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The Earl of Longford: My Lords, is the noble Viscount prepared to have a legal limit at all--of 16, 14 or whatever--or is he saying that people can do what they like?

Viscount Bledisloe: My Lords, of course, I accept that children--and the age is arbitrary--have to be protected when they cannot make up their minds. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, I see no absolute argument for the age of 16. It is 15 in some countries and 14 or 17 in others. What is wrong, surely, is to discriminate with regard to the age of consent and to have different ages. Surely we accept that those aged 16, who are, as the noble Lord, Lord Steel, has pointed out previously, old enough not only to have heterosexual relationships but also to get married, are old enough to know, as they do, that they are willing to consent to homosexual relations.

The noble Baroness, Lady Young, again invoked that wonderful ogre, the villainous older man in his role as a seducer of the innocent young. That is a useful bogeyman; albeit that one does not know how frequent or real it is. If that is the noble Baroness's worry, surely that can be no justification for throwing out the Bill completely and perpetuating a situation in which every 19 year-old who has homosexual relations with a 17 year-old is a criminal. If the noble Baroness wishes to specify an age--say, 40 or 45--at which a much older person must not have sex with a much younger person, let her do it by amendment. It is no argument for throwing out the Bill. I hope that your Lordships will vote for the Bill and against the amendment.

7.34 p.m.

Lord Selsdon: My Lords, I have to admit that, but for the encouragement of my noble friend Lady Young, whom I admire greatly for her commitment to this cause, I should not have dared to speak today. Because I believe in free votes in this House, I promised myself that I would listen to the debate and then decide how I should vote. At this stage I am confused. To me it was a fairly simple issue between good, clean, healthy sex and bad, unclean sex. To me, good, clean, healthy sex between a man and his wife is the ultimate expression of love and affection. The other form of sex could, I suppose, be called carnalis copula contra naturam. It is against nature; it is unnatural. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, said that these two things are effectively one and the same. I have to differ with him.

I am not used to using words that cause offence. I think back to changes of legislation and the criminal offence of blasphemy--"Thou shalt not take the name

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of the Lord thy God in vain"--and how blasphemous words using God's name were then mixed with names and words that I feel difficulty and hesitancy about repeating. I wonder whether those old Acts are perhaps out of time. I wonder, too, whether we ourselves are perhaps out of time and out of touch with reality. A hundred years ago people did not live to our age. Today the average lifespan is quite long. But the average age of the population of this country is 38. I was told an old saying by my grandfather: "You may only tell your father what to do when you are more than half his age and you should listen to your grandchildren when they are more than a third of your age". In this case we should be listening not to ourselves but to the 20 and 30 year-olds and perhaps to others.

We have to ask whether history has moved on. Are we ourselves so out of date that we are not in touch with the modern image and attitude? I was brought up on a farm at the end of the war, with conscientious objectors, Jewish refugees, prisoners of war, Americans and others. The conscientious objectors ran the farm. I had the doubtful privilege of learning about life in the raw, all the activities of the animals, and that two bulls might try to do something to each other. On a shelf in the library one of the books was called The Police Constable's Guide to his Daily Work. One looked at that to work out whether or not one was going to break the law. It said what a police constable should do when he passed incidents on his bike or on foot. The first item was "The abominable crime of buggery". I did not know what buggery was. I consulted the farmworkers and they explained to me that this was an unnatural act, either between two men or between a man and an animal. It was effectively bestial. In some parts of Australia it is called something else.

I remember, too, just before Arnhem, being told that we had to keep the sheep out of the fields, for some strange reason that I never fully understood. I could not believe that a man or a woman could conduct an act of this kind against an animal, animals being slightly more primitive.

