Column 79education for young people, it is deeply unhelpful when the law makes them criminals first. We must make progress on the matter. My arguments do not apply only to sex education. According to the Government's "The Health of the Nation" White Paper, Ministers also wish to reduce the incidence of suicide and attempted suicide, which in Britain is among the highest in the world. The best way to achieve the two objectives of a fall in the rate of HIV and AIDS and in the rate of suicide is to have open, intelligent, well-trained, well-informed talk, advice and support. The worst way is to turn our young people into criminals in the way that we do. When colleagues say that changing the age of consent will give the wrong signals, I hope that they will also recognise that young men and those trying to help them receive the wrong signals from the law as it stands. Those against the new clause cannot have it both ways--either the law is ineffective, in which case it serves no purpose but to
institutionalise ignorance and it should be swept away, or it works and it hurts, in which case it is dangerous and unfair.
We have already heard it said tonight that there is a difference in maturity between boys and girls. As a former teacher, it seems to me that differences exist at 11 and 13 years of age, but they have largely disappeared by the time young people reach 15 and 16. That was the conclusion of the Wolfenden report back in 1957. It said : "Our medical witnesses were unanimously of the view that the main sexual pattern is laid down in the early years of life and the majority of them held that it was usually fixed in main outline by the age of 16. Many held that it was fixed much earlier." If there were any truth in the idea that boys are not as mature as girls in their later teens, that would be an argument for a higher age of consent for all boys, not just for some of them. There is not a country in the world that takes that line. It is nonsense and, in any case, it is the weakest possible ground for invoking the criminal law against the young people involved.
Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North) : On the issue of equality before the law, does the hon. Lady realise that it is neither natural nor normal to carry out homosexual activity? That is why there has to be protection for young boys. It is a different matter if they participate in that which is normal and natural, but if they are guided into activities that are neither normal nor natural, protection is required.
Mrs. Currie : I recognise that my hon. Friend has deeply held and sincere views on the matter and I respect them, but in the past much the same thing has been said about practices such as divorce and contraception, and we do not now make laws banning them. I am not going to persuade my hon. Friend and, with respect, he is probably not going to persuade me.
We are debating not physical maturity but the ability, in law, of a person to understand, and to give or withhold consent. The age at which children in this country are held to tell the difference between right and wrong is 10. Recently, children of 11 years of age were convicted of murder on the ground that they knew what they were doing. The age at which a boy can be held to be guilty of rape was recently reduced from 14 to 10. In law, a young man is old enough at 16 to decide to sleep with his girlfriend and even to marry her, yet, if he is the other way
Column 80inclined, he is judged to be absolutely incapable of making up his own mind. Frankly, I think that that is nuts. There is no logical or biological argument for discrimination.
Lady Olga Maitland : Does the hon. Lady agree that we are really talking about emotional maturity? A 16-year-old boy may be troubled by his growing sexuality and be unsettled and frightened of girls. He may not be doing well at school and could be strongly pressured by the militant gay lobby. Therefore, he should be protected.
Mrs. Currie : With respect to my hon. Friend, in those circumstances the worst possible thing that we can do is to make the boy a criminal, but that is what we do. There are better ways to protect our young people.
Several hon. Members rose --
I wish to tackle one other chestnut that I heard on the radio today. Someone claimed that changing the law would result in rapacious, middle- aged homosexuals hanging around school gates, waiting to seduce young boys. A part of me says that that probably tells us a lot about the peculiar attitudes of middle-aged people rather than about the behaviour of the young. No one seems equally bothered about rapacious, middle-aged heterosexuals chasing young girls. This is still an extraordinarily macho society.
I wonder whether anyone ever talks to young people. Most of them are inevitably and naturally seeking relationships with people of their own age. One year is the average age gap between partners at their first sexual experience. The idea that teenagers might be hugely and secretly attracted- -for preference--to some wrinkled old biddy, old enough to be a parent or grandparent, is preposterous and offensive to most people.
[Interruption.] --I must tell the House that I am not yet a grandmother. As a mother, how did the hon. Lady study her family and the boys who grew up in it? Does she have any idea of the immaturity of 16-year -old boys? If she does not, some of us do.
Mrs. Currie : I repeat the answer that I gave earlier. Of course, young people are immature, but that is not an argument for making them criminals. It is an argument for talking to them, setting them a good example and respecting their sexuality, especially when they tell us that they know their own minds and wish to be left alone. It seems to me that that is what we should do.
