§ 4.22 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn)
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. I apologise if I disrupted the business of the House. It was an engagement to which I was committed—not a personal one—and I am sorry if business was put out of order. I hope your Lordships will accept that apology.
Turning to the Bill, my belief is that we should, as a matter of duty, ensure equality before the criminal law for young homosexuals and heterosexuals. This concerns a fundamental principle of equality. The Bill would bring that about; that is why I support it.
As your Lordships know from previous discussions, this is a matter of a free vote. Should any noble Lord wish to understand my position, I repeat it. It is a matter of principle and we ought to support that principle in this Bill. I know perfectly well from discussions in your Lordships' House—and helpful discussions outside—that others do not take that view, and I respect that. We had a lengthy discussion when we looked at similar proposals in the Crime and Disorder Bill. I hope that if your Lordships do not agree entirely with what we have done, the fact will at ]east be recognised that we paid careful attention to the matters raised on all sides of this House regarding the protection of young people from those in a position of trust in relation to them. We have done good work in introducing a protection for children who might be in relationships of trust from an abuse of that trust. I ask your Lordships to think carefully about voting down, at this stage or indeed any stage, a Bill giving protection which, l repeat, does not exist in our law for those who are vulnerable and need it.
Perhaps it is as well to distinguish what we propose in the Bill from what many of us would prefer to have if the world were ideal. During my tenancy of this lifetime I have not found the world to be ideal. It may be that some of your Lordships have a different experience. We need to distinguish between what we believe to be desirable by way of conduct and what the criminal law ought to be. It is a clear distinction which needs to be drawn.
We are not advocating sexual promiscuity. We are not opening the floodgates of social change for further reductions in the age of consent. I remind your Lordships that the age of consent in a country which is historically socially conservative and where the power of religion still remains significant—namely, Spain—is 12. I would never vote for such a reduction.
The age of 16 is about right. The proposal here, if one approaches it in the dual way I commend, is simply to bear in mind that the age of consent for heterosexual relationships is set at 16. That may be too young for many people as a matter of desirability or of consequence. We know the undesirable consequences— 648 unwanted pregnancy and all that flows from it which may blight two young lives. There is the risk of sexually transmitted disease. It is important that all young people should have good access to medical advice. But the law acknowledges, and has done so for many years past in our country. like it or not as we may, that young people will have such relationships whatever we try to stipulate by law.
The age of 16 for heterosexual sexual activity in terms of consent, I repeat, has been with us for a long time. If the propositions I put out in a moment or two are true for young heterosexuals, then they are true also for young homosexuals.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, two views were there expressed: one was no and the other yes. At the end of the day, as happened in the debate we had last time, that is what it comes to. I am not sure whether the power of rational arguments, whether for or against my proposals, will have an ultimately determinative effect—I put that as tactfully as I may.
Perhaps it is as well to bear in mind in support of my proposition earlier that this is not an attempt to deal irresponsibly with young children. Let us be plain about it. All of us who have or have had young adolescent children, virtually without exception, would prefer it if, at the age of 16 and one day, our daughters were not in sexual partnerships; and we would prefer it similarly if our sons at 16 and one day were not. But our preference and our shuddering at the thought of the dangers that exist and the wrong choices that they may make—as we all may have made at one period or another at various times in our lives—is no basis for the criminal law.
It is in the hope of providing a little background and not in any sense designed to be tendentious when I say that the organisations which support the equalisation of the age of consent are not revolutionists; they are not subversives of moral order. What commends them perhaps is that they deal with these problems on a daily basis. I take a few of them. The NSPCC—I declare again my interest for I was until the election a trustee—Barnardos, the National Children's Home, Action for Children, the National Children's Bureau, Save the Children, the Family Welfare Association, the Health Education Authority, the British Medical Association, the Family Planning Association and the National Association of Probation Officers all have a certain knowledge of these problems on a daily basis. I would add the British Association of Social Workers, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Royal College of Nursing.
The fact that they support this proposition will not determine the outcome but I think I can fairly, reasonably and legitimately say that these people have pondered the questions in depth and at length. They would not have come to a conclusion lightly or frivolously. Therefore I believe that we should approach the matter, if we can, on the basis of fairness and not on 649 what our particular approval or disapproval may be. We should not be side-tracked on to other issues, a danger which was apparent at the time of our last discussion.
There are predatory older people who want to use (therefore misuse) young children of the age of 16 plus. There are predatory older men who do exactly the same with girls of 16 plus, as the experiences which your Lordships were fearful of describing on the last occasion show. I do not myself see any moral distinction between a man of 47 or 57 having sexual intercourse with a girl of 16 plus and a man of that same age having sexual relationships with a boy of 16 plus. I do not see myself—
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, I do not see myself—and I listened to every speech and I have re-read them with care—the moral distinction. That may be my deficiency but I think I am entitled to put that forward as the basis on which I approach matters. We do need to protect those who are in a particular relationship, which is what we generally describe as a relationship of trust. I said, as firmly as I might, on the last occasion that I believe it to be a standing reproach to us in this country that we have not had legal sanctions—that is, the sanctions of the criminal law—to protect young people in those breach-of-trust relationships.
That is what the Bill does. Again I respectfully suggest that before throwing it out, if that is what your Lordships are determined to do, we should pause for a moment or two to see whether our duty is going to be discharged properly towards those people who may be abused by someone in a position of trust. I fully recognise the very real concerns that were expressed. I repeat, I expressed them myself. We set up a group to examine the situation. Its report on abuses of trust was placed in the Library on 25th November. That forms the basis of the proposals before the House.
The abuse of trust proposals govern both heterosexual and homosexual relationships, as they should, and they are part of a wider programme for protecting children and the vulnerable. I should also like to say as regards the proposed new offence that it is necessary to be careful and look closely at what we draw into the criminal law as abuse of trust. It is a "shorthand" which has value but also deficiencies. All of us in every relationship we have are in one way or another in a relationship of trust. There is no other way to conduct a civil society. However, I believe we have rightly concentrated our focus for the purposes of this legislation on the abusive relationships which may occur in the circumstances of the Bill.
Many who responded were against the creation of a new criminal offence and thought that we should proceed through codes of conduct. We did not come to that conclusion. We tried to focus as carefully as we could and took the view that if an offence is wanted we have a duty to introduce it. There should be four bases. The first is that it should protect those who are particularly vulnerable in the circumstances in which they find themselves and, in particular, the location.
650 Secondly, it should protect those who are particularly vulnerable for personal reasons. Thirdly, it should apply where the influence of the adult in the relationship of trust is particularly strong or in loco parentis. Underlying all those, it should protect those who may have limited access to other adults and lack of countervailing influences.
So mainly in the Bill one finds residential settings, whether social services, foster care, detention or hospital. Anyone who has had anything to do with children in these circumstances will know how very isolated they are. A new report compiled under the chairmanship of Sir Ronald Waterhouse is to appear later this year. Anyone familiar with that sort of problem knows that in many residential institutions, whatever they are, children go into a "gulag", and no one wants to know the extent of the archipelago. It is unimaginably lonely and isolating to have no protection in those circumstances. Even if a child can leave, where is he or she to go?
The other important category is education where the relationship of trust, as I think we all know, is particularly strong. The teacher is in a position of extraordinary—perhaps unique—influence over the student. Those who take advantage of such a position I believe are wrong, and those who are taken advantage of are entitled—I put it as high as that—to the protection of the criminal law.
Of course, non-consensual sexual activity is already criminal, and the purpose here is to give primary protection to those 16 and 17 year-old boys and girls who are over the age of consent, though there is of course no lower age limit. It is intended, and I think it is bound to be, directed at the abuse of trust. It was difficult to get the drafting right. If your Lordships have any observations to make or amendments to bring forward to improve the drafting I stress that I will approach them with an open mind. I think I can say that we have already done so: I do not think I am trespassing on confidences. A number of your Lordships thought that the proposed original penalty was too low. We thought about it and realised there might be virtue in that approach, and therefore increased the penalty.
The further issue is the decriminalisation of the younger partner in buggery and homosexual offences. We have used the Bill to take the opportunity to bring that about. A 14 or 15 year-old boy may be frightened to complain about predatory behaviour. He may be blackmailed by the older man, and therefore we have put in a further protection, which again I believe to be right, by way of decriminalising the younger of the two: that is the one under the age.
I do not believe that this Bill is a vehicle for wider reform at this stage. Your Lordships know that we have a review of sexual offences generally, because by and large they are a disparate collection of offences—perhaps historical accretions in many ways—and certainly with a range of penalties that it is difficult to describe as coherent.
There is the constitutional matter, which I touch on briefly. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, raised, I think, two objections, if I have them correctly—I hope 651 I do not misrepresent her—the first of which was that the proposals on the last occasion were rushed and did not give proper time for consideration. Secondly, she thought that the Government should introduce their own Bill to deal with the age of consent. Dealing with those matters the noble Baroness further made the point that we had the constitutional right to ask the other place to think again. We have done so and it is a commonplace that the House of Commons has discussed the matter at some length and overwhelming majorities have been achieved on every occasion.
I make this further point not in any partisan way. I simply record it as a matter of recent history. All the party leaders in the House of Commons—I pay full credit to Mr Hague in that he is included—have supported this proposal. I recognise that in his circumstances that is an act of political and moral courage. I know there will be arguments about what public opinion is, or may not be. I am not sure what precise basis there is for determining that. But even if public opinion is found to be against us, that does not absolve us from our responsibilities. Even if public opinion were against me—as it may be against me on capital punishment where I have made it perfectly plain that I would never support its retention or use—I would not support the continuation of what I believe to be unfairness in this context.
I believe that the issue comes down to equality. I do not think anyone could have observed in our lengthy debates on previous occasions that anyone was guided by a malevolent motive. I suggested—I think rightly—that one needs to bear in mind that the experience and principles we draw on, and perhaps even the prejudices we feed on, were, in the overwhelming majority of cases of your Lordships, including mine, formed and crystallised quite a long time ago. Things are not as they were when we were young.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)
§ 4.41 p.m.
rose to move, as an amendment to the Motion that the Bill be now read a second time, to leave out ("now") and at end insert ("this day six months").
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I wish to start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Williams, for introducing this Bill this afternoon. I also take the opportunity to thank him publicly for the useful meeting that we had earlier this year in his office when we discussed some of the issues in the Bill. He has not misrepresented in any way the points that I made about the constitution. But, of course, for all of us time has moved on and this is a different situation.
I shall explain why I am taking this unusual course of action. This is art unusual Bill. It was not part of the Labour Party's election manifesto in 1997 and therefore is not subject to the Salisbury/Addison Convention. The House is constitutionally entitled, if it so wishes, to vote against the Bill's Second Reading. I understand that since 1966, 12 government Bills, and 86 non-government Bills, have been opposed at Second 652 Reading in your Lordships' House. Of those, 15 Bills concerned issues of social policy such as the B ill before us today. But this Bill is also unusual in being a government measure but subject to a free vote in both Houses of Parliament. It is not therefore a party political matter. Indeed, I was grateful for the support I received from all sides of the House when this issue of lowering the age for homosexual consent was debated last July. I was also particularly grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester and to the noble Lord, Lord Jakobovits, for their support. I was pleased to see the letter in today's Times from the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster.
Since last July the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, who is a Moslem, but who did not take part in the debate last July and unfortunately cannot be here today, has told me on more than one occasion that he supports my view. I have received representations on several occasions from the Moslem community in Great Britain asking me to stand firm. I make these points to show that this is an issue which crosses both party and religious lines.
I now turn to the detail to say why I hope that the House will vote against this Bill later today. If you consider, as I do, that it is wrong to lower the age for homosexual consent from 18 to 16, in effect this Bill is unamendable. As regards boys, Clauses 3 and 4 on abuse of trust are not necessary unless the age of consent is lowered to 16 in Clause 1. I have been advised that an amendment either to leave out Clause 1 or not to accept it would be regarded as a wrecking amendment.
As regards girls, Clause 1 allows for the first time anal intercourse on 16 year-old girls. I can only suppose that this is regarded as another equal opportunity, but of a rather curious character! It is true that the subsequent clauses would provide some safeguards, but they are strictly limited.
During the passage of the Bill in another place Members of Parliament made repeated attempts to strengthen the clauses on abuse of trust. Amendments were tabled to cover, in addition to the provisions in Clauses 3 and 4, existing relationships, part-time pupils in schools, step-families, religious organisations, youth workers and temporary teachers and carers. Individuals in all these groups of people are in positions of trust at some time or another, yet none of those amendments was acceptable to the Government. Indeed, the defence in Clause 3(3) means that if a sexual relationship existed between an adult and a young person before the new offence of abuse of trust comes into force, that sexual relationship is afterwards exempt. This opens up a large loophole in the abuse of trust clauses which can be used for some time to come.
I now turn to the issue of principle. My overwhelming concern last July and today is the protection of young people. Sixteen year-olds are children in law. This Bill makes legal for the first time buggery for both boys and girls. Both boys and girls can be, and often are, vulnerable and lonely at that age. They are children one day and adults the next. They are frequently uncertain about themselves. Boys in particular are often less mature than girls at 16, and not infrequently ambivalent about their sexuality. Good parents do not want their 653 sons to be encouraged to take up homosexual relationships at such an early age. In my view, it is the job of responsible adults in public life to support responsible parents. It is very difficult to bring up children in today's world. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Williams, that the world today is very different from the one in which I grew up. There are temptations all around, particularly for teenagers. As I say, parents do not want their sons locked into a homosexual relationship when they are only 16 years-old.
Further, lowering the age of consent will send out the wrong signal to young people. The fact is that all law influences behaviour. We would not pass laws if we did not think they would influence behaviour. This measure will be a signal that sex at 16 is all right for either girls or boys, whether in a heterosexual or homosexual relationship. I am sorry to say that I do not share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, that there is a moral equivalence as between those two kinds of relationship. I do not believe that any responsible parent would want his or her daughter to marry at 16, and certainly not to have an involved affair with a much older man. But in particular parents do not want older men to form relationships with their 16 year-old sons. Of the hundreds of letters that I have received the overwhelming majority come from parents who make this point every single time.
§ Lord Steel of Aikwood
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness. Perhaps she would reflect for a second on the law in Scotland, where a 16 year-old boy can have not only a sexual relationship but can then turn to a lifelong contract of marriage without parental consent. However, if that same 16 year-old man goes to bed with a person of the same sex, he is branded as a criminal. How then does the law equal justice, or morality, or even common sense?
My Lords, as a mere Englishwoman, I never like to comment on the situation in Scotland, with which—I shall be perfectly honest—I am not familiar. But I advise the noble Lord, Lord Steel, that Scotland will have plenty of opportunities with its new Parliament to settle what it wants to do on this issue.
To continue, a lowering of the age of consent will lead to the demand to lower it still further. In 1994 we debated, and Parliament agreed, the lowering of the age from 21 to 18. Five years later the demand is to lower the age to 16. This is the thin end of the wedge. If one looks at the programme that Stonewall has set out, it seeks the repeal of Clause 28, gay "marriage" and the right for gay and lesbian couples to foster and adopt children.
Let me turn to the evidence of opinion polls. They show, quite consistently, that the public do not want the age lowered. A Gallup poll, taken after the vote in your Lordships' House last July, found that 59 per cent. believed that the House of Lords was right to overturn the Commons' decision. The same poll found that 65 per cent. of the population thought 654 that the age should remain at 18. In this way, the House of Lords has reflected public opinion much more accurately than the House of Commons.
Let me now comment on the poll which appears in The Times today. Perhaps at this point I should say that I have seldom been more flattered in my entire political life than I have been by the advertisement in The Times so helpfully put out by Stonewall. I had no idea that I enjoyed such an elevated position. It will be read with astonishment by my family. I shall certainly have the advertisement framed and hung on my wall, to be shown with great pride to every single one of my visitors.
However, let me return to the points that Stonewall makes about the poll, which I believe to be completely inaccurate. The poll was taken by NOP, and I have taken the opportunity to read its findings precisely. The first question asked was, "Do you believe in equality in the age of consent?" Sixty-six per cent. said that they wanted an equal age of consent. It was then claimed that 66 per cent. of people want equality at 16. But that claim is not true. Question two—asked only of the 66 per cent. who answered question one—revealed that only 37 per cent. of the total population want the age of consent at 16 or lower. That simply confirms what the other public opinion polls have been saying. It is quite wrong to put out this grossly misleading information.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, as the noble Baroness has introduced the poll, will she also quote the findings of question three?
Yes, my Lords. As to the findings on question three, respondents were asked to say whether they accepted the new proposals with the package on abuse of trust. But, of course, the question did not set out what the package contains nor did it explain—as I shall later make clear—that the abuse of trust clauses are very weak indeed.
There are also very great health risks. Many can speak with greater authority than I on this but, like most of your Lordships, I view the matter very seriously indeed. Both teenage boys and girls will now be exposed to all the risks of anal intercourse; they will be far more likely to run the risk of AIDS. It is very interesting that, so seriously is this matter regarded, that any man who has ever engaged in homosexual activity is barred permanently from giving blood by the National Health Service.
I could continue on the issue of principle but, before concluding, I wish to comment on three major issues. The first was touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Williams. As I am only too well aware, all the major children's charities—the NSPCC, Save the Children, Barnados, and Childline—as well as the BMA are in favour of lowering the age of consent. I find it extraordinary that, with the notable exception of the BMA, which sent me a brief, none of these charities has been in touch with me at all. They have neither sent a brief nor have they asked to see me to 655 discuss any of these matters in private. But perhaps I may answer some the points which have been raised in the briefings that I have seen.
First, in practice, young people under the age of 16 can go to the doctor and receive confidential advice, and are already doing so. In fact, government research has shown that lack of advice is not an issue in this. Secondly, education about HIV is compulsory in all schools, although parents have the right to withdraw their children from such classes if they so wish. Thirdly, bullying, for whatever cause, is always wrong and is something with which good schools should deal. Fourthly, the BMA should know that when the age of consent was lowered from 21 to 18, HIV infections acquired through sex between men rose by 11 per cent. from 1995 to 1996. I cannot think why it is therefore advocating lowering the age still further.
Let me return to the children's charities. Like many of your Lordships, I have been deeply distressed and concerned that they should support the cause of lowering the age. I do not intend to give a kind of autobiographical sketch of what I have done to help most of these charities at some stage of my life. I find it quite extraordinary that they should take this view. It may, however, come as a complete surprise to your Lordships—as, indeed, it did to me—to know that two children's charities, Barnados and NCH, have a long-standing policy of allowing a homosexual or a lesbian to adopt children. The NSPCC does not take part in adoptions—it does not care for children in that way—but it is quite prepared to give legal advice and help on this matter.
§ Baroness Thornton
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. I have a long-standing association with NCH Action for Children. Did the noble Baroness make any attempt to speak to the charities she has mentioned in relation to the issues about which she expresses such concern?
My Lords, I have made it perfectly clear that the charities have not been in touch with me. I have a letter, which I am prepared to show later to the noble Baroness, in which they set out their position in writing.
When one sees in the advertisement that they support equality, one should make it quite clear that all these organisations are supporting the Stonewall programme which, as I have already indicated, it has set out and intends to carry out.
When the noble Lord, Lord Williams, comes to wind up at the end of the debate, I should like him to tell me the view of the Government on this matter. Let me refer to what Mr. Stuart Bell asked the Home Secretary on 25th January 1999 during the Second Reading of the Bill in another place. Mr. Bell said:Does he recall"—that is, the Home Secretary—the letter that he wrote to me over the summer in which he gave a firm and clear statement of Government policy—that there would be no reduction in the age of consent to 14 for homosexual 656 acts in our country, that no legalisation of homosexual marriages would be proposed by the Government, and that there would be no legal adoption of children by homosexual couples?".The Home Secretary replied:I can give my hon. Friend the undertakings that he seeks in respect of each of those propositions. We have no plans whatever to introduce legislation in respect of any of them".—[Official Report, Commons, 25/1/99; col. 22.]That seems to me to indicate that whatever the Government may say about equality, they do not believe in equality in all matters in this case, only with regard to the age of consent. The Government should make this clear when they use equality as the central plank of the argument.
That brings me directly to the issue of equality and in particular to the position in the European Union. We have heard it said a great deal that we shall be out of step with other countries. However, the age of consent will not even be equal throughout the United Kingdom, as it will be 17 in Ireland. Within the EU, the age of homosexual consent ranges from 12 in Spain to 18 in Austria, Luxembourg, Portugal as well as in the UK. In Luxembourg, the heterosexual age of consent is. 16 and the homosexual age is 18; in Austria, the heterosexual age is 14 and the homosexual age is 18. So there is a great deal of variation within the European Union.
The third point with which I wish to deal briefly is the question of the European Court. We are constantly told that we must lower the age of consent because the European Court has issued a judgment to that effect. In fact the case on which that statement is based, Sutherland v. United Kingdom, has not been heard by the European Court. The filtering body, the European Commission on Human Rights, issued an advisory opinion, but that opinion is not binding on the court. So in fact that argument is not relevant to the issue.
I have thought hard and long over this matter and I have listened to a great deal of advice. I have met representatives of Stonewall, mothers of gay sons and representatives of young gays and lesbians, and I have listened carefully to their views. But at the end of the day I believe that in public life one must stand up for those things which one believes to be right and believes to be true and I would be failing in my duty if I did not do so. I believe that in voting against the Second Reading of this Bill we shall be supporting and helping young people; we shall be supporting and helping good and responsible parents; we shall be supporting the institution of marriage, which is under threat and is causing a great deal of the breakdown of society as we see it today; and, above all, we shall be reflecting what the public want.
§ Moved, as an amendment to the Motion that the Bill be now read a second time, to leave out ("now") and at end insert ("this day six months").—[Baroness Young.]
§ 5.2 p.m.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, before I turn to the amendment, I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, on his elevation to the Privy Council. I only wish that all the delays in our proceedings resulted from so pleasurable, so just and so honourable a cause to this House. I should like also to 657 congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Young, on the integrity, determination and persistence with which she stands up for what she believes in. She knows that I intend to do the same, and though what we believe is not the same we share a common respect for that determination in each other. Nothing I intend to say will in any way be intended to contradict that.
This Bill is for us a free vote Bill, so in saying I support the Bill any arguments I put forward will derive any such force as they may have entirely from their persuasive power and not from any authority derived from my party.
I support the principle of an equal age of consent. I am glad that Clause 2 is in the Bill. I was more than a little amazed to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Young, say that there would be no point in having Clause 2 in the Bill if there were not to be an equal age of consent. I am not as indifferent to the protection of young girls as that point made her sound—young girls become pregnant; homosexuals do not. I must confess that I found that a rather disturbing remark. But I do not intend to dwell on Clause 2. That is a Committee point. I am glad that the clause is in the Bill. I am not certain that it is absolutely in a correct form. If we reach Committee, I hope that the Minister will be prepared to discuss it in his office with interested parties. If we do not reach Committee, I hope that the Minister may continue to review it in the course of the review of sexual offences.
This Bill will become law. The only question is whether it becomes law this year or next year; not sometime or never, but only this year or next year. The amendment put down by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, would drive the Government to the use of the Parliament Acts only for the sixth time since 1911. I was interested to see the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal affirm in this morning's newspaper that that is the Government's intention. I entirely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Young, that she has every right to do what she has done, but not everything that one has a right to do is something it is expedient that one should do. So I want to ask her this question. What useful purpose will it serve should she press the amendment to a Division and should she prove to be victorious?
It is a little unusual to have the Parliament Acts invoked against a measure which enjoyed a majority in another place larger than that enjoyed by the Government. It is a little unusual to have the Parliament Acts invoked to push through a measure supported by all three of our party leaders. That does not necessarily make what she is doing wrong, but it means that she needs to have a really good argument to justify the expediency of what she is doing. So I ask her this question: what good will it do?
At present, under the law which this Bill would change, prosecutions every year are only in single figures. I do not believe that the noble Baroness wishes to change that. I do not believe that she wishes to see large numbers of male homosexual teenagers sent to prison. It is not in fact a very useful thing to do. Sending 658 male homosexuals to prison has been described as being like sending an alcoholic to work in a brewery. The deterrent effect is not entirely obvious.
The noble Baroness says that her purpose is to send a signal. But what will the effects of that signal actually be? In discussing what I believe will be the effects of her signal, I am not for one moment suggesting that the noble Baroness wishes or intends those effects. I am suggesting that those are actually what the effects of her actions would be should she persist and should she be successful.
First, it would impose secrecy on all teenage homosexuals for the remaining period of seven months or so before the Bill becomes law. It is extremely difficult to live a responsible and careful sex life if one has to do it strictly in private and surreptitiously. Responsible behaviour is behaviour for which one may answer in public. Perhaps I may give an illustration from a quite different context. When the University of Oxford passed a measure allowing Fellows to marry, the next morning on Oxford station platform, waiting for the train to come in from London, large numbers of Dons looked at the people next to them and said, "What, you too?" It would have been much easier for those people to live good and responsible loving lives had they been able to do so openly.
If we want to think about the effect that the amendment may have on homosexuals, we need only consider one of the literary classics of the 20th century, Matthew Parris's Clapham Common column. Driving people to that sort of surreptitious behaviour is not useful.
I do not believe that if the noble Baroness is successful there will be one fewer homosexual in the whole country. It is quite a long time since I was 16, but I can still remember it. If by any chance the law had been the other way round and had prohibited heterosexual and allowed homosexual behaviour, I do not believe that by any effort of imagination I could have changed my orientation. Those homosexual friends whom I know well enough to know the answer tell me that it is exactly the same for them. The evidence of the BMA encourages me to believe that they are not alone in that.
We must all admit that there are, of course, a number of people who, at the age of 16, are not certain of their orientation. But the question remains: are those people waiting to choose their orientation, or waiting like people who are not sure whether they are right- or left-handed to discover their orientation? We should be unwise to be dogmatic on either side of that question. If people are in real doubt about their sexual orientation, if we push them into one orientation for the sake of conformity and they get married, is that fair either to them or to the women whom they marry? I believe I am right in saying that Mrs. Tom Driberg believed right up to her wedding day that she was undertaking a normal marriage. That is an unfair burden to inflict on anyone. So I ask the noble Baroness to think very carefully indeed about the effects of what she is doing. I do not believe that there will be any fewer homosexual acts if she is successful.
659 The noble Baroness talks about danger. But, in times past, childbirth for women used to be just about as dangerous as battle for men. If danger were to deter sexual activity, I do not believe that many of us would be here now. So that argument will not carry very great weight. What it will achieve, if the noble Baroness is successful, is that for another seven months teenage homosexuals will have to live in fear.
I know from a great deal of work on 16 and 17 year-olds. on which I have addressed this House many times, that one of the commonest reasons for children of 16 and 17 being evicted by their parents is their confession to being homosexual. One of the reasons frequently given by parents for doing that is that it is against the law.
When those young people are thrown out, they do not have an automatic right to income support. They have to prove estrangement from their parents. The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, one of the bodies that the Minister did not have time to include in his list of organisations supporting the Bill, points out that those young people very often cannot prove the estrangement and therefore achieve entitlement to income support because, in order to do so, they would have to confess to criminal activity and they are not sure what the consequence of doing that would be. So that drives them, literally and metaphorically, under ground. I cannot believe that that is a good thing.
Sadly, it is also the case that large numbers of homosexuals are on the receiving end of homophobic violence. It happened to one of my own pupils. He was set upon one night in Manchester, kicked all round his head, and was left with a fractured cheekbone. It could very easily have been another Lawrence case. But, mercifully, the only long-term result was that it cured him of short sight. Poetic justice does not often arrive as literally as that.
But what is the effect of giving this signal of inequality? I quote a letter from Mr. Chris Morris, who is one of the parties to the European Court of Human Rights case on which my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill intends to speak later. He says:At school, someone once told me that the unequal law proved that being gay was wrong: that I was wrong and I deserved to be beaten up".I do not for one moment suggest that the noble Baroness intends anything like that. But if we send the signal that she wants to send, I believe that that will be one of the results. I do not blame the noble Baroness, because I know that she does not believe it; but I do, and I am not going to change my mind. That would be extremely unfortunate. You do not receive the equal protection of the law unless you can be signalled by the law to be equal.
The noble Baroness had a great deal to say about public opinion. I have in front of me the results of the NOP poll to which she referred. She was not satisfied with the third question. With the leave of the House I should like to read it. It is:Do you agree or disagree with the government's package of measures which would mean that:660 I believe that that is a fair summary of the proposals in the Bill. On that basis, that poll indicated 60 per cent. in favour and 40 per cent. against.
- (a) The age of sexual consent will be 16 for everyone.
- (b) It will he an offence for anyone in a position of trust or authority who is looking after a young person to have any kind of sexual activity with that young man or young woman".
My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for giving way. The point about that question is that it is inaccurate. It does not set out what the provisions of abuse of trust really are, so that those answering the question cannot possibly understand what the original question was. It does not cover all individuals in positions of trust, as I made clear in my remarks.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, I heard those remarks, but if those are the noble Baroness's concerns they can all be addressed by amendments in Committee. The Minister has indicated that he is willing to listen to such amendments. It is not a basis for throwing the Bill out at Second Reading.
In any case, I do not believe that public opinion is the ultimate arbiter in this case. Noble Lords will be familiar with Burke's view that the Member of another place is a representative and not a delegate. Here, we are not even representatives. Our purpose is to try to take decisions in the public interest as we conceive it. That has always been our purpose. That is what I am trying to do.
It is also relevant that the opinion poll evidence indicates that it is the age group that the noble Baroness most determinedly wishes to protect which most determinedly rejects that protection. It is a common enough situation. It has been the cross of parents since Adam and Eve gave birth to Cain. We have to live With that.
Also, I do not believe that public opinion is the answer to a human rights issue. Human rights are not to be taken away simply because the majority does not want them. In fact, it is where the majority does not want human rights that they are most needed. When the statue of Oscar Wilde was unveiled last winter there was a cartoon, I believe in The Spectator, which showed two 10 year-old boys looking at him with intense disapproval and saying, "They say he was a smoker". I believe that 16 and 17 year-old homosexuals have quite as much right to love each other in the privacy of their own rooms as I have to smoke in the privacy of my own room.
We cannot divide human rights; they are for all of us. It is those whose behaviour we dislike most whose human rights we must champion most strongly. That is where it really matters. When it comes to human rights, we all live in glasshouses, and I think we had better put the stones away.
Finally, I care deeply about the reputation of this House. I have loved this House as at present constituted, with all its magnificent illogicality. But we are a rather random collection of power. Where we are to justify ourselves at the bar of public opinion, we need to satisfy at least one, and preferably two, tests. First, we need to prove that we speak for expert opinion and that some of us deserve attention simply because of who we are. I think of the contributions of the late Lady Faithfull to many social security debates in the past. We do not have that expert opinion behind the amendment.
661 Secondly, we need to be speaking on behalf of the underdog, to be using privilege to defend the under-privileged. I know that the noble Baroness believes that she is doing that, and I respect that. But they have indicated very plainly that they do not want it. In the eyes of this House, I think that that should be final.
§ 5.21 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells
My Lords, I feel very humbled by the distinguished previous speakers in the debate. However, like the noble Baroness, I believe in the importance of standing up for what is right, however uncomfortable it might be. I do not want to repeat the speech that I made last July. Since that time, like many of your Lordships, I have received substantial correspondence and taken part in several debates outside this House, including the Lambeth Conference, when we learned how difficult it was to have a world-wide view on something so dominated by culture. As the House will hear from these Benches later in the debate, we are not all of the same opinion as to how to respond to the Bill, but I am clear, and I believe that I have to express my view.
I have read the debate in another place. There were, if I may say so, several outstanding speeches from people closely in touch with those for whom we are most concerned. I especially commend the speech of the honourable Member for Witney.
One of the interesting aspects of all the communication since our last debate has been the witness not only of the organisations mentioned by the Minister but that of many who are particularly concerned for, and who work with, young gay people as doctors, social workers, priests, teachers, counsellors and, professionally, many people involved in children's organisations. They speak from direct experience of the issues involved. I believe that they need to be heard and to be given some authority in this situation.
What I have found most moving is hearing from the parents of gay children. In my diocese, at the end of a talk or discussion on these issues, when most of the people have gone home, there are nearly always two elderly couples standing at the back of the room who come to me and say, "Why has no one ever said this to us? Our son (or our daughter) is gay but was never able to tell us until recently and it was too late." There is a very tragic dishonesty at the heart of family life which I believe comes from the attitude that people take towards gay people.
