HL Deb 14 June 1977 vol 384 cc11-23

2.55 p.m.

The Earl of ARRAN

My Lords, I make no apology for once again raising the subject of sexual practices between consenting male adults. It will be almost ten years in July since the 1967 Sexual Offences Act received the Royal Assent. Since then, the legal age of majority has been lowered to 18 by the Family Law Reform Act 1969; yet the age of consent for consent for homosexual acts in private has remained at 21. However, after reviewing the obvious factors involved in fixing an age of consent, the Wolfenden Committee proposed 21 because, All things considered, the legal age of contractual responsibility seemed to us to afford the best criterion for the definition of adulthood in this respect". So, on the Wolfenden Committee's own criterion, the age ought now to be 18.

It is interesting that the Criminal Law Revision Committee was first asked by the then Home Secretary, Mr. Roy Jenkins, to review the whole of the law relating to sexual offences at the precise time that the 1967 Act became law. That was 10 years ago, and the Committee are now getting down to their task in earnest and a special Policy Advisory Committee is currently studying the age of consent both heterosexual and homosexual. No doubt we shall be told to await the recommendations before proposing legislation but, as many bodies and individuals have been submitting their views to the Policy Advisory Committee, this would seem to be an opportune time to test the views of the House.

There has been a wide range of suggestions: from the Festival of Light proposal that the homosexual age of consent should be raised to 24, at one extreme, to the proposition that ages of consent should be abolished altogether as a legal concept—with which I, naturally, do not agree. Today, I hope to gain your Lordships' support on the same grounds as I gained it in 1967. It may be that you think that we live in an over-permissive age and that things have gone too far. Your Lordships may well ask yourselves when it will ever end. So far as I am concerned, the buck stops here. For myself, I shall never be a party to condoning pederastic practices. I promise your Lordships that I can never be a party to lowering the permitted age to one day below 18. I hope that your Lordships will accept my solemn word. The idea, frankly, appals me. If any of your Lordships were to propose such a thing. I should speak and vote against it.

So far I have spoken, and strongly, about what I will not support. What I do support—and support strongly—is based on reason and nothing else. A man can marry at 16 and a man can vote at 18. What is more important than marriage? What is a greater responsibility than playing one's part in the community by voting? By contrast, what counts less than indulging in major or minor indecencies? Your Lordships may be disgusted at the idea—most men are—but there are minorities and they too have a right to be considered.

When your Lordships gave your approval to the Sexual Offences Bill you thought of such evil things as blackmail. That used to be called assassination of the soul. It still happens. We experienced the greatest moral anxieties before your Lordships officially saw the business through the House. I should like to think we shall not have the same trouble all over again, although there is a tendency at the moment to go back on what we previously thought. There is such a thing as justice and compassion. Which of your Lordships would wish to be homosexual? Which of you would not be frightened of blackmail? I know that most men are not usually frightened of such threats, but the danger exists. I tend to believe that it will always exist until human nature changes. So long as there remain homosexuals, they will remain a matter of pity. As I said in the very first debate, they are the men with a limp.

Every man—or almost every man—goes through a homosexual stage; it is a short stage, in most cases quickly overcome. However, there are homosexuals who remain homosexuals all their lives, but not many. It is not so much them about whom I am thinking, though as I said at the beginning of my speech, minorities as well as majorities have to be cared for. Why have I selected the age of 18, my Lords? It is a purely arbitrary age. First, because to go lower would, to my way of thinking, be dangerous. Secondly, it is the age of responsibility, just as a man can die at 17. Anyway, any age one chooses is arbitrary. There is no right or wrong. One cannot fix an ultimate age; the only thing is to play it safe. To me 17 would be dangerous, and 16 bordering on pederasty.

In Holland they have accepted the age of 16. I could not and would not go along with that; I believe that it would be wrong. Moreover, I believe that it would not be acceptable to this country as a whole, though I am told that there are men who would be prepared to take the risk. I ask your Lordships to give me your trust and support. I cannot say with certainty that 10 years ago I or the House did right. When I am asked to give my opinion of what we did then, I think there are two views: either we did more wrong than even Socrates is supposed to have done, or we removed fear from the hearts of many—one man in 20 being homosexual. I feel proud—as I believe the House does—of having done this. It is with the same purpose that I ask the House this afternoon to give this Bill a Second Reading. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2ª.—(The Earl of Arran.)

