HC Deb 10 February 2000 vol 344 cc432-500

Order for Second Reading read.

2.9 pm

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

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

The Bill is based on the principle of equality before the law. It also provides added protection for the vulnerable. I am deeply committed to the Bill, although the Government and, I believe, the Opposition regard it entirely as a matter for a free vote according to individual conscience, rather than a matter for the party Whips.

I am saddened that yet another year has passed without this reform on the statute book. The House has endorsed the principle of equality not once but twice. We included child protection measures as part of the Bill last year and asked the other place to agree. Regrettably, it has rejected the Bill. It has opposed equality and failed to support— indeed, even properly to consider—the child protection measures.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)


Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)


Mr. Straw

I shall give way later, but should like to make some progress first.

That was not a noble cause on which to oppose the will of the elected Chamber. I am sad at the delay that the Lords' opposition has caused, and at the need to reintroduce the Bill with, if necessary, the use of the Parliament Acts.

Whether or not the Bill is a matter of conscience, its issues have been considered several times by the House. Last year, we sent it to the other place with our overwhelming endorsement. We have had three separate votes on the Floor of the House, spending more than 13 hours in debate. In each vote, a majority of more than 180 favoured the Bill. In the debate on clause 1—on the equalisation of the age of consent—the Committee of the whole House voted in favour by a majority of 204. In addition, the clauses on abuse of trust received 10 hours of discussion in Committee Upstairs.

Mr. Swayne

The principle that underlies the Bill is that young men of 16 are sufficiently mature to be able to make an informed choice as to whether to enter into a homosexual relationship. However, the Bill's second provision is that they must be protected from people with whom they might enter such a relationship and with whom they should properly share a relationship of trust. Surely the second provision bears testimony to the falsehood of the first. Those two propositions cannot both be true. They are mutually exclusive.

Mr. Straw

The first proposition is whether we should equalise the age of consent. We could decide to equalise at 12, as happens in some European countries, or at 14, 18 or 21. My judgment, which I hope the House shares, is that we should equalise at 16. The second issue affects people aged between 16 and 18. I should correct the hon. Gentleman's small slip in assuming that the provisions on abuse of trust apply only to male gay relationships. In fact, they apply to relationships of any kind.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald)

Will the Home Secretary give way?

Mr. Straw

I am in the middle of giving an answer to the right hon. Lady's hon. Friend. If she will hang on a moment, I shall come to her.

The second proposition before us concerns the circumstances in which people aged between 16 and 18 should be able to trust another person—specifically in a professional situation—but that trust can be abused. Our judgment is—although it is a matter for a free vote—that that position could be abused. For example, teachers or social workers in residential homes have considerable power over those aged between 16 and 18, as well as younger people, and it is possible that they could abuse that trust. That is our argument.

If the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) still wishes to ask a question, I shall happily give way to her.

Miss Widdecombe

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his courtesy. He said that we could decide on equalising at other ages. Will he confirm that, even if the House wanted to do that, he is giving us no opportunity to do so through the procedures under which we are debating the Bill? We will not have an opportunity to amend the Bill. We must take it or leave it.

Mr. Straw

I will not confirm that. Ministers propose, but the House disposes. If the House reaches a different view from that which I invite it to take, that is the end of that. The majority of the House is, I think, of the opinion that the Parliament Acts fall to be used in this case. The House has taken a view on the merits of the Bill not once or twice, but three times. The Parliament Acts can be used only if the Bill presented a second time is identical to that which was rejected by the other place on the first occasion. That is an argument in favour of the proposition before the House, and it is up to the House to decide whether to accept that proposition.

Mr. Robathan

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way on abuse of trust?

Mr. Straw

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman later, but I want to make some progress.

For me, the central issue before us is one of equality, of seeking to create a society free from prejudice in which our relationships with others, including strangers, are based on respect, not fear. When I was a young man, homosexual acts between two men were unlawful, criminal offences attracting a penalty—can we now believe this?—of up to life imprisonment. What did such harsh criminalisation achieve? Let me answer that by saying, first, what the criminal law utterly failed to achieve: it failed to achieve the elimination, or reduction, of gay sex. There were probably as many people who were homosexual then as there are today, but while heterosexual people could enjoy sexual relations in peace, those who were homosexual lived in fear—fear of exposure, and of the misery that comes from having to live a lie. Our society suffered too, for it lived a lie as well, and dealt with that lie by institutionalising hypocrisy, pretending that everyone was heterosexual, while knowing that many people were not.

Criminalising gay sex in private for those otherwise above the age of consent did not protect those of us who are heterosexual, but it deeply scarred many who were not allowed to come to terms with their own sexuality, in peace and with respect from others.

It is worth recalling another discriminatory aspect of the law, which explains why the Bill is necessary at all. The Offences Against The Person Act 1861, which created the modern offence of buggery, made a sexual relationship between two males a criminal act, but sexual relations between two females were not then, and have never been, specifically criminalised. The law has never criminalised all same-sex relationships—only those between males. In time, that led to the anomaly that the age of consent for sexual relations with females was 16, but between males it was set at 21 in 1967, and at 18 in 1994.

I wish that we had moved then to 16, but we did not. Subsequently, a challenge was made under the European convention on human rights and, by 14 votes to four, the Commission—not the Court—found that our law was discriminatory.

In commending the Bill, I would say that it is a moderate measure.

Mr. Robathan

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way and shall not heap yet more praise on him to embarrass him further than we did earlier.

May I return to the child protection measures? I sat on the Standing Committee that considered those matters, alongside the Minister of State, Home Office, the right hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng). All of us who served on that Committee know perfectly well that the child protection measures are a fig leaf and a load of nonsense. We conducted an investigation into them. Can the Secretary of State confirm that the likely number of prosecutions might be around two each year and that the provisions will make very little difference?

Mr. Straw

I do not accept that. Nor do I accept that the effectiveness of the criminal law can be determined solely by the number of prosecutions that follow from it. If that were so, the hon. Gentleman would be on his feet calling for the amendment of several highly publicised criminal offences created by the Opposition when in Government, although I would not.

Organisations that support equalisation and other measures in the Bill include the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing and leading children's charities, including the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Barnardos, NCH Action for Children, the National Children's Bureau and many others. Those people and organisations are at the forefront of dealing with the serious problems caused by the present inequality in our law.

I have explained clause 1. Clause 2 serves to decriminalise the younger party in male homosexual acts or buggery, if the younger party is under the age of consent and the other party is over the age of consent.

That clause was not in the Bill when it started out last year. We included it, during proceedings held on the Floor of the House, because we felt, as a House, that the present position was wrong.

A girl under the age of consent is not charged with a criminal offence if she has unlawful sexual intercourse with an older man. That means that she can seek help for sexual or emotional problems arising from her actions without fear of prosecution. The older man cannot blackmail her, through the threat of the criminal law, to keep silent if she is unhappy about her position or feels that she was forced to consent. Those are important safeguards for young people—as important for boys as for girls—and the Bill puts them in place.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

The right hon. Gentleman says that he is wholly committed to the Bill and to making buggery legal for people aged over 16. For the benefit of those of us who have led a sheltered life, will he describe the act of buggery so that the House, and the public who are listening to the debate, know exactly what we are talking about?

Mr. Straw

No, I shall not accept the invitation offered by the hon. Gentleman. I wonder whether he understands how much he is detached from opinion throughout the country. Our society should be celebrated for the tolerance that it shows to people who lead a law-abiding life. People want to be allowed to live in peace, within the framework of the law. I happen to be heterosexual, but I could have been born homosexual, or I could have become homosexual. If that had happened, why should I be penalised and subject to the prejudice and abuse that the House has just heard from the hon. Gentleman?

Mr. Gill


Mr. Straw

No, I shall not give way. The hon. Gentleman asked me an emotive question and I have replied. He is unwise—simply as regards his representation of his constituents, who are light years away from his intolerance and prejudice—to utter such opinions.

Mr. Gill


Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)


Mr. Straw

I need to make some progress. I have already given way several times and many other Members want to speak in the debate.

The Bill provides a new offence of abuse of trust. We have already referred to that matter, which is also an important child protection measure. We were considering it as long ago as 1998, when the amendment on equalising the age of consent was tabled to the Crime and Disorder Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) moved an amendment to create such an offence. When the equalisation amendment was rejected in the other place, we undertook urgently to consider such an offence. That resulted in the measures in the present Bill, introduced last year.

The House will recall that we looked at the new offence in great detail in this place a year ago. Amendments were made to strengthen it; most significantly, following arguments made by Opposition Members, for the increase of the maximum penalty from two to five years. It is in the Bill in the form that we approved after those detailed discussions.

Mr. Joe Ashton (Bassetlaw)

My right hon. Friend referred to the discussions held in Standing Committee. During the 10 hours of debate on the Bill, one of the matters that was often raised was the growing menace of pimps and the abuse suffered by 15 or 16-year-old girls and boys who were hooked on drugs. The conclusion was that the penalties for such abuse were not severe enough. We were told that it would not be practical to deal with the matter under this Bill, but an assurance was given that a sexual offences Bill would be drawn up to tackle the problem and alter the penalties. However, there seemed to be no mention of that in the Queen's Speech. Will my hon. Friend give us some information on that point?

Mr. Straw

It is true that there is no such legislation in this Session on the pimping offences described by my hon. Friend. I ask him to bear in mind that the Home Office is carrying a third of the whole legislative programme and that even that great Department of State has limits in its capacity to deal with that, in addition to other matters. I can reassure him, however, that offences relating to pimping and the penalties for such offences are being considered under the review of sexual offences that the Minister of State, Home Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), is undertaking.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

Will my right hon. Friend consider an anomaly that could arise in the future? The names of men who have already been convicted of private consensual sex with a 16 or 17-year-old will have been placed on the sex offenders' register. That will extend beyond the enactment of the Bill, and is unjust. Does my right hon. Friend have the power to remove those names from the register when—as we hope—the Bill is enacted?

Mr. Straw

I understand my hon. Friend's concern, but I cannot give him comfort on that point. We cannot retrospectively remove names from the register; that is the obverse of the principle that we do not make criminal offences retrospective. If someone has been convicted of a criminal offence, I do not think that we can rewrite history to suggest that, by virtue of a decision of the House—later than the conviction—such a conviction should be deleted.

The offence of abuse of trust is targeted to protect young people, both girls and boys, who are most at risk or most vulnerable, or where the position of trust is strongest. The circumstances are closely defined to include matters such as residential care, detention and hospitals. They also include full-time education, given the special status of teachers and their well-established position of trust.

Abuse of trust may also occur in less well-defined circumstances, such as leisure, sporting or religious activities. In those cases, the position of trust may be less strong, the circumstances less clearly defined, and the young person may be less vulnerable. Nevertheless, those points cause concern.

The Government have tackled that problem in two ways. First, the Bill includes an order-making power, so that the House can extend the scope of the new offence at a later date by affirmative resolution, if there is evidence of need. Secondly, on 17 September last year we issued all organisations that deal with young people with guidance on how to prevent abuse of trust. There has been a good response to that.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)


Jackie Ballard (Taunton)


Mr. Straw

I shall give way to the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) and the hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard), and then I shall conclude my speech.

Mr. Howarth

I am grateful to the Home Secretary for his courtesy in giving way.

If the right hon. Gentleman will not accept that his claim to protect children wholly flaws the Bill—the argument put by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne)—will he agree that the abuse of trust protection, which he alleges he has put in the Bill, is inadequate? Will he tell the House how he would deal with a situation in which, for example, an 18-year-old prefect in a boys boarding school made advances to a 16 or 17-year-old boy? The prefect would have a position of some power—as a prefect. What protection is offered to children in those circumstances? The measure is disgraceful; it will completely undermine child protection.

Mr. Straw

It is not possible to draft a Bill that would cover every conceivable circumstance. The Bill deals with adults who hold positions of trust in relation to young people aged between 16 and 18.

I do not know much about the hon. Gentleman's background. I attended an all-male boarding school in Essex. Even at a time when the full force of the criminal law applied, circumstances such as those he described were not unheard of in such institutions.

Jackie Ballard

I thank the Home Secretary for giving way.

The right hon. Gentleman listed several organisations that support the Bill. The list did not include any of the teachers' unions. Although those unions support the equalisation of the age of consent, they are opposed to abuse of trust provisions. They believe that such abuse of trust, which we all decry, can be properly dealt with under the profession's disciplinary codes. They do not want it to become a criminal offence for a specific profession.

Mr. Straw

I understand the position of the teachers' unions, but I do not agree with it. It is very hard to argue that those who are in a position of trust, for example, in a children's home, should be subject to the criminal law, but those who are in the position of trust and power— very considerable power—that is exercised by teachers in respect of sixth-formers as well as of younger children—

Jackie Ballard

What about the power of Members of Parliament over researchers?

Mr. Straw

It is a matter of proportion and circumstance. However, I do not think that one can argue that those who are running children's homes should be subject to the criminal law but teachers should not. I say through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to the hon. Lady that the potential power that teachers have over those in their care is very, very considerable and that that trust should not be abused. When it is, these penalties are appropriate.

Let me deal briefly and in conclusion with two important issues concerning the Bill. First, I remind the House that the Parliament Acts may have to be used in this case, and it is because they may have to be used that I invite the House—it is a matter for the House—to pass the Bill in an unamended form.

The second issue concerns the impact of the Scotland Act 1998 in respect of this measure. That has created what may be a unique constitutional dilemma for the Bill, as the Scottish elements fall into an area that is now properly the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Executive therefore requested the Scottish Parliament to consider its position on the Bill. The terms of the motion moved by the Scottish Executive were as follows: That the Parliament endorses the principles of equalising the age of consent for homosexual and heterosexual activity and creating a new criminal offence of breach of trust as set out in the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill considered by the UK Parliament in the 1998–99 parliamentary session and agrees that the UK Parliament should consider any Bill introduced in the same terms in the current session.

The Scottish Parliament debated that motion in great depth on 19 January 2000. It focused on the principles and content of the Bill and on the constitutional issue. I am delighted to report that it endorsed the motion fully, by 90 votes to 16. That was an overwhelming vote in favour of the Bill. The Scottish Parliament has therefore made it clear that it wants to end intolerance, prejudice and discrimination. It wants the added protections to be put in place. It sees the Bill as unfinished business, delayed because of the prejudice of the other place. It has given us a clear mandate to finish the business, as it should have been finished last year.

Mr. Brady

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw


The Bill is long overdue for the statute book. I hope that the House will again give it the overwhelming support that it deserves, and that we can pass it to the other place. We have had ample discussion on it.

Mr. Brady


Mr. Straw

We need to move now to action, to ensure equality and justice, and better protection for our children and young people throughout the United Kingdom.

2.33 pm
Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald)

As was the case the last time this measure was debated in the House, the Opposition will be having a free vote tonight. The concerns that I shall express are my own, but I know that they are shared by many Opposition Members, and I should be glad if the Minister would address them in his winding-up speech.

My own opposition to the Bill is probably fairly well known. I am glad to have the opportunity to give some of the reasons for my opposition to it, but first I should like to look at the handling of the Bill and raise certain questions about that.

It is very unfortunate that the Government have decided to curtail debate on the Bill. Today will be the only opportunity that Members of the House will have to discuss the matter—unless, of course, amendments are made in another place. However, in the House there will be no Committee stage, no Report and no debate on Third Reading.

Given the interventions that have already been made on the Home Secretary, I should have thought that he would have wished to have seen a much fuller discussion in the House of the adequacy of at least the abuse of trust provisions in the Bill. There should have been an opportunity for concerned Members to table amendments to reflect some of the worries that were raised in the short time for which the right hon. Gentleman was speaking.

Although I acknowledge that the measure has been debated more than once by the House during the current Parliament—and, indeed, in another place—that is not in itself a valid argument for cutting off the proper scrutiny of the House, even if the Government have decided to invoke the Parliament Acts.

On Monday, the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), said in the House that it would be open to another place to suggest amendments to the Bill. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) pointed out at the time, the Government have denied that opportunity to hon. Members, despite the fact that the Parliament Act 1911 makes provision for the suggestions procedure. Therefore, I wonder whether the procedure that has been adopted is the most wholly appropriate, given the concerns that exist.

For example, I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) wished to table an amendment to the Bill, but has been denied that opportunity. That amendment would have addressed one of the concerns that has been raised about the European convention, because it would have equalised the age of consent at 18. The Government should have at least given the House the opportunity to examine that issue, and to examine the arguments for and against which hon. Members might wish to make. If the Government wish to base their argument in favour of the Bill on the fact that the House represents the democratic will of the people, perhaps the Government should have allowed hon. Members from both sides a little more democracy in considering its provisions.

The reason why the Government have resorted to the Parliament Acts is that these measures were rejected after a long debate and very substantial consideration by another place. Similarly, the Government's proposal to abolish section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 was recently rejected in another place. Perhaps, when the Government reflect on those two decisions, they may come to the view—as I have long come to the view—that the views that have been expressed in another place on both these issues better represent the views of the majority of the people of this country than do the actions of the Government.

There is also the matter of Scotland, which was briefly touched on by the Home Secretary. Clause 7 states that the Bill will extend to Scotland as a pre-commencement enactment, despite the fact that the Scottish Parliament now has full competence in this area. I should be grateful if the Minister, in his winding-up speech, would address some of the issues that arise from that.

Will the Bill, in so far as it concerns what is now a devolved matter, be a unique case, or is the Minister aware of any plans by the Scottish Parliament to amend the provisions of the Bill, if enacted, which it could certainly do? Are there plans for different commencement dates in Scotland, and will it be the Scottish Executive or the Home Secretary who decides on the commencement? Can he confirm that the only reason why this legislation is now to extend to Scotland as a result of whatever will is expressed in the House, is to allow the current Bill to be pushed through unchanged under the Parliament Acts?

I shall now discuss the substance of the Bill. The age of consent is one of the major issues of conscience, and I know that there is a wide range of views on both sides of the House, and that those views are sincerely held. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) said during the previous Session, I believe that we should continue to give the protection of the law to vulnerable young people, and very especially to young people in their mid-teens who may not have a fully developed sense of their sexuality. I believe that it is appropriate that the age of consent for homosexual acts should allow for that fact, and I believe, as my right hon. Friend did during the previous Session, that there is widespread support in the country for such a position.

We must, after all, remember that the age of consent for homosexual acts was reduced from 21 to 18 as recently as 1994. I do not believe that issues of equality should override the imperative to protect young people; and it is, in my view, wrong that a young person of 16 should be free in law to embark on a course of action that might lead to a life style that would separate him, permanently perhaps—

Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter)

Has the right hon. Lady ever met anyone, gay or straight, who has told her in all honesty that their sexual orientation was a matter of choice? She has just used again the term "life style", which implies that it is a matter of choice. She should know better.

Miss Widdecombe

Whether people choose to practise any particular way of life is a matter of choice. What they are inclined towards may not be, but what they choose to do—heterosexually or homosexually—is a matter of choice. I am never going to contend that heterosexuals have no choice over what they do; that would be a false contention. I will not patronise homosexuals by pretending that they have no choice, either.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

We are debating essentially a matter of degree. My right hon. Friend said that it was only a few years ago that the age of consent moved from 21 to 18. Has that made any difference to people's conduct?

