide maximum protection for young people, and I hope that that duty is also recognised.

It is not only Members of the House and lobby groups who should be heard on this subject. The public have a right to be heard. My hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward), who I see in his place, made a much-admired speech on Second Reading. It was so good that even Alastair Campbell has publicly praised it. I am not sure whether that is the kiss of political death for my hon. Friend, but there is no question about the quality of his speech, to which I also pay tribute. However, on one point I disagreed profoundly with my hon. Friend. When considering the opinion polls on this issue, he said, in effect, that the slave trade would have been supported by opinion polls. I assume that that meant that we should disregard opinion polls on the issue that is before us. With respect, that is an extravagant use of the tactic of guilt by association. The issues are not remotely comparable.

5.30 pm

I certainly agree that we should not try to govern by opinion polls. I say that with authority because no one could accuse the previous Conservative Government of slavishly seeking opinion poll approval. If we did, we were remarkably unsuccessful at it. However, when we find opinion poll evidence pointing in the way that it undoubtedly does in this instance, the House of Commons should at least take pause to consider.

In 1994, a Gallup poll suggested that 71 per cent. of those polled supported the status quo for the age of consent at 21. However, when the NOP divided the question and provided a choice between 18 and 16, a small majority then favoured 18. Only 13 per cent. favoured the further reduction to 16. That opposition to that further stage has remained clear in opinion polls.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

May I point out to my right hon. Friend that there is another disparity? In the case of the slave trade, opinions were being expressed about what conduct should or should not be directed to other adults. In this instance, those who are polled are expressing opinions about what should or should not be done to children, in many cases their children, in respect of whom they have rights until they are 18.

Sir Norman Fowler

My hon. Friend makes a strong point. I have read what he has had to say in debate. I agree with him and it is a point that I shall come to.

The opposition to going further from 18 to 16 has remained clear in opinion polls. The most interesting of the later polls was the Gallup poll last August, which was conducted after the House of Commons had voted to lower the age of consent to 16 and the House of Lords had voted the other way.

When those polled were asked whether they personally thought that the age of consent for homosexual men should be 16 or 18, 65 per cent. said 18 and only 26 per cent. said 16. I now come to the point of my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis). In my view, when it comes to such issues the public are a sensible judge. I tried to set out the experience that we had at the Department of Health when we were running the AIDS campaign in the late 1980s. In spite of all the predictions that there would be a backlash against gays or homosexuals, there was not one. There was none of that. The public accepted, understood and supported the campaign which we undertook. They showed their common sense and maturity on these issues.

The same public are expressing their views in the opinion polls that are now taking place. We cannot say that they are mature in one respect and then say, when it comes to something that is inconvenient to one's argument, that they show an immaturity and fail to appreciate the arguments. I would take the general rule of trusting the public. In this respect, trusting the public takes on board the fact that the public feel genuine doubt, have a questioning attitude and feel opposition to reducing the age further. It is the same public who are making their views clear about reducing the age further from 18 to 16.

There is one further point, and it has been made by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East. Many of the people whose views are being sought are parents. They have concerns about their own children, the young people whom they know best. I believe that parents have a right to be heard, and I think that they are right on this issue. Far from rejecting public opinion, we should recognise its strength and sincerity. We reduced the age of consent to 18 years less than five years ago and I do not believe that the case has been made out to reduce it further.

Mr. Brazier

I was thinking about an old adage when I was sitting in the train earlier. It is the old joke about the man who dreamt that he was making a speech in the House of Commons and woke up to find that he had done so. I ask myself why we are here again in the Chamber debating this issue so fervently. We are here again because the House of Lords gave us a second opportunity to think about it. Despite the overwhelming vote last time round, it seems profoundly right that the House of Commons should think again.

Those of us who have spoken out against equalisation, as it is called, of the age of consent have been repeatedly accused by Members who have formed a lobby, at least outside Parliament, of prejudice and ignorance. It is curious that we have not only public opinion on our side but a substantial body of scientific evidence, to which I shall return. Above all, we have on our side of the argument all of the world's great religions. In that respect, the most recent contributor to the debate was the Archbishop of Canterbury, who made the profound comment that we must think about the signal that we are sending to the country at large. Of course, we must make up our own minds; we are in the House of Commons to make up our own minds and not simply take account of others' views.

I have no wish to hate or dislike anybody, or to victimise anybody. The younger brother of my great-grandfather, as a student at Oxford, was a homosexual. He was afraid that he was being pursued by the police. There was no evidence subsequently that that was the case. He went into personal panic, fled across southern England and committed suicide in the most horrible circumstances. I have no wish to see anyone victimised or pursued for any particular reason.

I believe that it is wrong to lower the age of consent to 16 and that one day views in the House of Commons will change. I believe the country to be right and the views expressed in the previous debate to be wrong.

I shall allude briefly to the parallel that was drawn by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward) with slavery. I believe it to be a disgraceful reflection on the people of this country. In 1863, President Lincoln was fighting a war which cost a far higher proportion of blood and lives in his country than the first world war cost in our country. That war was being fought to abolish slavery.

The President received a letter signed by thousands of Lancashire cotton workers. The comment was made in the letter that the effect of the American civil war and deprivation in Liverpool, as a result of the disruption to the cotton trade, was causing the most unbelievable hardship, even to the extent that many of the children of those who had signed the letter were dying of starvation. None the less, they, as the working class people of Liverpool, felt so strongly about the abolition of slavery that they believed that Abraham Lincoln was absolutely right to prosecute the war. He was reduced to tears by the letter and abandoned his Government's business for half a day to compose a worthy reply. So much for public opinion in this country on slavery, and back to the business of today.

I wish to focus on whether homosexual activity is a matter of choice or whether it is somehow pre-ordained. Of course, activity that is consented to is always a matter of choice. However, there are those in the homosexual lobby, supported by a growing group outside it, who are arguing that activity is a matter of choice but orientation is pre-ordained.

I have considerable respect for the British Medical Association and I have used its reports in many other contexts. However, it is the latest group to write in a rather generalised letter to Members of Parliament that the weight of scientific evidence is that homosexual or heterosexual orientation is decided long before the age of 16, and so it is wrong to focus on a potential change of orientation between 16 and 18.

There is a substantial body of scientific evidence from all over the world that argues otherwise. I shall quote one study from a British source. As recently as 1992 King and McDonald, writing in the British Journal of Psychiatry, outlined a detailed study carried out on perhaps the most appropriate group of people—identical twins. Across a sample of identical twins in which one of the twins was homosexual, they found that in just under one quarter of the pairs of twins, the other twin was also homosexual. Surely there could be no more disturbing example. If a homosexual twin's own identical twin—genetically absolutely identical—is not also homosexual, how can it possibly be genetically determined whether someone is homosexually or heterosexually inclined?

Dr. Julian Lewis

Does my hon. Friend accept that the reality is perhaps neither all one case nor all the other? Does he accept that there may be some people who are genetically predetermined—physiologically, one might say—to be homosexuals when they mature? Does he also accept that although that may be true in some cases, in other cases people's experiences as young boys can determine whether they change from potential heterosexuals to potential homosexuals? I hope that my hon. Friend is not committing himself to saying that it is all one way or all the other.

Mr. Brazier

My hon. Friend anticipates my next few sentences. He has expressed the idea so clearly that I shall not repeat it. I am not arguing that no one is ever genetically determined to be homosexual or heterosexual. We do not know, and we probably will not know for decades. However, there can be little doubt that for a significant proportion—how large we do not know—sexual orientation is determined in their teens.

What the scientists tell us is reinforced by ordinary experience. Most of us know someone who experienced homosexual activity in his teens—I did not, myself, but I know a number of people who did—and subsequently decided not to adopt a homosexual orientation. I can think of one case in which the person is now happily married.

Many of us will have received the same letters on the issue from former homosexuals who have ceased to be homosexuals. I remember one letter from 15 former homosexuals, one of whom had the courage to come along on the day of the previous vote and sit in the Public Gallery. The testimony that that group provided was clear. Those men were attracted into homosexuality during their late teens by older males, and they want the protection of the law to make it a criminal offence for that to continue. There are always those who will break any law on sexual matters, but let us at least provide that measure of protection for those who are between the age of 16 and the age of majority.

I shall leave the House with this thought: the word "discrimination" has been used a great deal. Discrimination refers to what someone is. In my view, it cannot be applied coherently to what someone does. It is clearly wrong to discriminate against someone because of his skin colour. If one discriminates against someone because he chooses to do something, surely the onus is on the other side to argue that that discrimination is wrong. If one is recruiting a driving instructor, for example, it would be right to refuse to recruit someone whose driving licence was covered with offences.

Those who say that it is discrimination to treat homosexual offences separately from heterosexual offences must rest their argument on the basis that homosexual acts are unavoidable. Obviously, the acts themselves are not unavoidable. I have argued that the orientation is not unavoidable in every case. It is right for us to give those aged between 16 and 18 a measure of legal protection to decide where they stand on the matter.

As the Archbishop of Canterbury and so many other religious leaders in this country—Cardinal Basil Hume, the chief rabbi and the previous chief rabbi—have argued, this is a matter that we should give young males a little longer to think about. I urge the House to vote against clause 1.

5.45 pm
Mr. Allan

I shall speak briefly in support of clause 1.

It worries me when I hear the opinion polls argument trotted out on one side or the other. If we believe that something is correct, we must decide whether we are prepared to take a lead and explain the background to our thinking, or whether we back off at the first hurdle because it seems that some people disagree.

I remind the House that my party secured huge polls of 70 to 80 per cent. in favour of our policy of putting more money into education, but that did not translate into our winning general elections. It merely shows that the people polled say that they are in favour of education. I suspect that in polls on the issue under discussion, people are expressing their views on homosexuality, not giving detailed consideration to any change in the law.

