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Dr. Julian Lewis: Does my hon. Friend accept that the reality is perhaps neither all one case nor all the other? Does he accept that there may be some people who are genetically predetermined--physiologically, one might say--to be homosexuals when they mature? Does he also accept that although that may be true in some cases, in other cases people's experiences as young boys can determine whether they change from potential

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heterosexuals to potential homosexuals? I hope that my hon. Friend is not committing himself to saying that it is all one way or all the other.

Mr. Brazier: My hon. Friend anticipates my next few sentences. He has expressed the idea so clearly that I shall not repeat it. I am not arguing that no one is ever genetically determined to be homosexual or heterosexual. We do not know, and we probably will not know for decades. However, there can be little doubt that for a significant proportion--how large we do not know--sexual orientation is determined in their teens.

What the scientists tell us is reinforced by ordinary experience. Most of us know someone who experienced homosexual activity in his teens--I did not, myself, but I know a number of people who did--and subsequently decided not to adopt a homosexual orientation. I can think of one case in which the person is now happily married.

Many of us will have received the same letters on the issue from former homosexuals who have ceased to be homosexuals. I remember one letter from 15 former homosexuals, one of whom had the courage to come along on the day of the previous vote and sit in the Public Gallery. The testimony that that group provided was clear. Those men were attracted into homosexuality during their late teens by older males, and they want the protection of the law to make it a criminal offence for that to continue. There are always those who will break any law on sexual matters, but let us at least provide that measure of protection for those who are between the age of 16 and the age of majority.

I shall leave the House with this thought: the word "discrimination" has been used a great deal. Discrimination refers to what someone is. In my view, it cannot be applied coherently to what someone does. It is clearly wrong to discriminate against someone because of his skin colour. If one discriminates against someone because he chooses to do something, surely the onus is on the other side to argue that that discrimination is wrong. If one is recruiting a driving instructor, for example, it would be right to refuse to recruit someone whose driving licence was covered with offences.

Those who say that it is discrimination to treat homosexual offences separately from heterosexual offences must rest their argument on the basis that homosexual acts are unavoidable. Obviously, the acts themselves are not unavoidable. I have argued that the orientation is not unavoidable in every case. It is right for us to give those aged between 16 and 18 a measure of legal protection to decide where they stand on the matter.

As the Archbishop of Canterbury and so many other religious leaders in this country--Cardinal Basil Hume, the chief rabbi and the previous chief rabbi--have argued, this is a matter that we should give young males a little longer to think about. I urge the House to vote against clause 1.

5.45 pm

Mr. Allan: I shall speak briefly in support of clause 1.

It worries me when I hear the opinion polls argument trotted out on one side or the other. If we believe that something is correct, we must decide whether we are prepared to take a lead and explain the background to our thinking, or whether we back off at the first hurdle because it seems that some people disagree.

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I remind the House that my party secured huge polls of 70 to 80 per cent. in favour of our policy of putting more money into education, but that did not translate into our winning general elections. It merely shows that the people polled say that they are in favour of education. I suspect that in polls on the issue under discussion, people are expressing their views on homosexuality, not giving detailed consideration to any change in the law.

We are debating not what people do, but changes in the criminal law. We must not become over-ambitious about our influence. We cannot tell people what they should or should not do in their bedrooms. All we can decide is at what point we make them criminals for a particular act.

No one has ever stood up and said, "My Government made me a homosexual"--to which the standard response, "If I give the Cabinet the wool, will they make me one too?" might be appropriate. At times, the debate verges on the point of saying that the Government are making people homosexual or not making them homosexual. In fact, the Government are deciding the point at which the criminal law starts and ends. We must be clear about that.

The change that would be brought about by clause 1 is consistent with the religious principles that many people hold dear, and with rational ideas. The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) made an important speech in the previous debate in which he said that he could believe strongly that something was wrong on religious grounds, yet still not wish to make a criminal offence of it.

We must recognise the distinction between what we personally believe to be right or wrong--we all hold a multiplicity of views on that--and what we as a Parliament and as a nation consider should bring someone before a criminal court.

