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Poverty and Social Exclusion (National Strategy)

Mr. David Drew accordingly presented a Bill to require the production and implementation of a comprehensive, participatory strategy for co-ordinated Government action to reduce and eliminate poverty and social exclusion in the United Kingdom: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 14 May, and to be printed [Bill 45].

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Orders of the Day

Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill

(Clause 1)

Considered in Committee, pursuant to Order[25 January].

[Sir Alan Haselhurst in the Chair]

Clause 1

Reduction in age at which certain sexual acts are lawful

4.4 pm

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 6, after' (buggery);' insert--

'(aa) in sub-paragraphs (a) and (b) of paragraph 3 (buggery) of Schedule 2 (punishments, etc.);'.

I am pleased to see that the Home Secretary has joined the Minister of State, Home Office on the Treasury Bench. We are delighted to see the right hon. Gentleman in the Chamber but we are not sure what his presence signifies for the free vote that we on these Benches have been promised on this occasion. We hope that we will still have one.

I stress that I strongly support the clause. The purpose of the amendment is to explore ways in which the clause may be improved along the lines that I described in my contribution on Second Reading. It must be remembered that the clause deals with equality between homosexuals and heterosexuals in sexual matters relating to the criminal code. Amendment No. 1 draws attention to some of the other areas in which there should be equality.

There has not been a proper debate on such details for years and perhaps decades, if not centuries. Previous debates, especially on sentencing, have often taken place in the dark hours in the other place, at the last minute, and have been on measures tagged on to other Bills. This is the first opportunity in the context of a Government Bill for us to debate properly how equality in sentencing and other matters might be achieved.

Perhaps the most significant previous debate took place in the 1880s. The Government claim to be undertaking a process of modernisation, which some of us support. It is high time to modernise these laws.

We understand that it might be thought that some of these matters are covered by the Government's review of sexual offences. However, there is concern about the timetable of that review, first because these are relatively urgent matters, given that we are dealing with unequal sentences and other unequal provisions, and secondly because we are in danger of achieving equality and fairness in one part of a series of offences without making consequent changes in sentencing or in other respects covered by other amendments.

Amendment No. 1 deals with sentencing and other amendments deal with who can be charged with an offence. Other matters must be dealt with as new clauses and will be discussed in Standing Committee.

It is important to emphasise that in all these debates we are speaking about consensual offences. When we consider the appropriate sentence for such offences,

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whether heterosexual or homosexual, it is important that we restrict our consideration to consensual offences. Non-consensual offences fall outwith the remit of the clause. I hope that we will be careful to make that distinction.

We must recognise that when we seek equality, which is the thrust of clause 1, we mean equality as between consensual anal intercourse between men--by which I mean buggery; it is also called other things, but I shall try to stick to the term "anal intercourse"--and unlawful sexual intercourse between a man and girls--in the case of offences that will remain criminal, even when the Bill is enacted--under the age of 16. It is vital that we make that connection when we speak of equality.

When we speak about maximum sentences, we should not propose such penalties unless we anticipate the courts using them. It is not satisfactory to hope that the courts will use their judgment if the sentence is too steep. It is the job of legislators to legislate and to ensure that when we set maximum sentences, we are prepared to see them carried out.

If we are not prepared for that, it is incumbent on us to legislate for appropriate sentences and to take the earliest opportunity--which is afforded by the selection of the amendment--to legislate for equality in sentences relating to offences that have been legalised for certain people but remain illegal in other cases.

Various sentences apply to gay men and their sexual activities, but do not apply to heterosexuals. In the Bill the Government refer to consequential amendments affecting sentences, but they have not grabbed the bull by the horns and tackled all the discriminatory sentences that exist, nor have they adjusted the scheduling of the sentences to the provision that they are seeking to enact, with support from those on the Liberal Democrat Benches and across the House.

If one was decriminalising activities between the ages of 18 and 16 under certain circumstances--what those circumstances are falls outside the scope of the clause--one would expect to see the sentencing schedule amended to replace the word "eighteen" by "sixteen", where it applies.