Miss Widdecombe

I believe that it probably sent quite a powerful signal. It is not a signal that I want to reinforce or to expand on in the course of any further changes.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Miss Widdecombe

I would like to finish the paragraph as I was in the middle of it. I shall then give way to my hon. Friend. He came a good second yesterday for the coveted award that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) won.

It is in my view wrong—I stand by that position—that a young person of 16 should be free in law to embark on a course of action that might lead to a life style that would separate him, perhaps permanently, from the mainstream life of marriage and family. In particular, I believe that such a person needs protection from older men.

Mr. Bercow

I hope that my right hon. Friend will forgive me if I say that her response to my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) was, to put it mildly, a trifle opaque. Would she be good enough to tell the House to what specific damaging consequences the reduction from the age of 21 to 18 has led?

Miss Widdecombe

I think that that was one of a series of deliberate measures and of practices in society that has led to a signal that there is somehow equal validity between the homosexual life style and marriage and family. That measure was a part of a signal that I personally reject.

As I made clear in my opening remarks, I am aware that some Conservative Members do not share those views, but the views that I am putting need to be put. We have had a clear speech in favour of the Bill—a personal commitment as well as a political imperative—from the Home Secretary. It is right and proper that there should be an opposing speech giving the other point of view. That is what I intend to do.

Several hon. Members


Miss Widdecombe

I am now going to move on to the next paragraph.

Most parents, I believe, want to see their children grow up and raise a family. Overwhelmingly—[Interruption.] Perhaps people do not agree. Overwhelmingly, that is how most children and young people see their future. I would therefore like to point the House towards a topical argument on the subject and one that I hope will be addressed further in the debate.

I remind the House of the words of the Minister of State, Home Office, the right hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), when he spoke on the procedural motion. He said that, since the Bill was last considered by the House, nothing has changed that would affect the provisions then agreed."—[Official Report, 7 February 2000; Vol. 344, c. 89.] However, at least one factor in the equation has changed. The Government appear, as the Prime Minister restated in the House yesterday, to be fully intent on abolishing section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988. That move by the Government changes the context in which we must view the provisions of this Bill.

If the Government have their way by means of the Parliament Acts or otherwise—and there is no reason to think that they will be persuaded by the arguments made in the other place—we will at once be allowing the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities and reducing the age of consent for homosexual acts so that many who are still at school—indeed, some who have not even taken their GCSE examinations—will be able to engage in such acts.

Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Miss Widdecombe

No, I am going to finish my sentence. If the hon. Lady interrupts me again, I will not give way until I have done that. That is the score, so she can choose.

If the Government have their way, not only will 16-year-olds be able to engage in homosexual acts, but local authorities will be able to use public money actively to promote such activity. That point changes the context of the Bill and merits consideration by the House and a wider debate. Therefore, it merits a rather more generous attitude to the Bill's further stages than the Home Secretary has shown.

Lorna Fitzsimons

I thank the right hon. Lady for giving way, and I apologise for not describing her as "right hon." when I asked to intervene.

The right hon. Lady makes her argument, but surely an argument is based on fact. Will she at least admit that, when she was given two opportunities by her colleagues to identify facts that would back up her argument, she failed to do so? She expresses her personal opinion, but there is no hard evidence—figures, prosecutions or any other data— for her view that the Bill is a dangerous move.

Miss Widdecombe

The Bill is a dangerous move because it removes a vital measure of protection for young people from those very young people.

Several hon. Members


Miss Widdecombe

There is an embarrassment of riches to choose from, but they all hold the same view. I give way to my hon. Friend in blue.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

On the point that the hon. Member for Rochdale (Lorna Fitzsimons) raised, and in response to the two questions asked by my hon. Friends the Members for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) and for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), has not the growth of HIV and AIDS in the past couple of decades been very great? Are we not reasonably entitled to believe that the vast majority of cases are among the homosexual population, as I will argue if I have the opportunity to speak later? That is an example of the downside of such measures, and I hope that that point will be dealt with at length in the debate.

Miss Widdecombe

Indeed, that point is a consideration and I look forward to my hon. Friend expanding on it. I also quote the view that I have received from many teachers and others who say that although some 16 year-olds may be ready to make such decisions, many more are not and they deserve the right to a degree of protection.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow)

Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Miss Widdecombe

I will, because I did not do so earlier when she and a number of other hon. Members rose.

Ms King

I thank the right hon. Lady for her graciousness in giving way. Does she agree that if young 16-year-old boys need protection from predatory males, all the evidence suggests that young 16-year-old girls need that protection more? Does she also accept that we do not choose our genes?

Miss Widdecombe

If the hon. Lady had listened to what I said a moment ago, she will have heard me address that point. I do not think that we give adequate protection to young girls. I have come across in my surgery parents of under-age girls involved in liaisons with older men. Those parents find it very difficult to get the police, the statutory services and everyone else to take that seriously as a criminal act. The point that I made was that there is an extra dimension in the case of young men, who take decisions that might put them permanently outside the mainstream way of life. The hon. Lady may disagree with me, but that is my point. I shall now make progress with the rest of my argument.

We must consider not just the possibility of those in a position of trust abusing their position to take advantage of young people as a result of the reduction in the age of consent, but the likelihood of young people being exposed to, and engaging in, homosexual acts at an age at which they are particularly vulnerable. I am surprised at the attitude of Labour Members—and, to some extent, of those on the Benches behind me—which dismisses the issue of vulnerability and the serious issues that arise from the Bill, even to the point of not allowing further examination of the adequacy of the abuse of trust clause. That is extremely serious. Notwithstanding what happened in the other place recently, the House must consider whether it is right and proper to introduce the two measures concurrently. It is very significant that the Government will probably have to apply the Parliament Act to both measures because those in the other place are vastly more in tune with the wishes of parents and with public opinion than are the Government.

What is being proposed today sends the wrong message to our communities, to teachers and to parents. Most of all, it sends entirely the wrong message to the young people of this country.

Mr. Brady

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way, not least because the Home Secretary would not allow me to make this point during his speech. Is it not regrettable that although the Home Secretary rightly regards this issue as a matter of conscience for the House, he claims that it is a matter of prejudice when it is debated in the other place?

Miss Widdecombe

Indeed, and it is significant that the Home Secretary probably also considers that everybody who disagrees with him on this issue has a bad case of prejudice, instead of realising that there are extremely serious arguments against what is being proposed and that it is our young people who will suffer if those arguments are not fully tested.

The House should particularly consider whether the offence of abuse of trust will be an adequate safeguard. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) said on Third Reading in the previous Session, there is widespread concern that the definition of a position of trust may not be broad enough. Regrettably, because the Government are driven by the need to apply the Parliament Act to the Bill, and because of the procedural motion passed on Monday, there will be no opportunity for hon. Members to examine that proposition further.

In the Bill's explanatory notes, the Government say that they expect the offence will act more as a deterrent than result in a large number of actual prosecutions. Is that a hint that the Government will not seek to prosecute in some instances of abuse of trust? The sharpest deterrent of all would be a guarantee of prosecution where trust had been abused.

I would hope that the Home Secretary, having made much of the new offence and having accepted in the previous Session the arguments for increasing the maximum sentence from two to five years, would assure the House that the police and the Crown Prosecution Service will be actively encouraged to prosecute where necessary.

I said that we do not at present accord sufficient protection to young girls. That is very much due to the absence of will to prosecute and to take measures to protect them. I hope that if we pass the Bill, we will not make the same mistake in respect of young boys.

I recognise that the new offence will provide at least some small safeguard, but I doubt that it is adequate. [Interruption.] I am sorry that the Home Secretary cannot pay any attention to what I am saying. I am talking to the House, but hoping that he will listen, about the adequacy of the abuse of trust provisions.

Mr. Straw

My reply to the right hon. Lady is that the provisions are adequate, as I sought to explain.

Miss Widdecombe

The right hon. Gentleman may have been explaining it to his hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley), but he has not explained it to me and he has not listened to my points.

I remain convinced that it would not be right further to reduce the age of consent for homosexual acts when the Government are intent on repealing section 28. The case for further change has not been made today. Those are my views.

Ms Claire Ward (Watford)

Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Miss Widdecombe


Hon. Members must use their individual conscience and judgment. I cannot support the Bill. I know that serious issues are arising for young people. This is not a theoretical debate about equality, but a question of how we best protect vulnerable youngsters and ensure that every young person has protection in law against being encouraged to engage in activity that could lead to permanent exclusion from a mainstream way of life.

I am sorry that that strikes no chord with Labour Members. It strikes an immense chord with the many parents who have written to me or visited me and made representations that they feel there is a rush for political correctness that does not take into account the needs of young people and the realities that they face.

2.55 pm
Ann Keen (Brentford and Isleworth)

I am grateful for the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary about the history behind this legislation, including events in 1994, and in 1998 and 1999, since I have been a Member of the House. We are now in another century. I commend my Government and other colleagues for their support on the crucial issue of the age of consent and equality for young people. I commend my friends on the Opposition Benches who have—bravely, in the present political climate—spoken out on the subject.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) referred at the end of her speech to political correctness. The Opposition seem to regard true political correctness to be intolerance, prejudice and discrimination, and would like that reflected in the law of the land. I have to tell the right hon. Lady that, thankfully, we have become a much more tolerant, progressive society, and will continue to progress. All political parties will continue to strive for greater tolerance.

We are all aware of the bombings that took place last summer in Brixton, Brick lane and, of course, in Soho. None of us could have failed to be shocked, angered and disbelieving that any person could willingly harm members of our community who are considered to be in the minority and different from the norm. We are talking about human beings. We must value all human life equally.

Life was going on that night in Old Compton street. Friends and family—gay and straight—were out for the evening. Some were celebrating a wedding and, sadly, one of the deceased was celebrating the expected birth of a child. They were all enjoying the opportunity to go out and mix on a warm summer night. I know that many colleagues visit those places. I frequently visit all parts of London and enjoy a social life with hon. Friends and, occasionally, colleagues on the Opposition Benches. I often go out with my family and friends. I have referred to a diverse section of society, but it is truly representative of society in this country today.

That bombing sent out Shockwaves that were felt by organisations such as Stonewall. They received comments of sympathy, but of course other comments were voiced in the extreme language that people feel entitled to use when there is any inequality in the law. There were cowards who talked of the pleasure that the bomb had caused them. Sadly, I have personal experience of that because a spineless coward who phones me and leaves messages on my answering machine asked me that day whether I would like to come and collect some arms and legs.

We all come across intolerance. We all have to be brave at times and make sure that our friends, neighbours and colleagues are accepted in our society because they are human beings, they are equal and they give to this country, whether through their job, through their academic work or through the way in which they choose to live their life. The public services that acted so bravely after the Soho bombing and the bombings at Brixton and Brick lane—the police, the fire service, the ambulance service, paramedics and health workers in the hospitals—included both gay and straight members among their staff, all offering their knowledge and expertise in dealing with a tragedy.

I was overwhelmed by the messages that were received, particularly from the Prime Minister and the Queen. Together with the Minister of State, Home Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), I visited Soho square. Many of us attended church services. Many religious organisations came together to say how wrong the act was.

To my friends throughout the House, I say that we cannot tolerate the offensive language used in the Chamber and in the other place, and written in tabloid papers such as the Daily Mail—language that deliberately scares young people and their families. Switchboards and helplines of gay organisations take calls from young people who have been frightened by articles such as those that have appeared in the Daily Mail. We know that to be true.

Like many of my colleagues, I have received in my postbag letters for and against, but the letters of support far outnumber the others. I have heard from people who genuinely did not understand what they opposed. I have had letters from very right-wing "Christian"—the words "Christian" and "right-wing" do not seem to go hand in hand—organisations deliberately distorting the facts of the case and making people afraid. We hon. Members should stand up united and say that we will not tolerate that.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. Is she trying to suggest that those of us who oppose the measure with the utmost vehemence that we can command somehow endorse what went on at the Admiral Duncan pub? If that is what she is suggesting, it is an utter disgrace. However strongly we feel about the argument, I know no one who could endorse such activity. It is an outrage.

Ann Keen

However uncomfortable the hon. Gentleman may feel about my remarks—I understand that many people feel uncomfortable having to listen to such remarks—he should recognise that the language sometimes used in the debate, the scaremongering and intolerance of which I have become aware since entering the House, will breed hatred and contempt.

Mr. Howarth

Will the hon. Lady give way again?

Ann Keen

No, I am sorry. I must make progress. Many hon. Members want to speak.

Blackmail is a crime, and blackmailers love any form of inequality before the law. Young people have been blackmailed not to report abuse. The law as it stands would deter any young person from reporting abuse. The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) was distressed by my comments about the bombing and about intolerance. I, like many of my hon. Friends and many others outside the House, find it distressing that we are insufficiently concerned about young people being abused. If we vote in favour of equalising the age of consent, the key word for me and many of my hon. Friends is "consent".

During such debates in the House, I have heard some of my colleagues having their personal sex life openly discussed, sometimes with great humour and sometimes causing people to feel uncomfortable. People outside wonder why any adult's sex life should be discussed in open debate. As a heterosexual woman, I do not recall ever having to explain or justify any of my actions, as long as they were legal and occurred with my consent.

My nursing background helps me to observe and study human behaviour. Some of the human behaviour that I have witnessed can lead me only to the conclusion that some hon. Members and certainly some in the other place get great satisfaction from discussing other people's sex life, using colourful language and distorting the facts. It brings a new dimension to "The Jerry Springer Show" and suggests a new kind of show, in which all sorts of people queue up to confess the things that they like or dislike.

I believe that people's personal sex life is their own, provided that it is conducted with consent. All responsible Members of this House and another place should take that on board.

On the wider topic of health and health care, health is a sense of total well-being—feeling comfortable with oneself, as well as a certain standard of physical health. We know that at least one in six of us suffers from some sort of mental health problem. In our early teens, life is difficult enough. It is pretty difficult sometimes when we are over 50, but not as complicated as it is in our early teens. Young people need the opportunity to be themselves and to discuss who they are.

We do not choose our life style, nor are we taught it. To all those who are worried about section 28, I shall quote from Victoria Coren's "Diary" piece in The Observer on 6 February. I wish the thought had occurred to me, but I must give her the credit. She mentions the fears that if section 28 is repealed, young people will be taught to become homosexuals. I agree with her when she comments: If that's the case, then why are we a nation of people who can't add or spell when teachers expound the benefits of these every day for 16 … years? And if 'gay lessons' have some special magic power to stick in the young mind, then for heaven's sake let's make the whole syllabus gay! Gay physics, gay geography, gay maths. We'll all be geniuses. I definitely go along with that.

Health education is crucial. The hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) raised the issue of AIDS and HIV. There is indeed a serious rise in the number of cases, and it is occurring in the heterosexual community, which has become complacent.

The all-party group on AIDS supports the lowering and equalising of the age of consent, as do the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing, NCH Action for Children, Childline, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Barnardos.

When we want information, we go to the experts. We listen to their advice and read what they have written. Any sensible person makes a judgment on that basis. Why, then, on this issue, cannot we accept the advice of those leading children's and young people's organisations? I should like someone who disagrees to give me an answer. Why do we refuse to accept the advice of bodies such as the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing and the Health Education Authority? I ask myself that as a nurse and as a mother.

In my family, I have the greatest gift: I know my son. All hon. Members, regardless of whether they are married or have children, are part of a family. People who oppose the Bill without question offend families in this country. That is so serious that I have to say, along with others, that I am fed up of humility. I do not see the need to beg constantly for this change to be made or to say that we will listen to this or consider that.

The Bill is about equality; it is about human beings; it is about our families. To use a famous phrase, enough is enough. It is about time that the House and the country said that there has been enough intolerance of something about which some people know little, because that intolerance affects people's lives. This is a new century, and this Government will bring us to a new age and a new tolerance.

3.11 pm
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

I pay tribute to the work that the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen) has done on this issue—not only today but since she has been a Member of the House. I also pay tribute, without reservation, to the work of Mrs. Edwina Currie, who is no longer a Member of the House. She introduced the prospect of change to us in 1994, and it is a tribute to the system that Back Benchers can still put issues on the Front-Bench agenda.

I shall be brief as many Members want to speak. We have three issues before us. Should we equalise the age of consent? Should we remove the stigma of criminality from under-16s who become involved in sexual activity? Should we have a law to deal with the abuse of a position of trust? My colleagues and I support each of those propositions.

At both elections since the creation of the Liberal Democrats in 1988, our party has stood on a manifesto of equality on the age of consent. For us, that has been a self-evident consequence of arguing for an equal society. We have always agreed that colleagues in the House should be free to vote as they choose, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith)—who did my job for the past five years—personally supported such legislation, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), our then leader. My right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy), our new leader, and I support the Bill.

I echo the point made by the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth about the most important of the Bill's provisions. It is time to move on, and we must conclude that there should be equality for sexual relationships—at 16 in Great Britain and 17 in Northern Ireland, for other reasons. There would thus be equality in both places.

It is important to remember that the proposal is on the agenda partly as a result of events in the European Commission of Human Rights and the European Court. The European convention on human rights has also played a part. I refer colleagues to the helpful and succinct House of Commons research paper on this subject and remind them of how we reached this position through the European Court.

In 1994, Euan Sutherland—who lived with his family in Southwark, my borough—brought a complaint to the Commission, arguing that Britain had failed him twice in terms of his rights. As the research paper states, article 8 of the European convention on human rights grants everyone the right to respect for their private and family life, their home and their correspondence. Article 14 states that the enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground". It listed all the grounds that had been identified.

The then Government said that it should be possible for Britain to argue that we were entitled to have 18 as the age of consent for gay relationships, but 16 for the rest. The Commission ruled by 14 votes to four that there had been a violation. It had listened to the Government's argument, but did not accept it. As the recommendations of the court were likely to result in a similar judgment, the Government wisely accepted that they should put before Parliament the proposition that the age of consent should be equalised. It seems to me to be beyond argument that under European law, and therefore under law that we are bound to follow, there has be to equality. Although there are many reasons for passing the Bill, we should pass it for that one, if no other.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

How much of the House's sovereignty is the hon. Gentleman prepared to surrender to such organisations as the European Court of Human Rights or to the European convention on human rights? Is there no limit? Is he prepared to hand over all decision making on those issues to foreign bodies?

Mr. Hughes

I do not want to be distracted down that road, but I shall try to deal with the point succinctly. This country signed up to the European convention 50 years ago. It was drafted by a member of the hon. Gentleman's party. It is effectively a British document in conception.

Mr. John Townend (East Yorkshire)

Yes, but it has changed.

Mr. Hughes

The convention has not been changed on this issue; the two articles with which we are concerned are from the original. Governments of both parties have adhered to it and my party has always supported it. I do not believe that it is good for national Governments to think that they always get it right without anybody else adjudicating. Establishing the convention after the war was a far-sighted move and a great tribute to the Council of Europe. It has been good for Britain in many ways and has given people many rights.

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hughes

Once more, then I must make progress.

Mr. Thompson

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when the convention was established and when there was talk of equality, it was never in the minds of those who drew up the document that it would be interpreted as widely as it is now?

