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Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, in spite of the fact that the noble Lord the Leader of the House was contemptuous of any contribution which I might make to this debate tonight, nevertheless I shall make it. There are some of us in the Labour Party who still believe in democratic debate and free speech. I am sorry that there were some murmurs of dissent from this side of the House. I always thought that we believed in democratic debate and free speech, and that is precisely what I intend to embark upon.

When this matter was debated in 1994, I took the view that the age of consent should be the age of majority. As the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, pointed out, that was the view taken by the Wolfenden Committee. I have not changed my mind since then. I believe that it is perfectly legitimate for the House of Commons to insert the amendment; but it is just as legitimate for this House--since it is the only second Chamber that we have--to disagree with that amendment. It is a democratic right under our constitution to do so. So it presents no constitutional problem at all. Bearing in mind that it was the result of a Back Bench Motion in the House of Commons and not a government Motion, it is legitimate for a Back Bench Motion in this House, as moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, to be carried in this House.

I wish to make one or two other points. I heard Ben Bradshaw this morning on the "Today" programme implying that this was a party political issue and that we were to discuss a Tory amendment and the Tories were against the lowering of the age of homosexual consent and the Labour Party was for it. This is not a party political issue. It is a cross-party political issue. There are people of both parties, and none, who take differing views on the amendment. Let us make no mistake about that. To suggest, as Mr. Bradshaw did, that the Motion of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, is a Tory attempt to throw out the Commons amendment is incorrect. As I say, it is supported by Members of all parties, and none. Indeed, it is not sensible of him, in the face of the large majority of people in the country who are against lowering the age of consent for homosexual acts, to suggest that it is only the Conservatives who speak for that large majority. That is not sensible in party political terms. I hope that my noble friends will take note of that.

It has also been suggested that the issue is only a religious issue. It is not. It is a moral issue which concerns all of us, religious or irreligious. I am not religious. However, I believe that it would be a mistake to agree to the amendment passed by the House of Commons.

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It is also suggested by those who favour lowering the age of consent that those who oppose it are homophobic. That is an insult to heterosexual people, the majority of whom do not want the Commons amendment carried. I am not homophobic in any way. I do not dislike or hate people of a different sexual orientation from the normal, so long as they are adult and know what they are doing. It is not a question of homophobia; it is a question of people having a differing view.

I believe that we should continue to protect young people between the ages of 16 and 18 from being seduced into what is undoubtedly an unnatural practice and one which may have an enormous and possibly detrimental effect on them for the rest of their lives. It is surely not unreasonable to be concerned about that. That does not mean that one is homophobic. My noble friend says, "Yes". It is not homophobic to want to protect young people between the ages of 16 and 18. I say it from my own experience. People who have a different sexual orientation from mine, if they are adult, are entitled to have that orientation and to practise it. That is my view, and it is the view of many others who support the noble Baroness, Lady Young.

Those who support the amendment say that they demand equality before the law for homosexual acts. But there is no equality between heterosexual and homosexual behaviour. One is the natural order of things; the other is not. Indeed, if nature had intended otherwise, it would undoubtedly have constructed the human body differently. It is young adolescents about whom we must be worried. We are sending them conflicting signals. On the one hand, sexual licence is being encouraged, and on the other there is increasing concern about rape, paedophilia and other sexual problems. The Commons amendment will only serve to confuse society even more, especially young people.

We must also ask: what is the next milestone? Is it to lower the age of consent to 14, or 12, or to what age? The case for lowering the age of consent for homosexual acts to 16 has not been made out beyond any shadow of doubt. Therefore, in my view the benefit of the doubt should be given to the continued protection of 16 to 18 year-olds. For that reason I shall support the amendment.

Baroness Anelay of St. Johns: My Lords, in speaking to this amendment and to the Motions of my three noble friends, I do not seek to persuade my noble friends or other noble Lords to vote in a specific manner. There is no party Whip on these Benches on this issue. It is a free vote. In that spirit, I shall not indicate my personal views.

In advance of speaking in this debate I explained my role to my three noble friends and gave them a copy of my speech. I believe that my task today is to attempt to assist your Lordships on a difficult matter of principle and practical politics. This issue makes us reach deep into our psyche. It makes us examine our views on morality and the manner in which we believe society should function.

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In considering the matter before the House, we have to weigh a number of different considerations before arriving at a decision. First, there is the point of principle. At what age do we believe it right for the criminal law to provide that it is lawful for homosexual men to have consenting sex in private? At present, the age is 18, and the new clause provides for that age to be 16.

Secondly, but closely allied, do we believe that it is right to provide for a different age of consent for heterosexuals and homosexuals? The new clause would provide for the homosexual age of consent to be the same as that for heterosexuals.

Some have argued that homosexual and lesbian practices are not another and an equivalent normality; that they are practices that are not only different from heterosexual behaviour, but should also not be ranked as equal or equivalent to it. Others argue that a belief in equality on this issue does not involve the recognition that all people are equal with each other--that the clause addresses equality before the criminal law.