3.5 p.m.

The Earl of HALSBURY rose to move an Amendment to the Motion for Second Reading, to leave out all the words after ("That") and insert ("in view of the growth in activities of groups and individuals exploiting male prostitution and its attendant corruption of youth, debasement of morals and spread of veneral disease, this House declines to give the Bill a Second Reading.") The noble Earl said: My Lords, I beg to move the Amendment which stands in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I am going to allow myself only one generalisation before turning to the wording of my Amendment, which I shall defend in detail, word by word. I shall not thereafter link what I have to say to the pros and cons of any particular age of consent. I will leave that to emerge in the course of the debate. If there is anything to be said thereafter, I shall say it in reply on winding up. My immediate concern is to be as brief as possible.

The generality is this. Given any disability whatever, one has the alternatives of either making the best or making the worst of the situation in which one finds oneself. Homosexuals have this choice. It is as open to them as to anyone else. Those who make the best of their situation are the responsible ones who would no more molest little boys than a responsible heterosexual would molest little girls, or go down the streets soliciting strangers, or reject stabilised relationships for promiscuity. The law does not concern itself with them and nor do I.

Those who make the worst of this situation, the sick ones, suffer from a psychological syndrome whose symptoms are the following: first of all exhibitionism; secondly, promiscuity; thirdly, proselytising; fourthly, boasting of homosexual's achievements as if they were due to and not in spite of their inversion. A particularly nasty sub-group of the sick is the sado-masochistic one represented currently by the leather men and the skinheads.

So far as women are concerned, they seem mostly responsible types. The sick are conspicuously absent and that is why lesbianism is not a social problem. What follows is exclusively concerned with male homosexuality. The sick group wants to be placed on an equality with the responsible group without accepting the obligations of responsible behaviour. It is they who are kicking up the shindy about the age of consent. It is they about whom I am talking. It is they who ought not to be enfranchised of our undergraduate population.

Now to the wording of my Amendment. It speaks of growth, "growth in activities of groups and individuals". It accuses them of exploiting male prostitution. It refers to the corruption of youth and the degradation of morals in consequence. Lastly, it attributes the spread of venereal disease to male homosexual promiscuity by implication. I hope to establish every one of these charges to your Lordships' satisfaction.

The groups are of two kinds: social and pressure groups on the one hand; and, on the other hand, publishing groups. The social and pressure groups are currently: the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, sometimes abbreviated to CHE; the Gay Liberation Front; the Scottish Minorities Group; the Union for Sexual Freedom in Ireland; and Gay International. These movements hold meetings and conferences; they sponsor the production of gay tokens which enable homosexuals to recognise one another. They organise dances. A gay jubilee dance included the crowning of a silver queen. A queen in this context is, of course, a male homosexual. Another dance specified "dress: feathers". That was about the only funny note I struck in the course of my homework. They organise benefits to raise funds for the publishing groups if the latter run into legal trouble, as at present when Gay News is being sued by Mrs. Whitehouse. They ceaselessly demand recognition of the false doctrine that homosexuality is a valid alternative to heterosexuality.

Ten years ago no such groups existed. There is the proof of growth. The publishing groups are first, Gay News, on the one hand; on the other hand, there are no fewer than 17 assorted monthly "glossies" priced at around £1.50, each specialising in some form of "kinkiness"—sado-masochism or white preference for coloured partners, and so on. Gay News, at 25p, consists of a bi-monthly issue of 36 pages of news, feature articles and advertisements with a four-page insert of personal advertisements. It claims to be the largest homosexual newspaper in Europe. A companion publication, Gay News International, is announced for launching this month.

Common to all these publications are advertisements, which of course pay for the cost of production. There are advertisements for gay bars, hotels, motels, restaurants, houses of assignation (many of them sauna baths), and they are all earmarked as "gay". There are advertisements for gay bookshops and second-hand gay books and, lastly, gay guides to gay haunts, together with the telephone numbers of gay switchboards in our largest cities, where the visiting gay boys can get clued up as to what is going on and where to go. Typical feature articles in Gay News are entitled: How do you pick up someone you fancy? How do you solicit in a train?; How to procure models—that is, prostitutes; Techniques of seducing boys; So you want to know how to do it—illustrated with line drawings; Should the Campaign for Homosexual Equality continue its association with the political Left?