The serious point is this : British courts and juries have at last begun to accept that in sexual encounters consent means consent and no should mean no. Refusal then has the power to turn any unwanted act from a flirtation to a criminal offence and that should apply not only to 16-year-old boys and girls but to anyone, male or female, at any age. Only then can we seriously claim to be shielding the vulnerable or the uncertain, whether gay or straight, with the protection of a sensible and balanced law.
Ms Mildred Gordon (Bow and Poplar) : It is legal for 16-year-old boys to enter into a relationship that could result in their fathering a child, but does the hon. Lady agree that that requires greater maturity and has longer and more serious consequences than entering into a homosexual relationship, if they are so inclined?
Mrs. Currie : I suppose that I agree that all growing up requires more maturity than any of us has at the time. The most foolish thing that we can do is to turn people into criminals at that age. There is no logical, biological or medical basis for treating some young boys differently in law to others and it does not make any sense. Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West) rose--
The image of gay men is at last changing. They are men whom we know, work with and whose work we admire. They are business men, civil servants, artists, actors, soldiers, judges, bishops, priests, peers and Members of Parliament. We all know someone who is gay, even if he has not yet declared himself. It is time to take the dark shadow and turn it into a human being ; it is time to seize our homophobic instincts and chuck them on the scrap heap of history where they belong. In a free society the onus to prove that restricting freedom is in the nation's interests is on those who would discriminate. That is impossible to prove. Equality is the only worthwhile and sustainable position. No compromises will satisfy those people whom they affect. There is no such thing as partial equality ; people are either equal or they are not.
Tonight, we have the opportunity to be proud of the House and to bring our country into the modern world. We have the chance to remove discrimination and to challenge the injustice facing our fellow citizens ; we have the choice of voting for equal rights under the law and for the same law for everyone. The time has come.
Several hon. Members rose --
I support new clause 3, moved by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie), and I pay tribute to the way in which she has worked to ensure this debate. I hope that she will have the reward of achieving a necessary reform to the law.
I support the new clause, which provides for an age of consent for sexual relations common to both men and women, on three main grounds. First, it is equitable to treat both sexes the same. Secondly, it is rational to legislate for equal treatment, in terms of both sexual orientation and enforcement of the law. Thirdly, it is wise to decriminalise consensual sexual activity above the age of 16 at a time when the fearful disease AIDS has to be fought with all the information, counselling and promotion of greater safety in sexual relationships that we can muster or bring to bear as a consequence of our activities in the House.
I shall develop each of those arguments, but I must first emphasise an essential general principle : all that I say and
Column 82all that is said by everyone who favours reform, whatever age and the amendment that they prefer, refers to consensual sexual relations. The essential purpose of supporting change in the law is to remove the threat of prosecution and punishment for engaging in sexual activity, which to them is natural, from homosexual males above the age of 16. The purpose is emphatically not to provide any opportunity or excuse to anyone--heterosexual or homosexual--who seeks to impose his or her sexual will on anyone else.
I arrived at the decision that I should support the new clause and the common age of consent of 16 in two stages. It became obvious to me, as it did to many hon. Members, that the age of consent, which was fixed at 21 in 1967, has long failed to deal with the realities of sexual orientation and civil liberties. There are significant difficulties in enforcing the law credibly and injustices and dangers inherent in continuing a system that criminalises male homosexuals before the age of 21.
Having reached that conclusion, I was faced with the question, "What is the most appropriate legal age of consent if it is not 21?" The compromise of 18 automatically suggested itself. It is the age of majority and the age at which young men seem most able to decide for themselves about their sexual orientation. In short, it is not only the legal age of majority, but the biological age of maturity. It seemed to me to be a view that was sensible as an alternative to the current legal provision, liberal in terms of the accommodation of personal convictions and sexual orientation and realistic in terms of an individual's right to privacy.
Then, just when I was comfortable with that, the facts began to intervene. I had made the assumption that young men and young women were somehow more able to determine their sexuality at 16 if they were heterosexual. Because of that, I assumed that the heterosexual age of consent could reasonably remain lower than the homosexual age of consent. On reflection, however, it became difficult for me to convince myself that there was a difference in the capacity to decide among 16-year-olds.
If I and the majority of other heterosexual men knew our sexual orientation by the age of 16, why should not homosexuals be equally sure of their sexual orientation? The evidence has long existed to prove that people are sure, as the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South said. The Wolfenden report, published 37 years ago, concluded : "The main sexual pattern is laid down in the early years of life and usually fixed by the age of 16."
