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Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw) : Is my hon. Friend aware that the age of consent for girls at 16 was fixed not for sexual reasons, but for reasons of pregnancy and marriage, because that is when a girl could carry a child and get married? At the age of 16 a man could possibly support a family. If there is to be no discrimination on age grounds, why is it 18 for buying alcohol in a pub or working a night shift down the pit? Why do we not have everything at 16, as my hon. Friend would like?
Mr. Smith : We could perhaps argue about other activities that might be proper and right at the age of 16. I must say to my hon. Friend that the law on going into a pub is equal for men and women of all sexualities and all shapes and sizes. I want the law for sexual relationships to be exactly the same. I do not believe that the argument that the Home Secretary advanced holds water.
A second argument has been advanced. It was a question genuinely posed by the hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst), who spoke about what he called the sincere prejudices that are held throughout the nation. I do not believe that his reading of the public mood on this issue is necessarily as clear cut as he appears to assume. I must also say that those prejudices may be sincerely held, but none the less they are prejudices. One of our duties in a democracy is to protect the rights of minorities, even though those minorities may be unpopular. That is a democratic duty which is placed on us.
Mr. Gorst : I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that people are entitled to hold prejudices but that they are not entitled to hold prejudices that affect anyone but themselves.
Mr. Smith : I am delighted to hear what the hon. Gentleman says because it clearly makes the case for the new clause tabled by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South.
The third argument that has been advanced genuinely and sincerely by many people is that by changing the law we shall ensure that older men may seek somehow to exploit or abuse younger men. That is a serious argument and deserves serious consideration, but I believe that it ignores three important points. First, overwhelming the problem of abuse is the problem of the abuse by older men of younger women. That is something about which we should rightly be concerned. Secondly, we are talking about a change in the law of consent, and consent means consent. There is no scope, and there should be no scope, for the exploitation or abuse of one individual by another. Where there is agreement and consent, however, is it right that the law should come knocking on the bedroom door and intervene in the personal relationship of two mature individuals making up their own minds about what they want to do?
Thirdly, the argument about older men ignores the perversity of the law as it stands, which is that it may actually diminish protection for young men. A young man who is abused and exploited by an older man may be frightened of going to the police to report the incident. He may be worried--his fear may be misplaced, but it is real--that he may be brought to book for what has happened. Because that fear exists, the older man who made the advance and attempted the exploitation may be allowed to go free to do the same again. I do not think that the argument that setting the age of consent at 21 or 18 protects younger men holds water.
A fourth argument has been advanced, and it has been touched on by one or two Conservative Members. It is a deeper and I suggest less worthy argument. It is that being gay is abnormal and therefore unnatural and illegitimate. To those people, I would say this. Yes, we are different. We have a different sexuality. But that does not make us in any way less valid or less worthy citizens of this country. Yet the law at present says that we are.
A century ago, A. E. Housman wrote :
Column 113"Oh who is that young sinner with the handcuffs on his wrists? And what has he been after that they groan and shake their fists? And wherefore is he wearing such a conscience-stricken air? Oh they're taking him to prison for the colour of his hair." In this country we do not discriminate against people on the ground of the colour of their hair. We do not discriminate against people because they happen to be left-handed. We do not discriminate against people because they are of a different race. But we do discriminate against them because their sexuality is different. I argue that we should not.
I would also argue that it is a question of a fundamental principle of democracy. As long ago as 8 June 1984, the Heads of State of the seven major industrial democracies, including the former Prime Minister, Lady Thatcher, signed a declaration on democratic values. The second foremost point of that declaration said :
"We believe in a rule of law which respects and protects without fear or favour the rights and liberties of every citizen, and provides the setting in which the human spirit can develop in freedom and diversity."
The protection and the endorsement of that principle of diversity is what the new clause is all about. Let us back equality tonight, not because it is easy, not necessarily because it will win great applause from the tabloid press, but simply because it is the right thing to do.
Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay) : On a point of order, Mr. Morris. I know you to be a fair and balanced Chairman of the Committee, but may I point out that throughout the three-hour debate, one Member only has been called, my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison), who has made the case against either of the clauses? I am sure that you would wish there to be a balance in the argument.
The Chairman : I do not accept the hon. Lady's chastisement and I am sorry that she felt it necessary to raise the matter.
Rev. Ian Paisley : The proposer of the new clause, the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie), has asked us to turn our eyes towards Europe. I understand that she has European ambitions and so she already has her eyes on Europe. The previous meeting of the European Parliament in Strasbourg passed a resolution which bore out the words of the Liberal Democratic party spokesman, the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). If we go down the proposed road, there will be other matters with which we shall have to deal. I take it that that was his message.
The resolution says that certain things must be swept away. First, it says that there should be an end to different and discriminatory ages of consent for homosexual and heterosexual acts. Of course, there is no agreed age in Europe, as we know. Ages of consent go down as far as 12. I wonder how many hon. Members would vote for reducing the age of consent to 12. Secondly, there is to be no prosecution of homosexuality as a public nuisance or a gross indecency. Thirdly, there is to be no barring of lesbians and gay couples from marriage or from an equivalent legal framework and there should be a guarantee of the full rights and benefits of marriage allowing the registration of partnerships. Finally, the most
Column 114serious change of all is that any restrictions of the rights of lesbians and gay men to be parents or to adopt and foster children should end.
There is a road that the Committee can go down tonight, which has been signposted by that resolution which was passed overwhelmingly in the Strasbourg Parliament in its previous session. I do not think that the Committee should look to Europe. The Committee should look to its own citizens, to its own well-being and to where we should want our country to go. I have listened to the speeches in which some principles were paraded as if they bore the stamp of infallibility. It has been argued that private morality should not be a matter for the House. If we followed that principle, how many Acts of Parliament would have to be destroyed? It is very interesting that we are told tonight that there must be liberty for males to carry out an unnatural act. However, in the law of this land, that unnatural act is banned between male and female. I have not heard it argued that that law should be removed. That law is to stand. However, the law relating to males must be taken away.
This country must realise that the unit of society, and the cement that holds it together, is the family. As goes the family, so will go the nation. If we do not have the cement of the family, society will disintegrate and be destroyed. I plead with the Committee not to despise, reject or to brand the cement of society as some kind of prejudice. The normal sex act within the marriage vow, bringing together male and female and producing offspring, is the happy way ; it is the divine way ; it is the creative way ; and it is the best way. As one of the apostles said, it is the more excellent way. How can the Committee argue today that we need to deal with an age limit? We have been told that this is not really a matter of age, but of equality. To the hon. Members who have argued that, I ask whether that is not so of everything that they have said. That includes the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), who spoke so eloquently from the Opposition Front Bench. Everything that he said in respect of 16 could be argued for 14.
As a father, I know the difficulties that occur when raising a family. If any father were to tell the Committee tonight that his children had no sexual thoughts until they were 16, that person would be laughed out of Committee. I am sure that the hon. Member for Sedgefield thought many thoughts before he was 16.
Let us come down to the hard facts. What has been argued tonight in Committee does not stand up. The right hon. Member for Watford (Mr. Garel- Jones) told us that if we vote for 16 tonight, the problem will go away and we will never have to discuss it again. That is wishful thinking. The right hon. Gentleman thinks that the European thing has gone away, but it has not and it never will. He will learn that in the days to come.
We cannot say that 16 is the time. Similarly, we cannot say that 14 is the time. We should be trying to save young men and young boys from going down the homosexual road. We should be bringing them to the joys of true marriage and raising a family. We should dedicate ourselves not to the destruction of young boys but to their deliverance. They need to be delivered.