We are debating not what people do, but changes in the criminal law. We must not become over-ambitious about our influence. We cannot tell people what they should or should not do in their bedrooms. All we can decide is at what point we make them criminals for a particular act.

No one has ever stood up and said, "My Government made me a homosexual"—to which the standard response, "If I give the Cabinet the wool, will they make me one too?" might be appropriate. At times, the debate verges on the point of saying that the Government are making people homosexual or not making them homosexual. In fact, the Government are deciding the point at which the criminal law starts and ends. We must be clear about that.

The change that would be brought about by clause 1 is consistent with the religious principles that many people hold dear, and with rational ideas. The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) made an important speech in the previous debate in which he said that he could believe strongly that something was wrong on religious grounds, yet still not wish to make a criminal offence of it.

We must recognise the distinction between what we personally believe to be right or wrong—we all hold a multiplicity of views on that—and what we as a Parliament and as a nation consider should bring someone before a criminal court.

The rational grounds for supporting the change are bolstered by the support of many agencies that work with young people. We have heard the British Medical Association cited. Other organisations include the Royal College of Nursing. Barnados and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children are unhappy with the existing criminal framework.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

Can the hon. Gentleman explain how the British Medical Association reconciles its support for the measure with the injunction by the National Blood Service that no man who has ever had anal intercourse should be allowed to give blood? Surely there is some contradiction there.

Mr. Allan

I do not believe that there is any contradiction. We are being tempted, as we were on Second Reading, to speak about issues such as disease. We are discussing the criminal law, which decides what is or is not criminal. It is not criminal for people over 16 to smoke, but they are undoubtedly causing themselves medical harm. The fact that a particular activity may cause medical harm is not a reason to criminalise a person who chooses to engage in that activity. The British Medical Association believes that the present criminalisation of 16 and 17-year-olds makes it difficult to give them the health advice which I should have thought the hon. Gentleman would want them to get.

Mr. John Townend (East Yorkshire)

Why then do the Liberal Democrats support criminalising eating beef on the bone?

The Second Deputy Chairman

Order. I should be grateful if the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) did not pursue that issue.

Mr. Allan

I am happy not to pursue incorrect interventions.

We should understand today that we are confining ourselves to a clause which effectively changes the boundary of the criminal law. It will have no significant effect in terms of people's behaviour: we are not creating any more or any fewer homosexuals in our community by dint of this change; we are simply freeing a section of our community, who have reached the age of 16 and 17, who believe themselves to be homosexuals, and who engage in homosexual acts, from the burden of the criminal law which, currently, on no rational grounds, places them under threat of punishment.

Contrary to an earlier comment by the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), the last thing that anyone in such a position needs is a short, sharp shock in a young offenders institution. The idea that it is somehow an appropriate form of advice and assistance to threaten any youngster exploring his sexuality with a criminal and custodial offence betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how sexuality develops—a development which we should allow to continue beyond a sensible age of consent of 16. Clause 1 will provide a much more rational framework within which we can engage that debate.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

I was much impressed by the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler). He made a considered, intelligent and reasonable contribution on what is, for many of us, a difficult subject. Those of us who hold passionate views on the subject often find ourselves being pilloried. As my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) said, we are often accused of prejudice and all the rest of it.

There is a point in being able, at least in the House, to speak out and articulate one's views. The point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield particularly mentioned, and on which we should home in, concerns the protection of young people. That has always been of great concern to Parliament, and not just this Parliament. In the previous century, Act of Parliament followed Act of Parliament regulating young people's terms of employment. That has not abated; it has continued through this century. Parliament has always been anxious to protect young people.

Clause 1 dramatically strips away protection for young boys. I do not know whether you, Mr. Lord, or any other hon. Members, saw a recent television report on child abuse in a children's home in north Wales. A feature of that broadcast was that the victims were often shown in silhouette. Those young people, now adults, told horrific stories about how they had been scarred for life by the abuse that they had suffered, in particular by older men. It may be that when they initially suffered that abuse they were well under the age of 16. I perfectly well understand that. Those hon. Members who did not see the programme should try to do so before they proceed too far in support of the Bill, and they should reconsider whether they are doing the right thing in supporting it.

The clause will extend the scope for the abuse of young boys. On the 364th day of a 15-year-old boy's life he is entitled to the full protection of the law as devised by Parliament, but the following day, he will be fair game to what I believe the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) calls a fruit. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) might be able to support me on that.

Overnight, Parliament will decree that at one moment, at a minute before midnight, we protect such a boy, but two minutes later he will be out there on his own. The essential point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield was that it is one thing to do that at the age of 18, two years on in a boy's life, but it is quite another thing to do it at the age of 16. We are confronted here with at least the possibility of giving a nod and a wink to those who are interested in abusing young men, and I fear that that is what will happen.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) graciously allowed me to intervene on some medical aspects. I am surprised that he should be so contemptuous of a point that I raised. Of course, this has to do with the law; it would be fatuous to suggest otherwise. But the hon. Gentleman and those who support the measure have a lot to argue for here on the medical front. It is no good him and others simply trying to dismiss the point.

If the National Blood Authority believes, despite always being in pursuit of people who will give blood, that any man who has ever, even once, had anal intercourse, should under no circumstances give blood, is the House simply to ignore that and dismiss it in a cavalier fashion, as the hon. Gentleman did?

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

Is it not a fact that people who disagree with my hon. Friend dismiss that or ignore it because it does not fit in with their politically correct view of life?

Mr. Howarth

My hon. Friend is correct. It is interesting to see how any factual arguments are dismissed, as my hon. Friend suggests. Not only is the medical evidence dismissed, but the opinion polls are dismissed. Our opponents do not simply say, as most wise politicians would, that we should not rely on opinion polls but that they give a broad direction. In this case, the opinion polls point clearly to the fact that the British public do not like what Parliament and the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon and his friends are doing, and they have made that perfectly clear.

It is all very well to lead the public. At times, the previous Conservative Government enacted legislation which was not initially popular but which subsequently became so. The Minister of State may raise his eyebrows, but I shall not give a litany of the splendid measures enacted by that Government, the benefits of which are now hugely enjoyed by the public, because you, Mr. Lord, would chastise me if I did and, as I might wish to catch your eye on a future occasion, I need to be careful.

Homosexual activity, and certainly anal intercourse, increases the risk of HIV. I could put it in rather dramatic and crude terms, although I am not sure that I will, but the House is suggesting that it will protect boys up to the age of 16 from HIV in the sense that it will provide draconian sanctions—of course, Parliament cannot stop people from acting in defiance of the law—but the moment they reach their 16th birthday, Parliament is prepared to allow people to makes decisions that could lead to their contracting AIDS, which is a life-destroying disease.

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Mr. Borrow

Can the hon. Gentleman tie in the views that he has expressed with those expressed by those organisations concerned with the sexual health of young people? All those organisations have argued that 16 and 17-year-old males will be protected from the spread of AIDS and HIV because the reduction of the age of consent will be a safeguard for them—it will enable better sexual health advice to be given. The hon. Gentleman's point is completely fatuous.

Mr. Howarth

That is what we were told when the argument that the age of consent should be reduced from 21 to 18 was put to the House. We were told all the things that those wonderful organisations said and that a reduction would enable the proper advice to be given to children. In fact, that reduction has had the opposite effect. There has been an increase—I have the figures here, but I cannot lay my hands on them.

I say to the hon. Gentleman that, as far as I am concerned, any advice given by the Terrence Higgins Trust is 180 deg out. It is a most disreputable organisation and its literature is absolutely and utterly disgusting. When I was a Member of the House before, I campaigned to ensure that it did not receive a penny of public money. I believe that it now has to rely more on voluntary subscription and is not so readily able to dip into the taxpayer's pocket, in pursuit of producing its disgusting literature.

The protection of young people goes to the heart of what we are trying to achieve in wrestling with this matter. I refer to an article that appeared in The Sunday Times on 24 January, the day before the debate on Second Reading. It is by Melanie Phillips, who is an interesting and challenging commentator. She said of the Bill: It's no longer just about gay sex. Remarkably, it implies that both gay and straight sex are proper activities for children. The government has got itself into this fix because it tried to buy off opposition by promising to protect 16 to 18-year-olds against sex with gay adults in a position of trust, like teachers or scoutmasters. But not vicars, of course. Miss Phillips continues: That itself was ludicrous, since it conceded that gay 16-year-olds were in effect still children to be protected from adult sex—but only sometimes. That is the essence of the flaw in the case of those who argue for the measure and for the clause.

Those people are prepared to provide protection for children, but only in certain circumstances. The whole basis of their argument is therefore completely and utterly destroyed. If they felt that there was no need to protect children, they would not have acceded to the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), which, at the time, I supported. In doing that, those people have given the game away—the measure puts children and young boys more at risk and makes them more vulnerable. That is the effect that those people will have to live with. The charge will lie heavily on the shoulders of those who support the measure.

I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) said in his measured and interesting contribution. The contributions of those who support the measure have been permeated by the word "equality", and I want to deal with that in a moment. One of the arguments about equality, which was used during the debate on the amendments, is that, whereas young girls are not criminalised if they are abused under the age of 16, boys are criminalised. I welcome the fact that the Government are to consider that. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere argued a good case, and removing the criminality may lead to the better protection of children.

Mr. Swayne

Does not my hon. Friend recognise, however, that there is a severe danger of a creeping reduction in the age of consent? As the Bill stands, a boy under 16 who explored his sexuality and had consensual homosexual sex with a boy over 16 would be breaking the law and could be punished. From the way the debate on amendment No. 2 went, it appears that the Minister will address that issue. It may be possible for young men under 16 to go ahead and involve themselves in that sort of consensual activity—whereupon, in effect, no age of consent will apply at all.