So much of the debate seems to be concerned for young people who in the end are probably not gay, often for fear that they may be made gay by post-adolescent experiences of a predatory nature. Of course, children need protection against abuse; but we have to face some facts about abuse. Thirty six per cent. of child abuse is committed against under 10 year-olds as opposed to 2 per cent. against 16 and 17 year-olds. About a third of all sexual abuse of children is thought to be carried out by adolescents themselves. Approximately 44 per cent. of abuse is carried out by the father, the step-father, the 662 boyfriend of the mother, or the grandfather, which at least indicates that they are or have been heterosexual. The abuse must continue to be tackled both by law and by prevention.
It is my belief that this legislation is not the place to deal with these matters. The Bill inevitably concerns the age at which a person can legally give his consent; it is the age of consent that we are discussing. The Bill therefore refers especially to their capacity to decide and identify their own sexual identity.
Our prime concern should be for those who identify themselves as gay. I believe that they have received inadequate attention in these debates. Perhaps some people believe that they are such a small number as not to warrant justice. But, as the noble Earl suggested, perhaps the smaller the number, the more the need for justice, especially when they feel themselves against the majority view.
Perhaps others see this as an opportunity to restate the moral case against homosexuality itself. I want to speak for the young men and boys who are destined to live a gay life and make their lives as fulfilling, loving and accepting of their own identity as they can. We need to break away from the exaggerated stereotypes frequently presented of homosexual people. Most of them are still struggling with prejudice, ignorance and fear and many remain secret and unable to share it with their nearest and dearest. There is also the fear of mental and physical aggression. The noble Earl mentioned such a case, of which there are many.
Many young gay people turn towards the ghettoised behaviour that is the result of social and psychological exclusion because they do not believe that their own familiar setting will cope with their reality. That is the common, ongoing experience of many young gay people. If young gay people feel that they cannot talk to their parents, however loving those parents are, and that they cannot talk to their teacher or to any adult who will help them through what can be a real identity crisis, it does not seem at all surprising to me that they will seek out the company of those who accept their sexuality.
As I said last July, until there is proper recognition of gay people in our society, until there is a recognisable ethic of personal relationships for the gay person to aspire to, it is likely that there will be continued pressure towards a secret, dangerous underworld. I believe that the gay and lesbian organisations could do much more towards the creation and recognition of this ethic, and it is important that we all share in the thinking about it.
If what is offered to young gay men is promiscuous, narrowly physical relationships or membership of an overt community defined by gayness, it will be all the more difficult for them to live faithful, broader-based lives, to their full humanity. My hope is that young gay people will have the chance to talk about their sexual identity without fear or judgment and certainly without the risk of the law. The brutish taboos have remained a frightening reality for many such young people. It is no surprise that there is such a high incidence of young male suicides related precisely to these issues.
663 This Bill is in essence concerned with the legal right to give consent. The public attitude, revealed by the polls, as we have heard discussed, has moved towards greater acceptance of gay people. If the resistance remains strong, as it does in places, I believe that the way forward is for the facts to be shared and for attempts to be made, as we are trying to do in our churches, to discuss the issue in an open and fair way so that people can come to a conclusion based on their knowledge and not their fears and sometimes their ignorance.
The law at the moment endorses the marginalising of and judgmental attitudes to gay people. The noble Baroness said that all law influenced behaviour. That can work the other way. If one makes something criminal, undoubtedly it will influence behaviour. Further. it will undoubtedly influence the behaviour of those who treat such people in a way that is completely unacceptable to us. As the law stands now it endorses this judgmental and sometimes violent attitude and makes these people less safe. I believe that it exposes them to greater health risks. They have nowhere to go to find out how they can sort out their lives and are pushed into ghettoised communities where the health risks may be greater. It certainly creates an atmosphere in which either they are encouraged to rebel, which sometimes happens, to the detriment of their health—because that is what they must do—or (more often I believe) their fears are turned into self-despising. To live a self-despising life is just about the most destructive thing a human being can do, and we encourage it.
I remain opposed to anal intercourse on both moral and health grounds for heterosexual as well as homosexual people, but I follow in the public view—certainly, the view of most of those concerned—that that is not what this Bill is about. The central question is when gay young men can decide to consent. I have heard no reason why there should be sexual discrimination over age in this way. Both girls and boys are subject to predatory behaviour. In another place it was said repeatedly that the message sent out by this Bill was that homosexuality and heterosexuality were in some way equal. They cannot be equal because they are different. To live a heterosexual life is not equal because it is not open to a homosexual person.
I come to my final point. I hesitate to say—but I believe that I must—that much is made by many Christians of the teaching of the Bible on homosexuality. I believe that we in the Church will eventually have to accept some responsibility in our generation, knowing what we now know—I am in the minority of Bishops who believe that but I have to say it nonetheless—because we have not always recognised the identity issues involved in this debate. We are not here to support heterosexual people perverting their nature in certain situations because they enjoy cruelty, or want to dominate another male or use another male as a substitute for a woman, which the Book of Leviticus and St. Paul rightly abhor. Here we are talking about people who either by nature or nurture have developed as homosexual boys and men. What they most need from society is to be treated with respect and 664 to be recognised as citizens. It is also the teaching of the Bible that they should be protected from prejudice and ignorance and encouraged to find the best way towards self-accepting maturity and faithful relationships which the present situation does not encourage them to observe. I believe that this is part of the Gospel that is offered to us by which I have to stand.
§ 5.34 p.m.
§ Lord Cope of Berkeley
My Lords, from this Dispatch Box I welcome the noble Lord the Minister to the Privy Council. I have always thought it a connoisseur's honour, but it is an historic one and well deserved.
Turning to the Bill, this is to be a free vote. Neither my noble friend the Chief Whip nor I makes any request to colleagues about how they should vote on this measure. I am glad that the Minister said the same. Like him, I shall give my views as concisely as I can. Five years ago when the age was first lowered to 18 I was a Member of another place and voted for that age. We were then offered both 21 and 16 as alternatives. Incidentally, like today it was a free vote, although at that time I was a Minister. I voted again to retain 18 in your Lordships' House about a year ago, and I shall do so again this evening by supporting the amendment moved by my noble friend Lady Young whose tenacity and courage in pursuing this matter I commend.
Whatever the result of today's vote and this Bill, either now or in a few months' time, in law there will not be a single age of maturity, and that is quite right. It reflects real life, for young people mature gradually at different speeds and in respects which vary between individuals. Like my noble friend Lady Young, I believe that young men need protection—and not only from those in authority over them.
The Minister's argument for the Bill was based upon a particular view of equality. I do not accept that acts of anal intercourse or gross indecency of a homosexual kind are as natural as normal heterosexual relations. Certainly, they are not as healthy, as is indicated by the rules of the Blood Transfusion Service, which were read out earlier by my noble friend. That represents a clear difference of view between myself and others and between the Minister and others, including the noble Earl, Lord Russell. I accept that others take that different view sincerely, and I entirely respect their right and duty to do so. However, I do not believe that the logic of the "equality" argument is in any case satisfied by this Bill. The logic of that argument would demand the right to homosexual marriage which would involve a great number of moral and practical problems. But in any case the Home Secretary specifically ruled that out in the debate in another place a few days ago; in other words, he accepted that there are limitations on equality between homosexual and heterosexual behaviour.
It becomes, therefore, a question of degree—of where one draws the line rather than whether there should be a line drawn at all. We all know that, whatever the Home Secretary may say, demands for a further change in the law would follow the passage of this Bill. In practical terms, the proposals in the Bill are probably not as 665 significant as some of the other proposed steps towards equality that will be put forward following this Bill. But the Bill is the fundamental step on which the others depend. Whether or not we like it, the law sends a signal of society's acceptance or otherwise of particular activities.
Of course, that does not stop those activities. Murder continues despite the law against it, as does abuse of children in a far younger age category, as the right reverend Prelate said. Nor does it mean that every case comes to court. Prosecuting authorities rightly use their discretion. But if Parliament, including this House, accepts that this behaviour by 16 year-olds is not to be criticised, it signals a change; and it is not a change which I wish to see; nor do I believe that it is one the British people wish to see.
I, too, have looked at the polls and I believe that my noble friend Lady Young is right to claim their support. But I also agree with the Minister and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, that whatever the truth of public opinion, it is not binding upon us, in particular in this House, but it may and should be influential.
I turn to more detailed points. Clause 2 was inserted during the passage of the Bill in the Commons. If the Bill comes to Committee, the clause will therefore need particularly careful scrutiny. So, too, will Clause 3(3), the let-out clause for existing relationships.
There is a rather curious position as regards Scottish devolution. There is also the question of the Secretary of State's powers to extend the coverage of Clauses 3 to 5, the protection clauses. Those clauses seek to protect young people from those in authority over them but are quite narrowly defined, as my noble friend said. The Minister described them as focused. It is another way of saying the same thing, I suppose. Those clauses will need to be considered carefully, in particular as regards the position of voluntary youth organisations which are not covered at present.
I am of course in favour of protecting young people from those in authority over them. But with regard to homosexual acts, this new protection is required only if the existing protection is removed by the early clauses in the Bill. However, suggestions have also been made that the Bill has become necessary because of cases in the European Court of Human Rights, in particular the case of Sutherland. We know that the court has not yet decided the case although the Commission has expressed its view. However, many of us have received an expert legal opinion by Mr. Paul Diamond which makes clear that the court by no means always follows the Commission's advice. Judging by precedent, it may well not do so in this case.
I wish to mention one last consideration. Some noble Lords may be wondering how voting on the Bill might be viewed by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor in the light of his threats before Easter over the House of Lords Bill. If your Lordships support the amendment of my noble friend, no further time will be taken by this Bill. Presumably, therefore, the noble Lord the Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms, in his capacity as our business manager, would prefer the Bill to fall.
666 That may save three or four days of business, or perhaps more. So if the Bill is stopped by the passage of the amendment, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor should credit your Lordships not with obstruction but with saving the time of the House. When the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor reckons whether his threat can be used to resist the Weatherill amendment, this Bill would show on the credit side—that is, plus three or four days, or whatever it turns out to be. Clearly such considerations will not be the main considerations for your Lordships in deciding how to vote today—they certainly should not be—but the noble and learned Lord's threat covered all our business and it is right to take him seriously.
For the reasons that I have given, I stick to my previous view. I shall vote for the amendment. But it is a free vote, for each of your Lordships to decide.
§ 5.54 p.m.
§ Lord Annan
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Young, had a great triumph last Session. I fear that she will have another triumph this evening but perhaps not quite such a great triumph, for two reasons. First, in the present Bill the Government have introduced safeguards to penalise those in a position of trust or power over boys if they seduce them. I know that a number of Cross-Bench Peers were unwilling in the last Session to support the Government until guarantees on that point were in the Bill. They are now in the Bill. It may be that they are not sufficiently stringent, but in that case do not vote for the amendment today because that prevents any change in the clause which deals with that point.
The second reason is that on this occasion the House of Commons has debated the matter thoroughly. On a free vote it passed the Bill to us with an unequivocal majority of 155 on Second Reading. There is no elected dictatorship there. It was a free vote and all those who voted for the Bill have an electorate to face. They have to face the electorate who may well disapprove of their views. No one is up for election here. That is why I ask the noble Baroness, Lady Young, why she is so determined to insult the electorate, and those in another place whom they elected, by killing the Bill.
This time I hope that we shall have no red herrings dragged before us, such as the argument that to pass this Bill will encourage still further young men to become rent boys. Rent boys, like prostitutes, have always existed and no legislation one way or another is likely to alter that. If I followed the argument of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, keeping the position as it is now will positively add to the number of rent boys.
In the last Session, the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, and the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, gave reasons for supporting the Bill. Again today we have had reasoned speeches. The noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, emphasised that it is quite impossible to control consensual acts in private. Does the noble Baroness, Lady Young, suggest that the police should be employed to enter premises to see whether homosexual acts are being performed, to reward informers, or to act as agents provocateurs which they often did in the past?
667 People say that this involves a health hazard. All sexual activities present a health hazard. I shall not weary the House with a list of diseases which occur in heterosexual intercourse. Homosexuality does not cause HIV and AIDS. The HIV virus causes AIDS. What causes AIDS is unprotected sex for both men and women; and the BMA Council maintains that the present law inhibits efforts to safeguard the health of young men. Why is it that the important bodies connected with the young—they have been listed already today—are so adamantly in favour of the Bill? The noble Baroness said that she was surprised and pained by that. But she never went to see those bodies. She expected them to come to her.
Then there is the example of Europe. As the reasons of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, and the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, failed to convince the noble Baroness, Lady Young, let me try not reason but ridicule. Why is every country in the European Union, except Luxembourg and Austria, out of step with Great Britain? Of course, you would expect hot-blooded lascivious countries such as Italy and Spain to be different, wouldn't you? What about France? Well, we all know what Noel Coward said; "There's always something fishy about the French". Then there is Germany. What can you expect from the country which produced eminent sexologists such as Hirschfeld and Kraft-Ebbing at the turn of the century? Is it any wonder that in Austria the age is 18 when that fearful fellow, Freud, came from that country? Did he not tell us that excessive mother-love for a son might well turn him into a homosexual? We cannot pay attention to that kind of stuff, can we? Holland is notoriously permissive. Perhaps that is why it has a crime rate well below ours. Then there is Denmark. Denmark is far too tolerant of pornography. It was of course so tolerant that during the war it was the only country which spirited the Jews away and protected them from the Nazis.
They are all out of step except our Johnny Bull, Archie Austria and little Lionel Luxembourg. It really is extraordinary, is it not? If the noble Baroness, Lady Young, wins her amendment, this House will be the laughing stock of Europe as it was in the days when the police burnt D. H. Lawrence's paintings, when Ulysses was banned and when the Lord Chamberlain's Office censored plays. It is clear—is it not?—that the noble Baroness, Lady Young, is not the least disturbed by the humiliation of seeing this country dragged through the courts of Europe. Because we will be; we are in contravention of Articles 8 and 16 of the European Court's Convention on Human Rights.
I now turn to the noble Earl, Lord Longford. I am sorry that he is no longer in his place. Last Session, he made a remarkable speech. It was characteristic because he began with his usual compassion for homosexuals, which he voiced in an entirely sincere way. However, he said something which was rather extraordinary. He told us that if a girl was seduced and had a baby, it would not be fatal. She would recover, marry and have lots of children. But if a boy was seduced by a man he was lost; ruined for life. I wonder whether the noble Earl has followed the careers of certain of his school fellows at Eton who left school rather earlier than usual.
668 A considerable number of public schoolboys in days gone by were sacked for being in bed with another boy. Well, most of them got married. In the absence of girls, highly sexed boys got release with other boys and as soon as they left their single-sex boarding schools they learnt to get on—and indeed to get off—with girls!
However, let me present the noble Earl with a hostage to fortune. I think it is true that if a young man is introduced to homosexual society, he may well be convinced that this should be his life. Homosexual society used to be amusing, witty, full of in-jokes and allusions. It gave a delicious sense of belonging to an in-group which scandalised the world at large and particularly one's parents. I take the noble Earl's point that when a young man joins this world what may have begun as an experiment becomes a way of life.
It may be that today times have changed and that homosexual culture now fires adherents with the politics of protest rather than seduces them by wit. But whatever the type of attraction, should we not remember that other in-groups attract the young? I have to say to the noble Earl that religious sects are one example. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, is too young to remember what the noble Earl and I recollect only too well. We remember before the war the activities of Dr. Buchman and the group he led at Oxford. If you were trapped in that sect you certainly were lost—lost, at any rate, to the life of the mind—and that is the case with other "born again" sects; or sects which follow gurus from the East. Consider the dangers of Scientology.
At the beginning of the century, the lure of the turf—betting on horses—ruined scores of young men. They read the "Pink'un" and argued whether Bayleaf could afford to give 7lbs to The Rake or whether it was true that Steve Donughue was to ride Humorist in the Derby. Today, it is the drug culture, but there will always be sects and groups which seduce young men.
The noble Earl, Lord Russell, did well to remind us that we can become over-protective. He is a smoker and said that it was far worse to encourage smoking among the young than it was to encourage sex. There will always be some young people, some young men, who will go to what Dickens' Mr. Mantalini called the "demnition bow-wows". We cannot stop them by legislation.
I recognise that there is another argument against equalising the age of consent. It is that girls of 16 are more mature than boys of 16. I am not at all sure that the girls I see "clubbing" on television, probably with Ecstasy in their pockets, are more mature than the boys on the pop scene. But, still, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Young, that girls are more mature at 16. They are less keen to start a sexual relationship at that age; or if they are, they may well prefer an older man because they find boys of their own age, 16, too laddish., too boring and too obsessed with football.
However, among those boys there are plenty who want sexual release. Sixteen is an age when the sex drive is almost at its height. Boys may not he as mature as girls, but they are mature enough to tell an older man who propositions them that they do not want to have 669 sex with him. Boys, however, often experiment among themselves and I am afraid that the opponents of this Bill want to criminalise such experiments.
What is worse, they want to criminalise those boys who at school are often considered wimps. Homosexuality is not, as the noble Earl, Lord Longford, declared a "disease". No doctor today regards it as a disease. But some are biologically homosexual and no amount of bullying will turn them into heterosexuals. All this is something that their own generation accepts. Of course, it is not accepted by the bullies and the lager louts like that nasty thug, the Liverpool striker, Robert Fowler, who on the football field taunted an opponent, a married man with children, for being homosexual simply because he did not share the footballers' culture of snooker and the pub. But ask the majority of the young: to them, sexuality is not an issue. I think it was the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, who said that they regard it as one might regard someone who is left-handed rather than right-handed.
May I therefore make a final plea for tolerance on this issue? I remember the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, saying that he hoped that nobody would accuse him of being a homophobe if he voted against the Bill as it was then. Of course, I entirely accept that; no one would dream of calling him that. But I ask him whether he considers English boys so weak-willed, such wimps, such sissies compared with European boys that they cannot say "no" if they are propositioned. Why are British boys supposed to be so much inferior to those in Europe? Of course, they are not, and they do not need special protection.
I shall not go into the business of public opinion. We have had talk about polls. I accept what has been said on both sides. But the noble Earl, Lord Russell, was right to say that we should not be guided by public opinion. If we were guided by public opinion in that way, we should have hanging, and probably boys hanged at 16.
May I say without giving offence that the noble Baroness, Lady Young, sometimes speaks, as in the case of holding important debates in Holy Week, as if she embodied the morality of Britain? I do not think she does. Last time she gave the impression that the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, was acting like the able barrister that she is, an advocate paid to put up the best case that she could in a dirty cause or, which of course I do not believe for one moment, that she thought that the noble Baroness was morally corrupt.
I have explained to the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, why I may not be able to be here at the end of the debate—
My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Annan, will withdraw his remarks about what he has alleged that I thought about the speech made previously by the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu.
670 I am a great admirer of her abilities and I would not impugn in any way either her integrity or her views in this matter.
§ Lord Annan
My Lords, I think the noble Baroness misunderstood what I said. I said that when she referred to the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, in the previous Session, of course she praised her ability as a barrister, but she gave the impression, to me at any rate, that she thought her argument was the kind that a barrister puts forward in a very poor case. I said a moment ago that I do not believe for one moment that she thought that the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, was morally corrupt, but—
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, as the noble Lord has spoken for 17 minutes and has now told us that he may not be here at the end of the debate, I feel he should have mercy on the rest of us who will be here then.
§ Lord Annan
My Lords, I take the noble Lord's point. I was just about to say that I was right at the end of my speech, and I was imploring the House not to be insular, not to ignore our role in Europe, and not to have a fit of the sulks just because life has changed in the past 40 years. We are not living at the beginning of the 20th century; we are living at the very end of it.
§ 6.5 p.m.
My Lords, I am not sure where that speech leaves us, but we are always fascinated to hear the intellectual speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Annan. His feet seldom touch the ground, and those of us who do not have his intellectual gravitas and try to catch up with him are rather thankful that we do not have the intellectual gravitas of the noble Lord.
The subject matter of this Bill has been debated on a number of occasions over the past few years, and I do not find that my views have changed on the matter—not, I like to think, because I am obdurate, but because of reason. These matters are always acutely sensitive, and I hope that one can equally put one's views at least sensitively.
I tried hard to agree with just one thing that the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said, but despite my best endeavours and the fact that he has already vanished—I do not blame him for that—I could not agree with one of them.
Then the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells made a speech at which I confess amazement and astonishment. He seemed to address most of his remarks to the fact that we should recognise gay people, not to the lowering of the age of homosexual consent, which is what the Bill is about. When he made his speech—he will forgive me for saying this—I shuddered for the Church of England. The only encouragement he gave me was the fact that he said that his brother prelates did not agree with him. I thought "Hooray for that, so we're saved at last."
I am opposed to the lowering of the age of homosexual consent to 16, for what I consider to be one simple reason. Of course, one always does consider 671 one's reasons to be simple. My simple reason is that men arid women are made differently, for obvious and basic reasons: fundamentally, for the procreation and continuation of the species. Heterosexuality must therefore be the norm. Homosexuality, whatever its cause, must therefore be an aberration from the norm.
It may well be that some people are born a certain way, and that some of their genes may be placed in a different pattern to others', or however one likes to put it, and that that predetermines the way they are.
There is no doubt, though, that people also can be drawn into homosexuality by the conditions in which they find themselves, by the people whom they meet or by circumstances or events which take them down certain unexpected avenues. Civilisation is, after all, a very thin veneer. It lies on the surface of raw humanity and can easily be stripped away. The purpose of going to school, the purpose of a proper upbringing, the purpose of being given good books with which to edify the mind, is all part of the effort to put a veneer of civilisation over basic humanity.
I have no doubt whatever that the most unsuspecting and most upright of people can be drawn from the path of rectitude and into stealing, or thuggery, or rape, or murder. or even cannibalism, by the circumstances in which they may happen to find themselves. The same applies to homosexuality. People do not have to be born that way to be homosexuals; they can be drawn into it.
It must surely be the aspiration of the majority of parents that their children shall be born and brought up as heterosexual individuals, which will eventually, with luck, result in the furtherance of the family. That is the natural way of life. That is how society and life continue.
Of course, things do not always turn out in the way people either want or expect. The law must make allowances for that, and it does. So should individuals; and they do sometimes, but not always. But to argue that the law of homosexual consent should be brought into line with that of heterosexual consent because it is not fair that the two should be different, or that there is somehow a basic inequality which ought to be rectified, is, I venture to suggest, wholly fallacious.
Homosexuality and heterosexuality are not equal choices to be picked up or discarded at will like the purchase of a commodity of one's choice. One is the norm; the other, for all its different reasons, is an aberration from the norm.
Do we really want our young children of 16 to be given the legal right to indulge in homosexual activity with other young people—or older people, provided that they are riot in a position of trust? One can just imagine the argument that will go on about that. Do we really want young men, or even older men, now to have the legal right, if I may so put it without undue inelegance, to bugger a young girl of 16 provided that the girl does not mind? I look with incredulity at what the Government are doing. We all know of rape cases where the man says "She consented to what we did", and the girl says. "I was raped". Do we want those young girls 672 of 16 to be subjected to that far more traumatic ordeal; to be put through that far worse legal, personal and frantic psychological miasma?
Sixteen is an extremely formative age. Believe it or not, I find that 69 is still a formative age, too. But., at 16, young people are still very vulnerable. They are unsure about themselves, although, of course, they will never admit it. They are unsure about life and their relationships. Their bodies are changing, and so are those of their friends. What is right and wrong? How do they tell the difference between the two? Those are the swirling waters of conflict by which they are surrounded. At that age, life is full of uncertainty, but it is full of interest. It is full of change, but it is full of questing. It is an unstable period in a young person's life. That is the time at which people need support and not more uncertainty.
If there are people who are so deeply homosexually inclined, then they have to wait only two years to have all the freedom of the law under which they can live the lifestyle which they consider appropriate to them. I suggest to your Lordships that that is a small price to pay for the protection of the majority of young people.
I find what the Government are asking your Lordships to approve almost unbelievable. I presume that they are doing so on the basis that it is good for young people. There cannot be any other basis for doing it. They cannot be doing it on the basis that it is bad for young people. But in fact it is because of the successful pressure from self-interested pressure groups. One merely has to look at the advertisement in The Times today to realise how important and how expensively financed are those pressure groups.
In my view, it is quite wrong for the Government to introduce this Bill. They have not a whisper of a mandate for it. It was not in their election manifesto. People do not want it. Parents do not want it. The right honourable gentleman the Prime Minister tells us that this Government are a government who wish to protect family values. I applaud that. I believe that the right honourable gentleman is an honourable man. But this Bill runs counter to that. It is another example of the Government giving way to political lobbying and pressure groups.
I agree with my noble friend Lady Young when she referred to the European Commission of Human Rights. It has been argued that the Bill is necessary because of the commission's decision. That is not so. The European court has not yet given its judgment in the Sutherland case. The European commission has given a purely provisional, advisory opinion and its opinions are frequently overturned by the European court. Therefore, I hope that we shall reject the European commission argument as being a factor in favour of the Bill.
Perhaps I may tell your Lordships that I once had the privilege of being an ornament in the Home Office. I endeavoured to fulfil, but totally inadequately, the responsibilities which the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, now fulfils with such ability, intellect and courtesy. When I had to give the Government's view in a debate about the lowering of the age of homosexual consent on 20th June 1994 on the Criminal Justice and 673 Public Order Bill, my officials were kind enough, as they always were, to give me their courteous advice and to offer me a speech which they suggested that I might care to deliver. It was an "on the one hand this and on the one hand that" kind of speech. I said that I should like to say more clearly what I thought. The advice which I was given, and which I greatly respected, was that on that subject, and as a government Minister, I should be even-handed; that that was a deeply personal matter which had always been a matter for Parliament.
However, we agreed that I should not be offside if I were to say in my speech which way I was going to vote. Perhaps I may quote what I said. It is deeply pompous for anyone to quote their own speeches, but as nobody else bothers to quote mine I hope that I may be allowed to do so. Standing from the Dispatch Box where the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, stood some time earlier, I said then:This is an issue of conscience, which the Government consider falls properly to be decided by a free vote".—[Official Report, 20/6/94; col. 43].That was a government Minister speaking and not Ferrers.
The point which I wish to make about that is that I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, was given the same advice today. He shakes his head. It may be that the officials have changed or it may be that, because he is a robust kind of fellow, he decided to reject it. He and the Government of which he is a distinguished member have decided, not for the first time, to propel through their views on a very sensitive matter, and with all the panoply and authority of government, by bringing them forward in a government Bill.
Why do the Government do that? I know why, or at least I believe I do. There was an amendment to the Crime and Disorder Bill which was tabled by a Back-Bencher. The Government did not want it to go through as part of that Bill because they thought that it would capsize the Bill and that it would run into trouble. Therefore, they told the Back-Benchers to take away the Bill and that they would ensure that another Bill would be introduced later through which those views could be put forward. That is fine. There was a similar problem with the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill. But why did the Government not demand that the Back-Benchers put the matter through as a separate Bill? The Government did not do that. They decided to pick up that thorny issue, run with it and tell the people of this country, "We, the Government, think it is right that the age of homosexual consent should be lowered to 16". I believe that that is wrong. A Guardian/ICA poll showed that 69 per cent. of the people in this country want that age to remain at 18.
The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, has made today, as he always does, a very plausible and engaging case for the Bill. But the noble Lord is a professional advocate who can put a case, whether good or bad, in the most persuasive and convincing manner possible. As we know, the noble Lord is very good at that. That is why he rose to the position in his profession that he 674 did. I admire that and I covet it. The problem is that unless one keeps one's wits in a state of perpetual overdrive, it is not clear whether the case which the noble Lord puts is good or bad. I believe that the case which the noble Lord espoused today, however eloquently presented, is bad. It is bad for the family, for young people and for the moral and physical health of the country. The Government have no mandate for it at all. I hope that your Lordships will join my noble friend Lady Young in rejecting the Bill.
§ 6.17 p.m.
§ Baroness Gould of Potternewton
My Lords, I must start my comments by expressing my fundamental disagreement with the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, on many counts on which I hope I shall be able to elaborate in the course of my comments. I speak not for the Government but as a Back-Bencher and as an individual with a free vote.
The noble Baroness, Lady Young, referred to the many letters which she received opposing the Bill. We have all received letters—and we have received letters from parents who are in despair, concerned that their sons are not only seen as different but are also criminals in the eyes of the law.
I wish to read an extract from one of the many letters that I have received, from a mother in Lancashire who wrote:My son is gay and I am writing to ask you to vote in favour of an equal Age of Consent. The issue is one of social justice and equality. My son suffers discrimination because of his sexuality. To the shame of this country he is considered to be unworthy of equality before the law of the land".I am sure those are the comments of a very responsible parent.
That is what this debate is about. It is about the fundamental principles inherent in that mother's words. It is about human rights, equal rights and citizenship, respect for each other, tolerance, equality, compassion and understanding. We cannot legislate to change human behaviour but what we can do, and what this Bill does, is to legislate to provide protection to young people from sexual predators and to provide a framework under the law to eliminate the prejudice, bigotry and injustice which has pervaded our society for far too long.
Surely it is fundamental in any democracy that the rights and responsibilities of all citizens are protected equally under the law—not over-protected, but protected equally. The law should be clear, certain and enforceable. Like the noble Earl, Lord Russell, I too cannot believe that there is anyone in your Lordships' House, irrespective of their views on this issue, who does not accept that it has to be cruel and unjust to punish one group of young people because of their sexuality; nor can it be morally or legally right for young men between the ages of 16 and 17 to be arrested, prosecuted and possibly subject to two years' imprisonment if they have a gay relationship.
I could more easily understand the arguments for not lowering the age of consent and for retaining the law as it stands if the law provided protection for those young 675 people, but the reverse is the case. The current law does not protect the vulnerable; nor does it adequately punish those who exploit them. It protects the abuser, not the abused; it allows prejudice to protect abuse rather than prevent it; and it creates fear and secrecy rather than openness and support.
The law is recognised as unworkable. It is a hindrance rather than a help to the police in their efforts to combat homophobic violence. That will continue for as long as the law continues to criminalise both parties in a homosexual act. Such abuse goes unreported and unpunished. Because of the law, there are young men who are terrified of revealing their developing sexuality, who face abuse and bullying and who all too easily become the prey of the bullies and bigots.
There is no justification for allowing such a situation to continue. That is a position recognised by the majority of childcare organisations, as was identified by the Minister in his opening remarks. The view on equalisation expressed by Save the Children which, I believe, speaks for all the organisations is that,the protection of young people is best maintained by the consistent and fair application of the law rather than legislation which is both hard to justify and damaging in application".Of crucial importance also is the support for the Bill by medical and nursing opinion, including the BMA and the RCN. They are clear that the law has to change, aware as they are that, fearful of being branded criminals, many gay young men are unable to seek health advice and sex education. All young people, heterosexual and homosexual, should have equal access to education and information on sexual health from responsible adults and organisations.
The Health Education Authority has expressed its concern that the current legislation works against promoting healthcare and restricts the giving of advice about sexual diseases and the prevention of HIV infection among homosexual men. In support, the BMA states:of prime concern to the medical profession as a whole are the concerns that the present law may inhibit efforts to improve the sexual health of young homosexual men".As the right reverend Prelate said, as responsible parliamentarians we cannot dismiss lightly such expert opinion. We have a responsibility to take seriously the views of those organisations which work on a day-to-clay basis with vulnerable young people.
I wish to refer to one or two other issues raised during our previous debate and again today. First, I refer to the question of public opinion. It has again been maintained that the public are unequivocally opposed to an equal age of consent. However, whether one likes it or not, the NOP poll referred to showed that 60 per cent. of the public are in favour of the Bill, and in disagreement with the noble Baroness, Lady Young. The question was set out in detail, as the noble Earl identified for us. The polling also showed that 66 per cent. of people are in favour of an equalisation of the age of consent, 54 per cent. of whom believe that that age should be 16 years. Of course, we should not fully accept public opinion, but, at the same time, we have to take note of it; it is important.
676 Those figures show that when the principles of equality are balanced with principles of protection, there is majority public support. Such support arises from the Government's action in consulting widely with children's organisations and others—
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. I am sorry to interrupt, but I really must correct the point about the poll. It is not true that it showed that 66 per cent. of people supported an age of consent of 16. It showed only that 54 per cent. of 66 per cent. did so. That is quite a different proposition. An untruth does not become true by constant repetition, and I think it should stop.
§ Baroness Gould of Potternewton
My Lords, I believe that perhaps the noble Baroness was not listening. What I actually said was that 54 per cent. of the 66 per cent. believed that the age should be 16 years. I did not say what she suggested.
