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Mr. Bradshaw: Does my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the incredibly enlightened remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) on the desirability of registering partnerships? Does she share my hope that the Home Secretary will take note of that?

Ann Keen: I am sure that all hon. Members will have noted those remarks.

I was dealing with the issue of trust. I am extremely pleased that young women have been mentioned. When this matter was debated previously, many members of the other place argued that it was unnecessary to protect young women because they dealt with abuse much better than young men. Many female Members of Parliament, and many more of our constituents, were greatly offended by that suggestion.

For that reason and many others, a different approach must be taken in relation to the age of consent. It is a key issue. Young people and many experienced organisations that work with them, including the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing, Barnados, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, counselling groups, social workers, the Terence Higgins trust, HIV and AIDS workers, all say that an equal age of consent is crucial if young people are to be protected and valued. Young people need to grow emotionally; they need self-esteem; and they need a youth that they can talk about. The message that the House can send out today is that all young people are to be valued.

Some people suggest that the involvement and enforcement of the law can discourage young people from being gay. Do they seriously suggest that close family members and friends should report young people to the police? If a son informs his mother about his sexuality, should she tell him in an emotional way, "Of course, this will all end with criminal action, because that is what is best for you"? No one who seriously cares about young people would do that. Advice and support should never be denied to a young person.

Much has been said about young gay men that has been offensive to those concerned, but also to their parents, many of whom have contacted me to say so. Many more

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will continue to do so until we put the matter to rest. What sort of love for one's child is it when one calls for the law to be enforced more vigorously? If we go down that route, the message is that bullying at school, homophobia, beatings and persecution are the right way. Mothers and head teachers--and, sadly, the number of recorded suicides--tell us differently. Real love, care and concern mean ensuring that young people are not criminalised for their sexuality.

I have already mentioned health protection. The White Paper, "Our Healthier Nation", deals with that issue. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), who is not in his place, was involved in bringing AIDS and HIV to people's attention, and much good work was done. He said that it was difficult to communicate on sexuality and to get the message across. How much more difficult it is to get that message across when some young people--young gay men--are criminalised. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned public concern and said that public opinion was against the age of consent being reduced to 16. I would ask him to look more carefully at that opinion poll rating, because it says what most parents would say: 16 is too young for their children to have sex, whether heterosexual or homosexual sex.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): Does my hon. Friend agree that reducing the age of consent to 16 for homosexual acts would be a crucial consolidating measure--which would bring heterosexual and homosexual acts together, give credibility to the age of consent and reinforce it at 16 for homosexuality and heterosexuality--and a crucial child protection measure?

Ann Keen: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, because he is right; that is exactly what would be enforced.

For the first time, the extent of abuse against young people is being recognised by head teachers, education departments and school nurses, and the excellent document produced by Stonewall shows the extent of bullying in schools. The law as it stands is unworkable; the police have a difficult job in dealing with unrest in our society, and they believe that the law as it stands is a hindrance to the important work that they are doing to combat homophobic violence.

With this extended Bill and the extended time that the House has been given for debate, and as our Government are introducing much-needed measures to protect young people in all aspects of life, let us please send from this House the message that tolerance, fairness and protection are what we are about. I hope that, this time, the Bill will become law.

5.12 pm

Mr. Shaun Woodward (Witney): Hon. Members may be aware of a statue, which was put up last year near the Strand, dedicated to Oscar Wilde. It is a sad and sobering statue, but, like much good and great art, it is provocative. Looking at that statue, I see a face of misery, and perhaps other things about the way in which we, as a society, have behaved. I see what we, as a society, did to an individual, and have continued to do through much of this century. Our society has, I believe, been intolerant and hypocritical

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and has perpetuated the belief that the behaviour of people such as Oscar Wilde was unnatural, wrong and, by our statutes, criminal.

Mr. Robathan: I am not an expert on Oscar Wilde, but I understand that it is well documented that he went to north Africa with a friend, where they spent some time in the company of unfortunate children--boys, who were acting as prostitutes--whom they bought. I hope that every hon. Member would condemn that. Does my hon. Friend not agree that we should not make too much of Oscar Wilde's virtues?

