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Lord Steel of Aikwood: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness. Perhaps she would reflect for a second on the law in Scotland, where a 16 year-old boy can have not only a sexual relationship but can then turn to a lifelong contract of marriage without parental consent. However, if that same 16 year-old man goes to bed with a person of the same sex, he is branded as a criminal. How then does the law equal justice, or morality, or even common sense?

Baroness Young: My Lords, as a mere Englishwoman, I never like to comment on the situation in Scotland, with which--I shall be perfectly honest--I am not familiar. But I advise the noble Lord, Lord Steel, that Scotland will have plenty of opportunities with its new Parliament to settle what it wants to do on this issue.

To continue, a lowering of the age of consent will lead to the demand to lower it still further. In 1994 we debated, and Parliament agreed, the lowering of the age from 21 to 18. Five years later the demand is to lower the age to 16. This is the thin end of the wedge. If one looks at the programme that Stonewall has set out, it seeks the repeal of Clause 28, gay "marriage" and the right for gay and lesbian couples to foster and adopt children.

Let me turn to the evidence of opinion polls. They show, quite consistently, that the public do not want the age lowered. A Gallup poll, taken after the vote in your Lordships' House last July, found that 59 per cent. believed that the House of Lords was right to overturn the Commons' decision. The same poll found that 65 per cent. of the population thought

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that the age should remain at 18. In this way, the House of Lords has reflected public opinion much more accurately than the House of Commons.

Let me now comment on the poll which appears in The Times today. Perhaps at this point I should say that I have seldom been more flattered in my entire political life than I have been by the advertisement in The Times so helpfully put out by Stonewall. I had no idea that I enjoyed such an elevated position. It will be read with astonishment by my family. I shall certainly have the advertisement framed and hung on my wall, to be shown with great pride to every single one of my visitors.

However, let me return to the points that Stonewall makes about the poll, which I believe to be completely inaccurate. The poll was taken by NOP, and I have taken the opportunity to read its findings precisely. The first question asked was, "Do you believe in equality in the age of consent?" Sixty-six per cent. said that they wanted an equal age of consent. It was then claimed that 66 per cent. of people want equality at 16. But that claim is not true. Question two--asked only of the 66 per cent. who answered question one--revealed that only 37 per cent. of the total population want the age of consent at 16 or lower. That simply confirms what the other public opinion polls have been saying. It is quite wrong to put out this grossly misleading information.

Earl Russell: My Lords, as the noble Baroness has introduced the poll, will she also quote the findings of question three?

Baroness Young: Yes, my Lords. As to the findings on question three, respondents were asked to say whether they accepted the new proposals with the package on abuse of trust. But, of course, the question did not set out what the package contains nor did it explain--as I shall later make clear--that the abuse of trust clauses are very weak indeed.

There are also very great health risks. Many can speak with greater authority than I on this but, like most of your Lordships, I view the matter very seriously indeed. Both teenage boys and girls will now be exposed to all the risks of anal intercourse; they will be far more likely to run the risk of AIDS. It is very interesting that, so seriously is this matter regarded, that any man who has ever engaged in homosexual activity is barred permanently from giving blood by the National Health Service.

I could continue on the issue of principle but, before concluding, I wish to comment on three major issues. The first was touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Williams. As I am only too well aware, all the major children's charities--the NSPCC, Save the Children, Barnados, and Childline--as well as the BMA are in favour of lowering the age of consent. I find it extraordinary that, with the notable exception of the BMA, which sent me a brief, none of these charities has been in touch with me at all. They have neither sent a brief nor have they asked to see me to

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discuss any of these matters in private. But perhaps I may answer some the points which have been raised in the briefings that I have seen.

First, in practice, young people under the age of 16 can go to the doctor and receive confidential advice, and are already doing so. In fact, government research has shown that lack of advice is not an issue in this. Secondly, education about HIV is compulsory in all schools, although parents have the right to withdraw their children from such classes if they so wish. Thirdly, bullying, for whatever cause, is always wrong and is something with which good schools should deal. Fourthly, the BMA should know that when the age of consent was lowered from 21 to 18, HIV infections acquired through sex between men rose by 11 per cent. from 1995 to 1996. I cannot think why it is therefore advocating lowering the age still further.

Let me return to the children's charities. Like many of your Lordships, I have been deeply distressed and concerned that they should support the cause of lowering the age. I do not intend to give a kind of autobiographical sketch of what I have done to help most of these charities at some stage of my life. I find it quite extraordinary that they should take this view. It may, however, come as a complete surprise to your Lordships--as, indeed, it did to me--to know that two children's charities, Barnados and NCH, have a long-standing policy of allowing a homosexual or a lesbian to adopt children. The NSPCC does not take part in adoptions--it does not care for children in that way--but it is quite prepared to give legal advice and help on this matter.

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. I have a long-standing association with NCH Action for Children. Did the noble Baroness make any attempt to speak to the charities she has mentioned in relation to the issues about which she expresses such concern?

Baroness Young: My Lords, I have made it perfectly clear that the charities have not been in touch with me. I have a letter, which I am prepared to show later to the noble Baroness, in which they set out their position in writing.