Mr. Hughes

I do not think that that is true on this particular point. When the convention was drawn up people had ideas about equality in family life and on gender, sex and race matters that obviously led them to conclude that people should be treated equally. I was born in the year in which the convention was signed, but I am sure that gay people in the first half of the century would have expected that their time would soon come and that they would be given equal status under legislation such as this.

Mr. Howarth

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hughes

I shall not give way again. I am trying to enable all colleagues to speak.

I want to own up. I tabled an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 that would not have failed to achieve equality, but would have achieved it for 17-year-olds. However, the House disagreed with it and I accepted that. I must tell the House the most persuasive argument, which was that made by Euan Sutherland. He came to see me as a Southwark resident and was supported by his family and a couple of friends. They said that, as young men, the issue was not how they were protected or what they did, but whether they were treated equally at all stages. If society would not treat them equally, how could it expect them to receive equal treatment from their peers? If the law did not treat them respectfully, how could society ask other people to do the same? Euan Sutherland—and also someone who once worked for me—put the case most convincingly. Those young people said, "This prejudices and discriminates against us." We need to move on.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) said that she is not prepared to see equality override protection, but the Bill would not do that. We must enshrine equality in the law and then we can work on the protection. Colleagues, particularly on the Tory Benches, may still be thinking of opposing the Bill. I say this to them: in Britain, criminality is not attached to female-female relationships and never has been; nor is criminality attached to male-female relationships at 16, which is the same age at which people are allowed to leave school, go to work, pay taxes, join the services, get married and have children—

Mrs. Gorman

And get AIDS.

Mr. Hughes

And, as the hon. Lady said, be vulnerable to sexual diseases, no matter through what activity. From that age, people are treated in one way if they happen, permanently or impermanently, to have a male-female relationship, but differently if they are two men in a relationship. That is not logical. If we could get away from justifying inequality to considering the more sensible point made by the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) about how to protect young people from abuse, we would do the country a service.

One cannot tell gay people, who, according to any projection are likely to be a minority of the community, that they are valued as equals if the law does not treat them as such. We cannot get away with that. It is like telling people with physical or mental disabilities, or women or men or black or Asian people, "You're equal, we value you lots, we love you, but we're not going to treat you equally." We simply cannot do that. If we cannot move forward in Britain in 2000, we are in big trouble.

Clause 2 is straightforward. Thanks to the hard work of my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) and others in Standing Committee, we have decided not to criminalise under-16s. It is no good to anybody to say that a sexual activity engaged in at school renders someone a criminal. It is fine to deal with adults' abuse of young people, but let us not criminalise under-16s. Let us consider someone who is under 16 and goes through a passing homosexual phase at school and is criminalised for that. That blot remains on the record for ever. To criminalise someone for that is not the response of an adult, mature society.

Let us consider abuse of trust, which the Minister tackled the other day when he replied to the short debate about procedure. I hope that the other place will have an opportunity to consider the details of the Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) will say if she catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I hope she will, we are worried about some aspects of the drafting. Those anxieties are shared outside the House. The House has considered the measure, and I hope that the other place has an opportunity to examine it. We are considering a difficult measure which deals with the exploitation of younger people by older people. I hope that we can spend time on it to ensure that we get it right.

I am a Christian and a member of the Church. I come from an evangelical church background. I say to those who try to place an interpretation of faith on their views that there is a great difference between arguing that the Gospel, the Koran or the teachings of Guru Nanak say that someone should lead a particular life style or behave in a specific manner and legislating to make it illegal not to behave in that way. If the Church is to be all embracing, and faiths are to win people, not lose them, they must accept people as they are. They should try to win them by argument, not legislation. I hope that the division and difficulty that the Church has experienced on life style can be removed. The way in which people live, their moral choices and their behaviour are matters of morality, faith and conviction, but not legislation. Legislating on such matters is not for us in this multicultural, multi-community age.

The Bill is about private acts. We must not introduce into our discussions matters that are nothing to do with the Bill. We should have a review of sexual offences—I hope that the Minister and the Department are making good progress. The law is a muddle. I say that as someone who used to practise in the criminal courts. It is all over the place. Much of it dates from many years ago. It contains may inconsistencies, illogicalities and anomalies. The sooner the general review is before Parliament for careful consideration, the better. It should address the differences in the way people are treated. It should improve the law on indecent activity in public places. That does not work at the moment. We must not include in our discussions the debate about clause 28. That is a separate debate, which is not about the rights of our citizens, but about what our public institutions do.

I beg hon. Members to put aside extraneous matters and issues that involve our personal convictions and our faith and, to borrow a phrase from someone much more famous than me—[Interruption.] He is much, much more famous than me. I sense that at the moment, There is a tide in the affairs of men and women. As the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow said, the Bill will lead us towards a more tolerant, less bigoted society in which all people, after centuries of struggle, will at last be treated as equals. The measure is a small step in that direction. Please let us not put up barriers of bigotry now; let us move on to a more enabling and refreshing agenda.

3.26 pm
Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale)

It gives me great pleasure to be able to speak in this debate. Many colleagues have provided eloquent testimony to their long-held views and passionate beliefs in the rightness of what we are doing. The Bill is testament to the sort of society we want to live in and the sort of people we want to be. We must remember that this place is an advert to the rest of the country. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen) said, our language and tolerance is used by the general public as a method of judging what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. We have to lead by example. If we do not have laws that ensure that we treat people equally and accept that everyone is equal, we are going round in circles on one leg.

It was interesting and sad to listen to the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe). She talked about permanent exclusion. Anyone who has worked with or near children who are approaching the time in their lives when they question their sexuality, ask questions and make discoveries knows that exploring those matters under the cloud of knowing that they are involved in an illegal act leads to exclusion. I can think of no better definition of permanently excluding someone from society. The message is loud and clear: society does not recognise their right to exist, and the act that they want to practise is illegal, not because they are gay but because of their age. As soon as they become a certain age, the act becomes legal.

I find it offensive that young girls are treated differently. We should provide protection for all our children, regardless of age or sexuality. One does not say to a child, "Are you gay? All right, I'll protect you." Every child deserves protection in law and in society generally. Being a member of society means looking out for children. One does not look for the tag on a child's head; one looks to protect them. The premise that a gay young boy between the age of 16 and 18 needs more protection than a young girl of the same age is nonsense. Anyone who claims that has not listened to any teenage girls. I am about to become a stepmother of a 12-year-old girl, and we cannot avoid young girls' questions and their sexuality. They cannot avoid their sexuality—they have hormones popping everywhere. It is naive in the extreme to say that young people have to hide their sexuality in a discreet closet because it does not exist.

Another point has been eloquently made. To pretend that the change would undermine the family is outrageous. Excluding people means excluding family members— brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, aunties, uncles, sons and daughters. Do some people think that gay people do not have families? It is offensive to say that, all of a sudden, it is a chattering-class issue or a right-on issue, that it is not a core issue.

It was interesting to see a little snippet on BBC news this morning. It had done a vox pop in Newcastle upon Tyne, Central—not exactly a trendy, cafe latte-type place. The question was, "Is it just the chattering classes? Are they not concentrating on bread and butter issues and on what you want as working class people?" Interestingly, woman after woman said, "No. It is a core principle about the type of society that we want to live in and the type of people we want to be. We have to ensure that all our children are protected and are treated equally." That did not come from me or anyone here—it came from ordinary working-class women in the constituency of Newcastle upon Tyne, Central. We have to recognise that.

I have had the most heart-rending personal letters from young men who have never declared their sexuality to anyone because they were too scared; I am sure that I am not the only hon. Member here to have received such letters. Are we not humbled by the courageous way in which they are coming out and touching us as Members of Parliament by writing to us? Sometimes, we are the first person with whom they have shared that experience because of the law as it stands. Sometimes, they do not have the courage to go to their family because of their perception of how the family will deal with it. Often that is unfair because families can be very supportive—although sometimes they are not, as we know from our surgeries—but we cannot let down those constituents.

To say that there are no gay people in Rochdale is naive. To say that there are no young people asking real questions about their sexuality, who want help and to be able freely to ask and to get information, is wrong. How can they freely question something when it is illegal and there is total fear? That is at the core of the child protection issue. Surely, if something is made illegal—we all know this from all the case law—it will go underground. People do not report crimes, and they are preyed on and blackmailed. The bottom line is that keeping this law is the best way to continue the abuse of children by people who allegedly care for them.

If we take child abuse seriously, we will ensure that everyone inside and outside this place knows that, in the eyes of the law, at the age of 16, people are all equal. We are all worthy of the same protection in law. We must ensure that we send that message collectively to everyone who uses the law to exercise bigotry because of their own fear, vulnerabilities or standing in life. The bottom line is that we advance nothing that the great British parliamentary tradition has held dear by continuing to have this law.

As for the intervention by the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), I find it absolutely and utterly astounding that, in a place that is meant to be so learned, we still have bigotry based on ignorance. The facts are clear; they have been published in the House of Commons Library research paper and have been eloquently referred to. There is a rise in the incidence of AIDS in the heterosexual community. Anyone who is naive enough to believe that sexual practices in the homosexual community are the only ones that lead to sexual and other diseases has not been to a sex education class in any school recently.

Mrs. Gorman

I, too, am quoting from statistics produced by the Public Health Laboratory Service. Dr. Nicoll points out that of the currently diagnosed cases among heterosexuals in this country, only 6 per cent.—62 of the individuals concerned—have contracted that dreadful disease in this country. The great majority of people are from the sub-continent of Africa. The disease there is pandemic. We all know that, but the impression given by the publicity is that the disease is growing among the indigenous population in this country—the heterosexual population—and that is not true.

Lorna Fitzsimons

I cautiously say that I am sure that I misunderstood the hon. Lady when she said that it was an imported epidemic from Africa. The fact is that it is growing in the heterosexual community throughout the world. We are an international community—everyone travels.

The bottom line is that when people continue to perpetrate the myth that it is a gay plague, they allow every person who is heterosexual and about to embark on their first heterosexual experience to think that it is all right not to practise safe sex. Sadly, that is one of the reasons why people are naively led into unsafe sexual practices which lead to the rise in the AIDS epidemic. Can we therefore at least recognise one principle and fact in this Chamber—namely, that we are all prey to diseases when we practise unsafe sex and that it has nothing to do with sexuality?

Ms Oona King

Does my hon. Friend agree that ignorance comes not just from hon. Members? A leader in the Daily Mail the week before last said that one of the reasons for keeping section 28 was because, otherwise, young people might not be taught that marriage helps to protect them from AIDS. That is not just ignorant; it is criminal and dangerous to encourage children down that route.

Lorna Fitzsimons

I would be interested to find out from the statistics how many married people have AIDS. The truth is that we need to expound the myth. More heterosexuals than homosexuals have AIDS. The bottom line is that it is a disease that affects us all, so we should stop scapegoating. I thought that we had got rid of that idea a decade ago; I genuinely did. I am shocked to hear it raised in the Chamber.

I ask the Home Secretary to reconsider the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) raised with him. I want to make it clear that it is not, as it appeared from the Home Secretary's response, about repealing the conviction retrospectively, which no one—including, I understand, the Bolton Seven—is asking for. The point is that, because of the law as it stands now, they are on the sexual offences register. If the Bill is enacted, as I hope it will be, they will be on the register for something that is no longer illegal— consenting sex with a 17-year-old. Therefore, we ask for a review of people on the register because of the unequal age of consent. The issue is purely about those who have entered consensual sexual practices.

Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble)

Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to separate the punishment for the crime, which is the sentence meted out by the court, from a measure that is meant to safeguard the public, which is what the register of sexual offences is for? There is some confusion in the Home Office about what the punishment is and what the public protection is.

Lorna Fitzsimons

I agree. I thank my hon. Friend for putting it so clearly. We all share those concerns about protection. That is why we have considered the matter and why it is part of the Bill, but there is some confusion. I would like us to consider that a bit more closely.

The bottom line is that in this day and age—in the new millennium—we want to be able to be tolerant. For all of us who are parents, whether step-parents or natural parents, and for anyone who is involved in teaching children, the greatest fear is that children will not go to their parents, a teacher or a responsible person with their questions. If we continue to maintain the current inequality, that will happen. We know that there are thousands and thousands and thousands of children who have many questions which they are just holding within themselves. I cannot think of a sadder and more dangerous society for our children to live in.

3.40 pm
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

I have changed my mind on this subject, and I owe it to myself, the House and my constituents to explain why. The words "I was wrong" do not readily trip off my tongue, but that is what I believe. I think I was mistaken to vote for the status quo last time, and I intend to vote for the Bill, for reform and, I think, for progress.

But before I explain to the House my thinking—and I hope that the House will be tolerant of my doing so—I should like to pick up on what my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe)—who, sadly, is not in her place— said in opening from the Opposition Front Bench. I greatly regret that she chose to establish a linkage between section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 and this Bill. I say what follows not to break what consensus has already emerged in the debate or cause any offence. I recognise that some hon. Members feel strongly that section 28 should be removed. I believe that they are mistaken. I believe that we are right to support it. It has a valuable effect, and it would be a mistake to dispense with it. That is a matter for legitimate debate and argument, but it is wrong to link the two and imply that one must take the same line on both issues. There is no requirement whatsoever to do so.

I should also like to make it clear that, as I think the House will understand, regarding my right hon. Friend's references to political correctness, I have in no sense fallen prey to it. I abhor political correctness. I could not give a tinker's cuss as to the view of the European Court of Human Rights, and I view both the persona and the activities of Mr. Peter Tatchell with repugnance. So I hope that I shall be acquitted of the charge that I am in some sense a fellow traveller of the organisation OutRage!

On the contrary, I have just reflected upon the issues. It so happens that I am heterosexual, but I acknowledge a point that the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen) made in her speech and the hon. Member for Rochdale (Lorna Fitzsimons) made in her powerful contribution, which is that I have homosexual constituents as well. The idea that they exist in every other constituency, but not in that of Buckingham, is preposterous. I have a proportion of homosexual constituents. They are human beings; they are civilised; they have rights and obligations as well. And I am duty bound to take account of their interests.

In essence, there are three main reasons why I feel impelled to vote tonight for change.

First, the status quo provides discrimination without benefit. I am not opposed to discrimination per se in the way in which I live my life. [Laughter] I am sorry that the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) laughs. I shall try to explain what I mean. A discriminating person is somebody who exercises judgment, discretion and, not infrequently, wisdom. But it is a very different matter to have a statutory discrimination without benefit.

I listened intently, interestedly and respectfully to my right hon. Friend speaking from the Front Bench, but it was not at all clear to me what was the benefit that flowed and flows from the status quo. There is no evidence that the present law reduces the incidence of homosexual activity, minimises the spread of infection and increases the protection available to young people. None of these things is achieved by the present law. It seems to me that it has no beneficial purpose at all.

Indeed, the argument is stronger than merely that the present law has no beneficial purpose or effect. It is that many young people, possibly uncertain about their sexuality, or possibly knowing that they are homosexual, are discouraged by their being currently criminalised in law from seeking appropriate health advice from those in a position to provide it. It cannot be right that we simply ignore that fact.

The effect of present arrangements is that the statute book delivers a recipe for confusion, misery and fear. The onus of responsibility is on those who are defending the status quo to explain what benefits it confers upon us and what demerits would result from the Bill. My right hon. Friend's speech, I regret to say, failed to explain that.

The second argument in support of change is powerful, but one that some right hon. and hon. Members might think it curious to hear from me. I refer to the position in continental Europe. I yield to no one in my Euro-scepticism. As my right hon. and hon. Friends know, and as I have already made clear, I could not care less what the European Court of Human Rights thinks about this subject. But it would be absurd to ignore what happens in other countries, and the fact is that in Denmark, France, Greece, Poland and Sweden there is an equal age of consent, which happens to be 15. The House will be aware that in Germany the equal age of consent is now 16.

I challenge those who support the status quo and inveigh so violently against this relatively modest reform to prove that some damaging consequence flows from the different arrangements in those countries. If they could show that the incidence of homosexual activity was greater, that the spread of infection was bigger, that the protection for young people was weaker, they would have the kernel of an argument. They have not been able, at least to my satisfaction, to demonstrate anything of the kind. The position is no worse in those countries, as far as I can discern. Indeed, arguably the position in many other countries is far better than it is here.

Everyone in the House knows this country's record on teenage pregnancies, for example. It is an abominable record, a shameful record, a record that we should be doing our level best to improve. There is nothing to suggest that the existing law will achieve that.

The third argument against the status quo and in favour of change, which I had heard before, but which I had not previously allowed to persuade me, is that experts in medical charities and children's charities alike, and throughout the medical profession, counsel that we should make this change. A number of right hon. and hon. Members have referred to that wide-ranging consensus for change. It is important to recall once again the range of organisations that support reform: the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children; Barnardos; NCH Action for Children; the National Children's Bureau; Save the Children; the Family Welfare Association; the Family Planning Association; the Health Education Authority; the British Medical Association; the National Association of Probation Officers; the British Association of Social Workers; the Royal College of Physicians; the Royal College of Nursing; and so on. If I have omitted to mention an important organisation, no doubt a right hon. or hon. Member will point that out.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

The Liberal Democrats.

Mr. Bercow

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman, who intervened from a sedentary position, for not including the Liberal Democrats in the category of important organisations, but I am very happy to accept that he is a long-standing supporter of reform.

I counted no fewer than 13 organisations in my list. All of them believe that positive health benefits could flow from a change in the law, and that seems a good reason to consider making it.

I do not want to detain the House for much longer, because I am very conscious, first, that many hon. Members wish to contribute to the debate, and, secondly, of the substantial expertise on all sides of the House on this subject; expertise with which I do not pretend to compete. But I would make some concluding points.

First, some of my right hon. and hon. Friends occasionally give the impression that they are in favour only of homosexual activity between consenting males of 99 years of age, with the consent of both parents. That does not seem to me to be justified. I believe in tolerance. I believe in equality before the law. I also believe in freedom under the law, and it is with the concept of freedom, as well as with that of equality, that we are in this debate, I hope, concerned.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

Does my hon. Friend not appreciate the real risk that young, impressionable boys who are somewhat doubtful about their sexuality will be pressurised into adopting a course that they will regret later? Does he not accept that Parliament has a role to play in the protection of young people?

Mr. Bercow

I certainly believe that it is important for Parliament to protect people.

I once bought into my hon. Friend's argument, but since then I have been reading, I have been listening, and I have been conversing with people who know something about the subject, in my constituency and elsewhere. Now, I simply do not think that the argument is valid. There have been a plethora of studies, in this country and overseas, and the general conclusion seems to be that an individual is unlikely, as a result of an experience in his youth, to be propelled into a homosexual existence that would not otherwise have occurred. The Howard League for Penal Reform produced one of the most recent and penetrating reports on the subject, in 1985. I found it very persuasive.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) made a good point about the duty of Parliament to protect young people in all circumstances. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) think that making a young person a criminal will protect him in any way?

Mr. Bercow

Certainly not. I agree with my hon. Friend, whom I have heard expatiate on the subject before, that that is a recipe for misery and fear.

Mr. Duncan

It is counter-productive.

Mr. Bercow

It is indeed.

