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The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng): So why table the amendment?

Dr. Harris: The Minister asks a reasonable question. I had hoped to make it clear that I question why the Government could not have introduced a wider measure to achieve equality between homosexuals and heterosexuals for these consensual offences. People understand that that would be sensible, given that, over decades, we have not had an opportunity to change a law which hon. Members on both sides of the House agree is anomalous and discriminatory.

Many people think that the law is heinously discriminatory, because people suffer longer sentences for a similar act purely on the basis of their sexuality, not on the basis of whether the sentence is proportional to the offence. Society has moved on. It is time we addressed these issues; and the general concern is that, although the Government have initiated a review of sexual offences, we have no clear timetable for legislation, even with the caveat "parliamentary time permitting".

It is of grave concern that there may be no such legislation during this Parliament. We may be faced with a more illiberal, old-fashioned Government in the next Parliament. I hope that we will not be; it will not happen if our party is represented among them--although we cannot guarantee that, even to our most avid supporters.

There is also concern that, if the timetable is such that the only opportunity to legislate arises just before the next general election, the Government may be tempted to decide that there are priorities higher than the much needed reform of sexual offences legislation.

I have tabled the amendment to give the Minister the opportunity to explain how he intends to tackle the discrimination that exists in sentencing and to accept that, without widening this measure, legislation containing unjustifiable discrimination in sentencing will remain on the statute book. Although I will not push the amendment

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to a vote, I should be grateful if he responded to the points that I have made, as I informed him of them well in advance.

Mr. Boateng: This is truly a probing amendment, and I shall deal with it in that way.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon(Dr. Harris) presents an amendment that is fundamentally flawed. Its effect would be to create a gross anomaly. He claims that he tabled it to highlight the fact that there are numerous anomalies in current legislation. We have long accepted that there are anomalies in the law relating to sexual offences, which is precisely why we have determined to establish an inclusive review of sexual offences that reflects the broad range of opinions on those issues. The review will draw on academic and legal expertise, on our faith communities and on practical good sense--indeed, common sense--in approaching those issues.

We must ensure that we have a rational and comprehensive system of law relating to sexual offences with, at its heart, the protection of vulnerable people. The Committee upstairs has spent a considerable time debating that, and we shall address the issue this afternoon. Indeed, that issue motivated us to introduce this legislation. We want to ensure, first, that we have equality before the law and, secondly, that we do everything in our power to protect vulnerable people who are prone to the depredations of those who would abuse their trust. The Bill deals with those two separate issues.

Clause 1 has a simple objective: to bring about a change based on the principle of equality. It makes the age of consent in England, Wales and Scotland 16, and in Northern Ireland 17, for homosexual as well as heterosexual activity.

There are anomalies and inconsistencies in the way the criminal law treats heterosexuals and homosexuals. We shall ensure that the review deals with those anomalies and that the protection of children and vulnerable people from those who would abuse them is central to the objectives of the system of penalties. We look to the sexual offences review to guide us on that objective.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon seeks to obtain from the Government an undertaking that we will legislate in the course of this Parliament. He will realise that I cannot give such an undertaking. I am prepared to tell him, however, that we intend to carry out the review within 12 months. It will be done with due expedition and, as I said, in an inclusive way that seeks to stimulate an informed public debate on those issues. We shall then consider the outcome of the review. That, in turn, will be subject to a proper consultation process and, in due course, legislation will be introduced.

That is how we intend to proceed. It is right that we should proceed in that way--with expedition, but at the same time ensuring that, at every stage, this vital area of the law is subject to proper reflection and consideration. Wide consultation is essential if we are to obtain a public consensus around a rational system of sexual offences law. We must tackle existing anomalies, but above all we must protect children and vulnerable people.

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We oppose the amendment for the reasons I have given. It is technically flawed, and would create yet another unconscionable and unacceptable anomaly. Were thehon. Gentleman to push the amendment to a vote, our recommendation to the House would be to reject it. The House has heard the points that he has made, and he has heard me accept that there are anomalies and say that they will be considered by the sexual offences review. In the light of that, and of the amendment's obvious technical flaws, I hope that he will withdraw it.

Dr. Harris: Throughout the Minister's reply, he did not accept that the current sentencing provisions are discriminatory: he said that they are anomalous. They are clearly anomalous, but does he accept that they are discriminatory? A 22-year-old man who is convicted for unlawful sexual intercourse with a girl of 15 faces a two-year maximum sentence, whereas a man of 22 who has unlawful anal intercourse with a young male of 15 can be given life imprisonment. If all the other circumstances of the case are broadly similar, does the Minister think that such disproportionality based only on the different sexuality of the two men is acceptable? Is it not discriminatory?

I shall give the Minister an opportunity to intervene to explain whether the Government accept that the present sentencing provisions discriminate against homosexuals. If he remains silent, it is difficult for people to have confidence that the review will deal with such unjustifiable discrimination.

Mr. Boateng: I do not want to be churlish so early in the proceedings, but I thought that I had made it clear that the purpose of the review is to address undoubted anomalies in the legislation. Among those anomalies is the obvious discrimination in the sentencing legislation, and we are addressing those issues. We have asked the review body to deal with them, and we shall reflect on the outcome of the review. It is right that we should do that.

We should recognise the importance of approaching this matter holistically and rationally. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that we are acting in good faith on this matter so as to ensure a proper debate and discussion of the issues and anomalies that he has identified with some skill.

Dr. Harris: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Dr. Harris: I beg to move amendment No. 2, inpage 1, line 9, at end insert--

'( ) In section 12 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956 (buggery)--
(a) at the beginning of subsection (1), there shall be inserted the words "Subject to subsection (1D) below"; and
(b) after subsection (1C), there shall be inserted the following subsection--
"(1D) No proceedings shall be taken under this section against a person under the age of sixteen where the other party has at the time of the offence attained the age of sixteen."

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( ) In section 13 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956 (indecency between men)--
(a) at the beginning, there shall be inserted the words"(1) Subject to subsection (2) below"; and
(b) at the end, there shall be inserted the following subsection--
"(2) No proceedings shall be commenced under this section against a person under the age of sixteen where the other party had at the time of the offence attained the age of sixteen.".'.

The Chairman: With this, it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 6, in page 1, line 20, at end insert

'; and after subsection (11) there shall be inserted the following subsection--
"( ) No proceedings for any offence under subsection (5) above which consists of committing a homosexual act shall be commenced against a person under the age of sixteen where the other party had at the time of the commission of the offence attained the age of sixteen.".'.

Dr. Harris: I intend to brief, because other hon. Members want to contribute, and I shall leave it to them to develop some of the points. The amendment dealswith discrimination in the culpability, chargeability, prosecutability, convictability, sentenceability and imprisonability of the younger person for consensual, illegal acts.

Clause 1 seeks to reduce the age of consent for homosexual sex--which we support. It will ensure that, in many circumstances, although not all, homosexual sex above the age of 16 is legal between two consenting people. However, glaring discrimination remains, because the younger person whom we are seeking to protect through these sexual offences measures is made a criminal by virtue of the same Act that makes him a victim. The provisions of the clause could be amended by this or a similar amendment.

There are significant jurisprudential problems, and it is important that the Government accept the effect of the amendment. There are problems with the philosophy of criminalising a victim. We also have duties under the European convention on human rights. It is difficult to ensure that offenders are appropriately brought to book when the people who may be able to report offences are subject to criminal prosecution for the same acts that have made them a victim. Surely that will deter people from either seeking help or resorting to the impact of the law. The lack of a provision such as the one I suggest is a glaring omission in the Bill.

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