Mr. Howarth

My hon. Friend and I are absolutely united: we do not believe in the reduction of the age of consent to 16. We believe that 18 is the right age. His point is whether it is an additional deterrent to those under 16 that they would be committing an offence by engaging in such activity.

The honest answer to my hon. Friend is that I am not sure. I have listened to the debate and I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere made an interesting point. It is certainly one that I am prepared to explore, but I want to explore it on the basis that I want to protect children. Those who support the measure want to make children more vulnerable. That is the difference, and we will have to return to it.

I do not want to take up too much more of the House's time, but I want to challenge this business of equality. The case of the Minister and those who support the measure is that, somehow, there is huge inequality and that—simply in the pursuit of equality and regardless of the facts, regardless of the medical evidence and regardless of the opinion polls—we have to lower the age of consent for boys from 18 to 16. That is not something that I accept.

I believe that there are differences between boys and girls. They grow up and mature at different ages. I also do not subscribe to the view that there is equality between heterosexual and homosexual intercourse. One is natural and ordained by the Almighty; the other is not. Those are fundamental and incontrovertible differences which render the whole argument about equality invalid from the start.

Moreover, if equality became the overriding principle in public policy, as is demanded by the gay rights groups, those who support the reduction of the age of consent would lay themselves open to the argument, with which they may agree, that there should be equality in everything else. Should there be equality in pensions? Should there be equality in terms of marriage, so that there could be homosexual marriages? That will be the next thing. Those who support the Bill have to answer this question: is this the end of the line or are they prepared to go further, as those in the militant gay rights outfits want? [Interruption.] Peter Tatchell is going off to Australia, which is good news.

Those who support the reduction of the age of consent, and argue that they are seeking to achieve equality, also have to answer the accusation that there are anomalies, even as the Bill stands. First, although the age of consent will be 16 for England, Wales and Scotland, it will 17 in Northern Ireland. Where is the equality there? Where is the consistency throughout the United Kingdom? Furthermore, anal intercourse with a 16-year-old girl will remain unlawful, but anal intercourse with a 16-year-old boy will become lawful.

Dr. Julian Lewis

If I understand my hon. Friend correctly, he thinks that anal intercourse with 16-year-old girls remains unlawful. The Bill permits anal intercourse with 16 and 17-year-old girls and boys, and exposes both equally to all the medical dangers of anal intercourse to which my hon. Friend has rightly drawn attention.

Mr. Howarth

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that correction. As the Minister is not contradicting my hon. Friend, I must take it that he is absolutely right. If so, I thoroughly deplore that provision in the Bill. I am sorry that I was not aware of it.

Members of Parliament all have a grave responsibility to protect young people. I have outlined why this measure does not do that. The argument that we must strive for equality is not in itself sufficient justification for bringing about this momentous change, which does not command the support of the British people. It is out of step with public opinion and it threatens vulnerable boys. It will send out the wrong signals to a civilised society.

Mr. Robathan

There is always a danger in clause stand part debates that the arguments made on Second Reading are repeated. I shall not do that, but it must be said that this clause is the Bill. I am sorry to see the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) leaving the Chamber, because he tabled some sensible clauses for addition to last year's Crime and Disorder Bill. The other clauses in this Bill are simply a fig leaf. The provision on abuse of trust is nonsense. This clause is what the Bill is all about.

I respect the view that homosexual and heterosexual acts are equal, although I do not agree with it. I sympathise with the view that the law should not be involved in personal relationships between two people, although I do not agree with that, either. One must then go on to determine at what stage the law comes into effect.

I wish to make just three points on this clause. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) said, people may argue that heterosexual and homosexual acts are equal, but it is obvious to those who are willing to accept the evidence before their eyes that they are not. They are not equal biologically, physiologically or physically. They may be equal emotionally—I do not know—but otherwise they are not. Those who argue that such acts are equal deceive themselves. They are in thrall to their political correctness or to the single-issue pressure group, because it is simply not true and it is nonsense to pretend that it is. One might say that both acts should be allowed, but they are not equal.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot referred to the National Blood Authority, which does not believe that homosexual and heterosexual intercourse are equal. Should I ever have to have a blood transfusion, I will be glad to know that it has taken that position.

My second point is one that I did not make on Second Reading. Some people have been praying in aid old martyrs to the cause of homosexual equality. Oscar Wilde has been much mentioned.

Mr. Boateng

The hon. Gentleman did mention him.

Mr. Robathan

Only in an intervention. Since Second Reading, I have read a little about Oscar Wilde. I have studied several biographies, which say much the same, including the sympathetic biography by Richard Ellman. We should be careful about romanticising Oscar Wilde, as the placing of a statue of him in the Strand last year did. Clearly, he was persecuted by the father of his male friend, Lord Alfred Douglas, the Earl of Rosebery. He wrote some fine plays and was quite a good poet. However, those who are concerned about paedophilia and sex tourism should know that Oscar Wilde was a paedophile and a sex tourist—[Interruption.]Labour Members shake their heads. Let them read the biography—[HON. MEMBERS: "We have."] I can quote from memory that Alfred and Oscar competed for Neapolitan boys in 1897. What is that if not paedophilia and sex tourism? Let us hear no more nonsense about Oscar Wilde being a martyr to homosexual equality.

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My third point is that the Bill is part of an agenda. It was once a standard joke that people who signed letters, "Yours disgustedly", were retired colonels from Tunbridge Wells. It shows how far this country has changed that on Monday I received a letter signed "Yours in disgust" from somebody to whom I shall refer as Peter from Liverpool. I will not embarrass him by naming him further. All Members of Parliament receive letters from nutters. They are usually heavily underlined, and that letter is underlined all over the place.

I understand that Peter Tatchell has said that the age of consent should be reduced to 14. That is a perfectly respectable position, although I do not agree with it in any circumstances.

Dr. Julian Lewis

It is not respectable at all.

Mr. Robathan

Well, one may hold that view, but I do not. The letter to which I referred, besides being insulting and disgusting, says: We need to move forward and be positive about things and this means equality for all. Legalised marriage for same sex couples is long overdue and"— those words are underlined— other benefits already enjoyed by heterosexual couples need to be extended"— those words, too, are underlined— to gay couples. They include … adoption rights for same-sex couples, housing rights for same sex couples, pension rights for same sex couples. Thankfully, we have a government who are committed to the equalization of the heterosexual and homosexual ages of consent. I do not want to labour the point, but this agenda has been pursued within and without the House by the homosexual lobby, which is a very small lobby. Most people do not wake up worrying about this issue and we know from opinion polls that they are opposed to the equalisation of the age of consent. They do not take a homophobic view, but they happen to think that the homosexual case is different—as it is. However, the homosexual lobby has pursued this agenda with single-minded determination and its sustained campaign is now coming to fruition.

The clause is supposed to be about child protection, but it is about a lack of child protection and about society's position on certain types of behaviour. It is the start, not the end, of the agenda. When the House passes it, as I fear it will, it should be aware of that.

Mr. Swayne

Ironically, the reason for rejecting the clause is precisely the same as that for protecting it from amendment No. 2 earlier this afternoon. As it now stands, the clause maintains an important discrimination—or rather, an important difference of treatment, if my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) will forgive me—in that it treats differently girls under the age of 16 who explore their sexuality and homosexual boys under the age of 16 who seek to explore theirs. That is an important distinction.

However, from what the Minister said, it would appear that that "anomaly"—rather than important principle—may be dealt with on Report. It would therefore be much better to dispose of the entire clause as it now stands than see it amended in such a way.

The important principle of treating differently sexual activity by homosexuals and heterosexuals under the age of 16 is that the law should reinforce social mores and give the clear message that the two life styles are clearly different. It is not as if life is a supermarket and one can choose life styles that have moral equivalence in the same way as one can choose a breakfast cereal.

The problem is the extent to which a person has a choice in determining his sexual orientation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) said. I take the view of my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis). On Second Reading, Labour Members said that experience clearly showed that the sexual orientation of many people was fixed and they had no role in determining it. I do not question that for a moment: I am sure that that is true.

However, many people are in a different boat. They experience unnatural sexual desires in their early teens, when they are approaching 16 and beyond, and they would otherwise outgrow those desires because of peer pressure, and are ashamed of them. The law has an important role in making it clear what society expects and what is proper and acceptable. If we take away those social mores—which this legislation does—people will be encouraged to explore those sexual desires rather than to repress them. They will be encouraged to adopt a life style that they may regret later on, whereas they may otherwise have led a blameless life.

It comes down to the question of what one regards as an acceptable life style. I make no apology for the fact that I believe that a homosexual life style is a much less commendable life style. It is a sterile way of life. It precludes giving life to future generations and having a normal, natural family life. The vacuum that is thereby created leads to promiscuity and instability. That in turn leads to the higher incidents of disease among homosexual men, and the state of the blood bank. The determination of the blood transfusion service not to take any blood from men who have had homosexual activity of a particular kind bears witness to that fact.

On Second Reading, we were told that those who take this view on the clause are akin to the slave traders, and that the debate has a moral significance and equivalence to the slavery debate. I suspect that it is rather different. The consequence of rejecting the clause would be to require boys aged 16 who are seeking to express physically their homosexual desires to hold off for two years. I do not regard that as a huge inconvenience, or a huge impediment equivalent to a life of slavery. On the contrary, I regard it as most expedient for their own good, because it may provide them with the liberty and the freedom to escape a life style that, to many, is cursed.

