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Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I apologise for having missed the first part of my noble friend's remarks. He is quite right. I think I did once make an observation of that nature--but not when I was on the Government Front Bench.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn: My Lords, I would never accuse my noble friend of inconsistency. I am sure that he has probably thought it on many occasions. But my underlying point is a serious one. He spoke with great effectiveness. He made remarks which, I think, spring from an antipathy which many people feel towards homosexual acts. We must accept that that is a widely held view on all sides of your Lordships' House. But it is worth asking whether it is an argument. That was the point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells in his speech today, which, if, I may say so, I found very effective. It was a point

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that he made with equal effectiveness when he spoke on the previous occasion about the matter. One has to think about the position of these vulnerable young people who, under the present law, we are criminalising. There is a matter of principle here. There is the principle of equality before the law--about which the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, spoke eloquently today and previously, and about which the Prime Minister has spoken--a principle that has been supported in the Lobbies by the leader of the Conservative Party and the leader of the Liberal Democrats.

I should like to quote briefly from a letter written to The Times a week or so ago by a number of religious leaders, led by the Chair of Christians for Human Rights. There were two bishops among the signatories and, if I am not mistaken, a rabbi. The letter stated:

    "The proposed legislation is not concerned with legalising or promoting particular forms of sexual behaviour but with equalisation under the law and the appropriate protection of those vulnerable to abuse". In a way, that point is the nub of the debate today: how are we protecting these young people? All noble Lords would agree that we should be protecting young people, but how can we do so most effectively? That is an important point to which I shall return briefly in a moment.

I respect very much the emphasis which my noble friend Lady Young places on family values, as she has done in a number of debates in your Lordships' House. But what kind of family is it that criminalises young men or is willing to see young men between the ages of 16 and 18 criminalised who may have had sexual relations together? They need support. They may benefit from guidance; they certainly would benefit from understanding. But that is, I think, a very Old Testament view, if I may be so bold as to say so when Bishops are to speak later who will correct me if I am wrong.

I recall again the thoughtful words we heard on the matter from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells. I should like to quote again from the letter:

    "The experience of many parents' support organisations in this field confirms that removal of current inequalities and consequent stress, far from undermining family structures, will actually strengthen them". That may be true. I remind those in the House who set high store by family values that in this country we have one of the highest birth rates for teenage mothers in the western world, many of them younger than 16. Surely, if we are talking of family values, this is where one should be directing attention. I think your Lordships will concede that this is not a matter for which young homosexual men can be blamed.

Those who support the amendment before us sometimes claim to be representing the wishes of the electorate. We have heard that said in previous speeches, although the point has been made that the other House may be in a better position to express the wishes of the electorate through the Lobbies than ourselves. Even if that were the case, as the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, argued last July, it is the role of Parliament to lead on clear ethical matters, not simply to follow.

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Is it so that the electorate takes such a view? I do not want to get into disputation about opinion polls but I understand that the poll quoted today was taken among young adults. So it does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the electorate as a whole. However, at the same time, we should be taking seriously--perhaps more seriously than we sometimes do--the views of young adults in this matter. The point has been made that the average age in your Lordships' House does not automatically put us in contact with young adults, though we have heard from various organisations which may represent them.

It was the British Medical Association, in its 1994 report, which said:

    "Unwelcome sexual attentions of a seriousness warranting criminal prosecution are equally offensive whether the victim is a man or a woman: the same should therefore apply to all". The point has been made about the medical risks of sexual contact between homosexuals aged between 16 and 18. However, my noble friend Lady Young was puzzled that many of the charities working with people in this age range feel that the Bill should be passed and the amendment should be defeated. The reason for that is that there is some consensus that the problems of the stigmatisation involved with the criminalisation of these young people means that they do not find themselves open to the necessary advice and medical support. That is a crucial point. If the stigma of criminalisation were removed I think we would find that those charities would be able to do their work more effectively. That is what they are telling us.

There are many logical arguments in favour of the Bill and against the amendment, although I am sure there are valid arguments also in favour of the amendment. However, I felt it was my duty today to be one of those speaking from this side of the House in favour of what I consider to be equality but, more particularly, to follow again the theme developed by the right reverend Prelate and to look with sympathy on a minority which, it is not far from the truth to say at the moment, is a persecuted minority.

