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Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda): As I understand it, my hon. Friend's new clause is to allow sexual intercourse to be legal for a person aged 16. It is not in

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any sense preventing people from being homosexual, heterosexual or whatever. It is purely to allow a 16-year-old to have sexual intercourse legally, not to deny anyone's sexuality.

Ann Keen: My hon. Friend's point is incorrect. The purpose of the new clause is to make everyone equal under the law.

New clause 1 is not only for gay people but for their parents. The current law provides no support to the parents of young people trying to come out to their parents. The law brands their children as not only different but criminal in its eyes. I have received many letters from gay men that talk about their experiences of growing up in society literally as criminals. These young men were terrified of revealing their developing sexuality, and faced abuse and bullying.

One such young man was 16-year-old Albert Kennedy, who, in 1989, fell to his death from a top of a car park in Manchester while trying to escape a car load of what are described as "queer bashers." Albert was a depressed teenager. His short, tragic life had been filled with rejection. The threat of being branded a criminal could not have helped ease his mind, and it fuelled the prejudice of those who sought to persecute him. The Albert Kennedy Trust, a registered charity, was set up in 1989 in his memory, with the aim of ensuring that no lesbian or gay teenager need feel alone or unwanted, and that there is help to provide a positive home environment. Those who run the trust are adamant that equalising the age of consent and removing the threat of criminal prosecution is essential if we are to prevent future tragedies such as Albert Kennedy.

The London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard is another organisation which helps young gay people. It has been in operation for more than 25 years, and has gained much respect and recognition. I visited its premises recently and discussed many issues with the voluntary staff. They told me about the silent calls made to the organisation by those who are too afraid to speak. Even if they speak to the voluntary staff across the Switchboard lines, they feel that they are breaking the law. Some of these young people try to pretend that they are older than they are. Some Members should visit the Switchboard. It is an excellent organisation. Having visited it, some Members may have a better understanding of the situation.

I also have the support of the Hounslow youth counselling service, and I met some of its members on Friday. It is an organisation in my constituency which offers counselling and support to young people.

Members opposing the new clause have every right to express their own views but I ask them to listen to those organisations that work with and for young people on a daily basis. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, along with other organisations and expert charities linked with the protection of young people, including Barnardos, has also expressed its support for the new clause, stating:

As it stands, the law does not protect young gay men against exploitation. It creates fear and secrecy, not openness and support. Young men are fearful of being

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open with their parents or those adults to whom they would normally look for information, help and support. Prejudice protects abuse; it does not prevent it. I do not want our children to grow up to live in a world that has laws that discriminate and offend the right for everyone to be himself or herself. Fearful of being branded criminals, many young gay men are unable to seek health advice and sex education.

In the past 10 years, we have learnt much about reducing sexual health risks. We know that personal health depends on good self-esteem, accurate health information, access to advice and support. All those essentials are undermined by our unequal age of consent. We compromise reputable agencies that cannot give practical support and advice, because to do so would condone sexual relations between young men that the law brands as criminals.

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West): The hon. Lady mentions an unequal age of consent. She says also that the purpose of the new clause is to equalise the age of consent. That being so, why does she include the offence of buggery in subsection (1)? The age of consent for buggery is already equal at 18. The effect of her new clause would be to permit buggery of 16-year-old girls as well as boys. Will the hon. Lady explain why she seeks to do that?

Ann Keen: I have already explained that I do not think that it is for the law to police people's bedrooms. We need to bring about a more open society where people can discuss their sexuality but with consent.

As I was saying, in the past 10 years, we have learnt so much. All professional medical and nursing opinion has stressed the importance of changing the law. The British Medical Association has said:

Nursing organisations have agreed with that sentiment, and say:

    "An equal age of consent would also enable the mental and emotional health needs of young homosexual men to be better met."

Before entering Parliament, I was a district nurse. I worked with families and people who were affected by HIV and AIDS, and I was adviser to the centre of sexual health and HIV studies at Thames Valley university. With years of first-hand experience in the nursing and medical professions, I have been able to consider very carefully matters relating to health risks and the age of consent. I am convinced that the law as it stands is a serious threat to the health of young gay men.

We should send one clear message to all young people. We need to say that we value the health of all our young people equally, and we will treat everyone equally. I pay tribute to organisations such as the Terrence Higgins trust, the National AIDS Trust, Body Positive, London Lighthouse and many other groups that have done, and continue to do, so much work in the gay community to promote safer sex. I agree with the sentiments that are set out in the Green Paper entitled "Our Healthier Nation":

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The law should give equal protection to all. It has been suggested that boys are more immature than girls, although there is some variance in the age of maturity. The important thing is that medical opinion is clear that young men of 16 are not particularly confused about their sexuality, or less mature. The law as it stands permits a young man of 16 or 17 to sleep with his girl friend, even to marry her. Yet if he is gay he cannot enter into any consensual sexual relationship with somebody of his own age. That is a ridiculous double standard.

Of course unwelcome sexual attentions of a serious nature warranting criminal prosecution are equally offensive whether the victim is a man or a woman, gay or not. No means no, and the same law should therefore apply to all.

The BMA report to which I have referred makes it clear that all the reputable research evidence shows that adult sexual orientation is usually established before the age of puberty in boys and girls. Other research tells us what common sense suggests, which is that the young gay man seeks relationships with people of his own age. One year is the average difference in age for gay partners when they have their first sexual experience. The myth of the vulnerable, confused young man was rejected by the Wolfenden report more than 40 years ago. It stated:

The myth has been seen as such by professional medical and child care experts ever since. I hope that together we can finally lay that myth to rest.

The principle of equality has already been accepted in many European and Commonwealth countries. Only a month ago, the South African supreme court swept away its discriminatory anti-gay sex laws, following the principles of the new South African constitution, which guarantees the rights of all minorities including lesbians and gay men. The example of South Africa is a powerful one precisely because it is a country which has had to learn to reconcile immense differences. It has had to find a way of including all its citizens in a new nation where the rights of all minorities are protected.

The point that I make about the experience of other countries is not that we should slavishly follow them, but that in no case and in no society have negative predictions about the age of consent come to pass. We have to find our own path for our own country. The question before us is whether to treat citizens as second-class and less valued because their sexuality is different. We have to make that choice together tonight.

The right to vote and the right to speak openly and freely are privileges that we take for granted. Let me remind the House how those rights were gained: at one time or another, Members of the British Parliament have taken brave strides to uphold the rights of individuals, and have convinced Parliament as a whole to introduce legislative change. This debate relates to the age of consent for a specific section of our community--the gay population.

Controversial? Yes--but no more so than was the Representation of the People Act in 1918, the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975, or the Race Relations Act in 1976. This is yet another campaign for equality, and I am

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privileged to speak on behalf of so many people. These have been busy and interesting times, and I have met some wonderful people. To have been in both Gay Times and Good Housekeeping in one week was indeed an experience, although my family believes I have no right to be in either.

Many politicians who have served in the House have done much to advance the cause, including the former Member, Leo Abse, who is a constituent of mine and with whom I had the pleasure of speaking at the weekend; Humphrey Berkeley, who also lived in Brentford and Isleworth and who sacrificed his political career for this cause and continued to work for equality until his recent death; and many other right hon. and hon. Members who advanced the cause of equality. Of those outside the House, I pay tribute to Sir Ian McKellen, Michael Cashman, Antony Grey, the former director of the Homosexual Law Reform Society, Angela Mason and all at Stonewall and other organisations.

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