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Lord Monson: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, does he agree that if the commission's argument which he has just read out to us is taken to its logical conclusion, before very long there will have to be a common, standardised age of consent right across Europe?

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I do not think that is right. There must be no discrimination within each of the 40 states that belong to the Council of Europe system and are bound by the convention; in other words, what is required is not a harmonised age across Europe, but that within each society, whatever the age that is chosen for consent, it should be the same age for both sexes and for people of either sexual orientation.

6.52 p.m.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, this matter before us is both complex and sensitive. Like other noble Lords, I have received many letters and briefings sent from people and organisations, some wanting to retain the age of consent at 18 and others wanting it reduced to 16.

For some time I have been very concerned at the rise in sexually transmitted diseases. HIV/AIDS seems to be increasing fastest in young men, but other conditions

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such as warts, anal and cervical cancer, Hepatitis B and C and gonorrhoea are also increasing in both young men and young women. Teenage pregnancies and abortions seem to be the highest in Europe. Something is very wrong. Something needs to be done to rectify this situation, or at least to try to lessen this unacceptable situation.

The Government have agreed to equalise the age of consent which seems to be more acceptable to many people. The European Court of Human Rights considers 17 to be the dividing line between children and adults. I now wish to suggest to the Minister and to your Lordships, why not put the age of consent for girls up to 17, which would send a strong message of concern about the problem of unwanted pregnancies, and bring that for young men down to 17, which would equalise the age of consent? That would be a compromise. I have discussed it with several people who have thought it to be a more acceptable position. Young people can get a driving licence at 17. They are more mature than at 16, which for boys can be a most difficult and wobbly age.

Whatever happens, I hope that the Government will ensure that all children receive personal, social and health education. Sensitive boys who do not know which way they are going often need in puberty to be able to discuss sensitive issues with someone they can trust. In the past many teachers who might have been the people able to help were not able to do so because the legislation was too rigid. I feel there should be enough flexibility to enable counselling to be given to those young people who desire and need it.

It is the act of buggery which worries so many people, and the danger of gullible young people being taken advantage of. The lining of the bowel is delicate. It can be easily damaged and then is open to infections. I should like to ask the Minister for help in fully understanding Clause 4. I am pleased that the provisions on "position of trust" have now been put into the Bill. This shows the good sense of your Lordships' House in throwing out the matter relating to this in the Criminal Justice Bill which contained no safeguards whatsoever. But does this Bill have enough? Does the Bill include youth leaders taking young people away camping? Not long ago I attended a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children. We were told, for example, that paedophiles were commonly found to have infiltrated organisations such as the boy scouts. Are resident, part-time training courses covered in the Bill? As a past county president of the Red Cross I was personally involved in an investigation of a director who had been involved in late-night sessions with cadets.

We should have safeguards in all these matters. I hope that the Bill, if passed, will be improved and strengthened, and that the age of consent can be put at 17 for both sexes. This would unite the UK, as the Bill provides for an age of consent of 17 in Northern Ireland. It would send a message to girls that they have not acted in a responsible way and are looked at by the rest of Europe as setting a bad example. I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say.

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6.57 p.m.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon: My Lords, I am not generally in favour of anecdotal evidence when making speeches in this House. However, on this occasion I believe that my practical experience of 34 years in the police service and my academic qualifications of degrees in psychology are relevant.

Forty years ago I started my practical life as a police officer on the streets in the east end of London. This was a time before the street offences Act when there were prostitutes on every street corner of the Commercial Road. Women police in those days were specialists, particularly with regard to families, children and sexual offences. I have taken statements in relation to alleged sexual offences of rape, paedophilia, indecent assault, indecent exposure and unlawful sexual intercourse. Clearly in relation to this debate it is unlawful sexual intercourse which has particular relevance; that is, intercourse with girls under 16.

Stepney in those days was a magnet for young girls. Those who saw themselves as smart went to the West End. Those perhaps who had less self-confidence used to end up in Stepney, usually in the cafes run by Maltese.

My next point is of particular relevance to today's debate. We also interviewed those young girls--many of whom had run away from home to take up a life of prostitution--who were under 16 and who had had sexual relationships often with boyfriends but also often with young men in the Stepney area. Some of the girls were only 13 or 14. So this is not a new phenomenon. In the majority of cases they were 15 year-olds who had often had sex with a regular boyfriend of about their own age. The point I wish particularly to make is that I do not remember a single prosecution of a girl of 15 years of age. That is relevant to the current state of the law in relation to male homosexuals. There are very few prosecutions in relation to boys of 16 and 17. It is clear to me that there is very little point in having a law which is never implemented and which just makes it harder for homosexual youths to seek advice and guidance. Criminal laws which lead to no prosecutions necessarily fall into disrepute.

