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Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): Is it not a fact that people who disagree with my hon. Friend dismiss that or ignore it because it does not fit in with their politically correct view of life?

Mr. Howarth: My hon. Friend is correct. It is interesting to see how any factual arguments are dismissed, as my hon. Friend suggests. Not only is the medical evidence dismissed, but the opinion polls are dismissed. Our opponents do not simply say, as most wise politicians would, that we should not rely on opinion polls but that they give a broad direction. In this case, the opinion polls point clearly to the fact that the British public do not like what Parliament and the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon and his friends are doing, and they have made that perfectly clear.

It is all very well to lead the public. At times, the previous Conservative Government enacted legislation which was not initially popular but which subsequently became so. The Minister of State may raise his eyebrows, but I shall not give a litany of the splendid measures enacted by that Government, the benefits of which are now hugely enjoyed by the public, because you, Mr. Lord, would chastise me if I did and, as I might wish to catch your eye on a future occasion, I need to be careful.

Homosexual activity, and certainly anal intercourse, increases the risk of HIV. I could put it in rather dramatic and crude terms, although I am not sure that I will, but the House is suggesting that it will protect boys up to the age of 16 from HIV in the sense that it will provide

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draconian sanctions--of course, Parliament cannot stop people from acting in defiance of the law--but the moment they reach their 16th birthday, Parliament is prepared to allow people to makes decisions that could lead to their contracting AIDS, which is a life-destroying disease.

6 pm

Mr. Borrow: Can the hon. Gentleman tie in the views that he has expressed with those expressed by those organisations concerned with the sexual health of young people? All those organisations have argued that 16 and 17-year-old males will be protected from the spread of AIDS and HIV because the reduction of the age of consent will be a safeguard for them--it will enable better sexual health advice to be given. The hon. Gentleman's point is completely fatuous.

Mr. Howarth: That is what we were told when the argument that the age of consent should be reduced from 21 to 18 was put to the House. We were told all the things that those wonderful organisations said and that a reduction would enable the proper advice to be given to children. In fact, that reduction has had the opposite effect. There has been an increase--I have the figures here, but I cannot lay my hands on them.

I say to the hon. Gentleman that, as far as I am concerned, any advice given by the Terrence Higgins Trust is 180 deg out. It is a most disreputable organisation and its literature is absolutely and utterly disgusting. When I was a Member of the House before, I campaigned to ensure that it did not receive a penny of public money. I believe that it now has to rely more on voluntary subscription and is not so readily able to dip into the taxpayer's pocket, in pursuit of producing its disgusting literature.

The protection of young people goes to the heart of what we are trying to achieve in wrestling with this matter. I refer to an article that appeared in The Sunday Times on 24 January, the day before the debate on Second Reading. It is by Melanie Phillips, who is an interesting and challenging commentator. She said of the Bill:

But not vicars, of course. Miss Phillips continues:

    "That itself was ludicrous, since it conceded that gay 16-year-olds were in effect still children to be protected from adult sex--but only sometimes."

That is the essence of the flaw in the case of those who argue for the measure and for the clause.

Those people are prepared to provide protection for children, but only in certain circumstances. The whole basis of their argument is therefore completely and utterly destroyed. If they felt that there was no need to protect children, they would not have acceded to the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), which, at the time, I supported. In doing that, those people have given the game away--the measure puts children and young boys more at risk and makes them more vulnerable. That is the effect that

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those people will have to live with. The charge will lie heavily on the shoulders of those who support the measure.

I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) said in his measured and interesting contribution. The contributions of those who support the measure have been permeated by the word "equality", and I want to deal with that in a moment. One of the arguments about equality, which was used during the debate on the amendments, is that, whereas young girls are not criminalised if they are abused under the age of 16, boys are criminalised. I welcome the fact that the Government are to consider that. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere argued a good case, and removing the criminality may lead to the better protection of children.

Mr. Swayne: Does not my hon. Friend recognise, however, that there is a severe danger of a creeping reduction in the age of consent? As the Bill stands, a boy under 16 who explored his sexuality and had consensual homosexual sex with a boy over 16 would be breaking the law and could be punished. From the way the debate on amendment No. 2 went, it appears that the Minister will address that issue. It may be possible for young men under 16 to go ahead and involve themselves in that sort of consensual activity--whereupon, in effect, no age of consent will apply at all.

Mr. Howarth: My hon. Friend and I are absolutely united: we do not believe in the reduction of the age of consent to 16. We believe that 18 is the right age. His point is whether it is an additional deterrent to those under 16 that they would be committing an offence by engaging in such activity.

The honest answer to my hon. Friend is that I am not sure. I have listened to the debate and I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere made an interesting point. It is certainly one that I am prepared to explore, but I want to explore it on the basis that I want to protect children. Those who support the measure want to make children more vulnerable. That is the difference, and we will have to return to it.

I do not want to take up too much more of the House's time, but I want to challenge this business of equality. The case of the Minister and those who support the measure is that, somehow, there is huge inequality and that--simply in the pursuit of equality and regardless of the facts, regardless of the medical evidence and regardless of the opinion polls--we have to lower the age of consent for boys from 18 to 16. That is not something that I accept.

I believe that there are differences between boys and girls. They grow up and mature at different ages. I also do not subscribe to the view that there is equality between heterosexual and homosexual intercourse. One is natural and ordained by the Almighty; the other is not. Those are fundamental and incontrovertible differences which render the whole argument about equality invalid from the start.

Moreover, if equality became the overriding principle in public policy, as is demanded by the gay rights groups, those who support the reduction of the age of consent would lay themselves open to the argument,

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with which they may agree, that there should be equality in everything else. Should there be equality in pensions? Should there be equality in terms of marriage, so that there could be homosexual marriages? That will be the next thing. Those who support the Bill have to answer this question: is this the end of the line or are they prepared to go further, as those in the militant gay rights outfits want? [Interruption.] Peter Tatchell is going off to Australia, which is good news.

Those who support the reduction of the age of consent, and argue that they are seeking to achieve equality, also have to answer the accusation that there are anomalies, even as the Bill stands. First, although the age of consent will be 16 for England, Wales and Scotland, it will 17 in Northern Ireland. Where is the equality there? Where is the consistency throughout the United Kingdom? Furthermore, anal intercourse with a 16-year-old girl will remain unlawful, but anal intercourse with a 16-year-old boy will become lawful.

Dr. Julian Lewis: If I understand my hon. Friend correctly, he thinks that anal intercourse with 16-year-old girls remains unlawful. The Bill permits anal intercourse with 16 and 17-year-old girls and boys, and exposes both equally to all the medical dangers of anal intercourse to which my hon. Friend has rightly drawn attention.

Mr. Howarth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that correction. As the Minister is not contradicting my hon. Friend, I must take it that he is absolutely right. If so, I thoroughly deplore that provision in the Bill. I am sorry that I was not aware of it.

Members of Parliament all have a grave responsibility to protect young people. I have outlined why this measure does not do that. The argument that we must strive for equality is not in itself sufficient justification for bringing about this momentous change, which does not command the support of the British people. It is out of step with public opinion and it threatens vulnerable boys. It will send out the wrong signals to a civilised society.

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