Perhaps I may return to the question of the Government's action in consulting widely with children's organisations and others to find the most appropriate way of responding to the many justified concerns about the abuse of trust and the need to safeguard vulnerable young people.
The new offence on abuse of positions of trust, which has been incorporated into the Bill, is a major and important step, particularly for those children being looked after away from home who lack immediate adult support from their families. Crucially, this Bill, for the first time, provides equal protection for young men and young women against adults who may use their position of authority to gain sexual advantage. I noted the comments of my noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn on this new offence. However, I should welcome assurances from him that there will be means to extend this protection to other areas of care if it is felt to be too restrictive.
On those grounds, I believe that to vote against the Bill tonight will destroy any form of protection for any vulnerable young children. I, for one, cannot do that. I want to stand up for what I believe is right; that is, protecting all young children as much as we can.
The Home Office report, Sex offending against children, concludes that 60 to 70 per cent. of child molesters target only girls. However, irrespective of the fact that the majority of child abuse is committed by heterosexual men against girls, there are still some noble Lords who have argued today, as during the previous debate, that young men require greater protection from unwanted sexual advances than young women; that, somehow or other, young women are less affected by sexual abuse. That is a ridiculous double standard and one in which I am not alone in finding a little offensive.
The sexual abuse or rape of a young girl—I have to say to the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, that sometimes rape does include buggery—is likely to have a traumatic effect on her for the rest of her life. She is faced with the possibility of becoming pregnant, of experiencing parental displeasure, possible forced marriage, perhaps an abortion or the misery of early separation through 677 adoption. These were all consequences identified by the Royal College of Psychiatrists as far back as 1976 in their evidence to the Criminal Law Review.
The law has to recognise, as it will when the Bill is passed, that unwarranted sexual attentions are unacceptable whether the victim is male or female, gay or not. The Bill gives us the opportunity to provide protection against abuse for all vulnerable young people and, at the same time, to remove the intolerance and prejudice which can seriously affect their lives.
In conclusion, perhaps I may return to the letter from which I quoted earlier. It concludes:Please vote for equal justice for my gay son and for all gay people. We are not asking for special privileges, only equal justice—surely that is what everyone has the right to expect".
§ 6.30 p.m.
§ Lord Quinton
My Lords, in rising to support the Bill, I suspect that I am likely to find myself in a minority in this part of your Lordships' House. The foundation of this position is quite simple. I accept the Wolfenden principle that homosexuality is not a crime; in fact I do not regard it as a sin. It is an abnormality, but a statistical abnormality like left-handedness, red hair or a taste for Pernod. In particular, it is not something that is chosen.
Why I particularly welcome the Bill is for the protection it intends to afford young people against older sexual predators, for which there has been no protection in the past. What is more, it offers that protection equally to young men and young women. I have noticed a tendency among some previous speakers to look at this subject entirely from the point of view of the male homosexual. Admittedly, one of the more argued elements of the Bill is the reduction of the male age of consent to 16, but the emphasis has all been on the male homosexual. As well as the Wolfenden principle I accept in this connection some sort of principle of equality. All principles of equality can be pushed to absurdity but, on the whole, where there is no strong reason to depart from equality, one might as well adopt it.
I was moved for a moment by the statement of my noble friend Lord Cope when he said that if we are in favour of equality for the two orientations, then homosexual marriages ought to be endorsed as well as heterosexual ones. I have to say that I was moved by that argument principally due to a sense of the ridiculous—the throwing of confetti, the orange blossom and so forth. But behind that lies a serious argument. The entering into a contract between a male and female who set up a loving relationship of some sort is done with the likelihood of producing children for whom they are going to be responsible. A homosexual couple—two males or two females—will not do that, unless we move off into the subject which I do not propose to enter into of adoption of children by homosexual couples. So there is a perfectly good reason for not having such marriages; that is, there is no particular need to contractually tie the two partners together in the interests of innocent third parties who come into existence as a result of their relationship.
678 I said that my main reason for being in favour of the Bill is the protection element it contains. I also like the feature that the protection is accorded equally to both young men and young women. It might be felt that protection is not quite as necessary as it used to be. Most of us are pretty elderly and when thinking about young men and women we probably imagine them as we were. There is no question but that we were much more innocent and ignorant in sexual matters than they are today, for a very good reason. Great tides of erotic muck are poured over young people every day by television companies, including, alas, the BBC, in the detestable ratings battle polluting the culture. So it is not surprising that they know a great deal. No doubt Martin Clunes, in "Men Behaving Badly", offers himself as a role model for a lot of silly young people and it is a pity that that sort of thing appears. But it is a fact of life. Young people are informed. They are not innocent, but clearly sophisticated.
The other point I want to emphasise bears against an argument of my noble friend Lady Young and on the other side by the noble Earl, Lord Longford, the last time these matters were discussed; that is, the argument, broadly speaking, that homosexuality is contagious. I know of no evidence for that whatever. Admittedly, there is a good deal of dispute about the causal origins of homosexuality. Some hold it to be congenital. Others, despite the mockery of the noble Lord, Lord Annan, of poor Freud, repose a little confidence in the theory that deeply emotional and over-possessive mothers combined with remote and hard-natured fathers create an emotional structure in the family which nourishes homosexuality; the growing child is turned into a kind of female and is on the mother's side against the harsh man. That theory has a certain literary attraction. But it is perfectly plain that homosexuality is not contagious. No doubt some people have been glamorised by one means or another into homosexual practice by observing the fashionable circles of Noel Coward, Jean Cocteau or whoever it might be. But in most people it is a feature of their basic constitution which they cannot get rid of—some wish they could because of the social opprobrium it brings down on them.
Those are reasons for thinking that protection may not be all that crucial. Nevertheless, sexual predation is evil. It is cruel; it is exploitative; and I therefore favour all those aspects of the Bill concerned with taking steps to bring it under some form of legal control. Indeed, if anything I would not mind if those steps moved a little further. The noble Lord, Lord Williams, suggested that some amendments may be introduced later. One area which occurs to me particularly is the area of employment. Young people may be employed with dominant older persons around them and they are pretty vulnerable. They are not as vulnerable as someone in a closed institution like a children's home where the doors are locked at night and the predators stalk the corridors. Nevertheless, it is a long working day and when people drift away at night, then the predator can get to work. It is not like purely casual contacts in a queue at the checkout at a supermarket or a cinema, which are 679 momentary. At work the predator returns. I should like some sort of extension of the Bill to cover predation at work as well as in the more closed institutions.
Another type of predation seems to me deserving of consideration; that is, predation in relation to the appalling things that happen to young men in prison. It is not from warders—we have no reason to suppose that warders get up to it—but from their fellow prisoners. One of the worst features of imprisonment for many people is the sexual predation to which they are subject at the hands of their fellow prisoners. I believe that to be true for both male and female homosexuals.
It would be a good idea to introduce into a Bill of this kind a clause which says that no one over 25 may have sexual intercourse with anyone under 20. But that would fall foul of the arrangement of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, because it might interfere with our presence here since most of us had mothers or grandmothers who were married at 16 and who moved rapidly into the production of annual children. I realise that is altogether too sweeping, but while applauding the measures for the protection of the young embodied in the Bill, I applaud also and am hopeful about the statements of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, to the effect that even further provision of a protective kind might be envisaged in the further development of the Bill.
I have not said a great deal about the age of consent. My principle is as I stated. I am waiting for a satisfactory argument to the effect that there is some serious reason for departing from equality as between males and females in this respect. I cannot see that there is. There is an anecdotal, folk wisdom idea that males are less mature than females. Perhaps they are. That may be biological because the female is much more at risk. I was suggesting a moment ago that males are not much at risk from sexual predation other than a horrible, degrading, disgusting experience—that is, sex at the hands of a much older person with whom they would not choose to have sex, whether homosexual or heterosexual. The main argument, it seems to me, is that given a degree of less maturity on the part of males, they will then be exposed to what in my view is the totally mythical danger of contagion. As I said, it does not seem to me that homosexuality is a disease. Since I do not think it is a disease, it is not an infectious condition.
§ 6.40 p.m.
§ Lord Lester of Herne Hill
My Lords, I am the 10th speaker and, having heard nine speeches on the merits of the Bill, I am afraid that there is little I can add, except to say that I entirely agree with everything that was said by my noble friend Lord Russell, by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells and by the noble Lord, Lord. Williams of Mostyn, as to the overwhelming reasons in favour of giving this Bill a Second Reading and enacting it as quickly as possible.
The only useful thing I can do, which is different from anything that has been said so far, is to explain why in my considered opinion—and that is all it is, although based on 30 years of arguing cases before the 680 European Commission and the European Court of Human Rights—the noble Lord the Minister was right when he wrote on the face of the Bill, in accordance with Section 19 of the Human Rights Act 1998, that in his opinion this Bill is compatible with the convention rights.
I would add that not only is it compatible with the convention rights, but it is required by the convention rights. One of the disadvantages of our procedures is that we do not get the Minister's reasons for his statement of compatibility until the end of the debate—unless he decides to give them in his opening speech. It seems to me that we need to understand why the European Convention on Human Rights is really important in this debate because the courts presume that both Houses of Parliament use their legislative powers in accordance with our international treaty obligations and with no intention deliberately to flout them.
So, with your Lordships' leave, I should like to spend a few minutes explaining why the decision given by the European Commission of Human Rights on 1st July 1997 in Euan Sutherland's case is virtually certain to be followed by the European Court of Human Rights if we are daft enough to throw out this Bill and put the Government into a position where they will face condemnation once more in Strasbourg by an overwhelming majority of the European Court of Human Rights.
In Mr. Sutherland's case what happened was that he complained about the very kind of discrimination which this Bill is designed to tackle: the inequality caused by the difference in the age of consent between male homosexuals and everybody else. The commission that decided the case included not merely a very large number of distinguished jurists from the rest of Europe, but also Judge Sir Nicholas Bratza, as he now is, the British judge and vice-president of the European Court of Human Rights. By a great majority, the commission, having read all the debates in the Commons and the Lords, all the evidence from the British Medical Association and a variety of other bodies, decided that there was a clear breach of the right to respect for private life guaranteed by Article 8 of the convention. read with Article 14.
I will come back to its reasons in a moment or two, but, as I understand it—the noble Lord will correct me if I am wrong—what then happened was that our Government—originally, of course, a Conservative government—had changed. The Government, having changed, asked the European Court of Human Rights whether it would adjourn the proceedings so as to enable the Government to introduce this Bill and have it duly enacted. If your Lordships use your awesome powers as the unrepresentative Chamber, to throw out this Bill, I stake my entire professional reputation on the certainty that the European Court of Human Rights will find a breach of the convention. We will then be compelled by international law to introduce a Bill and to enact it, or face further condemnation at Strasbourg.
I say that not because the court invariably follows the commission. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, is perfectly right in saying that quite often the court does 681 not follow the commission. In order to decide whether it is likely to follow the commission, you have to look at the quality of the commission's reasoning and whether it had regard to all the relevant factors. That is what lawyers do when they predict whether an appellate court is likely to be coming down in favour of one side or the other.
To make a long opinion short, may I simply say this about the commission's opinions? It looked at the two principal arguments deployed on behalf of the previous government in favour of maintaining the status quo. Both arguments have been deployed this evening very powerfully and very eloquently by the noble Baroness and her supporters of the amendment.
The first argument was that certain young men between the ages of 16 and 18 do not have a settled sexual orientation and that the aim of the law is to protect such vulnerable young men from activities which will result in considerable social pressures and isolation, of which their lack of maturity might cause them later to repent. The commission observed:it is claimed that the possibility of criminal sanctions against persons aged 16 or 17 is likely to have a deterrent effect and give the individual time to make up his mind".As I understood it, that was a plank in the case for the amendment.
The second argument considered was that society is entitled to indicate its disapproval of homosexual conduct and its preference that children follow a heterosexual way of life. This is what the commission said in two paragraphs:The Commission does not consider that either argument offers a reasonable and objective justification for maintaining a different age of consent for homosexual and heterosexual acts or that maintaining such a differential age is proportionate to any legitimate aim served thereby. As to the former argument, as was conceded in the Parliamentary debates, current medical opinion is to the effect that sexual orientation is fixed in both sexes by the age of 16 and that men aged 16–21 are not in need of special protection because of the risk of their being 'recruited' into homosexuality".The commission further observed:Moreover, as noted by the BMA, the risk posed by predatory older men would appear to be as serious whether the victim is a man or woman and does not justify a differential age of consent. Even if, as claimed in the Parliamentary debate, there may be certain young men for whom homosexual experience after the age of 16 will have influential and potentially disturbing effects and who may require protection, the Commission is unable to accept that it is a proportionate response to the need for protection to expose to criminal sanctions not only the older man who engages in homosexual acts with a person under the age of 18 but the young man himself who is claimed to be in need of such protection.As to the second ground relied on—society's claimed entitlement to indicate disapproval of homosexual conduct and its preference for a heterosexual lifestyle"—again, an argument relied on this afternoon—the Commission cannot accept that this could in any event constitute an objective or reasonable justification for inequality of treatment under the criminal law".The commission then quoted the European Court of Human Rights in the Dudgeon case—one of the previous defeats for the United Kingdom Government 682 when we penalised homosexual acts for adult males in private. The Court had stated:Decriminalisation' does not imply approval, and a fear that some sectors of the population might draw misguided conclusions in this respect from reform of the legislation does not afford a good ground for maintaining it in force with all its unjustifiable features". I can find no flaw in that reasoning.I am confident that this Bill would be entirely proportionate in protecting the right to personal privacy without discrimination because the Government have heeded the plea of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, on the previous occasion to introduce special safeguards against abuse. Undaunted, the noble Baroness feels that even with those safeguards as a matter of principle the Bill must be opposed.
I can only say—I stake my professional reputation on this; something that advocates do not like doing—that if we were to reject this Bill and the Parliament Act were not invoked and the case went back before the European Court of Human Rights, it is as certain as anything I can imagine that the court would reach the same conclusion as the commission and we would be back here once more.
For good measure, is it really sensible for the unelected upper House to use the power it still has in its unreformed state to act in this way, showing that it really is not interested in ensuring full compliance with international human rights law? If that is the position that we are going to take, heaven help us when the Human Rights Act is in force and remedial action is needed, as a result of a declaration by our courts of incompatibility, when a government seek to introduce legislation and it is blocked by the unreformed House. That argument convinces me, if it were needed, that the sooner we can reform the House, the better.
§ Lord Monson
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, does he agree that if the commission's argument which he has just read out to us is taken to its logical conclusion, before very long there will have to be a common, standardised age of consent right across Europe?
§ Lord Lester of Herne Hill
My Lords, I do not think that is right. There must be no discrimination within each of the 40 states that belong to the Council of Europe system and are bound by the convention; in other words, what is required is not a harmonised age across Europe, but that within each society. whatever the age that is chosen for consent, it should be the same age for both sexes and for people of either sexual orientation.
§ 6.52 p.m.
§ Baroness Masham of Ilton
My Lords, this matter before us is both complex and sensitive. Like other noble Lords, I have received many letters and briefings sent from people and organisations, some wanting to retain the age of consent at 18 and others wanting it reduced to 16.
For some time I have been very concerned at the rise in sexually transmitted diseases. HIV/AIDS seems to be increasing fastest in young men, but other conditions 683 such as warts, anal and cervical cancer, Hepatitis B and C and gonorrhoea are also increasing in both young men and young women. Teenage pregnancies and abortions seem to be the highest in Europe. Something is very wrong. Something needs to he done to rectify this situation, or at least to try to lessen this unacceptable situation.
The Government have agreed to equalise the age of consent which seems to be more acceptable to many people. The European Court of Human Rights considers 17 to be the dividing line between children and adults. I now wish to suggest to the Minister and to your Lordships, why not put the age of consent for girls up to 17, which would send a strong message of concern about the problem of unwanted pregnancies, and bring that for young men down to 17, which would equalise the age of consent? That would be a compromise. I have discussed it with several people who have thought it to be a more acceptable position. Young people can get a driving licence at 17. They are more mature than at 16, which for boys can be a most difficult and wobbly age.
Whatever happens, I hope that the Government will ensure that all children receive personal, social and health education. Sensitive boys who do not know which way they are going often need in puberty to be able to discuss sensitive issues with someone they can trust. In the past many teachers who might have been the people able to help were not able to do so because the legislation was too rigid. I feel there should be enough flexibility to enable counselling to be given to those young people who desire and need it.
It is the act of buggery which worries so many people, and the danger of gullible young people being taken advantage of. The lining of the bowel is delicate. It can be easily damaged and then is open to infections. I should like to ask the Minister for help in fully understanding Clause 4. I am pleased that the provisions on "position of trust" have now been put into the Bill. This shows the good sense of your Lordships' House in throwing out the matter relating to this in the Criminal Justice Bill which contained no safeguards whatsoever. But does this Bill have enough? Does the Bill include youth leaders taking young people away camping? Not long ago I attended a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children. We were told, for example, that paedophiles were commonly found to have infiltrated organisations such as the boy scouts. Are resident, part-time training courses covered in the Bill? As a past county president of the Red Cross I was personally involved in an investigation of a director who had been involved in late-night sessions with cadets.
We should have safeguards in all these matters. I hope that the Bill, if passed, will be improved and strengthened, and that the age of consent can be put at 17 for both sexes. This would unite the UK, as the Bill provides for an age of consent of 17 in Northern Ireland. It would send a message to girls that they have not acted in a responsible way and are looked at by the rest of Europe as setting a bad example. I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say.
§ 6.57 p.m.
§ Baroness Hilton of Eggardon
My Lords, I am not generally in favour of anecdotal evidence when making speeches in this House. However, on this occasion I believe that my practical experience of 34 years in the police service and my academic qualifications of degrees in psychology are relevant.
Forty years ago I started my practical life as a police officer on the streets in the east end of London. This was a time before the street offences Act when there were prostitutes on every street corner of the Commercial Road. Women police in those days were specialists, particularly with regard to families, children and sexual offences. I have taken statements in relation to alleged sexual offences of rape, paedophilia, indecent assault, indecent exposure and unlawful sexual intercourse. Clearly in relation to this debate it is unlawful sexual intercourse which has particular relevance; that is, intercourse with girls under 16.
Stepney in those days was a magnet for young girls. Those who saw themselves as smart went to the West End. Those perhaps who had less self-confidence used to end up in Stepney, usually in the cafés run by Maltese.
My next point is of particular relevance to today's debate. We also interviewed those young girls—many of whom had run away from home to take up a life of prostitution—who were under 16 and who had had sexual relationships often with boyfriends but also often with young men in the Stepney area. Some of the girls were only 13 or 14. So this is not a new phenomenon. In the majority of cases they were 15 year-olds who had often had sex with a regular boyfriend of about their own age. The point I wish particularly to make is that I do not remember a single prosecution of a girl of 15 years of age. That is relevant to the current state of the law in relation to male homosexuals. There are very few prosecutions in relation to boys of 16 and 17. It is clear to me that there is very little point in having a law which is never implemented and which just makes it harder for homosexual youths to seek advice and guidance. Criminal laws which lead to no prosecutions necessarily fall into disrepute.
My second posting was to Kings Cross, another area much frequented by prostitutes and young runaways. Part of my duties there was to sit in the matrimonial court each week and listen to the accounts of husbands and wives as they described their marriages and their sexual relationships. In the previous debate on this topic, some noble Lords expressed revulsion at some of the physical aspects of homosexuality, especially buggery. That is not, of course, a feature of all homosexual relationships. If some noble Lords had had my experience of two-years' worth of matrimonial hearings and the accounts of strange and various sexual practices of husbands and wives, including buggery, they might be more tolerant of all aspects of human sexual relationships.
Another issue in the previous debate and, I suspect, in today's debate, is that there is some confusion between paedophilia and homosexuality. As a commander in the Metropolitan Police I was responsible for three years for 685 the Obscene Publications Squad at New Scotland Yard. Subsequently, in north-west London, I followed closely the investigation of a large paedophile ring. Paedophiles are not interested in spotty, clumsy, adolescent youths. Their interests lie in pre-pubescent children, both boys and girls, as young as six or seven; not the 16 or 17 year-olds we are discussing today.
Of course we must protect children with every weapon that society has, including the criminal law. It is also vital that adults in a position of trust should be aware of their responsibilities for those in their care, girls as well as boys. In my view—it is also, I believe, the view of the noble Baroness, Lady Young—a main function of the criminal law is that it has to act as a symbol, a sign of the framework of human behaviour that is set by a society. This is an important, demonstrative role for the whole apparatus of the criminal justice system. However, to be an effective, controlling or inhibiting framework, the criminal law has to be seen as fair and equitable in its application to all sectors of society—black and white, male and female, heterosexual and homosexual. It cannot and should not discriminate.
The transition from adolescence to maturity is difficult for all human beings—few of us, indeed, could claim to be wholly mature—and all the evidence is that the sexual orientation of homosexual boys is apparent to them much earlier than 16 or 17. To add to their difficulties of being homosexual in a heterosexual world by making them subject to the criminal law can only exacerbate their confusion, depression, potential for bullying, and sometimes even suicide. As my noble friend the Minister said, we could all wish that we lived in an ideal world in which human beings lived happily together in conventional and permanent relationships. But that is the stuff of fairy stories. In real life, human relationships of all kinds are difficult and confusing. They are not assisted by being exposed to the crude machinery of the criminal law. I hope that on this occasion we will be able to support the measures in the Bill.
§ 7.3 p.m.
§ Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn
My Lords, when we last debated this issue in your Lordships' House, I was one of only five or six on these Benches who voted against the amendment then proposed by my noble friend Lady Young and voted for a reduction in the age of consent. None spoke from these Benches in favour of that reduction. I felt embarrassed then at the circumstance and, on reflection, I think that it is indeed appropriate to speak today—as has my noble friend Lord Quinton—in favour of the Bill and against the amendment of my noble friend Lady Young. After all, it was carried then by a very large majority in the Commons, and it has been carried again by a very large majority in the Commons.
However, there is one very significant difference. It arises from a valid constitutional point raised last time by my noble friend Lady Young. The amendment in question had been introduced simply as an amendment in the other place to a Bill originating here. It was 686 introduced there at Third Reading, and came to us without consideration in either House at Second Reading, in Committee or on Report, but simply in the brief consideration of Commons amendments. My noble friend made much also of the amendment proposed then by Mr. Ashton, which had not at that stage been incorporated in the Bill. It is now, in a modified form. I hope that my noble friend will not mind if I quote her words; I trust that I shall do so accurately. She said then:I would be failing in my duty if I did not say…that lowering the age of consent in these circumstances without proper parliamentary scrutiny would be quite wrong—wrong constitutionally and wrong in principle.".—[Official Report, 22/7/98; col. 97.]It is worth emphasising the point that that constitutional obstacle certainly does not apply today. Indeed, it is somewhat the converse. If an amendment were to be carried this evening it would clearly preclude detailed discussion of the Bill at the Committee and Report stages. My noble friend has made the logic of her case clear; if she intends that this House should defeat the Bill, this may be the appropriate moment to put her amendment to the vote.
I have great admiration for my noble friend and I very much admired her speech in various respects this evening. I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Ferrers is not in his seat. I have great affection for my noble friend Lord Ferrers—perhaps I should not say that in this context—who always speaks with great trenchancy on these matters. Although he does not always win my head, I am often carried by the charm and effectiveness of his discourse. Although he quoted some rather less than trenchant observations that he had made on a previous occasion, I think there was one occasion—I am sorry that he is not here to correct me—when he made his point with great effectiveness, although perhaps with a degree of exaggeration. I am referring to my noble friend Lord Ferrers and quoting from one of his speeches, which I hope will give him satisfaction—although I am not certain I am quoting accurately—when he walks in. He said that, as far as he was concerned, an appropriate age for homosexual consent would be 86. I thought that a trenchant remark and, in the context, an effective and amusing one. If I am not mistaken, he did not intend us to take it entirely seriously.
My Lords, I apologise for having missed the first part of my noble friend's remarks. He is quite right. I think I did once make an observation of that nature—but not when I was on the Government Front Bench.
§ Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn
My Lords, I would never accuse my noble friend of inconsistency. I am sure that he has probably thought it on many occasions. But my underlying point is a serious one. He spoke with great effectiveness. He made remarks which, I think, spring from an antipathy which many people feel towards homosexual acts. We must accept that that is a widely held view on all sides of your Lordships' House. But it is worth asking whether it is an argument. That was the point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells in his speech today, which, if, I may say so, I found very effective. It was a point 687 that he made with equal effectiveness when he spoke on the previous occasion about the matter. One has to think about the position of these vulnerable young people who, under the present law, we are criminalising. There is a matter of principle here. There is the principle of equality before the law—about which the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, spoke eloquently today and previously, and about which the Prime Minister has spoken— a principle that has been supported in the Lobbies by the leader of the Conservative Party and the leader of the Liberal Democrats.
I should like to quote briefly from a letter written to The Times a week or so ago by a number of religious leaders, led by the Chair of Christians for Human Rights. There were two bishops among the signatories and, if I am not mistaken, a rabbi. The letter stated:The proposed legislation is not concerned with legalising or promoting particular forms of sexual behaviour but with equalisation under the law and the appropriate protection of those vulnerable to abuse".In a way, that point is the nub of the debate today: how are we protecting these young people? All noble Lords would agree that we should be protecting young people, but how can we do so most effectively? That is an important point to which I shall return briefly in a moment.
I respect very much the emphasis which my noble friend Lady Young places on family values, as she has done in a number of debates in your Lordships' House. But what kind of family is it that criminalises young men or is willing to see young men between the ages of 16 and 18 criminalised who may have had sexual relations together? They need support. They may benefit from guidance; they certainly would benefit from understanding. But that is, I think, a very Old Testament view, if I may be so bold as to say so when Bishops are to speak later who will correct me if I am wrong.
I recall again the thoughtful words we heard on the matter from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells. I should like to quote again from the letter:The experience of many parents' support organisations in this field confirms that removal of current inequalities and consequent stress, far from undermining family structures, will actually strengthen them".That may be true. I remind those in the House who set high store by family values that in this country we have one of the highest birth rates for teenage mothers in the western world, many of them younger than 16. Surely, if we are talking of family values, this is where one should be directing attention. I think your Lordships will concede that this is not a matter for which young homosexual men can be blamed.
Those who support the amendment before us sometimes claim to be representing the wishes of the electorate. We have heard that said in previous speeches, although the point has been made that the other House may be in a better position to express the wishes of the electorate through the Lobbies than ourselves. Even if that were the case, as the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, argued last July, it is the role of Parliament to lead on clear ethical matters, riot simply to follow.
688 Is it so that the electorate takes such a view? I do not want to get into disputation about opinion polls but I understand that the poll quoted today was taken among young adults. So it does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the electorate as a whole. However, at the same time, we should be taking seriously—perhaps more seriously than we sometimes do—the views of young adults in this matter. The point has been made that the average age in your Lordships' House does not automatically put us in contact with young adults, though we have heard from various organisations which may represent them.
It was the British Medical Association, in its 1994 report, which said:Unwelcome sexual attentions of a seriousness warranting criminal prosecution are equally offensive whether the victim is a man or a woman: the same should therefore apply to all".The point has been made about the medical risks of sexual contact between homosexuals aged between 16 and 18. However, my noble friend Lady Young was puzzled that many of the charities working with people in this age range feel that the Bill should be passed arid the amendment should be defeated. The reason for that is that there is some consensus that the problems of the stigmatisation involved with the criminalisation of these young people means that they do not find themselves open to the necessary advice and medical support. That is a crucial point. If the stigma of criminalisation were removed I think we would find that those charities would be able to do their work more effectively. That is what they are telling us.
There are many logical arguments in favour of the Bill and against the amendment, although I am sure there are valid arguments also in favour of the amendment. However, I felt it was my duty today to be one of those speaking from this side of the House in favour of what I consider to be equality but, more particularly, to follow again the theme developed by the right reverend Prelate and to look with sympathy on a minority which, it is not far from the truth to say at the moment, is a persecuted minority.
§ 7.15 p.m.
§ The Earl of Longford
My Lords, I always listen with respect to the noble Lord but I rather wished that he had been with me when I recently took part in a debate at Cambridge University. The motion was, "This House would like the age of consent for men and women, boys and girls, lowered to 14". That motion was heavily defeated. I do not know whether the noble Lord would have been one of the few who backed the reduction to 14. Once you get into this question it is difficult to know where people will stop. At any rate, that is what happened at Cambridge.
I rise once again to express strong support for the noble Baroness, Lady Young. I do so as a committed Christian but I am aware that there are good Christians who disagree with me. Not long ago, on Good Friday, I attended the 3 o'clock mass in Westminster Cathedral. The place was packed and I was in the back row. When it came to communion the crowd surged forward towards the altar and it seemed to me that it would be a long, long time before I received communion. However, 689 a kindly gentleman, a stranger, came up to me to sympathise with my plight. He said, "This is, I am afraid, a case of Cardinal oratory"—worship of the Cardinal—"and they all must have communion from the Cardinal". So that was why I would not be receiving communion, at least for a long time. "However", he said, "there is a lady here, a qualified minister, who can give you communion. I have had it from her". So I received communion from her. When we were on the way out he explained to me that he had been a priest but he had recently given up the priesthood because of the attitude of the Catholic Church to homosexuality. Yet he remained a practising Catholic. So there are people who disagree with me and with the Catholic Church and other churches who do not favour the Bill.
I speak as a Christian who sees the moral starting point as plain as the day. In the Christian view, sex outside marriage, whether heterosexual or homosexual, is sinful. Therefore, prima facie, the state should not set out to encourage action of that kind. That is the starting point. On the other hand, let us consider adultery, which is mentioned in the Ten Commandments and in some versions of the New Testament—Luke and Mark—as the first of the sins. Adultery is a very serious sin in Christian eyes, but no one is suggesting that it should be made a criminal offence.
So the problem arises: where do we draw the line? Why must a line be drawn? What is the real issue? The issue is that morality depends on freedom of moral choice. There is a limit to what the state can do in inducing people to be moral. That is the problem. I did not ask the gentleman I mentioned about his own tendencies, but he was certainly not a practising homosexual. He had just received communion.
Practising homosexuals are in sin. Nevertheless, Saint Augustine has told us that we must hate the sin and love the sinner; so we must try to love them. If any of my eight children or 26 grandchildren had been homosexual, no doubt my wife and I would have loved them. However, I cannot believe that there are many parents who prefer their son to be homosexual rather than inclined to favour women. It is contrary to the male nature. Women do not mind so much. A lot of women like homosexuals; they say they are not frightened of them. (I do not know whether they are frightened of elderly gentlemen either—I do not think they are.) They find homosexuals rather harmless, almost pathetic people and seem to like them. So the best speeches in these debates in favour of the homosexual side seem to be made by women for the reason I have given.
I do not know how many Members of the House have met rent boys. I met one who could not speak a word of English. He had just been imported to this country. If we are to think of young rent boys being seduced by middle-aged gentlemen, are we going to protect them, or are we not? Of course I have seen people recover from homosexualism. A boy at Eton assaulted my elder brother in the bath there and was later expelled for repeating the offence on another boy. Later he became a pillar of county society and captained the county cricket team. So one can undoubtedly recover from homosexualism. But if I were the parent of a boy who 690 had been seduced by some middle-aged gentleman, I should feel that his life had been taken a long way towards ultimate ruin. It would not be quite certain, but the chances are that if he was installed in life as a homosexual, he would never marry. He would probably in the end become promiscuous. A lonely old homosexual is one of the most pathetic sights that I know. In my humble way I will do anything in my power to protest against anything that threatens the young adolescent boys of our time.
§ 7.22 p.m.
My Lords, previous speakers in this House have observed what an invidious task it is to speak after the noble Earl, Lord Longford. However much one disagrees with the substance of his remarks, one cannot fail to be impressed and to admire the charm and sincerity with which he makes them. It therefore makes it very difficult to refute or deal with the points he makes. I do not seek to challenge anything the noble Earl has said about the moral teaching of the Christian, or Catholic, faith. However, I venture to suggest that it does not have very much to do with the question of what the provisions of the criminal law shall be.
Perhaps I may venture one other observation on the noble Earl's speech. He seemed to postulate the rather remarkable suggestion that a heterosexual youth has only to encounter a homosexual on one occasion and have casual sex with that man to be converted for life to homosexuality. The noble Earl may by now have forgotten what happened during his school days at Eton, but I suggest that there would be rather fewer Members of this House who were old Etonians or who had heirs if the one occasional homosexual encounter prevented one ever conducting a heterosexual life thereafter.