I am very conscious that, in speaking as I have done and in voting as I intend to do, I am almost certain to incur the wrath of many of the people whom I admire most in politics, and that I will be accompanied in the Lobby by some—not all—of the people whom I respect least in politics. However, I have a duty in this regard.

Ms Ward

The hon. Gentleman may have those fears, but I am sure I speak for many Labour Members when I say that, following what he has said so far, we shall look on him in an entirely new light. We only hope that he will not do this too often; if he does, we shall feel most uncomfortable in the future.

Mr. Bercow

I accept the hon. Lady's tribute in the spirit in which it was offered, but I hope that she will not overdo it. No doubt I have already inflicted massive political damage on myself, and I do not want to add to it.

Like other Members, I have received many letters on this subject—not many in the run-up to today's debate, but many over the past couple of years. Those letters expressed a variety of views. I will not assert that the majority favoured change; they probably did not, and certainly a majority of Conservative supporters were against it. However, I believe that if we spend years trying to get into this place, once we are here we should say what we think and vote with our conscience. For that reason, and on the basis of a conversion on my part because of the evidence, I will support the Bill's Second Reading.

3.54 pm
Mr. Bill Etherington (Sunderland, North)

It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), and his last words were particularly near and dear to me. I congratulate him on being humble enough to admit that he was wrong, and suggest that he should hang on to a copy of tomorrow's Hansard, which may well become a collector's item in years to come.

It is nice when someone introduces some levity to the Chamber—heaven knows, it is badly needed on occasion—but we are discussing a serious matter. I disagree with the hon. Member for Buckingham on one point: I feel that section 28 is linked with this debate. I say that because the Home Secretary's speech—not so much the content as the tone, which was based on humanity and compassion—was also near and dear to me.

Many of us, unlike the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), were born in the early part of the last century. I cannot recall homosexuality being discussed in my home during my childhood, or in the various schools that I attended. Only as a teenage apprentice did I become aware of it. I did not have a sheltered upbringing; in fact, I grew up in rather a rough area.

When something is sprung on a person, that person will have difficulties. I was not a politician in those days; I was just like any other teenager, trying to learn and to find my way through a difficult time. I must be honest, and admit that I initially felt some distaste about homosexuality. My subsequent feelings, however, were perhaps more important. I had a sense almost of pity, of compassion, and, I hope, of understanding in relation to someone who did not belong to the flock—someone who was an outsider.

I must say in all honesty that I do not think I have met half a dozen homosexuals in my life, although I have read a lot about them and have heard people speak about the subject.

Ms Oona King

There are half a dozen on these Benches.

Mr. Etherington

I should be grateful if my hon. Friends would give me a count. It is good to get a bit of information.

One of the most poignant experiences that I have encountered was that of a couple with whom I became friendly when they were young. In their later days, they discovered that one of their children had homosexual tendencies. They were horrified, and found it difficult to cope. I felt immensely sympathetic. Like all decent parents, those people loved their child very much, and this was a big blow.

We have moved on tremendously in recent years, but we have not moved far enough. I pay tribute to the Government for noting the decision of the European Court of Human Rights to abolish discrimination against homosexuals in the armed forces: that was a big step forward. If this Bill is passed, that too will be a big step forward. In many ways, this issue is like the long march of Everyman: it goes on, and we hope that it gets better.

Unlike the contender for Back Bencher of the year, the hon. Member for Buckingham, I do give a tinker's cuss about Europe, and about the various organisations to which we have voluntarily signed up and in regard to which we have responsibilities and obligations. If I have a slight criticism of my Government in relation to the issue we are debating, it is this. The European Court of Justice made a decision about discrimination against those with a different sexual orientation in the armed forces. If we could put a three-line Whip on that, and if Government policy was to try to get it through, why have we suddenly returned to a free Vote when the European Court has made a decision that has led to today's debate? I do not see the logic: I do not understand the difference between the position today and the position just after the Christmas recess.

I have spoken about subjects involving homosexuality during the plenary session of the Council of Europe, and I belong to the committee on equal opportunities for men and women. The committee strongly agrees that heterosexuals are treated very differently from homosexuals by many nations. Britain has a pretty good record, and we are respected in Europe, not least because of the recent decision about the armed services. However, we can still learn from other people and countries, and we still have some way to go.

I am fairly confident—I speak with some authority on this—that my Government do not believe that sexual orientation should be allowed to be a consideration in employment decisions. In employment, one's sexual orientation and sex should not matter, everyone should be treated equally and there should be no discrimination.

Recently, the issue was discussed at the Council of Europe, where I spoke on it for the Socialist group. An amendment was also passed to the new protocol 12, specifically including sexual orientation as an unlawful consideration in employment decisions. However, I was amazed to discover that, in the brief from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Government opposed the amendment. Their opposition did not fit in with what I have been led to believe in this place. Although I am sure that some other hon. Members have had similar experiences on other issues, the Government's opposition to that amendment did not send out the correct signals.

The House of Lords' regrettable decision on section 28 did not send out the right signals to our European partners. I appreciate why no amendments are being tabled to the Bill. If the Parliament Act 1911 is to be invoked, it is essential that the Bill not be amended. Passing the Bill is the only way in which we will be able to comply with a ruling in law that we have signed up to abide by.

When the Government introduce Bills to bring us into line with European legislation or judgments from the European Court of Human Rights or the European Court of Justice, the House of Lords are able to thwart those efforts. If we are going to comply with our obligations, we will therefore have to examine very closely the House of Lords' powers. The other place could cause the Government and every British citizen to be in breach of our European and international obligations.

I have therefore reached a conclusion that has nothing to do with this debate: if the House of Lords could put us in such a situation, perhaps, when we are considering reforming the House of Lords, we should consider abolishing it. If we do not, democracy will not prevail, and the elected representatives of the United Kingdom will be thwarted in performing their responsibilities.

Mr. Brady

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Etherington

I will not, because I have only two or three minutes.

I am very pleased that the Bill will be passed today. Some time ago, I voted to lower the age of consent from 21 to 16 but it became 18 and it is long overdue that we equalised the age of consent. It has been inexcusable that certain backwoodsmen have been able to hold up progress, but democracy and the rule of law will ensure that religious beliefs—which, in many ways, is what this debate is about—cannot be used as an excuse for failing to live by the law of the land. We want to progress equality for homosexuals of both sexes.

4.3 pm

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

I take issue with my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), who made great play of the importance to him of his constituents in Buckingham, and perhaps particularly of those of a homosexual persuasion. I put it to him and to the House that we come to this place not only to exercise our own conscience, but to represent the views of those who elected us—our constituents.

I hope that my hon. Friend will acknowledge that the great majority of his constituents, and of mine, have strong misgivings about not only this legislation, but the Government's intention to repeal section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988. We have an obligation—often in the face of Labour Members' criticisms, which are not always particularly well-balanced or rational—to express the views of those constituents. Majorities, like minorities, have a right to hold and express their views. I am speaking partly on behalf of that majority today.

I, like everyone else, do not seek to criminalise young people in any context whatever. However, we should remember that the number of prosecutions of young people in the 16-to-18 age group for anything related to homosexuality is minute. I think that, in the past several years, there have been only two such prosecutions. Therefore, we are talking not about people hunting down 16-year-olds to prosecute, but about the concerns of the parents of those children.

As hon. Members have said, some of those parents may very much favour changing current legislation, but some do not favour it. As some of my colleagues have said, the children of some of those parents may be in education or in care institutions. Although I welcome the fact that young people in care will receive special protection in the Bill, young people who are not in care—such as those in schools and other activities, such as swimming clubs and military groups—will not be protected by the Bill. Those young people may be subject to pressures that induce them to become involved in various activities.

As we know, some young people, including boys, become prostitutes. In many cases, those young people may well be led into such practices for money, or even simply for a type of affection, rather than as the result of an automatic predilection, be it biological or otherwise.

Ms Oona King

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Gorman

No, I shall not give way now. I want to make some progress. I am sure that the hon. Lady will be able to speak and tell us her views.

I am particularly concerned—I have raised this issue in the House before—about the health aspects of the matter. In the United Kingdom, we are bombarded with propaganda on the health risks to young people caused by smoking, drinking and drug taking. However, if we mention the health risks involved in homosexual activities, we are shouted down and told that we are bigoted or prejudiced or, in many cases, completely wrong.

I should like again to quote the chief executive of the Public Health Laboratory Service, Dr. Nicholl, who states in a report: The risk of contracting Aids is vastly greater in homosexual people than in heterosexuals. The report also stated that, last year, of the 1,070 heterosexual people living in Britain who contracted human immune deficiency virus—many of whom underwent HIV testing because of increased concern among women about the disease—only 62 contracted the disease in this country. When I pointed out to the hon. Member for Rochdale (Lorna Fitzsimons) that the great majority of the women in that group came from the sub-continent, she jumped on the statement and said that it simply showed that heterosexual populations in other countries are severely affected by the disease.

The fact remains that, in some of those countries, particularly African countries—it has been a feature also in post-communist Romania—the incidence of HIV-AIDS among the female population is related to the use of anal intercourse as a form of contraception. That fact has been medically documented. Therefore, the issue of what happens in some cases of homosexuality between consenting male adults—an issue that was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), whose comments were subsequently sedentarily described by Labour Members as bigotry—is relevant to the debate. We should put that on the record because it is highly significant.

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South)

I am listening to the hon. Lady with as much dispassionate intensity as I can muster. I am concerned about her line of argument. She is talking about public health issues, which affect heterosexual as much as homosexual people. Does she accept that the logical implication of her argument is that the age of consent should be raised for heterosexuals as well as homosexuals? Will she acknowledge that the gay community and homosexual organisations have done at least as much as other organisations to alert people to the public health issues that she is talking about?

Mrs. Gorman

I agree with some of what the hon. Gentleman says, but not all of it. I do not want to get into a debate with him because we have a short time available and I want to put my point of view.

Mr. Bercow

My hon. Friend and I have been friends for 15 years and I am sure that we are not going to fall out over this issue. Is not the weakness of her argument that it is based on the premise that the proposed change in the law will somehow result in a dramatic explosion of homosexual activity? That premise is fundamentally flawed. Why does she think that the advice of the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Physicians on the pursuit of good health is wrong and that she is right?

Mrs. Gorman

My hon. Friend ignores the fact, which I have already pointed out, that in the past few decades we have had an explosion of HIV-AIDS—a disease that was practically unknown before the more liberal attitude to homosexuality was adopted in this country. We have to some extent managed to conquer that problem, thanks to more advanced medical techniques, but that does not alter the causal relationship. When we tell young children about health risks, the diseases related to some forms of homosexual practices should be brought to their attention. This is a health issue rather than a moral issue.

Mr. Borrow


Mr. Stephen Twigg (Enfield, Southgate)


Mrs. Gorman

I shall not give way, because all hon. Members have an opportunity to make their own contribution and I do not want to detain the House for too long.

We should keep the issue in proportion by bearing in mind the number of people of a homosexual persuasion in the country. Those listening to our debates might get the impression that we are dealing with a massive problem involving large numbers of people who should receive a lot of attention. The report of the national survey of sexual attitudes and life styles shows that around 1 per cent. of the male population are of homosexual persuasion. That is some 300,000 people, which means that there are about 30,000 males of the relevant age group. It is not the case that every school has half a dozen or more boys who are being bullied because they are homosexual or are at risk of being enticed by older males into homosexual practices. For that reason if for no other, the attention that we are giving to the need to lower the age of consent is out of all proportion with the problem.

Jackie Ballard

Does the hon. Lady agree that, no matter what the size—whether it is 1 per cent., 10 per cent, or 49 per cent.—one of the first duties of this place is to protect the rights of minorities?

Mrs. Gorman

I agree with that, but another important purpose of being in this place is to present the views of the majority. The majority on this issue, as in the debate on section 28, is almost ignored, partly because the membership of the House of Commons is not representative of the population on the issue. We have a much higher percentage of people of homosexual persuasion in the House than in the population at large. That tends to drive the debate in a direction that reflects the personal considerations of some Members rather than the attitudes of the population as a whole.

Ann Keen

How will the majority be affected by the Bill? How will they feel and what difference will it make to them?

Mrs. Gorman

The views of parents of boys aged 16 to 18 and their concerns about their children should be reflected in our debates. Some will agree and some will disagree, but the majority of parents feel concern. The number of children at risk is relatively small. For that reason alone, we do not need to alter existing legislation against the wishes of the great majority of the people whom we represent. We are bombarded by propaganda in this country and sometimes we are led to believe that there is a regime of persecution of our young people on the issue. That is a great exaggeration. There is no evidence that existing legislation needs to be changed. The change will cause great concern to many parents. We have a duty to represent their views and consider whether we need to alter the law. The amount of persecution going on is so slight that it could be dealt with by the current law, which does not discriminate badly against young male homosexuals. That is demonstrated by the number of convictions. I shall sit down now so that others can participate in the debate.

4.18 pm
Kali Mountford (Colne Valley)

I feel privileged to listen to the debate. My parents brought me up to know people from many walks of life and religions. I owe my mother a debt of gratitude for the fact that I am not inflicted with any disability of mind that might make certain people repulsive or repugnant to me. As we shall have a free vote on the issue, I have examined my conscience closely to work out why I feel the way I do and why I believe that my vote will be morally right and justified.

I have considered the great figures of history whom the rest of us aspire to be like to see from whom I could draw an example. A line comes to mind from Martin Luther King when he was considering the position of his children. He was talking about the future of people of different ethnic backgrounds, but his comment that we should judge people by the content of their heart applies in this debate. It is the content of a person's heart that appeals to me, not the state of their being. We can judge people only by actions over which they have control. We cannot, in all justice and conscience, make a judgment that criminalises someone for a state of existence that is simply themselves, because if we do that we deny them. This debate is not just about equality before the law; it is about humanity, which is the very purpose of a legislative Chamber. If the House is not concerned with humanity, what are we here for? We have to consider the law, and its sense and purpose.

One purpose claimed for the law as it stands is that it provides protection. What sort of protection do we seek for our children? Do we seek to protect them from their own sexuality? Is that even possible? The European Commission has stated: Sexual orientation is fixed in both sexes at the age of 16. It continued: Men aged 16 to 21 are not in need of special protection because of a risk of being 'recruited' into homosexuality. I absolutely agree.

I firmly believe that our sexuality is as much a part of our being as whether we have curly hair, green eyes or white or brown skin. Therefore, homosexuality should not be an issue for a debate about equality. We should simply accept each other as we are. There is nothing for people to be protected from, because we should not need to be protected from our own existence.

What other protection might we seek for people? We could seek protection for them from older people making sexual advances against their consent. In that case, the law clearly discriminates, because men and women are treated differently. The BMA has said:

The risk posed by predatory older men would appear to be as serious whether the victim is a man or a woman and does not justify a differential age of consent. The argument is that young men aged between 16 and 18 are more vulnerable than young women of that age. That is a preposterous argument. Young women, if they experience unwanted sexual activity—or sexual activity they have consented to that is unwise and leads to pregnancy or disease—face at least the same dangers as a young man. Young women also face the risk of pregnancy, which can be grave indeed at that age. I do not propose that we change the age of consent for young women, because it would be ludicrous to deny the fact that young people engage in sexual activity—which anyway would be impossible to police. If we are providing protection for young women at the age of 16, why should there be a difference for young men? I have seen no evidence that makes me believe that young men are more vulnerable.

It has been suggested that protection is needed on health grounds, but the first protection is information. If people are not informed about where their sexual activity may lead them, what hope do they have of protecting their own health? I do not know what is so complicated or advanced about condoms. They have been around for a long time and served a useful purpose. They protect people, whatever their age, against the unwanted consequences of sexual activity. Their primary purpose is obviously protection against pregnancy, but they also protect against sexually transmitted diseases for both men and women. Why should we differentiate between people of different sexes when there is nothing very complicated about the use of a condom? They are not a new idea, and their use should be discussed more widely in schools, youth clubs and wherever people who need such information to protect themselves gather together. There is nothing new in that.

The NSPCC, which is a respected organisation, supports the equalisation of the age of consent because continuing discrimination in the law against homosexuals stigmatises young people growing up gay. It hinders them from developing a positive self-image and prevents them from seeking information and help in coming to terms with their sexuality. We know that the current situation provides a platform for homophobic bullying. If there is any risk to health, it is in the law as it stands, which means that people do not have information with which to protect their bodies and are not supported in protecting their mental and emotional development.

The current law leaves people open to abuse. If an older man seeks to have a sexual relationship with a younger man aged 16 to 17, both parties are in breach.of the law. If the young man has not consented, he cannot put himself forward for protection under the law, because he, too, is in breach of the law. That situation is not providing protection for him or his health, and serves no purpose for the public or the young people whom we seek to protect.

It is claimed that the current state of the law protects young people, but so far I have seen no evidence of that. It is claimed that the law protects family life. Well, family life has been glorious for me. I enjoy marriage, and I know many people who do. I also know gay men who have married to protect themselves from homophobic views and bullying, but that serves no purpose to marriage, their happiness or that of the women they marry. People will not be happy if they marry to avoid homophobic behaviour, and that is not the sort of family life I support.

Many hon. Members have discussed the importance of family life and said how many of our sons, brothers, sisters and so on are gay. They are part of our families, but people should not feel forced into relationships that are not natural for them. Just because my own marriage is natural and happy for me, I should not seek to impose a similar relationship on others. I am fortunate that the relationship that feels natural to me resembles those of the majority of people in this country, but what purpose could it serve for me to impose a relationship that suits me on another individual? My happiness is my own personal joy, and I hope that the House will find a way of allowing other people to find their personal joy in their own way.

Some people assume that, when young people are growing up and exploring their sexuality, they make a decision about it. However, the evidence shows that there is no decision to be made. The vast majority of young men who are homosexual find that out for themselves before the age of 15 and with no sexual contact. They have engaged in no physical exploration with anyone else, but they already know their own mind.

Some of my hon. Friends have already spoken of their experience with step-daughters, daughters and sons, and mine is the same. There is no possibility of my telling either of my children what their sexuality is, or of being able to change their mind. It is not a question of changing their mind—that is the crux of the matter. The construct of my argument is that a person must be valued in society, and so must their relationships, their developing sexuality and their emerging love for other people. I use the word "love" very carefully. In my experience, when young men and young girls have their first early contacts with either the opposite sex or the same sex, the first powerful feeling is one of love. That loving feeling for their first partner may not last for the rest of their life—it rarely does—but why should that surge of loving feeling between opposite-sex couples be denied to same-sex couples, and not all same-sex couples at that? It has already been said, far more poetically than I could say it, that there is a love that cannot speak its name. But let us speak it, because it is love.

I do not accept that married love between two people of the opposite sex is somehow more valuable, and has a special place—that would be to deny same-sex love. It does not mean that I denounce marriage, which has its place in society. Marriage is considered, not just by this place, but by most religions, as a special relationship in which children are brought into the world and have a special place in that family. We cannot talk about the emerging sexuality of children without talking about love. Love includes the love between parents and the love of parents for their children. It means that we accept the love that our children feel for the people with whom they have relationships throughout their life. Therefore, equalising the age of consent is an objective of paramount importance.