Mr. Townend

I approach the Bill from the point of view of child protection. I ask myself why anyone should support the clause. I do not believe that OutRage is particularly worried about 16 to 18-year-olds. I am even more cynical about its attitude. I believe that it wants the clause to go through to allow older men to prey on younger boys. One of the great problems of many homosexuals is that they proselytise: they want to bring more people into their society.

It is generally accepted that many youngsters, below and above the age of 16, experiment homosexually with other boys of the same age, especially at boys' boarding schools. In the past, they have been under pressure from society to rejoin normal life and become heterosexuals when they leave school. The overwhelming majority of them have done so, and have gone on to lead a normal life, to marry and to have children.

What worries me about the clause is that, at 17, those boys may be preyed on by older men and may get involved in homosexual society. It is a close-knit society; it has its own social life with its own pubs and clubs. Once they are involved in that society, it is difficult to get out of it.

The age of consent has been progressively reduced from 21 to 18 and now to 16. Will it be reduced to 14 next year? The debate is camouflaged with an enormous amount of political correctness. The word "equality" is used, but it is not equality. The Bill will put more young people at risk and a prey to evil older men.

If I had been in the House at the time, I would have voted to remove the criminality from homosexual acts between consenting adults. That is right, but if we go further we will put our young people in danger. Much nonsense is talked about political correctness and about society. We should discriminate in favour of marriage and a heterosexual society.

My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury put many arguments against the clause, but he did not mention religion. It is important that the Christian religion bans homosexuality. I am worried that political correctness is creeping into some of the Churches and that they are giving up that original belief.

It will be an ill day for this country if we pass this clause. It will put our young people at risk. We see the terrible social implications for young girls who become pregnant before the age of 16. Given what is happening on television, on the internet and on videos, our children need more protection now than they ever did, so I shall vote against the clause.

Mr. Shaun Woodward (Witney)

Yet again, we have heard arguments against the clause. Significantly, but perhaps not surprisingly, many of them have been made by Conservative Members. It is right that hon. Members should express their views, which I believe are deeply held and genuinely felt. However, clause 1 is not about sex tourists, paedophiles, the exoticism of Neapolitan boys or political correctness. It is about the ability of young men to enjoy the same freedom as young girls. It is about decriminalising activity between two consenting young adults. Under the current law, their crime is not that they have strong feelings, but that they happen to be homosexual.

My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) referred to sterile relationships. My wife and I have homosexual friends whose relationships are not sterile: they enjoy relationships that are as loving and caring as any between two people who happen to be heterosexual rather than homosexual. I think it monstrously unfair to suggest that relationships between two people of the same sex can only be sterile.

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Mr. Gerald Howarth

Can my hon. Friend tell us, on the basis of his research, the average length of such relationships? I understand that they tend not to last very long. Can my hon. Friend also tell us something about what happens within such relationships when an element of promiscuity is involved?

Mr. Woodward

I will not detain the Committee by making a detour from my speech. I merely say to my hon. Friend that, in my view, we do no favours to ourselves or anyone listening to the debate by describing relationships between people of the same sex as though they were inferior to relationships between heterosexuals.

Many heterosexuals could learn from the precautions—safer sex, and the prevention of transmission of HIV—that the homosexual community has introduced. I do not suggest that my hon. Friend takes such a view, but, if some people were not so bigoted and hypocritical, more heterosexual people would be alive today. They would understand that AIDS is not a homosexual disease, but an illness that passes from one person to another as a result of unsafe sexual practices.

Dr. Harris

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his wise words. I assure him that, although he may feel outnumbered on the Conservative Benches, when the public are asked whether they think that homosexual behaviour is morally inferior to heterosexual behaviour, the more popular view is that it is not.

Mr. Woodward

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

Tonight, we are discussing whether the present law is wrong. I believe that it is. We are discussing whether the present law is intolerant. I believe that it is. We are discussing whether it is without compassion. I believe that it is. We are also discussing whether we will allow two people of the same sex to enjoy a relationship that is loving, not criminal. That is why I think it right for Parliament to change the law tonight.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) described the protection of those aged between 16 and 18 as an acid test. He said that the Committee must be convinced that they would not be put at more risk. I ask him of what risk he speaks, and what evidence he has to support what he says. Those who evaluate the risk—organisations that work in child protection, such as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Barnardos, Childline, the Children's Society and countless others—tell us that the risk lies in leaving children unprotected, and that the current law does not protect them.

Those organisations believe that protection is the central issue. It is because of the work that they have done that I, at least, have decided that it is right to lower the age of consent. I ask hon. Members who believe that the law should be left as it stands whether they have asked those organisations for their evidence. I suspect—his is not a criticism, but an observation—that many of my hon. Friends have continued to peddle a view which, although they hold it deeply and passionately, is not based on evidence for which they could have asked.

Mr. Christopher Fraser (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)

Does my hon. Friend accept that some homosexuals in the community believe that the age of consent for homosexuals should remain as it is?

Mr. Woodward

No doubt some members of the homosexual community believe that the age of consent should stay at 18, but the evidence from those involved in the argument about protection—the issue raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield—suggests overwhelmingly that protection will be better served by a lowering of the age of consent. That is a different issue from that of the views of some homosexuals about the age at which they should be allowed to practise a loving relationship, or a relationship with someone else.

Mr. Brazier

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again. He asked whether we had studied the evidence. I have worked extensively with the NSPCC on other matters, and have examined its evidence as well as that of others. I find evidence from such organisations unconvincing because of the overwhelming medical evidence from studies—most conducted abroad, although some have been conducted in this country—of the huge medical risks involved in the homosexual life style.

An example is the incidence of venereal disease in the 50 states of America. There is an almost direct correlation between the incidence of venereal disease and the law on homosexuality, which varies hugely between states.

Mr. Woodward

As always, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I say merely that I will not set myself above the British Medical Association; I will rely on doctors here who tell us that we would protect young people better by changing the age of consent to 16.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield spoke of the duty to provide the maximum protection for young people. I could not agree more. It is because of that duty that I believe we should hear what the experts tell us, and then apply what we have heard and lower the age of consent. My right hon. Friend referred to the proposition that the public have a right to be heard. He made an important comparison, which was also made on Second Reading: he drew a parallel with the slave trade of the 18th century.

I raised that issue because, in that instance, the House had to debate a great moral issue and, ultimately, to take action that, at the time, probably did not have much public support. I believe that, when we look at the changes that were introduced post-Wolfenden, we will see that Parliament did the right thing, and that public opinion has moved in the direction in which Parliament moved when it changed the law.

My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) defended his position, rather eloquently, by saying that slavery involved adults and that this issue involved children. There is a danger in that argument, which is caused by double standards. The law allows a young man of 16 to be a father. What greater duty can any young man have than to be responsible for the life of a child?

Dr. Julian Lewis

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Woodward

No, I will not.

Anyone who has a child—I have four—knows about the burden of responsibility involved in bringing up children, but the law allows someone of 16 to do so.

My hon. Friends talk about the need to listen to the public. That means listening to parents, but it also means listening to children and young people. I was the deputy director of Childline for nearly 10 years. Before Childline existed, it was thought that sexual abuse did not happen very much, that it probably happened among the working classes, and that, by and large, it was not a great problem. That was a serious mistake, which resulted from only one group of the public being listened to—adults and, from time to time, the unfortunate children who ended up in court having to be witnesses in cases against those who had sexually abused them. Childline brought about a fundamental change. It brought about the recognition that children and young people have a right to be heard.

It would be grossly impertinent for the Committee to suggest that the will of a heterosexual majority should determine that we do not listen to the voices of young men and women who happen to be in a minority because they are homosexual. Childline listened to those young people, and has done a great deal to change the environment in which sexual abuse has been able to operate. That brings me to the importance of listening to organisations that work with young people. They tell us that the current law is wrong, because they listen to those young people. They tell us that the law fails to protect; they tell us that, in some cases, it hurts; and they tell us that it leads some young people who are desperate to take their own lives. We have a duty in the House to listen to that evidence, too—to listen not only to the evidence of our prejudices and of the majority heterosexual community, but to those young people and the organisations that work with them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) asked us to focus on whether homosexuality is a matter of choice, or is pre-ordained. There is no question but that that is an interesting scientific debate, which will go on and on and runs the risk of leading the House into a cul de sac for one simple reason. The issue in the clause is not what makes people homosexual. It is whether someone who is recognised by the law as old enough legally to father a child and to take the responsibility of parenthood should, because they have a homosexual relationship, run the risk of a criminal prosecution.

For socialists, it is an issue of equality and I respect that, but a Conservative should ask: why should we deny a homosexual young male his freedom when we are prepared to give it to a young woman? Why, because he practises his sexuality, often in a loving relationship, with someone of the same sex, should that be criminalised? Crucially, where is the evidence that supports the argument that young people are better protected by criminalising the activities of their early adult years?

Mr. Robathan

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech, but a lot of it is based on assumptions with which I do not agree. He talks about 16-year-olds committing suicide. I do not know how many have done so, but the issue for most Conserative Members—and, indeed, for Members throughout the House—who oppose the clause is not about two 16-year-old boys; it is about older men and 16 and 17-year-old boys. That is a fact. I do not mind what two 16-year-old boys get up to. What I am worried about is 40-year-old men and 16-year-old boys.

Mr. Woodward

I will come to the points that my hon. Friend makes in a moment or two.

I do not dispute the fact that some young people who have a homosexual relationship at 17 may go on to have relationships with the opposite sex in later years. That is a matter for them. In so doing, they will enjoy the wonderful experience of having children, but the majority who enjoy a heterosexual life must look closely in their hearts at the consequence of imposing their chosen way of life on those for whom that is either not possible or not desirable. What right does one group, albeit a majority, have to make a misery and a criminal offence of what may be a loving, caring relationship between two people who just happen to be of the same sex? I cannot find it intellectually right and I cannot find it in my heart to be right. It is not compassionate, tolerant, just or based on evidence.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) spoke about passion. Passion is an important friend for the politician, but it is also a dangerous friend. It can blind us to the arguments and the evidence and, indeed, lead us to ignore it.