7.15 p.m.

The Earl of Longford: My Lords, I always listen with respect to the noble Lord but I rather wished that he had been with me when I recently took part in a debate at Cambridge University. The motion was, "This House would like the age of consent for men and women, boys and girls, lowered to 14". That motion was heavily defeated. I do not know whether the noble Lord would have been one of the few who backed the reduction to 14. Once you get into this question it is difficult to know where people will stop. At any rate, that is what happened at Cambridge.

I rise once again to express strong support for the noble Baroness, Lady Young. I do so as a committed Christian but I am aware that there are good Christians who disagree with me. Not long ago, on Good Friday, I attended the 3 o'clock mass in Westminster Cathedral. The place was packed and I was in the back row. When it came to communion the crowd surged forward towards the altar and it seemed to me that it would be a long, long time before I received communion. However,

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a kindly gentleman, a stranger, came up to me to sympathise with my plight. He said, "This is, I am afraid, a case of Cardinal oratory"--worship of the Cardinal--"and they all must have communion from the Cardinal". So that was why I would not be receiving communion, at least for a long time. "However", he said, "there is a lady here, a qualified minister, who can give you communion. I have had it from her". So I received communion from her. When we were on the way out he explained to me that he had been a priest but he had recently given up the priesthood because of the attitude of the Catholic Church to homosexuality. Yet he remained a practising Catholic. So there are people who disagree with me and with the Catholic Church and other churches who do not favour the Bill.

I speak as a Christian who sees the moral starting point as plain as the day. In the Christian view, sex outside marriage, whether heterosexual or homosexual, is sinful. Therefore, prima facie, the state should not set out to encourage action of that kind. That is the starting point. On the other hand, let us consider adultery, which is mentioned in the Ten Commandments and in some versions of the New Testament--Luke and Mark--as the first of the sins. Adultery is a very serious sin in Christian eyes, but no one is suggesting that it should be made a criminal offence.

So the problem arises: where do we draw the line? Why must a line be drawn? What is the real issue? The issue is that morality depends on freedom of moral choice. There is a limit to what the state can do in inducing people to be moral. That is the problem. I did not ask the gentleman I mentioned about his own tendencies, but he was certainly not a practising homosexual. He had just received communion.

Practising homosexuals are in sin. Nevertheless, Saint Augustine has told us that we must hate the sin and love the sinner; so we must try to love them. If any of my eight children or 26 grandchildren had been homosexual, no doubt my wife and I would have loved them. However, I cannot believe that there are many parents who prefer their son to be homosexual rather than inclined to favour women. It is contrary to the male nature. Women do not mind so much. A lot of women like homosexuals; they say they are not frightened of them. (I do not know whether they are frightened of elderly gentlemen either--I do not think they are.) They find homosexuals rather harmless, almost pathetic people and seem to like them. So the best speeches in these debates in favour of the homosexual side seem to be made by women for the reason I have given.

I do not know how many Members of the House have met rent boys. I met one who could not speak a word of English. He had just been imported to this country. If we are to think of young rent boys being seduced by middle-aged gentlemen, are we going to protect them, or are we not? Of course I have seen people recover from homosexualism. A boy at Eton assaulted my elder brother in the bath there and was later expelled for repeating the offence on another boy. Later he became a pillar of county society and captained the county cricket team. So one can undoubtedly recover from homosexualism. But if I were the parent of a boy who

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had been seduced by some middle-aged gentleman, I should feel that his life had been taken a long way towards ultimate ruin. It would not be quite certain, but the chances are that if he was installed in life as a homosexual, he would never marry. He would probably in the end become promiscuous. A lonely old homosexual is one of the most pathetic sights that I know. In my humble way I will do anything in my power to protest against anything that threatens the young adolescent boys of our time.

7.22 p.m.

Viscount Bledisloe: My Lords, previous speakers in this House have observed what an invidious task it is to speak after the noble Earl, Lord Longford. However much one disagrees with the substance of his remarks, one cannot fail to be impressed and to admire the charm and sincerity with which he makes them. It therefore makes it very difficult to refute or deal with the points he makes. I do not seek to challenge anything the noble Earl has said about the moral teaching of the Christian, or Catholic, faith. However, I venture to suggest that it does not have very much to do with the question of what the provisions of the criminal law shall be.