More recently, the Royal College of Psychiatrists reported its long-held view :
"there is no developmental reason to treat young men and young women differently"
in the law relating to the age of consent. Project Sigma, jointly financed by the Department of Health and the Medical Research Council, proffered strong evidence that homosexual orientation was fixed and well understood by homosexuals by their mid teens. The British Medical Association holds the same view.
That evidence and other reliable, responsible material persuaded me that it would be wrong to continue to discriminate in the law between men who are homosexual and those who are heterosexual. It would also be wrong to continue to discriminate in the law between young men who are homosexual and young women who are heterosexual.
Column 83As a father, I must say that I was equally exercised about the prospect of my daughter and son engaging in heterosexual relations at 16. No father could think otherwise. Frankly, I just hope that had it been the case that either of my children had proved to be of homosexual orientation, I could have shown them the love and understanding, as their parent, as several parents already do to their children in similar circumstances. I was not offered that test, for which I frankly give thanks. Faced with that prospect, however, as children grow up, who could conclude that we should discriminate in the law between different kinds of young people of different sexes on the basis of sexual orientation when we know that heterosexual relationships carry at least as much danger, as much menace and as much threat to young people's moral values as homosexual relationships?
Mr. Kinnock : For the very reason that is understood by all heterosexuals : homosexuals in our society and in others are a minority. They are regarded as an isolated group. They do not have children. Moreover, in our society, even at the age of 16, they are regarded as criminals if they engage in sexual activity. That is a fair accumulation of reasons for not wanting one's children to be homosexual. We do not, however, have any control over it. That is at the essence of the new clause.
The supposition that somehow homosexuals are made or converted from heterosexuality is not sustained by medical evidence or by any unprejudiced examination of the facts or experience of normal life.
As the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South said, other comparable democracies have based their laws on judgments about discrimination. In Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal and Switzerland the common age of consent is 16. Germany is about to legislate for just such a change. I do not refer to those other countries to offer a simple argument for emulation, but to draw attention to the fact that a common age of consent at 16 has not damaged those societies or corrupted their youth. There is absolutely no rational reason to believe that a change to a common age of consent at 16 would introduce decadence or corruption into our society.
Whatever the age of consent in any society, it must be capable of enforcement. In our democracy, that means that it must offer justice and practicality. Neither of those conditions is properly satisfied now. The fact that males between the ages of 16 and 21 break the law if they have homosexual relations, and homosexuals over the age of 21 break the law if they have relations with anyone under the age of 21, poses obvious difficulties in deciding culpability. Those difficulties would be intensified if the age of consent were reduced to 18, since it is clear from all sexual relationships that most encounters among young people are with contemporaries or near-contemporaries.
Column 84The confusions in the present system, which result in formal or informal decisions not to prosecute homo-sexuals, are just one reason for the consensus in favour of reform of the age of consent from 21. It would be best for us to ensure that those confusions are not deepened and made even more complex by fixing an age that is not practical or, in reality, enforceable with fairness.
Mr. Butterfill : I agree with much that the right hon. Gentleman has said. On the issue of criminality, I do not recall any girl under 16 being prosecuted for engaging in a sexual relationship. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it should not be the young person who becomes the criminal in this process, but the older person who has sexual relations with him?
Mr. Kinnock : I must reply to that briefly, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that any amount of evidence proves that homosexuals are not made or corrupted by their elders. They are not converted to homosexuality by having sexual encounters with older people who are also homosexuals.
What we need to do, and for which I shall continue to argue, is to extend the protection of decriminalisation to young men of 16 and above who are homosexuals. They are denied that now. I know that the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill) and many other hon. Members want to ensure that young men as well as young women are afforded as much protection as the House can offer. That is why they should have the protection of legality and should not be criminalised into disguising their relations and sexuality.
Mr. Kinnock : In all other circumstances I would be glad to give way to the hon. Gentleman, but time does not permit that. It is clear on the basis of their experience in this matter of criminalisation that the police forces do not feel sufficiently exercised by homosexual activity to adopt policies that oppose a change in the law. Some senior officers have, of course, registered their view that a common age of consent would have the advantage of equity. For them and for others in the police service, the main focus of concern is the opportunity for blackmail and bullying and the reluctance of homosexuals to co-operate with police inquiries. Many of those problems result from criminalising homosexuality and police officers know it. That criminalisation of homosexuality provided the conclusive argument in persuading me to support the change in the law to a common age of consent at 16.
