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Column 99nowadays, are aware of their sexuality and that, what is more, that sexuality is normally developed with those of their own age, not with predatory elders.
However, let us assume for the purposes of argument that there is a small minority that fits into the category that has been described. How would use of the criminal law assist such a situation? How would that deal with vulnerable young people of whatever sex? For those who are confused about their sexuality, how does the criminal law help to resolve that confusion? Indeed, it merely complicates it. It deters many from seeking the information, advice and help that they need. If we are in any doubt about that, let us listen to organisations that deal day in and day out with the problems of young people, such as Save the Children Fund, and the National Children's Bureau. They say that the real danger is not young, sexually uncertain men being preyed upon by older men, but young boys and men who are gay but, are afraid to seek the advice and help that they may desperately need. That is the evidence that was given by the British Medical Association, which backs up that view on the ground of better health education.
We talk about predatory older men. That happens--if it does happen--not just with young men but with young girls, yet no one would advance that as a reason for raising the age of consent. Moreover, where such predatory conduct takes place--let us assume for the purposes of the argument that it does--it takes place in circumstances that we all know : in parts of our inner cities and around some railway stations late at night, where young boys and girls sell sex for money and shelter. Surely the question that we should ask is why those young people are in those circumstances when it is not the criminal law but a roof over their heads, a decent family and home and a chance of a job that will help them.
The point that has been made about other countries is not that we should follow what happens in other countries, or the fact that the majority of other countries in Europe do not discriminate should mean that we necessarily blindly follow their path ; it is, first, that many of those countries are among the most conservative, usually, in such matters, which makes their decision on equality all the more telling, and, secondly, and most important, that there is no evidence to suggest that any of the adverse consequences forecast as attending a move to equality here have happened in those countries--none, not a single shred of evidence, not anywhere.
On practical grounds, and even accepting that there is a small percentage of cases in which there is a fear of predatory conduct, can it be said that the fear that, without the sanction of criminal law, there might be an unquantifiable number of young men who will engage in homosexual relations who otherwise would not is a reason for perpetrating discrimination against all homosexual men when we know that the vast majority of young people are not in that situation, when, if anything, the protection that they need is the removal of the stigma attached to their sexuality, when independent organisations that deal with young people want it removed, and when equality is the norm in neighbouring countries without any of the adverse consequences claimed for it?
That is why the real objection is not reason but prejudice. It was shown by the point of order that was made
Column 100earlier. In the end, all the concern, however ostensibly objective--let us assume that some of it is genuinely motivated--is traceable to that very subjective prejudice. Let us be clear that people are entitled to think that homosexuality is wrong, but they are not entitled to use the criminal law to force that view upon others. That is where the real practitioners of political correctness lie--not in those who merely seek equality of treatment but in those who insist that the law must discriminate in favour of their view of the conduct of others. That is why, also, the so-called compromise of 18 is misguided. What is the rationale behind maintaining the stigma but at a different age? It is an issue not of age but of equality. I inform hon. Members who may have genuine doubts about which way to vote that, because it is an issue of equality, and because it concerns the equal rights of our citizens, this is an issue not just for those who are gay but for all of us who are concerned about the type of society in which we live. Recent newspaper discussion has suggested--I understand it--that moves to equalise the ages of consent might fall foul of the recent controversy that is well known to us. That is precisely what should not happen. It is precisely at this moment that we should have the courage to change.
Yes, there is a powerful mood in this country that the social fabric has been torn, that standards of behaviour have fallen, and that our system of values has become confused and disoriented. Yes, it is the case that any strong society needs good and decent principles to sustain and motivate it. But it should be a society that makes sense of the passage of time, that learns from and evaluates its progress, that has confidence to build its own future, not takes refuge in the prejudices of the past because it is afraid to change them. A society of genuine standards and principles allows individuals the freedom to develop to the full. A society of prejudice and discrimination can merely make them conform. That is the choice. We should seek the best of the old and the best of the new. Some change is good ; some change is bad. We should distinguish between the two. I deplore, as we all do, for example, the greater lawlessness in society, the increased violence, and the abusive behaviour of today. I should like to return to a better time when those issues were less. But I have no desire to return to a time when women were inhibited from going to work, when sex could not be openly discussed and debated, when young people were not taught at school how life is given and created, and when gay men hid their sexuality in fear.