My principal argument for supporting the Bill should appeal above all to those of your Lordships who favour fox hunting or who vigorously oppose any attempt to ban fox hunting. I recognise that, with the noted and admirable exception of the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, those who hunt foxes are not traditionally noted for their sympathy in regard to homosexuality, yet I hope that they will for a short while listen to me and perhaps be persuaded by the argument.
The most cogent argument I have ever heard against any ban on fox hunting was advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn when he said:If one has a society which claims to be civil and civilised, one has to have regard—a proper regard—to the fact, and honour the fact, that other people may have different views about how they wish to live their lives … we must not be prescriptive about things beyond the decent limits".—[Official Report, 22/7/98; col. 970.]It is technically true that the noble Lord said that in the context of debate on the age of homosexual consent and not in the context of fox hunting. But his words are true and are of general application. As he rightly indicated, it is not the function of the criminal law to impose on any minority the moral judgments of the majority. The function of the criminal law is to criminalise only such conduct as is regarded as wrong by the whole of the right-minded community, and as sufficiently seriously wrong that it should attract criminal sanctions.
691 Those who wish to rely upon the principle in one context as, for example, to oppose a ban on fox hunting or any other legislative interference with the way in which we should conduct our own lives, must be prepared to honour that principle in other contexts such as this Bill which they may personally find less attractive.
We are concerned in this debate with a very important general principle; namely, where should the criminal law go and where should it stop? Therefore, I urge any noble Lords who might be tempted to vote against the Bill to consider that, by so doing, they will be encouraging the state to interfere with matters that ought to be left to moral persuasion and individual choice.
It is vitally important for us all to remember that we are considering what is and what should and should not be designated as a criminal offence—indeed, a very serious criminal offence—and how far the criminal law ought to interfere in an individual's private life.
The question before your Lordships is not what is socially desirable or morally right, as one might have thought when one listened to the speeches in support of the amendment by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, and other noble Lords. With respect. the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, was way off the issue when he discussed whether homosexual pairs should have equal rights to state monetary benefits. Of course the state can decide how to use its funds to give positive encouragement to ways of life that it considers positively desirable, but that has nothing to do with whether the state should impose penalties on other forms of conduct of which it is less approving.
The reasons for seeking to ensure that the law does not criminalise conduct which a considerable minority does not regard as wrong are not purely matters of theoretical principle. There are few things worse for the rule of law than to have on the statute book a criminal offence which is disregarded by a considerable number of our citizens because they regard it as unjust and misconceived. Once people start picking and choosing between various provisions of the criminal law, the status of the whole criminal law as a minimum code of behaviour is seriously weakened.
I suggest to your Lordships that the present law on the homosexual age of consent fails that test completely. It does not work. No one has suggested that it is successful in stopping 16 and 17 year-olds having homosexual relationships. It is not obeyed and those who disregard it do not feel that they are doing what is morally wrong, merely that they are at risk of punishment because of a moral code imposed upon them by an uncomprehending and alien world.
The noble Baroness, Lady Young, and her followers are fully entitled to urge upon individuals, as the noble Earl, Lord Longford, has done, all the moral, theological, medical and social arguments which they can find to persuade those individuals that they should refrain from homosexual activity. What they are not entitled to do, if they fail in their persuasion, is to use the mechanism of the state to impose their personal convictions upon people who have not been convinced by their arguments.
692 There are lots of things which are morally and theologically accepted as wrong but which are not criminal. The noble Earl mentioned the obvious one, adultery, which is far more roundly and clearly condemned in the Bible, as I understand it, than is homosexuality. But I see no rush, even from the noble Earl, to introduce 14-year sentences of imprisonment for adultery. Having said that, it worries me that that might appeal to the Government as an alternative way of reducing the number of hereditary Peers in your Lordships' House!
§ The Earl of Longford
My Lords, is the noble Viscount prepared to have a legal limit at all—of 16, 14 or whatever—or is he saying that people can do what they like?
My Lords, of course. I accept that children—and the age is arbitrary—have to be protected when they cannot make up their minds. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, I see no absolute argument for the age of 16. It is 15 in some countries and 14 or 17 in others. What is wrong, surely, is to discriminate with regard to the age of consent and to have different ages. Surely we accept that those aged 16, who are, as the noble Lord, Lord Steel, has pointed out previously, old enough not only to have heterosexual relationships but also to get married, are old enough to know, as they do, that they are willing to consent to homosexual relations.
The noble Baroness, Lady Young, again invoked that wonderful ogre, the villainous older man in his role as a seducer of the innocent young. That is a useful bogeyman; albeit that one does not know how frequent or real it is. If that is the noble Baroness's worry, surely that can he no justification for throwing out the Bill completely and perpetuating a situation in which every 19 year-old who has homosexual relations with a 17 year-old is a criminal. If the noble Baroness wishes to specify an age—say, 40 or 45—at which a much older person must not have sex with a much younger person, let her do it by amendment. It is no argument for throwing out the Bill. I hope that your Lordships will vote for the Bill and against the amendment.
§ 7.34 p.m.
§ Lord Selsdon
My Lords, I have to admit that, but for the encouragement of my noble friend Lady Young, whom I admire greatly for her commitment to this cause, I should not have dared to speak today. Because I believe in free votes in this House, I promised myself that I would listen to the debate and then decide how I should vote. At this stage I am confused. To me it was a fairly simple issue between good, clean, healthy sex and bad, unclean sex. To me, good, clean, healthy sex between a man and his wife is the ultimate expression of love and affection. The other form of sex could, I suppose, be called carnalis copula contra naturam. It is against nature; it is unnatural. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, said that these two things are effectively one and the same. I have to differ with him.
I am not used to using words that cause offence. I think back to changes of legislation and the criminal offence of blasphemy—"Thou shalt not take the name 693 of the Lord thy God in vain"—and how blasphemous words using God's name were then mixed with names and words that I feel difficulty and hesitancy about repeating. I wonder whether those old Acts are perhaps out of time. I wonder, too, whether we ourselves are perhaps out of time and out of touch with reality. A hundred years ago people did not live to our age. Today the average lifespan is quite long. But the average age of the population of this country is 38. I was told an old saying by my grandfather: "You may only tell your father what to do when you are more than half his age and you should listen to your grandchildren when they are more than a third of your age". In this case we should be listening not to ourselves but to the 20 and 30 year-olds and perhaps to others.
We have to ask whether history has moved on. Are we ourselves so out of date that we are not in touch with the modern image and attitude? I was brought up on a farm at the end of the war, with conscientious objectors, Jewish refugees, prisoners of war, Americans and others. The conscientious objectors ran the farm. I had the doubtful privilege of learning about life in the raw, all the activities of the animals, and that two bulls might try to do something to each other. On a shelf in the library one of the books was called The Police Constable's Guide to his Daily Work. One looked at that to work out whether or not one was going to break the law. It said what a police constable should do when he passed incidents on his bike or on foot. The first item was "The abominable crime of buggery". I did not know what buggery was. I consulted the farmworkers and they explained to me that this was an unnatural act, either between two men or between a man and an animal. It was effectively bestial. In some parts of Australia it is called something else.
I remember, too, just before Arnhem, being told that we had to keep the sheep out of the fields, for some strange reason that I never fully understood. I could not believe that a man or a woman could conduct an act of this kind against an animal, animals being slightly more primitive.
The abominable act of buggery goes back a long time. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, mentioned Matthew Parris. I believe that Matthew Paris—no relation to the present Matthew Parris—first defined buggery in the year 1340. But the "syn" of buggery—I do not know the difference between "sin" and "syn"—was introduced to this country by the Lombards, believe it or not. Lombard Street was the natural intercourse between trade and finance. In history we find that this is not a new activity. In general, it is brought about by lust, not by love. I therefore feel that it is wrong to promote or encourage it. There is no doubt that it is an unnatural act. Most people are, in general, natural. While we should help and protect the minority in every way we can, we should recognise the general requirements of the majority.
I worry greatly about some of the impacts that the Bill will have. I wish to speak from an international point of view. My only qualification for doing so is that I have worked in many of the countries of Africa and the Middle East and other countries. I am not an expert on 694 such things as female circumcision, but I have seen it. I do not like what man and woman, in their inhumanity, may do to each other.
The age of consent in Spain, Italy, Turkey, Portugal or North Africa is irrelevant. We are all aware that in many parts of the world young boys are sold into slavery for sodomy and young girls for prostitution. This is against our natural instincts. Perhaps we have to move with the times but I am not sure that legislation is correct. I am not sure that we know enough about this matter. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Williams, can give us a few facts about the present situation. I believe that at the present time there are some 741,000 males between the ages of 16 and 18. That is not a particularly large number. The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said in a speech, or in reply to a Question, in about 1997 that 92 per cent. of men in the study said that they had had sex only with a woman, that 6 per cent. had had no sex and only 1 per cent. had had sex with a man. How many practising homosexuals are there in this country? I should like to have some idea of the figure.
I now move to my real worry. When I talk about unclean and unhealthy sex I refer to sexually transmitted diseases, not syphilis or gonorrhoea for which those of us in the services had regular inspections, or necessarily AIDS. But AIDS is itself a worrying matter. I have spent time in parts of Africa and seen the decimation that it has caused. There are transsexuals, hermaphrodites or however one describes them, who do not necessarily differentiate where primitive instincts are still present.
But in this country my knowledge gained from people who work in these areas—I have been to AIDS hospices and other places—reveals that more often than not these diseases begin with an act between an elderly or middle-aged man and a younger man or boy, whether it be in North Africa, Cyprus, Ibiza, the Canaries, San Francisco or elsewhere in the world. It starts with an unnatural act which causes concern.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells referred to his support for the gay community. I have never liked the use of the word "gay" in this context. It is an old English girl's name. I do not mind "homosexual". I fully understand that some people are born different or behave differently. I object to people who claim to know what happens with people of that particular age when the average age here for hereditary Peers—the age is slightly younger than for life Peers—is such that we may be out of touch. Therefore, some time before this debate I took a poll—I was going to say a straw poll—of individuals in different groups. I used to do research work.
It is wrong to say that the nation opposes these changes. The argument put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, that there should be a similarity in terms of age of consent is probably correct. However, it is not the age of consent that causes concern but the act that follows it: the act of anal intercourse, buggery or whatever one calls it. With it go the pressure groups who are in a minority. If 92 per cent. of all the men in this country have had sex only with women, 6 per cent. have had no sex at all and 1 per cent. have had sex with other men, we are talking here about a very 695 small minority whom we have a duty to protect, not necessarily to chastise. We also have a duty to protect others.
I say no more. This is an emotional and sensitive subject. Your Lordships will treat it well. I do not know at this stage whether I shall join my noble friend in the Lobby this evening.
§ 7.43 p.m.
§ Baroness Mallalieu
My Lords, there is no gentle way to put this. This is an elderly House. Those in their 20s, 30s or even 40s are as mere children in this place. Even in our 50s we are still regarded as ingénues and only after 80 do we begin to be regarded in your Lordships' House as old—and sometimes not even then.
When this House last debated this issue on 22nd July I had the honour to act as a Teller. What was striking then was that with a relatively small number of exceptions, the younger Members of your Lordships' House (by which I mean those under 60) found it difficult to support the noble Baroness, Lady Young. The world outside this House and attitudes to sexuality have, I suspect, changed a great deal since most of us were teenagers.
From being objects of disgust and contempt to creatures of fun and ridicule, those who are homosexual are, I hope and believe, generally, although still far from universally, regarded as different but entitled to equality before the law. A new younger generation recognises that we do not choose our sexuality any more than we can choose the colour of our eyes. Cold showers, a spell of hard labour in Reading Gaol or a spot of queer-bashing will no more change someone's sexual orientation than a scrubbing brush will change the colour of a man's skin.
My own teenage children are incredulous that this debate is taking place tonight at all. For them and their generation, it is a self-evident truth that the criminal law should apply equally to men and boys as it does to women and girls and to homosexual 16 year-olds as it does to 16 year-old heterosexuals. To discriminate in the law on the basis of sexuality seems as wrong as to discriminate on the basis of race or religion. Homosexuals are and will remain a minority. Tolerance of minorities, as the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, reminded us, is meaningless if we apply it only to the things of which we approve.
I readily accept that the main motive of many of those who oppose this Bill is a desire to protect primarily teenage boys from predatory older men. That is a very laudable and well-meaning objective which I suspect we all share. However, I cannot but ask myself what protection the present law has afforded to the countless boys in our children's homes over the years who have been abused by those into whose care we entrusted them. What protection have the young prostitutes on the "meat racks" of all our major cities derived from the present law? What protection is it to those young people who have been victims of such predatory older people and then been afraid to seek advice or help or to complain out of fear that they have committed criminal offences which may then become known to their 696 families and possibly the police? All it has done is to lay them open to blackmail. All the present law does today is protect the abusers by forcing into secrecy those most in need of confidential help. It forces those who may be uncertain of their sexuality, as many young people are, into dependence on influences which may be both undesirable and self-interested, pushing young people, as the right reverend Prelate put it, into the "gay ghetto".
When the major organisations whose job it is to deal with the very people the noble Baroness seeks to help by her opposition to reform are crying out for this change so that they may do their job better, I venture to suggest that the argument that protection is afforded by the present law is a naïve illusion. Ironically, by her opposition to the whole Bill through her amendment the noble Baroness seeks to prevent legislation which, as she herself accepts, provides a measure of protection to those abused by people in a position of trust over them. I find all that very odd.
We have been told again tonight that teenage boys need greater protection than teenage girls because they mature less quickly. It was not so very long ago that we were told that women could not have the vote because they were incapable of rational judgment. When the vote was granted, it was said that women should receive it at a later age than men because they would not mature early enough to exercise the vote properly. I suspect that in a very short time after the passage of this legislation, which will undoubtedly follow—I hope within the next couple of years at the very least—we shall find those arguments treated with the same derision as is now applied to the earlier versions.
The noble Baroness said that support for the Bill would send out signals of support for homosexual acts to young people. But I do not believe that 16 and 17 year-olds are tuned in to the wavelengths on which she is broadcasting these signals. Teenagers are not waiting to hear the result of tonight's vote before deciding whether to embark on a sexual relationship; nor are predatory older men waiting for the green light from your Lordships before pouncing on 16 year-old boys.
The reality is that hormones speak a great deal louder than words, and far louder than votes in this House. En reality—and let us face it—the underlying objections to this long-overdue reform are, I suggest, the attitudes of a different generation brought up in a different way which retains a deep abhorrence—it has been apparent tonight in some of your Lordships' speeches—for the practices of homosexuality. It is perhaps understandable that when so many of us were brought up with, and had instilled into us, a different approach to these matters, there is a reluctance to appear to be voting in a way which could be taken as some form of approval for conduct which we personally may find repugnant or unnatural.
I suspect that few, if any, of us would choose for our teenage children or grandchildren to become involved in a homosexual relationship. For all the changes in attitudes which have occurred and are still occurring, there is still so often an element of shame, 697 discrimination, physical danger—some have already referred to it—disapproval and, above all, unhappiness in far greater measure to be overcome for homosexuals than for those associated with a heterosexual relationship.
However, surely what those of us who have children and grandchildren want for them is that if they are or may be homosexual they should be able to seek advice and help. If they cannot come to us, which we hope they will, at least they may feel able to go to those who can give them good advice and guidance. The one thing we do not want is for the next generation to be forced to endure a secret shame which must have destroyed so many lives in the past. This is a Bill whose time has come; and some of us would say it is long, long overdue.
§ 7.52 p.m.
§ Lord Plant of Highfield
My Lords, observant Members of your Lordships' House will realise that I am not the noble Baroness, Lady Brigstocke. I support the Bill. In doing so, I speak as someone who regards himself as a loyal member of the Church of England and as the father of three grown up and heterosexual sons. I support the Bill because I see the issue in terms of equality, fairness, justice and human rights. But I realise and respect the fact that many people in the House, including the noble Baroness, Lady Young, reject that as being an inappropriate moral context in which to see the issue of the homosexual age of consent. Equality and fairness mean treating like cases in like manner whereas, from the critic's perspective, it is precisely because the homosexual and the heterosexual are different in relevant ways that they should not be treated in the same way. Hence, there is the case for departing from equality of treatment because of the claimed difference between the two kinds of sexuality.
If we are to go down the path of treating one group of members of society in a different way from another, it has to be based upon grounds and criteria which should be capable of public justification. This would seem to me in the present context to imply that such discrimination could be justified for three main reasons, if those reasons were valid—which I do not believe they are. The first is that homosexuality is morally wrong and therefore should not yield the same rights as heterosexual relations. The second is that such relations can or may cause harm to the individual who seeks to exercise the rights which the Bill would confer. The third is that extending those rights would cause harm to others. I do not believe that any of those claims can be sustained.
Let me take, first, the issue of immorality as a basis for differential treatment. The argument from immorality is often couched in terms of the claim—the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, made it—that homosexuality is unnatural and therefore wrong. The moral argument cannot be as simple as that. Even if we regarded it as uncontroversially true that homosexual behaviour is unnatural, that fact alone would not entail that it is morally wrong. In general what is natural is not always right and good and what is unnatural wrong or evil. For example, our instincts are, I suppose, in some sense 698 natural. But if we merely followed our natural instincts, then, as Hobbes famously said in The Leviathan, the life of man would be,solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short".Most of human civilisation is achieved by artifice, by struggling against the natural, not by equating the natural with the morally good.
Similarly what is unnatural is not to be equated with wrong or evil. Indeed, many of the greatest human achievements from drug therapies and aeroplane travel to grand opera are to the highest degree unnatural. My point is that we cannot in our society appeal to some shared idea of the natural and the unnatural to support some obvious moral perspective as a basis for discrimination against what might be perceived to be unnatural. What is natural or unnatural has to be set into an additional moral perspective. These terms do not come along with their own moral evaluations built into them. Those moral perspectives are themselves very controversial and are matters of dispute within society. So even if we could all agree that homosexual acts are unnatural, this does not of itself justify a discriminatory response in terms of the morality of public policy.
It is worth making a further point in the context of the natural and unnatural nature of homosexual acts. The first is that if it turned out to be the case that a homosexual orientation had a genetic or some other kind of physical cause, then such an orientation would be entirely natural and that fact would fatally undermine the argument of those who wish to use the equation of "natural" with "good", and "unnatural" with "had", as a basis for discrimination.
Secondly, it has been argued both in debates in this House and in another place that the arrangement of the sexual organs of men and women somehow entail in strictly anatomical terms that human sexual love and relationships have to be defined properly only in heterosexual terms. I do not think that this argument is definitive of the alleged unnaturalness of homosexual acts. First, to reduce human love and human relations to one kind of wholly genital exchange seems to me a reductionist and impoverished view of such relationships. Once we escape from that view, there are many aspects of human physical relationships which, as films, novels, opinion polls, magazine surveys, TV dramas and so on show, are now shared widely across the homosexual and heterosexual divide. The range of human expression of physical love is extremely wide.
Hence it appears that the claim that homosexuals should be treated differently from heterosexuals on the ground of the alleged unnaturalness of their practices is very dubious. There might, however, be stronger arguments about self-harm and harm to others, but I doubt it. I do not wish to deny that self-harm and harm to others can constitute strong arguments for treating one group differently from another. What I am saying is that I do not think the empirical case in relation to such harm has been made.
Let us take the case of self-harm. There are three claims here. The first is that the later maturity of young men might mean that premature homosexual 699 relationships would damage their sexuality. Other noble Lords have discussed that; I need say no more about it. I believe that it is undemonstrated that that is the case.
The second argument about self-harm is that young men face greater risk from HIV infection. That is capable of being turned on its head. If young, active homosexual men are involved in relationships currently at the age of 16, the fact that their behaviour is currently criminal is the strongest possible inhibition on such people seeking appropriate medical advice and counselling about safe sexual practices—and, indeed, about the forms of responsibility which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells rightly emphasises.
Finally, in terms of self harm, I have to say that I do not find the argument about predatory men at all compelling. Each week the papers are littered with stories about predatory heterosexual men, many of whose crimes are horrendous. We also have the heterosexual sex industry, ranging from pornography to pictures in tabloid newspapers of young women exposing their bodies for the gratification of millions of men. Are we so confident about the naturalness of this, the non-exploitative nature of this, and the fact that young women engaged in these things have such a fixed sense of their identity and worth, that we can tolerate all of this in law while seeking to discriminate against homosexual young men on the grounds of exploitation by older men? If claimed exploitation is the argument upon which discrimination were to turn, then we would be in a deeply hypocritical position.
Finally, there is harm to others; the classical liberal basis on which discrimination may be fairly allowed. First, let me make the philosophical point that harm has to be what it says—harm—not offended sensibility. The fact that we do not much like what someone else is doing is not a ground for preventing him or her from doing it in a free society unless it harms others. Liking and disliking has nothing to do with it.
So what kind of harm to others might be done by decriminalising these acts? Well, I can think of only two possible candidates. One is harm to parents. I fully recognise that parents might not like the fact that their 16 to 18 year-old has a homosexual relationship. But this is more like offended sensibility, it seems to me, rather than harm. I have certainly had letters from supportive parents who have had to face this fact about their offspring's sexuality. Would they prefer to face the fact of their son's or (laughter's sexuality against the background in which that sexuality was able to have a free and legal expression, or would they prefer to see their sons and daughters criminalised? If we persist with this criminalisation, there is a strong chance that children will resort to subterfuge to keep their sexuality secret from their parents. In this context, it seems to me that less harm would he done to the relationship between parent and child if the relationship could be seen as an open and legal one. It could then be discussed and advice given, including advice about responsibilities that relationships bring.
The second possibility of harm would be that identified by the late Lord Devlin; the moral harm to society. But here I think the evidence is dubious. I will 700 not enter the debate about the opinion polls, but I side with the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Gould. Nevertheless, Lord Devlin's point has some validity. I agree with him that society needs a social morality to survive and I want to conclude by saying something about how we ought to see social morality.
Of course, I accept that many Christians—and I am Christian—regard homosexual relationships as sinful, but there is a world of difference between regarding something as a sin and in a free society legislating against it. I tried to argue that if we continue to discriminate in the way that the law currently does, this has to be rooted in some kind of shared moral belief which transcends the moral doctrines of a particular Church or group of people. That was my reason for dwelling upon the allegedly unnatural character of homosexuality. If this fails, discrimination has to be based upon self-harm or harm to others and neither of these cases is made, in my view.
Of course, those who accept the moral authority of the Church will seek to live in their private lives according to such values and according to its discipline, but there is a big difference in terms of whether we believe that the moral authority of the Church—even assuming that it had one view, which it does not—and its concept of sin should be a foundation for social policy. I do not believe that it should in a society with many faiths and none.
Perhaps I may conclude by making an appeal to fellow Christians in the House not to reject the Bill. In the words of Karl Barth, one of the greatest theologians of the century, in his great essay, The Civil Community and the Christian Community, speaking about civil society as a fragile arena for human purposes and human fulfilment:When we compare the Christian community with the civil community the first difference that strikes us is that in the civil community Christians are no longer gathered together as such, but are associated with non Christians … The civil community embraces everyone living it its area. Its members share no common awareness of their relationship to God, and such an awareness cannot be an element in the legal system established by a civil community. No appeal to the word of God can be made in the running of its affairs. The civil community as such is spiritually blind and ignorant … It has no creed and no gospel. Tolerance is its ultimate wisdom".In a pluralist society—and I recognise that many noble Lords wish that it were not so—we would have to find our social morality in terms of goods like freedom, fairness, justice, citizenship and equality. These will bind a diverse society together in a way that seeking to criminalise what many may regard as a sin will not.
§ 8.5 p.m.
§ Lord Quirk
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Plant, ended his very interesting speech with the word "equality", which has in fact been a leitmotif throughout the debate. And not only in this debate. In the one-page advertisement taken out by Stonewall in The Times today, the word was used 11 times. The question posed in its poll was:Do you believe that the age of consent should be equal for everyone?".701 Who need be surprised by the large number of "yes" votes? Who is against equality? Who would wish to claim to be in any doubt about equality?
So let me begin by reiterating the widely-felt dismay at the extent to which the purpose of this Bill is misrepresented as bringing equality between males and females into the issue of consensual sex activity. It does no such thing. As the Explanatory Notes clearly acknowledge, the Bill,reduces the minimum age at which a person may lawfully consent to buggery".That minimum age is at present 18 for persons of either sex; in other words, equality already exists; it is merely extended two years down the scale in the proposed Bill.
So although discussion of the Bill constantly refers to lowering the age for males (where there appears to be widespread pressure), the Bill applies also to the other half of the population, the girls of 16 and 17. I am not aware of any pressure from women's groups for such a drastic change, and I would ask the Government whether there has been consultation with women's groups to establish their opinion, or whether schoolgirls are to be granted this very dubious freedom as an unsolicited gift.
My concern is the protection of the vulnerable young of both sexes. In July last year, I called upon the departments responsible for education and health to ensure that the appalling risks from anal intercourse be well publicised. That appears in Hansard, col. 942. I have not heard of any such action. In December, I pointed out the glaring deficiencies of the many colourful and attractively produced brochures of the Health Education Authority; such as the repeated equation of anal and vaginal intercourse for heterosexuals, together with fairly detailed instructions on how homosexuals might practise "fisting", with some guidance, in this case, on how to make it marginally less injurious to the receptive partner. That appears in Hansard, col. 570. Again, I have not heard of any revision to the texts or to the policies informing them, and in the meantime we have perhaps had some measure of the Health Education Authority's efficacy from the report that graced the front page of the Times Educational Supplement of 12th March this year, revealing that more than a quarter of school children believe that girls are protected from sexually transmitted diseases merely by taking the contraceptive pill.
Is it not irresponsible to proceed with a Bill like the present one without taking effective informational measures? I am not happy to see schoolgirls smoking cigarettes, but at least I can persuade myself that they are making an informed choice in the face of well-publicised warnings of the tobacco health risk. Similarly, the dangers of drinking alcohol, of swallowing ecstasy tablets, of puffing cannabis: all these things are very prominently publicised. And in the case of beef on the bone there is actual legislation to protect us from a risk that is said to be one in a million. Why, then, the silence on the risks presented by anal sex, which Professor Gordon Stewart in 1994 estimated as being several thousand times greater than vaginal sex for teenagers.
702 What these risks actually are seems in fact to be not all that widely known, but they should certainly be known to our legislators. I wonder if those who devised the Bill before us have acquainted themselves with the quite voluminous and sobering publications on the subject, not only by the authorities I cited on an earlier occasion, in July, and not only by Professor Stewart, whom I have just cited, but other British experts such as the distinguished gynaecologist Elizabeth Duncan or experienced clinicians such as Joy Holloway and Linda Stalley. Nor need one have recourse to the medical and scientific journals in which such experts report their findings. There are far more publicly accessible materials, such as the 600-page book grimly entitled And the Band Played On by the gravely concerned and profoundly sympathetic Randy Shilts, written a dozen years ago.
I understand the reluctance of many in public life who will not speak out, desperately anxious to avoid—at almost any cost—being thought homophobic, and perhaps intimidated into what they perceive as political correctness by strident lobbies which represent any opposition to this Bill as illiberal prejudice. In my own case, I can utterly repudiate any such accusation. Homophobia to me is not just crass bigotry at its graceless worst: it is ignorant blindness to the manifest enrichment of our lives by homosexuals down the centuries. No, I am concerned only to ensure that girls and boys alike are properly informed of the dangers of anal sex so that they can make informed choices as they can in relation, for example, to tobacco. It is in any case quite spurious to identify anal sex with homosexuality. Indeed, during the Commons Second Reading debate on 25th January, one of the Bill's supporters, Ms Hazel Blears, cited research which showedthat only a minority of gay men engagein anal intercourse. And of course the Bill is quite specific in its aim of addressing not homosexuality but buggery.
So those who argue that retaining the present age of consent for buggery grossly disadvantages the homosexual community are as mistaken as those who argue that it discriminates between males and females on an unequal basis. The consent age of 18, I repeat, applies at present to buggery of males and females alike, married and single alike, just as lowering the age to 16 would apply equally to both sexes. I say nothing of the "slippery slope" argument or about the calls already heard with increasing stridency to lower the age still further to 14; nor will I dwell on the still more sinister aim of some to confer respectability on the idea of "inter-generational sex"—or what the rest of us less euphemistically call child abuse.
I conclude with a brief word about the provisions in the Bill aimed at protecting the vulnerable from abuse from those in authority over them. I welcome the thinking behind these safeguards since they recognise—in line with UK law (the Children Act of 1989) and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child—the age of 18 as the watershed between childhood and maturity. And since of course throughout life, as adults too, as several noble Lords have pointed out this afternoon, we are all liable to undue pressure and influence from those 703 in a position of greater authority, these provisions of the Bill do in fact recognise that youngsters under 18 show their immaturity arid vulnerability by needing such special protection of a kind not deemed necessary for those over 18. But have the implications of this acknowledged vulnerability of the under-18s been thought through? Have indeed the implications of the special protection provisions themselves been thought through? The National Association of Head Teachers is among the respected bodies which thinks they have not. And, with or without the special protection provisions, if the Bill's promoters consider that the age of consent to buggery should be reduced only to 17 in Northern Ireland, on what grounds do they consider that girls and boys in the rest of the UK can undertake such responsibility a year earlier?
In short, a lot more serious thinking and planning, together with determined action on the health and education fronts, needs in my view to be done before a measure like the present Bill can properly be considered.
§ 8.18 p.m.
§ Lord Tope
My Lords, much of the debate tonight has inevitably been taken up with matters of principle, matters of opinion, discussion of legal niceties, even of medical intricacies. My noble friend, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, said that it was difficult for someone speaking 10th to say anything new. It is even more difficult for someone speaking 20th.
By way of contrast I want to devote almost all of my time to dealing with the practical effects of our legislation on the teenagers of today and to relate some of the real life experiences of some of those teenagers.
Those of your Lordships who were kind enough to attend the debate I introduced on 6th October last year will recall that I presented a range of first-hand evidence I had received from young people who were routinely harassed and bullied at school, and outside it, because they were perceived by others to be gay or lesbian. I shall once again be calling on some of those direct testimonies to fear and misery. Since then a good deal more evidence has come to hand. More people have written to me, and either I or my advisers have been able to discuss problems face to face with the young people and in some cases with their parents too. I stress that because those who oppose lowering the age of consent like to argue that their opponents are in some way naive or have been got at by gay activists.
The people for whom I wish to speak this evening are ordinary people trapped in an extraordinary situation which, to a large extent, is the product of Church and state. Your Lordships need to consider the predicament of a young boy entering his teens and beginning to realise that he is attracted to people of the same sex. Many of them described to me feelings of shame, bewilderment and even panic as that realisation began to dawn. Others have closed their mind to any such feelings, only to be rudely awakened by the taunts and humiliations received from classmates who seem to have a sixth sense in detecting a "difference". Just because you do not recognise that you are gay does not mean that others will not.
704 Let the young people speak for themselves. I want to quote now from a letter I received from a homeless 18 year-old who wrote to me care of the Albert Kennedy Trust. He said:I have been sexually abused, bullied, beaten up just because I was different, because I was a `poof, pervert, homo, queer, faggot' and many other horrible names. I have had my head stuck down the toilet because I was 'abnormal' and 'different'. Why? I believe it is because of the way in which we young gay people are treated in school, in society and in law-making decisions".That young man speaks of the way people like him are treated at school. Sadly, we have had numbers of examples of homophobic teachers—some of them, I am sorry to say, in senior positions—publicly humiliating and isolating pupils thought to be gay.
A deputy head, in a crowded school entrance hall, who noticed a sixth-form boy standing near the school's Christmas tree, called out:Adam, shouldn't you be on top of the tree?".An RE teacher in Scotland isolated and humiliated! a pupil who told me:At school my RE teacher took us through all the religions, but when it came to homosexuality, he told the whole class, 'I'm sure nobody wants to know about the poofs apart from Ben'—and told me I'd have to read it on my own".As another year-11 pupil from Nottingham expressed the matter:I have had to put up with a lot from the pupils at that school because they don't understand how I feel. The teachers did next to nothing to help. Some education would help people to accept me for what I am, but I've been told that the teachers are not allowed to teach about homosexuality because of Section 28. I contemplated suicide on several occasions when t became very depressed".Suicide is a recurrent theme among many of those who have written to me or talked to us. So too is self-hatred and low self-esteem. Another teenager from the Midlands wrote:One time I wrote all over my bedroom walls that I hated everyone and myself. I even tried to take an overdose of pills four times and tried to slit my wrists one time".It is important to bear in mind that some of these teenagers have yet to have sex with anyone at all. But that does not stop them being picked on, insulted and humiliated.