We also have a duty of care, which should not be about emerging sexuality, but about whether someone has a relationship of power over another person. That is where the Bill draws distinct and important lines. It does the debate a disservice to draw those lines in a trivial way by saying that, if young people go swimming, for example, or engage in a fun activity with others in a youth club, the adult running the club or in charge of the outing has a powerful relationship over those young people. That is a silly contention.

It is important to consider institutional structures such as schools, care homes and other places in which adults have a particular position over children, whether girls or boys. What is important is that the adult does not transgress the child's trust. The trust exists because the adult has a powerful position, not just because he or she is an adult. That point was made strongly in Committee when we last discussed these provisions—this is the third time in this Parliament that we have done so. I believe that the Committee got it right—looking carefully at the position of trust was the right thing to do.

I have said it before, and I shall continue to say it: this is dependent not on sexuality, but on trust. If people are to trust us to do the right thing, we must look at a way forward that is based on equality, respect, acceptance and love.

4.35 pm
Jackie Ballard (Taunton)

I think that most people would agree that the last time this subject was debated in this place, the most eloquent speech was made by the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward), who was then on the Conservative Benches. So far today, the most eloquent speech has come from the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), although I suspect that he will not be following all the examples set by his former hon. Friend.

In the past three years, everything that could ever be said about sexual activity, sexual orientation or sexual offences has been said in this House and in the other place. However, this is the first time that I have taken part in such a debate. I will try hard not to repeat arguments that have already been made.

I strongly support the main provisions of the Bill, which will at last bring equal treatment and equal rights, at least in one respect, to my many gay and bisexual friends and constituents. I do not understand people who are obsessed with the sexual activities of others. We have all had letters from people who write in lurid detail, as have some of those who have spoken this week in the other place. I believe that it is no business of mine what consenting adults get up to in the privacy of their own homes, and I do not believe that the law should be interested in that either.

Mr. Robathan

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Jackie Ballard


Hon. Members

He has only just got here.

Mr. Robathan

As it happens, I was here at the beginning.

The hon. Lady talks about consenting adults. The whole point is that we are talking about children, as defined by the Children Act 1989 and the United Nation convention on the rights of the child. I am sure that she will acknowledge that.

Jackie Ballard

It is strange that the hon. Gentleman seems to think that at the age of 16 girls are adults, but at the age of 16 boys are still children, unless he is arguing to raise the age of consent for everyone to 18. I suspect that that would not receive wide, if any, support.

Despite my general support for the Bill—and we have heard eloquent arguments about why we should support it—I believe that it leaves many unanswered questions. It does not go far enough in some areas and goes too far in others. The main areas in which I disagree with the Government are the continuing unequal treatment of gay men and the continued discrimination against them in law. As I indicated in my earlier intervention on the Home Secretary, I also have serious misgivings about the abuse of trust provisions.

Let me deal first with the continuing unequal treatment of gay men. At present, heterosexuals involved in group sex commit no offence as long as it is done in private. However, even after the Bill becomes law, homosexuals will still be committing a criminal act if more than two people are present or if it is deemed to be public. It is clear discrimination when the law makes no such provision of an offence for heterosexuals. I am not asking for the law against gross indecency in public places to be relaxed, but we are discussing equal treatment under the law and equal rights. Therefore, should we not be equalising it in all respects, including the issue of group sexual activity? I hope that the Minister will respond to that point.

My main concerns are about the abuse of trust provisions. I do not take the line proposed by some Conservative Members that we should extend them to everyone. Many aspects of the provisions seem confused. A lot of people who speak in these debates say, "I am a parent, therefore I care more than everyone else." Well, I, too, am a parent, and I take it that we all have families of one sort or another, we all care about our children and other people's children, and we all want to make sure that they are not abused, their trust is not abused and a position of power is not abused. So I am sure that we all welcome the measures that are aimed at protecting children, particularly in residential homes and secure units, where they are especially vulnerable.

However, the provisions contain several anomalies. To check that I was not alone in being concerned about how the Bill applies to teachers, I spoke this week with representatives of four teaching unions in Somerset. Not all of them were new Labour or Liberal Democrat supporters; one, in fact, was a Conservative councillor. All opposed the new criminal offence of abuse of trust as it relates to teachers.

People may say, "They would say that, wouldn't they?" We may think that they have a vested interest. But those representatives made the point that everyone in the teaching profession is bound by a code of conduct that recognises that teachers are in a position of trust. If teachers have a consensual relationship with young adults in their care or under their supervision, they are likely to be abusing their position of trust and authority. Such behaviour can already result in disciplinary action by employers, including summary dismissal, having one's name entered on List 99 and the ending of a teaching career.

It is right to discipline a teacher for forming an abusive or exploitative relationship. However, in my view, in the view of the teaching unions, and, I think, in the view of many people when they think about how far the Bill will extend the law, it is not proportionate to the risk to go further and to determine that that is a criminal offence punishable by up to five years imprisonment.

The abuse of trust provisions were debated at length in Committee when the Bill was last discussed, although no such provisions were included when the age of consent was first debated under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. The Home Secretary gave two reasons for the scope of the Bill on abuse of trust. First, teachers act in loco parentis. Secondly, there would be practical difficulties in creating separate groups within education, such as those who teach day pupils at a school where there are also boarders, and that that would create invidious anomalies.

However, other people who act in loco parentis are not covered by the Bill. They include guardians, godparents, step-parents, church leaders, and scout and guide leaders. I am sure that we could think of many others who act in the same way and who are not covered. The Home Secretary referred to teachers' power over pupils in their care, but the Bill also extends to relationships teachers have with students who are at the same institution but not being taught by the teachers. In that case, there is no relationship of trust or power; the two people merely happen to be at the same institution.

However, the Bill does not include areas in which there is a clear relationship of power, such as that between a Member of Parliament and a young researcher, and that power could easily be abused. The same is true of the relationship between any employer and a young employee. The Bill allows for a young teacher to be prosecuted, convicted and registered as a sex offender for behaviour that might be less than sexual intercourse—"sexual activity" is what the Bill specifies, although it does not define the phrase. The same behaviour would not be an offence for a general practitioner or a Member of Parliament. That will place teachers in a vulnerable position. There will be a real danger of false allegations. The net result may be that even fewer young men take up teaching in future.

Dr. Harris

I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that the scope of the Bill is even wider than that. A 17-year-old at university—as is the case with the majority of first-year students in Scotland—may have a relationship with someone who teaches. That person may be a postgraduate student who does not teach the 17-year-old, but who would be committing an offence if any sexual activity took place. I ask my hon. Friend to prevail on the Government to rethink that provision.

Jackie Ballard

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is why I am taking the House's time today. We shall have no Committee stage in which to examine the matter further and raise issues that should worry anyone who examines the scope of the Bill.

When the NAS/UWT responded to the interdepartmental working group on preventing unsuitable people from working with children, it said that there should be a national register of all those who work with young people and children. I have raised that matter before, and I am sure that I shall do so again as chairman of the cross-party group on the campaign for the registration of workers with young people and children, which is supported by both Labour and Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament.

Abuse of trust or power is always wrong. However, we must ask whether it should be a criminal offence and, if it should, in what circumstances. Should the law single out a particular group of professionals for discrimination? I believe not. Other European countries have laws that try to deal with abuse of trust through age differences. For example, in Portugal it is illegal for someone aged over 18 to have a sexual relationship with someone aged under 18. It would be more appropriate to consider age differences in relationships rather than individual professionals for our provisions on abuse of positions of power or trust.

I suspect that the Government are determined to go ahead with the Bill, but I ask the Home Secretary to reassure me that the Government will not encourage the House of Lords to defeat it so that they can invoke the Parliament Acts on an unaltered Bill. Instead, they could encourage the other place to vote in favour of the Bill—I know that there will be a free vote in the other place, just as there will be here, but I hope that the Government will signal their hope that the Bill will not be defeated—so that a Committee stage could be held there. Then, the abuse of trust provisions, which have never been examined in detail in the other place, could be properly debated.

I also urge the Home Secretary to make a commitment to review the provisions within a year or two after the General Teaching Council, which will strengthen professional codes of conduct, and the General Social Care Council come fully into operation. The Home Secretary referred earlier to orders that could extend the scope of the Bill. I hope that he might consider orders that could reduce its scope.

There is no objective or scientific way to determine the age of consent to sexual activity for young people. It varies across Europe, from 12 in Spain—which many of us would probably think on the young side—to 17 in Greece. Apart from Luxembourg and the United Kingdom, European countries have equal ages of consent, regardless of sexuality. An unequal age of consent gives the message that it is okay to treat gay men differently and discriminate against them. It is not surprising that that homophobic message can lead to bullying, abuse, or, as the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen) said, even worse.

The protection of young people should be one of our key duties. It is best maintained by consistent and fair laws. The passage of the Bill—even with flaws that I wish we could remove—takes us one step nearer to a fairer and more decent society.

4.48 pm
Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow)

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on Second Reading.

The Bill is about two important matters: equal protection and equal treatment. I ask Members of Parliament not to encourage law breaking. First, there is law breaking by our own country. We have been found to be in breach of European law because we have evidently been discriminatory. Secondly, MPs should not encourage law breaking by those unsavoury individuals who prey on vulnerable young people. As the law stands, it encourages that.

How could any decent-minded person not want a change in the law? I have been wrestling with that question. At the root of the question lies a genuine belief—sometimes lurking in the further recesses of some people's minds but sometimes at the forefront—that gay men are inherently unequal and should be treated unequally under the law, as indeed, currently, they are.

Over the past 200 years, there has been a struggle for progress—a struggle to recognise one simple, basic premise, which is enshrined in article 1 of the United Nations universal declaration of human rights: all human beings are born free and equal in rights and in dignity. However, the past 200 years have also been marked by the proclamations of those who are against change—who believe that they are entitled to inalienable rights, but that such rights are not transferable to other human beings. We have heard some of those views expressed by Opposition Members.

Those views are familiar because they were heard 200, even 100, years ago. It was said that black people were inferior to white people, so they could not be treated equally under the law. It was said that women were inferior to men, so they could not be treated equally under the law. If we read Hansard from 80 years ago, we will see the names of hon. Members who argued passionately that women should not be granted the vote and that, if they were, it would be the end of society.

When we read those comments today, we can scarcely believe them. We recognise in them the antediluvian, atavistic, primitive and bigoted views that they represent. We might even forgive those ancient Members of Parliament some of their bigotry—perhaps for cultural reasons or because of their sheer ignorance. They lived in an age and in a society that was primitive in its understanding of equality.

That is what we are discussing—a simple inescapable matter of equality. Unfortunately, we do not have to search through 200 years of Hansard to find bigotry and ignorance. We only have to listen to recent remarks. For example, we cannot forget Baroness Young. Several years ago, she said:

If a 16 year old girl has heterosexual relations, the worst that can happen to her is to have a baby. She could lose her heart to an unsuitable man and she may be very unhappy … But what is so tragic for the 16-year-old boy … entangled with homosexuality is that he denies himself forever the opportunities for marriage, children and a normal life. I would say that one can have a normal life with or without marriage and children. The shadow Home Secretary might want to reflect on that point.

Lord Longford, a colleague of Baroness Young, said: A girl is not ruined for life by being seduced. A young fellow is. I fail to understand that logic: a young woman can get over being seduced, but a young man cannot. Those poor young men! It seems that they do not have the strength, the resilience or the moral purpose to withstand being seduced. Why are people so concerned about the right of 16-year-old boys to be protected from predatory men, but not about the right of girls? I do not understand that. I take great offence at the suggestion that, in that respect, a girl deserves less protection under the law.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

I have been tempted to intervene.

The reason why some of us take the view that we do is that it is perfectly natural for a boy and a girl to engage in a physical relationship. We feel that there is something less than natural about a relationship—anal intercourse—between two men. I am sorry, but that is how we feel.

Ms King

That is precisely why I was trying to place the debate in the context of history, because in that context, I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman must recognise that views have changed. Sixty-seven per cent. of young British people do not share his views and do not feel that gay men are in any way unnatural. The hon. Gentleman will have to come to terms with that, in the same way that my white racist grandmother came to terms with the fact that racism was unacceptable.

The idea has been expressed that one catches homosexuality like the pox. I find that very offensive—although I would say that hon. Members are entitled to prejudice and prejudicial views in the privacy of their minds. What really concerns me is when hon. Members allow their prejudice to maintain a law that indisputably discriminates against young gay men.

I would welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments on the following issue. There is evidence that the current law actually protects rapists in some circumstances, and no doubt encourages them. I refer colleagues to the debate initiated by Lord Tope in October 1998, in which he read out a letter from a 16-year-old male Londoner who said: I was raped by a man. But because I was under the age of consent, at the age of sixteen, I thought that if I told anyone, I would be arrested and put into prison. And so I did nothing"—[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 October 1998; Vol. 593, c. 323.] So a rapist got away with raping a young man. I ask all hon. Members, regardless of their views on this matter, to recognise that if they vote to maintain an unequal age of consent, they are complicit in allowing young people in that situation to have to withstand brutality, violence and rape. By the same token, I believe that they are complicit in allowing rapists to escape justice.

It is not just the morality of those who want to maintain an unequal age of consent that bothers me, but their stupidity. It is an unfortunate fact of life that some men—a minority—rape. If they rape a 16-year-old girl, that young girl can go to the authorities and get the authorities behind her, but if a rapist rapes a 16-year-old boy, that young boy can go to the authorities and go straight to jail. We can see where the prejudice is, but we cannot discern the logic. In 1957, the logic of the Wolfenden report, which recommended a different age of consent for gay men, was that young men should be actively discouraged from choosing a way of life that might have the effect of setting them apart from society. First, as Stonewall has pointed out, that is a circular argument which relies on prejudice to justify prejudice. Secondly, I would hope that, in 40 years, we have made some progress.

Many studies, some of which have been alluded to, have shown that choice does not come into the matter in the way that some hon. Members might have thought it did. Most reputable medical organisations recognise that homosexuality is not a choice—a point on which my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford) expanded convincingly. In recent research by the Medical Research Council, 74 per cent. of gay men said that they thought that they were sexually different before they first had sex with a man. Of course, there is also plenty of anecdotal evidence. I have many gay friends. I was talking to one of my gay friends the other day, and he said that every single one of his 40 or 50 gay male friends had thought that they were gay by the age of 12. When I was 12 I used to dream of getting married and having children: but he and his friends knew at the age of 12 that they were gay.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

The hon. Lady knows that I much admire her views on many subjects but I disagree with her on this one. She has used anecdotal evidence, so I remind the House of something that I said when the matter was last before us. The only known gay boy in my secondary school—he was mercilessly teased and bullied and I felt great sympathy for him—told me that he started on the road to being homosexual when he was under-age and was interfered with by an older youth.

Ms King

My first reaction is that I hope that the hon. Gentleman fully supports the repeal of section 28 to prevent such bullying. The second and more general point is that most people recognise that people cannot transfer their sexuality if they violently attack someone. People either have a proclivity, or they do not. It is ludicrous to suggest that, had I been attacked and sexually assaulted by another woman when I was a 16-year-old girl, I would suddenly have thought, "Whoops, you know what? I am not a heterosexual: I'm actually a lesbian." Such arguments are ludicrous.

I want to return to the theme of intolerance, which has run through the debate. If we start from the premise that one group should have less protection under the law than another, we end up with the outcome that one group is worth less under the law than the other. That is the foundation stone of intolerance. Obviously, there are degrees of intolerance. For example, a little bit of intolerance is when people say that they do not like homosexuals and that homosexual relationships are worth less than heterosexual relationships. A lot of intolerance is when someone says, "Homosexuals are worthless, they have no right to life and I am going to blow them up."

The one thing that the bombs last year taught us is that intolerance is a danger to us all. My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen), in an eloquent account of the devastation that resulted from the bombs, told us how they had affected her and many of her friends and family. I am sure that the bombs affected many people personally.

When the first bomb, targeting the Afro-Caribbean community, went off in Brixton, I, as a black MP, was terribly concerned. When the second bomb, targeting the Bangladeshi community in Tower Hamlets, went off in Brick Lane, I was naturally, as the local MP and as someone who has lived and worked in the area, terribly concerned. When the third bomb, targeting the gay community in Soho, went off, I was very, very concerned, not least because I was standing 60 yards away at the moment of the explosion. I realised, as I watched someone having shrapnel picked out of their back, that homophobia threatens everyone, including straight women like me and the straight men on the Opposition Benches.

We cannot, in all conscience, give intolerance an excuse in the letter of the law. That is why I urge every Member of the House to vote for an equal age of consent. As we know, it is difficult to achieve change and it has been a difficult process. It takes courage to do that.

In particular, I congratulate the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) on the fact that his logic led him inescapably to decide that it serves no purpose, and that it is wrong and damaging, to have an unequal age of consent. I also congratulate him on the fact that he has learned to put his notes on the Bench and read them from there, which is a good trick. Finally, I congratulate him on doing so well yesterday. I hope that he will accept that those are the last congratulations I will lavish on him for the duration of this Parliament.

Homophobia should have no rock under which to hide, and unless and until we change the law, we are giving it a place to hide.

5.5 pm

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) is charming and puts her points forcefully and with good nature, if not always with good humour. She said that there is a streak of intolerance running through the debate—I believe that because many of those who have spoken in favour of the Bill have displayed marked intolerance towards those of us who take a contrary view. I have to tell the hon. Lady that we are much more in touch with the feelings of the people in this country. We may not be represented in large numbers in the House tonight, but we represent the vast majority of the British people.

It is curious that even the changed, emasculated—I will not call it "reformed"—other place has spoken for the nation. It was led by Baroness Young, whom the hon. Lady unwisely disparaged. The noble Lady has shown enormous courage in the stand that she has taken, and their Lordships have followed her lead and spoken for the people.

The Daily Record may not be the hon. Lady's everyday reading, and I suspect that it is not the everyday reading of those hon. Members who represent Scottish constituencies and who have gone off to the Scottish Parliament. The Daily Record is not a Tory newspaper. There is not a Tory newspaper in Scotland. [HON. MEMBERS: "There are no Tories in Scotland."] They are coming back, and they will be coming back in droves now. If the hon. Lady and her colleagues had read the Daily Record over the past couple of weeks, they would have seen that every day it reported the hostility in Scotland towards the Government's proposal to repeal section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988.

Cardinal Winning, who has nailed his colours firmly to the mast, has garnered enormous support and respect in Scotland. An overwhelming majority of people in Scotland are in touch with our view and wholly out of sympathy with the views expressed by Labour Members.

Ms King

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his graciousness in giving way. If his opinions represent the views of the general public, can he explain why a Harris poll showed that 74 per cent. of the general public backed an equal age of consent?

Mr. Howarth

I have not seen that poll. I saw a poll a couple of years ago which showed that 53 per cent. supported the view that I take. However, it is the latest poll in Scotland that is interesting because it reflects people's concern, as do hon. Members' mailbags. That is not to say that we are intolerant of people who have a different life style. I do not want to know what people do in their own home, behind closed doors, provided that it does not involve young people, and I do not want to read about it in the newspapers either.

The hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen), who is no longer in her place—[Interruption.] What did the Whip say from a sedentary position?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)


Mr. Howarth

I do not know what the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty) said. He was pretty vocal in the previous debate on this matter.