My hon. Friend said that the measure would expand the scope for abuse of young boys. We are not talking of young boys. We are talking of people whom the law allows legally to father a child and to take the responsibility of parenthood. We are talking of young men. We may be talking of abuse, but I remind my hon. Friend that if we want to deal with abuse, we should not be talking about the relationship between older men and younger boys. By and large, the majority of abuse is not committed by older men on younger boys. It is committed by randy old men in various areas throughout the country who chase after young girls. I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) is not proposing legislation or amendments to the Bill to rectify that.

The current law makes it harder for young men who are abused. It is important to recognise abuse. The current law makes it harder for young men who are abused between the ages of 16 and 18 because, in reporting their abuse, they render themselves open to prosecution.

6.45 pm

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot had words to say about the Terrence Higgins Trust. I disagree profoundly with him. His words were injudicious.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Woodward

I will give way in a moment. My hon. Friend has had his say on the trust.

The work that the trust, Crusaid, Stonewall and other organisations have done has saved lives and encouraged people to enjoy loving, caring relationships. It does not reflect well on the House to undermine their work not only to save people who have HIV, to help them to lead longer and better lives and to ensure that they do not spread that disease, but, crucially, to stop people getting the illness in the first place. If only the heterosexual community had been as sensible and had raised the money to set up such organisations, far fewer heterosexual people would have HIV and AIDS. As a result of the work of organisations such as the Terrence Higgins Trust, fewer homosexuals have the disease.

My hon. Friends the Members for East Yorkshire (Mr. Townend) and for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) talked of the Bill being the thin end of the wedge and said that efforts would be made to lower the age of consent even further. No hon. Member makes the case for lowering the age of consent even further. That is not part of clause 1. It is, in itself, a valid discussion. I personally would not support—through the Bill or any other way—lowering for either heterosexuals or homosexuals the age of consent below 16, but that is not relevant to the clause or the Bill. It is yet another distraction.

I have received a number of letters from the public on the Bill, particularly following the previous debate. There is one that I should like briefly to quote. I do so for one simple reason. When I worked in television and was editor of "That's Life", we found that, by and large, if we went to the people who were affected—the people who suffer because of the way in which the law currently stands—we stood to learn a lot.

The letter tells me that it is far from the case that homosexual people enjoy only sterile relationships. It does not come from a lobby group. It is not the expression of a militant individual. It is from a member of our society, our community, our country who happens to be homosexual. He says: As a gay man now in my late 30s I can still remember how terrified and isolated I felt about my burgeoning sexuality during my teenage years. My discovery from the dictionary that my feelings could be defined as homosexuality and later that such activity had been decriminalised from the age of 21 gave me some hope that I was not totally alone in the world. However the '67 legislation, ground breaking though it was then, felt more like the grudging acceptance of an adult male perversion than any positive affirmation of the adult I was to become. It was meant to. Those that meant it then and those that wish to perpetuate the status quo now have excluded us from society and then heaped criticism upon us for being unconventional. We are forced into life styles with which we are not always happy and then judged for it. It is often said…that homosexuality breaks down the nuclear family. It is prejudice against homosexuality which does that. We are products of the nuclear family and many of us wish to remain within its bounds of love and protection but are prevented from doing so by the perpetuation of the atmosphere of hate and prejudice by these people. He goes on to say that, in 1978, at the age of 18, he told his parents of his sexuality: I thank God that my parents fought their fears and prejudices and I remain a loved and loving son, brother, uncle and godfather. My family would prefer I were heterosexual but they have totally accepted who I am and I remain as active a member of my family as anyone else within it. I know very many others for whom the same is not true. The fear and prejudice of their families strengthened by that of society and enshrined in the law has resulted in their total exclusion from the family circle. Many others cannot even bear to tell their parents. Their self esteem is so low and their fear of rejection so great that they cannot begin to imagine that the people who should love them most could ever accept them. They leave home and disappear into self imposed exile for ever leaving behind an often bewildered and shattered family…Young families are often blown apart in such ways with damaging consequences for the adult, the children, the wider families and society as a whole. That letter says more than anything else about why we should ensure that the clause stands part of the Bill. The pain and suffering of younger people mean that we should listen to them and that we are duty bound do something about it.

This is an opportunity for Parliament to do something good. It may not have majority support in the country at the moment, but we should remember that we are in a majority heterosexual community. We are not inviting people, as a consequence of the Bill, to take up homosexual activities; we are simply ensuring that certain individuals can have loving, caring relationships with people who happen to be of the same sex. There may be some present who do not like it and that is their prerogative, but the House has no right to discriminate because there is no evidence to suggest that young people will be better protected if we leave the law as it is.

I do not believe that changing the law will send the wrong signals to a civilised society. In fact, Parliament doing the good thing tonight will help to civilise our society. I hope that hon. Members will choose to do that rather than leave in place a law that is patently, evidently and fundamentally unjust.

Ann Keen (Brentford and Isleworth)

I am honoured to follow the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward). Like many of my hon. Friends, I totally associate myself with his entire speech. However, it is also important to put on record the manner and style of speeches by Opposition Members. Some expressed concern, but others showed blatant prejudice.

We must take into account the important work of organisations that care for young people, and have taken the Bill and the original amendment very seriously. The British Medical Association and my own profession of nursing have been involved in serious work for a long time, bringing together all the organisations that care for young people. They are now asking our democratically elected Parliament to take their views seriously. On another occasion, I should like to ask Opposition Members why they feel that they have more wisdom than those organisations.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ann Keen

No. I am making only a short speech. The hon. Gentleman has already contributed to the debate.

Families involved with all young people in our community are equally important. Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers of lesbian and gay young people. In addition to coming to the House, they have also put their case to the wider media—on television and radio and in the newspapers—and for the first time they are being heard. There is a great deal of ignorance which breeds fear, and many brave people have been putting the case not just for equality, but for humanity. I fear that tonight, this place has let them down, but I am pleased to associate myself with the hon. Members who have stood shoulder to shoulder and said that it is now time for justice, equality, humanity, safety and the protection of our young people.

Dr. Julian Lewis

I am delighted to follow the last two speakers. Before they spoke, it appeared manifest that the entire debate on clause stand part would be conducted solely by Opposition Members and from one point of view. I am on the Standing Committee dealing with the other clause in the Bill, and I have noticed a strange phenomenon that has been repeated here tonight. Certain hon. Members who were very vociferous on 25 January when we debated the Bill on Second Reading have been sitting as quietly as mice. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) spoke on clause 2 in Standing Committee—there was just a single speech from the main man on the Labour Benches—and this evening, we have heard one Labour speech—from the main woman. I find that orchestration somewhat unsettling in what should be a debate on an issue of conscience and a free vote.

I have considerable experience of the way in which pressure groups operate and I have the impression that two pressure groups are operating tonight—an external pressure group in the form of the gay lobby and an internal pressure group in the form of the Government Whips, who seem to have carved a deal on the way in which Labour Members must conduct themselves in these proceedings.

I shall not be as eloquent as my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward) because I am not reading out my speech word for word, but I noticed that at the end of the debate on 25 January, the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty) was kind enough to refer to me in my absence. He made various criticisms and imputed many motivations to my speech. Having made those remarks he was gentlemanly enough to observe: When I see him I shall remind him of what I have just said. He needs to be told and have that put in his face."—[Official Report, 25 January 1999; Vol.324, c.103.] Strangely enough, when we met later that evening, the hon. Gentleman did nothing of the sort. In fact, he was his usual charming, debonair and carefree self.

Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East)

When I saw the hon. Gentleman subsequently in the Corridors beyond the Chamber, the thought of speaking to him turned my stomach.

Dr. Lewis

That is just one more broken Labour promise.

In explaining why I oppose the clause, it is necessary to spell out, as I did at the beginning of my speech on 25 January, that what concerns me is not homosexuality, but a dangerous practice that carries a high medical risk—the practice of anal sex. Time and again throughout the debate on Second Reading, I and other hon. Members challenged those on the other side of the argument—including my hon. Friend the Member for Witney—to explain, once and for all and quite clearly, that if the enormously higher incidence of HIV infection and AIDS in our male homosexual community in Britain had not been caused primarily by the practice of anal sex, what had caused it. Answer came there none.

During today's debate, I and others have made it clear once again that our objections have nothing to do with the rights of adults. If my hon. Friend the Member for Witney had spoken in favour of a minority of repressed adults, I would have cheered him to the rafters, but he spoke in favour of allowing the act of buggery to be committed against young boys and girls of 16 and 17, when that act and the sharing of needles by drug addicts have resulted in a massively increased danger of contracting a deadly disease.

Dr. Harris

I feel that the hon. Gentleman is on another planet. Even if one accepts that certain acts carry greater risks when they are unprotected, in Britain we do not legislate against actions by private individuals that may be dangerous to their health. We do not legislate against heterosexual intercourse, which also can transmit disease, or against childbirth, although it can be dangerous. We criminalise drug use not because of the physical risks of human immune deficiency virus transmission, but for a series of other good reasons. So the hon. Gentleman has missed the point.

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Dr. Lewis

I was happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman, and shall be happy to do so again if he will answer a question. Does he approve of legalising prostitution and brothels on the basis that doing so will help to protect people's health, as they will be better supervised and the sex will be safer? Would he care to intervene on that point, too?

