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Mr. Shaun Woodward (Witney): Yet again, we have heard arguments against the clause. Significantly, but perhaps not surprisingly, many of them have been made by Conservative Members. It is right that hon. Members should express their views, which I believe are deeply held and genuinely felt. However, clause 1 is not about sex tourists, paedophiles, the exoticism of Neapolitan boys or political correctness. It is about the ability of young men to enjoy the same freedom as young girls. It is about decriminalising activity between two consenting young adults. Under the current law, their crime is not that they have strong feelings, but that they happen to be homosexual.

My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West(Mr. Swayne) referred to sterile relationships. My wife and I have homosexual friends whose relationships are not sterile: they enjoy relationships that are as loving and caring as any between two people who happen to be heterosexual rather than homosexual. I think it monstrously unfair to suggest that relationships between two people of the same sex can only be sterile.

6.30 pm

Mr. Gerald Howarth: Can my hon. Friend tell us, on the basis of his research, the average length of such relationships? I understand that they tend not to last very long. Can my hon. Friend also tell us something about what happens within such relationships when an element of promiscuity is involved?

Mr. Woodward: I will not detain the Committee by making a detour from my speech. I merely say to my hon. Friend that, in my view, we do no favours to ourselves or anyone listening to the debate by describing relationships between people of the same sex as though they were inferior to relationships between heterosexuals.

Many heterosexuals could learn from the precautions--safer sex, and the prevention of transmission of HIV--that the homosexual community has introduced. I do not suggest that my hon. Friend takes such a view, but, if some people were not so bigoted and hypocritical, more heterosexual people would be alive today. They would understand that AIDS is not a homosexual disease, but an illness that passes from one person to another as a result of unsafe sexual practices.

Dr. Harris: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his wise words. I assure him that, although he may feel

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outnumbered on the Conservative Benches, when the public are asked whether they think that homosexual behaviour is morally inferior to heterosexual behaviour, the more popular view is that it is not.

Mr. Woodward: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

Tonight, we are discussing whether the present law is wrong. I believe that it is. We are discussing whether the present law is intolerant. I believe that it is. We are discussing whether it is without compassion. I believe that it is. We are also discussing whether we will allow two people of the same sex to enjoy a relationship that is loving, not criminal. That is why I think it right for Parliament to change the law tonight.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) described the protection of those aged between 16 and 18 as an acid test. He said that the Committee must be convinced that they would not be put at more risk. I ask him of what risk he speaks, and what evidence he has to support what he says. Those who evaluate the risk--organisations that work in child protection, such as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Barnardos, Childline, the Children's Society and countless others--tell us that the risk lies in leaving children unprotected, and that the current law does not protect them.

Those organisations believe that protection is the central issue. It is because of the work that they have done that I, at least, have decided that it is right to lower the age of consent. I ask hon. Members who believe that the law should be left as it stands whether they have asked those organisations for their evidence. I suspect--this is not a criticism, but an observation--that many of my hon. Friends have continued to peddle a view which, although they hold it deeply and passionately, is not based on evidence for which they could have asked.

Mr. Christopher Fraser (Mid-Dorset and North Poole): Does my hon. Friend accept that some homosexuals in the community believe that the age of consent for homosexuals should remain as it is?

Mr. Woodward: No doubt some members of the homosexual community believe that the age of consent should stay at 18, but the evidence from those involved in the argument about protection--the issue raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield--suggests overwhelmingly that protection will be better served by a lowering of the age of consent. That is a different issue from that of the views of some homosexuals about the age at which they should be allowed to practise a loving relationship, or a relationship with someone else.

Mr. Brazier: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again. He asked whether we had studied the evidence. I have worked extensively with the NSPCC on other matters, and have examined its evidence as well as that of others. I find evidence from such organisations unconvincing because of the overwhelming medical evidence from studies--most conducted abroad, although some have been conducted in this country--of thehuge medical risks involved in the homosexual life style.

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An example is the incidence of venereal disease in the 50 states of America. There is an almost direct correlation between the incidence of venereal disease and the law on homosexuality, which varies hugely between states.

Mr. Woodward: As always, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I say merely that I will not set myself above the British Medical Association; I will rely on doctors here who tell us that we would protect young people better by changing the age of consent to 16.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield spoke of the duty to provide the maximum protection for young people. I could not agree more. It is because of that duty that I believe we should hear what the experts tell us, and then apply what we have heard and lower the age of consent. My right hon. Friend referred to the proposition that the public have a right to be heard. He made an important comparison, which was also made on Second Reading: he drew a parallel with the slave trade of the 18th century.

I raised that issue because, in that instance, the House had to debate a great moral issue and, ultimately, to take action that, at the time, probably did not have much public support. I believe that, when we look at the changes that were introduced post-Wolfenden, we will see that Parliament did the right thing, and that public opinion has moved in the direction in which Parliament moved when it changed the law.

My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East(Dr. Lewis) defended his position, rather eloquently, by saying that slavery involved adults and that this issue involved children. There is a danger in that argument, which is caused by double standards. The law allows a young man of 16 to be a father. What greater duty can any young man have than to be responsible for the life of a child?

Dr. Julian Lewis: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Woodward: No, I will not.

Anyone who has a child--I have four--knows about the burden of responsibility involved in bringing up children, but the law allows someone of 16 to do so.

My hon. Friends talk about the need to listen to the public. That means listening to parents, but it also means listening to children and young people. I was the deputy director of Childline for nearly 10 years. Before Childline existed, it was thought that sexual abuse did not happen very much, that it probably happened among the working classes, and that, by and large, it was not a great problem. That was a serious mistake, which resulted from only one group of the public being listened to--adults and, from time to time, the unfortunate children who ended up in court having to be witnesses in cases against those who had sexually abused them. Childline brought about a fundamental change. It brought about the recognition that children and young people have a right to be heard.

It would be grossly impertinent for the Committee to suggest that the will of a heterosexual majority should determine that we do not listen to the voices of young men and women who happen to be in a minority because they are homosexual. Childline listened to those young people, and has done a great deal to change the environment in which sexual abuse has been able to operate. That brings me to the importance of listening

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to organisations that work with young people. They tell us that the current law is wrong, because they listen to those young people. They tell us that the law fails to protect; they tell us that, in some cases, it hurts; and they tell us that it leads some young people who are desperate to take their own lives. We have a duty in the House to listen to that evidence, too--to listen not only to the evidence of our prejudices and of the majority heterosexual community, but to those young people and the organisations that work with them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury(Mr. Brazier) asked us to focus on whether homosexuality is a matter of choice, or is pre-ordained. There is no question but that that is an interesting scientific debate, which will go on and on and runs the risk of leading the House into a cul de sac for one simple reason. The issue in the clause is not what makes people homosexual. It is whether someone who is recognised by the law as old enough legally to father a child and to take the responsibility of parenthood should, because they have a homosexual relationship, run the risk of a criminal prosecution.

For socialists, it is an issue of equality and I respect that, but a Conservative should ask: why should we deny a homosexual young male his freedom when we are prepared to give it to a young woman? Why, because he practises his sexuality, often in a loving relationship, with someone of the same sex, should that be criminalised? Crucially, where is the evidence that supports the argument that young people are better protected by criminalising the activities of their early adult years?

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