When the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth made her impassioned speech, she displayed the patronising attitude that those of us who take a contrary view are less intellectually capable than she is and that we care less about other people than she does. That is entirely wrong.

The man who has been charged with the bombing of the Admiral Duncan public house in Soho is a constituent of mine. I resent bitterly, and my constituents will also resent bitterly, the implication of the hon. Lady's remarks that those of us who take a contrary view to hers may somehow, by our language and our actions, be encouraging that young man to do what he is alleged to have done.

That is unacceptable. I resent it, and, on behalf of my constituents, I say that the hon. Lady ought to have the courtesy to acknowledge that when we speak about these issues, we do not give, and do not intend to give, encouragement to people to resort to the bomb or other acts of violence to promote their ends.

Mr. Bercow

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. He is both capable and caring, but does he agree that even if we are able confidently and accurately to identify majority opinion as being in support of the status quo, that does not of itself absolve us of the responsibility to study the legislation, to form our own view of it and to speak and vote accordingly?

Mr. Howarth

Of course. I shall come to my hon. Friend's views in a moment. I know that his views on the importance of saving the pound are in no way influenced by the fact that the overwhelming majority of the British people, in opinion poll after opinion poll, support it. He is a man of principle and he speaks from principle.

Hon. Members in all parts of the House acknowledge not only that my hon. Friend is extremely able, but that he is a man of principle. However, if he has had a change of heart, I hope that he will respect the fact that some of us have not, and that we are unpersuaded. Despite my hon. Friend's powers of persuasion, I am unpersuaded by the arguments that he advanced today, although I agree with him in his references to Europe in this debate. He and I are entirely agreed on that issue.

My hon. Friend and I may not agree in our attitude to the Bill, but we are agreed on an important aspect of it—its origin. If its origin lay solely in the Government's desire to introduce the measure, we could argue it between us and have a good debate. My hon. Friend said that he did not give a tinker's cuss for what other European countries do, for the European convention on human rights or for the European Commission of Human Rights. He and I are entirely agreed on that.

Labour Members should beware of the way in which, week in, week out, the House is ceding its powers to authorities beyond these islands. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Watford (Ms Ward) can feign boredom and ennui, which is a French word meaning the same thing. She is a charming hon. Member and she will understand this even if the rest of the House will not: I am not flying wholly solo as we speak, but that is between us.

Mr. Swayne

Share it with us.

Mr. Howarth

You might rule me out of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I went down that road.

As I said in an intervention on the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), who is no longer present, when the United Kingdom signed up to the European convention on human rights, it did so only when it was absolutely certain and Ministers had agreed among themselves that the United Kingdom could not possibly be in infringement of the convention as drafted.

At that time buggery was a criminal offence, full stop. How can it be right that we were not infringing the convention then, but are doing so 50 years later? There is an answer to that question: the convention was drawn up in the aftermath of the second world war when the nations of Europe were concerned with ensuring that the atrocities that had been committed, principally by Nazi Germany, were not repeated. They were establishing a framework within which guidelines could be applied to the democratic countries and the emerging democratic Germany to ensure that a code of practice provided some bulwark—however realistic that prospect ever was—against the repetition of the atrocities of the 1940s.

Today we are experiencing a relentless intrusion on the rights of the elected United Kingdom Parliament to determine the composition of Her Majesty's armed forces. At least the Government have in this instance introduced a Bill and we are debating the age of consent, but we were unable to intervene in any way on the lifting of the ban on homosexuals serving in the armed forces as no Bill was introduced.

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak)

Next Thursday.

Mr. Howarth

The hon. Gentleman intervenes from a sedentary position, but has clearly not read his pager. The Armed Forces Discipline Bill has nothing to do with homosexuals serving in the armed forces and everything to do with the system of courts martial and other procedures related to military discipline. However, I would not expect him to know anything about defence. [Interruption.] I am sorry; if I was a bit harsh, I apologise.

The European Court of Human Rights is interfering in sexuality not only in respect of the armed forces. We read in the newspapers today that, apparently, the Government are to introduce proposals requiring employers not to discriminate between heterosexual married couples and homosexuals living together in respect of benefits in kind, which in the vernacular are called perks. According to the Daily Mail, which is a very good authority on these matters: It means that a gay couple will in future get the same perks as the spouses of married staff or cohabiting heterosexuals. I find that extremely worrying. The proposal is being introduced at the behest of the European Court of Human Rights.

Ms Ward

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Howarth

In a moment. The decision on the armed forces was taken by judges from well-known liberal-minded countries such as Lithuania, Cyprus and Austria, whose involvement is ironic, is it not? What right have they to interfere with our determination to make the laws of this country? We are accountable to the people who elected us; they are accountable to none.

Dr. Harris

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Howarth

The hon. Member for Watford tried to intervene earlier and I allow her to do so.

Ms Ward

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way as I must try to regain at least some dignity in front of my hon. Friends by making it absolutely clear that there is no strange liaison between us. Will he explain the real reasons for his opposition to the proposal? He should not use the debate to rant against the European Union or, indeed, anything to do with Europe. This is a matter for the House; it is not a European issue. It is purely to do with equality and ensuring that young people receive the rights that they deserve.

Mr. Howarth

I was not aware that my speech was a rant, and I am sorry that the hon. Lady has made those remarks about our little discussion earlier. I had thought that someone might have written about them and we could have sued them and had a good meal together. She has fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the Bill. It is not about equality, but about the pernicious influence of the European Court of Human Rights on our proceedings. It is no good Labour Members making lovey-dovey speeches. The Bill has nothing to do with the European Union, but has to do with the European Court of Human Rights and its interference in our national affairs.

The hon. Lady suggested that I used the previous argument to mask the real reasons for my opposition to the Bill. The argument that I have just advanced is a fundamental reason for opposing the Bill, but not the only one. The Government claim that the debate is about equality, but I do not subscribe to that view. The debate is—or should be—about protecting children against predators. The Home Secretary kindly allowed me to intervene in his speech earlier to express that view.

Clause 3 deals with abuse of trust. It will provide protection for 16 and 17-year-olds from teachers or others in authority who are over 18. However, it will not protect 16 and 17-year-olds from other young people of 17, 18 or older who are not in a position of trust. Earlier, I gave the example of boarding school, where a young child of 15 or 16 could feel influenced and intimidated by an older boy in a position of authority, but not in a position of trust—for example, a prefect. Those who have been to boarding school know that prefects command a lot of influence.

Ms Oona King

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Howarth

If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I want to reach the substance of my argument.

I do not believe that the Bill provides the protection that the Government claim. We are being asked to change the law. The foreseeable consequences will be deliberate exposure of young boys to abuse from older men and even paedophiles. Worse, the measure is presented in the name of equality and of giving children rights. Those who support the measure want to make it lawful for an older man to bugger a child—a 16-year-old boy—when he is at his most vulnerable and confused as he makes the transition to manhood. As he makes that transition, he is to be exposed to activities that could scar him mentally and physically for life. Parents will ask why Parliament is trying to expose their young boys to that risk, especially when there are so many other matters about which to worry.

The Government want to protect young children from drugs and tobacco. The age at which it is lawful to buy tobacco will be increased from 16 to 18 to protect young people.

Ms King

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Howarth

No, I hope the hon. Lady will forgive me.

Some hon. Members claim that it is nonsense to say that young people will not be scarred for life because homosexuality is genetic. I rebut that. Young constituents have been to see me and told me that they had been pressurised into homosexuality, that they had broken free, and that they were now leading what they—and I—regard as a normal life.

Homosexuality is not a genetic disorder. A wealth of information has been provided on the subject. I shall quote a group of eminent professors and doctors, who stated in a letter to The Wall Street Journal on 9 January 1997: These young men and their parents have the right to know that, contrary to media propaganda, there is no proven biological basis for homosexuality. The letter was signed by professors of psychiatry, clinical directors of psychological clinics and other eminent people in the sector in the United States. It is not acceptable to assert that it is a genetic factor; it is not. There is no evidence of that. At best, medical evidence is not unanimous on that.

Once the Bill is enacted—for surely it will be, notwithstanding the fact that it is entirely out of touch with the mood of the British people—we will find that we will go on. We will change the laws relating to employment so that we have to accord homosexuals the same rights as are accorded to heterosexual people. Anyone who thinks the Bill is the end of a process and not the beginning need know only what OutRage! has said: Many MPs think we will be content if they equalise the age of consent. They have got to be kidding. We won't be satisfied until every discriminatory law is abolished.

Mr. Bercow

I honestly believe that my hon. Friend is wrong. He cannot at one and the same time assert the supremacy of Parliament and emphasise his belief in the importance of its continuing sovereignty, and suggest that, just because we pass the Bill, we are henceforth handing over the government of the UK in relation to sexual matters to Mr. Peter Tatchell. We are doing no such thing.

Mr. Howarth

I am not saying that. My hon. Friend misunderstands. What I am saying is that it is crystal clear that those who are behind the campaign to reduce the age of consent do not see it as the end of the story. They will ensure that, year in, year out, more legislation is brought before the House further to make homosexuality like heterosexuality. It is only a matter of time before we will be invited to support homosexual marriages, because that is the ultimate conclusion.

I will not adduce all the medical evidence, but my hon. Friend adduces many people in medical circles who support the measure. I have plenty of medical evidence that homosexual people are more exposed to illness, particularly to HIV infection. Why does the National Blood Authority refuse to accept blood from any man who has had anal intercourse once?

Ms King

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Howarth

No, I will not.

The authority either knows something that the rest of the medical profession does not, or it knows something that the House wishes to close its eyes to.

The Government are renowned for trying to have it both ways. Not only are they seeking to appeal to the homosexual vote through the Bill, but the man whose name is on the back of the Bill—the Secretary of State for Education and Employment—is also the man who will send new guidelines to schools on the importance of marriage. They cannot have it both ways. They cannot say that they support marriage but also agree to make young men vulnerable, as they will through the Bill. There will be a big price to pay.

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

I am delighted to support the Bill, but I want to take the opportunity to respond to a couple of the points that were made by hon. Members, particularly those on the Conservative Benches, who have not taken every intervention; I have not been able to intervene.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) claimed that it is the ambition of all parents for their children to marry and to have more children. She implied that it would be a bitter disappointment to parents if their children did not do that. I do not believe that that is true in every case. I am sure that she would not regard herself as a bitter disappointment to her parents. That sort of language and approach does not show much thinking through.

I think that the right hon. Lady almost accepted that there was not a choice over whether one was homosexual, but she implied that there was a choice over life style; it was as if it was legitimate for her to say that consenting people who are heterosexual need not have any restrictions on how they express their love, but the full force of the law should restrict how consenting people whom we regard as adults express their love, if they are homosexual. It is a restriction on human rights to use the law to do that. The right hon. Lady is entitled, whatever the basis of her belief, to preach her views from any platform or pulpit. But to seek to use the law to restrict the rights to privacy, rights to expression of love, of people whom we regard as adults cannot be acceptable.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that it is not an absolute restriction? It is a restriction that applies only for two years. If the love is that profound, can it not wait?

Dr. Harris

For the hon. Gentleman, the restriction would be for five years or in fact a complete restriction—

Mr. Swayne

Any number of years.

Dr. Harris

The hon. Gentleman is honest enough to say it now. He would not want it to be legal at all. So it is a bit disingenuous for him to say that we should criminalise people for two years if they are homosexual in consenting relationships with other people whom we regard as adults, but that we will not do it for heterosexuals. Even for that two-year period, to criminalise people in that way is not acceptable.

The implication of the argument of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald was that we should encourage homosexuals to be heterosexual, that so strongly does she believe in the institution of marriage that she would use the force of the law to encourage homosexuals to marry, to enter into sham marriages, to have children, in relationships that are doomed because they are dishonest. The implication is that marriage must be promoted; that we must discourage people at the same time from following homosexual life styles; that the right hon. Lady wants to encourage people who feel that they are homosexual to enter into sham marriages and have children, resulting from those unions, who will face inevitable family breakup.

If the right hon. Lady thought a bit more deeply on the subject, and more fairly, she would see the misery that would be caused by what was implicit, if not explicit, in what she said. I listened to her carefully.

It is appropriate that the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward) is here. Many of us remember with admiration his speech on two occasions in support of this proposal. If he had been following the debate from outside the Chamber he would have heard a remarkable speech by the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), who put quite clearly, even from his Conservative perspective, that it is not worth supporting the status quo if doing so does not achieve anything that he wants to achieve. He has been converted to that.

While I accept that the hon. Gentleman's recognition of the correctness of the points that we have been making for some time does not commit him to supporting other matters, such as repeal of section 28, all his arguments in support of his position on equalising the age of consent to 16 apply to stronger sex education in schools. That is something that I support and that I hope he will support.

Dr. Julian Lewis

In the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), I should like to point out that, although he may have been converted to some of the arguments of the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward), I earnestly believe that he has no intention of following the hon. Gentleman to the Labour Benches.

I should like the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) to address in this debate, as he has on previous occasions, the difference with regard to the situation of people who are still technically children and who by being allowed to engage in anal sex are exposed to a degree of medical risk that does not apply either to straight sex or to lesbian sex.

Dr. Harris

That is an interesting point. I was about to say in response to points that the hon. Gentleman has made previously, and in response to the speech of the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), who did not wish to take too many interventions because she wanted to finish quickly, that the logic of the hon. Lady's position was that people should not be engaging in penetrative sex at all, because all penetrative sex has risks. According to her logic, she should be promoting lesbianism as much as possible, because the risks associated with sexual activity among lesbians are much less than for heterosexuals and for homosexual men, if the sexual activity is not performed safely.

The message, however, is not that sexual activity is dangerous; it is that we must all take measures to reduce the risk of harm from sexual activity, be it heterosexual or homosexual. The organisations cited by the hon. Member for Buckingham—organisations such as the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing, HIV organisations, the Royal College of Physicians and, indeed, children's charities—want to equalise the age of consent at 16 because they want information to be given to people who otherwise, because of criminalisation, have no access to such information, or feel that they are prevented from giving it.

The hon. Lady must recognise that she cannot pray in aid the risks of homosexual activity without the same considerations applying to heterosexual activity. The same argument applies to the ludicrous and, in my view, shameful assumption that predation occurs only in the case of male homosexuals. That is patently not the case. Members who have argued on that basis do not seem to recognise that most predation involves older men—indeed, men generally—and younger women. In fact, predation probably exists to an extent in the case of homosexual females. The obsession with homosexual males is exactly that: an obsession. It is not backed up by the evidence about predation. If those presenting that argument are to have any credibility, they should be consistent.

In an interesting speech, the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Etherington) mentioned other legal inequalities—for instance, in employment law. Although the hon. Gentleman is not present now, I suggest that he should consult the record to see how he voted on an amendment to the Employment Relations Bill, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey), which sought to prevent any discrimination in employment law on the ground of sexuality. The House divided on the amendment, at the behest of the Liberal Democrats, and nearly all Labour Members voted against it. If the hon. Gentleman and other Labour Members are concerned—I know that Labour Members will sincerely be concerned—they should read the record of that debate and decide whether they can persuade their Front Bench to ensure that there is equality in that regard as well, as the hon. Member for Sunderland, North wishes there to be.

The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) suggested that the wish for equality in the provision of perks in employment law was due to the European convention on human rights. The convention, however, does not apply to employment law; it is the Amsterdam treaty that will force Britain belatedly to ensure that there is equality in employment law. The argument that perks are part of pay was won in the European Court of Justice, in the Grant case. However, it was only because the company that discriminated against that person and her lesbian partner would also have discriminated against a male homosexual and his partner that the case was found not to come under the jurisdiction of the equal treatment directive, which deals with gender equality. We need to reform our laws.

Last time we debated this issue, I was pleased that the Minister of State, Home Office, the right hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), was in charge. I hoped that he would accept various amendments that would improve the legislation. I believe that, in terms of equality in sexual offences law, this Bill—and clause 1 in particular—does not go far enough. During the Committee stage of the earlier legislation, the Minister turned into Mr. No, and he returned as Mr. No on Report.

The Bill does not go far enough in terms of equality for homosexuals. As has been pointed out, there is no equality for homosexuals in employment law, in pension law or in housing law and the inheriting of tenancies. There is no full equality for homosexuals in immigration law, and there is no equality for homosexual couples in adoption law. I hope that Labour Members who feel strongly about equality will press the Government to introduce legislation in all those areas.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Harris

No, not now; I should like to develop the point.

Even after the age of consent has been reduced, there will not be equality in sentencing provisions on homosexual offences. The Bill will not create equality in sexual offences law. There are huge discrepancies in sentencing provisions between lesbian offences and homosexual offences, regardless of whether the acts were consenting.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) said—I have also made the point before in the House—compared with the treatment of acts involving heterosexual sex, the privacy laws are highly discriminatory in dealing with acts between consenting adult homosexual men. If two or more such adult men are present, the act simply cannot be defined as private or, therefore, as legal. Arrests, prosecutions and convictions are still occurring on the basis of those laws.

Mr. Howarth

The hon. Gentleman has recited a load of matters in which he hopes the Labour Government will create equality in the law for homosexuals. Is the policy of the Liberal Democrats therefore to allow homosexual marriage, too?

Dr. Harris

Marriage is of course an institution and, in another sphere of law, is dealt with in civil marriage. It also has a religious connotation to it. As I am not a religious person, I do not pretend to know how religious institutions might change their rules. However—specifically to answer the hon. Gentleman's question; I think that he wants this answer—those rights that are available to heterosexual co-habiting couples, who have the choice to marry, should be available to homosexual couples in a similar stable relationship. The arguments for such change—in all the spheres that I have mentioned— are overwhelming.

Mr. Howarth

indicated dissent.

Dr. Harris

The hon. Gentleman disagrees. That is where we differ. Nevertheless, I hope that he recognises that I have answered his question.

Gross indecency is another offence in which sexual offences law is grossly unequal. By definition, it is a homosexual-only offence.

I realise and accept that the Government cannot address all those issues in clause 1. I think that the Government recognised that limitation when, in response to a proposal that I made to abolish that privacy provision, they introduced a most welcome review of sexual offences law.

I ask the Minister, in his reply, to update us on the progress of that review. Will there be legislation on it in this Parliament, or is there insufficient time in this Parliament to introduce legislation based on the review? If there is not sufficient time to introduce such legislation, it will have implications for the way in which—while there is still time—both Houses deal with this Bill. If this is the last chance that this Parliament will have to address other issues, which I shall describe in a moment, we should know whether there is any likelihood of legislating, on the basis of equality, on the review of sexual offences legislation.

Clause 1 fails to deal with two other matters, the first of which is use of the sex offenders register for consenting offences. It is absolutely vital that we dissociate consenting homosexual offences from the remit of sexual abuse unless similarly consenting offences for heterosexuals are included in it. It seems absolutely wrong—I do not believe that the Government can defend it—that consenting homosexual offences occurring between consenting adults should be subject to sex offenders registration legislation whereas similar heterosexual offences are not subject to it. There can be no justification for it.

Although the age of consent will be equalised from 18 to 16, the Bill provides for no subsequent repeal of the sex offenders legislation. It is a serious omission.