Mr. Woodward: My hon. Friend makes an interesting intervention, but one which I fear only trivialises the issue that we are trying to address--not because of the particular actions of which he speaks, although I have no evidence and know nothing about the matter to which he refers, but because we are discussing how we wish to behave in future. That is crucial.

There have been improvements in this century. The Wolfenden report, for example, was an important new chapter in the story of our progress towards behaving as a more civilised and more tolerant society. That chapter continued with our vote in 1994, and today's debate is one more chapter in what started as a sad and miserable story for our country. It is also a chapter that owes no small debt to last year's amendment to the Crime and Disorder Bill, tabled by the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen). It was a brave and important amendment, and, like a number of other people, I am only sorry that it was lost in another place.

I should register an interest: I am a director and former deputy chairman of Childline, the charity set up to help children in trouble or danger, which has worked with young people. As the subject has been referred to a number of times in another place, I should also register my interest as an Anglican. It may be the province of some Anglicans to speak against the amended legislation this evening, but many people who believe in God also believe that perpetuating the law as it stands is a profoundly unchristian and unloving action.

All hon. Members should recognise at the outset that amendment of the law is now overwhelmingly supported by organisations that are specifically concerned with protecting children and young people. Those organisations are not pressure groups; many, such as Childline, are simply there to listen, and the role that they play in listening is crucial. Evidence from the young people who have telephoned Childline paints a sad picture--a picture of misery, fear and bullying, which is perpetuated by the stand of the current legislation.

A tragic fact of which many hon. Members will be unaware is that young people trying to come to terms with their sexual identity often become desperate. Not only do they feel that they are not part of the mainstream; they feel that they are ostracised from society. As a result, they are compelled to disguise their feelings, and, far from supporting them, we force them into isolation. Their hiding place is the repository of fear and worry.

We set such young people apart. We do not help them with the current legislation; we hurt them. Any attempt to engage in a relationship with someone of the same sex faces them with a terrifying dilemma, in that what they are doing is committing a criminal offence. That fear cannot

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possibly breed any desire for a loving relationship with another individual. It is a wholly destructive force, but it will continue for as long as the present legislation exists.

It is not surprising that Childline has evidence from a number of young people who, as a result of that dilemma, have tried to take their own lives. Sexual identity is a significant factor in suicides and attempted suicides, especially in the case of young men, and our current legislation must bear a heavy responsibility for perpetuating such desperate feelings.

Over the past 200 years, Parliament has debated a number of moral issues, the crucial question being whether something is right or wrong. Those issues have tested our humanity, and our sense of Britain as a civilised and civilising nation. We have discussed the abolition of slavery, universal suffrage, votes for women, civil rights and racial discrimination. In every instance, there has come a moment at which Parliament has been the focus of a great national debate.

Those arguing against change have always reached for the morality of the enfranchised majority, but does any hon. Member believe today that Wilberforce was wrong--although at the time the Cabinet, the monarchy and Britain's most powerful interests were ranged against him? The same enfranchised majority wished to deny women the vote, but does anyone believe today that the country would be a better place if women did not sit in the House? Until tragically recently, a similar morality justified the treatment of some people as different members of the human race, and as inferior beings, because of the colour of their skins.

Today, we are debating again whether the criminal law should continue to discriminate between heterosexual and homosexual relationships. This is an issue of compassion, and of protection; but it is also, crucially, an issue of discrimination. The current law is wrong because it is wrong. Hon. Members should consider carefully what we mean by right and wrong. Currently, young people may be forced to spend the first years of their sexual awareness--their early adult years--knowing that, if they express their true feelings, they may spend time in prison. That can breed only shame, fear, resentment and--as the evidence of countless children's organisations shows--a culture of bullying.

Let us be clear. The issue is about whether a relationship between one human being and another should be a criminal act. It is not about urging people to be promiscuous, or urging young people to have sex at 16. It is not a debate about anal intercourse. It is a debate about whether society should judge young people to be criminals because, at 16, their sexual orientation sets them apart from a so-called majority.

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