Thirdly, there is the question of our treaty obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, soon to be enacted directly into British law, to which reference has been made. Our existing provisions were the subject of a report of the European Commission of Human Rights, adopted on 1st July last year, which allowed an application to the European Court of Human Rights from Euan Sutherland that the provisions were in breach of Article 8 of the convention relating to privacy when read together with Article 14 relating to discrimination. It is true that the report was fairly trenchant. It does not mean, of course, that the case would be decided that way if it came to court. Nevertheless, the Government then applied to stay all proceedings on the basis of an undertaking that they would provide for an early vote on the subject in Parliament or, failing that, that they would allow for a resolution in another place and for legislation before the end of the next session.

Fourthly, I believe that there is a wider point of legislative principle here. Should we legislate in order to try to change human behaviour, or should we legislate to try to regulate how we know--or perhaps how we think we know--that people will behave? This is the very judgment that we exercise each and every time we debate a new Bill or a new regulation in this House.

Fifthly, but closely allied to that judgment--it is a practical example of it--there is the question of public health, which many have raised tonight, in particular protecting the health of young people from sexually transmitted diseases, of which AIDS is the most deadly. Some argue that by reducing the age of consent one would encourage dangerous practices that could lead to AIDS. Others argue that, by taking homosexual practices out of the criminal law for those aged between 16 and 18, it would be possible to give further protection to young people by making it more possible to teach them how to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases.

Deep concerns have been expressed tonight about the situation of young people of the ages of 16 or 17 who may need protection from those who might exploit their

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vulnerability. My noble friend Lady Young referred in her opening speech to the fact that the Government have set up an interdepartmental group to deal with issues underlying such concerns. Can the Minster tonight give the House some details about the work of this group? For example, can he confirm that it will cover such issues as the definition of a position of trust, the scope of occupations to be covered and the definition of those who need to be protected? I look forward to the response by the Minister to the points raised by my noble friend Lady Young.

Finally, the House will be well aware of the vote in another place, which has already been mentioned. I do not believe that noble Lords are ever indifferent to what happens in another place, although they may differ in the weight that they choose to give to that vote in arriving at their decision tonight.

I began by making it clear that we on these Benches are not subject to any party Whip on this amendment. I said that I would attempt to be impartial in my review of the arguments. I hope that noble Lords will accept that I have made my best efforts to avoid partiality. In that spirit, when it comes to the vote, on this occasion I shall abstain.

9 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, there is a world outside. It is inhabited by the young, and the different live there. Many of them will read what your Lordships' have said with sad incredulity. Of course, we have a free vote on this matter. It was a free vote in the House of Commons: 363 to 129. If the point is raised that Mr. Joe Ashton's amendment was lost by only 40 votes, I say, "363 to 129".

Further, to his great credit--because I recognise the difficulties that there may have been for him-- Mr. Hague said on earlier occasions that he supported this proposition, as did Mr. Ashdown, and as did the Prime Minister.

I am grateful for the consideration that the noble Baroness has given me, because we have discussed these matters. I am also grateful to the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was good enough to talk about these matters, and to the noble Lord, Lord Rowallan. The noble Baroness said, "This is what good people want". Does the list of good people not include the right reverend Prelate, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, who spoke so movingly? Does it not include the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, a beacon of decency in this place? Does it not include the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the Family Planning Association, the Children's Rights Development Unit, the National Association of Probation Officers, the British Association of Social Workers, the Royal College of Nursing, the National Children's Bureau, Barnardos, the NSPCC and Save the Children? Are not all those organisations, which I have taken at random from a longer list, made up of good people who care? On these occasions honourable people can honourably disagree.

Perhaps I may say a personal word. My father was the headmaster of a church school in North Wales and a lay reader in the Church in Wales. I imagine

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I absorbed by osmosis the beliefs and, I daresay, the prejudices of that society and that age. But I changed my mind. I thought that I should not be ruled by past prejudice.

There is a moral imperative to the law or it has no virtue and it has no place with us. The moral imperative is equality before the law. It is a matter of pure indifference to me--I mean that literally--whether it is equality for children of 16, for women, for a black man trying to get work, for a Jew or for a Moslem. If that moral imperative fails because the social equation which is contended for tonight does not allow for it, so that equality dies and falls away, the whole purpose and virtue of law is gone and we shall no longer be a civil society.

We shall all reflect on what has been said with a good deal of passion and persuasive force. We shall read these debates in five years' time. I shall give a reminder of something that many of us will recognise. I started at the Bar, not before the flood, but in 1965. At that time it was a regular experience for us to see men, dragged to court for private sexual behaviour, treated with such cruelty that I can only remember it with abiding shame.

Let us remember that not only is there a world outside but that the world changes. Try to have a discussion with an intelligent, wilful child of 16 and see whether we can prescribe for such children, and wonder whether we ought to discriminate in this way.

This is not a flawed amendment. At the same time, we take our duty to vulnerable children seriously. Perhaps I may point out the bleak, implacable proposition. The criminal law presently gives no protection to a girl between 16 and 18 who is vulnerable; who may be preyed upon by an older man. We should not forget that. The purpose of this review--I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, who raised it--is to see whether or not we are fulfilling our obligations. I do not believe we are. There are girls in care between 16 and 18 who are subjected to heterosexual approach. There is no protection for them from the criminal law.

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