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Straw, Jack

Tapsell, Sir Peter

Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)

Taylor, Ian (Esher)

Taylor, Matthew (Truro)

Temple-Morris, Peter

Thomason, Roy

Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)

Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)

Townsend, Cyril D. (Bexl'yh'th)

Trend, Michael

Turner, Dennis

Tyler, Paul

Vaz, Keith

Waldegrave, Rt Hon William

Walden, George

Walker, Rt Hon Sir Harold

Waller, Gary

Walley, Joan

Wardell, Gareth (Gower)

Wareing, Robert N

Watson, Mike

Wheeler, Rt Hon Sir John

Wicks, Malcolm

Willetts, David

Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Sw'n W)

Williams, Alan W (Carmarthen)

Wilshire, David

Wilson, Brian

Winnick, David

Wise, Audrey

Wolfson, Mark

Worthington, Tony

Wright, Dr Tony

Yeo, Tim

Young, David (Bolton SE)

Young, Rt Hon Sir George

Tellers for the Noes :

Mr. Harry Barnes and

Mr. John McAllion.

Question accordingly negatived.

New clause 3

Amendment of law relating to

sexual acts between men--

.--(1) In section 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 (amendment of law relating to homosexual acts in private), for "twenty-one" in both places where it occurs there is substituted "sixteen".

(2) in section 80 of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980 (homosexual offences), for "twenty-one" in each place where it occurs there is substituted "sixteen".

(3) This section shall come into force on the date this Act is passed.'.-- [Mrs. Currie.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South) : I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Chairman : With this, it will be convenient to consider the following : New clause 5-- Age at which homosexual acts are lawful .--(1) In section 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 (amendment of law relating to homosexual acts in private), for "twenty-one" in both places where it occurs there is substituted "eighteen".

(2) In section 80 of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980 (homosexual offences), for "twenty-one" in each place where it occurs there is substituted "eighteen".

(3) This section shall come into force on the date this Act is passed.'

New clause 6-- Amendment of the law relating to sexual acts between men

. (1) In section 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 (amendment of the law relating to homosexual acts in private) for "twenty-one" in both places where it occurs is substituted "seventeen".

(2) In section 80 of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980 (homosexual offences) for "twenty-one" in each place where it occurs there is substituted "seventeen".

(3) No proceedings shall be instituted except by or with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions against any man for an offence under sections 12, 13, 15 or 16 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956 or for aiding, abetting, counselling, procuring or commanding its commission whether either of the men was at the time of its commission under the age of twenty -one.

(4) This section shall come into force on the date on which this Act is passed.'

Mrs. Currie : The purpose of the new clause is to make the age of consent the same for everyone. I understand that it will be the subject of the first of a series of Divisions.

This is an historic debate. It is the first time in over a quarter of a century that the age of consent for

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homosexuals has been discussed by the House of Commons. The taboo of silence that has denied the sexuality of young gay men has been decisively broken. Tonight's free vote establishes the question as a matter of conscience--as it should be--and the huge number of hon. Members who will support the new clause will demonstrate that it is not an issue for gay men alone, and no longer a minority issue, but one of human rights, which touches us all.

Homosexuality in this country is subject to enforced discrimination, which is now out of date, indefensible and way out of line with the rest of the civilised world. The age at which gay sex is permitted in Britain, at 21, is the highest in the world, other than in places like Byelorussia and Serbia, where it is still totally illegal. Most nations have the same age of consent for straight and for gay sexual activity--and have done for years, even centuries--with no problems at all. They do not bother to make any distinction, even when the age is lower than it is here.

We need only cross the channel to see that this is the case. In France, Greece, Poland, Sweden and Denmark the common age is 15 ; in Italy, it is 14 ; in Malta, Spain and Holland, it is 12. Those are prime destinations, it should be pointed out, for the 33 million Brits who go abroad every year on holiday or business. Germany has announced that it will equalise the age of consent at 16 ; the Republic of Ireland did so last year, at 17. None of these nations is troubled, as we appear almost uniquely to be, by the notion that a common age of consent causes peculiar difficulties. The fact is that it does not.