I was in my office for a moment between the two debates this evening when the phone rang. It was a gay rights lobbyist. He started to tell me a story. He said that,
Column 115at 12, he discovered that he was different from other people ; that he was homosexual. I asked him one question, "When you were 12, did you follow every impulse that you had?" He said, "Certainly not." I then pointed out to him that it is the duty of society to persuade, to educate and to seek to bring those who have that problem to a place of deliverance.
Some people say, "No one ever changes ; we were born this way ; and this is the way that we have to remain." That is not true. Homosexuals have been converted from homosexuality and some of them have good marriages and are bringing up families. I know that from personal pastoral experience. The right hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) said that the time when we must work is the time before they are crystallised. We have a responsibility and an opportunity tonight.
The hon. Member for Derbyshire, South, with a swipe of her hand, dismissed the Hebrew scriptures, the Christian scriptures and Almighty God. That was just with a wave of her hand. Those of us who have been at the coal face, as it were, of our young people and who have been working with them--there are 1,200 young people in my church and I know what I am talking about-- know the difficulties and the temptations. It is my prayer for them that they will learn the "more excellent way", the joy of having a happy marriage, the joy of bringing up their own families and the joy of living in normality, not in abnormality. I hope that hon. Members keep that point in mind as they vote tonight.
Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland) : The hon. Member for Antrim, South (Rev. Ian Paisley) made the surprising assertion that people do not change. That is certainly not the view that is expressed in the gospels. The gospels speak of the sinner that repenteth. I hope that, in his consideration of these matters and the mosaic beliefs of the Judaeo- Christian morality which underlies our law, the hon. Gentleman will concede in his heart that it is not necessary for that law to be underpinned by the criminal law of this country and that the criminal law today does not protect our young people from the greatest scourge that modern society has known, the threat of AIDS.
The right hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) read a passage from the advice of the Health Education Authority. What he did not read was the advice of that Government-appointed body, which has told the Committee that it believes that it is hampered in its job by its inability to speak to those people--
It being three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the first new clause relating to the age of consent for sexual acts between men in Great Britain, The Chairman-- put the Question already proposed from the Chair.
The Committee proceeded to a Division ; but the Tellers in the Aye lobby having left the doors before all the Members wishing to do so had voted, The Chairman-- directed the Committee to proceed again to a Division.
Question put, That the clause be read a Second time :
The Committee divided : Ayes 280, Noes 307.
Division No. 136] [10.23 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane
Adams, Mrs Irene
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey)
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale)
Column 116Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy
Banks, Robert (Harrogate)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)
Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret
Beith, Rt Hon A. J.
Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Bennett, Andrew F.
Berry, Dr. Roger
Biffen, Rt Hon John
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham)
Bray, Dr Jeremy
Brown, Gordon (Dunfermline E)
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thorpes)
Brown, N. (N'c'tle upon Tyne E)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Carlile, Alexander (Montgomry)
Clark, Dr David (South Shields)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Corston, Ms Jean
Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE)
Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr John
Currie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire)
Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon)
Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral)
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'l)
Donohoe, Brian H.
Eagle, Ms Angela
Ewing, Mrs Margaret
Field, Frank (Birkenhead)
Foster, Don (Bath)
Garel-Jones, Rt Hon Tristan
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John
Godman, Dr Norman A.
Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair
Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Hampson, Dr Keith
Harman, Ms Harriet
Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy
Hill, Keith (Streatham)
Hogg, Norman (Cumbernauld)
Home Robertson, John
Howarth, Alan (Strat'rd-on-A)
Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd)
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Hughes Robert G. (Harrow W)
Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne)
Jackson, Glenda (H'stead)
Jackson, Helen (Shef'ld, H)
Johnston, Sir Russell
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Jones, Lynne (B'ham S O)
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd, SW)
Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Jones, Robert B. (W Hertfdshr)
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Kennedy, Charles (Ross,C&S)
Kennedy, Jane (Lpool Brdgn)
Khabra, Piara S.
Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil (Islwyn)
Lester, Jim (Broxtowe)
Lestor, Joan (Eccles)