It has been commonplace in several of the debates on the age of consent, both here and in another place, to speak of those young teenagers as though they have a free choice; as though choosing homosexuality were a perverse and eccentric decision, like joining the Communist Party. It is as though they could give up their sexuality just to please their parents and get married and live happily ever after. For a few who find it possible to be attracted to people of either sex, there may be a choice; lucky them. But for most who have contacted me, they can no more change their sexuality than others can stop being left-handed or can change the colour of their skin.
I ask your Lordships to reflect very seriously on that. If you were to face daily humiliation and even physical attack, your clothes damaged and your schoolwork defaced because you were perceived to he gay, would you not change if you could?
705 Some of your Lordships may recall the inquest last November on the 15 year-old Burton schoolboy, Darren Steele, who hanged himself in his bedroom. I quote from the Independent newspaper:One 16-year old friend said that a week before his death Darren had told her that he could stand the point of his bullying no longer. She said he was frequently called a 'gayboy' and 'poof' because he enjoyed cookery and drama lessons. Darren Steele was burnt with cigarettes, battered with school textbooks and branded a homosexual during five years of abuse. His headteacher said: 'The real tragedy is that Darren's parents, the school and his grandparents were not aware of his suffering'".Perhaps most terrible of all is that boys in that situation very often cannot go home and pour out their hearts to their parents. In the words of a very telling joke—or perhaps it is not a joke, "Why is it easier to be black than gay?" The answer is: "You do not have to tell your mum you're black". I invite noble Lords to think hard about that. It is a story told to me by another of my correspondents.
We have had several accounts of parents finding out unexpectedly about their son's homosexuality. Boys who have grown up in happy, comfortable homes, entirely confident that their parents loved them find themselves suddenly denounced as unnatural and unacceptable, with the words, "No son of mine". They are considered to be such an abomination that mothers can no longer bring themselves to touch their sons. What a tribute to family values those situations are; what a tribute to all those liberal leaders of opinion who use the access they have to newspapers and television to denounce those young people as unnatural and their loving relationships as second rate.
There are those who say that keeping 18 as the age of consent somehow defends family values. It cannot be said too often that people who are gay have mums and dads, sisters, brothers and grandparents. This is an issue for families too. Any parents can find themselves with a gay son or a lesbian daughter. They can face the fear that their otherwise perfectly law-abiding teenage son is in danger of a prison sentence. That is a family matter. Parents need a good deal more information on how to deal with that than they are receiving today from either the state or, usually, the Church. Here, I pay tribute to the excellent speech from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells, but sadly he said that he believed himself still to be in a minority among his fellow Bishops. Therefore, I must include the Church in that.
Now, against that real-life background, let us think how the present age of consent legislation affects the daily lives of the often isolated and anguished young people whom I have described. The age of consent law as it stands sends out what many this evening have described—and the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury has previously described—as a "signal". That signal is that in the eyes of so-called "respectable opinion", sex between two boys at the age of 16 is unacceptable whereas marriage and even parenthood at 16 is acceptable.
What signal does Parliament and, indeed, the Church of England, excluding the right reverend Prelate to whom I previously referred, send by refusing to equalise 706 the age of consent? What signal do they send to homophobic bullies and tormentors? Are they not encouraged to feel that they have all decent people behind them? What signals do we send to the young men, the sixth-form boys who know themselves to be gay; that they cannot risk on embarking on a loving relationship or even a slight intimacy without the fear of being reported to the police? If they feel the need to take that risk and obtain advice on safe sex to protect their own lives, they doubt whether confidentiality can be preserved.
A sixth-former from north London wrote to me last July explaining how the age of consent laws made him so fearful that he could not even have resort to the police when he was raped. I quote a real life experience. In his own words, he said:During this period I was raped by a man. 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. I was discouraged from reporting this incident to the law as a direct result of its inequality".I raise that particular matter because so many noble Lords seem to believe that, in some way, they are protecting 16 and 17 year-old boys. As I have just demonstrated, the exact reverse is all too often the case.
I took a recent opportunity to ask a Parliamentary Question to establish what would be the effect of sentencing a sixth-form boy to prison for consenting to a homosexual act. I am, after all, an education spokesman. What would such a boy's educational opportunities be during his detention? I was told that there was provision to overcome difficulties with literacy and numeracy. I am pleased about that, but it will not assist a sixth-form boy in applying for university entrance. Perhaps we should reflect on what in real life is likely to happen in a prison cell at night to such a middle-class sixth-form boy with no previous criminal record.
Some of your Lordships will point to the fact that, in practice, very few boys under the age of 18 are imprisoned for such offences. I merely remark that the Home Secretary assured the press that there was no question of his asking the police not to enforce the law as it stood. The law remains and, even more importantly, the fear remains. It is real and it hangs over the lives of young men who would otherwise be respectable and law-abiding citizens with promising futures ahead of them.
It will be said—indeed, it has been said endlessly—that the age of consent laws are there to control the activities of older men "preying on" young lads who do not know their own minds. Other speakers have dealt with that point very well. Most of us who are parents of teenagers are used to hearing almost anyone over the age of 25 written off as a "crumbly" or a "wrinkly". It would be very odd indeed for a teenager, whether straight or gay, to find an older man sexually attractive.
However, let us suppose that that did happen and that the teenager, to use that crucial word, "consented". Let us also suppose that the affair is exposed and the older man is prosecuted. What sort of experience is that for the teenager, to have someone he perhaps quite likes or is even fond of, dragged into court and sent to prison for an activity to which the teenager willingly consented; to 707 have to give evidence about intimate behaviour in a public court at the age of 16? Do noble Lords really think that that is a life-enhancing experience for a boy of that age? It is a very different matter for a victim who rightly demands justice. For a consenting partner, it is to be forced into the role of coward and betrayer.
I am very much struck by the difference in reaction on this matter of law between your Lordships' House and those in another place. It is paradoxical because in the other place Members have to seek re-election and we do not, at least not yet. As others have commented, it seems to me to be a generational difference of opinion that is reflected in the difference between our two Houses.
Thirty years ago and more, many of us were educated in single-sex schools. A good many of us were in boarding schools and girls were a species to which many had little or no access. The sex drive of teenage years drove some to—shall we say? —make their own fun. They were not gay, although intense friendships may have made them wonder. When they were liberated into the real world, of course they fell in love with girls and got married and had children of their own. Looking back now, they think of homosexuality as "just a phase which people grow out of". I am sure many people really believe that.
I hope that I have said enough tonight to make such people see that this view simply does not relate to the lives of boys and young men who really are gay in the world of today. Those boys grow up surrounded by girls from playschool through primary school to their comprehensive. Some of them tell me they began to realise they were in some way different by the age of seven or eight. Some of them wish very much that they were able to change. Some teenagers, crying themselves to sleep tonight because of the vile day they have had, would he very glad if it were a phase, but it is not and I have to say that it is cruel, however unintentionally, to keep saying that it is a phase.
Last year was the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By coincidence, as I was preparing for my debate on homophobic bullying last October, the United Nations Association sent me a summarised version of the declaration. I should like to quote some of the articles from that summary and to invite your Lordships to consider them in the context of the young people we are discussing tonight. Article 1 states:All human beings are born free and with the same rights".Article 2 states:These rights apply to everyone whatever their race, gender, religion or any other factor which might make them different from other people".Article 3 states:Everyone has the right to life, and to live in freedom and safe from harm".Article 5 states:No one shall be tortured or punished cruelly or treated in a degrading way".Article 6 states:Everyone counts as a full human person before the law708 Most importantly of all, Article 7 states:The law must be the same for everyone".As we enter upon the new millennium, I find it simply appalling that a whole group of young people in Britain find it impossible to secure their basic human rights as drawn up over 50 years ago.
I conclude with the words of someone just a little older, a young man in his 20s, who has triumphed over bullying and harassment to emerge into a successful career after graduating from university. He said:The media thinks that gay people are just born at the age of 25 and sadly it isn't true. They're kids and they're growing up in every school, in every playground, in front of every TV and homophobic tabloid newspaper in the country, and they're being hurt very seriously.Teachers need to be able to say 'It's OK if you're gay. It's no big deal. It doesn't matter and you're just as worthy as anyone else. We're here if you need to talk'. It's not about encouraging people to be gay, dishing out condoms to kids or making straight people turn gay—that's impossible. It's just about letting people breathe and have a life and facing up to the fact"—
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, perhaps I may remind the noble Lord that the Companion states that in debates which are not time-limited, speakers are expected to keep to within 15 minutes. There are 30 speakers left. At 10 minutes each speaker, that is another five hours.
§ Lord Tope
My Lords, I apologise to the House. I was on my last sentence. Perhaps I may just conclude quoting from the letter, which goes on to state:It's just about letting people breathe and have a life and facing up to the fact that gay kids have a harder time growing up and that everyone in society should be valued".That is why we should give the Bill its Second Reading tonight.
§ 8.37 p.m.
§ Lord Warner
My Lords, I rise to strongly support the Bill and I shall be brief. Despite some of the speeches made tonight, the Bill is not about family policy, sexually transmitted diseases, health education or homosexuality and whether we approve of such practices. It is a Bill about human rights and equality under the law. It is about a government's ability to honour its international obligations. As the noble Lord, Lord Tope, indicated, it is also about stopping a minority—homosexuals—continuing to be oppressed by a majority of heterosexuals, of which I acknowledge I am a member.
I add, for the reassurance of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, that I did not feel any ambivalence about my sexuality as a teenager so I speak from a different perspective. In this context I want to emphasise some of the points about the human rights arguments that have been strongly put by the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and to try to demonstrate that, frankly, most of the arguments put forward by the noble Baroness. Lady Young, and her supporters are irrelevant to the character of the Bill.
As long ago as 1994 the European Commission of Human Rights ruled admissible a complaint by three men that the UK was in breach of Articles 8 and 14 of 709 the European Convention on Human Rights because of the different ages of consent for homosexuals and heterosexuals. However, because all three of those men were over 18 and the age of consent for homosexuals was reduced by Parliament to 18 the case was not referred to the European Court. Thus, the previous government responded to a commission view in exactly the same way as this Government are doing today, and to be quibbling about whether the Government should be acting in advance of the court ruling seems to me an act of hypocrisy.
The commission then ruled that the UK had a case to answer in respect of Euan Sutherland who was 16 at the time and who argued that the reduction in the age of consent to 18 was still discriminatory. When the case was considered by Ministers in this Government after the 1997 election, the Government and the complainant agreed to apply to the court for the case to be deferred pending a vote in Parliament at the earliest opportunity and that the parallel case of Christopher Morris was to be dealt with in the same way.
In practice it is pretty clear that the UK has been in breach of the ECHR under both Articles 8 and 14 for some time and both those articles, together, grant homosexuals the same respect for family and private life and the same rights of freedom secured without discrimination on any grounds as apply to everybody else. In my view the Government are acting wisely in trying to put beyond doubt the outcome of this issue before the United Kingdom is exposed to the ridicule of a court decision requiring it to comply with the European Convention on Human Rights.
All that has been taking place while this Parliament passed the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into the Human Rights Act. If we do not pass this legislation, when the Human Rights Act is brought into operation we will be required by British courts in all probability to comply with the legislation.
The Government have done their best to secure that compliance. In 1998 the House of Commons voted on a free vote by 333 to 129 to support lowering the age of homosexual consent to 16. It was thwarted, in my view, last July by the unreasonable and totally irrational behaviour of 290 Members of this House, 188 of whom were Conservatives and 150 of whom were hereditaries. Reading some of the contributions in that debate, one is struck by the way that some who spoke with great authority on sex and its consequences did so against the background that the likelihood of any recent experience seemed quite remote.
Thus, we had an unelected second Chamber thwarting the elected government of the day in discharging their obligation to bring our domestic law into conformity with an international convention into which we freely entered. That is the nub of this Bill and that is what we will be preventing the Government from doing if the amendment proposed by the noble Baroness is passed.
I want briefly to mention three other issues which seem to me strongly to suggest that this House should show a little more maturity than it showed last July. First, the United Kingdom is completely out of step with 710 the rest of Europe in its age of homosexual consent, as was made clear by many other speakers. In Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal and Denmark, the age of homosexual consent is 16. France, Italy, Spain and Sweden have a lower age of homosexual consent. In the United Kingdom the private acts of gay young men are quite unnecessarily criminalised compared with their European counterparts. In this country 16 year-olds can go on holiday in most European countries and engage in homosexual acts without fear of prosecution, but not in their own country. That is a totally absurd situation into which we have got ourselves.
Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, last July this House demonstrated how totally out of touch it was with younger public opinion in this country. We have already discussed the NOP poll and I will not go into the details of that. But perhaps most significantly, the only age group with a clear majority in favour of retaining the consensual age of 18 was the over-55s. My noble friend Lady Mallalieu has already drawn attention to the fact that there are not many under-55s in this House. But what we have by comparison in that poll is the overwhelming majority of 15 to 24 year-olds favouring the lowering of the age for homosexual consent.
There is a world outside this place where the majority of people favour lowering the age of consent subject to the safeguards on people in positions of trust that the Government introduced in the Bill. In the same NOP poll, 60 per cent. of people made it clear that they agreed with the Government's package in this Bill. Another vote by this House like that of last July will simply demonstrate to the outside world how out of touch many Members of this House are and how desperately it needs to be reformed.
Thirdly, the Government responded—in my view handsomely—to the parliamentary concerns expressed last time about the risk of potential abuse of trust for children, for example, in residential care. The excuses for not lowering the homosexual age of consent to 16 have been for the most part removed by the clauses in the Bill on abuse of positions of trust. As a former director of social services, I welcome the changes that the Government have introduced. Moreover, they have been welcomed by virtually all children and health interest groups who now want to see this legislation passed speedily so that 16 and 17 year-old young men are not necessarily criminalised.
The arguments about inadequate safeguards are spurious. I draw attention to the fact that in displaying her dismissive attitude of the views of many of the children's services, the noble Baroness was being arrogant. We must bear in mind that we have the overwhelming balance of expert opinion arrayed strongly against the arguments put forward by the noble Baroness and her supporters.
Finally, I should like to mention that in this country many young men, well under 18, are engaged in homosexual acts consensually and privately. We are criminalising them unnecessarily for acts that would not be illegal in virtually the whole of the rest of Europe. We are condemning them to live in fear for a longer 711 period than necessary. The UK would be found in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights by discriminating unfairly against them and the Government are rightly trying to honour their obligations under the convention.
It is noteworthy that there is an issue here about different attitudes of different political parties to living within the convention. It is worth bearing in mind that there seem to be party differences over respect for the convention. I observe that around 75 per cent. of the breaches found against the United Kingdom since we signed the convention in 1951 took place between 1979 and 1997, with a rapid increase at the end of that period.
The Government have provided adequate safeguards in this Bill and, rightly in my view, are speedily trying to ensure that we do not have the United Kingdom again in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. I hope that, on reflection, the noble Baroness, Lady Young, will not pursue her misguided amendment this evening.
§ 8.47 p.m.
§ Baroness Turner of Camden
My Lords, I hope that this Bill will receive the support of this House and that the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, will be rejected. The noble Baroness is opposed to the Bill. That is her right, but I believe she is mistaken. I hope the House will not feel disposed to reject what has received the overwhelming support of the other place.
The main area of controversy is the age of consent, and Clause 1 provides for an equal age of consent for heterosexual, lesbian and gay sexual activity. I emphasise the word "consent". Consent is important because this is about consensual sexual activity, not non-consensual sex.
I find it difficult to understand why this proposition should arouse such hostility, as it obviously does and it did last time round. There is perhaps a generational problem here—a point already made by a number of other noble Lords this evening. In this House we tend to be older than our colleagues in the other place. Sometimes that can be an advantage and I do not wish to decry in any way the wisdom that many noble Lords can bring to the debates we have in this House. But it is not always an advantage, and we have to understand that time moves on and attitudes change.
The Bill provides equal protection and equal treatment for all young people. Surely that is to be welcomed, as is the provision in relation to persons in positions of trust, so ably explained by the Minister this evening. I could never understand the argument advanced by some people, and again this evening, that young women of 16 do not need protection from predatory heterosexual men, but young men up to the age of 18 apparently do need protection from homosexual men. This appears to spring from the notion which we have again heard this evening, that it is more damaging for a young man to have a homosexual relationship than it is for a young girl to have a heterosexual relationship, even though she may become pregnant with an unwanted child as a result. That does not make any sense to me.
712 However, it does now appear that public opinion has moved on. There has been some discussion tonight about the 66 per cent. poll. I do not want to go into the details of that, but clearly there has been some movement in public opinion, although I agree with those noble Lords who have said that if a Bill is right it should be supported irrespective of what public opinion will say. Many reputable organisations concerned with the protection of children now give their support to the provisions of the Bill. The organisation of which I was a council member until recently, Save the Children, has for many years been outspoken in support of equalisation.
The problem under the present law is that it criminalises young men at an age when they should be receiving support. There is much evidence to show that young people are conscious of their sexuality at an early age: certainly by the age of 16. I suspect that was always so and, as far as my generation was concerned, we tended to keep quiet about it. Certainly I was well aware when I was younger than 16 that I was probably going to like men for the rest of my life, and this sexual orientation led me in the direction of a happy marriage which lasted for some 40 years.
Unfortunately, many gay and lesbian youngsters are not so lucky in their lives. If young men are made to feel criminal about their sexuality, that severely hinders their development. Many organisations professionally concerned with young people attest that this is so and, as many noble Lords have said, the European experience would also appear to indicate that the United Kingdom is out of step. In most countries, heterosexuals and homosexuals are treated equally when it comes to the age of consent, and it is about time that we changed our law so that we reflect changes in thinking.
The strongest objections would appear to come from those who profess strong moral or religious views. Of course such views should be respected, although it should be pointed out that not everyone with strong religious views believes that homosexuality should be subject to this kind of discrimination. I recall that some time ago I was successful in this House in getting support for a Private Member's Bill to protect lesbians and homosexuals against discrimination in employment. I was able to produce a fair amount of evidence to indicate that discrimination at work does take place, and unfortunately our laws do not yet prohibit that. Although the Bill was passed by your Lordships, it did not for various reasons secure support in the other place. Nevertheless, there was quite a lot of support for it in principle and it is something to which we must return.
The fact that there is still such discrimination indicates that there is still a lot of prejudice—and that is a further reason for ensuring that we begin to tackle this at its root—and young men are made to feel that they are somehow different and inferior. That is what happens with our present law, and that surely has to end. To those with religious objections I say that while I respect their views—and I really do—this is not a matter for law. It is essentially a private matter. People with religious and/or moral objections do not have the right, in my opinion, to impose their views on others, 713 and there are now many who do not share those views. I hope the House will support the Bill and reject the amendment.
§ 8.53 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Winchester
My Lords, it is perhaps appropriate that I should find myself following the last speaker in view of what she said. I shall comment on those remarks in a moment but I want first to apologise and to express regret that I missed the first three speeches of this debate. I had a prior appointment, as Protector of a religious community, to receive the profession in life vows of a sister, and to do so in the diocese of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells, from whose convictions, as those who were here last July will know and as will become clear from what I have to say, I differ on a number of points. However, I was here in time to listen to his contribution today and it seemed to me that he made a distinguished and brave speech. I much regret that that other distinguished and brave speaker, the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, whom I have been privileged to get to know in other circumstances as well as in this House and whom I respect, let himself, it seemed to me, be led astray into a really rather unfortunate attack on the Bishop of Bath and Wells. It is important to say that the Church of England would be poorer and less effective if he were not in his present post.
I want to speak briefly to Clauses 3 and 4 and to Clause 2. Amid all the things that have been said about the Christian faith and the Churches it is important to take up what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Plant, and the noble Baroness, Lady Turner. I should then like to approach the central issue contained in Clause 1.
Abuse of trust is a matter that justifies serious law making, but I do not find that what we have now in this Bill can be reasonably described, as the noble Lord, Lord Warner, just described it, as a handsome response by the Government. It seems to me feeble in the extreme, as shown by the extent to which substantial attempts were made to expand its provisions in the other place, both in Committee and on Report. It seems to me right to say that there is no reference to Church organisations. That is an obvious weakness. A range of voluntary organisations are also devoid of any reference. I cannot see that anybody who is not already minded to support Clause 1 could be encouraged to do so by the presence in the Bill of Clauses 3 and 4.
What is more, as others will have noticed—because I am sure that I am not the only one who reads this material—in Research Paper 994, page 29, Mr. Boateng was reported—not in another place but in some other context—as promising that he would make absolutely certain that the two issues of age and abuse of trust were treated as entirely separate. I am unclear really why Clauses 3 and 4 have a place in the Bill at all.
Clause 2 I find, as I am sure others do, superficially attractive. Here we are clearly talking about children although, as I understand it, the Children Act speaks about children up to the age of 18. Here we are clearly speaking about children and it is clearly attractive that 714 they should be entirely removed from the scope of the criminal law. I hope that the clause will be carefully explored. It seems to me to run a grave risk of legitimising, even encouraging, homosexual activity between those under 16 and those just over and just under or between those under and much older. I appreciated what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, about the declaratory and demonstrative roles of law. I am therefore very concerned about Clause 2. It seems to me there are ample grounds for arguing for its deletion in Committee and for saying that for that age group too prosecution should be a discretionary matter, as I think in practice, if not in the letter of the law, it is already at an older age.
It seemed to me that the admirable reference by the noble Lord, Lord Plant, to the great man Karl Barth was very apt. It is right that he should be referred to in this House. All the same, he has lost his particular position and has sought to import it into what is a very different tradition. I believe that the English tradition of government, both ecclesiastical and political, is symbolised by the presentation to a monarch of a Bible at the monarch's coronation. The clear implication is that it is the responsibility—certainly it has been for hundreds of years when the Churches have, rightly, not had the same kind of powers that they had many centuries ago—both of Christian and of people of other faiths and traditions very specifically to argue for particular positions in public life and public legislation out of a conviction common not only to Christianity but to other major faiths in different ways, although, speaking as a Christian, there are claims of God upon the character and nature of human society which ought to be expressed within and through the law-making process. Those are not to be imposed—the word used by the noble Baroness, Lady Turner—but the points need making. Therefore it seems to me that the noble Lord, Lord Plant, was inaccurate in alluding to Karl Barth in that way and drawing on that as an authority.
Clearly Clause 1 is the heart of the Bill. I find myself in the end no more disposed to agree with it and support it than I was last July. However, I still find myself strongly moved by the arguments in favour of change which I have heard again today as weighing heavily with many Members of your Lordships' House, including the Bishop of Bath and Wells, the noble Lord, Lord Tope, the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, and many others. I think of the argument in particular which note that young gay people and children and young people who worry whether they may be gay can be greatly distressed, ill used, driven to despair and even to suicide by the ways in which they or others understand these provisions. They may be stopped from seeking medical help. All those arguments, experiences and true description weigh heavily with me too. They are powerful arguments.
Then there is the other range of powerful arguments for equality and against discrimination. I take the latter first. For me it simply does not follow from a belief that all human beings are equal—ultimately because they are made by God in His image, loved by Him and destined by Him for a place in His eternal purposes—that everything human beings do with or to each other is 715 equally valuable and desirable and should be equally and indiscriminately permitted as being actions that have equal rights. I hold—as it seems to me do the vast majority of adherents both of the Christian and of the other major faiths—that some forms of sexual fulfilment are intrinsically better and more in accord with God's will, let alone safer, than others. If I and others hold that view, it seems to us entirely legitimate that the law should continue to permit certain sexual behaviour only to those of whatever age it deems mature. I take this to be a proper, defensible and legitimate discrimination. I place those words together advisedly. It seems to me that we really have to be careful that words that are currently partial should not simply frighten us out of thinking responsibly.
I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for his extreme clarity in speaking as he did about the commission of human rights. However, I was not convinced by either of the arguments of the commission as he reported them, and by the second still less than the first. Both seem to me heavily ideologically weighted, precisely what the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, warned us against—to be accepted with the breakfast cereal, as it were, as if it were the most normal thing in the world and could not be questioned.
As I said, I take seriously the evidence that some children and young people are being hurt, isolated and driven to despair and even suicide by the signs and messages that arise for them and for those around them from the difference in the age of consent. I noted, too, the point, made, I believe, by the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, that there is something of an uncomprehending and alien world as regards those of us who speak as I am speaking. I need to take that seriously too.
But it needs to be said that these questions of a proper concern 14 younger people's welfare and the questions of equality and discrimination, though proper issues for us to think about—in terms of people's welfare, it is absolutely right that they should be (if I can put it this way) almost the sole matter of attention for statutory and voluntary organisations engaged in the care of young and gay people—are not the only issues that we have to consider as law makers, let alone as Bishops. I take the view that these same young people are potentially being hurt just as much—and many others. both younger and older, are being no less seriously damaged—by the remorseless sexualising of society, for which we all have to share some responsibility. That is a culture that is especially hard on young people and probably especially hard on young gay people in its pressing upon us all to act as if every kind of sexual activity is as good or wholesome as any other if it is what one wants at the time or if one can persuade oneself that it harms no one else.
I continue to judge that we shall do still more harm to more young people and to many older people of whatever sexual orientation or preference by colluding with this culture and further legitimising it, as I believe Clause 1 of the Bill does, than we shall do by holding to the present position, notwithstanding the difficulties to which I recognise it contributes for a number of younger people in particular. I am clear therefore that 716 I cannot vote for the Second Reading; I am still weighing the question of whether it is wise, including from a constitutional point of view, to vote for the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Young.
§ 9.6 p.m.
§ Lord Harmsworth
My Lords, it is a pity that this subject is capable of sometimes emotional consideration. From the point of view of a parent, the problems are much more likely to be practical.
I, too, begin from the standpoint that a heterosexual relationship—if that is the way the genetic die have been cast—must surely be not only the norm, but the most fulfilling and beautiful state—certainly no "well of loneliness". Other than in extreme chromosomal situations, I do not believe for one minute that sexuality is, as has been stated by some, determined irrevocably at an age before 16. I think the good Lord was far more subtle when he shuffled the genetic pack. Not only do sexual orientations change during a lifetime, but the swings may be quite strong and quite marked when a child is in his teens and later.
From a parent's point of view, the ability to influence the position must not be removed for as long as it is of value to hold on to it. Lowering the age of consent by two years could make a very crucial and possibly irredeemable difference. Once that crucial experience has been had, made much more easy by legitimisation, the chances of parental help in accelerating a likely swing later the other way may be lost for ever. I would not wish to make it more difficult for the parent to take advantage of that chance.
I remember that in my late school days and early university days the conventional wisdom was that no student of constitutional history—or any other subject for that matter—would fail to flirt with communism before seeing the light. Likewise with a child's body over that period; it is going through much turmoil and evolution. As I have said, I would have trouble believing any physician who might try to persuade me that sexuality was fixed and stable before the age of 16. Indeed, one hears of extreme and wretched cases of perfectly normal heterosexual marriages which break up much later owing to one party deciding that he or she is homosexual.
The Minister pointed to a formidable array of institutional supporters for the lowering of the age of homosexual consent. These included the British Medical Association, the National Association of Probation Officers, Barnados, NSPCC, the Terrence Higgins Trust and the UK Health for All Network. I wonder whether those institutions are in a rather Mandy Rice-Davies type position: "They would say that". They are in the position of dealing with the inevitable problems that result from blunt law applied to subtle chemistry. Parents are in a different position. They—all of them—are trying to prevent a trend which results later in the discomfiture of those institutions.
Finally, when the Minister winds up, will he help us on the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, who laid his professional reputation on the line? He said, effectively, that he would bet his bottom 717 dollar that the European Commission of Human Rights would be followed by a similar judgment by the European court in the Sutherland case. I believe that many of your Lordships have been sent an opinion by a barrister, who draws our attention to what is known as the "margin of appreciation", which allows legislative aberrations in certain national socio-ethical areas. Will the Minister be kind enough to advise the House how he sees that playing a part in any judgment by the court?
I would not wish to seal the fate of an extra number of unfortunate children for the sake of legislative neatness.
§ 9.11 p.m.
§ Lord Davies of Coity
My Lords, I must immediately confess that it is with some trepidation that I rise to my feet to speak in this debate, trepidation prompted by what seems to be perceived as the politically correct stance to take, particularly among Labour parliamentarians. However, my much deeper feelings on this issue far outweigh any feeling of trepidation I experience. In my view, it is the way we feel and the emotions by which we are driven which are of considerable importance. They cannot be simply disregarded and wholly discounted by way of logical argument or intellectual concepts. I propose to expand on this a little later.
Noble Lords may recall that when this question was debated in this House in July last year, I intervened when my noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn was winding up the debate. I intervened on that occasion because I was moved by the way my noble friend was very strongly using the arguments of inequality and discrimination, suggesting—to me at least—that those of us who opposed the reduction in the age of consent were in fact supporting inequality and discrimination. Indeed, the Home Secretary employed much the same arguments in the other place when moving the Bill in January of this year. However, my intervention in the debate was to ask my noble friend the Minister whether he thought it valid to use these terms when comparing one relationship which is generally considered natural with another which is generally considered unnatural. Although the answer "yes" was brief and to the point, I did feel it was less than satisfactory.
However, in the following week a noble friend of mine, writing in a national newspaper, referred to my intervention, without naming me, I might add, and challenged the description of "natural" and "unnatural", conceding that the two relationships were different but arguing, it seemed to me, that the correct term for the different relationships were "usual" and "unusual".
Before I continue on this point, I wish to pause for a moment to emphasise that this issue is not about homosexuality versus heterosexuality but is clearly and unequivocally about protecting young males from abuse by adults, a protection the Government recognise is necessary for all youngsters which is reflected in the Bill, and to which I shall refer later.
Returning now to the article to which I referred and the differing views of the two relationships, I must confess that the view expressed, which was contrary to 718 my own, has some merit and indeed I found the argument quite thought-provoking. That led me to re-examine my approach to the issue. I was driven to re-examine my logical approach to the issue and I was persuaded to re-examine my intellectual approach to the situation. I was also forced to re-examine my emotional feelings towards all the circumstances.
This is where I found the solution to my dilemma. I now return to what I mentioned at the outset of my remarks—feelings, the emotions which influence our thinking about heterosexual relationships and the emotions which influence our thinking about homosexual activity; but, most importantly, the way these feelings impact upon our view of inequality and discrimination.
The views expressed on this issue by homosexuals are not, I suggest, wholly motivated by logical and intellectual arguments but to some extent by the way they feel and by the direction in which their emotions take them. When this issue was debated in the other place in January an honourable Member on the Labour Back Benches confessed his heterosexuality, saying that sex dominated about 1 or 2 per cent. of his thinking whereas it seemed to him that sex dominated the thinking of homosexuals 100 per cent.
I doubt very much whether those figures are correct. But that is not the point. In my view, the point is that, whatever the thinking, it stems at least in part from emotional feelings. That is not something I object to. It is just a demonstration that the approach taken by homosexuals is to some extent motivated by their emotional feelings. Therefore, there must be no complaint about those of us who are heterosexual also being driven by our emotional feelings. It is indeed unjust for us to be criticised and charged with being guilty of discrimination and inequality simply because we do not believe that it is in the best interests of young men to expose them to greater risk by lowering the age of consent to 16 years.
I turn specifically to the terms of the Bill before us. The Bill proposes two legislative changes, as clearly described in the Explanatory Notes accompanying the Bill. The first proposed change is to reduce the age of consent for homosexual activity from 18 years of age to 16 years of age and the second is to introduce particular protection for all youngsters, male and female, under 18 years of age. I have no difficulty whatever in supporting the second proposed change, which makes it a criminal offence for an adult to have sexual intercourse or engage in any other sexual activity with a person under 18 years of age if the adult is in a position of trust in respect of the person under 18 years of age.
My problem arises, as already indicated, in respect of the first change proposed in the Bill—to reduce the age of consent generally from 18 to 16 years in respect of homosexual activity. My concern—I emphasise it again—is that young males will not be at greater risk from abuse than they are at present by anything that we might do. Indeed, I feel that my concern has been reinforced by the Government because of the second proposed change in the Bill. Their proposed protective 719 measure clearly recognises the threat of abuse to which young people are often exposed from some of those in positions of trust. Indeed, I share the Government's concern. That is why I wholly support that part of the Bill.
At this point perhaps I may digress just a little. I believe that my digression is germane to the essence of this debate. Noble Lords will recall that only recently Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector of Schools, was reported as saying that sex between a teacher and a pupil can be educative", and that a teacher involved should not automatically be drummed out of the profession—and that comes at a time when the Government are introducing legislation to stamp out that kind of relationship. I appreciate that Mr. Woodhead has apologised for his remarks and that the Secretary of State did not sack him, although it was reported at the time that he was seething over the remarks.