The very fact of criminality inhibits young men from reporting crimes against them. It is also a factor in the emotional misery and isolation endured by young homosexual men. But apart from those psychological pressures, which sometimes end in the terrible tragedies of suicide and attempted suicide, the Health Education Authority, Barnardo's and Project Sigma are just three of the knowledgeable bodies that inform us that the present criminality of homosexual relationships can limit health promotion activities among the social group most vulnerable to HIV infection and AIDS : young homosexual men.
Last month the council of the British Medical Association published a report on the age of consent for
Column 85homosexual men which is bound to impress all but the most prejudiced minds. In concluding that the age of consent for homosexual men should be lowered to 16, the BMA council said that homosexual young men might not receive appropriate advice if the criminal status of homosexual relationships remains because, they fear, seeking professional advice from doctors, teachers and so on would be to admit committing a crime. Secondly, it said : "Support groups or youth organisations for homosexual men aged 16-20, where they exist at all, tend to keep a low profile and avoid drawing attention to themselves"
because they do not want to be accused of encouraging criminality. Thirdly,
" official' homosexual community organisations and clubs operate a clear over-21 policy to comply with the present law. This means that younger men are denied access to the advice which such organisations can provide and are less exposed to the social climate within the organised homosexual community, which strongly supports safer sex'."
Finally, the BMA Council said :
"They feel stigmatised and regarded as not part of the broader society due to to the criminalisation of their sexual behaviour." Those are frequently young people who are locked out. They are faced with appalling trauma, criminalised to the point where they are fearful of reporting offences against themselves, and inhibited from discussing their sexuality with others and gaining the appropriate counselling and advice. Surely we need to change the law to facilitate a change in their approach to protecting themselves and in the protection that we would seek to afford them.
Mr. Gorst : I have not yet decided how I shall vote and the right hon. Gentleman's answer to my question may be decisive. I agree with all that he has said about reducing the age of consent to 16, but one point has not been answered : in our society, should we be so far ahead of public opinion that the public feel that we have gone too far?
Mr. Kinnock : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for how he puts his point. Everyone who has been elected to the House knows that, in some cases, we follow public opinion. But in others, it is our duty to step slightly ahead, although not so far as to make ourselves invisible to the public. If, in 1967, our predecessors in the House had waited for a consensus of public opinion before supporting a change in the law, we would still have total criminalisation of homosexual behaviour.
I am certain that, like me, the hon. Gentleman regards the change that came about 26 or 27 years ago to have been an advantage for our society. In the quarter of a century that has passed, we have come to realise, as the Wolfenden report did a long time before 1967, that people determine their sexual orientation before reaching the age of 16. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me and take the further step of admitting that it is wrong that the behaviour of people following the orientation that is natural to them should be criminalised. I ask the House to do no more in 1994 than it was wise enough to do in 1967, bearing in mind our greater understanding of mores, habits and orientations in our society.
If passed, the new clause would help to protect young men. It would provide them with a basic legal framework for making vital decisions about themselves without the danger of criminality. We all know in our hearts that morality is not learnt from criminal law. No one will adopt a homosexual way of life just because he is free to do so at the age of 16, rather than 21 or 18. But if we do not make
Column 86that change, lives will continue to be broken by continuing criminal prosecutions, fear and the underwriting of prejudice by criminal sanctions.
Let us tell young people that a heterosexual life, in the sense that it is what most of us live and want to live, is the norm ; that it is and will remain the basic human relationship upon which the family is founded. But let us also tell young homosexuals that we still have regard for them and want them to live in a society that accepts their nature and will give them the same chance as others for personal happiness. We shall not tolerate discrimination against them and they need not feel fear and outlawed. Let us tell them that they can participate as fully as anyone else in the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship
The new clause is about all that. It is also about encouraging respect for those who are different--one of the basic tests of our democracy. It is about tolerance, equality before the law, and the free, secure and pluralistic society which we want to build, whatever else divides us in the House. I hope that the new clause will enjoy the support of the Committee.
May I point out that there are only three activities left that are restricted to the age of 21 : first, holding a licence for a heavy goods vehicle ; secondly, engaging in homosexual acts between males ; and, thirdly and most interesting to hon. Members, being elected as a Member of Parliament. Those are the only three activities that still disbar people under the age of 21.
The argument seems to range between the ages of 16 and 18. Some people would like to leave the law as it stands, but I do not support that view. Much of the argument on this subject is simply based on opinion. Many young people are still sexually uncertain and often disturbed between the ages of 16 and 18.
In a talk-in programme on the radio yesterday, an interesting man said that when he was at university he shared a house in which everyone was homosexual except him. He did not become homosexual, but said that he felt under pressure-- [Interruption.] I merely pass on that information for the Committee's consideration.
