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Mr. Straw: Hon. Members on each side of the Chamber will have different points of view. In 1997, there were four cautions, one prosecution and no convictions of males aged 16 and 17 for gross indecency; and five cautions, four prosecutions and two convictions of 16 and 17-year-old males for buggery. There were two cautions, nine prosecutions and seven convictions of those aged 18 and over for buggery with 16 or 17-year-olds.

I shall now deal with the issue of the European Court of Human Rights. Its concern is about equality before the law. Of course it would be open to the House, notwithstanding that court's approach, to set a different age, which could be 17 or 18, or which could be as low as 12--although I am not for a moment recommending that--the age which applies in some European countries.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) rose--

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) rose--

Mr. Straw: I shall give way to the hon. Gentlemen, but I should be grateful if they would allow me to make a few remarks first.

The second issue raised in the Bill is the abuse of trust. I have already made it clear that that arises from the widespread concerns that were expressed last year. Let me also make it clear that clause 1 will be committed to a Committee of the whole House, so that all hon. Members may have an opportunity to vote specifically on the age of consent, and to bring any specific propositions before the House. The remainder of the Bill will be examined upstairs in Committee and then, subject to the decisions taken upstairs, will have a Report stage in the Chamber.

Mr. Robathan: I especially want to home in on the abuse of trust measures that the Home Secretary mentioned, which I support. The last time the issue was considered by the House--brought before us by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton)--there was a free vote, and the abuse of trust clause was defeated. What will happen this time? Will there be another free vote? I assume that, if not, it is likely to be defeated by Labour Members.

Mr. Straw: I have explained that it is a free vote as far as we are concerned; I cannot speak for Conservative Whips.

Mr. Bercow: The Home Secretary mentioned the experience of European Union countries. Given that he will obviously have taken a view on the subject, not simply on the strength of abstract principle but on the basis of an assessment of consequences, will he tell the

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House what assessment he has made of the impact of equalisation of ages of consent--which, it must be said, is commonplace in other European Union countries?

Mr. Straw: As I told the House a moment ago, the age of consent varies greatly from one European country to another. I shall give the House the details, if I can turn up the relevant table, which I read with great care yesterday. The age of consent ranges from 12 in Spain to 18 in Luxembourg, I think. My hon. Friend the Minister of State will correct that, if necessary.

I have seen no evidence that an equal age of consent has caused problems in any of those countries, but it must be said that the age that has been established, which ranges over that wide span of six years, often reflects considerable differences in history and family traditions. In those other European countries, there are other norms, which ensure that the kinds of conduct about which people would be extremely anxious do not, on the whole, take place. It must also said that where the age of consent is lower than 16, there are often powerful offences in respect of those, say, over 18 who seek to have sexual intercourse with those under the age of 16.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough): The House is listening carefully to my right hon. Friend's description of what happens in other European countries in relation to the age of consent. Does he recall the letter that he wrote to me over the summer in which he gave a firm and clear statement of Government policy--that there would be no reduction in the age of consent to 14 for homosexual acts in our country, that no legalisation of homosexual marriages would be proposed by the Government, and that there would be no legal adoption of children by homosexual couples?

Mr. Straw: I can give my hon. Friend the undertakings that he seeks in respect of each of those propositions. We have no plans whatever to introduce legislation in respect of any of them.

I should now like to make progress. I shall deal first with the age of consent. I do not want to spend too long on the background to that, as it is well known to all of us, but I should remind the House briefly of a few key points.

Most important, perhaps, is the history of the previous votes and where those left us in this House. As hon. Members will recall, an amendment was moved to the Crime and Disorder Bill last Session to equalise the age of consent at 16. On a free vote last June, the House agreed that proposal by a majority of 336 votes to 129. In supporting the proposal, the Government accepted the need to look carefully, and as a matter of priority, at the protection of vulnerable 16 and 17-year-old girls and boys. However, for the vast majority of the House, that did not detract from our firm belief that we should no longer accept the inequity represented by a differing age of consent for homosexuals and heterosexuals.

As hon. Members know, a different view was taken in another place. Now is not the time to debate the rights and wrongs of such a decision against the clear view of principle expressed in this House. That is past history for this Bill, and the constitutional relationship between the two Houses can no doubt be debated in considerable depth on future occasions. The need to secure the passage of the Crime and Disorder Bill, which implemented a number of

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our manifesto promises, meant that we had no option but to abandon the proposals in that Bill and bring them forward again this Session in a separate Bill.