Gay News was established four or five years ago. Not a bad growth rate, my Lords. It is impossible to sort out the ramifications of the social group and the publishing group. Each supports the other in its own way. I have only to link one of them to prostitution and the other is automatically involved as an accessory. The linkage is easily established by studying the advertising matter and deciphering its thinly-veiled codes with the aid of a glossary of slang which is sold in gay bookshops: The Queen's Vernacular—and may I again assure your Lordships that this has nothing to do with the Sovereign—a gay lexicon, Everyman's Directory to the Gay Underworld. That is what they call it: it is their word, not mine. Why should we enfranchise that underworld to the undergraduate age groups? If I emphasise undergraduates it is only because, as Chancellor of a university, they are the ones in which I have a personal interest. From it I extract only one entry for my purpose, which I will quote: Model: male prostitute of the call boy variety who uses modelling as a front". Turning to Gay News of 19th May, I find an advertisement on page 2 reading: Models, men: you could earn £100 a week at least after taking our fashion and television course in modelling". That is a procuring advertisement. I am convinced that the publication of much of this advertising matter is in breach of the law and I hope that in commenting on behalf of Her Majesty's Government later the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, will be able to tell the House whether he agrees with what I have said and, if so, why these publications are not prosecuted.

Time does not permit my taking your Lordships through all the homework I have done in breaking these thinly-coded advertisements. The effect of one after the other is cumulative and I can only convey to your Lordships my own sense of conviction that when it comes to procuring, pimping, soliciting and prostitution, Gay News is in it up to the neck through its advertisement revenues, thereby involving the social group willy-nilly in its own degradation. Many of the advertisements solicit youths of 21 plus. Do your Lordships doubt that if this Bill became law this solicitation would be amended to 18 plus? Can solicitation be other than corrupting? Can anything be more degrading than to get so used to what is corrupting that you cannot any longer see it as such? If you have doubts about that, my Lords, listen to what other noble Lords, who speak for the Scouts, the Boys' Brigade and youth clubs will tell us later in the debate.

Lastly, I come to venereal disease. I am very glad to see the name of my noble friend Lord Stamp on the list of speakers because, as a doctor, he can speak with authority where I cannot. I shall leave him to make this part of my case, with one exception, by way of reporting to your Lordships what a consultant venereologist told me of his experience in cross-examining his patients. "Where did you pick it up?" is his first question after diagnosis. The commonest answer is, "In a sauna bath". The next question is, "Do you know the name of the man who infected you?" and the stereotyped answer is, "You never exchange names, neither first nor second names, in a sauna bath". What people, my Lords! An hour's anonymous grinding and home you go with the pox.

On the subject of anonymity, The Queen's Vernacular—the glossary of gay slang—refers to it as follows, under the heading "Glory Hole": a hole drilled or carved between the partitions of two toilet stalls in a men's room and used for sex … Glory holes are attractive to those who wish anonymity mixed with the sensation of danger. My Lords, these are very sick folk indeed. They may deserve our compassion but they do not need access to our undergraduate age group. This subject is a sick subject, and by receiving the support of the sick the Bill becomes a sick Bill. It should not be given the courtesy of a Second Reading. I beg to move my Amendment.

Moved, as an Amendment to the Motion for Second Reading, to leave out all the words after ("That") and insert ("in view of the growth in activities of groups and individuals exploiting male prostitution and its attendant corruption of youth, debasement of morals and spread of venereal disease, this House declines to give the Bill a Second Reading.")—(The Earl of Halsbury.)

3.17 p.m.


My Lords, this is a subject which is not a political one in the Party sense and it has traditionally been one upon which there have been free votes. Any views which I express in the course of the few remarks I shall make are personal.