Dr. Harris

I can only barely bother to get up to intervene on the point, which deals with an entirely separate matter. If a matter affects only private individuals and hurts no one else—which is what the Committee is judging for the age group we are considering—it should not be a matter in which the state should intervene. Prostitution and brothels are thought to affect society as a whole, and not only private individuals, as in the case we are considering.

Dr. Lewis

The hon. Gentleman was absolutely truthful when he said that I am on a different planet from the other people in this Chamber, whom he represents. But I think that they are on a different planet from the vast majority of British parents, who are worried about their 16 and 17-year-old children—I repeat, children—who are being allowed to engage in a sexual act that will put their health, perhaps fatally, at risk.

I should like briefly to say a word about whether orientation is preordained, and hope that my words will faintly shine a bit of a spotlight on to my own motivations in opposing the provision. Although I know that Labour Members would like to portray me as some sort of secret hater of gays who does not have the courage to say so—[Interruption.] Yes, that is what they would like to do. I tell both Labour Members and my hon. Friends that my first experience of meeting a young boy who was gay was in my grammar school in Swansea. I remember his name and the great pity that I felt for him, because of the way in which—[Interruption.] Before hon. Members laugh, let them at least hear the story.

I felt sorry for the boy because of the way in which he was persecuted and shunned by the other pupils. I also remember asking him how it was that he got into that orientation. He did not turn around and say to me that it was a result of the fact that he had always known that he had those feelings. He told me that it was a result of the fact that an older youth had taken him to a bedroom, tied him to a bed and interfered with him. [Interruption.] I am sorry to see that a Labour Member finds this so hilarious. Would she care to intervene and tell me what is so funny about it? I thought that it was a personal tragedy. Would she care to tell me? Evidently not.

The Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman: the debate should flow as fluently as possible. However, I should tell the Committee that every Member is entitled to express his or her point of view and be listened to in the Committee. There are deeply held, opposite views on the question. They should all be heard in the Committee.

Dr. Lewis

I am particularly grateful to you, Sir Alan, for that ruling, and was appalled by that type of reaction. I still feel sorry for that lad. He was a very nice lad, and I feel sorry for what he went through. I wish that he had not had to go through it. However, in my opinion—and I think also in his opinion—there was no question of his having been born a homosexual.

I should point out also that, in the attitude that one can have on the matters we are debating, it is possible to have, as I have, homosexual friends. Probably my closest female friend went through a period of a lesbian relationship. I was not happy that she went through that period, and was happy that she came out of it. Nevertheless, I should tell hon. Members who doubt my sincerity in the matter that, had she never come out of it, she would have remained my closest female friend. I would go to the ends of the earth for her, and I think that she would do the same for me.

Therefore, when I express such considerations to the Committee, I do so not out of some hidden homophobia, but because the measure would legalise the seduction by people who are adults of people who are children into a physical act—the act of buggery—whether those children are male or female, putting their lives at risk.

Everything in this debate has been expressed on the basis of equality. There is an apparent slavishness to the principle of equality. Regardless of what else happens, people who support lowering the age of consent tell us that it must be done in the cause of equality. Such a position comes close to being—I am not allowed to say hypocritical—insincere.

If there were no way in which the homosexual age of consent could be lowered to 16—if the choice, therefore, were between keeping the heterosexual age of consent at 16 and keeping the homosexual age of consent at 18, or raising the heterosexual age of consent to 18—I would bet that all those hon. Members who have been prating about the supremacy of equality would sing a different tune. To them, it would be more important to preserve the differential as long as it favoured a lower age of consent for some form sexual activity.

As I said in the debate on Second Reading, it is a mark of a civilised society that it raises ages of consent as it gets more civilised. The fact that the age of consent for heterosexual sex is lower than the age of consent for homosexual sex is not a sign that the higher age should be adjusted to the lower age. If equality reigns supreme, adjust the lower age to the higher age. But let us have enough of an insincere, dangerous and potentially fatal recommendation.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

I suspect that there is a sense of exhaustion in the debate, as this is the third time that we have debated the issue. The first time was last year, at the Committee stage of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998; the second time was in the debate on this Bill's Second Reading; and the third is today. I have no intention of repeating what I said in the Second Reading debate, but shall content myself with making one point, on the protection of children.

I should have hoped—the whole Committee should hope, as it is a rather sensitive matter—that, by the end of this week, we could stop arguing about the issue. However, I fear that the Bill's passage will not be the end of it, as those who promoted the Bill will come back again and again—until they have achieved full equality between heterosexual and homosexual practice, achieved the repeal of clause 28 and ensured that both practices are taught, with equal validity, in our schools. I fear that this is only the start of the debate. However, hon. Members should be concerned primarily not with ourselves, but with the protection of young people—including 16 and 17-year-old children, and particularly very young men.

The Home Office recently published a report on sexual offences against children—to which the Minister of State, Home Office provided a foreword, and which I quoted yesterday in Standing Committee. Unsurprisingly, the report found that only 5 per cent. of sexual offences against children were committed by women. The report makes it clear that boys and girls are much more at risk from men than from women. However, we did not need a report to tell us that. Whatever people might say about equality between the sexes, there is no equality between men and women on that issue. We are talking almost exclusively about men when we talk about abusers.

The Home Office report tells us that most abusers abuse girls. That is what one would expect, as the population is overwhelmingly heterosexual. The report finds that 60 to 70 per cent. of child molesters abuse girls. The implication of the Minister's remarks in Committee was that those who believe that boys are at risk from homosexual men need not worry because of the statistics. However, the Home Office says that 20 to 33 per cent. of abusers target only boys. That is a staggeringly high proportion. I accept that some of those who target boys will be women, but the report points out that almost all abusers are men. Up to a third of abusers target boys.

No one has ever suggested that a third of men are homosexual. Academic studies vary, but the Office for National Statistics has said that 1 per cent. of men say that they have only ever had homosexual sex. The supporters of the Bill may believe that a figure of 1 per cent. of the population being homosexual is far too low, but even if that were completely wrong—even if it were 2 or 3 per cent.—how could we have a situation where 1 per cent., 2 per cent. or slightly more men are homosexual, but where they apparently make up more than 30 per cent. of child molesters? This is not prejudice—that is taken from the Home Office report.

Suppose the exact figure for abuse was 15 per cent. That would mean that boys were 15 times more likely to be abused by a man than a woman. If the Bill is enacted, we will be ensuring that more boys are abused and damaged for life.

Mr. Woodward

I remind my hon. Friend that we are talking about relationships between consenting adults. I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend has looked for evidence, but the Bill is dealing with relationships between two consenting people. Child abuse, the abuse of young people, indecent assault or rape will remain crimes, and are not relevant to the Bill.

Mr. Leigh

I am afraid that they are relevant. My hon. Friend made a long and passionate speech, the purport of which appeared to be that 16-year-olds were adults. They may be adults in bodily form, but in many ways—emotionally and psychologically—they are still children. In many respects, they are still children legally. They cannot vote and they cannot be asked to die for their country. If the Committee is primarily concerned with protecting boys between the ages of 16 and 18—as it should be—it is taking a retrograde step tonight.

The abuse of trust proposals in the Bill are only a fig leaf because they will not apply to youth workers, vicars and occasional supply teachers—all those people who will come into contact with young people. That is my concern.

In conclusion, I accept that, in this world, we are all different. Many people are homosexual, and we recognise that. It would be lovely if we were all Conservatives and heterosexuals. It would be lovely if there were no crime or divorce. However, we must show understanding and compassion to those who do not share our views or way of life—including those who are homosexual. We reject homophobia, hatred and prejudice as passionately as my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward). However, we must believe that Parliament has a right and a duty to stand up for something that is right and pure.

We are not just talking about gratification; sex is not about that. Sex is about raising children in the context of a loving family. So much of the debate on homosexuality is fundamentally sterile in that sense. It is not just that it can be an unhealthy activity; it is not just that it is an offence against many people's religious convictions. We believe that we are sending tonight the wrong message to a society which, again and again in opinion polls, has said that it does not approve of what we are doing. I hope that we will vote against the clause and the Bill in increased numbers.

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Dr. Harris

I rise briefly to say that I firmly support the clause. I wish to respond to one of the several points made by Conservative Members to which I was tempted to respond. The allegation that homosexuals are sex offenders in the main or in the minority cannot be sustained. As the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward) said, it is not the case that when talking about consenting acts, we are talking somehow about child abuse or sexual abuse. It may well be that a large proportion, but not a majority, of offences are directed against boys, but those are not by homosexuals necessarily. It is not a heterosexual act or a homosexual act to abuse someone—it is an abusive act. The distinction must be recognised.

Although I warmly welcome the clause—and thank the Government for proposing it—it would make it much easier to defend the gay community against bigoted allegations of child abuse and sex abuse if amendments to sex offenders legislation could be made, within the Bill, to ensure that those offences that are no longer criminal are removed from the legislation on sex offenders requiring registration. I hope that the Minister will think again on that subject, so that, on Third Reading, we can have a Bill—including this clause—that is complete and fair.

Mr. Clappison

As has been made abundantly clear, this matter will be the subject of a free vote, and I welcome the opportunity to make my personal contribution to the debate. I do so with a certain caution, because it is not in my nature to lecture people on how they should run their lives. I always exercise great caution in making such statements. However, on a subject of great public importance such as this, we owe it to our constituents to set out our views.

I have the opportunity to set out my views against the background of what I believe has been a very good debate. On such a subject, we owe it to our constituents to listen to the views of others with a certain amount of tolerance, and to listen to both sides of the argument. We have heard good speeches on both sides of the argument from both sides of the House. That has been of benefit. However, we must exercise a certain tolerance when listening to the views of others.