That brings us to where we are today. The proposals on the age of consent are the same as those discussed last summer. They would reduce the age of consent to 16 for male homosexuals in England, Wales and Scotland, and to 17 in Northern Ireland, equalising it in each part of the Union with the relevant heterosexual age of consent that applies in that part of the Union.

As we made clear last Session, this is not a question of encouraging one life style as against another, or of encouraging young people to have sex--far from it. Instead, it is a question of equality before the law. For a large number of young people of 16 or 17, it may well be the case that they are too young to enter into a significant sexual relationship, and nothing in the Bill should be seen as an encouragement for them to do so; but many young people of that age do enter into such relationships, and where they do so on a fully consenting basis, in my personal view it is not right for the law to discriminate against those who are homosexual, although of course I respect those who take a different view.

Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter): Does my right hon. Friend agree that to use the term "life style" is erroneous in this case because it involves or assumes an element of choice? All the experts agree that the vast majority of people's sexual orientation does not have that element of choice, so we should stop even talking about life styles.

Mr. Straw: I agree with my hon. Friend, and I hope that he has noticed that I have not used that term.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): Is it not proper for the law to have the effect of restraining activity which the majority of people regard as undesirable or unnatural? However choice may operate, the fact remains that people have the choice to maintain self-discipline.

Mr. Straw: I shall try to deal with the hon. Gentleman's point seriously. Those issues were raised extensively in the consideration of the Wolfenden report in 1957. It will be recalled that, before then, homosexual acts at any age were illegal, and buggery attracted a penalty of life imprisonment. There is no evidence that that led to fewer people engaged in homosexual acts if they were determined to be engaged in them, but it led to huge human unhappiness and great injustice. In 1967, the House and the country accepted that the law should be changed for those over the age of 21. Much more recently, in 1994, we accepted that the age of consent should be lowered to 18. I have always believed that the age should be equalised at 16, which is the age of consent for heterosexual sex.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Straw: I have already taken several interventions and should like to make progress.

The second key point is that of discrimination, which relates directly to the issue raised by the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor). Many hon.

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Members will be aware of the current case concerning Euan Sutherland, and the parallel case of Christopher Morris, both now before the European Court of Human Rights. Two years ago, the European Commission of Human Rights decided against the United Kingdom and in favour of the applicants. We reached an agreement with the applicants that we would give the House the opportunity to vote on this issue, and the court case was stayed pending the outcome. However, it cannot be delayed indefinitely, and the court will not permit it. Moreover, given the strong support that the House gave the measure last time round, it would not be right to wait. This is an area where our law is clearly open to challenge, and that must be rectified--[Interruption]--not necessarily, may I say to those who take a different view from mine, by lowering the age of consent to 16, but definitely by changing it to an equal age.

Let me now deal with abuse of trust. During the debate in the previous Session, many hon. Members expressed concern about vulnerable young people of 16 or 17--of both sexes--who might be induced into sexual relationships which they do not really want, for fear or favour of those in positions of trust over them. I stress again that that concern is not limited to protecting young boys. Girls of that age are equally, if not more, vulnerable and deserve equal protection. Protection is needed against all who might abuse their position of trust, whatever their sexuality.

The criminal law is already adequate to deal with all non-consensual sexual activity, including that with children under the age of consent. That does not mean that terrible abuses do not occur. We have all been horrified at the catalogue of abuse, both physical and sexual, which has been uncovered in recent years at children's homes and other establishments. Some of it is still coming to light. As the House knows, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health recently announced a series of reforms to prevent such abuse from occurring again. It includes the "Quality Protects" initiative and the measures announced in response to the "Children's Safeguards" review. In addition, we are changing the criminal law to make it simpler and less traumatic for vulnerable and intimidated witnesses, including children, to give evidence in court. The Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Bill currently being considered in another place contains measures to help such witnesses give their best evidence to the courts.

There remains the important issue of abuse of trust, which falls outside the area of the law of sexual abuse as such. An abuse of trust can occur when someone in a position of authority uses his or her influence or power, either deliberately or unintentionally, to enter into an ostensibly consensual sexual relationship with someone over whom he or she is in a position of authority. The type of behaviour can range from a genuine relationship to one that approaches sexual abuse.

It has long been accepted in the professions that such a relationship--even if genuine--is unacceptable, be it a teacher with a pupil or a doctor with a patient. Harsh disciplinary sanctions usually follow. Even if innocent, such behaviour fundamentally breaches the position of trust between the individuals concerned.

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