The United Kingdom is likely to have to change its law before much longer, for a case has been brought before the European Court of Human Rights on equality grounds, with an excellent chance of success. The Government have already been told that they have a case to answer, and they must give their response before the end of March. The European Court of Human Rights, which we helped to set up in 1953, is likely to rule in favour of equality, as it has done in similar cases in respect of other countries, which have complied. Surely it is better for us to change our law in the House of Commons, on a free vote, than to be forced to conform, possibly in an election year.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North) : Does my hon. Friend agree that this issue, of all issues, is one of principle and that the Committee ought not to take a decision on grounds of expediency or comparisons? Should not the House of Commons protect the young men of the nation?

Mrs. Currie : Of course, it is a matter of principle. If my hon. Friend bears with me, I shall deal with his point in a moment. This is an all-party new clause, and other hon. Members will put forward their points of view. As a lifelong Tory, I can only say that I believe that the state should be kept out of the personal lives of the men and women of this country. Everyone is entitled to his or her privacy. What my neighbours get up to in private is their business and not mine, and it is not for the state to interfere. If we are to have a nation at ease with itself and a nation at the heart of Europe, the unpleasant homophobic nature of current legislation must be changed--and the sooner, the better.

I may be told that public opinion is not with us. If there is one thing that is very clear it is that the polls are

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confusing and that we should not rely on them. The poll in yesterday's Sunday Times showed that many people still want to ban homosexuality altogether ; others want equality, but at a different, higher, age. Since the age of consent for the rest of us has been 16 since 1885, that is somewhat unrealistic. It is interesting that once respondents know a gay man, attitudes change dramatically and bigotry disappears. We in this Chamber all know at least one gay man--possibly more. In any case, we are here to lead public opinion as well as to follow it.

In a poll last year, 83 per cent. of the public stated that they were in favour of capital punishment. That did not stop a huge majority of hon. Members voting the other way a few moments ago. Our constituents send us here with our brains intact, and we should be using them.

7.15 pm

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher) : My hon. Friend and I are both positive Europeans, but I do not see what the situation elsewhere in Europe has to do with this debate. I do not think that her analogy with what goes on in other countries is relevant. Does she agree--if not, perhaps she will explain why--that there is no equality between homosexuality and heterosexuality?

Mrs. Currie : I was merely pointing out that in countries where there has been a common age of consent for a long time, none of the problems that we are told will arise if we have a common age has arisen.

Mr. Brazier : Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. Currie : No. I must move on, as this is a very short debate in which many hon. Members want to take part.

In this country there are also people who dislike, even abhor, homosexuality. They are entitled to campaign for those opinions. We have all been bombarded with St. Paul and Leviticus, and we have been accused of joining the forces of Satan. Such views are held with passionate sincerity- -of course they are--but the people who hold them are not entitled to insist that their prejudices be written into British law. Oscar Wilde pointed out that one cannot make men moral by law ; that all one can do is criminalise their preferences. We have no right to do that.

We can argue long and hard about principle--

Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South) : My hon. Friend cannot be saying seriously that we should allow anybody to indulge any preference. I do not think that she can mean genuinely what she has just said. Surely she recognises that there are many activities--for example, child abuse--which individuals find pleasing but which the rest of society does not recognise as valid. [Interruption.]

Mrs. Currie : I think that my hon. Friend's remark has been treated with the contempt it deserves.

The law is not only prejudicial and discriminatory ; it is painfully effective. Hon. Members on my side of the debate cannot argue that the law is ignored. On the contrary, it is widely, if erratically, employed. Between 1988 and 1991, there were more than 2, 000 arrests for offences involving consensual sex with men under 21 years of age. Even in 1992, as the research of the House of Commons Library shows, men were still being committed to prison for consensual acts with other men. The fear of being arrested and questioned, and perhaps cautioned or charged, is real and ever present.

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Last year, three young men--Will Parry, Hugo Greenhalgh and Ralph Wilde--announced that they were to take their case, on equality grounds, to the European Court. Two of them--Hugo and Will, who are lovers--spoke openly on television. I understand that they were promptly reported to the police by a self-appointed guardian of public morality, Mr. Stephen Green. The police may have been deeply embarrassed about the whole affair, but because the complaint had been made it had to be investigated. The young men found themselves in Rochester Row police station for several hours, and they were subjected to the most intimate and intrusive personal questioning. Eventually, they were released, and no prosecution has been brought. Had such an episode occurred to a heterosexual couple, we should all have been appalled. We ought to be just as disgusted that in 1994 this can still happen to gay men.

