HL Deb 05 July 1999 vol 603 cc577-80

2.45 p.m.

Baroness Seccombe asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why no women's organisations were consulted over the decision to legalise buggery with girls under 18, and whether this is consistent with the declared policy in the document Better for Women, Better for All—Listening to Women of consulting women on all matters of concern to them.

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington)

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn wrote to the noble Baroness on 7th June explaining the context and scope of the Home Office consultation on the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill. A copy of that letter was placed in the Library. The Listening to Women forums, which have been taking place in the last few months, are not relevant to that consultation by the Home Office.

Baroness Seccombe

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the vast majority of people in the country have no idea that the legislation proposed in the Bill presented to the House and rejected by your Lordships had any effect on young girls of the ages of 16 to 18? Since we last spoke about this subject, I have spoken to many people and I have been unable to find one person who knew that girls were implicated in any way in the provisions of the Bill. Does the Minister agree that it is an absolute duty of any government to alert major institutions—in this case women's organisations—as well as the general public of such a change of great importance? The Government pride themselves on communicative and consultative skills. Will the Minister ensure that there will be a wide-ranging and a country-wide debate before the Labour Government brings forward a similar Bill to promote a way of life that is unnatural, dangerous and physically harmful to girls of that age?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I disagree with about three of the premises of the noble Baroness in that extensive question. In answer to her point that all people in the country think one thing or another, the Government have clearly set out consultative arrangements for consulting women's organisations. We have the Women's National Commission. As I mentioned in answer to her first Question, we have been undertaking a series of forums around the country. Twelve regional meetings have been held on the subject. Subsequently, 25,000 postcards have been received by the Women's Unit. On no occasion has that particular issue been raised. I respectfully point out to the noble Baroness that it was made clear in the Explanatory Notes to the Bill that there was a distinction between homosexual acts and buggery and that the explicit nature of the distinction between the relationship of gender was made clear in that way.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that while there was evidence of pressure from certain quarters to lower the age for consensual buggery for boys to the age of 16, there was little evidence—perhaps no evidence at all—that there was pressure to reduce the age comparably for girls to 16?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I thought I had made it clear in my Answer, but perhaps I was not sufficiently explicit. It was made absolutely clear on the face of the Bill and in the Explanatory Notes that if one seeks to achieve equality before the law on sexual behaviour in this way, that equality will include both genders.

On the other point raised by the noble Lord, he will be well aware, as my noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn has reported this on the many occasions that the subject has been debated in your Lordships' House, that a large number of organisations concerned with the sexual health of young people supported this measure.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, bearing in mind the point that the Minister has made—I understand that she regards this matter as important—can she consider giving a report to the House from time to time on what progress she has made and what assistance she may require from other noble Lords?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that suggestion. The Listening to Women forums that we have undertaken are ongoing. My noble friend may be interested to know that the last one is due to take place in Cardiff later this month. I shall be happy to give any reports to the House on the consultative procedures that we undertake.

Baroness Young

My Lords, will the noble Baroness reconsider her earlier answers to my noble friend Lady Seccombe? She did not address the issue as to whether or not women's organisations were consulted on this. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, made it perfectly plain in his helpful letter that no women's organisations were consulted. If I understood the Minister correctly—I read the document to which reference was made—women's organisations were not consulted at all. The question is: how will women know that this change in the law is to take place? Most women do not read Hansard or follow the intricacies of legislation.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I can only repeat what I said before. My noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn—as the noble Baroness, Lady Young, pointed out—made clear in his letter to the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, that the part of the Bill on which consultation took place was that part relating to abuse of trust and not to the age of consent. The age of consent was an issue raised under an ECHR obligation on the Government. It was not put to either House of Parliament as an issue of government policy; it was put as a free vote and was therefore considered in that way.

I can only say to the noble Baroness that, as she would expect, I am very much involved through the Women's National Commission and other women's organisations with the opinion of women. In none of those organisations, nor in this sensitive, nationwide consultation which we have just finished, was that issue raised at all.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, will women's organisations be consulted before any similar Bill is introduced into this House?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, that will be a question for the Home Office.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that this is not so much a matter of women's rights as a matter of public health? Does she agree also that anal sex, whether undertaken heterosexually or homosexually, gives rise to a much higher risk of infection and damage? Also, a young man or boy involved in such a case, if it is heterosexual intercourse, is also at risk. Are not the Government concerned about the health of young men as well as young women?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, of course. I understand from my noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn that the Home Office has been in close consultation with the Department of Health on this subject, as I would expect. The noble Lord and other Members of the House may be interested to know that the last time in which the sexual offences issue was considered formally was by the previous government in 1984. The recommendation produced to Parliament by the Home Secretary of that time was, Most of us are of the opinion that girls do not need the protection of criminal law against anal intercourse once they have reached the age of 16". It has obviously been a consistent position for some time.