Dr. Julian Lewis

Before the hon. Gentleman concludes his remarks, I should be very grateful if he would again address himself to the point that perhaps I did not make clearly enough in my earlier intervention. HIV results from unprotected anal sex, whether between males and males or males and females. Unprotected sex occurs more frequently between homosexual males than between straight couples and of course between gay women. The Bill legalises homosexual relations—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. The intervention is far too long.

Dr. Harris

The hon. Gentleman's intervention was far too long and far too incoherent. The point of health education is to ensure that sexual activity is safe, not of a specific nature. The hon. Gentleman does not have to do anything if he does not want to, but he should not criticise others whom we consider to be adults for having consenting sexual relations.

Dr. Lewis


Dr. Harris

I shall not give way again, because the hon. Gentleman wants to make an argument that has already been answered by all the medical organisations that can be cited.

Dr. Lewis

Sixteen and 17-year-olds are children.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I have already told the hon. Gentleman that he had finished speaking. That is the end of the matter.

Dr. Harris

The council of the British Medical Association, which is relatively conservative, voted unanimously that the reduction in the age of consent from 18 to 16 was a necessary step to improve health education and provide information about how people can protect themselves when engaging in sexual activity. The same applies to heterosexuals. That argument was made forcefully by the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) and I wish that the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) would take it on board.

Ms Ward

The hon. Member for New Forest, East seemed to suggest that 16 and 17-year-olds were not capable of making the decision. They are capable of deciding to join the armed forces and go on the front line for their country if necessary. Surely they are able to determine their sexuality.

Dr. Harris

The hon. Lady is right. Sixteen and 17-year-old girls are capable of giving consent to having sexual relations with the hon. Member for New Forest, East. I have never seen an amendment tabled by him to raise the age of consent to 18. Until he tables such an amendment his arguments will be prejudicial because he is selecting one group for criminalisation.

Dr. Lewis


Dr. Harris

The hon. Gentleman has had his say.

Dr. Lewis

I was cut off from having my say.

Dr. Harris

The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman was not cut off from having his say. Interventions should be brief. That is what I was trying to point out to him.

Dr. Harris

In the section 28 debate in the House of Lords, Lord Moran came out with unjustifiable prejudice against homosexuals on the grounds of paedophilia and child abuse. He said that the young had to be defended. I was going to read his remarks, but they were so offensive that I do not want to do so.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

Go on.

Dr. Harris

The hon. Gentleman can look at my copy of Hansard if he wants. The implication was that paedophilia was a homosexual issue but the overwhelming majority of paedophiles are heterosexual. The Government have to recognise that people make that false assumption. They are reforming the law step by step and the Bill is a small but welcome part of that process. They should also alter the law on the sex offenders register. It is unacceptable that people will be subject to the administrative requirements of registering solely for acts that will be legal on the enactment of the Bill. How can the Government justify making someone register as a sex offender because of an act that will no longer be illegal? Even when it was illegal, it was committed between consenting people whom we regard as adults.

In Committee last time we considered the issue, Conservative Members supported my point of view. The Minister was alone among the Front Benches in refusing to move for the simple reason that to find the 78 people whose human rights were being abused would cost money, because the Government would have to go through the court records. I simply cannot believe that a price, especially a modest one, can be put on decent treatment for people. I ask the Minister to confirm that the Government will reconsider an amendment in the other place to close that dreadful loophole.

My final point concerns the absence of a statutory defence for homosexuals. That is important because another clause in the Bill has implications for homosexuals accused of breaches of the age of consent law. Heterosexuals who are accused of unlawful sexual intercourse with a girl under the age of 16 may adduce a statutory defence in court. They can claim that they did not know that the person with whom they have been accused of having unlawful sexual intercourse was below the age of 16 and that they had reasonable grounds for that belief.

It is very common for partners to be picked up in nightclubs, for which the age of admission is 18 or 21. They may have been drinking, so they have already deceived bar staff about their age. Sexual contact may then take place, but heterosexuals can claim in their defence that they had reasonable cause for mistaking the age of their partner. That defence is available to ensure that people are not convicted or locked up when they have been deceived and it is also important that people are not open to blackmail.

In Scotland, that defence is also available for homosexuals who are accused under the law on the age of consent, but that is not the case in England, Wales or Northern Ireland. If the act is proven and the age is proven, there is no possible defence, even if someone was deceived as to the age of the other person. There may be arguments about whether it is right to have that statutory defence for men under the age of 24 who have not been charged with a similar offence before—it is not a universal defence—but if it is appropriate for heterosexuals, it must also be appropriate for homosexuals, because the risk of blackmail also exists.

Clause 2 decriminalises the person aged under 16 in cases of unlawful sexual intercourse, and I welcome that because I proposed it in Committee the last time the Bill was considered, with the support of the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow). At the moment, it is the criminalisation of the younger party that prevents young boys who are pimped from deceiving older men about their age, having sexual relationships and then blackmailing them, because the young boys also risk prosecution. Decriminalising the younger person opens the way again to widespread blackmail of men who are deceived about the age of their partners and do not have the statutory defence that is open to heterosexuals.

Last time during the passage of the Bill, the Government said that they wanted to clamp down, once the law was equal, on age of consent offences, which are often not prosecuted for heterosexuals. If there is a clampdown, and the statutory defence is not open to homosexuals as it to heterosexuals, the only people who will be prosecuted and convicted will be homosexuals, and that would be directly discriminatory in a way that the Government would not welcome. I urge the Government to be open minded if amendments are tabled in the House of Lords, because that will ensure that the Bill goes further towards equality in sexual offences law for homosexuals than it does at the moment. Otherwise, I support part 1 of the Bill.

5.54 pm
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) is entirely right on his last point about the decriminalisation of the partner under 16 in a homosexual relationship. He will recall that, when we debated the matter earlier, I pointed out to him that the effect of that provision is to abolish the age of consent, not merely to reduce it. However, I do not wish to rehearse arguments that we have had before.

My reading of the mood of the House is that the trenches have been well dug. We have argued about this a great deal and there is little more to be said. In fact, the longer we drag this out, the more danger there is of seeing other spectacular and awful conversions such as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), so I do not intend to detain the House for long.

I wish to revisit my earlier intervention on the Home Secretary, when I said that there was a fundamental contradiction between the two principles that underlie the Bill. The first principle is that a boy of 16—I know that the Bill is drawn wider, but I confine my remarks to this particular aspect—is sufficiently mature and developed to decide to have carnal knowledge of another boy of 16. Yet the Bill also provides that boys of 16 are immature enough to require protection from sharing precisely such a relationship with someone with whom they should properly share a bond of trust. I said that those provisions were mutually exclusive, because the obvious truth of the second proposition proves the falsehood of the first. Surely a boy cannot be sufficiently mature to decide to have a homosexual relationship at 16 if he requires the protection of the law against just such a relationship with someone whom he should trust.

The Home Secretary's reply was very revealing. He said, effectively, that the principle that I imagined existed in respect of the first case—namely, that a boy of 16 was sufficiently mature—was not part of the Bill and that the only principle was one of equality. If a boy of 16 is capable of making a decision about ordinary sexual behaviour, he should also be capable of making such decisions about homosexual behaviour. The House is effectively being asked to decide whether homosexual behaviour and ordinary sexual behaviour are equal. That is the clear implication of the Home Secretary's reply to my intervention. The House must decide whether those two types of sexual behaviour are equal—of the same value.

I believe that homosexuality and ordinary sexual behaviour are clean different, and not equal in any way. It is proper that the law should establish that inequality. It is proper that young men of 16, who I believe are still very impressionable, should have the assistance of the law in reinforcing a powerful message that homosexual behaviour is not normal.

Mr. Bercow

I might be wrong, but is it not the case that Department for Education and Employment circular 11/95 lists, among other types of misconduct, the engagement of a teacher in an inappropriate sexual relationship with a pupil, even if that pupil is over the age of consent? That seems, if I may say so, fundamentally to undermine my hon. Friend's thesis.

Mr. Swayne

I fear that I do not see how that example undermines my thesis. Indeed, I regard it as entirely irrelevant to the point that I am developing. It is more in tune, certainly, with the provision that gives protection to those who need it from people whom they would otherwise trust. However, I am concentrating on the fundamental principle that the two types of sexual behaviour are equal. It is my contention that they are not. I contend that the vast majority of the people whom we were sent here to represent do not regard it as equal. They are tolerant of different types of behaviour, but they are nevertheless aware that types of behaviour are not equal and they welcome law that reinforces inequality.

As I said to the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, there is no absolute abrogation of what might be called human rights in this respect. Those parties disappointed at 16 by being unable to pursue their homosexual desires are only being asked to wait two years until they are marginally more mature and better able to make the decision.

Mr. Fabricant

Does my hon. Friend accept that people will do what they are going to do whether or not there is a law? The point is that the Bill will decriminalise acts that will be performed anyway. It will enable vulnerable young people to seek medical help and, sometimes, the help of the police when they have been obliged to do something that they would not have wished to have done.

Mr. Swayne

Much of what my hon. Friend says has force, but the last part about medical help is fatuous nonsense. People are perfectly capable of seeking advice without bringing any criminal penalty upon themselves.

Ms Oona King

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Swayne

Let me answer my hon. Friend first. He was entirely right to say that many of the acts that we are debating will take place no matter what. If the Bill passes, there will be no huge change in behaviour. It will have an impact only at the margin, but we should not ignore that margin. Young men would undoubtedly be encouraged by the force of the law to sublimate their unnatural desires, which they would in all probability outgrow, so that they could live otherwise blameless lives. Some at the margin will not be so encouraged if we change the law, and they will bring upon themselves a less eligible life style than they would otherwise have. The Bill is important for those few young men at the margin.

The Bill is important for another reason. It undermines our clear message of society's values, which are shared by the people who sent us here. People feel profoundly that homosexuality is not equal. It is, I am afraid, gross and unnatural.

6.3 pm

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Once again, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I found myself quite rightly corrected by you earlier for making an over-long intervention. I trust that I shall not be corrected now for making too short a speech, because I intend to make simply the point that I tried to make in that intervention and one other.

I did not intend to speak, because I made two substantial speeches in our previous debates. They are on the record, and can be found on my website—www.julianlewis.net—for the edification of my constituents and anyone else who wants to know my views.

The argument about the need to decriminalise people who are currently below an age of consent would, if carried to its logical conclusion, undermine the very concept of any age of consent. Yet, as societies have become more civilised, they have taken greater care of their children, raising ages of consent rather than lowering them. The first age of consent in this country was 12. It was later raised to 13, then to 16. At any one of those stages, it could have been argued that it was wrong to pitch the age of consent so high, because it would criminalise those who were below that age.

As I have said before—it remains as true as it was—the purpose of an age of consent is not to criminalise those below that age, but to protect them from being seduced by people above that age. That is the concept on which the age of consent is based. It is thus fatuous to say that the age of consent must be reduced in order to decriminalise those below it, because those people are never prosecuted in any case.

My second and final point is the one that I unavailingly tried—not once, but twice—to put to the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) during his speech. I was surprised to hear him say that I had not advocated that the age of consent should be equalised. The hon. Gentleman attended a sitting of the Standing Committee for the previous version of the Bill at which I argued that, if equality was the prime issue, there was a stronger argument for equalisation at 18 than at 16. The reason for that is medical—as I started to explain earlier. I maintain that the argument is not about morality, but about health.

I could not attend the whole of today's debate because I had to move an amendment in Committee on another Bill; but, on this and other occasions, I have never heard a refutation of the medical fact that HIV most frequently results from penetrative, anal sex—whether between two males or between a male and a female.

Ms Ward

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that health issues are not age related, but are the same whether one is 16, 17, 18 or 80?

Dr. Lewis

I am delighted that I gave way to the hon. Lady because her point brings me to what my brief contribution is primarily about—the difference between an adult and a child. Someone aged 16 or 17 is not an adult and is not recognised as an adult. Those Members who argue that such people are adults, when it comes to the risk of contracting HIV through unprotected anal sex with people who really are adults, are the same Members who argue that 16 or 17-year-olds should not be allowed to be put in harm's way in the armed forces. As usual, such opponents want it both ways.

Mr. Shaun Woodward (Witney)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way.

There is a serious misunderstanding. HIV and AIDS do not know the barriers of sexuality. The problem with HIV and AIDS is that millions of women and small children will die—not because they are homosexual, but because HIV is a virus that spreads through penetrative sex. It is wholly unfair and irresponsible of the hon. Gentleman not to recognise those problems in Africa.

Dr. Lewis

In forgetting which party he was elected to represent, the hon. Gentleman has also forgotten the content of a debate in which we both participated some months ago. It was explained then that the circumstances appertaining in Africa to resistance to the HIV virus did not apply in this country. The hard medical fact in Britain—it is only for Britons that we legislate at present—is that, if one has unprotected anal sex with a man, whether one is a man, a boy or a woman, one is at much greater risk of contracting AIDS than one would otherwise be.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Unfortunately, the turncoat hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward) was not in the Chamber when my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) mentioned that the chief executive of the Public Health Laboratory Service said that gay men still remain the single largest group at risk of acquiring HIV. Is that not game, set and match?

Dr. Lewis

I believe that, in terms of what has been recognised by the medical authorities in this country, it is beyond doubt, beyond question, beyond a scintilla of the slightest hesitation, that the people most at risk in this country, for whom we are legislating, are the people who engage in unprotected anal sex.

Kali Mountford

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Lewis

No, I will not. I must conclude my remarks.

As a result of that increased risk, the logic of what is being proposed today is that people who are recognised as being under the age of majority—under the age of 18, under the age at which this society recognises that people have the responsibility to take life-and-death decisions for themselves—are being exposed to a greater risk of catching a deadly disease.

Mr. Fabricant

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Dr. Lewis

No, I am not giving way. I am concluding my remarks.

That was my position in the first debate on this issue and that was my position in Committee in that first argument about this issue. Nothing that I have heard this afternoon has encouraged me to alter that position in the slightest degree.

6.11 pm
Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

The arguments that have been deployed by hon. Members on both sides of the divide this afternoon have been presented with great passion and have obviously sprung from deep personal belief and commitment. I shall not single out everyone who has spoken—but, although I shall not be in the Lobby with her tonight, I want to tell the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford) that her speech was presented with a generosity of spirit and an idealism which reflected the best of the motives of those who are supporting the Bill tonight.

I want to chide some of those who spoke in support of the Bill, because I think that their arguments, although deeply felt—I appreciate that I differ from them, and I try to understand their point of view—misrepresented the equally strong feelings held by those of us who will vote against Second Reading.

I say to the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen)—I hope that I say this with an understanding of her long-standing and intense commitment to this cause—that what I found striking about the public reaction to the three bombs in London last year was the fact that they brought forth a common horror among people of all political persuasions, whatever view they might take on the issue of the age of consent and from whatever race or social background they might come. That horror arose because we seek to resolve our arguments and our disagreements, however deeply felt, by debate, by vote and by election—not by terror.

I hope that, on reflection, the hon. Lady will understand that those of us on this side of the argument feel that she did not do justice to her cause in what appeared to me to be an elision of argument, so as to represent us as in some way giving succour to those who sought to bring about the terrorist attacks that she rightly condemned.

Ann Keen

I reiterate what I said about the use of language. Offensive language such as we have heard—if not too often in this debate, I am pleased to say, but on previous occasions and in another place—encourages and gives licence to people who feel that they can condone hatred, homophobia and even worse. People have been beaten and gay men have been murdered; they have been under attack and they are still under attack. When offensive language is used in a place like this, it gives licence to such behaviour. I have no intention of offending any Member, but I do not want any Member to offend any member of the public and families outside.

Mr. Lidington

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for, at least, making her position her clear. I agree with her to the extent that, in seeking to express strongly held views, we should all use language that does not inflame unreasonable passion and provoke violent and undemocratic action.

My second point applies to several comments made today. There was too ready an attempt to dismiss simply as bigotry or outmoded thoughts the views that are held not just by those of us in the Chamber who oppose the Bill, but by a large section of opinion in the country. We can swap figures about opinion polls. However, even the Bill's keenest advocates would acknowledge that it is controversial and that it is opposed by a large section of public opinion that includes not just the Christian Churches, but Jewish and Muslim leaders. Parliament should not lightly dismiss public opinion.

Mr. Fabricant

I am following my hon. Friend's argument with considerable interest. Does he accept that there are times when legislation may be unpopular but right? Simply to be governed by what the majority of the population might think—and perhaps even to be governed by focus groups—does not necessarily mean that we are doing what is right for the nation and the people who elect us.

Mr. Lidington

I have never argued that we should be governed by a simple arithmetical calculation of public opinion, and certainly not by focus groups. If I had thought that, I would not have voted consistently for the abolition of capital punishment. However, it is incumbent on democratic politicians to reflect carefully when they support a measure that is both controversial and flies in the face of majority public opinion. At the very least, they should express their support for such a measure with a proper understanding of, and respect for, the views of those who oppose them.

I approach the Bill with views of my own. Like my right hon. and hon. Friends, I make it clear that I am speaking as an individual and not on behalf of the Conservative party. My approach was summed up better than I could phrase by the Bishop of Liverpool, the Right Rev. James Jones, when he wrote recently:

The challenge of a civilised society is to be able to set moral priorities while at the same time being tolerant towards and respecting the conscience of those who dissent. Society has not always got that balance right. There is a history of oppression of homosexuals and the moral certainties of the past have clearly played into the hands of bigots. But as English society becomes more tolerant, it needs to acknowledge that those who give moral and social priority to marriage are not necessarily homophobic. It is important to have the debate on sexuality without demonising each other. Before I come on to the age of consent, I want to deal briefly with the other important aspects of the Bill and express general support for the measures on the abuse of trust. I join my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) in paying tribute to the courage and energy of the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) in persuading the Government and Parliament to incorporate the provisions in the Bill.

We may, as individual Members, have questions about the scope of those provisions, such as whether the maximum penalty is adequate. However, the procedural motion that the House adopted on Monday prevents a Committee stage and any discussion of amendments to the Bill, so we have to take the measures on abuse of trust as they come.

The amendment to the earlier Bill, which was moved by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), will decriminalise an under-age partner in a sexual relationship. That amendment was also mentioned by the hon. Member for Colne Valley. Although I had serious doubts about the amendment when it was first proposed, I now think that the hon. Gentleman was right to introduce it. That measure will tackle the problem that several hon. Members who support the Bill have talked about at length—the problem of young people who fear that if they go to their parents, a teacher, a doctor or the police, they risk criminalising themselves, even though they desperately want to get out of a relationship into which they have allowed themselves to be seduced.

The debate has clearly focused on the basic issue of the age of consent. I am willing to admit that I have had to think about this issue. It is not simply a matter of what we, as individuals, believe. I approach it as someone who is not a libertarian. In my social views, I am an old-fashioned Conservative. I believe in the primacy of marriage and that marriage is the best framework for the mutual love of one human being for another and the best environment in which to bring up children.

I must, however, acknowledge that we do not live in a theocracy; we live in a free society. There may be many things that I, as an individual, regard as wrong, immoral or mistaken, which nevertheless should not be the subject of criminal law. I believe that adultery has done immeasurable harm to family life and has scarred many children for life, but I am not proposing that adultery should be made a criminal offence and the subject of criminal sanctions.