Ms Dawn Primarolo (Bristol, South) : Does the hon. Lady agree that it is totally unacceptable that the Committee should take the view that young men ought to be protected longer than young women? If young women, with the age of consent set at 16, are suitably protected, there is no reason whatever why the same age should not apply to men, whether heterosexual or homosexual.

Mrs. Currie : I agree entirely. Time permitting, I shall deal with that matter in greater detail.

Who can doubt the intimidatory effect of incidents of the sort that I have just mentioned? Intimidation and deterrence are, after all, the purpose of this law. The result is extremely damaging. It inhibits young men from seeking help, whether through counselling, health advice or sex education. The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, which supports the new clause, tells us that young gay men are noticeable by their absence from the citizens advice bureaux. They are too scared to come forward and ask for help. That applies even if they have been subjected to muggings or theft. Giving evidence against an assailant would involve identifying themselves as breaking the criminal law, so they do not come forward. Thus, the law has the opposite effect to what many hon. Members want.

We are all genuinely worried about protecting vulnerable youngsters. It is a concern shared by all hon. Members. But a law that keeps people silent and means that they are unable to lodge a complaint is not a protective shield. It is an enforcer of their silence. It is a gag, and it is likely to leave them that much more open to abuse, pressure, harassment, blackmail and extortion.

Mr. Marlow : Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. Currie : No, I shall not.

It is not as if the law enforcement agencies are looking for work. We should be wary of burdening them at a time when genuine crime is causing so much worry. In my view as a Tory, our police force, magistrates, courts and judges should be well enough occupied pursuing the real thugs and thieves who are creating misery and mayhem throughout the land.

Mr. Marlow : Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. Currie : I cannot resist my hon. Friend.

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Mr. Marlow : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. She is seeking to persuade hon. Members to vote to legalise the buggery of adolescent males. Does she think that that is what our constituents have sent us here to do?

Mrs. Currie : I merely repeat that I do not consider the private sexual practices of other people, including the hon. Gentleman, to be any business of the law. The debate in recent weeks has taught me that one person's sexual perversion is another person's preferred sexual practice. We should all be careful about pronouncing on what goes on next door.

I shall now turn to the subject of health education. It exasperates me that the moment that anyone mentions gay sex, AIDS comes up in the next breath. When we see a heterosexual couple, we do not instantly think of gonorrhoea ; we see people trying to form a long-term relationship, caring about each other and falling in love. Nevertheless, as a former Health Minister, I have a particular concern. How can we advise young gay men about the dangers of AIDS, how can we talk to them straight about safer sex, when what they are doing is supposed to be strictly against the law? When the campaign against AIDS began in 1986, Ministers had to take a deep breath and tell health care workers to ignore the law, and to reach out to men at risk in whichever way they could. That was highly unsatisfactory and hostile to any type of progress.

The Government tell us that they want to reduce the level of sexually transmitted disease--so do we all. The British Medical Association, whose council recently voted overwhelmingly to support the new clause, considers :

"criminalisation of homosexual activity may inhibit health education and healthcare."

It continues :

"There is no convincing medical reason against reducing the age of consent for male homosexuals to 16 years, and to do so may yield positive health benefits."

The World Health Organisation said :

"People who hide their sexual orientation for fear of discrimination or alienation are placed in situations that are not conducive to safe sexual practices."

On 22 January, The Lancet stated :

"All young people need safer sex education but the needs of young homosexual men are not being met. This worrying disparity may arise both directly and indirectly from the current legislation." A survey in 1992 for the North West Thames regional health authority of the HIV prevention initiatives in the United Kingdom, most of which are paid for by the Government, showed that most agencies conducted no work for young gay and bisexual men ; when asked why not, half the agencies reported that it was due to the possible illegality of the work.

Mr. Brazier : Has my hon. Friend seen the figures from America, where different states have a range of approaches to the age of consent and gay rights? Does she know that in those states and cities, such as San Francisco, where the laws are most liberal, the incidence not only of AIDS but of hepatitis A, hepatitis B and gay bowel syndrome is vastly higher than in those states that have tight laws on homosexuality?

Mrs. Currie : I am after not gay rights but equal rights for everyone. If my hon. Friend considers my argument for one moment, he may agree that, if we are to improve health

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