Some change is indeed progress. Let us recognise it when it happens. After all, 100 years ago there was no universal suffrage for men, and no votes for women. Fifty years ago there were no laws against racial intolerance. Each change was fought for, but resisted by prejudice wrapped in a coat of reason.
It is not that, over time, our basic values should change--of course not-- but it is through experience and thought that our understanding of what those values should encompass has been enlarged. Indeed, I go further : the most basic civilised value is the notion of respect for other people. That is what creates and sustains any decent society. That is why crime is wrong ; that is why violent and abusive behaviour is wrong ; that is why racial abuse is wrong. It is also why it is wrong to treat a man as inferior because his sexuality is different.
A society that has learned, over time, racial and sexual equality can surely come to terms with equality of
Column 101sexuality. That is the moral case for change tonight. It is our chance to welcome people--I do not care whether there are 50,000, 500, 000 or or 5 million ; it matters not a damn--into full membership of our society, on equal terms. It is our chance to do good, and we should take it.
Mr. Michael Alison (Selby) : Far and away the weakest aspect of the speech of the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) was the fact that, in 10 or 15 minutes, he managed to beg the essential question that we are debating. He isolated two categories : the older, convinced and committed homosexual--whatever the nature of his condition, genetically or otherwise- -and the youngster of 16, 18 or 21 who is, likewise, a committed, finally developed and fully oriented homosexual.
We are not concerned, however, with those whose sexual orientation is crystallised and fully formed ; we are concerned precisely with the "in between" group, between the ages of 16 and 18, for whom the Home Secretary pleaded. He pleaded for a little more time for them, precisely because they have not reached the stage of crystallisation in which the hon. Member for Sedgefield wanted to protect them--and defend them from penalisation.
Even if we take that very small, determinate group--which is not really the proper focus of tonight's debate--in isolation, as the hon. Gentleman did, I very much doubt whether he can demonstrate satisfactorily that the law as it stands, which makes involvement in a homosexual act consensually in the age range of 16 to 21 an offence, impinges seriously and oppressively on that group. A written answer on 17 January made it clear in 1990, 1991 and 1992 there were respectively nine, 10 and 12 prosecutions for homosexual offences between those aged 21 and over and those under 21.
It simply is not credible that young men in the relevant age group--here I refer particularly to the great mass who may be uncertain about their sexual orientation and are not crystallised and fully formed in the category that the hon. Gentleman sought to defend--cannot, because of the law as it stands, consult their parents, if they so wish ; or nurses, doctors, teachers or social workers. It is incredible that the law should be held to inhibit them from doing so and that they should believe that those individuals may report them to the police and invoke prosecutions. The number of prosecutions can almost be counted on the fingers of one hand.
Sir Ivan Lawrence : The evidence is even stronger. On 11 February, the Home Secretary was asked on how many occasions over the past decade any male under the age of 21 years had been prosecuted, or prosecuted and convicted, for the offence of buggery. The answer was practically none.
Mr. Alison : My hon. and learned Friend supports the argument that I am trying to sustain. The hon. Member for Sedgefield and others who have spoken, including my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie), have entirely failed to convince us that the law is an oppressive, tyrannical, vicious instrument, rather than--as my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Sir A. Durant) suggested, following the Archbishop of York--a helpful, short-term, protective guideline which helps exactly the people with whom the hon. Member for
Column 102Sedgefield did not deal. I refer to the mas of undetermined, seeking, evolving, immature youngsters between 16 and 18 who have not made up their minds. They are not deterred by the law from seeking advice about their health and development.
