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Mr. Clappison: I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman has been with us throughout the debate, but several contributions have dealt with public opinion and we should take into account what the public have to say on this issue. This is not an occasion for party political points, and he has done the Committee no service by introducing such a note.

The hon. Member for Hallam spoke about criminalising young people, but he must accept that we are being called on to exercise a judgment. The criminal law has to apply at a certain age, and I believe that that should be 18 rather than 16.

We have heard many excellent speeches from Opposition Members on both sides of the argument. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who made an excellent speech, that the protection of young people should be of great concern and should go to the heart of what we are trying to do. He made the fair point that the clause takes away a certain amount of protection for 16 and 17-year-olds. We are trying, through our endeavours in the Standing Committee, to give young people protection from those who would abuse a position of trust. We have found that an extremely difficult task, and there may be more problems, but even those who support the clause must accept that it weakens the protection that is available.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) expressed characteristically honest and forceful views. He mentioned Oscar Wilde, and I shall certainly read with great interest the biography to which he referred. My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) was equally honest when he spoke about the need to protect young people and children. I agreed with him

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when he referred to the innocence of youth and childhood. Whatever the views of "Blue Peter" presenters these days, I seek to protect that innocence as much as possible. My hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire(Mr. Townend) expressed some forceful views that reflected a substantial element of public opinion.

I do not agree with the conclusions of my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward), but I recognise that he made an excellent, powerful speech which contained a great deal of reason and emotion. He has clearly done a great deal of research and he made a very considered speech. He was right to bring the evidence that he found to our attention. He rightly referred to the importance of the Wolfenden report and the changes that it brought about, ushering in the age of tolerance, but I believe, personally, that he would do well to reflect on what Wolfenden said about the age of consent.

Wolfenden fixed the age of consent at 21. The report also considered 16 and 18, and some members of the committee were in favour of 18, but the report made it very clear that people of 16 were too young and that young men were not mature enough at that age to engage in homosexual activity. I noted with great interest that, last June, the sole surviving member of the Wolfenden committee, Lord Mishcon, returned to the subject in an excellent debate in another place and once again said that 18, not 16, was the proper age. He still thought that, even in today's society, 16 was too young.

My hon. Friend the Member for Witney made a moving speech, quoting a letter about the pain and suffering experienced by someone as a result of his homosexuality. It is right to use such moving material and there is no doubt that the subject causes deep emotion and heartache in families, but all that feeling will not be altered one scrap by a reduction in the age of consent from 18 to 16. A person in that situation will still find it painful and harrowing to have to talk to members of his family on the subject, and families will still have problems coming to terms with it. Homosexual acts should not be illegal, but we should be extremely careful about the age of consent.

The letter illustrated the fact, also referred to by Wolfenden, that we are talking about a decision or experience for young people that will have a profound effect on them for the rest of their life. They should be protected from that decision until an appropriate age of maturity, and 16 is simply too young, as my hon. Friends the Members for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) and for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) said.

The majority of public opinion shares that view. People do not, by and large, dislike or fear homosexuals, although there may be some who are prejudiced and take that view. The large majority extend toleration and understanding to people of a homosexual disposition, but they still feel a deep sense of unease at the prospect of an age of consent at 16 rather than 18. They feel that, even though young people may grow up faster today, 16-year-olds are still far too young and need the protection of the law until they are 18. We must examine our consciences and ask whether we are doing right by our constituents and the young people of this country.

Mr. Boateng: This has been a long and wide-ranging debate. It has in many ways resembled a Second Reading

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debate, but, unlike the debate that we had at that stage, it has not always done us much credit. Bishops have been prayed in aid, Oscar Wilde has been traduced and every orifice has been explored. I do not intend to go down that path.

We have to recognise that this clause stand part debate is about one thing, and one thing only--the equalisation of the age of consent. It is not about the protection of children and vulnerable people. That is something which we have explored upstairs in Committee, and it is something to which the House rightly gave considerable attention on Second Reading and to which it will return on Report. We are talking about equalisation.

