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Mr. Howarth: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Michael: I shall give way for the last time. Many hon. Members wish to speak.

Mr. Howarth: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, because it was hellish difficult to get in between two sentences.

If he accepts the logic of the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), which I also signed, he will find that they provide some protection in respect of hon. Members' concerns. If he feels that, although inadequate in their present form, they should be enacted in an adequate form but that he cannot do that now, he should call on the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen) to withdraw the motion.

Mr. Michael: No, because it is the drafting and tabling that relate the two issues. I do not believe that new clause 1 will have the result that the hon. Gentleman thinks it will. It deals with a separate point, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw is right to say that 16 and 17-year-old boys and girls--he is right to place that joint emphasis--need protection from predatory adults. The two issues are brought together in the debate by the juxtaposition of the amendments. I see them as two separate issues, but I have sought to respond to the debate in respect of both.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East): Will my hon. Friend give way?

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Mr. Michael: Many hon. Members wish to speak. I said that I had given way for the last time. It is better to get it right than to get it wrong quickly and give the impression of having done something by accepting amendments that would not achieve the ends which my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw says he seeks. He raised important issues. I hope that he, and those who agree with him, will accept our assurances about our intention to deal with the issues and will not press the amendment.

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

Mr. Michael: I have said already that the intervention that I accepted from the hon. Member for Aldershot(Mr. Howarth) would be the last one. If I were to take further interventions I would be eating into the time of Back-Bench Members who wish to take part in the debate.

I hope that I have said enough, without delaying the House further, to show why the amendment to increase the age of consent where one of the parties is over 21 is wrong and would not succeed in its purpose.

I turn to new clause 4 and the related amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) and others. New clause 4 and the associated amendments seek to remove one of the two qualifications that now exist to the proposition that consensual homosexual activity involving parties of the age of consent is lawful if done in private. I am sympathetic to the intention behind the new clause and amendments and to the strong feeling on the part of many people that the law in this area is discriminatory. I understand the argument that it is wrong to penalise homosexual activity that takes place between consenting parties of the age of consent in the privacy of the home just because more than two people are present.

It is important, however, that Parliament should recognise that there are differing views and that there are likely to remain concerns about sexual activity in public places, and not only gay activity. There are different approaches to the issue. In the past, Stonewall put forward a set of proposals which would involve repealing the offences of buggery and gross indecency and amending the Public Order Act 1986 to cover harassment, alarm or distress caused, among other things, by indecent behaviour. The Criminal Law Revision Committee, which considered the issue in 1984, came up with different proposals which would involve creating a new offence. That illustrates the need to consider such issues in the round.

There are inequalities, and those inequalities need to be addressed. However, particularly in an area as complex as sexual offences legislation, a problem can rarely be solved by one simple amendment. We need to examine the consequences of making changes and consider whether, by dealing with one problem, we may not be creating others.

I refer again to the fact that I recently announced our intention to review the law relating to sexual offences more generally. There are many anomalies in the existing legislation, which in many respects reflects attitudes and views that are no longer accepted in modern society. The review of this area of legislation is long overdue, but matters are not helped by piecemeal reform such as that proposed by the amendment. There are also technical defects in the amendment.

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My response is not intended to deny the importance of the House dealing with these issues but to say that the time is not right. There will be unfinished business after tonight's debate. In an earlier debate, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary explained the urgency of seeing the Bill through all its stages as soon as possible. It contains many proposals that will affect directly the lives of all our constituents who are plagued by crime and disorder in local communities.

The protection of children and vulnerable adults will be at the forefront of the Government's proposals. There will be areas of the law that need review following the decision of principle, but let tonight's decision be a clear and simple one--to agree an equal age of consent.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. There is now less than an hour left for the debate to run, so short speeches from hon. Members on both sides of the House will be appreciated.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): It is clear that there is a majority in the House to equalise the age of consent at 16. I agree with the view that, even if one disapproves of homosexual practice, we should ideally not be using the criminal law to make a judgment on it. I subscribe to the liberal position that people should be free to behave as they wish, as long as that does not impact on the freedom of others.

However, it is the duty of the House to have regard to the consequences of the laws we make. It is also our duty to protect the interests of those whose judgment has not fully matured. Even from a liberal perspective--here I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack)--we hold the interests of children in trust in the House.

I have considered the issue carefully in the light of my instincts and beliefs. I do not believe that the House can pass without qualification the new clause tabled by the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen).

Every responsible body that has considered the issue has acknowledged the need to protect children. I hope that the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth will pay attention as I quote the 1957 Wolfenden report, because she gave a totally different interpretation to it. The report states:

The Wolfenden report concluded that 21 was the right age,

    "because to fix it at 18 would lay them open to attentions and pressures of an undesirable kind from which the adoption of the later age would help to protect them, and from which they ought, in view of their special vulnerability, to be protected."

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

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9.30 pm

Mr. Blunt: If my hon. Friend will wait, I shall address the point that I believe he is about to make.

Society has clearly changed in the past 40 years, but the consideration of protecting vulnerable individuals remains valid. I believe that it is a legitimate judgment to believe that 18 to 21-year-olds are more mature than they were in 1957 and that they are wiser in the ways of the world, having enjoyed the benefits of television and the information age and of more liberal attitudes in society generally. That is why, had I been a Member of Parliament in 1994, I would have supported changing the age of homosexual consent to 18. However, 16 and 17-year-olds still need special consideration.

In 1979, the Home Office policy advisory committee's working party had a minority view that supported the reduction to 16, but with the compromise that a young man of 16 or 17 should be protected by the criminal law from the advances of a man in authority over him. I believe that it is self-evident that an adult over the age of 21 has an authority over 16 and 17-year-olds.

In 1985, the Howard League for Penal Reform took as its base assumption that the individual should be free to regulate his or her sexual conduct in private, provided there is protection for the young or immature from exploitation or undue pressure. It recommended the introduction of a whole new system, which would have ensured legal protection from sexual exploitation for everyone under the age of 18, by creating offences of unlawful indecency and unlawful sexual contact with children under the age of 14, or with young persons under the age of 18 if the age gap between the participants was more than two years.

It is the issue of protecting minors from exploitation by adults that is at the heart of our debate tonight. The principle of an equal age of consent, qualified by the protection of the young from adults, is already enacted in law in respect of sex between adults and children in five European Union countries. Is the House going to pass the new clause without regard for the consequences?

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