Mrs. Currie : I thank my right hon. Friend for his courtesy at lunchtime, when we discussed the matter outside the House. If it is true--I do not believe it is--that the law is so ineffective, why should we bother to have a law? If the law does not cause all the difficulties, why not just sweep it away? If we are trying to protect young people, why should we turn them into criminals?
Mr. Alison : My hon. Friend does not fundamentally appreciate the sublety and nature of the law. The law stands on the statute book, but the Crown Prosecution Service has the difficult but critically important task of deciding in what circumstances it is going to prosecute and apply the law.
In that area, one gets the best of both worlds from the point of view of the youngster who is seeking guidance and direction at an early stage in his sexual development and maturity. The framework of law is there, but it is at the discretion of the Crown Prosecution Service whether to invoke it. The evidence is that it rarely invokes it.
The law is rarely invoked in such a way as to make it difficult for a youngster who has problems of sexual health between the ages 16 and 18 to consult people who can give helpful advice.
I come back to the group that the hon. Member for Sedgefield entirely ignored. That is those who are evolving in their sexual orientation and have not finally made up their minds exactly what they are or how they are. Those people need the protection of the law and, at the same time, the discretion and the advice of a lot of sensible people. What would be done for that vulnerable group by removing the constraint of law which at present applies to them? My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South must demonstrate some positive advantage to outweigh the significantly hazardous disadvantages which may accrue.
I draw the Committee's attention to three significant disadvantages. The first may be the removal of a desirable pointer or guideline of the sort which the Home Secretary properly stated is one of the functions of law. It is there as a guideline which may rarely be thrown into action by the Crown Prosecution Service, but it is there. Why remove it, if there is some suggestion that it might help in guiding people?
The second is that there is no doubt that there is a hazard that youngsters might be exposed to the appalling hazard of AIDS. We should at least focus on that possibility.
I leave the Committee with a couple of significant statistics. The average age for first anal intercourse among homosexuals--I use a more discreet euphemism than was used by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross (Sir N. Fairbairn)--is 20.9 years. That form of intercourse is profoundly relevant to the possibility of acquiring AIDS. That mean age is so close to the prescribed age in law of 21 as to suggest that it is not without its relationship to the existing age boundaries. If the boundary is moved down to 16, there is a risk that the
Column 103average age for that AIDS-inducing form of sexual intercourse may move down into the more vulnerable age group.
The second factor that is relevant to health is that, according to the Public Health Laboratory included Service, over 75 per cent. of all AIDS cases come from male homosexuals. The AIDS dimension cannot be overlooked if we are removing a protective barrier for vulnerable youngsters.
Mr. Jerry Hayes (Harlow) : My right hon. Friend raises a good point, but he should be aware that there are 3,000 young men between the ages of 16 and 21 who are HIV positive--the figures come from Government-sponsored reports--and that there are 300 young men between those ages who have fully blown AIDS. Most of those are going to die because they are so afraid of being prosecuted.
Mr. Alison : My hon. Friend has failed to listen to the evidence that I have given of the criminal statistics, aided and abetted by his intervention. There simply are not enough criminal prosecutions every year to suggest that most youngsters are even aware of the existence of the law on homosexuality. The Crown Prosecution Service hardly ever brings prosecutions and it cannot be said that youngsters are inhibited from seeking health advice.
I have in my hand a pamphlet published by the Health Education Authority entitled "The Best Sex Guide". It lists a range of sexual options apart from penetrative sex, which is the most hazardous in terms of AIDS. The guide includes sexual options which technically come within the definition of gross indecency and, therefore, are potentially criminal. The guide does not even bother to say, "If you indulge in this you may be breaking the law." The pamphlet is distributed among teenagers. The authority simply does not believe that the law has any inhibiting effect. So it is pointless to say that the law is an inhibiting factor.