The reason I bring this matter to the attention of the House is that if those remarks reflect the thinking of someone as important as the Chief Inspector of Schools, how wide is such thinking among many of those in positions of trust? Should we not be very careful indeed of taking any steps whatsoever that are likely to increase the risk to any young person?
That is where I part company with the Government. Whereas they may well believe that they have done enough in the Bill to reduce the degree of abuse and remove the level of risk, I do not. I also recognise and appreciate that, in framing this Bill in the way that they have, the Government are trying to straddle two horses at the same time with the two proposed changes to the law: first, to increase the protection of all young people under the age of 18, whom they undoubtedly see as being at risk and in danger of being abused by some of those who are in positions of trust; and, secondly, to meet what they believe will be the requirements of the decision of the European Court of Human Rights.
As I have already said, I have no difficulty whatsoever in supporting, as a stand-alone provision, the protection of all those under 18 years of age from the risk of abuse by adults in positions of trust. But it does not follow that equalising the age of consent for both heterosexual and homosexual relationships is a necessary and justifiable course of action.
I have advanced my view that emotions play a considerable part in forming our opinions on all sides of the argument. But I appreciate that logic must also play a part. I know that there will be many heterosexuals as well as homosexuals who take the view, which they see as logical, that both relationships are equal and therefore should be treated as equal under the law. I understand that anyone taking that view will logically move on to conclude that, if the ages of consent remain different, inequality and discrimination will persist.
However, if your Lordships reach the conclusion, as I do, that the two relationships are not compatible comparisons, and hence the different relationships are not to be seen as equal and that to compare them is like comparing apples to pears, we shall not see our stance as one of supporting inequality and discrimination and therefore any charges of that kind are unfair and unjust.
720 Therefore, because I do not see the two relationships as being the same, I do not accept the reasoning for treating them equally under the law. I shall therefore oppose the reduction in the age of consent from 18 to 16 years of age for homosexual relationships.
In conclusion, I wish to make two short points. The first is by way of a caution. 'When legislation was first introduced, the age of consent for homosexual relationships was 21. It was then reduced to 18. It is now proposed to reduce the age to 16. Therefore, I think we can be forgiven for wondering what will come next if we do not make a stand now. Secondly, the Government have given a free vote on this issue Therefore, if this House opposes the Bill, I certainly hope that the Government will not use the Parliament Act. I know that there is precedent for doing so. but I shall be extremely disappointed if a Labour Government resort to that procedural action.
§ 9.24 p.m.
§ Lord Gray of Contin
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow that brave speech from the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Coity. We have listened to a number of interesting speeches during the debate, some from experts and some from noble Lords who were closely associated with the earlier Bill last year. I cannot claim to belong to either category, but I suggest that some of my comments might find favour with marry outside this House and certainly reflect the discussions which I have had with friends and acquaintances over the past few months.
First, I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, on his Privy Counsellorship, which I think we all agree is richly deserved. When he opened the debate he suggested that minds might already be made up, and I wholly agree. For that reason, and because so much of what I had intended to say has already been said at least once, I shall be brief so that we can proceed more quickly towards the vote and a little respite.
I shall support my friend Lady Young, who spoke with such conviction and whose arguments against the Bill I found compelling. I have always regarded homosexuality with the detachment of a heterosexual male. None the less I fully accept that in a free society everyone has the right to follow the lifestyle of their choice and in doing so to be free from discrimination.
I draw a dividing line between, on the one hand, two adult males who, after consideration, decide to live together and whose homosexuality remains private, known probably to only a handful of close friends, and, on the other hand, the male prostitute or even enthusiastic amateur to be found in gay clubs or even less desirable surroundings. Sadly, it is the latter rather than the former whom the young teenager is likely to encounter and from whom he needs protection.
Of course, the teenage youth may also meet homosexuality with older men in perfectly respectable surroundings, as a result, for example, of hero worship. Sportsmen, actors and musicians are three categories, but anyone whose talents he greatly admires and who happens to have a yearning for young men may prey on his affections.
721 I need go no further than Clause 1 to find the stumbling block to my giving the Bill my support. The heading of that clause is:Reduction in age at which certain sexual acts are lawful.That age is to be reduced from 18 to 16. My contention is that, as legislators, we must take account of the fact that maturity at 16 is by no means automatic. Although some 16 year-olds are physically mature, they may well not be either mentally or emotionally mature; nor does maturity affect all in the same way at the same time. Although the difference between 16 and 18 is but two years, they are two vital years. They are highly impressionable years when young people can easily be influenced.
Several speakers have stressed the desirability of uniformity in the age of consent, instancing heterosexual sex and homosexual sex. Surely at 16 the young male cannot be certain that he is homosexual and that it is homosexual sex which he really desires. Those extra two years may well save him from becoming involved in a homosexual relationship which he might bitterly regret later in life.
If the Bill is lost tonight and the Government are forced to use the Parliament Act, one consequence will result; namely, present 16 year-olds will probably have at least 18 months before a new Bill could be enacted. That is, in my view, a great advantage for them. It might also give the Government time to think again about Clause 1. I wish my noble friend's amendment every success.
§ Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer
My Lords, protecting people from themselves has, throughout history, been an excuse for promoting prejudice and denying individuals the right to choice. We have seen societies in which black and white people have been denied the right to a relationship and in which people from one class were not supposed to have relationships with people from another. But in such societies people have still had relationships that have fallen outside those particular laws. They have still fallen in love and sometimes have paid a high price for it. I do not believe that we in Britain today want a section of our society to pay a high price for falling in love with someone.
The noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, was absolutely right when she said that the world outside your Lordships' House would scarcely understand the debate tonight; and certainly those under the age of 25 have a totally different concept of the kinds of issues that we are debating. I believe that they would be slightly shocked at our concentration on aspects of sexual behaviour with so little mention of love, concern and relationships. I do not believe that they see sex as separate from care or love, as some speakers have implied.
It is no coincidence that the age group that least supports this Bill is the 55-plus age group. Passion and romance in this world belong mostly to the young. As we move further and further from the experience of 722 being in love, if we are not careful we can become cynical and look only for the worst of motives among the young whom we no longer understand.
Being a teenager is difficult. Falling in and out of love, unrequited love and the power of sex that dominates thought are a difficult bunch of issues to tackle at the same time as taking exams, applying to enter university, applying for a job and leaving home. No one between the ages of 16 and 18 should be left to deal with life-changing issues without help and advice.
I know to my cost as a parent that a huge amount of time is spent on the telephone by the 16 to 18 age group seeking advice on relationships, usually from friends. But parents need to know that their child can approach the family doctor on health issues and the youth counsellor on emotional problems. If one is a gay young man barred from receiving advice, how is one to make considered and informed choices? It is very hard to make those choices by oneself. If one is regarded as a criminal, one's self-esteem will suffer enormous harm and one's prospects in every area will be affected.
Several times this evening we have heard listed the organisations which support this Bill. I shall not repeat them. All of those organisations support this measure because they are very much aware that to deny help to a group of young people at the most vulnerable moment of their lives is extremely dangerous. If the aim is to protect this group, your Lordships must heed the advice of all those groups which work with young people. The best way to help young people to resolve the difficult issues of sexuality, relationships, love, health, rejection and acceptance is to allow them to be as open as possible about their feelings and their situation. If a relationship criminalises an individual, how can he turn to anyone for advice?
I am quite aware that a number of noble Lords may wish that homosexuality did not exist; and some noble Lords may even wish that young people did not have sexual relationships at 16, 17 or even 18. But I do not believe that we are here to reinforce our subjective views, especially when dealing with matters of sexuality where most individuals would find a full and frank discussion of their own feelings difficult and probably impossible.
This evening we should be part of the process of constructing a society that is open and fair. This Bill helps us towards that goal. I welcome the protection that this Bill offers to all young people. It has always seemed extraordinary to me that anyone can claim that a young girl's life cannot be ruined by a relationship with an older man. Few can deny that such abuses of trust have led to as much misery and problems as those between older men and boys. The Bill enables all those young people to have an equal chance to make the best of their sexual and emotional lives. I want the best chance for all the next generation; and I support the Bill wholeheartedly.
§ 9.34 p.m.
§ Baroness Seccombe
My Lords, the night is late, so I shall be brief. My purpose in speaking today is to give a personal view as a mother and grandmother and as a 723 close observer of the development of young people as they go through the turbulent years of puberty. I should like also to place on record that I have no problems with people who as adults choose a homosexual way of life. That is their prerogative and should be accepted. However, I believe that a heterosexual lifestyle is natural while a homosexual is not.
But the Bill for me sends out an astonishing message to young people. The Government's case seems to stem from political correctness and a doctrine that reducing the age of consent is an issue of equality and justice. Much is made of the fact that the European Court of Human Rights may rule that the law must be amended. But I understand that there is a strong body of opinion which believes that the court may take the view that on such sensitive issues national governments should make the final decision. We should therefore not be fettered, but come to our own conclusions without reference to what a court may or may not state some time in the future.
There is no doubt that girls mature much earlier than boys. Boys very often are only just coming to terms with their sexuality at 16. Consequently, I accept that there is more of a case for the age of consent for girls to be lower than for boys. Personally, I feel that 18 would be more appropriate for girls too, and would probably cause less anguish. However, that is not possible; nor is it part of the Bill.
In my submission, it would be a dereliction of duty if we allowed this legislation to reach the statute book. Governments have always been concerned with the protection of children and young people. So it seems distinctly odd that the Bill should be before us at a time when there are so many initiatives to stop abuse of the young. I am convinced that to allow the age of consent to be lowered to 16 could be seen as a form of cruelty as legally it could expose vulnerable adolescent boys to predatory older or indeed younger men. I understand that the Bill tries to cope with that difficult situation. But the Government's case is undermined as the major part of the Bill leads everyone to believe that that way of life is normal and therefore not a change of any magnitude. I cannot agree with that opinion.
On a previous occasion I referred to a list of activities in which one cannot indulge until reaching the age of 18, including, for example, serving on a jury, voting in any election, buying a house or flat, opening a bank account without a parent's signature, or even buying alcohol. It therefore strikes me as very strange that this highly important proposed change seems to be just accepted and indeed proposed by the Government. After all, a decision taken by an immature young man might lead him into a life that he would not have contemplated given another two years of development.
I am also deeply concerned about young people who have not had the advantage of a stable family background. I feel that it is up to your Lordships to ensure that their interests come before any fashionable correctness. I could never bring myself to vote for the age to be lowered to 16, and I urge noble Lords to support my noble friend Lady Young who outlined her case with such clarity and conviction.
724 On the "Today" programme this morning, we heard that the opponents of the Bill were mainly over 60 and out of touch. Why, I wonder, should a speaker who is 51 know better? I think that the age of Members of your Lordships' House is immaterial and that all views should be respected. Perhaps if age is so important I can conclude by saying that my 14, soon to be 15, year-old granddaughter agrees with me wholeheartedly. She said, "You won't let them do it, will you, Granny?"
§ 9.40 p.m.
§ Lord Freyberg
My Lords, last time this subject was debated in the House I listened carefully to the arguments put by both sides. Sexuality and the age of consent are emotional topics and I was aware that the tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality common among my generation is a recent phenomenon. One cannot, however, expect people who are brought up to consider it a terrible thing—morally unacceptable, corrupting, shameful, something to be kept hidden and illegal to boot—to shed these bad associations even though attitudes to homosexuality have undergone a sea change in the past few decades. I therefore expected that some older Members would find it difficult to reason dispassionately. None the less, I was distressed by the prejudiced tone of the discussion and by the illogical and plainly ridiculous arguments expressed by people I respect from all sides of the House—some of which I have heard repeated tonight.
It is my belief that the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill is a timely piece of legislation which corrects an unfair anomaly in the law for a maligned and vulnerable group of people. Not only are young homosexuals condemned by the widespread prejudice of their seniors, they are deprived of legal parities with their own age group. In particular, homosexual men between the ages of 16 and 18 are turned into criminals if they have a sex life, while heterosexual men and women are not.
It is cruel to punish one group of young people because of their sexuality. The message thus given is that homosexuality is somehow wrong, something to be afraid of, and that the needs of gay men matter less. I do not believe that the law necessarily stops young gay men pursuing a sex life, but it undoubtedly sends them a negative message.
One of the worries often cited against lowering the age of consent for homosexuals is that it will encourage homosexuality, because boys mature later than girls. Medical evidence suggests otherwise. The view of the British Medical Association is that,adult sexual orientation is usually established before the age of puberty in both boys and girls".Developmental arguments for an unequal age of consent are also rejected by the Royal College of Psychiatrists. You cannot change sexual orientation simply by making it harder for people to embrace one kind of sexuality than another. That is already the case, and, indeed, it is common for young men to delay accepting their homosexuality, such is the pressure to conform to society's "norms".
Homosexual men and women will continue to exist in the future as they have in the past. Sexuality refuses to be confined by rules and regulations. There are, 725 inevitably, no figures to show how often the law of banning homosexual sex below the age of 18 is flouted at present. That thousands of heterosexual couples under the age of consent engage in sexual activity is evidenced by the depressingly large number of girls under 16 who become pregnant. The figure for conceptions to girls aged between 13 and 15 in England and Wales in 1996 was 8,800. The number who actually had sex is inevitably far greater.
The BMA maintains that, from a medical point of view, the purpose of age of consent legislation is,to protect vulnerable young people from sexual exploitation and abuse".It states further that,there is no clear justification for a differential age for homosexual male activity and other sexual activity. Unwelcome sexual attentions of a seriousness warranting criminal prosecution are equally offensive whether the victim is a man or a woman: the same law should therefore apply to all".The large number of bodies which work with young people—we have heard many mentioned tonight—also agree that the age should be reduced. Such expert opinions should not be lightly dismissed.
If protecting the young is our aim, we should consider the difficulties faced by young homosexual boys between the ages of 16 and 18 if they want to consult a doctor on sexual matters. Because gay sex is illegal at this age, doctors, teachers and youth workers are all banned from giving practical advice on health and the prevention of HIV infection. Barnardos states that:We find ourselves in the ludicrous situation of handing out condoms to girls who are 16 and to heterosexual boys who are 16 but not to gay 16 year-olds".One of the many misconceptions of homosexuality quoted in this House this evening is that it is unnatural. This is blatantly untrue. As the distinguished scientific committee organised by Dr. Miriam Rothschild pointed out to the Wolfenden Committee in the 1950s, nature is full of examples of homosexual acts, in creatures as diverse as fleas, ducks and apes. In this genetic aspect we are no different from the rest of the animal kingdom. And while in all cases homosexuality is a minority pursuit, it is humans alone who have stigmatised it. To speak more locally, Britain and Luxembourg are the only countries in the EU with an age of consent that still discriminates between heterosexuals and homosexuals. Our laws exist in this unequal way because of prejudices against homosexuality. That is what is unnatural.
In the last few months many polls have canvassed people for their views on the age of consent. While some statistics indicate opposition to lowering it, an equal number support the idea that the age of consent should be the same for heterosexuals and homosexuals. Many of those against lowering the gay age of consent were also in favour of raising the age of consent for all, heterosexuals included. While most people find it difficult to make moral judgments about sexuality, a majority do seem to believe that all young people deserve to be treated equally by the law. As there is no move for the general age of consent to be raised to 18, maintaining a higher age of consent for homosexuals simply discriminates against young gay men.
726 They are an already much put-upon group. As the noble Earl, Lord Russell, recounted this evening homophobic bullying and abuse are common. The children's charity Save the Children believes that the discriminatory age of consent contributes to intolerance and prejudice, and refers to the body of evidence linking it to the high levels of attempted suicide, family rejection and intimidation of young homosexuals. I am sure that this is very far from what those who oppose this Bill want, but they have not come up with any solutions, let alone positive role models, to affirm the worth of young gay men.
As far as the law is concerned, the Bill is largely academic. There is little public benefit or police interest in spying on acts of consensual sex. As Mike Bennett, chairman of the Metropolitan Police branch of the Police Federation, said to a newspaper last year,It's common knowledge that we don't actually prosecute 16 to 18 year-olds.At present only a handful of cautions or prosecutions against 16 or 17 year-old males for buggery and gross indecency are made each year. Consensual sex is not a crime. Do we really want a law that stigmatises a whole group of young people for which only a very few will be prosecuted and even fewer convicted each year? As the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, said so forcefully, what is the point in a law there is no will to enforce?
Therefore, while I have no desire to encourage sex at a young age, I also have no desire to promote one form of sex over another either. While I would never suggest that those who engage in any kind of sexual activity can escape emotional, psychological or even physical damage I am certain that each of us should be equal before the law. I therefore oppose the amendment to this Bill, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Young.
§ 9.48 p.m.
§ Lord Ashbourne
My Lords, it is getting late, and I shall try not to detain your Lordships too long.
This Bill would reduce from 18 to 16 the age at which men can legally commit acts of gross indecency with boys and acts of buggery, an unnatural, unsanitary and dangerous act, on both boys and girls. The Government's manifesto commitment was to allow a free vote in Parliament on this issue. Last summer, Parliament was given that opportunity. Another place voted for a reduction in that age, and this House voted by an equally substantial majority against it. In allowing those votes, the Government fulfilled their manifesto commitment. They have no mandate to go any further. I intend to support the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lady Young, and I hope to find the amendment carried.
We must be clear that ordinary people are very much against this Bill. Opinions polls always show support for vague concepts of equality, but when it is spelt out that this means giving homosexual men legal access to schoolboys, opinion is solidly against. It is ironic that your Lordships' House will be acting more democratically in rejecting this Bill than the elected Chamber.
727 We must lay to rest some of the myths carefully engendered by the Bill's proponents. Especially important is to nail the "born that way" myth. If men are born homosexual, we should be unkind to deny them homosexual equality. If, on the other hand, the origins of homosexuality are more complex, we may be right to see homosexual activity and acts of buggery as pathological. I have been impressed by a briefing from the American National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, sent to me by Christian Voice. It demonstrates that, in the view of a majority of respected scientists, homosexuality is the result of a combination of social, psychological and biological factors. It is still regarded by conservative psychiatric professionals as pathological, and it can be successfully treated.
The law of Almighty God which Her Majesty solemnly promised, in her coronation oath, to maintain, views homosexual activity a crime at any age. The adolescent age range is one in which homosexuals are particularly interested, hence the importance of not lowering the age of consent to 16.
I have an interest to declare in that I am chairman of the Lords and Commons Family and Child Protection Group, an all-party group made up of Back-Bench Members of both Houses of Parliament, formed some years ago by parliamentarians who were particularly disturbed at the incessant and repeated attacks on the traditional family. The Family and Child Protection Group does not favour sexual relations outside marriage. As for homosexuality, it is unnatural; it is a perversion; and it is repeatedly and firmly condemned in holy scripture.
This is an unrighteous Bill, and I trust and pray that Almighty God will give this House the courage to stand up to the Government when, as in today's Bill, they are wrong. That is our constitutional duty before God, the Monarch and the people of this United Kingdom. It is a duty from which we must not shrink.
§ 9.52 p.m.
§ Lord Davies of Oldham
My Lords, I shall keep my remarks brief because I very much agree with the contribution made by the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg. I start from the same premise which he so clearly identified; namely, that homosexuality, of course, is a minority condition but it is a basic natural condition found in all societies, in all humankind and wider than humankind.
But children need protection from those who may take advantage of them. That is why it is unlawful to have heterosexual intercourse with anyone under the age of 16. It has not been established in this debate why homosexuals, boys or girls, need greater protection than heterosexuals.
Should the law follow opinion polls? That seems to represent much of the case presented for supporting the amendment. I think not. Democracy requires representation, not opinion polls. Of course majorities can oppress. We are not talking just about totalitarian states; for example, when the Nazis discriminated against the Jews or the Serbs against the Albanian Kosovars at present. Democracies may be guilty of 728 oppression against minorities: for example, the Americans against their native Indians, the Australians against the Aborigines. There have been many other cases in which distinct minorities have had to look to democracy to protect their rights, not through opinion polls which are the state expression of majority prejudice, but through the proper responsibility of a democracy to care for the rights of minorities. That is an absolutely essential principle of the way in which democracy should work.
So democracy must be protective of minorities. That is why, in this particular case. the issue of whether the legislation was foreshadowed in the manifesto is not appropriate. This is a conscience issue. We know it is not party politics for a party to campaign in a general election and say there are no matters of conscience for its Members when elected to the House which should be presented in the manifesto. Of course there are not, but these issues should be debated and decided by Members of Parliament elected to do their job representing their constituents.
The lower House has spoken not once with regard to this Bill but twice. After all we had before us the presentation of this issue the previous year. I recognise that under the strict terms of the Parliament Act this is not the same Bill. However, the idea that the case can be made that there has been insufficient consideration of this important issue by the lower House does not stand up. What is more, it seems to me that the lower House has so much greater legitimacy on this issue than we have here. I take the obvious points about personal characteristics. This is a matter which affects a particular generation. We are talking about 16 to 18 year-olds. Who are closer to them as legislators? In the lower House many Members are fathers and mothers of such children whereas we on the whole are a House consisting, by and large, of Members who are two generations away from the issue with which we are concerned.
Society has changed significantly over the period of time under consideration. That is why in my view, in terms of its representation, the lower House has greater legitimacy. I take this obvious point: of course, it is easy for those backing this amendment to quote opinion poll positions. We all know, however, that this is one of the issues in which a majority of citizens who, tolerant though they may be, on the whole display elements of prejudice against a minority group. However, the issue is surely that this is not a question of opinion polls translated into action but a question of judgment of representatives of the people elected by them. After all, the lower House has Members who must go back to their communities, be answerable to the people they represent and answer the questions and challenges presented to them by the local press. We, on the whole, are expressing predominantly private opinions, admittedly in a highly public place in the upper House of the legislature, but, nevertheless, opinions for which we cannot be held directly responsible. On those grounds, therefore, I do not believe that the case has been made out for this House to reject the absolutely significant majority, 183, at Second Reading of the Bill in the lower House. It seems to me that we would be ill-advised to support the amendment.
§ 9.57 p.m.
§ Lord Annaly
My Lords, I have three young children—two daughters aged 9 and 11 years, and an 8 year-old son. I therefore declare an interest as a parent. I am sure that I am no different from the majority of parents in this country in wanting to safeguard my children during their formative years until they reach adulthood.
Although supporting the principle of the Bill's provisions on abuse of positions of trust, I strongly believe that lowering the homosexual age of consent is not in the long-term interests of young people. Generally speaking, young men mature physically and emotionally rather later than girls. I believe that by keeping the homosexual age of consent at 18, time is allowed for adolescent boys to mature and to be in a better position to decide their sexuality. After all, the age when young people are allowed to vote is 18, as is the age when a young man can fight for his country. That all seems quite consistent.
I believe that there is a danger for adolescent boys (who are going through a phase when they are unsure of their sexuality) of being befriended and abused by older, homosexual men. That could then lead to infection of sexually transmitted disease and could then draw them into a homosexual lifestyle. Thus, what may have been a passing phase in that young person's growing up could easily become permanent because the homosexual subculture is not one from which it would be easy for young people to extricate themselves.
Why then are we considering the Government's proposals to reduce the age of homosexual consent? This Bill, if passed, will give the wrong signals to young people by indicating that society approves of homosexual sex at a younger age. That is surely not how we should best be protecting our children, who in law are all people under the age of 18. This Bill legalises buggery and gross indecency with children, both boys and girls, for the first time.
There has been much made in this debate about equality between the sexes and the need to make the age of consent the same for boys as for girls, namely, at 16 years. This is misleading in the extreme. The law at the moment allows a girl of 16 to consent to heterosexual sex, but anal intercourse with that same 16 year-old girl is illegal. This Bill is proposing to make anal intercourse legal for both sexes at 16. This is against a background where we know that anal intercourse is deemed to be very dangerous from the medical viewpoint. As well as causing physical damage—that was well highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Quirk—and giving rise to a number of other infections, 72 per cent. of all male HIV infections in the UK arise through homosexual intercourse. When the age of consent was last lowered in 1994, the incidence of HIV infections acquired from sex between men increased, despite considerable health promotion about so-called "safer sex". Proof of the danger is evident in that any man who has ever had homosexual sex is banned for life from giving blood, as we have already heard.
Young people—be they boys or girls—who are not sure of their sexuality should be able to seek advice—this is important—and feel able to do so in confidence. The 730 law currently requires that secondary schools provide HIV and sex education. There are also a number of advice agencies, drop-in centres, telephone helplines, leaflets and booklets especially for homosexuals that do not have any lower age limit. In addition to those sources of advice, there is the family doctor from whom contraceptive advice and contraceptives are available for girls and boys under 16 who are below the heterosexual age of consent. I do not therefore agree with the argument that by keeping the homosexual age of consent at 18 years, homosexual boys aged 16 and 17 will be denied access to advice and help. It is just not true.
Finally, there is a wide variance both within and outside Europe on the homosexual and heterosexual ages of consent. The homosexual age of consent varies within Europe from an effective age of 12 in Spain through to 18 in Austria, as we have already heard. The age of 18 also applies in Luxembourg, Portugal and this country. In Luxembourg, the heterosexual age is 16 and the homosexual age is 18. In Austria, the heterosexual age is 14 and the homosexual age is 18. The relevant age is not the same in those various different countries.
I conclude simply by saying that I shall support my noble friend Lady Young in her amendment because I do not believe in my heart of hearts that this Bill is in the best interests of young people.
§ 10.2 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Birmingham
My Lords, the majority of my episcopal brethren believe that this Bill is mistaken. I disagree with them. I tried to persuade them that this is a fight in which they ought not to engage, but without success. I intend to support the Bill, though I have a question to which I shall return later.
Deeply important issues are at stake, notably the recurrent question of the relationship between morality and law. There is no doubt to my mind that the sanctions of the law have a place in giving social support to moral norms; no doubt that the state of the law not only reflects but also has an effect on what people in general believe to be acceptable behaviour. But we cannot draw a tight line of correspondence between a morally wrong and a legally impermissible. Adultery is an obvious example. Adultery is certainly wrong and its effects are seldom limited to the man and woman in question. In other words, it is not a simply private act. It affects other people; it has social consequences.
Nevertheless, unless we want to go back to Calvin's Geneva, there are few of us who would think it prudent or right to make adultery subject to the sanctions of the criminal law. Similarly, and a little closer to the matter in hand, few of us can think that casual sex between male and female teenagers—or, come to that, between men and women of any age—is a matter of social indifference. Its widespread acceptance has harmful social effects, but few of us suppose that this is an area where the criminal law will do any good. Just imagine an Act against fornication!
That being so, I can see no good case for the continued crimninalisation of criminal activity involving young men of 16 or 17. What good does it do? It is true that the Church's traditional inherited teaching is clear.
731 The proper and normal place for sexual relations for anyone is within marriage, but that is not an argument for making other kinds of sexual activity illegal, except in one important case. That is, in circumstances where the weak are vulnerable to exploitation by the strong and, in particular, by persons who are in a position of trust or responsibility over the young.
For this reason I should have had great difficulty in voting for the proposals which your Lordships' House rejected last summer. This time I am ready to support the Government's proposals, and for two particular reasons. First, as we have heard, this Bill removes the stigma of criminality from young men who are involved in homosexual behaviour. Some of them certainly need help, but they are less likely to be able to find it if they know that their behaviour is labelled as criminal.
Secondly, I welcome the Bill because of the protection it gives to young women as well as to young men. I do have one question which has already arisen in one form or another—a question to which I hope the Minister will be able to address himself in due course. I refer to Clause 4 which sets out the conditions for establishing whether or not A is to be seen as occupying a position of relevant trust in relation to B.
I note of course the provision for extending the number of conditions by statutory instrument. Nevertheless, as the Bill stands, I suggest that the conditions are too narrowly drawn in two respects. First, why is the fourth condition limited to full-time education? Surely, young people in part-time education ought to receive the same protection. And what about other situations such as the teaching of music to individuals? And what about youth workers?
Finally, what about the wide field of part-time voluntary activities which involve positions of trust? This has been raised before. I speak of choirs, youth clubs, youth camps, Army and Sea Cadets, and so on. Surely the abuse of trust is just as possible, just as harmful and just as reprehensible here as in any full-time educational establishment.
§ 10.8 p.m.
§ Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede
My Lords, I intend to make a brief contribution. The last time we debated this issue was on 22nd July last year. When the noble Baroness, Lady Young, made her contribution she divided it into two halves. She talked about the procedure of dealing with the amendment, as it was at that stage, and she also spoke about the substance of the issue. I intend to divide my contribution along similar lines.
On 22nd July the noble Baroness made much of the rather peremptory way in which the other place had treated the amendment. She complained that it had been rather "slipped through" on a night when England were playing Argentina at football, with very unfortunate results. She said:What is undoubtedly true is that the amendment was never considered either in Committee or on Report in either House of Parliament. So there has been no opportunity at all for detailed consideration of this change in the law and of the issues involved".—[official Report, 22/7/98; col. 937]732 It is therefore a bit rich that the noble Baroness's amendment tonight will deny precisely those opportunities to this House at later stages of this Bill.
I simply do not understand why the noble Baroness could not remove the Clause I stand part provision. I do not understand why she could not amend the abuse of trust provisions which she said she thought were important but were flawed in some way. I do not understand why she does not want to decriminalise children under 16 who engage in sexual activity. The noble Baroness prefers to have a Pyrrhic victory. She knows that by winning her amendment tonight she will only postpone a measure which the Government are rightly determined to bring back at a later stage. I believe that casts a shadow over the workings of this House because this House is at its best when it is using its expertise to consider detailed amendments and to amend legislation. What will be gained by this procedure? The noble Earl, Lord Russell, spoke about the integrity, determination and courage of the noble Baroness, Lady Young. I recognise those qualities, but I ask why is this procedure being adopted? What will be gained?
I turn to the issue of substance. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, also said in her introductory remarks that parents do not want their sons encouraged into homosexuality. I agree with that. She also said that a change in the law will send a signal. I agree with that too. But there is nothing inconsistent with parents preferring a particular lifestyle for their children and at the same time not wanting their children's choices to bring them into a criminal lifestyle. Over the past few weeks I have received a number of letters from parents of young gay men who make this very point; namely, that they do not love their sons any less because of their sons' chosen lifestyle. They believe passionately that the criminal law should not value their sons any less either. The noble Baroness said that a change in the law will send a signal. It will send a signal to the parents of young gay men, and to the young gay men themselves, that the law protects them and values them equally with other young people of that age. It will remove a legal stigma, although heaven knows many far more brutal stigmas and taboos will remain.
The noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, made much of the age of Members of this House in her speech. I think I am right in saying that the only noble Lord in his twenties who has contributed to the debate tonight is the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg. I think that is a reflection of the make-up of this House. The national opinion poll, to which a number of Peers have referred, graphically illustrates that point. It is undoubtedly true that older people are less inclined to support an equal age of consent. I think it is also true that young people do not want the protection which this House may seek to give them.
I argue that humility is required here. The House of Commons has voted twice for this measure with massive majorities. Younger people have far more tolerant views than was the case even when I was of the age when this was an issue. That has been well borne out by recent polls. Humility is a virtue. We are talking to one another in this House. Out there, the world has moved on, and 733 so will the law, if not this year then next year. We claim to have equality before the law, but we do not. This Bill merely brings it a small step closer.
§ 10.13 p.m.
§ The Earl of Clancarty
My Lords, the vast majority of young people would certainly support this Bill. Indeed, if young people under 25, for example, whether gay or heterosexual, were here in this Chamber to debate this issue—as perhaps they should be—we would have a very different and, I believe, more realistic debate. Young people find the current law both intolerable and undignified. They find it undignified because 16 to 18 year-olds today are not as young and naive as many older people imagine them to be, or perhaps as they would like to keep them. They find the current law intolerable because inequality under the law is, effectively, a system of apartheid, with one rule for young women under 18, and another for young men.
It is interesting how the current law exemplifies how closely inequality impacts on education, including access to information. The law as it stands helps to create a two-headed monster in this respect. When young men wish to seek advice and guidance they are fearful of doing so, and worse fears are created. The second head of the monster is that the current law makes it difficult for many organisations, such as Save the Children, to do their job because they would be seen to be condoning illegal behaviour. This, of course, includes the passing on of information about HIV infection and other aspects of health. Indeed, there should be far more such education and counselling in general than there is presently in the United Kingdom, right through the childhood years. In this context, young gay men are currently in a particularly disadvantaged position.