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North)

The Conservative party would lose half its members.

Mr. Lidington

The hon. Gentleman must speak for himself.

Much of the Home Secretary's speech was about equal rights. He talked about wanting to set a legal framework within which people should be free to live their lives in peace. I agree with that as a general principle, but I shall nevertheless vote against the Bill. I accept the general principle that what adults do in private, voluntarily, is a matter for them, and the law generally should not intervene in those decisions. However, we are not talking about the state of Britain in the years before the Wolfenden report or the legal reforms of 1967; we are talking about people who are legally children.

The age at which one draws any line will be a matter of judgment, and whatever age is chosen, there will always be some people who are below that age and have an emotional and moral maturity beyond their years. Equally, there will be some who need, in an ideal world, greater protection, even though they are above the age at which the law states that they are entitled to be regarded as adults.

To set in law any age of majority or any age of consent inevitably involves a judgment based on a generalisation about people of that age. Eighteen is the legal age of majority in this country. It is the age which the Children Act 1989 defines as marking the threshold of adulthood. It is also the age defined by the United Nations convention on the rights of the child as marking the bridge between childhood and adulthood.

Because I believe that the law should not interfere with what adults do in their private lives, when the issue arose in the previous Parliament, after much thought I voted in favour of reducing the age of consent for homosexuals from 21 to 18. That is a logical and sustainable point of view.

Two aspects of the Bill concern me. First, I believe that the Bill sends a message about Parliament's view of the direction that society should take. In his speech, the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Etherington) spoke about the way in which legislation can be used to send out signals to the wider society, and we are familiar with the idea that the law can help to lead and shape public opinion. That is a feature of debates about race relations law, equal opportunities law and so on.

However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) pointed out, some people and some organisations—by no means all those who support the Bill—see it as part of a wider agenda, which would later seek to reduce the age of consent further, perhaps to 14, the legal recognition of homosexual partnerships and equal rights for gay couples to adopt children. That broad agenda is already part of the active political debate in the United States.

Those who advance that point of view are at least arguing from a coherent position of support for general equality. I acknowledge that the last time the Bill was debated, the Home Secretary made it clear in response to his hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) that the Government were opposed to measures of the sort that I have just described, but I believe that when the Bill is enacted, it will only encourage the people and organisations promoting that agenda.

Secondly, in debating the measure, we are discussing the extent to which the law should protect young people below the age of majority by second-guessing their own private decisions. It comes down to a judgment about the maturity of 16-year-olds. One of the most cogent speeches in the House of Lords debate on the Bill was that from the Labour Benches by Lord Mishcon, the last surviving member of the Wolfenden committee, who spoke and voted against a further reduction in the age of consent.

Referring to the Wolfenden report's conclusion, Lord Mishcon said that while there was an element of arbitrariness in any decision about an age of consent, all things considered the legal age of contractual responsibility seems to us to afford the best criterion for the definition of adulthood … While there are some grounds for fixing the age as low as sixteen, it is obvious that however 'mature' a boy of that age may be as regards physical development or psycho-sexual make-up, and whatever analogies may be drawn from the law relating to offences against young girls, a boy is incapable at the age of sixteen of forming a mature judgment about actions"—[Official Report, House of Lords, 22 July 1998; Vol. 592, c. 947.] of this kind.

Whether or not we accept the verdict of Lord Mishcon and the Wolfenden report must be a matter for individual judgment on the basis of our own experience and beliefs. There is a case, as some hon. Members have noted, for seeking to equalise the age of consent at a higher age for women as well as for men, but that is not in the Bill, and the Government's procedural motion that was passed on Monday means that we are denied the opportunity of discussing that at a later stage. We must accept the Bill as it has been brought before us.

Mr. Bercow

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Lidington

If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I want to conclude my remarks.

There have been very few prosecutions in recent years for cases of consensual intercourse between young men aged between 16 and 18. The police and the prosecuting authorities have operated a discretionary policy and I would not argue against that, but one of my fears is that passing the Bill would, in practice, extend that de facto tolerance to a younger group and that men in their 20s, 30s or 40s would claim—in Scotland as a defence or elsewhere in mitigation of sentence—that they believed a boy to be 16 although he was 15 or even only 14. We should not dismiss that risk lightly.

Dr. Harris

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Lidington

I will not.

I cannot prove that my fears will be borne out, but my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) is mistaken to assert that the burden of proof lies with those of us who defend the status quo. When the protection of vulnerable young people is at stake and when there is doubt, we should put that protection ahead of the principle of equality. My fear is that the House will fail in its duty to those young people and to the country if it supports the Bill tonight.

6.31 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng)

We have had a good, wide-ranging debate and one thing is clear: the Bill is not about section 28 and the responsibilities of public bodies. Nor is it about codes of practice and equal opportunity in employment. It certainly is not about gay marriage and an attack on the family. It behoves no party on either side of the House to claim to be the party of the family and we are all agreed that families are a good thing. They contain gay people and straight people and are about ties of mutual love and affection. They are, and need to be, whole and healthy institutions for the good of not only the individuals in them, but, we all surely believe, society. It is no use labelling those on one side or another of the argument pro or anti-family.

The Bill is about the equalisation of the age of consent, the protection of vulnerable people and abuse of trust. Various strands ran through the speeches of all those who contributed to the debate, but each of them—in different ways and from different sides of the argument—clearly acknowledged the importance and significance of respect for difference, in sexuality and in age. They created a sense of the importance of equality before the law, the law as a framework for our actions and people's rights and responsibilities—not only the rights of the young in relation to their own sexuality, important though that is, but the responsibility to them held by older people in positions of trust. They also made it clear that we, as legislators, must get the balance right. We try to do that. The Bill gives the House the opportunity to achieve that balance and to make a judgment. As well as respecting differences in sexuality, we must also respect differences in deeply held opinions and convictions. Different convictions can be held with honesty. We do not need to paint each other as homophobes and bigots or as being part of a sort of homintern, or homosexual conspiracy designed to undermine civilisation and the family. We have resisted the temptation to do that in the main, but with some notable exceptions.

We all respect the importance of difference. We understand that the law has to ensure that young people can safely be different in their sexuality: safe from the predatory sexuality of older people and safe from the enormous damage that is done to young people who are made to feel guilty and ashamed of their sexuality.

We should reflect on messages. I understand the point that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) made about them. However, what sort of message do we send young people when we say that their sexuality, which is real to them, is criminal, shameful and should be hidden under a bushel? We know that the mental and sexual health of those who hide such issues and are not prepared to discuss them or share their fears are at risk. There is a high price to pay in self-worth if we criminalise a group of young people because they happen to be gay.

Hon. Members have a free vote tonight. I have always taken the view that equalising the age of consent in law is the best way in which to protect young people. It does not make them vulnerable; it makes us better able to ensure that they grow up without being subject to the risks that have been discussed today. However, hon. Members will make up their own minds about that.

Important speeches have been made in the debate. It is invidious to single out individual contributions, but two struck me as especially significant: the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford) and that of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). The last person to deliver such a forceful and eloquent speech on the subject that we are considering from the Opposition Benches subsequently had a cup of tea with my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen), and the rest is history. The Labour party is a broad church. I was delighted that my hon. Friend had a cup of tea with my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward), but if she is minded to have a cup of tea with the hon. Member for Buckingham, that will strain the strength of the pillars of the temple.

Mr. Bercow

First, the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen) will be pleased to know that there is no such prospect whatever. Secondly, I reassure the right hon. Gentleman and my right hon. and hon. Friends that, as I approach my death bed, the last words that will trip off my tongue will almost certainly be, "Vote Conservative."

Mr. Boateng

I was just beginning to like the hon. Gentleman, but there we are.

It has been a good and serious debate. It came out of all the speeches that we must ensure that, whatever the age of consent, whatever people's sexuality or gender, we make common cause on protecting people from abuse, which is of the utmost seriousness. It is important to detach the two things. We are not introducing proposals in relation to abuse of trust because we are giving the House the opportunity to vote on equalisation of the age of consent. My hon. Friends the Members for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) and for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) both have strong track records in the House in relation to matters to do with children. It is a concern for both sides of the House. In other debates, the hon. Members for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) and for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) have also expressed concerns about the protection of children. Our abuse of trust provisions seek to ensure that we have in place a workable mechanism to prevent young people—be they men or women, the prey of predators male or female, straight or gay—from being abused.

The hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) has raised some of the teacher unions' legitimate concerns. We had to make a decision on how to cast that Bill. Of course, it will be important to monitor and to see how the provisions work in practice, but our conclusion was that the relationship between a teacher and a pupil was a particular one—the teacher is in loco parentis.

Jackie Ballard

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Boateng

The hon. Lady made her point well. If she will excuse me, we have to get on.

We believe that that relationship is one of special trust that needs to be protected by law, but we keep those matters constantly under review and we will co-operate with teacher unions in developing the code of practice. It is for that reason that we decided to proceed in that way.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald asked me some specific questions about the position in relation to Scotland, so it is right that I should answer them in some detail. By agreed convention, Westminster will not normally legislate for Scotland with regard to a devolved matter without the consent of the Scottish Parliament. In this case, and with the Parliament Act 1911 in mind, we sought the consent of the Scottish Parliament and it was given. Since this is a pre-commencement enactment, the Royal Assent having been given, if that is the will of this Parliament, the power in relation to Scotland will come into effect when the First Minister makes the necessary orders. That is how it will work in relation to Scotland, and of course Scotland will have the power to amend the legislation for Scotland if it wishes at some later time.

The House has given this matter great consideration over a number of days on three successive occasions. We have been into these matters in great detail, properly so, in Committee and on the Floor of the House. The time has arrived for us to come to a conclusion in this House, and to come to a conclusion that carries with it the full weight of the Parliament Act 1911. So when we send this measure to the other place it will take with it its own message in terms of our vote, and the other place will understand what motivates us.

What will motivate hon. Members in arriving at their decision is the belief that we are talking about equality before the law and the protection of the vulnerable. I end on this note, because the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) sought to make his point, as he has every right to do, in relation to the European convention on human rights. He suggested that we in this House were somehow subordinating our consideration of these matters to considerations that belonged to an alien institution far from these shores which had no business telling us what to do.

I do not think that anyone who has heard the debate in this Chamber, anyone who has read the correspondence or met the deputations that have been to see hon. Members on all sides of the argument, could believe that this is not a matter that we are deciding for our country.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Boateng


We are, however, deciding it within a context and framework that is, yes, one of human rights. The hon. Gentleman referred to the European convention as something that arose post war, out of the events of that war, and said that it was in no way possible that those who framed that piece of international law would have dreamed that it would ever be applied to issues of sexuality. It was born out of the war, he said.

Well, the hon. Gentleman should reflect on who it was who died in the gas chambers. It was the Jews, it was the gypsies and it was the gays. And he should remember, too, the ground in which intolerance and bigotry grew.

Therefore, for those of us who look to the convention as a reminder of the importance of human rights, to those of us who look to the convention as a reminder of what equality before the law should be, that is a tradition that is entirely honourable, and those of us who will vote for the equalisation of the age of consent tonight will do so because we believe in equality, because we believe in the common humanity of all, regardless of age, regardless of sexuality.

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

The House divided: Ayes 263, Noes 102.

Division No. 71] [6.49 pm
Ainger, Nick Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W)
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov"try NE) Bradley, Keith (Withington)
Alexander, Douglas Bradshaw, Ben
Allan, Richard Brady, Graham
Allen, Graham Brand, Dr Peter
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale) Brinton, Mrs Helen
Armstrong, Rt Hon Ms Hilary Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E)
Ashton, Joe Brown, Russell (Dumfries)
Austin, John Browne, Desmond
Ballard, Jackie Buck, Ms Karen
Barnes, Harry Burden, Richard
Barren, Kevin Burgon, Colin
Battle, John Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Bayley, Hugh Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies (NE Fife)
Beard, Nigel
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret Campbell-Savours, Dale
Benn, Hilary (Leeds C) Casale, Roger
Benn, Rt Hon Tony (Chesterfield) Caton, Martin
Bercow, John Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)
Best, Harold Chaytor, David
Betts, Clive Clark, Paul (Gillingham)
Blackman, Liz Clarke, Charles (Norwich S)
Blair, Rt Hon Tony Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)
Blears, Ms Hazel Clwyd, Ann
Blizzard, Bob Coaker, Vernon
Boateng, Rt Hon Paul Coffey, Ms Ann
Borrow, David Cohen, Harry
Boswell, Tim Coleman, Iain
Colman, Tony Iddon, Dr Brian
Connarty, Michael Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)
Cooper, Yvette Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Corbyn, Jeremy Jamieson, David
Corston, Jean Jenkins, Brian
Cousins, Jim Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)
Cox, Tom
Crausby, David Jones, Ms Jenny (Wolverh'ton SW)
Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley)
Cryer, John (Hornchurch) Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)
Darvill, Keith Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Davey, Edward (Kingston) Keeble, Ms Sally
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W) Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)
Davidson, Ian Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth)
Davies, Geraint (Croydon C) Kemp, Fraser
Davis, Rt Hon Terry (B'ham Hodge H) Kennedy, Rt Hon Charles (Ross Skye & Inverness W)
Dawson, Hilton Kidney, David
Dean, Mrs Janet King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)
Denham, John Kirkwood, Archy
Dismore, Andrew Kumar, Dr Ashok
Dobbin, Jim Laing, Mrs Eleanor
Dobson, Rt Hon Frank Leslie, Christopher
Doran, Frank Levitt, Tom
Drown, Ms Julia Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)
Duncan, Alan Linton, Martin
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey) Livingstone, Ken
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston) Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)
Edwards, Huw Llwyd, Elfyn
Efford, Clive Love, Andrew
Ellman, Mrs Louise McAvoy, Thomas
Etherington, Bill McCabe, Steve
Evans, Nigel McCafferty, Ms Chris
Fabricant, Michael McCartney, Rt Hon Ian (Makerfield)
Field, Rt Hon Frank
Fisher, Mark McDonagh, Siobhain
Fitzsimons, Lorna McDonnell, John
Follett, Barbara McNamara, Kevin
Foster, Don (Bath) MacShane, Denis
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings) Mactaggart, Fiona
Foulkes, George McWalter, Tony
Fyfe, Maria McWilliam, John
Galloway, George Mahon, Mrs Alice
Gapes, Mike Mallaber, Judy
Gardiner, Barry Mandelson, Rt Hon Peter
Gerrard, Neil Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Gilroy, Mrs Linda Martlew, Eric
Godman, Dr Norman A Maxton, John
Godsiff, Roger Meale, Alan
Goggins, Paul Merron, Gillian
Golding, Mrs Llin Michie, Bill (Shef"ld Heeley)
Gordon, Mrs Eileen Miller, Andrew
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E) Moffatt, Laura
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) Moonte, Dr Lewis
Grocott, Bruce Moore, Michael
Grogan, John Moran, Ms Margaret
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale) Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)
Hall, Patrick (Bedford) Morley, Elliot
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE) Morris, Rt Hon Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Hancock, Mike
Harris, Dr Evan Mountford, Kali
Heal, Mrs Sylvia Mullin, Chris
Healey, John Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Heath, David (Somerton & Frome) Murphy, Rt Hon Paul (Torfaen)
Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N) Norris, Dan
Heppell, John O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)
Hewitt, Ms Patricia O'Hara, Eddie
Hill, Keith Öpik, Lembit
Hood, Jimmy Osborne, Ms Sandra
Hoon, Rt Hon Geoffrey Pickthall, Colin
Hope, Phil Pike, Peter L
Hopkins, Kelvin Plaskitt, James
Howarth, Alan (Newport E) Pond, Chris
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) Portillo, Rt Hon Michael
Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford) Pound, Stephen
Humble, Mrs Joan Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle) Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin
Prescott, Rt Hon John Straw, Rt Hon Jack
Prior, David Stringer, Graham
Prosser, Gwyn Stuart, Ms Gisela
Quin, Rt Hon Ms Joyce Stunell, Andrew
Quinn, Lawrie Sutcliffe, Gerry
Rammell, Bill Swinney, John
Rapson, Syd Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Raynsford, Nick Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Reed, Andrew (Loughborough) Todd, Mark
Rendel, David Truswell, Paul
Roche, Mrs Barbara Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W) Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Ruddock, Joan Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Russell, Ms Christine (Chester) Tyler, Paul
Ryan, Ms Joan Vis, Dr Rudi
Savidge, Malcolm Ward, Ms Claire
Sawford, Phil White, Brian
Sedgemore, Brian Whitehead, Dr Alan
Sheerman, Barry Wicks, Malcolm
Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert Winnick, David
Shipley, Ms Debra Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S) Wise, Audrey
Skinner, Dennis Wood, Mike
Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E) Woodward, Shaun
Smith, Angela (Basildon) Woolas, Phil
Smith, Rt Hon Chris (Islington S) Worthington, Tony
Smith, Jacqui (Redditch) Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent) Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Soley, Clive
Spellar, John Tellers for the Ayes:
Starkey, Dr Phyllis Mr. Tony McNulty and
Stinchcombe, Paul Mr. Jim Dowd.
Amess, David Day, Stephen
Ancram, Rt Hon Michael Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen
Arbuthnot, Rt Hon James Duncan Smith, Iain
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Baldry, Tony Faber, David
Bell, Martin (Tatton) Fallon, Michael
Benton, Joe Forth, Rt Hon Eric
Beresford, Sir Paul Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia Gale, Roger
Breed, Colin Garnier, Edward
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Gill, Christopher
Burns, Simon Gillan, Mrs Cheryl
Cann, Jamie Gorman, Mrs Teresa
Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet) Green, Damian
Grieve, Dominic
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie
Colvin, Michael Hawkins, Nick
Cormack, Sir Patrick Heald, Oliver
Cran, James Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas
Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice) Horam, John
Howard, Rt Hon Michael Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Jack, Rt Hon Michael Ruffley, David
Johnson Smith, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Russell, Bob (Colchester)
St Aubyn, Nick
King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater) Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian
Kirkbride, Miss Julie Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)
Lait, Mrs Jacqui Smith, Miss Geraldine (Morecambe & Lunesdale)
Lansley, Andrew
Leigh, Edward Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Letwin, Oliver Spicer, Sir Michael
Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E) Swayne, Desmond
Lidington, David Syms, Robert
Loughton Tim Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Luff Peter Taylor, Sir Teddy
MacGregor, Rt Hon John Thompson, William
McIntosh, Miss Anne Townend, John
McLoughlin, Patrick Tredinnick, David
Major, Rt Hon John Trend, Michael
Maude, Rt Hon Francis Tyrie, Andrew
Michie Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute) Viggers, Peter
Walter, Robert
Moss Malcolm Walter, Charles
Nicholls, Patrick Waterson, Nigel
O"Brien, Stephen (Eddisbury) Whittingdale, John
Ottaway, Richard Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Paice, James Wilkinson, John
Paisley, Rev Ian Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Paterson, Owen Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Pollard, Kerry Yeo, Tim
Powell, Sir Raymond Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Randall, John
Redwood, Rt Hon John Tellers for the Noes:
Robertson, Laurence Mr. Gerald Howarth and
Robinson, Peter (Belfast E) Mr. David Maclean.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read a Second time; to be read the Third time tomorrow, pursuant to Order (7 February).

Forward to