The organisation known as Relate, which used to be known as the Marriage Guidance Council, was quoted in The Guardian of 14 January.
"Sixteen is rather young, as during early and middle adolescence sexual orientation is not always settled and there is often a lot of confusion. Eighteen therefore is a more appropriate age So many young people embark on sexual relationships far too early and get hurt."
Those were the words of Relate's director, and we should consider that valid point.
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Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : Did the hon. Gentleman feel certain in his own sexual orientation at the age of 16? If so, and assuming that it was a heterosexual orientation, does he not think that a young man of 16 could feel certain that, in his sexual orientation, he was gay?
Sir Anthony Durant : I do not remember that I was. [Laughter.] The hon. Gentleman should remember that I am a pensioner. If the age of consent is reduced to 16, we shall have to amend section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which concerns teaching the subject of homosexuality in schools.
The Home Office Policy Advisory Committee document, "Report on Age of Consent in Relation to Sexual Offences", stated :
"between the ages of 16 and 18 girls are more mature than boys in their approach to sexual relationships and that, insofar as it is possible to generalise, boys have caught up with the girls in the process of maturing by the age of 18 This last line of argument could suggest that boys under 18 should be protected from heterosexual intercourse as well as homosexual relations. However, we feel that it is far easier for them to cope with the usual complexities"--
and those complexities exists, as we heard from the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock)--
"of youthful heterosexual relationships, which are accepted by parents, friends and society, than the greater complexity of homosexual relationships with all the difficulties and pressures involved."
Mrs. Currie : My hon. Friend omitted to mention that that report was published in 1981--13 years ago, at a time when it seemed impossible to budge the age of consent even below 21. Is it not more appropriate today, at a time of AIDS and of recognition that there should be sex education for young people, to consider whether criminalisation of any kind is useful?
Sir Anthony Durant : I accept my hon. Friend's point that the report is old, but it remains of importance and I am prepared still to consider the advisory committee's findings. It made valid points that I pray in aid because they support my own view.
There is concern among many people about older men approaching young boys. I know that has never been proved one way or the other, but it is part of our duty as Members of Parliament to protect the young and, whether or not we have evidence of such a thing happening, there is a chance that such situations do arise.
An interesting article by the Archbishop of York appeared in The Independent on 18 February :
"For young people the absence of clear boundaries can be particularly damaging. One of the interesting results from the Wellcome survey of sexual attitudes is the number who felt that they had had sexual experience far too young Those who are persuaded that there are no distinctions to be drawn between homosexuality and hetrosexuality will find no difficulty in reducing the age of consent to 16. As one who holds that there is
Column 88a distinction, rooted not only in those biological differences but in the belief that there are proper and improper uses for the human body, I would not want a signal to be sent to young people that sexual choices are of no concern to anybody but themselves. Nor do I want to maintain unreasonable laws that are largely ignored and which sometimes, in the hands of the vindictive or the unscrupulous lead to tragic convictions. I hope Parliament will reduce the age of consent to 18, thus signalling that homosexuality in young men is neither to be treated as uncontroversial nor to be penalised beyond the age of maturity. A reduction of three years will provide an opportunity to assess the social consequences."
That is why I am keen that we should consider reducing the age of consent to 18, to move some way towards the change for which some people are pressing, but also to the age of male maturity. My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) kept quoting Europe at me, but I do not take much notice of that. We are still a sovereign state and this Parliament must take the decision--not people sitting in Brussels or anywhere else. I believe that 18 is the right age, and I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to support new clause.
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey) : I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in support of new clause 6, which proposes that the age of consent for gay relationships should be 17. Tonight's debate is limited to relationships between men, but an identical new clause is proposed that would make 17 the age of consent for heterosexual relationships.
One important consideration is already reflected in criminal law. There should be no prosecution or criminalisation of young people under the age of 21--and the law has parallels--who are part of a relationship. The criminal is the person who, with age and authority, enters into a relationship with a considerably younger person. That should be the sole criminal offence retained on the statute book, with one addition. Sex with youngsters of either sex below a certain age should be an absolute offence. In that way, we would protect youngsters below the age of 14, 13 or whatever it might be. I take the view that the age of majority also ought to be 17, but we cannot debate and vote on that today.
Out of fairness, it would be appropriate and otherwise unjust to specify a different age in any case for different parts of the United Kingdom. I am conscious that a different legal situation obtains in Northern Ireland.
If any new clause is passed, it will be returned by the Government in a redrafted form. We would be presented with the Government's version of the decision of the Committee.
Mrs. Currie indicated dissent.