When one sees in the advertisement that they support equality, one should make it quite clear that all these organisations are supporting the Stonewall programme which, as I have already indicated, it has set out and intends to carry out.

When the noble Lord, Lord Williams, comes to wind up at the end of the debate, I should like him to tell me the view of the Government on this matter. Let me refer to what Mr. Stuart Bell asked the Home Secretary on 25th January 1999 during the Second Reading of the Bill in another place. Mr. Bell said:

    "Does he recall"-- that is, the Home Secretary--

    "the letter that he wrote to me over the summer in which he gave a firm and clear statement of Government policy--that there would be no reduction in the age of consent to 14 for homosexual

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    acts in our country, that no legalisation of homosexual marriages would be proposed by the Government, and that there would be no legal adoption of children by homosexual couples?". The Home Secretary replied:

    "I can give my hon. Friend the undertakings that he seeks in respect of each of those propositions. We have no plans whatever to introduce legislation in respect of any of them".--[Official Report, Commons, 25/1/99; col. 22.] That seems to me to indicate that whatever the Government may say about equality, they do not believe in equality in all matters in this case, only with regard to the age of consent. The Government should make this clear when they use equality as the central plank of the argument.

That brings me directly to the issue of equality and in particular to the position in the European Union. We have heard it said a great deal that we shall be out of step with other countries. However, the age of consent will not even be equal throughout the United Kingdom, as it will be 17 in Ireland. Within the EU, the age of homosexual consent ranges from 12 in Spain to 18 in Austria, Luxembourg, Portugal as well as in the UK. In Luxembourg, the heterosexual age of consent is 16 and the homosexual age is 18; in Austria, the heterosexual age is 14 and the homosexual age is 18. So there is a great deal of variation within the European Union.

The third point with which I wish to deal briefly is the question of the European Court. We are constantly told that we must lower the age of consent because the European Court has issued a judgment to that effect. In fact the case on which that statement is based, Sutherland v. United Kingdom, has not been heard by the European Court. The filtering body, the European Commission on Human Rights, issued an advisory opinion, but that opinion is not binding on the court. So in fact that argument is not relevant to the issue.

I have thought hard and long over this matter and I have listened to a great deal of advice. I have met representatives of Stonewall, mothers of gay sons and representatives of young gays and lesbians, and I have listened carefully to their views. But at the end of the day I believe that in public life one must stand up for those things which one believes to be right and believes to be true and I would be failing in my duty if I did not do so. I believe that in voting against the Second Reading of this Bill we shall be supporting and helping young people; we shall be supporting and helping good and responsible parents; we shall be supporting the institution of marriage, which is under threat and is causing a great deal of the breakdown of society as we see it today; and, above all, we shall be reflecting what the public want.

Moved, as an amendment to the Motion that the Bill be now read a second time, to leave out ("now") and at end insert ("this day six months").--[Baroness Young.]

5.2 p.m.

Earl Russell: My Lords, before I turn to the amendment, I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, on his elevation to the Privy Council. I only wish that all the delays in our proceedings resulted from so pleasurable, so just and so honourable a cause to this House. I should like also to

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congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Young, on the integrity, determination and persistence with which she stands up for what she believes in. She knows that I intend to do the same, and though what we believe is not the same we share a common respect for that determination in each other. Nothing I intend to say will in any way be intended to contradict that.

This Bill is for us a free vote Bill, so in saying I support the Bill any arguments I put forward will derive any such force as they may have entirely from their persuasive power and not from any authority derived from my party.

I support the principle of an equal age of consent. I am glad that Clause 2 is in the Bill. I was more than a little amazed to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Young, say that there would be no point in having Clause 2 in the Bill if there were not to be an equal age of consent. I am not as indifferent to the protection of young girls as that point made her sound--young girls become pregnant; homosexuals do not. I must confess that I found that a rather disturbing remark. But I do not intend to dwell on Clause 2. That is a Committee point. I am glad that the clause is in the Bill. I am not certain that it is absolutely in a correct form. If we reach Committee, I hope that the Minister will be prepared to discuss it in his office with interested parties. If we do not reach Committee, I hope that the Minister may continue to review it in the course of the review of sexual offences.

This Bill will become law. The only question is whether it becomes law this year or next year; not sometime or never, but only this year or next year. The amendment put down by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, would drive the Government to the use of the Parliament Acts only for the sixth time since 1911. I was interested to see the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal affirm in this morning's newspaper that that is the Government's intention. I entirely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Young, that she has every right to do what she has done, but not everything that one has a right to do is something it is expedient that one should do. So I want to ask her this question. What useful purpose will it serve should she press the amendment to a Division and should she prove to be victorious?

It is a little unusual to have the Parliament Acts invoked against a measure which enjoyed a majority in another place larger than that enjoyed by the Government. It is a little unusual to have the Parliament Acts invoked to push through a measure supported by all three of our party leaders. That does not necessarily make what she is doing wrong, but it means that she needs to have a really good argument to justify the expediency of what she is doing. So I ask her this question: what good will it do?