The abominable act of buggery goes back a long time. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, mentioned Matthew Parris. I believe that Matthew Paris--no relation to the present Matthew Parris--first defined buggery in the year 1340. But the "syn" of buggery--I do not know the difference between "sin" and "syn"--was introduced to this country by the Lombards, believe it or not. Lombard Street was the natural intercourse between trade and finance. In history we find that this is not a new activity. In general, it is brought about by lust, not by love. I therefore feel that it is wrong to promote or encourage it. There is no doubt that it is an unnatural act. Most people are, in general, natural. While we should help and protect the minority in every way we can, we should recognise the general requirements of the majority.

I worry greatly about some of the impacts that the Bill will have. I wish to speak from an international point of view. My only qualification for doing so is that I have worked in many of the countries of Africa and the Middle East and other countries. I am not an expert on

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such things as female circumcision, but I have seen it. I do not like what man and woman, in their inhumanity, may do to each other.

The age of consent in Spain, Italy, Turkey, Portugal or North Africa is irrelevant. We are all aware that in many parts of the world young boys are sold into slavery for sodomy and young girls for prostitution. This is against our natural instincts. Perhaps we have to move with the times but I am not sure that legislation is correct. I am not sure that we know enough about this matter. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Williams, can give us a few facts about the present situation. I believe that at the present time there are some 741,000 males between the ages of 16 and 18. That is not a particularly large number. The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said in a speech, or in reply to a Question, in about 1997 that 92 per cent. of men in the study said that they had had sex only with a woman, that 6 per cent. had had no sex and only 1 per cent. had had sex with a man. How many practising homosexuals are there in this country? I should like to have some idea of the figure.

I now move to my real worry. When I talk about unclean and unhealthy sex I refer to sexually transmitted diseases, not syphilis or gonorrhoea for which those of us in the services had regular inspections, or necessarily AIDS. But AIDS is itself a worrying matter. I have spent time in parts of Africa and seen the decimation that it has caused. There are transsexuals, hermaphrodites or however one describes them, who do not necessarily differentiate where primitive instincts are still present.

But in this country my knowledge gained from people who work in these areas--I have been to AIDS hospices and other places--reveals that more often than not these diseases begin with an act between an elderly or middle-aged man and a younger man or boy, whether it be in North Africa, Cyprus, Ibiza, the Canaries, San Francisco or elsewhere in the world. It starts with an unnatural act which causes concern.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells referred to his support for the gay community. I have never liked the use of the word "gay" in this context. It is an old English girl's name. I do not mind "homosexual". I fully understand that some people are born different or behave differently. I object to people who claim to know what happens with people of that particular age when the average age here for hereditary Peers--the age is slightly younger than for life Peers--is such that we may be out of touch. Therefore, some time before this debate I took a poll--I was going to say a straw poll--of individuals in different groups. I used to do research work.

It is wrong to say that the nation opposes these changes. The argument put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, that there should be a similarity in terms of age of consent is probably correct. However, it is not the age of consent that causes concern but the act that follows it: the act of anal intercourse, buggery or whatever one calls it. With it go the pressure groups who are in a minority. If 92 per cent. of all the men in this country have had sex only with women, 6 per cent. have had no sex at all and 1 per cent. have had sex with other men, we are talking here about a very

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small minority whom we have a duty to protect, not necessarily to chastise. We also have a duty to protect others.

I say no more. This is an emotional and sensitive subject. Your Lordships will treat it well. I do not know at this stage whether I shall join my noble friend in the Lobby this evening.

7.43 p.m.

Baroness Mallalieu: My Lords, there is no gentle way to put this. This is an elderly House. Those in their 20s, 30s or even 40s are as mere children in this place. Even in our 50s we are still regarded as ingenues and only after 80 do we begin to be regarded in your Lordships' House as old--and sometimes not even then.

When this House last debated this issue on 22nd July I had the honour to act as a Teller. What was striking then was that with a relatively small number of exceptions, the younger Members of your Lordships' House (by which I mean those under 60) found it difficult to support the noble Baroness, Lady Young. The world outside this House and attitudes to sexuality have, I suspect, changed a great deal since most of us were teenagers.

