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9.45 pm

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): I want to speak tonight from the perspective of human rights. New clause 1, to which I put my name, and new clause 4 are supported by Members from all political parties. It is important to make clear notes in these debates and not to hold them upside down. I am reminded of what happened in the 1994 debate in the other place, when an elderly bishop said that he did not realise they were talking about 18; he thought it was 81--and even he recognised that that could not be fair.

There is a danger not only of upside-down reading, but of upside-down thinking. The basic starting point in addressing the issue is that there should be equality in law. There need to be overwhelming reasons to move away from equality and non-discrimination.

The sponsors and supporters of new clause 1 are not asking those who oppose it to approve of homosexual acts; they are not even asking them to accept them. All they are asking, as a minimum, is that they are not criminalised and that we do not legislate against the expression of love between people who have reached a fixed sexuality in their lives. It is for that reason that, in determining my vote, I cannot accept the views of the Archbishop of Canterbury or those bishops--and they are split on this issue--who do not want the House to accept new clause 1.

Mr. Leigh: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Harris: I will do so later in my speech. Indeed, I would prefer to give way on a point about new clause 4,

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on which there has been little debate. I am responding to points made by hon. Members, who have not given way, on new clause 1.

We do not yet live in a theocracy, so we are not bound to take note of a majority view in the House of Bishops, especially when the bishop charged by the Synod with dealing with this matter and tackling the issue of homosexuality for the Church itself, Bishop Harries of Oxford, favours a reduction in the age of consent to 16--for the reasons that we have heard tonight from the supporters of new clause 1.

The Archbishop of Canterbury and other bishops are entitled to their view. The proposers of the new clause do not ask them to drop their view based on the Bible. Nor does the fact that adultery is not criminal in this country mean that those who agree with that feel that those of a religious persuasion should drop their prima facie objection to it. Many of us would be concerned about that. The question is whether the criminal code should legislate against these matters, and I believe that it should not.

On the basic premise of moving towards equality and non-discrimination in other matters, I want to speak briefly about medical issues, which have been raised in the debate. I speak as a member of the British Medical Association council and the proposer of a motion at a meeting last year, when it unanimously restated its belief in equality in the age of consent at 16--and in a whole range of other equality issues. The council is joined in that belief by bodies such as the Health Education Council, the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and other royal colleges. Each established medical body believes, on the review of evidence, that there is no medical reason to oppose an equalisation in the age of consent at 16.

I regret that I must disagree with the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), who spoke so powerfully, but did say that there were medical divisions. On the review of all the evidence, the established medical bodies have come down firmly in favour of equalisation. It is now medically accepted that homosexuality is fixed at an early age and not at an age greater than 16. People such as the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) state that that is not the case, but stating that does not make it so. Those who believe that the earth is flat do not make it so by declaring that it is flat.

Mr. Blunt rose--

Mr. Brazier rose--

Dr. Harris: I shall not give way on this point, because I wish to make progress.

The same applies to the journalist in The Daily Telegraph, who, in a flat-earth way, makes certain medical statements as if they were fact when they are not accepted by medical opinion. I was outed in The Daily Telegraph as a doctor who believes in equality, and outed as a liberal, to which I confess without any shame. I am delighted that I have now been named in The Daily Telegraph in a capacity other than that of bridge player.

The other medical question is whether sexuality can be changed by participation in sexual activity. Medical authorities do not accept that, among the multifarious

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factors, sexual practice, especially in teenage life, has any effect on sexuality. European countries that have a lower age of consent do not have a higher rate of homosexuality. The medical and psychological evidence supports my case.

The hon. Member for South Staffordshire(Sir P. Cormack)--he could be described as the hon. Member for the 19th century--referred to the problem of predation. As has been said, that problem affects young women and girls as much as, if not more than, it affects young boys. There is no evidence to suggest that a greater proportion of those involved in paedophilia are homosexual. The vast majority of paedophile criminals are heterosexuals who exploit young boys as well as young girls.

The issue of AIDS has been raised, particularly by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire.

Mr. Brazier: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Harris: No, not on this point, because I want to make progress.

The Terrence Higgins Trust did a remarkable amount to reduce the incidence of HIV transmission. Although the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), who is no longer present, did well in getting across to the wider population the message about the dangers of HIV infection, the Conservative Government can be criticised for not sending enough targeted messages about the dangers affecting homosexuals of all ages. It is not through homosexual acts, but through unsafe sexual practice with someone who is infected, that the virus is transmitted. We must get that message across.