As for the argument that youngsters do not seek advice because they might land in the hands of the police, the pamphlet from the Health Education Authority lists at least four centres committed to confidentiality which people can contact if they want health advice. No reference to the police is likely to result. It is spurious to suggest that youngsters in the relevant age groups cannot seek health advice because they fear prosecution by the police.
My last point is to refer to an important quotation by the right hon. Member for--the most difficult part of my speech is going to be pronouncing his constituency--
Mr. Alison : I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, for whom I have always had the greatest admiration, enhanced this evening by the fact that he picked out one paragraph of the guidance from the British Medical Association. I want to quote that paragraph again so that it goes on the record twice. It can be seen to have a different perspective and significance according to which way one looks at it. The guidance said :
Column 104"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 advice which such organisations can provide and are less exposed to the social climate within the organised homosexual community which strongly supports safer sex' ".
If we remove the 21 limit, as my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) proposes, and reduce it to 16, the incentive for what are described as
"official homosexual community organisations and clubs" to retain an over- 21 membership policy will be entirely removed. They will drop their membership age limit to 16. They will draw into that particular vortex exactly those whose sexual orientation is not properly determined and is open to alteration and redirection in the context of a highly organised, self-conscious community. If it does introduce young men to safer sex of a homosexual kind, it will have the effect of predetermining them perhaps to lose precisely that option of family life and normal parenthood which is what they should have held open for them.
Therefore, I hope that the Committee will ignore the limited and exclusive advice in human rights terms advanced by the hon. Member for Sedgefield, which relates purely to those who are already predetermined and committed to a particular orientation, whatever their age. I hope that the Committee will focus on the needs of those who are bobbing about in an uncertain sea of sexual development between the ages of 16 and 18 and who need every support and protection that they can get, precisely as my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary advised us to do.
Mr. Mike Watson (Glasgow, Central) : I should like to begin by asking your permission, Mr. Lofthouse, to depart from a tradition in this Chamber by sipping occasionally from the glass behind me, which contains nothing more exotic, and nothing more pure, than London tap water. I make that request lest, at some future date, the House of Commons considers the introduction of an upper age limit for consenting males roaring themselves hoarse at football matches on Saturday afternoons. I damaged my vocal chords while attempting, albeit futilely, to exhort Dundee United to a place in the quarter finals of the Scottish cup. I am afraid that, two days later, I am still paying the price.
Like all other hon. Members who have spoken, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie), not just for her speech this afternoon but for the sterling work that she has done over a considerable time on this and other issues relating to gay and lesbian equality. when we are dealing with the question of the introduction of an equal age of consent, the fundamental issue is, first and foremost, one of equality, but it is also one of human rights or, as has already been said, of civil rights. We must bear in mind that the European Court of Human Rights is considering a case arising from the British Government's being in contravention of articles 8 and 14 of the European convention on human rights. As the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South said, it is appropriate that we should decide tonight to bring the law into line with the convention rather than wait to be forced to do so in two or three years' time. The question whether there should be an equal age of consent is not just one of equality, although that is important. It is quite wrong and quite unsustainable that we
Column 105should criminalise and stigmatise young gay men for doing what their heterosexual friends do quite legally. For almost all purposes, the age of majority is now 16.
In Scotland, 16-year-olds have even more rights. A 16-year-old may choose to set up a business or marry or join the armed forces, but if he is gay he cannot legally have a sexual relationship of his choosing. In 1994, that is nonsense.
An equal age of consent would protect young gay men in a variety of ways. First, as has been said, it would improve opportunities for safer-sex education, thereby leading to a reduction in the spread of HIV. The comments of the hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Hayes) were treated with some mirth by several of his hon. Friends. That reaction shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the link between the issue that we are debating and the spread of HIV and AIDS--something about which nobody thought in 1967. This is the first opportunity to look at the legislation since the AIDs pandemic became widely known.