From being objects of disgust and contempt to creatures of fun and ridicule, those who are homosexual are, I hope and believe, generally, although still far from universally, regarded as different but entitled to equality before the law. A new younger generation recognises that we do not choose our sexuality any more than we can choose the colour of our eyes. Cold showers, a spell of hard labour in Reading Gaol or a spot of queer-bashing will no more change someone's sexual orientation than a scrubbing brush will change the colour of a man's skin.

My own teenage children are incredulous that this debate is taking place tonight at all. For them and their generation, it is a self-evident truth that the criminal law should apply equally to men and boys as it does to women and girls and to homosexual 16 year-olds as it does to 16 year-old heterosexuals. To discriminate in the law on the basis of sexuality seems as wrong as to discriminate on the basis of race or religion. Homosexuals are and will remain a minority. Tolerance of minorities, as the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, reminded us, is meaningless if we apply it only to the things of which we approve.

I readily accept that the main motive of many of those who oppose this Bill is a desire to protect primarily teenage boys from predatory older men. That is a very laudable and well-meaning objective which I suspect we all share. However, I cannot but ask myself what protection the present law has afforded to the countless boys in our children's homes over the years who have been abused by those into whose care we entrusted them. What protection have the young prostitutes on the "meat racks" of all our major cities derived from the present law? What protection is it to those young people who have been victims of such predatory older people and then been afraid to seek advice or help or to complain out of fear that they have committed criminal offences which may then become known to their

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families and possibly the police? All it has done is to lay them open to blackmail. All the present law does today is protect the abusers by forcing into secrecy those most in need of confidential help. It forces those who may be uncertain of their sexuality, as many young people are, into dependence on influences which may be both undesirable and self-interested, pushing young people, as the right reverend Prelate put it, into the "gay ghetto".

When the major organisations whose job it is to deal with the very people the noble Baroness seeks to help by her opposition to reform are crying out for this change so that they may do their job better, I venture to suggest that the argument that protection is afforded by the present law is a naive illusion. Ironically, by her opposition to the whole Bill through her amendment the noble Baroness seeks to prevent legislation which, as she herself accepts, provides a measure of protection to those abused by people in a position of trust over them. I find all that very odd.

We have been told again tonight that teenage boys need greater protection than teenage girls because they mature less quickly. It was not so very long ago that we were told that women could not have the vote because they were incapable of rational judgment. When the vote was granted, it was said that women should receive it at a later age than men because they would not mature early enough to exercise the vote properly. I suspect that in a very short time after the passage of this legislation, which will undoubtedly follow--I hope within the next couple of years at the very least--we shall find those arguments treated with the same derision as is now applied to the earlier versions.

The noble Baroness said that support for the Bill would send out signals of support for homosexual acts to young people. But I do not believe that 16 and 17 year-olds are tuned in to the wavelengths on which she is broadcasting these signals. Teenagers are not waiting to hear the result of tonight's vote before deciding whether to embark on a sexual relationship; nor are predatory older men waiting for the green light from your Lordships before pouncing on 16 year-old boys.

The reality is that hormones speak a great deal louder than words, and far louder than votes in this House. In reality--and let us face it--the underlying objections to this long-overdue reform are, I suggest, the attitudes of a different generation brought up in a different way which retains a deep abhorrence--it has been apparent tonight in some of your Lordships' speeches--for the practices of homosexuality. It is perhaps understandable that when so many of us were brought up with, and had instilled into us, a different approach to these matters, there is a reluctance to appear to be voting in a way which could be taken as some form of approval for conduct which we personally may find repugnant or unnatural.

I suspect that few, if any, of us would choose for our teenage children or grandchildren to become involved in a homosexual relationship. For all the changes in attitudes which have occurred and are still occurring, there is still so often an element of shame,

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discrimination, physical danger--some have already referred to it--disapproval and, above all, unhappiness in far greater measure to be overcome for homosexuals than for those associated with a heterosexual relationship.