I have worked as a doctor in the field of HIV; people with AIDS have died in my arms. I do not want a return to the years when people were not able to obtain critical information about sexual health because, in seeking such information, they ran the risk of being criminalised. Young people have a right to such information.

From a medical perspective, I entirely share the views of the Minister of State on the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton). The amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Reigate are incompetent. Amendments to criminalise homosexual behaviour between people over 21 and those below the age of 18 would make a legal relationship between a 17-year-old and a 20-year-old suddenly illegal and criminal on the date of the birthday of the older person in the relationship. It would be some birthday present to criminalise a previously non-criminal relationship. Those amendments must be opposed by the majority of hon. Members, who, I believe, want to equalise the age of consent at 16.

I deal now with the subject of new clause 4, which has cross-party support. It has not been advertised widely in advance of this debate. That was deliberate on the part of its proposers, in order to avoid detracting from the main message that should emerge from this debate, which is the equalisation of the age of consent. Although it has been advocated quietly, however, it is a critical new clause.

New clause 4 would delete a gross violation of privacy and a gross violation of the right to freedom from discrimination. It seeks to delete the provision in the Sexual Offences Act 1967 that means that consenting homosexual acts by adults in private can never be private,

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no matter how many doors they are locked behind, when more than two people are present--not more than two people participating, but more than two people present. I think that many Conservative Members, and not only those who take a libertarian view in supporting this, believe that an Englishman's house is his castle.

Mr. Leigh: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Harris: I will give way in a moment.

Certainly, the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) will take that remark literally.I will not press this too much further, but the right hon. Gentleman would not like the Secretary of State coming into his bedroom to see what he was up to as a consenting adult in private; and I am sure that the Secretary of State would not want to be there. This is a serious matter that strikes at the heart of the rights of consenting adults in private to do what they wish without the state intervening.

Mr. Leigh: At times, this debate has seemed unreal, not least because of the 13 speeches given, only three have opposed the new clause. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that people outside will be astonished by what he is saying? Every opinion poll--NOP, the Wellings survey--shows that 73 per cent. of the nation is opposed to new clause 1 on good moral and religious grounds, yet the hon. Gentleman, who is a doctor, is supporting gay sex by adults--not only by consenting adults in private, but by groups. Does he appreciate how out of touch he is with the real world?

Dr. Harris: If it is asked whether there should be equalisation of the age of consent, opinion polls show a majority in favour. The House is above making legislation according to selective opinion polls. If we operated on that basis, we should not have seen the huge majority, rightly, against the reintroduction of capital punishment, among other things. We should not pander to prejudice, however inadvertently it is held by the population. This matter is a litmus test for the liberality of Government, political parties and individual Members, in which to prove that they will not kow-tow to apparent or real prejudice in society.

The provision that new clause 4 seeks to delete was introduced in 1965 into the Bill that was later adopted by Leo Abse. It was passed in the other place by a group of homophobic peers--that is clear from a reading of the record. Many Labour Members have as their hero Hugh Gaitskell, but on this issue, the real heroine was Baroness Gaitskell, who tried to make it clear to the peers who were prejudiced that the very acts referred to earlier were legal if performed by heterosexuals, were not punishable on a felony and by imprisonment, and there was no reason why they should be for consenting adults of any sexuality in private.

The major problem with this debate is that it is impossible--from some of the sedentary comments made by some Conservative Members, one can see why--for Governments to tackle the issue raised by new clause 4. Unlike the issues related to new clause 1, the subject of new clause 4 has not been debated in this House since 1967. The provision added by the peers in 1967--the extra provision covering privacy--was specifically not recommended by the Wolfenden report in 1956. This

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House, to its shame, has never revisited it since. Therefore, one cannot say that new clause 4 is being rushed.

There are other examples of discrimination which I shall not go into, but of which I know the Minister of State and the Government are aware. However, I should like to explain why we, the proposers of new clause 4, want more progress made than the Minister outlined.

We should like Ministers to recognise--which, to the Government's credit, I think that they have already partly done--that we are debating a matter neither of anomalies nor of some strange historical quirks, but of outright discrimination, of the type that the Labour manifesto promised to abolish. Labour pledged to end

even in matters that are difficult to debate, such as sexual offences law.

We should also like the Government to reaffirm that those discrimination issues do not touch upon child protection issues. We are debating issues concerning consenting adults acting in private, and the waters should not be muddied by raising other issues. We should therefore be grateful if the Minister would make a separate statement on reviewing the laws dealing with discrimination and ensure the right to equality for homosexuals and heterosexuals. The statement should be separate from a discussion of paedophilia and protection of the young--matters which many hon. Members of all parties are concerned about.

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