My second posting was to Kings Cross, another area much frequented by prostitutes and young runaways. Part of my duties there was to sit in the matrimonial court each week and listen to the accounts of husbands and wives as they described their marriages and their sexual relationships. In the previous debate on this topic, some noble Lords expressed revulsion at some of the physical aspects of homosexuality, especially buggery. That is not, of course, a feature of all homosexual relationships. If some noble Lords had had my experience of two-years' worth of matrimonial hearings and the accounts of strange and various sexual practices of husbands and wives, including buggery, they might be more tolerant of all aspects of human sexual relationships.

Another issue in the previous debate and, I suspect, in today's debate, is that there is some confusion between paedophilia and homosexuality. As a commander in the Metropolitan Police I was responsible for three years for

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the Obscene Publications Squad at New Scotland Yard. Subsequently, in north-west London, I followed closely the investigation of a large paedophile ring. Paedophiles are not interested in spotty, clumsy, adolescent youths. Their interests lie in pre-pubescent children, both boys and girls, as young as six or seven; not the 16 or 17 year-olds we are discussing today.

Of course we must protect children with every weapon that society has, including the criminal law. It is also vital that adults in a position of trust should be aware of their responsibilities for those in their care, girls as well as boys. In my view--it is also, I believe, the view of the noble Baroness, Lady Young--a main function of the criminal law is that it has to act as a symbol, a sign of the framework of human behaviour that is set by a society. This is an important, demonstrative role for the whole apparatus of the criminal justice system. However, to be an effective, controlling or inhibiting framework, the criminal law has to be seen as fair and equitable in its application to all sectors of society--black and white, male and female, heterosexual and homosexual. It cannot and should not discriminate.

The transition from adolescence to maturity is difficult for all human beings--few of us, indeed, could claim to be wholly mature--and all the evidence is that the sexual orientation of homosexual boys is apparent to them much earlier than 16 or 17. To add to their difficulties of being homosexual in a heterosexual world by making them subject to the criminal law can only exacerbate their confusion, depression, potential for bullying, and sometimes even suicide. As my noble friend the Minister said, we could all wish that we lived in an ideal world in which human beings lived happily together in conventional and permanent relationships. But that is the stuff of fairy stories. In real life, human relationships of all kinds are difficult and confusing. They are not assisted by being exposed to the crude machinery of the criminal law. I hope that on this occasion we will be able to support the measures in the Bill.

7.3 p.m.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn: My Lords, when we last debated this issue in your Lordships' House, I was one of only five or six on these Benches who voted against the amendment then proposed by my noble friend Lady Young and voted for a reduction in the age of consent. None spoke from these Benches in favour of that reduction. I felt embarrassed then at the circumstance and, on reflection, I think that it is indeed appropriate to speak today--as has my noble friend Lord Quinton--in favour of the Bill and against the amendment of my noble friend Lady Young. After all, it was carried then by a very large majority in the Commons, and it has been carried again by a very large majority in the Commons.

However, there is one very significant difference. It arises from a valid constitutional point raised last time by my noble friend Lady Young. The amendment in question had been introduced simply as an amendment in the other place to a Bill originating here. It was

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introduced there at Third Reading, and came to us without consideration in either House at Second Reading, in Committee or on Report, but simply in the brief consideration of Commons amendments. My noble friend made much also of the amendment proposed then by Mr. Ashton, which had not at that stage been incorporated in the Bill. It is now, in a modified form. I hope that my noble friend will not mind if I quote her words; I trust that I shall do so accurately. She said then:

    "I would be failing in my duty if I did not say ... that lowering the age of consent in these circumstances without proper parliamentary scrutiny would be quite wrong--wrong constitutionally and wrong in principle.".--[Official Report, 22/7/98; col. 97.] It is worth emphasising the point that that constitutional obstacle certainly does not apply today. Indeed, it is somewhat the converse. If an amendment were to be carried this evening it would clearly preclude detailed discussion of the Bill at the Committee and Report stages. My noble friend has made the logic of her case clear; if she intends that this House should defeat the Bill, this may be the appropriate moment to put her amendment to the vote.

I have great admiration for my noble friend and I very much admired her speech in various respects this evening. I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Ferrers is not in his seat. I have great affection for my noble friend Lord Ferrers--perhaps I should not say that in this context--who always speaks with great trenchancy on these matters. Although he does not always win my head, I am often carried by the charm and effectiveness of his discourse. Although he quoted some rather less than trenchant observations that he had made on a previous occasion, I think there was one occasion--I am sorry that he is not here to correct me--when he made his point with great effectiveness, although perhaps with a degree of exaggeration. I am referring to my noble friend Lord Ferrers and quoting from one of his speeches, which I hope will give him satisfaction--although I am not certain I am quoting accurately--when he walks in. He said that, as far as he was concerned, an appropriate age for homosexual consent would be 86. I thought that a trenchant remark and, in the context, an effective and amusing one. If I am not mistaken, he did not intend us to take it entirely seriously.

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