The points made by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) and the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) deserve attention. They spoke about the welfare of children and the protection of young people. The question that those who support them have not answered is how it serves a 16 or 17-year-old boy to criminalise him for the expression of his sexuality.

7.30 pm

Dr. Julian Lewis rose--

Mr. Boateng: No, I shall not give way.

That is the question that they have not been able to answer.

Dr. Lewis: Answer it now.

Mr. Boateng: The hon. Gentleman has had his say. They have not been able to answer that question because they must surely know that such a young person cannot be protected if he lives his life in fear, or if he, his doctor, the school nurse and all those who might have be concerned for his welfare are inhibited in meeting his needs by the fact that he stands in jeopardy before the criminal law. That is the point that we have been debating in our consideration of the Bill, and it is to that point that all hon. Members will need to turn their mind when they come to vote.

Mr. Brazier rose--

Mr. Boateng: I shall give way in due course.

It is a measure on which all Members will have an opportunity to exercise their vote freely. It is a measure to which all hon. Members will have to apply their judgment, and it is the judgment of those of us who support the clause that young people are better protected in the circumstances that we have outlined--by their being enabled freely to express their sexuality without fear of the intervention of the criminal law--than by being criminalised at the age of 16 and 17.

Mr. Brazier: I know that the Minister is deeply concerned about child abuse and the welfare of young people, but he slightly traduces my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) and me by suggesting that our focus is on criminalising young people. The issue is whether it is right for an older man to be able to introduce a 16 or 17-year-old to a homosexual life style to which he may be transitorily attracted.

Mr. Boateng: The issue is whether it is right to discriminate in those circumstances between heterosexual

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and homosexual acts. The concern of those of us who support the clause is not to do anything that would encourage 16 or 17-year-olds to have sex. That is not something which anyone seeks to encourage. Clearly, childhood needs to be protected and, where innocence can be protected, it should be. However, we do those young people no service by pretending that anything we do in relation to the criminal law will make one jot of difference to whether or not they engage in sexual activity. It will not. Young people of 16 and 17 will engage in sexual activity. Do we do them any favours by criminalising their actions? The view of those of us who support the clause is that we do no such thing.

The clause is not to be viewed in the way that those who oppose it have on occasions described it. The clause is not a surrender to teenage carnality; it is, however, about recognising the importance of fairness and equality and about making sure, as we have elsewhere in the Bill, that those who have a special relationship of trust with 16 and 17-year-olds, with children and young people, should respect that trust or should face the full sanction of the criminal law. However, that is separate from the matters that we are considering, and hon. Members do no favours to anyone by merging the two. They are quite distinct.

To suggest that people of a homosexual orientation are somehow more likely than not to be predators is to traduce people with a homosexual orientation. It is also to misunderstand and misinterpret all the evidence available to us about the incidence of abuse of children, which shows clearly and beyond any doubt that it is not possible to say that homosexuals are more likely than heterosexuals to abuse children. The message that we have to send out is that abuse, whether heterosexual or homosexual, is abuse and that it will result in the full weight of the law being brought to bear on those who perpetrate it.

It is quite wrong to suggest that those who will tonight vote for equality are somehow soft on child abuse. That is a wicked calumny, and does those Opposition Members who make that suggestion no favours. It is equally wrong to suggest that those who vote in favour of equality do so because they are the prisoners of a homosexual agenda, and that their next agenda will be geared towards homosexual marriage or the lowering still further of the age of consent. Let me make it absolutely clear that the Government will have no truck with any suggestion that the homosexual or heterosexual age of consent should be lowered to 14. That is simply not part of our agenda or any agenda, and it is wrong to suggest otherwise.

When we go into the Lobbies, let us be very clear about what we are voting on. We are voting on an issue of equality, on whether we believe that it is right to criminalise 16 or 17-year-old boys because they are expressing a homosexual orientation. If hon. Members believe that it is right to do that, they will vote against the proposition that there should be equality between the age of consent for heterosexual and homosexual acts. If, however, hon. Members believe that it is right to respect people's differences and that it is right and proper to ensure that the law is equal as between all people, they will vote for the clause.

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