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Dr. Julian Lewis: As a doctor, and therefore an expert in medical matters, will the hon. Gentleman answer a simple question? Is it or is it not the case that engaging in anal sex increases the chance of catching AIDS?

10 pm

Dr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman needs to know that engaging in any sex--compared to abstinence--increases the risk of catching various diseases. We do not criminalise, for example--although the analogy is not very strong--dangerous sports. Neither, for the reason that he gave, should we criminalise consenting acts in private by people capable of giving consent. It is not the case that homosexual acts are inherently dangerous--which is why not one person in the ruling council of the British Medical Association or even one recognised medical or nursing establishment would agree with the hon. Gentleman's views, which cannot be based on a review of medical evidence. I feel that his views are based on an exploration of his own prejudice.

I urge Ministers to acknowledge that current legislation is discriminatory and not merely anomalous; to espouse the principle that the state should not seek to criminalise or intervene in consenting acts in private by adults and not involving injury; to clarify that consenting homosexual activities above the age of consent should not be associated directly in law with paedophile offences, and that there is no reason to do so; and, finally, to agree to a full review of discriminatory sexual offences, with a clear view to ending such discrimination during this Parliament.

I invite the Minister to give those undertakings to hon. Members from both sides of the House--including Conservative Members--who support new clause 4.

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Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South): New clause 1 is about equality and social justice, not about privileges, special treatment, positive discrimination or removing safeguards for the vulnerable. The new clause is about ensuring our fellow citizens' equality before the law. The litmus test of a civilised and pluralist society is how it treat its minorities. We all belong to a minority of one sort or another.

The new clause is also not about whether hon. Members share or approve of the outlook of a specific minority. It is about whether, in a civilised society at the end of the 20th century, hon. Members should deny equality. Many hon. Members--not least Conservative Members--are disciples of J. S. Mill, who believed in keeping the state out of the private sphere of people's lives. Elizabeth I would not make windows into men's souls, yet Conservative Members often seem very unwilling not to make windows into the bedroom.

Like Conservative Members, current law makes such windows. What has been the result of maintaining a discriminatory age of consent? Today, one national newspaper said that it was


The unequal law isolates some teenagers. It also encourages intolerance among and between teenagers.

A national survey of homophobia in schools consulted 1,000 head teachers, 80 per cent. of whom reported verbal bullying. More than 25 per cent. reported assaults on pupils who were believed to be gay or bisexual. Surveys of gay teenagers confirm the same figures, and, as hon. Members have heard tonight, a significant proportion of them are pressured almost to suicide.

A discriminatory age of consent frets and fetters those who would give support to young people. My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen) and others have referred to the views of Barnardos, Save the Children and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Above all, a discriminatory age of consent compounds the sense of isolation that affects many gay teenagers. Some Opposition Members may think that it is all about life style choices and metropolitan glitz, but it is not easy being a gay teenager in a small northern town, in the valleys or in the shires.

I remember a summer evening in France a number of years ago when I was 17 and a school friend told me and those of us who had gone on holiday together that he was gay, nervously waiting to see what the reaction would be. Thank God it was positive and supportive. I could not speak tonight without discharging a debt to his courage on that occasion. Today 16 and 17-year-olds up and down the country are wrestling with the same fears and decisions. We could assist them in coming to terms with and making their decisions. We should not load them down with premature criminality.

To maintain an unequal age of consent sends a message of discrimination that, however conscientious, civic-minded and productive members of society gay people are, they must continue to accept second-class status. It is a message that inevitably devalues their self-worth and humanity. Societies that are content to afford that status to minority groups consistently run the risk that, when turmoil or upheaval affects them, those discriminated against become the scapegoats.

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Some have tried to suggest that maintaining a discriminatory age of consent is what the public want. I remind hon. Members that at various times the status quo wanted to keep slaves, public hangings and bear baiting, and to treat women as chattels and deny them an independent role in society. Society is what it is today because, at diverse times and in diverse places, the House has had the courage to move on.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) said, in the past few days we have had the rather vague statement from some bishops about sending out wrong messages.

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

Mr. Marsden: I am sorry, but I do not have enough time.

The House is here to enact legislation for all faiths and for none. If we are talking about our Christian inheritance and belief, as some have done this evening, let me say that I share it, however imperfectly, as do many who support this change. Unfortunately, I do not have the marvellous hotline to the Almighty that some hon. Members have in respect of man-made law. I recall, however, a few phrases in the Bible, such as:


and:


    "In my Father's house are many mansions".

That is why, gently, I suggest that my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough goes to the Primate of All England and that, when the Primate of All England goes into his private chapel in the palace over the river, he looks into his own heart and asks himself about the wrong messages that have been sent out to generations of young people struggling with their faith and sexuality by attitudes within the Church that have shut them out like the Samaritans of old.

Hon. Members must also look into their hearts and think about the message that they will send after tonight's vote to those who serve them in this place who are gay, lesbian or bisexual, to those among their constituents who come to them for help, to those among their friends, political supporters and associates, to their families and to those who are known and unknown, visible and invisible in their sexual orientation. Will they say, "Oh, we are sorry, but we have decided that we have to continue to make you feel just that little bit smaller, just that little bit more fearful, just that little bit more excluded"?

If there are people here willing to do that, so be it, but let them not delude themselves that they do not do it to real people of flesh and blood. Shakespeare said it all in "The Merchant of Venice":


I came here not to out the bard, but to praise him. I should like hon. Members to reflect on the wise words of Mr. Shakespeare and on the words of E. M. Forster, who said that we should "only connect". I ask hon. Members to reflect and to only connect.

When I wrote a few words about my sexuality recently in my local paper, among the correspondence that I received was a letter from a support group for parents of

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lesbian, gay and bisexual children. Like Shakespeare, they put the issue more eloquently than I could:


    "We are all born in the same way and go when the time is right. It is what we can do in between with the very short time we have that matters most. Let us do this by treating all people as equal--and this means starting with our daughters and sons, doesn't it?"

I urge the adoption of the new clause.

Sir Peter Lloyd (Fareham): The hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) spoke with considerable feeling. We can all sympathise with individuals in the circumstances he described.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen) on tabling the new clause. I did not agree with everything she said, but I wholly agreed with the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton). I hope that he will press his amendments and that the House will adopt them. The Minister may be right to say that the wording of the amendments is not correct, but that can be considered at greater leisure in another place.

The amendments deal with a far narrower issue than will the review the Minister says he wants to set up. It is not beyond the powers of their Lordships to judge whether they give effect to what the hon. Member for Bassetlaw and those who support him want. Let the Lords decide. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."]

Some of my hon. Friends cheer me slightly too early. In 1994 I voted for 16 and I intend to do the same this evening. That is not because I believe that there is a particular age for male or female, heterosexual or homosexual--


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