However, surely what those of us who have children and grandchildren want for them is that if they are or may be homosexual they should be able to seek advice and help. If they cannot come to us, which we hope they will, at least they may feel able to go to those who can give them good advice and guidance. The one thing we do not want is for the next generation to be forced to endure a secret shame which must have destroyed so many lives in the past. This is a Bill whose time has come; and some of us would say it is long, long overdue.

7.52 p.m.

Lord Plant of Highfield: My Lords, observant Members of your Lordships' House will realise that I am not the noble Baroness, Lady Brigstocke. I support the Bill. In doing so, I speak as someone who regards himself as a loyal member of the Church of England and as the father of three grown up and heterosexual sons. I support the Bill because I see the issue in terms of equality, fairness, justice and human rights. But I realise and respect the fact that many people in the House, including the noble Baroness, Lady Young, reject that as being an inappropriate moral context in which to see the issue of the homosexual age of consent. Equality and fairness mean treating like cases in like manner whereas, from the critic's perspective, it is precisely because the homosexual and the heterosexual are different in relevant ways that they should not be treated in the same way. Hence, there is the case for departing from equality of treatment because of the claimed difference between the two kinds of sexuality.

If we are to go down the path of treating one group of members of society in a different way from another, it has to be based upon grounds and criteria which should be capable of public justification. This would seem to me in the present context to imply that such discrimination could be justified for three main reasons, if those reasons were valid--which I do not believe they are. The first is that homosexuality is morally wrong and therefore should not yield the same rights as heterosexual relations. The second is that such relations can or may cause harm to the individual who seeks to exercise the rights which the Bill would confer. The third is that extending those rights would cause harm to others. I do not believe that any of those claims can be sustained.

Let me take, first, the issue of immorality as a basis for differential treatment. The argument from immorality is often couched in terms of the claim--the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, made it--that homosexuality is unnatural and therefore wrong. The moral argument cannot be as simple as that. Even if we regarded it as uncontroversially true that homosexual behaviour is unnatural, that fact alone would not entail that it is morally wrong. In general what is natural is not always right and good and what is unnatural wrong or evil. For example, our instincts are, I suppose, in some sense

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natural. But if we merely followed our natural instincts, then, as Hobbes famously said in The Leviathan, the life of man would be,

    "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short". Most of human civilisation is achieved by artifice, by struggling against the natural, not by equating the natural with the morally good.

Similarly what is unnatural is not to be equated with wrong or evil. Indeed, many of the greatest human achievements from drug therapies and aeroplane travel to grand opera are to the highest degree unnatural. My point is that we cannot in our society appeal to some shared idea of the natural and the unnatural to support some obvious moral perspective as a basis for discrimination against what might be perceived to be unnatural. What is natural or unnatural has to be set into an additional moral perspective. These terms do not come along with their own moral evaluations built into them. Those moral perspectives are themselves very controversial and are matters of dispute within society. So even if we could all agree that homosexual acts are unnatural, this does not of itself justify a discriminatory response in terms of the morality of public policy.

It is worth making a further point in the context of the natural and unnatural nature of homosexual acts. The first is that if it turned out to be the case that a homosexual orientation had a genetic or some other kind of physical cause, then such an orientation would be entirely natural and that fact would fatally undermine the argument of those who wish to use the equation of "natural" with "good", and "unnatural" with "bad", as a basis for discrimination.

Secondly, it has been argued both in debates in this House and in another place that the arrangement of the sexual organs of men and women somehow entail in strictly anatomical terms that human sexual love and relationships have to be defined properly only in heterosexual terms. I do not think that this argument is definitive of the alleged unnaturalness of homosexual acts. First, to reduce human love and human relations to one kind of wholly genital exchange seems to me a reductionist and impoverished view of such relationships. Once we escape from that view, there are many aspects of human physical relationships which, as films, novels, opinion polls, magazine surveys, TV dramas and so on show, are now shared widely across the homosexual and heterosexual divide. The range of human expression of physical love is extremely wide.