An equal age of consent would also enable young gay men more freely to seek advice and support from people and agencies--perhaps, in the first instance, teachers. In the past two or three weeks, other hon. Members and I have received from many agencies letters outlining their experiences. They are very concerned. The citizens advice bureaux, for example, have produced evidence suggesting that younger gay male clients face significant difficulties in gaining independence--particularly in securing access to accommodation. Those difficulties are exacerbated by the age of consent itself, which can act as a barrier to young gay men who want to pursue their perfectly legitimate rights.
After all, a gay man under 21 is at present behaving illegally if he has an active sexual relationship. It is entirely understandable that men in that position feel inhibited from seeking the advice of organisations such as the citizens advice bureaux. The discrimination that they face manifests itself in a number of ways. The citizens advice bureaux have reported disturbing instances of discrimination against lesbians and gay men in several areas, particularly in respect of social security matters. They cite as an example a bureau in Humberside, which reported that a client had been forced to leave work because of continuous harassment about his sexuality. His unemployment benefit was suspended, and he asked the bureau to help him with his appeal. The adjudication officer submitted : "Some people are bound to be the subject of humour because they are different-- for example, overweight, bald or of Irish extraction." That quotation highlights the prejudice and discrimination that my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) outlined at the conclusion of his excellent speech. We are dealing with prejudice and discrimination, and new clause 3 gives us the chance to end it. The citizens advice bureaux have also reported that gay clients can be very isolated and can gain from using the services of their local offices, but many--particularly, for
Column 106obvious reasons, those between the ages of 16 and 21--are not doing so. If we accept the new clause, we shall remove a significant barrier for young men who want to be able to pursue their rights. An equal age of consent would achieve other objectives. It would protect people who are vulnerable by facilitating increased openness and support in their families ; dealing with the matter in the family is often one of the most difficult aspects. It would also reduce the enormous stress and misery involved and, as hon. Members have mentioned, the suicide risk, which the current law and the isolation that it causes can create. It would also remove the stigma of second-class citizenship, which a differential age of consent encourages and allows to fester. That is not an important argument. Equalising the age of consent at 16 would legalise fully consenting, private sexual behaviour for gay men between 16 and 21 years of age. As I have said, such behaviour is legal for heterosexuals, and those gay men who have practised it have faced prosecution only rarely in recent years, and rightly so.
Dr. Spink : The hon. Gentleman has twice misled the Committee. He claimed that it is legal for heterosexuals to indulge in the act of buggery, but it is not and never has been legal. It should not be made legal for teenage boys.
Mr. Watson : That was not what I said. The hon. Gentleman was clearly not listening. I was talking about adult sexual activity. People between the ages of 16 and 21 enjoy rights and are protected by other legislation from sexual assault and exploitation. The law that is under discussion, the Sexual Offences Act 1967, is riddled with inconsistencies. If there is a fear that so-called predatory men will prey on young boys, what lessons can we learn from the effect of legislation in other countries? There is no evidence that in the countries that hon. Members have listed in the debate where the age of consent is lower than in this country--in all cases, it is lower--vast hoards of men prey on younger men or, indeed, boys. We should also ask why the same argument does not apply to young women. Hon. Members should consider the inconsistencies. If a female schoolteacher seduced a 17-year-old girl, the teacher could, depending on the circumstances, lose her job, but she would not face any criminal prosecution. If a male teacher seduced a 17-year-old boy pupil, he would lose his job and, most likely, his freedom for a period of up to two years. If he seduced a 17-year-old girl, however, the law would have nothing to say about that.
It is also argued that boys take longer to mature than girls. If Conservative Members did not advance that argument in all seriousness, I would find it an amusing argument and I might not be so concerned about it. If 16 year-old boys are, as a rule, confused about their sexuality, why are they allowed legally to marry at 16? Should the law not say that it is understood that the young man and the young lady want to be married, but that it regards them as being confused--
Mr. Watson : No, I shall not. The hon. Gentleman is trying to make a speech and I am sure that he will have time to do so later. There is an ambiguity. If hon. Members argue that 16-year-old males are confused, they should also argue that
Column 107males should not be allowed to marry at that age. It is nonsense. The argument has very little validity because experience shows otherwise.