As my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) observed, we have heard only one speech from the Labour Benches. It was a good, pertinent and passionate speech from the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen)—albeit a short one—although I did not agree with it. She serves on the Committee, and I had been looking forward to hearing rather more of the views of other Labour Members who serve on the Committee this evening. That pleasure has been further delayed for me.

I did not agree with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), but he has been consistent and he made his remarks forcefully. However, there was a certain element of self-destruction in his exchange with his hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris). The hon. Member for Hallam got it completely wrong when he dismissed the opinion poll evidence which shows that the majority of the public are opposed to a reduction of the age of consent by saying that, in opinion polls, people are expressing their view about homosexuality, not the age of consent. However, the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon said that all the evidence is that the public do not think that homosexuals are inferior. I agree with that, but it cannot be reconciled with the statement from the hon. Member for Hallam, who got it wrong. The public do not think that homosexuals are inferior, but they have a sense of unease about reducing the age of consent still further, from 18 to 16. We have to exercise our judgment on the age at which the criminal law should apply.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

I wonder whether it is altogether wise at present for a Conservative Front Bencher to rest his case on opinion polls.

Mr. Clappison

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman has been with us throughout the debate, but several contributions have dealt with public opinion and we should take into account what the public have to say on this issue. This is not an occasion for party political points, and he has done the Committee no service by introducing such a note.

The hon. Member for Hallam spoke about criminalising young people, but he must accept that we are being called on to exercise a judgment. The criminal law has to apply at a certain age, and I believe that that should be 18 rather than 16.

We have heard many excellent speeches from Opposition Members on both sides of the argument. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who made an excellent speech, that the protection of young people should be of great concern and should go to the heart of what we are trying to do. He made the fair point that the clause takes away a certain amount of protection for 16 and 17-year-olds. We are trying, through our endeavours in the Standing Committee, to give young people protection from those who would abuse a position of trust. We have found that an extremely difficult task, and there may be more problems, but even those who support the clause must accept that it weakens the protection that is available.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) expressed characteristically honest and forceful views. He mentioned Oscar Wilde, and I shall certainly read with great interest the biography to which he referred. My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) was equally honest when he spoke about the need to protect young people and children. I agreed with him when he referred to the innocence of youth and childhood. Whatever the views of "Blue Peter" presenters these days, I seek to protect that innocence as much as possible. My hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Townend) expressed some forceful views that reflected a substantial element of public opinion.

I do not agree with the conclusions of my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward), but I recognise that he made an excellent, powerful speech which contained a great deal of reason and emotion. He has clearly done a great deal of research and he made a very considered speech. He was right to bring the evidence that he found to our attention. He rightly referred to the importance of the Wolfenden report and the changes that it brought about, ushering in the age of tolerance, but I believe, personally, that he would do well to reflect on what Wolfenden said about the age of consent.

Wolfenden fixed the age of consent at 21. The report also considered 16 and 18, and some members of the committee were in favour of 18, but the report made it very clear that people of 16 were too young and that young men were not mature enough at that age to engage in homosexual activity. I noted with great interest that, last June, the sole surviving member of the Wolfenden committee, Lord Mishcon, returned to the subject in an excellent debate in another place and once again said that 18, not 16, was the proper age. He still thought that, even in today's society, 16 was too young.

My hon. Friend the Member for Witney made a moving speech, quoting a letter about the pain and suffering experienced by someone as a result of his homosexuality. It is right to use such moving material and there is no doubt that the subject causes deep emotion and heartache in families, but all that feeling will not be altered one scrap by a reduction in the age of consent from 18 to 16. A person in that situation will still find it painful and harrowing to have to talk to members of his family on the subject, and families will still have problems coming to terms with it. Homosexual acts should not be illegal, but we should be extremely careful about the age of consent.

The letter illustrated the fact, also referred to by Wolfenden, that we are talking about a decision or experience for young people that will have a profound effect on them for the rest of their life. They should be protected from that decision until an appropriate age of maturity, and 16 is simply too young, as my hon. Friends the Members for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) and for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) said.

The majority of public opinion shares that view. People do not, by and large, dislike or fear homosexuals, although there may be some who are prejudiced and take that view. The large majority extend toleration and understanding to people of a homosexual disposition, but they still feel a deep sense of unease at the prospect of an age of consent at 16 rather than 18. They feel that, even though young people may grow up faster today, 16-year-olds are still far too young and need the protection of the law until they are 18. We must examine our consciences and ask whether we are doing right by our constituents and the young people of this country.

Mr. Boateng

This has been a long and wide-ranging debate. It has in many ways resembled a Second Reading debate, but, unlike the debate that we had at that stage, it has not always done us much credit. Bishops have been prayed in aid, Oscar Wilde has been traduced and every orifice has been explored. I do not intend to go down that path.

We have to recognise that this clause stand part debate is about one thing, and one thing only—the equalisation of the age of consent. It is not about the protection of children and vulnerable people. That is something which we have explored upstairs in Committee, and it is something to which the House rightly gave considerable attention on Second Reading and to which it will return on Report. We are talking about equalisation.

The points made by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) and the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) deserve attention. They spoke about the welfare of children and the protection of young people. The question that those who support them have not answered is how it serves a 16 or 17-year-old boy to criminalise him for the expression of his sexuality.

7.30 pm
Dr. Julian Lewis


Mr. Boateng

No, I shall not give way.

That is the question that they have not been able to answer.

Dr. Lewis

Answer it now.

Mr. Boateng

The hon. Gentleman has had his say. They have not been able to answer that question because they must surely know that such a young person cannot be protected if he lives his life in fear, or if he, his doctor, the school nurse and all those who might have be concerned for his welfare are inhibited in meeting his needs by the fact that he stands in jeopardy before the criminal law. That is the point that we have been debating in our consideration of the Bill, and it is to that point that all hon. Members will need to turn their mind when they come to vote.

Mr. Brazier


Mr. Boateng

I shall give way in due course.

It is a measure on which all Members will have an opportunity to exercise their vote freely. It is a measure to which all hon. Members will have to apply their judgment, and it is the judgment of those of us who support the clause that young people are better protected in the circumstances that we have outlined—by their being enabled freely to express their sexuality without fear of the intervention of the criminal law—than by being criminalised at the age of 16 and 17.

Mr. Brazier

I know that the Minister is deeply concerned about child abuse and the welfare of young people, but he slightly traduces my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) and me by suggesting that our focus is on criminalising young people. The issue is whether it is right for an older man to be able to introduce a 16 or 17-year-old to a homosexual life style to which he may be transitorily attracted.

Mr. Boateng

The issue is whether it is right to discriminate in those circumstances between heterosexual and homosexual acts. The concern of those of us who support the clause is not to do anything that would encourage 16 or 17-year-olds to have sex. That is not something which anyone seeks to encourage. Clearly, childhood needs to be protected and, where innocence can be protected, it should be. However, we do those young people no service by pretending that anything we do in relation to the criminal law will make one jot of difference to whether or not they engage in sexual activity. It will not. Young people of 16 and 17 will engage in sexual activity. Do we do them any favours by criminalising their actions? The view of those of us who support the clause is that we do no such thing.

The clause is not to be viewed in the way that those who oppose it have on occasions described it. The clause is not a surrender to teenage carnality; it is, however, about recognising the importance of fairness and equality and about making sure, as we have elsewhere in the Bill, that those who have a special relationship of trust with 16 and 17-year-olds, with children and young people, should respect that trust or should face the full sanction of the criminal law. However, that is separate from the matters that we are considering, and hon. Members do no favours to anyone by merging the two. They are quite distinct.

To suggest that people of a homosexual orientation are somehow more likely than not to be predators is to traduce people with a homosexual orientation. It is also to misunderstand and misinterpret all the evidence available to us about the incidence of abuse of children, which shows clearly and beyond any doubt that it is not possible to say that homosexuals are more likely than heterosexuals to abuse children. The message that we have to send out is that abuse, whether heterosexual or homosexual, is abuse and that it will result in the full weight of the law being brought to bear on those who perpetrate it.

It is quite wrong to suggest that those who will tonight vote for equality are somehow soft on child abuse. That is a wicked calumny, and does those Opposition Members who make that suggestion no favours. It is equally wrong to suggest that those who vote in favour of equality do so because they are the prisoners of a homosexual agenda, and that their next agenda will be geared towards homosexual marriage or the lowering still further of the age of consent. Let me make it absolutely clear that the Government will have no truck with any suggestion that the homosexual or heterosexual age of consent should be lowered to 14. That is simply not part of our agenda or any agenda, and it is wrong to suggest otherwise.

When we go into the Lobbies, let us be very clear about what we are voting on. We are voting on an issue of equality, on whether we believe that it is right to criminalise 16 or 17-year-old boys because they are expressing a homosexual orientation. If hon. Members believe that it is right to do that, they will vote against the proposition that there should be equality between the age of consent for heterosexual and homosexual acts. If, however, hon. Members believe that it is right to respect people's differences and that it is right and proper to ensure that the law is equal as between all people, they will vote for the clause.

Dr. Julian Lewis

I shall detain the House for a just a moment longer—because the Minister declined to give way to me on a point on which he was demonstrably wrong. He said that he had not heard from those who opposed the measure why it was right to criminalise people below the current age of consent that he wishes to alter. It was pointed out time and again on Second Reading, by me and others, that that is a bogus argument because it is an argument against ages of consent generally. The purpose of ages of consent is not to criminalise the people below them but to criminalise those above them and stop them interfering with those below them. He may not like that answer, but he is wrong to say that the question has not been answered. I am surprised that he did not do his homework on that matter.

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 330, Noes 126.