At present, under the law which this Bill would change, prosecutions every year are only in single figures. I do not believe that the noble Baroness wishes to change that. I do not believe that she wishes to see large numbers of male homosexual teenagers sent to prison. It is not in fact a very useful thing to do. Sending

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male homosexuals to prison has been described as being like sending an alcoholic to work in a brewery. The deterrent effect is not entirely obvious.

The noble Baroness says that her purpose is to send a signal. But what will the effects of that signal actually be? In discussing what I believe will be the effects of her signal, I am not for one moment suggesting that the noble Baroness wishes or intends those effects. I am suggesting that those are actually what the effects of her actions would be should she persist and should she be successful.

First, it would impose secrecy on all teenage homosexuals for the remaining period of seven months or so before the Bill becomes law. It is extremely difficult to live a responsible and careful sex life if one has to do it strictly in private and surreptitiously. Responsible behaviour is behaviour for which one may answer in public. Perhaps I may give an illustration from a quite different context. When the University of Oxford passed a measure allowing Fellows to marry, the next morning on Oxford station platform, waiting for the train to come in from London, large numbers of Dons looked at the people next to them and said, "What, you too?" It would have been much easier for those people to live good and responsible loving lives had they been able to do so openly.

If we want to think about the effect that the amendment may have on homosexuals, we need only consider one of the literary classics of the 20th century, Matthew Parris's Clapham Common column. Driving people to that sort of surreptitious behaviour is not useful.

I do not believe that if the noble Baroness is successful there will be one fewer homosexual in the whole country. It is quite a long time since I was 16, but I can still remember it. If by any chance the law had been the other way round and had prohibited heterosexual and allowed homosexual behaviour, I do not believe that by any effort of imagination I could have changed my orientation. Those homosexual friends whom I know well enough to know the answer tell me that it is exactly the same for them. The evidence of the BMA encourages me to believe that they are not alone in that.

We must all admit that there are, of course, a number of people who, at the age of 16, are not certain of their orientation. But the question remains: are those people waiting to choose their orientation, or waiting like people who are not sure whether they are right- or left-handed to discover their orientation? We should be unwise to be dogmatic on either side of that question. If people are in real doubt about their sexual orientation, if we push them into one orientation for the sake of conformity and they get married, is that fair either to them or to the women whom they marry? I believe I am right in saying that Mrs. Tom Driberg believed right up to her wedding day that she was undertaking a normal marriage. That is an unfair burden to inflict on anyone. So I ask the noble Baroness to think very carefully indeed about the effects of what she is doing. I do not believe that there will be any fewer homosexual acts if she is successful.

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The noble Baroness talks about danger. But, in times past, childbirth for women used to be just about as dangerous as battle for men. If danger were to deter sexual activity, I do not believe that many of us would be here now. So that argument will not carry very great weight. What it will achieve, if the noble Baroness is successful, is that for another seven months teenage homosexuals will have to live in fear.

I know from a great deal of work on 16 and 17 year-olds, on which I have addressed this House many times, that one of the commonest reasons for children of 16 and 17 being evicted by their parents is their confession to being homosexual. One of the reasons frequently given by parents for doing that is that it is against the law.

When those young people are thrown out, they do not have an automatic right to income support. They have to prove estrangement from their parents. The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, one of the bodies that the Minister did not have time to include in his list of organisations supporting the Bill, points out that those young people very often cannot prove the estrangement and therefore achieve entitlement to income support because, in order to do so, they would have to confess to criminal activity and they are not sure what the consequence of doing that would be. So that drives them, literally and metaphorically, under ground. I cannot believe that that is a good thing.

Sadly, it is also the case that large numbers of homosexuals are on the receiving end of homophobic violence. It happened to one of my own pupils. He was set upon one night in Manchester, kicked all round his head, and was left with a fractured cheekbone. It could very easily have been another Lawrence case. But, mercifully, the only long-term result was that it cured him of short sight. Poetic justice does not often arrive as literally as that.

But what is the effect of giving this signal of inequality? I quote a letter from Mr. Chris Morris, who is one of the parties to the European Court of Human Rights case on which my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill intends to speak later. He says:

    "At school, someone once told me that the unequal law proved that being gay was wrong; that I was wrong and I deserved to be beaten up". I do not for one moment suggest that the noble Baroness intends anything like that. But if we send the signal that she wants to send, I believe that that will be one of the results. I do not blame the noble Baroness, because I know that she does not believe it; but I do, and I am not going to change my mind. That would be extremely unfortunate. You do not receive the equal protection of the law unless you can be signalled by the law to be equal.

The noble Baroness had a great deal to say about public opinion. I have in front of me the results of the NOP poll to which she referred. She was not satisfied with the third question. With the leave of the House I should like to read it. It is:

    "Do you agree or disagree with the government's package of measures which would mean that:

    (a) The age of sexual consent will be 16 for everyone.

    (b) It will be an offence for anyone in a position of trust or authority who is looking after a young person to have any kind of sexual activity with that young man or young woman".

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    I believe that that is a fair summary of the proposals in the Bill. On that basis, that poll indicated 60 per cent. in favour and 40 per cent. against.

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