If one considers the sentencing provisions that the Bill and my amendment seek to amend, under the Sexual Offences Act 1956, buggery or attempted buggery between a man and a person under the age of 16 is an offence--that is for consensual buggery--punishable by life imprisonment. For the similar heterosexual offence of unlawful sexual intercourse with a girl under the age of 16, the maximum sentence is two years.

There is a provision for a life sentence for unlawful sexual intercourse with a girl of 13 years of age or less, and that is an appropriate maximum sentence, but there is no similar provision for anal intercourse between a man and a young male under the age of 13, which should also carry a life sentence. That could be on the basis that the age is clearly too young generally, or that the act could not be properly consensual at that age.

That is something that the Bill does not remedy and I am unable to do so with the amendment either, but I hope that the Government will say what they consider to be the right sort of sentencing framework in that area.

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We therefore still have the discrepancy between a life sentence for consensual anal intercourse between a man and a person under the age of 16 generally, and unlawful sexual intercourse with a girl, where the maximum sentence is two years.

A further provision under section 12 of the 1956 Act, relating to buggery, that the Government are not amending is that, where a person is under the age of 18 and the accused man is over the age of 21, there is a maximum five-year sentence. There is no equivalent age provision for unlawful sexual intercourse with a female, so the two years still applies as the maximum sentence, which is lower in this case.

If the Government were seeking to recognise that the law had changed in respect of buggery and attempted buggery, they might have reduced the age in that clause from 18 to 16. That clause also covers buggery with an animal which attracts a life sentence; otherwise the offence attracts a sentence of two years. That is a hotchpotch, and my amendment seeks to recognise that the Government have not even started to address it in this legislation; it is vital that they do so.

As drafted, without the amendment, there is no change in the Bill's sentencing provision for buggery, which is surprising, as the age of 18 is written into the schedule. In section 13 of the 1956 Act, which is covered by the clause by virtue of its reference to section 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 1967, which in turn covers section 13 of the 1956 Act, which concerns gross indecency, one can detect another inconsistency in the current law between men and women. First, gross indecency is an offence which can apply only to men. There is no similar provision for unlawful consensual sex short of sexual intercourse with a female under the age of 16.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): A few moments ago, the hon. Gentleman said that it was vital that the Government should address those anomalies. Will he explain precisely why? I accept that the anomalies exist, but why it is vital that they should be dealt with escapes me.

Dr. Harris: I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would agree--perhaps he does not--that where there is unjustified discrimination it should be removed at the earliest legislative opportunity. That is why the Labour party's general election manifesto said that, in the context of civil liberties, the party would seek to remove unjustified discrimination wherever it exists. We know that the Government use the words "at the earliest legislative opportunity" as an almost automatic caveat. We on these Benches understand that. This is the earliest legislative opportunity. If we believe that it is vital to correct discrimination that is unjustified--I do, and I believe that that view is shared by other hon. Members--it is clearly vital that this opportunity be taken.

4.15 pm

Gross indecency attracts a sentence of two years except where the accused is over 21 and the other party is under 18, when the sentence is five years. The Bill makes the consequential amendment to that provision and changes 18 to 16. The maximum sentence for gross indecency is

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still two years in all circumstances, except where the accused is over 21 and the other party is under 16. There is no equivalent age differential for unlawful sexual intercourse, or sexual activity falling short of that, with a female under the age of 16.

My amendment would change schedule 2, which relates to section 12 of the 1956 Act, dealing with the offences of buggery and attempted buggery, by substituting 16 for 18. The problem with the amendment, as the Minister will no doubt point out, is that it does not change the discrimination that exists. The Committee may be interested to know that I tabled a much broader amendment that would match exactly, for consensual offences, the maximum sentence for homosexual offences with the equivalent sentence for heterosexual activity. That fell outwith the scope of the clause, however, and cannot be discussed on the Floor of the House today.

I understand that, but even if the Government had made the obvious consequential amendment and substituted 16 for 18, buggery or attempted buggery of a person under 16 would attract a life sentence. Substituting 16 for 18, however, means that buggery of a person under 16, when the accused man is over 21, would attract a maximum sentence of five years. As the Minister is aware, those two are inconsistent.

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