Division No. 63] [7.40 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Chaytor, David
Alexander, Douglas Chisholm, Malcolm
Allan, Richard Clapham, Michael
Allen, Graham Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale) Clark, Dr Lynda
Armstrong, Ms Hilary (Edinburgh Pentlands)
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Clark, Paul (Gillingham)
Atkins, Charlotte Clarke, Charles (Norwich S)
Austin, John Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)
Baker, Norman Clwyd, Ann
Barnes, Harry Coaker, Vernon
Barron, Kevin Coffey, Ms Ann
Bayley, Hugh Cohen, Harry
Beard, Nigel Coleman, Iain
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret Colman, Tony
Begg, Miss Anne Connarty, Michael
Beith, Rt Hon A J Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Cooper, Yvette
Bennett, Andrew F Corbett, Robin
Bermingham, Gerald Corbyn, Jeremy
Berry, Roger Corston, Ms Jean
Best, Harold Cotter, Brian
Betts, Clive Cousins, Jim
Blackman, Liz Crausby, David
Blair, Rt Hon Tony Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley)
Blears, Ms Hazel Cryer, John (Hornchurch)
Blizzard, Bob Cummings, John
Boateng, Paul Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)
Borrow, David Dafis, Cynog
Boswell, Tim Darling, Rt Hon Alistair
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Davey, Edward (Kingston)
Bradley, Keith (Withington) Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Davidson, Ian
Bradshaw, Ben Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)
Brady, Graham Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H)
Brake, Tom Dawson, Hilton
Brand, Dr Peter Dean, Mrs Janet
Brinton, Mrs Helen Denham, John
Brown, Russell (Dumfries) Dismore, Andrew
Browne, Desmond Dobbin, Jim
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Donohoe, Brian H
Buck, Ms Karen Doran, Frank
Burden, Richard Dowd, Jim
Burgon, Colin Drown, Ms Julia
Burstow, Paul Duncan, Alan
Caborn, Richard Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)
Campbell, Menzies (NE Fife) Edwards, Huw
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Efford, Clive
Campbell-Savours, Dale Ellman, Mrs Louise
Canavan, Dennis Etherington, Bill
Caplin, Ivor Fabricant, Michael
Caton, Martin Fearn, Ronnie
Cawsey, Ian Field, Rt Hon Frank
Fisher, Mark Kumar, Dr Ashok
Fitzpatrick, Jim Ladyman, Dr Stephen
Fitzsimons, Loma Laing, Mrs Eleanor
Flint, Caroline Lawrence, Ms Jackie
Flynn, Paul Laxton, Bob
Follett, Barbara Leslie, Christopher
Foster, Don (Bath) Levitt, Tom
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings) Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)
Foster, Michael J (Worcester) Linton, Martin
Fyfe, Maria Livingstone, Ken
Galloway, George Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)
Gapes, Mike Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)
Gerrard, Neil McAllion, John
Gibson, Dr Ian McAvoy, Thomas
Gilroy, Mrs Linda McCabe, Steve
Godman, Dr Norman A McCafferty, Ms Chris
Godsiff, Roger McCartney, Ian (Makerfield)
Gordon, Mrs Eileen McDonagh, Siobhain
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E) McDonnell, John
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S) McGuire, Mrs Anne
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) McIsaac, Shona
Grocott, Bruce McKenna, Mrs Rosemary
Grogan, John Mackinlay, Andrew
Gunnell, John McNulty, Tony
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale) Mactaggart, Fiona
Hall, Patrick (Bedford) McWalter, Tony
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE) Mahon, Mrs Alice
Hancock, Mike Mallaber, Judy
Hanson, David Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Harris, Dr Evan Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Heal, Mrs Sylvia Martlew, Eric
Healey, John Maxton, John
Heath, David (Somerton & Frome) Meale, Alan
Henderson, Ivan (Harwich) Merron, Gillian
Heppell, John Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)
Hill, Keith Milburn, Rt Hon Alan
Hinchliffe, David Miller, Andrew
Hodge, Ms Margaret Mitchell, Austin
Hood, Jimmy Moonie, Dr Lewis
Hoon, Geoffrey Moore, Michael
Hope, Phil Moran, Ms Margaret
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)
Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford) Morley, Elliot
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) Mountford, Kali
Hughes, Simon (Southwark N) Mullin, Chris
Humble, Mrs Joan Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Hurst, Alan Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Hutton, John Naysmith, Dr Doug
Iddon, Dr Brian Norris, Dan
Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead) Oaten, Mark
Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough) O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)
Jackson, Robert (Wantage) O'Hara, Eddie
Jamieson, David Olner, Bill
Jenkin, Bernard O'Neill, Martin
Jenkins, Brian Öpik, Lembit
Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle) Organ, Mrs Diana
Johnson, Miss Melanie Palmer, Dr Nick
(Welwyn Hatfield) Pearson, Ian
Jones, Helen (Warrington N) Perham, Ms Linda
Jones, leuan Wyn (Ynys Môn) Pickthall, Colin
Jones, Ms Jenny Plaskitt, James
(Wolverh'ton SW) Pond, Chris
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C) Pound, Stephen
Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak) Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S) Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Prescott, Rt Hon John
Keeble, Ms Sally Prior, David
Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston) Prosser, Gwyn
Keetch, Paul Quin, Rt Hon Ms Joyce
Kemp, Fraser Quinn, Lawrie
Kennedy, Charles (Ross Skye) Radice, Giles
Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree) Rapson, Syd
Key, Robert Raynsford, Nick
Khabra, Piara S Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)
Kidney, David Rendel, David
Kingham, Ms Tess Roche, Mrs Barbara
Rooney, Terry Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W) Temple-Morris, Peter
Ruane, Chris Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Ruddock, Joan Tipping, Paddy
Russell, Ms Christine (Chester) Todd,Mark
Ryan, Ms Joan Tonge, Dr Jenny
Salmond, Alex Touhig, Don
Salter, Martin Trickett, Jon
Sanders, Adrian Truswell, Paul
Savidge, Malcolm Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Sawford, Phil Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Sedgemore, Brian Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Shaw, Jonathan Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Sheerman, Barry Tyler, Paul
Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert Vaz, Keith
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S) Vis, Dr Rudi
Skinner, Dennis Wallace, James
Smith, Angela (Basildon) Watts, David
Smith, Jacqui (Redditch) White, Brian
Smith, John (Glamorgan) Whitehead, Dr Alan
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent) Wicks, Malcolm
Smith, Sir Robert (WAb'd'ns) Wigley, Rt Hon Dafydd
Soley, Clive Williams, Rt Hon Alan
Southworth, Ms Helen (Swansea W)
Squire, Ms Rachel Willis, Phil
Starkey, Dr Phyllis Winnick, David
Steinberg, Gerry Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Stevenson, George Wise, Audrey
Stewart, Ian (Eccles) Wood, Mike
Stinchcombe, Paul Woodward, Shaun
Stoate, Dr Howard Worthington, Tony
Stott, Roger Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Stringer, Graham Wyatt, Derek
Stuart, Ms Gisela
Stunell, Andrew Tellers for the Ayes:
Sutcliffe, Gerry Ann Keen and Laura Moffatt.
Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Amess, David Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Ancram, Rt Hon Michael Evans, Nigel
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Faber, David
Arbuthnot, Rt Hon James Fallon, Michael
Beggs, Roy Fight, Howard
Bell, Martin (Tatton) Forsythe, Clifford
Benton, Joe Forth, Rt Hon Eric
Bercow, John Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman
Beresford, Sir Paul Fox, Dr Liam
Blunt, Crispin Fraser, Christopher
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia Gale, Roger
Brazier, Julian Garnier, Edward
Browning, Mrs Angela Gill, Christopher
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Gillan, Mrs Cheryl
Butterfill, John Gorman, Mrs Teresa
Cann, Jamie Gray, James
Cash, William Green, Damian
Chapman, Sir Sydney Greenway, John
(Chipping Barnet) Grieve, Dominic
Chope, Christopher Gummer, Rt Hon John
Clappison, James Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie
Clark, Dr Michael (Rayleigh) Hammond, Philip
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian) Hawkins, Nick
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David
(Rushcliffe) Horam, John
Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge) Hunter, Andrew
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey Jack, Rt Hon Michael
Colvin, Michael Johnson Smith,
Cormack, Sir Patrick Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Cran, James King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)
Dalyell, Tam Kirkbride, Miss Julie
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Lansley, Andrew
Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice) Leigh, Edward
Day, Stephen Letwin, Oliver
Donaldson, Jeffrey Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)
Duncan Smith, Iain Lidington, David
Loughton, Tim Steen, Anthony
Luff, Peter Streeter, Gary
Maclean, Rt Hon David Swayne, Desmond
McLoughlin, Patrick Tapsell, Sir Peter
Madel, Sir David Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Malins, Humfrey Taylor, Rt Hon John D (Strangford)
Marshall, David (Shettleston) Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Mates, Michael Taylor, Sir Teddy
May, Mrs Theresa Thompson, William
Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute) Townend, John
Moss, Malcolm Trend, Michael
O'Brien, Bill (Normanton) Trimble, Rt Hon David
Page, Richard Viggers, Peter
Paice, James Walter, Robert
Paterson, Owen Wardle, Charles
Pickles, Eric Waterson, Nigel
Powell, Sir Raymond Wells, Bowen
Randall, John Whitney, Sir Raymond
Redwood, Rt Hon John Whittingdale, John
Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry) Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne) Wilkinson, John
Ross, William (E Lond'y) Willetts, David
Rowlands, Ted Wilshire, David
Russell, Bob (Colchester) Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
St Aubyn, Nick Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian Wray, James
Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk) Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Spelman, Mrs Caroline Tellers for the Noes:
Spicer, Sir Michael Mr. Gerald Howarth and
Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John Mr. Andrew Robathan.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 1 reported, without amendment; to lie upon the Table.