Perhaps I may venture one other observation on the noble Earl's speech. He seemed to postulate the rather remarkable suggestion that a heterosexual youth has only to encounter a homosexual on one occasion and have casual sex with that man to be converted for life to homosexuality. The noble Earl may by now have forgotten what happened during his school days at Eton, but I suggest that there would be rather fewer Members of this House who were old Etonians or who had heirs if the one occasional homosexual encounter prevented one ever conducting a heterosexual life thereafter.

My principal argument for supporting the Bill should appeal above all to those of your Lordships who favour fox hunting or who vigorously oppose any attempt to ban fox hunting. I recognise that, with the noted and admirable exception of the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, those who hunt foxes are not traditionally noted for their sympathy in regard to homosexuality, yet I hope that they will for a short while listen to me and perhaps be persuaded by the argument.

The most cogent argument I have ever heard against any ban on fox hunting was advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn when he said:

    "If one has a society which claims to be civil and civilised, one has to have regard--a proper regard--to the fact, and honour the fact, that other people may have different views about how they wish to live their lives ... we must not be prescriptive about things beyond the decent limits".--[Official Report, 22/7/98; col. 970.] It is technically true that the noble Lord said that in the context of debate on the age of homosexual consent and not in the context of fox hunting. But his words are true and are of general application. As he rightly indicated, it is not the function of the criminal law to impose on any minority the moral judgments of the majority. The function of the criminal law is to criminalise only such conduct as is regarded as wrong by the whole of the right-minded community, and as sufficiently seriously wrong that it should attract criminal sanctions.

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Those who wish to rely upon the principle in one context as, for example, to oppose a ban on fox hunting or any other legislative interference with the way in which we should conduct our own lives, must be prepared to honour that principle in other contexts such as this Bill which they may personally find less attractive.

We are concerned in this debate with a very important general principle; namely, where should the criminal law go and where should it stop? Therefore, I urge any noble Lords who might be tempted to vote against the Bill to consider that, by so doing, they will be encouraging the state to interfere with matters that ought to be left to moral persuasion and individual choice.

It is vitally important for us all to remember that we are considering what is and what should and should not be designated as a criminal offence--indeed, a very serious criminal offence--and how far the criminal law ought to interfere in an individual's private life.

The question before your Lordships is not what is socially desirable or morally right, as one might have thought when one listened to the speeches in support of the amendment by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, and other noble Lords. With respect, the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, was way off the issue when he discussed whether homosexual pairs should have equal rights to state monetary benefits. Of course the state can decide how to use its funds to give positive encouragement to ways of life that it considers positively desirable, but that has nothing to do with whether the state should impose penalties on other forms of conduct of which it is less approving.

The reasons for seeking to ensure that the law does not criminalise conduct which a considerable minority does not regard as wrong are not purely matters of theoretical principle. There are few things worse for the rule of law than to have on the statute book a criminal offence which is disregarded by a considerable number of our citizens because they regard it as unjust and misconceived. Once people start picking and choosing between various provisions of the criminal law, the status of the whole criminal law as a minimum code of behaviour is seriously weakened.

I suggest to your Lordships that the present law on the homosexual age of consent fails that test completely. It does not work. No one has suggested that it is successful in stopping 16 and 17 year-olds having homosexual relationships. It is not obeyed and those who disregard it do not feel that they are doing what is morally wrong, merely that they are at risk of punishment because of a moral code imposed upon them by an uncomprehending and alien world.

The noble Baroness, Lady Young, and her followers are fully entitled to urge upon individuals, as the noble Earl, Lord Longford, has done, all the moral, theological, medical and social arguments which they can find to persuade those individuals that they should refrain from homosexual activity. What they are not entitled to do, if they fail in their persuasion, is to use the mechanism of the state to impose their personal convictions upon people who have not been convinced by their arguments.

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There are lots of things which are morally and theologically accepted as wrong but which are not criminal. The noble Earl mentioned the obvious one, adultery, which is far more roundly and clearly condemned in the Bible, as I understand it, than is homosexuality. But I see no rush, even from the noble Earl, to introduce 14-year sentences of imprisonment for adultery. Having said that, it worries me that that might appeal to the Government as an alternative way of reducing the number of hereditary Peers in your Lordships' House!

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