Hence it appears that the claim that homosexuals should be treated differently from heterosexuals on the ground of the alleged unnaturalness of their practices is very dubious. There might, however, be stronger arguments about self-harm and harm to others, but I doubt it. I do not wish to deny that self-harm and harm to others can constitute strong arguments for treating one group differently from another. What I am saying is that I do not think the empirical case in relation to such harm has been made.

Let us take the case of self-harm. There are three claims here. The first is that the later maturity of young men might mean that premature homosexual

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relationships would damage their sexuality. Other noble Lords have discussed that; I need say no more about it. I believe that it is undemonstrated that that is the case.

The second argument about self-harm is that young men face greater risk from HIV infection. That is capable of being turned on its head. If young, active homosexual men are involved in relationships currently at the age of 16, the fact that their behaviour is currently criminal is the strongest possible inhibition on such people seeking appropriate medical advice and counselling about safe sexual practices--and, indeed, about the forms of responsibility which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells rightly emphasises.

Finally, in terms of self harm, I have to say that I do not find the argument about predatory men at all compelling. Each week the papers are littered with stories about predatory heterosexual men, many of whose crimes are horrendous. We also have the heterosexual sex industry, ranging from pornography to pictures in tabloid newspapers of young women exposing their bodies for the gratification of millions of men. Are we so confident about the naturalness of this, the non-exploitative nature of this, and the fact that young women engaged in these things have such a fixed sense of their identity and worth, that we can tolerate all of this in law while seeking to discriminate against homosexual young men on the grounds of exploitation by older men? If claimed exploitation is the argument upon which discrimination were to turn, then we would be in a deeply hypocritical position.

Finally, there is harm to others; the classical liberal basis on which discrimination may be fairly allowed. First, let me make the philosophical point that harm has to be what it says--harm--not offended sensibility. The fact that we do not much like what someone else is doing is not a ground for preventing him or her from doing it in a free society unless it harms others. Liking and disliking has nothing to do with it.

So what kind of harm to others might be done by decriminalising these acts? Well, I can think of only two possible candidates. One is harm to parents. I fully recognise that parents might not like the fact that their 16 to 18 year-old has a homosexual relationship. But this is more like offended sensibility, it seems to me, rather than harm. I have certainly had letters from supportive parents who have had to face this fact about their offspring's sexuality. Would they prefer to face the fact of their son's or daughter's sexuality against the background in which that sexuality was able to have a free and legal expression, or would they prefer to see their sons and daughters criminalised? If we persist with this criminalisation, there is a strong chance that children will resort to subterfuge to keep their sexuality secret from their parents. In this context, it seems to me that less harm would be done to the relationship between parent and child if the relationship could be seen as an open and legal one. It could then be discussed and advice given, including advice about responsibilities that relationships bring.

The second possibility of harm would be that identified by the late Lord Devlin; the moral harm to society. But here I think the evidence is dubious. I will

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not enter the debate about the opinion polls, but I side with the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Gould. Nevertheless, Lord Devlin's point has some validity. I agree with him that society needs a social morality to survive and I want to conclude by saying something about how we ought to see social morality.

Of course, I accept that many Christians--and I am Christian--regard homosexual relationships as sinful, but there is a world of difference between regarding something as a sin and in a free society legislating against it. I tried to argue that if we continue to discriminate in the way that the law currently does, this has to be rooted in some kind of shared moral belief which transcends the moral doctrines of a particular Church or group of people. That was my reason for dwelling upon the allegedly unnatural character of homosexuality. If this fails, discrimination has to be based upon self-harm or harm to others and neither of these cases is made, in my view.

Of course, those who accept the moral authority of the Church will seek to live in their private lives according to such values and according to its discipline, but there is a big difference in terms of whether we believe that the moral authority of the Church--even assuming that it had one view, which it does not--and its concept of sin should be a foundation for social policy. I do not believe that it should in a society with many faiths and none.