On both sides of the debate people are arguing from the best of intentions, including those whose professed primary concern is the wish to protect young people. But protect them from what? From the things that young people themselves wish to do? The reservations of many noble Lords last July about the problems of abuse of trust cannot now be maintained. To put it bluntly, it seems to me that only prejudice against gays and bisexuals and/or homosexual activity, which, despite protestations to the contrary, does in effect amount to the same thing, can now support opposition to the Bill.
Young people have rights of equality and self-expression, and it is time that they were acknowledged. I fully support the Bill and shall vote against the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Young.
§ 10.16 p.m.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
My Lords, the House will be glad to know that I am not going to make the speech that I wrote this morning. However, there are one or two things that I would like to say.
I do not know how the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, knows that most 25 year-olds would be in favour of the Bill. They have not been writing to me in great numbers, 734 and those who have written to me are against the Bill. I do not know how he can assert so confidently that 25 year-olds are for the Bill.
However, I have been interested in one or two points which have been raised. A number of noble Lords have said that we are the laughing stock of Europe because we are keeping the age of homosexual consent at 18. There are good and consistent reasons why we are doing so. In the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Bill we are legislating to safeguard young children up to the age of 18 from exploitation by the press. If we legislate to protect young people from exploitation by the press, is it so wrong to want to protect them from sexual exploitation? The United Nations believes that, in particular, young people between the ages of 16 and 18 need special protection from sexual exploitation. So there are very good reasons why we should not be held in contempt in Europe for keeping the age of consent—certainly for the present—at 18.
There are various ages of consent in Europe. In one country it is 14 years of age and in Spain it is as low as 12. How far along that road do the people who support the Bill want to go? What is the next milestone after 16? Is it 14? And then should we be the same as Spain and make the age of consent 12? We need an answer to that. When people make such glib remarks about Britain being held in contempt by other European countries, they should think it through and think what the end game may well be.
I wish to make another point. The Government obviously believe that it is safe to bring forward the Bill and that no adverse consequences will flow from reducing the age of homosexual consent to 16 and equalising the age at which both sexes can be legally involved in buggery. But they have introduced safeguards. If no adverse consequences will flow from the Bill, why do they need safeguards? They need safeguards because there is an element of doubt; and they know there is an element of doubt. That is why they have put the safeguards in.
§ I know that I shall be labelled as a bigot and reactionary.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
My Lords, I invited that, I know, and I received the reaction that I wanted. But if it is bigoted and reactionary to want to protect children between the ages of 16 and 18 from sexual exploitation, then I believe that I am in good company up and down the country, especially among parents. Therefore, I shall support the noble Baroness, Lady Young, in the Lobbies tonight to defeat the Bill.
§ 10.21 p.m.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, it is a delight to follow the courageous speech of the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart. I wish to start by paying a fulsome tribute to my noble friend Lady Young. She has been extraordinarily courageous and steadfast in her concern for the well-being of young people and I fervently hope that her 735 resolution will be rewarded again this evening by a strong vote to reject the Bill. My noble friend can certainly count on my vote.
Reducing the age of consent to allow 16 year-olds to engage in homosexual activity, with all the risks that that entails, is irresponsible. Those risks have been referred to by many speakers today. Particularly worrying to me is the risk of developing AIDS, the effects of the gay subculture, the level of promiscuity among homosexuals and the high proportion of homosexual men who are reported as having been raped or coerced into sexual activity. What can be the justification for extending those risks knowingly to even younger people?
Some of us are also disturbed that the right to engage in buggery should be extended not only to boys but also to girls of only 16 years of age. The new Clause 2, which was introduced to decriminalise homosexual activity for the younger party where one party is under 16 and the other is over 16, also gives serious cause for concern. A serious side effect of Clause 2 is the opportunity it presents to any young person with malicious intent to get the better of, say, a teacher or social worker, a situation not unknown, by engaging in a sexual act in the knowledge that he would be immune from prosecution and then reporting the incident to the police a form of black mail on the teacher or person in authority. That point was well made by Dr. Evan Harris, a Liberal Democrat in another place. Where in the Bill is protection for the older person in that situation?
The noble Baroness, Lady Turner, slightly chided those opponents of the Bill who see the issue as a moral and/or spiritual one that they should not impose such views on others. I plead guilty to believing that it is a moral and a spiritual issue. But I also believe—this is the point that I want to emphasise—that it is above all a child protection issue and therefore should concern us all.
I found it particularly distressing today to read the advertisement in The Times. I telephoned the NSPCC. A senior policy director told me that the organisation gave no permission for its name to be used; it was not approached and therefore its name was used without its consent. I have not phoned all the other organisations. A point that I put to the policy director was: how many of the people who contribute money to the NSPCC did the organisation sound out before making a policy statement? I was told that none had been supportive. My family has supported the NSPCC over many years. We have now withdrawn our support on the grounds that if it is in the child protection business it should be on our side in this debate in opposing the lowering of the age of consent. Only senior management and the trustees made that decision on behalf of millions of people in this country who have in great number supported my noble friend Lady Young in her stand against the Bill.
The noble Lords, Lord Davies of Coity and Lord Stoddart, both made powerful points about the irony of the Bill, in that it extends to young people the right to engage in homosexual activity and then has to include clauses to protect them from that very activity.
736 The Government accept that. So why have they had to include protection clauses at all? The medical profession, which again supports the Bill, accepts the vulnerability of young people. So why does the medical profession deny the right of people who are homosexual to give blood?
Abuse of trust has been referred to many times. The Government pray that in aid of the strength of the Bill. But there are many loopholes in this part of the Bill. As has been said, part-time pupils studying for, let us say, four days out of five are not protected. That is illogical. If a teacher is capable of abusing the trust of a full-time pupil, he is also capable of abusing the trust of a part-time pupil. Many categories of potential abusers are not covered, including step-parents, youth workers and religious leaders.
The absurd pre-existing relationship defence in Clause 3(3) means that if a sexual relationship existed between the adult and young person before the new offence came into force, any sexual activity that takes place after the offence comes into force is exempt. That defence, which is easy to raise and very difficult to refute, will be routinely used in the first few years of the operation of this legislation. The requirement that only those who regularly care for young people can be convicted will create another line of defence—an ad hoc carers' defence.
The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, hinted that the Bill could be strengthened. But let us look at the record of the Government in another place. During the Committee and Report stages of the Bill, unsuccessful attempts were made to extend the abuse of trust provisions to cover existing relationships, part-time pupils, step-families, religious organisations, youth workers and temporary teachers and carers. What chance is there of making any changes here? There is also the absurdity of the situation whereby a schoolteacher having a sexual relationship with a 16 year-old will be caught by the Bill, but the brother or friend of that schoolteacher having a sexual relationship with the same pupil will not be caught by the Bill. How absurd!
The noble Lord, Lord Lester, set out the reasoning of the commission in the Sutherland case to second-guess the attitude and conclusion of the court judges who will eventually hear the case. There is something almost pompous about deploying such a personal judgment as a substitute for what must be a matter for independent judges when they come to consider the case before them and, we hope, honour the margin of appreciation which is accepted for individual countries.
There is great intimidation from many who fight for gay rights. A number of us, on leaving this place at the end of the previous debate on this subject, witnessed that at first hand.
This is the time to stand fast, to support the protection of young people, to support the overwhelming view of people in the country, to support parents and to support the institution of marriage as the cornerstone of the community. Anyone who really has the well-being of young people at heart will have no truck with this Bill and will support my noble friend Lady Young.
§ 10.29 p.m.
§ Lord Alli
My Lords, many of your Lordships will know that I am openly gay. I am 34. I was gay when I was 24, when I was 21, when I was 20, when I was 19, when I was 18, when I was 17 and even when I was 16. I have never been confused about my sexuality. I have been confused about the way I am treated as a result of it. The only confusion lies in the prejudice shown, some of it tonight, and much of it enshrined in the law.
Many noble Lords probably cannot understand what it is like to be gay and young. It means that one can be called anything: "sick"; "abnormal"; "unnatural"; "ruined". Those words were used by colleagues tonight. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, and the noble Lords, Lord Selsdon and Lord Davies of Coity, used them all, and that is supposed to be acceptable.
I do not understand why I should be treated differently before the law. Last year I wanted to speak in the debate on the equalisation of the age of consent but I had only just joined your Lordships' House and my noble friend the Government Chief Whip advised me that a maiden speech on such a controversial topic would not go down well. I am glad I took his advice. Like so many of his judgments, it was sound and his guidance was right.
Over the past year I have learned a lot about your Lordships' House. Most importantly, and above all, this House believes that all people deserve fair and equal treatment. I have seen noble Lords on both sides of the House work night after night going through legislation line by line to ensure that that legislation is fair for all. But equality before the law is a high and exacting standard. It means that we have to support things that we do not personally believe in; it means that we have to let people do things that we would not do ourselves; and it means that we have to allow people to say things that we personally do not agree with. It is impossible to be almost equal before the law. Equality is an absolute. It is indivisible and it must be applicable to all.
Last year I sat through the Third Reading debate. It was my first day here. I listened to the speeches of many noble Lords. Some were unpleasant and prejudiced; others were just ill-informed and ignorant; many were supportive. What was clear then, as now, is that there is an overwhelming case for change. The case has been made time and time again tonight. The medical case has been made by the BMA, the RCN and the Royal College of Physicians. The social case for change has been made by Barnardo's, the National Children's Bureau, the NSPCC and Save the Children. What do we have opposing us? Anecdotal evidence. Those bodies have all made clear that there is no medical or psychological reason to continue to discriminate against young people. The intellectual and moral argument has, in my view, been won. For the second time, legislation on this matter has come back to this House when Members of another place have passed it with an overwhelming majority, and I suppose that in the end—to use a phrase I have heard here time and time again—they will get their way.
I turn now to the noble Baroness's amendment. Last year the noble Baroness invited us to ask the Government to think again. She said that lowering the 738 age of consent without proper parliamentary scrutiny would be quite wrong constitutionally. In particular, she expressed her concerns about the abuse of trust, which many of us share. We sent the legislation back and asked the Government to think again. They thought again and my right honourable friend the Home Secretary incorporated safeguards into the Bill. Now the noble Baroness says that she wants a further delay. This amendment is not a mere technicality. It seeks to divert legitimate discussion away from the main arguments because all the points raised in the previous debate have been answered. That cannot be disputed. This is an unseemly device which I hope the House will see through. Let us have a vote on the substance of the Bill and not be diverted by the amendment.
The question is not whether one view of morality is right and another is wrong but whether the law can tell me who I am and prevent me from being who I am and whether it is right to criminalise me for who I am. For me this debate tonight is not an academic, intellectual or even theological one. Between the ages of 16 to 21 I suffered under this law. I was made to keep my relationships secret from my employers, friends and even my family. To create that level of fear in anyone so young is unforgivable and I do not believe that we should put any more young people through it.
I know that this is a difficult issue for some noble Lords, but respect for others and their right to equal treatment must be the overriding consideration tonight. Some noble colleagues have said that their religious and moral considerations do not allow them to vote for the Bill but that the arguments for equality are so strong that they will not vote against it either, and for that I am very grateful.
In the debate last year I was particularly struck by the position adopted by the noble Lord, Lord Jakobovits, for he above all should understand persecution and ethnic, social and religious cleansing. None of these should be tolerated and this House should make no further concessions however small. When he spoke I was reminded of a poem that I looked up this morning. I am sure that many noble Lords are familiar with it but I quote it nonetheless:First they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.Then they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me".In tonight's vote I should like your Lordships to speak out for me and millions like me, not because you agree or disagree or because you approve or disapprove, but because if you do not protect me in this House you protect no one.
§ 10.37 p.m.
§ Lord Rowallan
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Alli, because he speaks from the heart and knows his subject. He is extremely brave to have said what he said in your Lordships' House, and I congratulate him on having done so.
739 As far as I am concerned sex is a private issue. It is a sad day that we are debating this matter at all. The issue that we are debating is equality, not homosexuality. Whether the age of consent should be 16, or 17 as in Ireland, does not really matter but it should be equal for both males and females. Many of us in this House and outside it find the whole subject of homosexuality unpleasant. I admit that as a happily married man I find it difficult to appreciate, but I do not care what people do in their private lives. That is up to them. I do not want to know an individual's religion or sexuality. People are made differently, both mentally and physically. As long as what they do is consensual let them get on with it provided they do not upset anyone else while they do it.
The youth of today will experiment. Everyone experiments at some stage in their lives. When we were young we played doctors and nurses. Many played different versions of it. Some played vicars and tarts and cross-dressing regularly took place.
Some cannot handle the opposite sex's different problems and find the same sex easier to cope with. Who am I to say that they should not do so? Who are we in this House to say that they should not do so? I do not like the open, camping, overt sexuality of Peter Tatchell and his ilk. I do not approve of men or women kissing in public another person of the same sex. Nor do I like to see heterosexual sex in public places. But it happens everywhere. I am not a prude. I was a hippy in the 1960s in San Francisco in Haight Ashbury. At that stage I had rather longer hair and had some interesting times. But everything that I did there was private—or private among the group present. The European Court of Human Rights has said that our laws go against human rights. We must take that into account. It cannot be right to differentiate between boys and girls. To differentiate causes problems; and it causes many problems for young men who have been thrown out of their home. They go to the citizens advice bureau for help. They have to admit that they have broken the law. If they want a home to live in because their parents no longer want them at home, they have to admit that they have committed a crime in order to gain that home.
The fact is that 22 well-known charities all dealing with young people on a daily basis—which is more than can be said for the majority of noble Lords in this House—support the Bill. Are they all wrong? Is my noble friend Lady Young correct? I do not think so. And I do not think so for the following reasons. First, the opinion polls tell us that 60 per cent. of the population want the change. I do not believe in opinion polls, but that is a fact. Secondly, rape and crisis groups support the Bill, going so far as to point out that the vast majority of cases against boys and girls are committed by heterosexual men regardless of whether the victim was male or female. That puts to bed the argument about the paedophile being a male homosexual. Thirdly, the Stephen Lawrence inquiry surely highlighted that we should not be criminalising any one group of people, whether or not gay. Fourthly, any psychiatrist will tell you that children brought up in a homosexual household are no more likely to be homosexual than if they were 740 brought up in a heterosexual home. Fifthly, the Bill will protect the vulnerable youth from the predatory older male. Sixthly, many suicides are caused as a direct result of mental stress in committing a crime and being potentially branded a criminal, not only to the world at large but to families.
Seventhly, and I think the most important reason, this issue will not go away. Young people will continue to have sex. It is actually quite enjoyable! The law will not change their desire to experiment or their preferences for it. If a 17 year-old youth has sex with a 16 year-old girl he is an adult acting perfectly legally. If he has sex with an 18 year-old man, he is an abused youth and therefore gets protected. But if he has sex with a 17 year-old man they are both criminals. It is madness. It is complete insanity. It is nonsense. It makes a complete farce of everything that is sensible in law.
The law must be equal to everyone and it must be seen to be fair; and so often the law is an ass. We all know that. We must make efforts to ensure that that does not occur. The Bill provides for the safety of male youths from the attentions of predatory males in positions of trust and authority. It must be allowed to continue its way through Parliament. It is supported by all the leaders of all the political parties. It has been supported by a large majority of the elected House, so who are we to stop it? If noble Lords disapprove of the Bill, and I know many of my noble friends do, then change it in Committee and at Report. But do not vote against it tonight. That would be counterproductive and would make more problems for the very people my noble friend thinks she is trying to help. I urge your Lordships not to vote tonight if you support her views. If, like me, you feel the issue needs to be discussed further, support the Second Reading tonight.
We in this House have a duty to scrutinise legislation brought forward by any Government. In a different Bill going through this House at this very minute, that is an argument I have heard time and again. We must allow this Bill its Second Reading so that we can carry out that duty. Please support this Bill tonight, and if any of your Lordships disapprove of it, do not vote with the noble Baroness, Lady Young; sit on your hands.
§ 10.45 p.m.
§ Lord Monson
My Lords, it is worth standing back a little from this evening's fray to recognise that over the past few decades your Lordships' House seems to have struck just the right balance where legislation on homosexual activity is concerned. Back in the spring and early summer of 1966., when the House of Commons was too petrified to contemplate such a move for fear of an electoral backlash, this House voted by 70 votes to 29—we were fewer in number in those days—in favour of the Second Reading and by 83 votes to 39 in favour of the Third Reading of the late Lord Arran's Bill to decriminalise private male homosexual activity between consenting adults—with the accent heavily on the word "adults". The noble Lord, Lord Annan, if he is still here, will remember that as both he and I were one of the radical majority—radical by the standards of the day—whose votes gave the other place the courage to follow suit a year or so later.
741 It may be pertinent to mention at this stage that Henry Labouchere, the bête noire of the homosexual lobby by virtue of his indirect role in the conviction and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde, happened to be a passionate 19th century enthusiast for abolishing the hereditary House of Lords.
I spoke at the outset of achieving the right balance. Just as 33 years ago we voted against excessive repression in this sphere, more recently we have become alarmed at the pendulum swinging too far the other way in favour of excessive licence. Partly for that reason, but above all because this House has always been concerned with the protection of vulnerable young people, nine months ago we voted against a measure similar to that proposed today.
To those who are tempted to cry "double standards"—and I suspect that my noble friend Lord Bledisloe may be among their number—I submit that there is no incompatibility at all between, on the one hand, permitting adults to behave in a way that is often degrading and usually dangerous, should that be their unhappy choice, and, on the other hand, doing everything possible to dissuade confused adolescents—those below the age of adulthood—from following suit. That point was made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester, if I interpreted him correctly.
After all, in 1989 the United Nations decreed that children must be protected from sexual exploitation or abuse and that for that purpose anyone under the age of 18 is deemed to be a child. To his great credit, the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, has not dissented from that.
Propagandists often claim that homosexuals are born and not made. Some of them obviously are, as we heard in a most moving speech from the noble Lord, Lord Alli, but others most definitely are not. A few months ago, Channel 4—surprise, surprise—showed a film on the alleged martyrdom of a group it termed "The Bolton Seven". They were seven men who had been prosecuted for indulging in a homosexual orgy which, somewhat illogically, still happens to be illegal. Significantly, it transpired that although the two older men involved were indeed out-and-out homosexuals, most of the five teenagers involved had subsequently settled into heterosexual relationships with their girlfriends, with whom they had produced children, and some of them had married. Therefore, the message conveyed by the film was not what Channel 4 intended, although I am not sure whether it recognised that.
The confusion and uncertainty felt by so many teenagers about their sexual inclinations is the reason responsible adult homosexuals such as Dan Farson, the well-known author and commentator, is totally opposed to measures such as this. A retired assistant divisional director of Barnardo's who opposes the Bill points out that deprived children are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. So it is not true that all professionals are united in favour of the Bill. That is simply not so.
As the noble Earl, Lord Russell, points out, it is not a question of throwing hundreds or even dozens of teenagers into prison. Contrary to what has sometimes 742 been implied, in the past 11 years not a single 16 year-old has received a custodial sentence for homosexual behaviour which would be legal for an older man, and only seven 17 year-olds have received such sentences.
Penalties are generally light, as they should be; the law is basically there as a marker. I am afraid that I must respectfully disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton. There is often something to be said for the law simply setting standards, even if prosecutions are not vigorously pursued, or even not pursued at all.
Furthermore, it is worth noting that there are many precedents for outlawing certain behaviour purely on grounds of age. It is illegal for a 16 year-old to drive a car on the public highway, however impressive his motoring skills, or for him to buy and consume a bottle of vodka, however well he can hold his drink.
It has been argued that many, possibly most, young people are contemptuous of the present law and flout it as a matter of course. They may indeed. But the same could be said with even greater force about smoking cannabis, which happens to be a lot less dangerous than anal intercourse. So do most supporters of this Bill support decriminalising cannabis? I suspect not, although logically they ought to.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, that the fact that the electorate as a whole oppose the Bill is not an adequate reason for rejecting it. But what is a valid reason is that the overwhelming majority of parents, and—dare one say it?—grandparents, oppose the Bill, because they have an entirely legitimate interest.
It would be terrible if parents discovered that their daughter had become a prostitute, but how much more terrible would it be if they found that their son had become a rent boy, with a much shorter life expectancy than their daughter in consequence, apart from other considerations?
With the aforesaid danger of reduced life expectancy in mind, if we make no other improvements to the Bill, let us at the very least adopt the excellent suggestion made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon in the Parliamentary Monitor of November 1998, and continue to make anal sex illegal for the under-18s, even if other genital activity is reluctantly to be permitted. I refer to the under-18s of both sexes, of course, because, as numerous noble Lords have pointed out, under the Bill as it stands not only boys but also girls are at risk from this practice should they fall under the sway of unscrupulous and persuasive older men.
If the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, could indicate that the Government might give serious consideration to accepting, even if reluctantly, a compromise amendment based broadly on the right reverend Prelate's suggestion, it might be better to give the Bill a Second Reading to allow such an amendment to be inserted, rather than to reject the Bill now only to have it pass into law in under 12 months' time under the Parliament Act, totally unamended.
If the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, cannot do this, and if the Opposition Front Bench cannot promise to support an amendment along these lines, 743 I shall certainly vote for the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, because even if it only postpones the evil day, such a postponement is better than nothing.
§ 10.53 p.m.
§ Lord Phillips of Sudbury
My Lords, after so long and distinguished a debate, you may wonder if there is anything left to say. But one thing I must do, and that is to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alli, on a memorable speech.
Notwithstanding that, I must confess to having some reservations about the Bill. One of the most striking aspects of the debate today, and indeed of the subject as a whole, is the lack of agreement as to the key facts affecting the issue covered by the debate. At what age is the sexual orientation of a young man more or less fixed? What is the relevant strength of influence on ultimate sexual orientation as between genetic and experiential factors? What proportion of young adolescent men, therefore, can be influenced by older homosexuals in terms of their ultimate orientation? Perhaps most difficult, is it possible to warrant, individually and societally, actively seeking to maximise heterosexual as against homosexual potential involving, as that does, general judgments about such contested, painful and inconclusive issues as sexual and emotional normality, maturity, stability and functionality?
Although on those vexed issues I incline to a cautious view, nevertheless, I come down firmly on the side of equalising the age of consent for heterosexuals and homosexuals. Even the Christianity which has most shaped our culture and mores no longer, rightly I believe, presents a monolithic view of what is right and wrong in that context. I found it particularly moving to hear what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells exemplified.
It is clear to me that such an acute difference in legal treatment between men of different sexual orientation can be justified only by fundamental reasons backed by clear evidence. As this debate has made manifest. neither the reasons nor the evidence are sufficient. I believe that the onus in those matters rests firmly on those who would oppose the Bill.
There are no doubt some areas in which the present law does its protective work. But by and large, the proposed reform will do more good and avert more suffering, especially with the "position of trust" amendment now in the Bill.
Above all, this Bill will remove a legal stigma of the most insidious and damaging kind of which many noble Lords have given evidence. That stigma underpins much continuing prejudice on the one hand and resentment, fear and isolation on the other. For those brief reasons, I shall vote with some enthusiasm for this measure this evening.
§ 10.57 p.m.
§ The Duke of Montrose
My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, I too was moved by the arguments put forward by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells and raised also by the noble 744 Baroness, Lady Mallalieu. Those are arguments which wish not to criminalise the young and which hope to keep open the channels of communication.
I am a father of three children in their 20s and I have a certain amount of familiarity with the attitudes of the younger generation. In my various commercial interests, I am in touch with a large cross-section of our local population in Scotland and those to whom I have spoken in the area seem to have a great fear and concern about the measure we are considering.
I have also received a large number of letters, as have so many other noble Lords, but mainly from across Scotland, asking that I should vote to resist the Bill. Many of those are from people involved with the care of young adults. I suppose that it is arguable that in central Scotland at the moment we are rather sensitive on that subject because of an issue which the Bill attempts to address. It is to do with something which is illegal. It is the situation which has evolved around Thomas Hamilton and Dunblane.
The five letters which I received asking me to support the Bill all quote the same list of official or semi-official bodies, some of which have been mentioned in the debate this evening. At the head of the list I received was the British Medical Association. I asked the BMA for details and received its parliamentary brief on the subject, which I was interested to read. Its first concern seemed to be that health professionals may be reluctant to deal with under-age homosexuals. As an ordinary citizen, that seems strange to me when, as professionals, they are bound to confidentiality and are expected to deal with the health of individuals in whatever state they find them. Presumably, as pointed out by my noble friend Lord Annaly, young homosexuals, like under-age girls, can understand that and get the advice and treatment they might need.
I have come across some statistics but, like the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, I should like more verified facts on which to rely. One set I came across were from the British Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles Survey carried out by Wettings in 1994. I am sure that if the Minister has more up-to-date figures, noble Lords would like to know them. That survey stated that at some point in their lives, 3.5 per cent. of men have had a same sex partner, but that 50 per cent. of these have never repeated the experience, and that only 0.3 per cent. of men are exclusively homosexual. To turn that round and look at it the other way, I would like to ask: who can say, at the formative age of 16, how many men are exclusively heterosexual? That is a point raised by a number of noble Lords. This is a group who are developing their sexual inclinations. They do not do so in a vacuum but they are the focus of fascination for a sizeable number of older homosexuals.
Coming from Scotland, I have made inquiries into the approach taken by the Church of Scotland. This is, of course, our other established Church. In particular, I asked the members of the Committee on Social Responsibility and I received one clear impression; that is, that they are against homophobia in all its forms but they do not favour the practice of 745 homosexuality. Their policy is to provide advice and care through support groups for any who feel the need of support.
As your Lordships are probably aware, Edinburgh is known for having more than its fair share of modern lifestyles and social problems. There, the Church of Scotland runs Simpson House as a place offering help and counsel to any who wish it. They find that they are in touch with 95 per cent. of those confirmed with HIV/AIDS. Among those must be a proportion of the homosexual community. I would argue that that shows that given the right attitudes in society towards the many urges in the human condition, homosexuals are as likely as anyone to take advantage of any help they require and they will not be deprived of counselling or medical help if they do so.
We can all see, by looking around us, how changing law does not, of itself, get rid of discrimination. I would submit that this proposed change to the Bill will not be to the ultimate advantage of those it is intended to help. The subject is one in which I feel sure the forthcoming Parliament of Scotland will take a great interest. However, the fact that under Clause 7(2) this is to be what is termed a "pre-commencement enactment" under the Scotland Act 1998 is another reason why I believe that the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness that this should be reconsidered in six months' time is even more one which we should support.
§ 11.3 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Norwich
My Lords, I shall not repeat the arguments already put forward. I simply want to say a brief word about the contributions from these Benches. We have heard three very different contributions to the debate from these Benches. We shall, without doubt, vote in different ways on the amendment. Had the entire Bench of Bishops been able to attend and vote this evening, there is little doubt that we should have divided in the same proportions as we did in July last year, that is two to one in favour of the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Young.
Having said that, your Lordships should also know that this does not reflect a deep division among us. The House of Bishops, through its statement, Issues in Human Sexuality, made clear that the teaching of the Church, based on the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels, is that the norm for human sexual relationships is that they should take place within the context of lifelong monogamous marriage. That is the moral principle upon which we stand firm.
However, to stand firm on such a moral principle does not imply homophobia; nor does it imply the exclusion of those whose lifestyle does not conform to those moral principles. There are moral principles and there is pastoral compassion. Moral principles are clear, particular and simple. Pastoral compassion is indiscriminate and entirely non-judgmental in its scope. There is a muddle when the two become confused or opposed to each other; for example, when those who hold strong moral principles are said to lack compassion or when compassion for all is elevated to a moral principle.
746 On these Benches we share moral principles and pastoral compassion. But those principles and that compassion can lead us to different conclusions about what is expedient or timely as is the case tonight. I said I would not repeat the arguments put forward, and I shall not. I identify myself with the comments of my right reverend brother the Bishop of Winchester. I knew the bishop when he was a schoolboy and he used to call me "Sir". Now that he has become my intellectual and ecclesiastical superior, I never cease to remind him of that fact. I shall gladly follow his lead.
§ 11.6 p.m.
§ Lord Stallard
My Lords, at this time of night, and following this extremely educative and interesting debate, I have already scrapped three or four speeches and am only left with the bare bones of what I might have said had I been given more time. Incidentally, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Alli on his brave and courageous speech. I am sure that he enlightened many of us about the real world in which he lives, but sadly not the real world in which I live.
My main point tonight concerns the safeguarding of the wellbeing and health of all young people; preventing them from being further exposed to the evils that we read about, see on television and hear on the radio. Explicit sex scenes are shown in more places than we could ever have dreamt possible. I could never have dreamt this would be. I am a practising Christian. Christians are not homophobic—along with most genuine religions—but we are against homosexual practices. That is our genuine belief.
I am much concerned about the stories of children being sexually abused, even murdered, and teenage pregnancies. As I said, almost every programme contains explicit scenes of sex. Children in care have been mentioned. Provision for their protection is contained in the Bill and we are delighted about that. But we did not need a Bill of this size covering all these other aspects to take care of that. Surely we could have dealt with the abuse of children in care who need protection without the rest of the Bill. There would be no problem in supporting such a Bill.
It is intended to reduce to 16 the age of consensual homosexual sex for boys. Many of us have been in this argument since the age of consent was 21. After the operation of the penumbrae effect, as it is called, the effective age is 14, because there will be no prosecutions of people aged 16 or 14 for any kind of sexual act. This effect was elicited a long time ago by a number of people who argued the point, and they are quite right. There will be fewer prosecutions of those under the age limit in the Bill. It is like the speed limit. If it is 40 miles an hour we are not prosecuted for doing 45. If we change the law to 45 miles an hour, people will drive at 50. So the penumbrae effect means that there will be no prosecutions of 14 year-old children.
Much of the debate centred around equality. But there is no such thing as equality. There is ample medical evidence of the increased risks attached to anal intercourse. It carries much more danger to health than 747 does vaginal intercourse. The evidence is there from all medical experts throughout the country—throughout the world, in fact.
We are also informed, or maybe threatened, that this Bill is the beginning of a longer agenda of demands. We have heard that there are to be demands for the lowering of consent to 14, for the right to homosexual marriage, for the right to adopt and foster children, for the repeal of Section 28 of the Local Government Act and for an end to the storage of police information and data on paedophiles. That is a fairly hefty agenda and if this is at the beginning of it I hope that we do not have to go through the whole lot.
I should like to have gone on to say a great deal more about all these issues. I agreed with a great deal of what the noble Lords, Lord Quirk and Lord Davies of Coity, said on various points. It made great sense to me. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, asked: what happens after the Government invokes the Parliament Act? That is a very interesting question. There is a public poll of 73 per cent. against this Bill and against all the practices that are outlined in it, so maybe there will be a demand for a referendum or even an election, given the hostile press and the number of people who are genuinely opposed to this kind of treatment. It is an interesting question, and I should like to see the end of it.
Like most of your Lordships, I have had scores of letters putting both sides of the argument. This morning I saw a copy of a report in the Daily Mail that will upset a lot of people. It is promoting tourist bosses who are launching a campaign to attract gays and lesbians to Britain arid cash in on "pink pound" travel. It advertises London as the gay capital of Europe and picks out 11 other British towns and cities as being "thriving gay scenes". It concentrates on all the gay facilities, pubs and clubs and God knows what that are available if people come to our wonderful country, which is free of any restrictions whatever. This is being promoted by the Government and I am absolutely amazed. It says that Britain is a tolerant nation. Well, of course we are: we are sensible as well. It goes on to say that we are tolerant of race, religion, dress codes and types of sexual persuasion. It says, "So come along and spend your money in Britain where all these things are free!" You can go on as long as you like.
I have also received mail from medical people who say that homosexuality need not be a permanent situation and that there can be treatment for people who really want to come out of homosexuality. Those who do not want to come out of course will stay in, but certainly I gather that treatments are available which can help. I say that, given all the facts and including all the things I have not been able to go into, I am supporting the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Young.
§ 11.13 p.m.
§ Baroness Crawley
My Lords, from the speakers' list it will be seen that the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, is due to speak now but he has kindly passed me a note to say that he will not be speaking and that he hopes the House will recognise his sacrifice!
748 I rise to speak against the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, because, when all is said and done, when this Bill is pared back it is about two things: equality and justice. If that were only my view it would be deeply uninteresting and extremely unimportant. However, it is not only my view; nor only the collective view of all the other noble Lords who have already given eloquent advocacy in favour of the Bill. None was more eloquent than my noble friend Lord Alli in his extremely moving personal testament. Indeed, it is the firm belief of a chorus of agencies and organisations ranging from the British Medical Association and Barnardo's to the NSPCC arid Save the Children, as we were enthusiastically reminded by the noble Lord, Lord Rowallan, of "San Francisco".