I understand, I think, the motive of the noble Earl, Lord Arran, in introducing this Bill. I think he is actuated by feelings of tolerance and also by a sense of logic: that is what appeared to flow from his opening speech. At the time when the 1967 Act went through, the age of majority in this country was 21, and it has since been reduced, together with the age for voting. Superficially, it seems logical to bring the 1967 Act up to date, but I shall seek to prove to your Lordships that there is a great deal more involved in this legislation than the age of majority.

I remember well the public debate preceding the 1967 Act. I was a Member of another place at the time and I remember the discussions on that Bill, which related to England and Wales. One of the principal arguments as I remember it—an argument that won the acceptance of the majority of the elected representatives then in Parliament—was this: a proportion of all men are born with homosexual tendencies. It may be a small proportion; the statistics give an indication. One may be sorry for them; they cannot help it, and it is their nature. It has been said that their nature cannot be changed, but I suspect that the medical profession is able to do almost anything with hormones and other drugs and medicines nowadays. However, it would be unthinkable that anything of this kind should be compulsory, and also it would be inhumane. Provided that homosexuals by nature were carrying out their acts in private, provided they were old enough to know that they were homosexuals and provided they were causing no offence or harm to others, it was thought that in a civilised society that should no longer be a criminal offence.

That is a summary of what I understood the arguments to be during the debates in 1967, but it was my clear impression at that time, even though the Wolfenden Commission had related the age of 21 to the age of majority, that the age was chosen largely because by that age it was thought a person should definitely know that he was not naturally heterosexual and could not be attracted by the opposite sex. Also—and I think that this is most important—it was to avoid the risk that one of the two persons involved, being a younger person who was not homosexual by nature, would be drawn into the situation by the other. If both persons were 21 or over, then by that time they ought to know their own nature and it was likely that both would be homosexual by nature. That Act of 1967 was a measure of tolerance towards a minority in the Community. But, as I understood it, it also protected younger men, who were not basically homosexual, from being unnecessarily drawn into that fraternity. Such an event could be an upheaval in their lives and could upset their characters and their whole lives, if they would otherwise have been normal.

I think that what I have been saying reminds us that the age of 21 in the 1967 Act had a greater significance than the noble Earl has given it in his speech today. There was a significance assigned to it related to the fact that, by that age, people should know their own nature. rather than to the age of majority, now 18. I submit that we must consider the situation where an older man, a homosexual, is attracted to a younger man who is not a homosexual. The younger man, who is under 21, may admire the older one and respect him for his attributes—intellect, good fellowship, achievements in his occupation or for some other reason. He may be led into practices in which he would never otherwise have been involved. I am sure that most of us would wish to prevent that kind of situation from occurring and, certainly, that was in the minds of those in both Houses in 1967, especially of course in terms of teenagers and young boys. At the same time, 10 years ago Parliament was tolerant about the genuine homosexual minority, provided that no harm or offence was caused to others.

That brings me to a letter which the noble Earl, Lord Arran, circulated to a number of Peers, and I was included in the circulation. He repeated some of it in his speech today, and it sought to give the reasons why he was introducing this Bill. He told us that he himself would certainly never be a party to the age being reduced any lower than 18, and he repeated that today. But he stated in his letter: The age of maturity—and what an important age 18 is—is the same as the age of voting and dying for one's country. He used the word "maturity", but the age of maturity is not 18. I suspect that what he meant was the age of majority, but he said "the age of maturity". He may not intend to reduce the age lower than 18; it may be a Freudian slip. But once the age of maturity is mentioned, then there will be people who want to come down to that age, which is 13 or 14, or to the age of consent. So that that would be the next likely demand, if the use of the word "maturity" in his letter was not a slip.

I would now refer to the allusion to the age of dying for one's country. There are servicemen aged 16 and 17. In the Army, junior soldiers join at the age of 16½, and they are eligible to be sent on active service when they are 17½. Again, if that reference means anything at all, it is an invitation to those who are wanting to go further in the direction of lowering the age, to go down to 17 or 16. But I may add that that part of his argument is wholly irrelevant, because subsection (5) of Section 1 of the 1967 Act exempts the Armed Forces. I will read that subsection which states: Subsection (1) of this section shall not prevent an act from being an offence (other than a civil offence) under any provision of the Army Act 1955, the Air Force Act 1955 or the Naval Discipline Act 1957. So I hope that the noble Earl realises that that reference was an inappropriate one. Both Houses of Parliament accepted in 1967 that this was not appropriate to the Armed Forces. No doubt the reason was that homosexuality is incompatible with military organisation and discipline. Since fallibility is a human weakness, I hope that the noble Earl will not mind my having demonstrated that that point was not only wrong, but irrelevant.

The noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, has moved an Amendment, and he spoke very strongly of the corruption of youth and the dangers of the spread of venereal disease. He has just explained the reasons for his Amendment, and has pointed to the dangers. He has done research. I cannot myself vouch for the growth of evil forces in our society, to which he has referred. Noble Lords will no doubt make up their own minds about that. But he has described groups which are proselytising, trying to spread the activities of homosexuality and procuring.

I think that there are two different kinds of group. We can all sympathise with a group which consists of persons who are homosexual by nature. Through it they are in touch and meet together because the people in it have the same tendencies—some of us may describe them as weaknesses. But if they are publicly proselytising and trying to draw others, quite unnecessarily, into that fraternity, then no encouragement should be given to that kind of group. It may seem to your Lordships' House that the main supporting arguments of the noble Earl, Lord Arran, are being totally demolished during the course of the two speeches that have followed his initial introduction of the Bill. It is a matter for noble Lords to make up their own minds how they will vote if there is a Division on the Amendment of the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury. For my part, I think your Lordships will have guessed that I intend to vote in favour of the Amendment.

3.28 p.m.


My Lords, I should first like to thank the noble Earl, Lord Arran, for bringing this simple and necessary Bill before your Lordships' House today. Of course, deciding on an age of consent is always a rather arbitrary operation, but I have no doubt whatsoever that the age of 21 is far too high. It is the consensus of almost all reputable authorities that homosexual tendencies are formed very young in life, and certainly the vision raised by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, of a bevy of over-18 year old heterosexuals being lured into homosexuality by older people, and thus perverted and ruined for life, is quite frankly, and possibly quite suitably, a fairy-tale.

At the moment, the age of majority seems to me to be as fair a place as possible at which to put the age of consent, given the present state of public opinion on this matter. It is, as we know, the age of legal majority for contracts; it is the age when you can vote; it is—the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, notwith-standing—the age, more or less, when you can die for your country. It is not the slightest encouragement to people to say that there are boy soldiers at the age of 16. As the noble Lord pointed out, they go on active service when they are 17½, so we are merely speaking about a very small matter of six months. Nor is the point which the noble Earl, Lord Arran, raised, and which I repeat, about the age when one is able to die for one's country at all irrelevant merely because the Armed Forces are excluded.

The fact remains that in time of war and international dispute all citizens are liable at some stage or another, whether in the Armed Forces or not, to die for their country. There is a certain age at which we say that people are old enough to fight for us. It seems to me that to say that at that age people are not entitled to choose with whom they should privately go to bed is a real insult to their human dignity. People of the age of 18 in our society now are very mature in many ways. Of course some of them are not; some people who are a very great deal older are very immature, too. However, the age of 18 has been settled on by the law as the right age for decision in a great many areas, and it seems to me to be the right age here.

I do not think that there is any particular need for extra protection. The expert committee which was set up by the Dutch Government, the Speyer Committee, which reported in 1969, said that there is no reason to protect boys between the ages of 16 and 21 to a greater extent than girls of the same age, against assaults upon their chastity. I believe that to be true. Various dangers arise when sexual outlets are against the law. There are very serious psychological dangers when, living in a highly sexually excitable society, as many noble Lords who are due to speak today are constantly telling us, boys and men between the ages of 18 and 21 have no legal outlet for what to them are their natural sexual activities. Also, it is an invitation to blackmail, as the old law was, and as it still is in this area.

To me, this is a matter of simple civil liberties. Therefore the arguments of the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, seem to me to be irrelevant. I am delighted to say that it is the official policy of the political Party to which I belong that this Bill should be put into force. I very much welcome it. I do not think that the law has any place in the bedrooms of this country. People of 18 are adults and should be treated as such, and I shall have great pleasure in supporting the Bill.

Forward to