Perhaps I may conclude by making an appeal to fellow Christians in the House not to reject the Bill. In the words of Karl Barth, one of the greatest theologians of the century, in his great essay, The Civil Community and the Christian Community, speaking about civil society as a fragile arena for human purposes and human fulfilment:

    "When we compare the Christian community with the civil community the first difference that strikes us is that in the civil community Christians are no longer gathered together as such, but are associated with non Christians ... The civil community embraces everyone living it its area. Its members share no common awareness of their relationship to God, and such an awareness cannot be an element in the legal system established by a civil community. No appeal to the word of God can be made in the running of its affairs. The civil community as such is spiritually blind and ignorant ... It has no creed and no gospel. Tolerance is its ultimate wisdom". In a pluralist society--and I recognise that many noble Lords wish that it were not so--we would have to find our social morality in terms of goods like freedom, fairness, justice, citizenship and equality. These will bind a diverse society together in a way that seeking to criminalise what many may regard as a sin will not.

8.5 p.m.

Lord Quirk: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Plant, ended his very interesting speech with the word "equality", which has in fact been a leitmotif throughout the debate. And not only in this debate. In the one-page advertisement taken out by Stonewall in The Times today, the word was used 11 times. The question posed in its poll was:

    "Do you believe that the age of consent should be equal for everyone?".

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    Who need be surprised by the large number of "yes" votes? Who is against equality? Who would wish to claim to be in any doubt about equality?

So let me begin by reiterating the widely-felt dismay at the extent to which the purpose of this Bill is misrepresented as bringing equality between males and females into the issue of consensual sex activity. It does no such thing. As the Explanatory Notes clearly acknowledge, the Bill,

    "reduces the minimum age at which a person may lawfully consent to buggery". That minimum age is at present 18 for persons of either sex; in other words, equality already exists; it is merely extended two years down the scale in the proposed Bill.

So although discussion of the Bill constantly refers to lowering the age for males (where there appears to be widespread pressure), the Bill applies also to the other half of the population, the girls of 16 and 17. I am not aware of any pressure from women's groups for such a drastic change, and I would ask the Government whether there has been consultation with women's groups to establish their opinion, or whether schoolgirls are to be granted this very dubious freedom as an unsolicited gift.

My concern is the protection of the vulnerable young of both sexes. In July last year, I called upon the departments responsible for education and health to ensure that the appalling risks from anal intercourse be well publicised. That appears in Hansard, col. 942. I have not heard of any such action. In December, I pointed out the glaring deficiencies of the many colourful and attractively produced brochures of the Health Education Authority; such as the repeated equation of anal and vaginal intercourse for heterosexuals, together with fairly detailed instructions on how homosexuals might practise "fisting", with some guidance, in this case, on how to make it marginally less injurious to the receptive partner. That appears in Hansard, col. 570. Again, I have not heard of any revision to the texts or to the policies informing them, and in the meantime we have perhaps had some measure of the Health Education Authority's efficacy from the report that graced the front page of the Times Educational Supplement of 12th March this year, revealing that more than a quarter of school children believe that girls are protected from sexually transmitted diseases merely by taking the contraceptive pill.

Is it not irresponsible to proceed with a Bill like the present one without taking effective informational measures? I am not happy to see schoolgirls smoking cigarettes, but at least I can persuade myself that they are making an informed choice in the face of well-publicised warnings of the tobacco health risk. Similarly, the dangers of drinking alcohol, of swallowing ecstasy tablets, of puffing cannabis: all these things are very prominently publicised. And in the case of beef on the bone there is actual legislation to protect us from a risk that is said to be one in a million. Why, then, the silence on the risks presented by anal sex, which Professor Gordon Stewart in 1994 estimated as being several thousand times greater than vaginal sex for teenagers.

