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Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): I suspect that there is a sense of exhaustion in the debate, as this is the third time that we have debated the issue. The first time was last year, at the Committee stage of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998; the second time was in the debate on this Bill's Second Reading; and the third is today. I have no intention of repeating what I said in the Second Reading debate, but shall content myself with making one point, on the protection of children.

I should have hoped--the whole Committee should hope, as it is a rather sensitive matter--that, by the end of this week, we could stop arguing about the issue. However, I fear that the Bill's passage will not be the end of it, as those who promoted the Bill will come back again and again--until they have achieved full equality between heterosexual and homosexual practice, achieved the repeal of clause 28 and ensured that both practices are taught, with equal validity, in our schools. I fear that this is only the start of the debate. However, hon. Members should be concerned primarily not with ourselves, but with the protection of young people--including 16 and 17-year-old children, and particularly very young men.

The Home Office recently published a report on sexual offences against children--to which the Minister of State, Home Office provided a foreword, and which I quoted yesterday in Standing Committee. Unsurprisingly, the report found that only 5 per cent. of sexual offences

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against children were committed by women. The report makes it clear that boys and girls are much more at risk from men than from women. However, we did not need a report to tell us that. Whatever people might say about equality between the sexes, there is no equality between men and women on that issue. We are talking almost exclusively about men when we talk about abusers.

The Home Office report tells us that most abusers abuse girls. That is what one would expect, as the population is overwhelmingly heterosexual. The report finds that 60 to 70 per cent. of child molesters abuse girls. The implication of the Minister's remarks in Committee was that those who believe that boys are at risk from homosexual men need not worry because of the statistics. However, the Home Office says that 20 to 33 per cent. of abusers target only boys. That is a staggeringly high proportion. I accept that some of those who target boys will be women, but the report points out that almost all abusers are men. Up to a third of abusers target boys.

No one has ever suggested that a third of men are homosexual. Academic studies vary, but the Office for National Statistics has said that 1 per cent. of men say that they have only ever had homosexual sex. The supporters of the Bill may believe that a figure of 1 per cent. of the population being homosexual is far too low, but even if that were completely wrong--even if it were 2 or 3 per cent.--how could we have a situation where 1 per cent., 2 per cent. or slightly more men are homosexual, but where they apparently make up more than 30 per cent. of child molesters? This is not prejudice--that is taken from the Home Office report.

Suppose the exact figure for abuse was 15 per cent. That would mean that boys were 15 times more likely to be abused by a man than a woman. If the Bill is enacted, we will be ensuring that more boys are abused and damaged for life.

Mr. Woodward: I remind my hon. Friend that we are talking about relationships between consenting adults. I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend has looked for evidence, but the Bill is dealing with relationships between two consenting people. Child abuse, the abuse of young people, indecent assault or rape will remain crimes, and are not relevant to the Bill.

Mr. Leigh: I am afraid that they are relevant. My hon. Friend made a long and passionate speech, the purport of which appeared to be that 16-year-olds were adults. They may be adults in bodily form, but in many ways--emotionally and psychologically--they are still children. In many respects, they are still children legally. They cannot vote and they cannot be asked to die for their country. If the Committee is primarily concerned with protecting boys between the ages of 16 and 18--as it should be--it is taking a retrograde step tonight.

The abuse of trust proposals in the Bill are only a fig leaf because they will not apply to youth workers, vicars and occasional supply teachers--all those people who will come into contact with young people. That is my concern.

In conclusion, I accept that, in this world, we are all different. Many people are homosexual, and we recognise that. It would be lovely if we were all Conservatives and heterosexuals. It would be lovely if there were no crime or divorce. However, we must show understanding and compassion to those who do not share our views or way

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of life--including those who are homosexual. We reject homophobia, hatred and prejudice as passionately as my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward). However, we must believe that Parliament has a right and a duty to stand up for something that is right and pure.

We are not just talking about gratification; sex is not about that. Sex is about raising children in the context of a loving family. So much of the debate on homosexuality is fundamentally sterile in that sense. It is not just that it can be an unhealthy activity; it is not just that it is an offence against many people's religious convictions. We believe that we are sending tonight the wrong message to a society which, again and again in opinion polls, has said that it does not approve of what we are doing. I hope that we will vote against the clause and the Bill in increased numbers.

7.15 pm

Dr. Harris: I rise briefly to say that I firmly support the clause. I wish to respond to one of the several points made by Conservative Members to which I was tempted to respond. The allegation that homosexuals are sex offenders in the main or in the minority cannot be sustained. As the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward) said, it is not the case that when talking about consenting acts, we are talking somehow about child abuse or sexual abuse. It may well be that a large proportion, but not a majority, of offences are directed against boys, but those are not by homosexuals necessarily. It is not a heterosexual act or a homosexual act to abuse someone--it is an abusive act. The distinction must be recognised.

Although I warmly welcome the clause--and thank the Government for proposing it--it would make it much easier to defend the gay community against bigoted allegations of child abuse and sex abuse if amendments to sex offenders legislation could be made, within the Bill, to ensure that those offences that are no longer criminal are removed from the legislation on sex offenders requiring registration. I hope that the Minister will think again on that subject, so that, on Third Reading, we can have a Bill--including this clause--that is complete and fair.

Mr. Clappison: As has been made abundantly clear, this matter will be the subject of a free vote, and I welcome the opportunity to make my personal contribution to the debate. I do so with a certain caution, because it is not in my nature to lecture people on how they should run their lives. I always exercise great caution in making such statements. However, on a subject of great public importance such as this, we owe it to our constituents to set out our views.

I have the opportunity to set out my views against the background of what I believe has been a very good debate. On such a subject, we owe it to our constituents to listen to the views of others with a certain amount of tolerance, and to listen to both sides of the argument. We have heard good speeches on both sides of the argument from both sides of the House. That has been of benefit. However, we must exercise a certain tolerance when listening to the views of others.

As my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) observed, we have heard only one speech from the Labour Benches. It was a good, pertinent and

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passionate speech from the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen)--albeit a short one--although I did not agree with it. She serves on the Committee, and I had been looking forward to hearing rather more of the views of other Labour Members who serve on the Committee this evening. That pleasure has been further delayed for me.

I did not agree with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), but he has been consistent and he made his remarks forcefully. However, there was a certain element of self-destruction in his exchange with his hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris). The hon. Member for Hallam got it completely wrong when he dismissed the opinion poll evidence which shows that the majority of the public are opposed to a reduction of the age of consent by saying that, in opinion polls, people are expressing their view about homosexuality, not the age of consent. However, the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon said that all the evidence is that the public do not think that homosexuals are inferior. I agree with that, but it cannot be reconciled with the statement from the hon. Member for Hallam, who got it wrong. The public do not think that homosexuals are inferior, but they have a sense of unease about reducing the age of consent still further, from 18 to 16. We have to exercise our judgment on the age at which the criminal law should apply.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): I wonder whether it is altogether wise at present for a Conservative Front Bencher to rest his case on opinion polls.

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