The Committee should respect the view of experts on such an important aspect of the legislation. We have already heard that the BMA believes that the criminality of the sexual activity of young men between the ages of 16 to 21 is harmful. There is also other eminent evidence : the Royal College of Psychiatrists has considered the matter in detail, and we should give weight to its opinion. It has concluded unequivocally :
"there are no psychiatric or developmental reasons why the minimum age for homosexual practices should be other than 16 years." It has also stated that sexual orientation is not capable of major realignment after the early teens. We should bear in mind that that is very much in line with the experiences of homosexual men, with whom many hon. Members have had communications in recent months. We should consider the experiences that they pass on to us and learn from them.
An age of consent of 21, 18 or 17 criminalises young men, whom the law claims to protect. Ultimately, the law does not act as a deterrent and does not stop younger men from having sex with other men if their sexuality tells them that they should do so or if they want to do so. A majority of young men know that, and that is the experience which they have communicated to us. We owe them a duty to recognise that fact.
Criminal law should have no place in a matter of private morality and that is what we are debating. The Sexual Offences Act 1967 put British legislation ahead of that in most other European countries. Today, we are lagging behind all those countries and we are in the shameful position of having the highest age of consent in Europe. Hon. Members who oppose what I have been arguing for will say that all those countries are out of step with us, but that is ridiculous. We must acknowledge the arguments that have been communicated to us. We have the opportunity to introduce legislation that will bring this country into line with our European neighbours. Our citizens have a right to protection from the prejudice and discrimination that I described. When hon. Members uncover discrimination and prejudice, they have a duty to end it at the first possible opportunity. New clause 3 provides that opportunity this evening and the Committee should not shirk from taking it.
Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones (Watford) : I support new clause 3, which was moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie). I thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and others who have enabled the Committee to have this important debate.
I listened with great respect to my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) and my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Sir A. Durant), who tabled a new clause in favour of the age of 18.
It is generally expected that when hon. Members pronounce to the House of Commons on a subject, they will lay claim to some expertise or familiarity with the subject on which they are about to opine. It is our loss that no hon. Member will do so tonight and I am no exception. I hope that hon. Friends will agree that when one lacks personal expertise in a matter the sensible thing to do is to seek advice from those who have such knowledge.
Column 108Is the British Medical Association opposed to the new clause? As the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) told us, it is not. It argues in favour of lowering the age of consent to 16, on the ground that criminality places young people at greater risk of HIV transmission. I listened to my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby but, with respect, as a layman I am entitled to lay at least equal weight on the opinion of the British Medical Association. Is the Royal College of Psychiatrists opposed to the new clause? No. Again, as the right hon. Member for Islwyn reminded us, it argues that there are no psychiatric or developmental reasons for the minimum age to be other than 16.
Both Barnardo's and the Terence Higgins Trust believe that the stigma of criminality places young people at risk and diminishes the effectiveness of HIV prevention initiatives in the United Kingdom. Even the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, in a characteristically prudent and understanding declaration, stated that Roman Catholics may reasonably argue for the age of consent to be 16, 18, 21--or even higher.
I have been unable to find any organisation of probity to which hon. Members might look for advice in such matters which argues aginst the age of 16. Indeed, even my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Sir G. Gardiner), who is not in his place and who often seeks to advise Conservative Members, has not pronouned on the matter or given it so much as two minutes of his valuable time.
Those Conservative Members who have lived through the experiences of the past 10 years will need no reminding that expert opinion, however convincing or overwhelming, is no substitute for the judgment that individual Members must make. I repeat that I shall certainly respect the point of view of those who do not support new clause 3. In the past decade, we Conservative Members have flown in the face of expert opinion too often, and with success, to cast aside our own judgments that lightly. I hope that my hon. Friends will at least give some weight to the expert opinion that I have just cited.
