Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Robathan: My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech, but a lot of it is based on assumptions with which I do not agree. He talks about 16-year-olds committing suicide. I do not know how many have done so, but the issue for most Conserative Members--and, indeed, for Members throughout the House--who oppose the clause is not about two 16-year-old boys; it is about older men and 16 and 17-year-old boys. That is a fact. I do not mind what two 16-year-old boys get up to. What I am worried about is 40-year-old men and 16-year-old boys.

Mr. Woodward: I will come to the points that my hon. Friend makes in a moment or two.

I do not dispute the fact that some young people who have a homosexual relationship at 17 may go on to have relationships with the opposite sex in later years. That is a matter for them. In so doing, they will enjoy the wonderful experience of having children, but the majority who enjoy a heterosexual life must look closely in their hearts at the consequence of imposing their chosen way of life on those for whom that is either not possible or not desirable. What right does one group, albeit a majority, have to make a misery and a criminal offence of what may be a loving, caring relationship between two people who just happen to be of the same sex? I cannot find it intellectually right and I cannot find it in my heart to be right. It is not compassionate, tolerant, just or based on evidence.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) spoke about passion. Passion is an important friend for the politician, but it is also a dangerous friend. It can blind us to the arguments and the evidence and, indeed, lead us to ignore it.

10 Feb 1999 : Column 368

My hon. Friend said that the measure would expand the scope for abuse of young boys. We are not talking of young boys. We are talking of people whom the law allows legally to father a child and to take the responsibility of parenthood. We are talking of young men. We may be talking of abuse, but I remind my hon. Friend that if we want to deal with abuse, we should not be talking about the relationship between older men and younger boys. By and large, the majority of abuse is not committed by older men on younger boys. It is committed by randy old men in various areas throughout the country who chase after young girls. I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) is not proposing legislation or amendments to the Bill to rectify that.

The current law makes it harder for young men who are abused. It is important to recognise abuse. The current law makes it harder for young men who are abused between the ages of 16 and 18 because, in reporting their abuse, they render themselves open to prosecution.

6.45 pm

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot had words to say about the Terrence Higgins Trust. I disagree profoundly with him. His words were injudicious.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Woodward: I will give way in a moment. My hon. Friend has had his say on the trust.

The work that the trust, Crusaid, Stonewall and other organisations have done has saved lives and encouraged people to enjoy loving, caring relationships. It does not reflect well on the House to undermine their work not only to save people who have HIV, to help them to lead longer and better lives and to ensure that they do not spread that disease, but, crucially, to stop people getting the illness in the first place. If only the heterosexual community had been as sensible and had raised the money to set up such organisations, far fewer heterosexual people would have HIV and AIDS. As a result of the work of organisations such as the Terrence Higgins Trust, fewer homosexuals have the disease.

My hon. Friends the Members for East Yorkshire (Mr. Townend) and for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) talked of the Bill being the thin end of the wedge and said that efforts would be made to lower the age of consent even further. No hon. Member makes the case for lowering the age of consent even further. That is not part of clause 1. It is, in itself, a valid discussion. I personally would not support--through the Bill or any other way--lowering for either heterosexuals or homosexuals the age of consent below 16, but that is not relevant to the clause or the Bill. It is yet another distraction.

I have received a number of letters from the public on the Bill, particularly following the previous debate. There is one that I should like briefly to quote. I do so for one simple reason. When I worked in television and was editor of "That's Life", we found that, by and large, if we went to the people who were affected--the people who suffer because of the way in which the law currently stands--we stood to learn a lot.

The letter tells me that it is far from the case that homosexual people enjoy only sterile relationships. It does not come from a lobby group. It is not the expression

10 Feb 1999 : Column 369

of a militant individual. It is from a member of our society, our community, our country who happens to be homosexual. He says:

    "As a gay man now in my late 30s I can still remember how terrified and isolated I felt about my burgeoning sexuality during my teenage years. My discovery from the dictionary that my feelings could be defined as homosexuality and later that such activity had been decriminalised from the age of 21 gave me some hope that I was not totally alone in the world. However the '67 legislation, ground breaking though it was then, felt more like the grudging acceptance of an adult male perversion than any positive affirmation of the adult I was to become. It was meant to. Those that meant it then and those that wish to perpetuate the status quo now have excluded us from society and then heaped criticism upon us for being unconventional. We are forced into life styles with which we are not always happy and then judged for it.

    It is often said . . . that homosexuality breaks down the nuclear family. It is prejudice against homosexuality which does that. We are products of the nuclear family and many of us wish to remain within its bounds of love and protection but are prevented from doing so by the perpetuation of the atmosphere of hate and prejudice by these people."

He goes on to say that, in 1978, at the age of 18, he told his parents of his sexuality:

    "I thank God that my parents fought their fears and prejudices and I remain a loved and loving son, brother, uncle and godfather. My family would prefer I were heterosexual but they have totally accepted who I am and I remain as active a member of my family as anyone else within it. I know very many others for whom the same is not true. The fear and prejudice of their families strengthened by that of society and enshrined in the law has resulted in their total exclusion from the family circle. Many others cannot even bear to tell their parents. Their self esteem is so low and their fear of rejection so great that they cannot begin to imagine that the people who should love them most could ever accept them.

    They leave home and disappear into self imposed exile for ever leaving behind an often bewildered and shattered family . . . Young families are often blown apart in such ways with damaging consequences for the adult, the children, the wider families and society as a whole." That letter says more than anything else about why we should ensure that the clause stands part of the Bill. The pain and suffering of younger people mean that we should listen to them and that we are duty bound do something about it.

This is an opportunity for Parliament to do something good. It may not have majority support in the country at the moment, but we should remember that we are in a majority heterosexual community. We are not inviting people, as a consequence of the Bill, to take up homosexual activities; we are simply ensuring that certain individuals can have loving, caring relationships with people who happen to be of the same sex. There may be some present who do not like it and that is their prerogative, but the House has no right to discriminate because there is no evidence to suggest that young people will be better protected if we leave the law as it is.

I do not believe that changing the law will send the wrong signals to a civilised society. In fact, Parliament doing the good thing tonight will help to civilise our society. I hope that hon. Members will choose to do that rather than leave in place a law that is patently, evidently and fundamentally unjust.

Ann Keen (Brentford and Isleworth): I am honoured to follow the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward). Like many of my hon. Friends, I totally associate myself

10 Feb 1999 : Column 370

with his entire speech. However, it is also important to put on record the manner and style of speeches by Opposition Members. Some expressed concern, but others showed blatant prejudice.

We must take into account the important work of organisations that care for young people, and have taken the Bill and the original amendment very seriously. The British Medical Association and my own profession of nursing have been involved in serious work for a long time, bringing together all the organisations that care for young people. They are now asking our democratically elected Parliament to take their views seriously. On another occasion, I should like to ask Opposition Members why they feel that they have more wisdom than those organisations.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ann Keen: No. I am making only a short speech. The hon. Gentleman has already contributed to the debate.

Families involved with all young people in our community are equally important. Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers of lesbian and gay young people. In addition to coming to the House, they have also put their case to the wider media--on television and radio and in the newspapers--and for the first time they are being heard. There is a great deal of ignorance which breeds fear, and many brave people have been putting the case not just for equality, but for humanity. I fear that tonight, this place has let them down, but I am pleased to associate myself with the hon. Members who have stood shoulder to shoulder and said that it is now time for justice, equality, humanity, safety and the protection of our young people.

Next Section

IndexHome Page