At the core of the work of those organisations is the protection, the health and the safety of young people; exactly the issues that the opponents of this Bill raise in support of their objections. Why are those organisations, whose mission statement is the care of young people, backing the Bill? They are doing so because then-experience and their expertise, built up over decades in some cases, tells them that the Bill is necessary and delay can no longer be contemplated. It is necessary because the status quo prevents teachers and youth workers imparting information to young gay men on health promotion and the prevention of HIV infection.
As a spokesperson from Barnardo's graphically put it:The present law prevents us from giving practical support and information. We find ourselves in the ludicrous situation of handing out condoms to girls who are 16 and to heterosexual boys who are 16 but not to gay 16 year-olds".The Bill is necessary because we know that the lives of young gay people can be blighted—as the noble Lord, Lord Alli, graphically put it—by the bigotry and intolerance that the present discrimination in the law encourages. We are told by Save the Children of high levels of attempted suicide, family rejection and bullying with regard to this group of young people.
If we take this debate out of its national context for a moment and remember that many young people will increasingly in the next century spend at least part of their educational, working and personal lives in other European countries, we see that the majority of European Union countries have a common age of consent. Contrary to the doom mongers, it has not spelt the end of European civilisation as we know it! In fact, the state of young people's sexual health in its broadest sense in many European Union countries is something this country would do well to emulate. Noble Lords will remember a recent Question Time in this Chamber when we learnt that teenage pregnancies in Britain were six times higher than in the Netherlands. We do not have all the right answers in this country in this minefield of young people's sexual health.
The new offence of abuse of trust that is now in the Bill is proof of the Government's willingness to listen and respond to reasoned criticism. It is extremely disappointing to say the least that some noble Lords opposite, while having called for such amendments, now seem unwilling to work with the grain of those amendments in the interests of young people.
749 Finally, it would not harm any of us to remember that this generation of 16 year-olds has to live in the shadow called AIDS that did not fall across our teenage years. I think it is incumbent on all of us to do what we can to assist young people as they navigate the difficult route to adulthood. Supporting this Bill is a small part of doing all that we can. Supporting this Bill would mean that this House reflects the values of the 21st rather than the 19th century.
§ 11.18 p.m.
My Lords, to come immediately to the last part of my speech, we have an alternative before us: vote Young or vote Williams. If we vote Young, we kill the Bill now; we save ourselves a great deal of time and effort; we make a clear statement of principle, but what then? The "what then" is that the Government will use the Parliament Act; we will get back this Bill exactly as it is now and we will have achieved nothing.
The alternative is to let this Bill go forward into Committee. We still have a perfect right to kill it at Third Reading if we do not like it then, or we can play endless ping-pong with the Commons to negotiate the best possible deal on the amendments we want. There are a number of ways in which this Bill needs to be improved. The noble Lord, Lord Monson, mentioned one; namely, Clause 1. That can easily be amended to make it clear that what is permitted at 18 is anal intercourse, and that other forms of homosexual activity are permitted at 16. That would seem to me to be totally undiscrimintory and a very useful way in which we might seek to amend the Bill to meet some of the concerns which have been expressed, particularly by my noble friends.
As my noble friend on the Front Bench said, Clause 2 needs looking at, but it is the part of the Bill for which I have the greatest support. It is ridiculous to criminalise young people of 16 and 17 for engaging in homosexual activities among themselves. If that law had been in force when I was at school, Eton would have been decimated.
As to the other parts of the Bill, many noble Lords have suggested ways in which clauses might be improved. I very much agree with them. It seems much better to phrase the whole idea of a breach of trust in a common law way, allow it to be judged and interpreted and allow for a whole range of possible circumstances. "Being in a position of trust" is a well understood principle; to try and decorate it and define it in this detailed way seems to me to be destined for failure, as many other noble Lords have pointed out. I am sure that we could have a simple amendment to replace all this verbiage.
I am also sure that we could introduce something to deal with the problem of predatory males on both young men and young women, which has been mentioned by several noble Lords. We could have a thoroughly constructive Committee stage. I shall listen with interest to what the noble Lord, Lord Williams, may say about how the Government would respond to such suggestions. Other than a bit of time and effort—which is what we are here for—we would lose nothing.
750 I hope that we shall give the Bill a Second Reading today, reserve our options and listen in detail to the arguments about how we might achieve a practically better Bill, rather than have a convenient vote today and a clean conscience for those of us who oppose it.
§ 11.21 p.m.
§ Lord Wallace of Saltaire
My Lords, it is late and it behoves those of us who are summing up to be as brief as possible. This has been a very thorough debate in which many people have spoken from the heart, very deeply and from fundamental principles. The balance of the debate has been very different from last July; we have had different views from every part of the House. We, on this Bench, have been keeping a rough tally of the balance of the speeches. We calculate that there have been 25 speeches for the Bill and against the amendment; 17 speeches for the amendment and three undeclared. As it is fashionable these days to break down the numbers of hereditary Peers, we calculate that there were six speeches for the Bill from hereditary Peers and eight speeches for the amendment from hereditary Peers. We did not carry out an age break-down but I am fairly confident that, had we done so, it would also have followed the fairly clear balance between the elderly and what we in this House laughably call the younger.
It has been a very reasoned debate of carefully considered arguments. I shall remind noble Lords of what was said in some of the earlier speeches: it is the job of this House to offer a second opinion and to disagree with the elected Chamber when we are convinced that it is wrong or that it is misrepresenting the opinion of the majority of people in this country. It is not our job to impose a different view upon the people as a whole. We will come to a free vote which, I hope, will reflect the balance of the arguments which have been presented. I do not intend therefore to attempt to sum up but to comment briefly on three of the perspectives which have emerged during the debate.
First, many of us have spoken as parents, many of us have spoken as Christians, and many of us have spoken in terms of our own fundamental political principles. As a parent, I, like many others, have naturally discussed this with my children, aged 21 and 17, who attended a large, very rough, mixed comprehensive. I am struck by their strong sense of equity, their commitment to openness and the extent to which they see this as an issue alongside, and of the same quality as, equal treatment between white and black and women and men. Inclusion rather than exclusion is the attitude that they and their fellows seem to take.
The question was raised in several speeches about parental responsibility and the family and the way in which families should respond to children growing up and discovering that their sexual identity is different from that of most of their friends. In the past four or five years, a friend of mine and a relative of mine have been through this experience—one with a young man and the other with a young woman—and I know something of the slow and personally painful discovery of people in their teens that they are different from the majority of their fellows. In neither case was there any 751 seduction and certainly not any promiscuity; rather a gradual realisation that that was who they are. One of them grew up in South Africa and my daughter went with him on the first Gay Pride march in Cape Town, at which he came out. It was for her a very emotional experience. I am glad she did it.
I compare this generation with previous generations. I think of those in my age group who grew up under the same painful process of self-discovery. I have very good friends, two men. who have lived together for the past 30 years. Both have been very good to my children and I would trust them with my children under any circumstances. I am conscious that in my parents' generation there were many whom one used quietly to talk about in those wonderful circumlocutions: "He's a confirmed bachelor", "He's not the marrying kind", or, as they say in Yorkshire, "He's t' other way inclined." I see no evidence that the number of homosexuals in our population has increased over the past 50 years. What I do see—and I welcome it—is that we have become less embarrassed about it and more open about it.
Secondly, perhaps I may say as a Christian that I grew up in the 1950s as a member of a choir school, hearing two sermons every Sunday and thinking, when I was nine or ten, that sin and sex were the same thing and indeed that there was not anything in sin that was not sex. I have lived in the Church of England through the realisation that the Church of England's attitude to women was deeply founded in prejudice. The noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, used the term "unclean" about homosexuals. I remember discussing with a vicar, of whose congregation I was a member at the time, why he could not allow women into the chancel during services and realising that he considered women to be unclean—the curse of Eve—and that this was all part of that old medieval and 19th century attitude. I am very happy that the Church of England has overcome that prejudice and has understood that faith does not require that part of it. I am happy that the Church of England is now coming to terms with the other large area in which one has to disentangle faith from prejudice.
Lastly, we all have to re-examine our political principles. I am a liberal, and I use that word not in a party sense but in terms of the British political tradition which is, by and large, a liberal tradition. It dates, as does the Church of England, from the Elizabethan settlement, from Queen Elizabeth's great statement that, "We do not seek to open windows into men's souls." We have slowly, in the centuries since then, extended the practice of tolerance; first, to nonconformists, then to Catholics, eventually to women, finally to blacks, and now, we hope, to those of a different sexual orientation.
The noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, made an excellent speech on the libertarian dimension of this and I was rather puzzled that the noble Lord, Lord Monson, who I understand is chairman of the Society for Individual Freedom, did not follow the same libertarian logic. The noble Lord, Lord Plant, remarked that an open, civil society depends on tolerance, freedom, justice and equality. Some noble Lords were unhappy with the use of the word "equality" in terms of people 752 of different sexual orientation. Let us use the word "non-discrimination." Let us talk about an end to discrimination. If we can accept that, then we should vote against the amendment and for the Bill. Let us remember, since we have been discussing Kosovo rather a lot in recent weeks, that the enemies of an open society are ethnic hatred, nationalism, prejudice against outsiders and those who are different—"the others".
I am for an open society. Britain has gained immensely from greater toleration and openness in its society over the past 30 or 40 years. To me, and I hope to most of us, that has extended the best of Britain's democratic and political traditions. I hope, therefore, that this House, reflecting the balance of this debate, will reject the amendment and support the Bill.
§ 11.30 p.m.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, I am personally hopelessly addicted to unnatural practices, as your Lordships well know. Before Easter I got up and came to work at seven o'clock, listened to 180 speeches, summed up and went home after midnight. I am a complete recidivist: this morning I came to work at seven o'clock, listened to 50-odd speeches and shall go home after midnight. I really think there ought to be a law against it—or I need a better trade union.
There are a number of things with which this debate is not concerned. It has nothing at all to do with political correctness. I repeat what I said earlier, because I meant it deeply. When Mr. Hague supported this principle and voted for it on the previous occasion in the House of Commons, it was an act of personal political moral courage. It has nothing to do with political correctness, as the speeches made from every corner of this House have demonstrated. Nor has it anything to do with ageism.
I very much enjoyed, as always, the speech made by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers. He put forward his non-controversial views, pointing out that there was a very thin veneer on civilisation, pointing to the dangers that might follow if this Bill were passed, pointing so far as I could understand it to swirling waters of sexual miasma and the necessity to keep ourselves in perpetual over-drive because, otherwise, murder, rape and cannibalism might inevitably follow.
My Lords, the noble Lord is, as usual, engaging, but he really cannot pluck words out of one's speech, join them all together and make something totally different out of them.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, I am bound to say that the way I joined them all together was a good deal more coherent. Indeed, as he stood there, the noble Earl was casting his mind back to his past experience—he and I are both approaching the prime of life—which I assumed must have something to do with the place where he was educated. I must say, had I a son and had 753 I sent him to Winchester, I should have been inclined to look for some of the money back! I shall give way if the noble Earl wishes me to do so.
My Lords, I should ask the noble Lord to give way only if I thought it was worth his giving way, but he has made such a fatuous argument that I shall not do so.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, the noble Earl normally does better than that.
This has been a good-humoured, good-natured debate. That is in a sense a tribute, because so many people in this House hold passionate views and have rightly expressed them with the conscientious concern that these issues require.
On a point of clarification, I hope I made it plain that I could see no moral difference between a man of, let us say, 50 using power, status, influence and prestige to seduce a girl of sixteen-and-a-half, as opposed to a similar man using the same tools, weapons and devices to seduce a boy of 16-plus. I remain adamant in that view.
The facts are these. If this measure is overthrown, it will be no defeat to us. It will be a victory of sorts. What sort? On what basis? And for how long? I simply repeat what the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, said in another place on 28 July:The new legislation [the present Bill] will be introduced first into this House [the Commons], to ensure that it has the benefit of the Parliament Act should that prove necessary".—[Official Report. Commons, 28/7/99; co1.183.]A number of your Lordships asked what the position would be, and I have repeated unambiguously what the Home Secretary said. A question was put as to whether I, junior to him, endorsed what he said about homosexual marriages, reduction of the age of consent and related matters. Of course I reiterate it. In fact, I was trying to say a good deal of it when I began earlier this afternoon. There are no proposals to reduce the age of consent from 16. The reason that I gave the example of Spain was to repudiate it. I would not be a party to any attempt to reduce the age to 12 because I think it is wrong as a matter of principle.
What I think is right as a matter of principle is that we should define where we are. My noble friends Lord Alli and Lord Stallard, for whom I have great regard, offered different views. The speech of my noble friend Lord Alli was notable because it was courageous, it was clear and, I believe, overwhelmingly persuasive and convincing. He described a view, honourably held. My noble friend Lord Stallard said that he and my noble friend Lord Alli lived in different worlds. They do not, and that is the point of principle that we need to address. It is the same world that we inhabit; it is the same legal system which. we have erected over the generations; and it is the same legal system which, if imperfect, needs reform.
Perhaps I may offer a point of principle. Except on the most compelling basis, the state has no place and no proper business in the bedroom. It is idle, I believe, to 754 try to say that young men of 16 are all different in their development and maturity from all young girls of 16. That is not my experience. I defy anyone to suggest that that is a position which can sensibly be held.
The fact is that we have failed those young people between the ages of 16 and 18 in not having a proper law to protect them. It is worth remembering that the girl who can give consent to sexual intercourse at the age of 16 has no present protection under our law. The consequence of the noble Baroness's amendment is to take away immediately the certain prospect that that protection would be given to young women between 16 and 18 and young men between 16 and 18. Your Lordships' choice is, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, put it, "Vote Young" or "Vote Williams", and I am sure that there is no difficulty in coming to the appropriately correct conclusion. That is the inevitable consequence of trying to destroy the Bill at this stage in these extremely unusual circumstances.
A number of questions were put about the Government's view with regard to the European Convention on Human Rights. Our advice is that we are most unlikely to succeed in the court. Since it is legal advice, it is not necessarily perfect, but I believe it to be correct advice. A question was asked about margin of appreciation. That did not succeed as a developed theme before the commission and it is unlikely to succeed before the court. In any event, when the Human Rights Act is fully implemented in this country, margin of appreciation as a concept will have little, if any, place.
I shall spend a moment or two on those organisations which support the thrust of the Bill. They are not polemicists; they are not paid advocates of any group dependent on ignoble motive. I take almost at random the NSPCC, the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Nursing. At least they are serious organisations with a considered, deep past and continuing interest in the welfare of those to whom we have been addressing ourselves this evening.
This is nothing to do with age but it may have to do with knowing. There is sometimes a deep cruelty about not knowing, and an even worse cruelty about not wanting to know. I always listen to all the speeches in this House because everyone has something of value to offer. But even when one listens to those for whom one has feelings of friendship, attachment and loyalty sometimes one wonders on what basis their views, pronouncements and sometimes prejudices are expressed. I listen and wonder as do many noble Lords because I have heard them say so this evening and on other occasions. Our children do not just listen and marvel; they hear and start to despair and condemn, and they are right.
The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, rightly said that this was a child protection issue. It is. The second part of the Bill is wholly directed to the protection of those who have no present protection. If there is a shaking of heads in disagreement perhaps I may briefly describe the legal position. There is no criminal sanction against a teacher who has sexual intercourse 755 with a girl of 16 plus. There are disciplinary sanctions that I believe are inadequate. That was why we listened carefully. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, was gracious enough to say that we had had conversations. It was from her urgings in substantial part that we decided that the proposed original penalty was too low.
A number of questions were put as to the Government's response to amendments. It is the usual response that I have always made; namely, if there are amendments which genuinely improve the Bill consonant with the philosophical approach of the measure, of course I shall listen to them. But if they are designed to do nothing more than water down the Bill or alter the conclusions to which we have come we shall resist them.
The semaphore principle in approaching legislation is not always the best guide. What signal, for or against, will it give to the large number of persons mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Alli, and others, many of whom have parents who love them and have brothers and sisters who may be different but still care for them? Perhaps they approach the matter as many of us do. It is a matter of perfect indifference to me whether my friends are heterosexual, homosexual or entirely celibate. What matters to me is whether they are my friends. Some are boring and some amusing, but they are not boring or amusing because of their sexual orientation. Our true approach should be that some people's private business is exactly that. It is not my business or anyone else's.
I assert that this is a profound question of justice. We cannot dole out justice, equality or fairness in penny packets. To try to do so will pollute our system of justice and undermine the principles on which we hope to base that system. We, in this Bill, want to do the right thing. I have no doubt myself what is the right thing. I repeat that this is a free vote, and I offer my own opinion to anyone who wants to listen or not, as the case may be. I invite the House to give the Bill a Second Reading and to reject the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and in that way to do the right thing, not least because if the Bill is killed now quite a number of people will believe, with significant justification, that they are excluded, discriminated against and badly treated simply because of what they are, and that is wrong.
§ 11.44 p.m.
My Lords, at this late hour I wish to start by thanking all those who have supported me in this long debate today. I agree very much that we have heard some wise and brave speeches from all parts of the House—speeches with which I agree and those with which I do not agree. I regret that I missed some speeches and I apologise to those whom I did not hear, but of course I shall read in Hansard tomorrow what they said.
It is too late tonight to comment on all the individual points that have been raised. However, I think that the House will understand that I should 756 particularly like to thank my noble friend Lord Ferrers for his contribution. He always speaks from the heart and says what a lot of people really think; and he says it in a kind, sound and sensible way.
I thank also the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich whose help and advice to me over these past weeks has been valuable. I listened with great interest and appreciation to what he said this evening.
I wish to make three points in conclusion. First, I should like to answer a question posed by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. Of course, I entirely accept without any rancour whatever all the points he made about myself. He and I have often crossed swords on different issues. I greatly respect his sincerity and think that he respects my sincerity too. He asked an important question, which the Minister also asked: what is the point of moving the Motion on the Order Paper? I shall try once again to explain my reasons.
Over many years I have taken a great interest in family policy, widely defined. I have argued on a number of Bills to try to support and uphold those principles which I also hold as a Christian but which I believe to be profoundly important for society. Sometimes I have been fortunate and I have carried your Lordships with me. At other times I have not been so fortunate and I have lost the argument and the debate. But I have been always consistent in what I have done. Noble Lords may not agree with my view, but I think that no one can say that I have been in any way inconsistent. I say this evening, as I said at the beginning of my remarks, that this Bill is not amendable because I do not agree with Clause 1. I do not regard using your Lordships' House for all kinds of technical and tactical reasons as the right way to deal with a very serious issue. It is not a game; it is a very serious matter. It is only right to say to the House straight out what I believe to be right and true; and if I think that the Bill is unamendable, it is more honest to take this course than to take another course.
I accept what the Minister said: that the Government will invoke the Parliament Act. Of course, that is their right. In your Lordships' House we can do only what we are constitutionally allowed to do. Our powers are limited. I accept all that. But because they are limited, it does not mean that they should not be used. I think that noble Lords are perfectly entitled to say what they think on this important matter of social policy. That is the answer to that question.
Secondly, I am sorry to have to say that we have heard endless repetition of matters which are not true. I will not rehearse again the question of the poll and the assertion that people cannot obtain medical advice. That is quite untrue; they can. I have in my brief here—I will not take up the time of the House—leaflets and pamphlets from local authorities showing and informing gay young men where they can receive help and advice. It does not help the debate constantly to repeat things which are not true.
Many of the arguments which we heard tonight about criminalising young people—there are real 757 arguments about that—would apply to any age of consent, no matter what it was. They could be easily used were the age of consent to be lowered to less than 16. As regards human rights, I do not believe that there is any human right to commit buggery.
The last point I turn to relates to all the organisations which have come out in support of lowering the age of consent. I accept that it is very difficult to stand up in the face of all those people and say that you think they are wrong. I wish to take up a point made by my noble friend Lady Blatch. She wondered whether, when they took the view, it was put to the council members of every one of the organisations. Was it ever put to the thousands of volunteers from one end of the country to the other who work to support them, who raise the money for them and who enable them to do the work which they do? It would be interesting to hear their answer. The evidence I have heard so far is that that is not the case. As we heard from my noble friend Lady Blatch, the NSPCC had no idea that its name would appear in the advertisement in The Times. It is a casual way, to say the least, to conduct its business.
Leaving all that aside, the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, and others made the point—and perhaps I should apologise for my age now—that we are in a very different world. How right he is; we are in a very different world. One of the reasons why I am so concerned is that we are in a world in which we have never been before; in which we are actually witnessing the break-up of society. Now, 40 per cent. of marriages end in divorce; in some places, nearly 50 per cent. of live births are outside of marriage. We hear constant reference, which is true, to teenage pregnancies; and we have all the other evidence of an army of unhappy children whose parents have divorced and who are bewildered.
I believe that that is a tragedy. One of the reasons why I have spoken out on so many similar issues is that although we may not be able to do much about it, it seems to me that if we are in public life and we believe in principles we should stand up for them. I believe that the Bill is another small nail in the coffin of the upholding of family life and traditional beliefs. Your Lordships may call me a Victorian and somebody from the 19th century. I can assure the House that I have had plenty of unpleasant letters and have been called plenty of unpleasant things during the past month. I try to bear all these things with Christian fortitude, which is sometimes a difficult task. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Annan, back in his place and I am reminded that these intellectuals put up these clever arguments. Was he—I can never quite recall—the Provost of King's or the Provost of Queen's?
Consistently over a number of Bills, I have worked very hard for those things which I believe to be right and to be true. The reason why I have stood up today to express the view that I have is that I believe that we will be helping young people in a very difficult 758 world. We will unquestionably be supporting responsible parents who want all the help that the law can give and the support of people in public life. And I am quite sure that if it votes with me today the House of Lords will be reflecting much more clearly what the public at large want than another place did when it voted on the Second Reading.
I commend the amendment to the House.
§ The Chairman of Committees (Lord Boston of Faversham)
My Lords, the original Question was that this Bill be now read a second time, since when an amendment has been moved, to leave out "now" and at end to insert "this day six months". The Question is that the amendment be agreed to.
§ 11.56 p.m.
§ On Question, Whether the said amendment shall be agreed to?
§ Their Lordships divided: Contents, 222; Not-Contents, 146.760
|Division No. 1|
|Ahmed, L.||Clanwilliam, E.|
|Aldington, L.||Clarke of Hampstead, L.|
|Allenby of Megiddo, V.||Coleridge, L.|
|Ampthill, L.||Cooke of Islandreagh, L.|
|Annaly, L.||Cope of Berkeley, L.|
|Arran, E.||Cowdrey of Tonbridge, L.|
|Ashbourne, L.||Craig of Radley, L.|
|Astor of Hever, L.||Cranborne, V.|
|Attlee, E.||Crawshaw, L.|
|Balfour of Inchrye, L.||Crickhowell, L.|
|Banbury of Southam, L.||Cross, V.|
|Bathurst, E.||Cumberlege, B.|
|Beaverbrook, L.||Davies of Coity, L.|
|Belhaven and Stenton, L.||De L'Isle, V.|
|Bell, L.||Denham, L.|
|Bellwin, L.||Derwent, L.|
|Berners, B.||Dixon, L.|
|Blackwell, L.||Dixon-Smith, L.|
|Blatch, B.||Donegall, M.|
|Boardman, L.||Donoughmore, E.|
|Bramall, L.||Downshire, M.|
|Braybrooke, L.||Dulverton, L.|
|Brentford, V.||Eden of Winton, L.|
|Bridgeman, V.||Ellenborough, L.|
|Brigstocke, B.||Elles, B.|
|Brookman, L.||Elliott of Morpeth, L.|
|Brooks of Tremorfa, L.||Elton, L.|
|Brougham and Vaux, L.||Exmouth, V.|
|Burnham, L.||Falmouth, V.|
|Burton, L.||Feldman, L.|
|Buscombe, B.||Ferrers, E.|
|Butterworth, L.||Fitt, L.|
|Byford, B.||Fookes, B.|
|Caldecote, V.||Freeman, L.|
|Canterbury, Abp.||Gage, V.|
|Carlisle of Bucklow, L.||Gainsborough, E.|
|Carnarvon, E.||Gardner of Parkes, B.|
|Carnegy of Lour, B.||Geddes, L.|
|Carr of Hadley, L.||Gisborough, L.|
|Chadlington, L.||Gladwyn, L.|
|Chalfont, L.||Glenarthur, L.|
|Charteris of Amisfield, L.||Grantley, L.|
|Chesham, L.||Gray of Contin, L.|
|Greenway, L.||Northesk, E.|
|Griffiths of Fforestfach, L.||Norwich, Bp.|
|Haig, E.||Nunburnholme, L.|
|Halsbury, E.||Oppenheim-Barnes, B.|
|Hamilton of Dalzell, L.||Orme, L.|
|Hampton, L.||Oxfuird, V.|
|Hankey, L.||Palmer, L.|
|Hardy of Wath, L.||Patten, L.|
|Harmar-Nicholls, L.||Pearson of Rannoch, L.|
|Harmsworth, L.||Pender, L.|
|Harris of High Cross, L.||Pilkington of Oxenford, L.|
|Hemphill, L.||Plummer of St. Marylebone, L.|
|Henley, L.||Quirk, L.|
|Hesketh, L.||Rawlings, B.|
|Hogg, B.||Reading, M.|
|Home, E.||Reay, L.|
|Hooper, B.||Rees, L.|
|Hunt of Wirral, L.||Renton, L.|
|Hurd of Westwell, L.||Renwick, L.|
|Islwyn, L.||Robertson of Oakridge, L.|
|Keith of Castleacre, L.||Romney, E.|
|Kimball, L.||Rotherwick, L.|
|King of Wartnaby, L.||Ryder of Warsaw, B.|
|Kingsdown, L.||Saatchi, L.|
|Kingsland, L.||Saltoun of Abernethy, Ly.|
|Kinloss, Ly.||Seccombe, B.|
|Kinnoull, E.||Selsdon, L.|
|Kintore, E.||Shannon, E.|
|Kitchener, E.||Sharples, B.|
|Knight of Collingtree, B.||Shaw of Northstead, L.|
|Knutsford, V.||Simon of Glaisdale, L.|
|Laing of Dunphail, L.||Skelmersdale, L.|
|Lamont of Lerwick, L.||Southwell, Bp.|
|Lane, L.||Stair, E.|
|Lauderdale, E.||Stallard, L. [Teller.]|
|Lindsey and Abingdon, E.||Stanley of Alderley, L.|
|Liverpool, E.||Stewartby, L.|
|Lofthouse of Pontefract, L.||Stodart of Leaston, L.|
|Long, V.||Stoddart of Swindon, L.|
|Longford, E.||Strange, B.|
|Lucas of Chilworth, L.||Strathcarron, L.|
|Luke, L.||Suffolk and Berkshire, E.|
|Lyell, L.||Swinfen, L.|
|McColl of Dulwich, L.||Swinton, E.|
|Mackay of Ardbrecknish, L.||Taylor of Warwick, L.|
|Mackay of Clashfern, L.||Tebbit, L.|
|Manchester, Bp.||Tenby, V.|
|Manton, L.||Teviot, L.|
|Marlesford, L.||Thatcher, B.|
|Mason of Barnsley, L.||Thomas of Gwydir, L.|
|Mayhew of Twysden, L.||Tollemache, L.|
|Middleton, L.||Torphichen, L.|
|Miller of Hendon, B.||Trefgarne, L.|
|Milner of Leeds, L.||Trenchard, V.|
|Molyneaux of Killead, L.||Trumpington, B.|
|Monro of Langholm. L.||Tryon, L.|
|Monteagle of Brandon, L.||Ullswater, V.|
|Montrose, D.||Vivian, L.|
|Moran, L.||Waddington, L.|
|Morris, L.||Waverley, V.|
|Mountevans, L.||Weatherill, L.|
|Mowbray and Stourton, L.||Weir, V.|
|Murton of Lindisfarne, L.||Westbury, L.|
|Napier and Ettrick, L.||Wilcox, B.|
|Nathan, L.||Willoughby de Broke, L.|
|Nolan, L.||Winchester, Bp.|
|Norrie, L.||Wynford, L.|
|Northbrook, L.||Young, B. [Teller.]|
|Addington, L.||Avebury, L.|
|Alderdice, L.||Bach, L.|
|Alli, L.||Barnett, L.|
|Amos, B.||Bath, M.|
|Annan, L.||Bath and Wells, Bp.|
|Beaumont of Whitley, L.||Lovell-Davis, L.|
|Berkeley, L.||Lucas, L.|
|Biddulph, L.||Ludford, B.|
|Biffen, L.||McIntosh of Haringey, L.|
|Birmingham, Bp.||Mackie of Benshie, L.|
|Bledisloe, V.||McNally, L.|
|Bragg, L.||Maddock, B.|
|Brooke of Alverthorpe, L.||Mallalieu, B.|
|Brookeborough, V.||Mancroft, L.|
|Burlison, L.||Marsh, L.|
|Carlisle, E.||Masham of Ilton, B.|
|Carter, L.||Merlyn-Rees, L.|
|Castle of Blackburn, B.||Miller of Chilthorne Domer, B.|
|Chandos, V.||Monkswell, L.|
|Clancarty, E.||Montagu of Beaulieu, L.|
|Clement-Jones, L.||Montague of Oxford, L.|
|Clinton-Davis, L.||Newby, L.|
|Colville of Culross, V.||Newton of Braintree, L.|
|Craigavon, V.||Nicholson of Winterbourne, B.|
|Cranbrook, E.||Norton of Louth, L.|
|Crawley, B.||Oxford, Bp.|
|Currie of Marylebone, L.||Patel, L.|
|Darcy de Knayth, B.||Peston, L.|
|David, B.||Phillips of Sudbury, L.|
|Davies of Oldham, L.||Pitkeathley, B.|
|Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, B.||Plant of Highfield, L.|
|Dubs, L.||Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L.|
|Falconer of Thoroton, L.||Quinton, L.|
|Falkland, V.||Ramsay of Cartvale, B.|
|Farrington of Ribbleton, B.||Randall of St. Budeaux, L.|
|Freyberg, L. [Teller.]||Razzall, L.|
|Garel-Jones, L.||Rea, L.|
|Gifford, L.||Rendell of Babergh, B.|
|Gilmour of Craigmillar, L.||Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, L.|
|Glanusk, L.||Richard, L.|
|Goodhart, L.||Richardson of Calow, B.|
|Gould of Potternewton, B.||Rodgers of Quarry Bank, L.|
|Graham of Edmonton, L.||Rowallan, L.|
|Grantchester, L.||Russell, E.|
|Grenfell, L.||Russell-Johnston, L.|
|Hamwee, B.||Sainsbury of Turville, L.|
|Hardinge of Penshurst, L.||St. John of Fawsley, L.|
|Harris of Greenwich, L.||Sandwich, E.|
|Harris of Haringey, L.||Sawyer, L.|
|Harrowby, E.||Sewel, L.|
|Hattersley, L.||Sharp of Guildford, B.|
|Hilton of Eggardon, B. [Teller.]||Shaughnessy, L.|
|Holderness, L.||Sheppard of Liverpool, L.|
|Hollis of Heigham, B.||Smith of Clifton, L.|
|Holme of Cheltenham, L.||Stafford, E.|
|Hoyle, L.||Symons of Vernham Dean, B.|
|Hughes, L.||Taverne, L.|
|Hughes of Woodside, L.||Taylor of Blackburn, L.|
|Thomas of Walliswood, B.|
|Hunt of Kings Heath, L.||Thomson of Monifieth, L.|
|Hutchinson of Lullington, L.||Thornton, B.|
|Hylton, L.||Thurlow, L.|
|Inchyra, L.||Tope, L.|
|Iveagh, E.||Tordoff, L.|
|Janner of Braunstone, L.||Turner of Camden, B.|
|Jay of Paddington, B. [Lord Privy Seal.]||Wallace of Saltaire, L|
|Jenkins of Hillhead, L.||Warner, L.|
|Judd, L.||Whitty, L.|
|Kennedy of The Shaws, B.||Williams of Crosby, B.|
|Kennet, L.||Williams of Mostyn, L.|
|Lawrence, L.||Winchilsea and Nottingham, E.|
|Lester of Herne Hill, L.||Winston, L.|
|Lockwood, B.||Young of Old Scone, B.|
§ Resolved in the affirmative, and amendment agreed to accordingly.
§ House adjourned at eleven minutes past midnight.