The rational grounds for supporting the change are bolstered by the support of many agencies that work with young people. We have heard the British Medical Association cited. Other organisations include the Royal College of Nursing. Barnados and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children are unhappy with the existing criminal framework.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): Can the hon. Gentleman explain how the British Medical Association reconciles its support for the measure with the injunction by the National Blood Service that no man who has ever had anal intercourse should be allowed to give blood? Surely there is some contradiction there.

Mr. Allan: I do not believe that there is any contradiction. We are being tempted, as we were on Second Reading, to speak about issues such as disease. We are discussing the criminal law, which decides what is or is not criminal. It is not criminal for people over 16 to smoke, but they are undoubtedly causing themselves medical harm. The fact that a particular activity may cause medical harm is not a reason to criminalise a person who chooses to engage in that activity. The British Medical Association believes that the present criminalisation of16 and 17-year-olds makes it difficult to give them the health advice which I should have thought the hon. Gentleman would want them to get.

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Mr. John Townend (East Yorkshire): Why then do the Liberal Democrats support criminalising eating beef on the bone?

The Second Deputy Chairman: Order. I should be grateful if the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) did not pursue that issue.

Mr. Allan: I am happy not to pursue incorrect interventions.

We should understand today that we are confining ourselves to a clause which effectively changes the boundary of the criminal law. It will have no significant effect in terms of people's behaviour: we are not creating any more or any fewer homosexuals in our community by dint of this change; we are simply freeing a section of our community, who have reached the age of 16 and 17, who believe themselves to be homosexuals, and who engage in homosexual acts, from the burden of the criminal law which, currently, on no rational grounds, places them under threat of punishment.

Contrary to an earlier comment by the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), the last thing that anyone in such a position needs is a short, sharp shock in a young offenders institution. The idea that it is somehow an appropriate form of advice and assistance to threaten any youngster exploring his sexuality with a criminal and custodial offence betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how sexuality develops--a development which we should allow to continue beyond a sensible age of consent of 16. Clause 1 will provide a much more rational framework within which we can engage that debate.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: I was much impressed by the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler). He made a considered, intelligent and reasonable contribution on what is, for many of us, a difficult subject. Those of us who hold passionate views on the subject often find ourselves being pilloried. As my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) said, we are often accused of prejudice and all the rest of it.

There is a point in being able, at least in the House, to speak out and articulate one's views. The point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield particularly mentioned, and on which we should home in, concerns the protection of young people. That has always been of great concern to Parliament, and not just this Parliament. In the previous century, Act of Parliament followed Act of Parliament regulating young people's terms of employment. That has not abated; it has continued through this century. Parliament has always been anxious to protect young people.

Clause 1 dramatically strips away protection for young boys. I do not know whether you, Mr. Lord, or any other hon. Members, saw a recent television report on child abuse in a children's home in north Wales. A feature of that broadcast was that the victims were often shown in silhouette. Those young people, now adults, told horrific stories about how they had been scarred for life by the abuse that they had suffered, in particular by older men. It may be that when they initially suffered that abuse they were well under the age of 16. I perfectly well understand that. Those hon. Members who did not see the programme should try to do so before they proceed too far in support of the Bill, and they should reconsider whether they are doing the right thing in supporting it.

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The clause will extend the scope for the abuse of young boys. On the 364th day of a 15-year-old boy's life he is entitled to the full protection of the law as devised by Parliament, but the following day, he will be fair game to what I believe the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) calls a fruit. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) might be able to support me on that.

Overnight, Parliament will decree that at one moment, at a minute before midnight, we protect such a boy, but two minutes later he will be out there on his own. The essential point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield was that it is one thing to do that at the age of 18, two years on in a boy's life, but it is quite another thing to do it at the age of 16. We are confronted here with at least the possibility of giving a nod and a wink to those who are interested in abusing young men, and I fear that that is what will happen.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) graciously allowed me to intervene on some medical aspects. I am surprised that he should be so contemptuous of a point that I raised. Of course, this has to do with the law; it would be fatuous to suggest otherwise. But the hon. Gentleman and those who support the measure have a lot to argue for here on the medical front. It is no good him and others simply trying to dismiss the point.

If the National Blood Authority believes, despite always being in pursuit of people who will give blood, that any man who has ever, even once, had anal intercourse, should under no circumstances give blood, is the House simply to ignore that and dismiss it in a cavalier fashion, as the hon. Gentleman did?

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