Mr. Gorst : Will my right hon. Friend also tell us what weight to put on the sincere prejudices that exist throughout the nation? They may not be well informed, but we should at least bear them in mind, for the practical reason that if we go too far ahead of public opinion that policy will fall on its face.
Mr. Garel-Jones : My hon. Friend put that question to the right hon. Member for Islwyn and I agree with the answer that the right hon. Gentleman gave. The House of Commons must, of course, be very careful not to run ahead of public opinion in any matter, and, in particular, in matters of personal conduct of this kind. In my judgment--other colleagues will make their own judgment--I suspect that we have reached the point where it would be right for the House to send a message to the rest of our fellow citizens on this matter. I hope to elaborate on that later.
I hope that my hon. Friends, who do not have any particular expertise, will give at least give some weight to the scientific and expert opinion that I have cited. I should like to give a few practical reasons why I believe that the Committee should turn away from the apparent attraction
Column 109of the soft option of the age of 18, as proposed in the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West and directly lower the age of consent to 16.
First, the age of 18 is not a happy compromise. Compromises work only when all parties agree with them. In this case, the homosexual community will be gravely disappointed if the Committee decides to vote for the age of 18. It will bring this matter back to the House of Commons again and again. The vote for 18 will not make the issue go away, but a vote for the age of 16 will.
Mr. Andrew Bowden (Brighton, Kemptown) : In common with many of my hon. Friends, I am not sure how to vote tonight. We have all agonised greatly on this issue. My right hon. Friend has touched on an issue that is of concern to many of the public and to many in the Chamber. If we opted for the age of 18 instead of 21, there would still be a barrier between the ages of 16 and 18. If we opted for the age of 16, would we find that soon more and more pressure was exterted to bring the age of consent down to 15, 14 or perhaps even lower?
Mr. Garel-Jones : I am glad that my hon. Friend has raised that point because it is important. My right hon. Friend the Member for Selby seemed to imply that the law was some kind of guideline. I do not wish to see the House of Commons passing laws that are guidelines. It should pass laws that are rigorously enforced. My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) has raised an important point, because if we vote for the age of 18, the danger will be that the law will continue to be applied as it is now, haphazardly, based on the judgment of individual police officers, and so forth. I have no doubt that, if the Committee takes the wise and prudent decision to vote for the age of consent to be lowered to 16, it will be agreed--I see hon. Members around me nodding--that the law should be rigorously enforced and all the weight of our enforcement agencies should be placed behind it.
Secondly--this is not a killer point in any way--most countries of a similar cultural background, such as New Zealand, Sweden, France, Belgium and Holland, have opted for equality of treatment between the sexes in this matter and have chosen ages considerably lower than those that we are considering. Do hon. Members believe that the whole moral fabric of those nations has been undermined?
I should like to make an international point which it may be easy for hon. Members to dismiss. A case has been brought before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. I hasten to reassure my hon. Friends that the Council of Europe is not a European Community institution but an institution of which Britain is a founder and much-respected member. I cannot anticipate the court's judgment but I fear that, in a year or two, we risk being found in contravention of articles 14 and 18 of the convention.
It will not have escaped the Committee's notice that the whole of the speech of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary was, as far as I could discern, predicated on the Wolfenden report, published 27 years ago, and on the comments on that report by the Home Office Policy Advisory Committee published 13 years ago. With the greatest respect to my right hon. and learned Friend, as the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) said, the passage of time should be taken into account, particularly as the scourge of AIDS has arisen since both those reports were published.
Column 110What concerned me most was the fact that, throughout my right hon. and learned Friend's remarks, he made no mention of his intention rigorously to enforce the law if the Committee votes for the age of consent to be lowered to 18, as he intends to vote. He did not mention the guidance that he would give police officers about enforcing that law. My hon. Friends will be concerned that he did not say how much of the public resources he intended to devote to enforcing the law.
