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Sir Norman Fowler: I accept what my hon. Friend says, and I emphasise what he said at the start of his intervention. I certainly do not wish to make a generalised allegation. I am talking about risk and our responsibility in the House. My question is whether that risk will be increased--whether we are making the position worse by taking the proposed step. I fear that we are.

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Obviously, I understand the argument for equality and standardisation of ages, but I hope that it is our duty to provide maximum protection for young people, and I hope that that duty is also recognised.

It is not only Members of the House and lobby groups who should be heard on this subject. The public have a right to be heard. My hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward), who I see in his place, made a much-admired speech on Second Reading. It was so good that even Alastair Campbell has publicly praised it. I am not sure whether that is the kiss of political death for my hon. Friend, but there is no question about the quality of his speech, to which I also pay tribute. However, on one point I disagreed profoundly with my hon. Friend. When considering the opinion polls on this issue, he said, in effect, that the slave trade would have been supported by opinion polls. I assume that that meant that we should disregard opinion polls on the issue that is before us. With respect, that is an extravagant use of the tactic of guilt by association. The issues are not remotely comparable.

5.30 pm

I certainly agree that we should not try to govern by opinion polls. I say that with authority because no one could accuse the previous Conservative Government of slavishly seeking opinion poll approval. If we did, we were remarkably unsuccessful at it. However, when we find opinion poll evidence pointing in the way that it undoubtedly does in this instance, the House of Commons should at least take pause to consider.

In 1994, a Gallup poll suggested that 71 per cent. of those polled supported the status quo for the age of consent at 21. However, when the NOP divided the question and provided a choice between 18 and 16, a small majority then favoured 18. Only 13 per cent. favoured the further reduction to 16. That opposition to that further stage has remained clear in opinion polls.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): May I point out to my right hon. Friend that there is another disparity? In the case of the slave trade, opinions were being expressed about what conduct should or should not be directed to other adults. In this instance, those who are polled are expressing opinions about what should or should not be done to children, in many cases their children, in respect of whom they have rights until they are 18.

Sir Norman Fowler: My hon. Friend makes a strong point. I have read what he has had to say in debate. I agree with him and it is a point that I shall come to.

The opposition to going further from 18 to 16 has remained clear in opinion polls. The most interesting of the later polls was the Gallup poll last August, which was conducted after the House of Commons had voted to lower the age of consent to 16 and the House of Lords had voted the other way.

When those polled were asked whether they personally thought that the age of consent for homosexual men should be 16 or 18, 65 per cent. said 18 and only 26 per cent. said 16. I now come to the point of my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis). In my view, when it comes to such issues the public are a sensible judge. I tried to set out the experience that we had at the Department of Health when we were running the AIDS campaign in the late 1980s. In spite of all the

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predictions that there would be a backlash against gays or homosexuals, there was not one. There was none of that. The public accepted, understood and supported the campaign which we undertook. They showed their common sense and maturity on these issues.

The same public are expressing their views in the opinion polls that are now taking place. We cannot say that they are mature in one respect and then say, when it comes to something that is inconvenient to one's argument, that they show an immaturity and fail to appreciate the arguments. I would take the general rule of trusting the public. In this respect, trusting the public takes on board the fact that the public feel genuine doubt, have a questioning attitude and feel opposition to reducing the age further. It is the same public who are making their views clear about reducing the age further from 18 to 16.

There is one further point, and it has been made by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East. Many of the people whose views are being sought are parents. They have concerns about their own children, the young people whom they know best. I believe that parents have a right to be heard, and I think that they are right on this issue. Far from rejecting public opinion, we should recognise its strength and sincerity. We reduced the age of consent to 18 years less than five years ago and I do not believe that the case has been made out to reduce it further.

Mr. Brazier: I was thinking about an old adage when I was sitting in the train earlier. It is the old joke about the man who dreamt that he was making a speech in the House of Commons and woke up to find that he had done so. I ask myself why we are here again in the Chamber debating this issue so fervently. We are here again because the House of Lords gave us a second opportunity to think about it. Despite the overwhelming vote last time round, it seems profoundly right that the House of Commons should think again.

Those of us who have spoken out against equalisation, as it is called, of the age of consent have been repeatedly accused by Members who have formed a lobby, at least outside Parliament, of prejudice and ignorance. It is curious that we have not only public opinion on our side but a substantial body of scientific evidence, to which I shall return. Above all, we have on our side of the argument all of the world's great religions. In that respect, the most recent contributor to the debate was the Archbishop of Canterbury, who made the profound comment that we must think about the signal that we are sending to the country at large. Of course, we must make up our own minds; we are in the House of Commons to make up our own minds and not simply take account of others' views.

I have no wish to hate or dislike anybody, or to victimise anybody. The younger brother of my great-grandfather, as a student at Oxford, was a homosexual. He was afraid that he was being pursued by the police. There was no evidence subsequently that that was the case. He went into personal panic, fled across southern England and committed suicide in the most horrible circumstances. I have no wish to see anyone victimised or pursued for any particular reason.

I believe that it is wrong to lower the age of consent to 16 and that one day views in the House of Commons will change. I believe the country to be right and the views expressed in the previous debate to be wrong.

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I shall allude briefly to the parallel that was drawn by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward) with slavery. I believe it to be a disgraceful reflection on the people of this country. In 1863, President Lincoln was fighting a war which cost a far higher proportion of blood and lives in his country than the first world war cost in our country. That war was being fought to abolish slavery.

The President received a letter signed by thousands of Lancashire cotton workers. The comment was made in the letter that the effect of the American civil war and deprivation in Liverpool, as a result of the disruption to the cotton trade, was causing the most unbelievable hardship, even to the extent that many of the children of those who had signed the letter were dying of starvation. None the less, they, as the working class people of Liverpool, felt so strongly about the abolition of slavery that they believed that Abraham Lincoln was absolutely right to prosecute the war. He was reduced to tears by the letter and abandoned his Government's business for half a day to compose a worthy reply. So much for public opinion in this country on slavery, and back to the business of today.

I wish to focus on whether homosexual activity is a matter of choice or whether it is somehow pre-ordained. Of course, activity that is consented to is always a matter of choice. However, there are those in the homosexual lobby, supported by a growing group outside it, who are arguing that activity is a matter of choice but orientation is pre-ordained.

I have considerable respect for the British Medical Association and I have used its reports in many other contexts. However, it is the latest group to write in a rather generalised letter to Members of Parliament that the weight of scientific evidence is that homosexual or heterosexual orientation is decided long before the age of 16, and so it is wrong to focus on a potential change of orientation between 16 and 18.

There is a substantial body of scientific evidence from all over the world that argues otherwise. I shall quote one study from a British source. As recently as 1992 King and McDonald, writing in the British Journal of Psychiatry, outlined a detailed study carried out on perhaps the most appropriate group of people--identical twins. Across a sample of identical twins in which one of the twins was homosexual, they found that in just under one quarter of the pairs of twins, the other twin was also homosexual. Surely there could be no more disturbing example. If a homosexual twin's own identical twin--genetically absolutely identical--is not also homosexual, how can it possibly be genetically determined whether someone is homosexually or heterosexually inclined?

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