I fear that, if we vote for 18, we shall end up with the worst of both possible worlds--a newly enacted law that is not properly and rigorously upheld but is perhaps used, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby said, as a guideline. My hon. Friends and I are not in the business of voting for guidelines. We want laws that are rigorously enforced and applied. Moreover, young people will still be at risk and in fear of criminality, and this controversial issue will return to the House again and again.
Mr. Alan Howarth : My right hon. Friend referred to the scourge of AIDS. He will agree that the best way to avert that is not to criminalise the sexuality of young males. Does he agree that all young people, whatever their sexual orientation, should be entitled to good-quality sex education? Does he agree in particular that education about HIV and AIDS should be restored to the national curriculum?
I shall direct a few remarks specifically at my side of the Committee. I have addressed right hon. and hon. Members only once since I left Government. On that occasion, I was perhaps unwise enough to make a passing reference to "back to basics". I said then, and repeat now, that I am as willing as any of my right hon. and hon. Friends to take a nice warm bath in my own prejudices but that I did not believe that giving homilies to lone mothers even began to address the problems that we needed to address as the party of Government in the coming decade.
The Conservative party has always had the good sense not to tie itself to any dogma, or to have its political philosophy set in tablets of stone. [Interruption.] There are currents in this debate, some of which go across the Committee, and some of which are on one side of it. My party has had the good sense not to set its philosophy in tablets of stone. I have no problem with "back to basics" because the basic instincts of Tory Members of Parliament and of the Conservative party have been and are right-- whether in relation to education, law and order, defence or, as important, the balance that must be struck between individual liberty and collective responsibility. I have no difficulty with that.
Another Tory instinct is as basic as any of those--the instinct of decency and common sense. That instinct has prevented our party from ever allowing any group, class or section of the community to have hatred directed against it. That instinct has ensured that no Le Pens or Jimmy Swaggarts have been able to gain credence on the political
Column 111right in Britain. It is to that best instinct of the Conservative party that I appeal tonight, in asking my right hon. and hon. Friends to support new clause 3.
Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury) : I rise to support new clause 3, moved by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) and seconded so well by my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock), and strongly supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam).
I begin by remembering our late and much-loved colleague Jo Richardson. In the last painful illness that she faced, she deeply wished to be present to vote for new clause 3. Perhaps we shall do something tonight to pay tribute to her memory.
The kernel of tonight's debate is the argument about equality. It was well put from both sides of the Committee, and I will not dwell on it further. Suffice it to say that I believe in the fundamental principle that we are all equal before the law. At present, the law does not permit that in the case of young gay men.
This country has laws that say that one may not discriminate on the grounds of race or gender. Perhaps those laws are not always implemented as Parliament wished when it passed them, but they say that one shall not discriminate. But the law discriminates in respect of the relationships of young gay men. To my mind, that means that it should be changed.
I shall address three or four of the points that have emerged in opposition to the new clause. The Home Secretary argued that perhaps the age of 16 is too young and that a young man needs time to come to a full decision about his sexuality and relationships. I fear that his argument was based on two fundamental misconceptions. The first was that somehow young men can be enticed, encouraged or converted into being gay. That is not so. We are who we are. No amount of attempts by anyone to convert us into something else would pose a threat or danger.
The second assumption underlying the Home Secretary's argument was that the consequences of homosexual activity would set someone apart from the generality of society. I must tell him that he was in danger of lapsing into tautology, because by keeping the law in a discriminatory fashion and placing the age of consent at 18--at 21, it would still discriminate and enshrine discrimination into the statute book--automatically means that young gay men will be set apart from society. If we remove that discrimination from the statute book, it may go some way towards giving young gay men the self-respect and the self-dignity to which they are entitled and should have.