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What these risks actually are seems in fact to be not all that widely known, but they should certainly be known to our legislators. I wonder if those who devised the Bill before us have acquainted themselves with the quite voluminous and sobering publications on the subject, not only by the authorities I cited on an earlier occasion, in July, and not only by Professor Stewart, whom I have just cited, but other British experts such as the distinguished gynaecologist Elizabeth Duncan or experienced clinicians such as Joy Holloway and Linda Stalley. Nor need one have recourse to the medical and scientific journals in which such experts report their findings. There are far more publicly accessible materials, such as the 600-page book grimly entitled And the Band Played On by the gravely concerned and profoundly sympathetic Randy Shilts, written a dozen years ago.

I understand the reluctance of many in public life who will not speak out, desperately anxious to avoid--at almost any cost--being thought homophobic, and perhaps intimidated into what they perceive as political correctness by strident lobbies which represent any opposition to this Bill as illiberal prejudice. In my own case, I can utterly repudiate any such accusation. Homophobia to me is not just crass bigotry at its graceless worst: it is ignorant blindness to the manifest enrichment of our lives by homosexuals down the centuries. No, I am concerned only to ensure that girls and boys alike are properly informed of the dangers of anal sex so that they can make informed choices as they can in relation, for example, to tobacco. It is in any case quite spurious to identify anal sex with homosexuality. Indeed, during the Commons Second Reading debate on 25th January, one of the Bill's supporters, Ms Hazel Blears, cited research which showed

    "that only a minority of gay men engage" in anal intercourse. And of course the Bill is quite specific in its aim of addressing not homosexuality but buggery.

So those who argue that retaining the present age of consent for buggery grossly disadvantages the homosexual community are as mistaken as those who argue that it discriminates between males and females on an unequal basis. The consent age of 18, I repeat, applies at present to buggery of males and females alike, married and single alike, just as lowering the age to 16 would apply equally to both sexes. I say nothing of the "slippery slope" argument or about the calls already heard with increasing stridency to lower the age still further to 14; nor will I dwell on the still more sinister aim of some to confer respectability on the idea of "inter-generational sex"--or what the rest of us less euphemistically call child abuse.

I conclude with a brief word about the provisions in the Bill aimed at protecting the vulnerable from abuse from those in authority over them. I welcome the thinking behind these safeguards since they recognise--in line with UK law (the Children Act of 1989) and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child--the age of 18 as the watershed between childhood and maturity. And since of course throughout life, as adults too, as several noble Lords have pointed out this afternoon, we are all liable to undue pressure and influence from those

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in a position of greater authority, these provisions of the Bill do in fact recognise that youngsters under 18 show their immaturity and vulnerability by needing such special protection of a kind not deemed necessary for those over 18. But have the implications of this acknowledged vulnerability of the under-18s been thought through? Have indeed the implications of the special protection provisions themselves been thought through? The National Association of Head Teachers is among the respected bodies which thinks they have not. And, with or without the special protection provisions, if the Bill's promoters consider that the age of consent to buggery should be reduced only to 17 in Northern Ireland, on what grounds do they consider that girls and boys in the rest of the UK can undertake such responsibility a year earlier?

In short, a lot more serious thinking and planning, together with determined action on the health and education fronts, needs in my view to be done before a measure like the present Bill can properly be considered.

8.18 p.m.

Lord Tope: My Lords, much of the debate tonight has inevitably been taken up with matters of principle, matters of opinion, discussion of legal niceties, even of medical intricacies. My noble friend, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, said that it was difficult for someone speaking 10th to say anything new. It is even more difficult for someone speaking 20th.

By way of contrast I want to devote almost all of my time to dealing with the practical effects of our legislation on the teenagers of today and to relate some of the real life experiences of some of those teenagers.

Those of your Lordships who were kind enough to attend the debate I introduced on 6th October last year will recall that I presented a range of first-hand evidence I had received from young people who were routinely harassed and bullied at school, and outside it, because they were perceived by others to be gay or lesbian. I shall once again be calling on some of those direct testimonies to fear and misery. Since then a good deal more evidence has come to hand. More people have written to me, and either I or my advisers have been able to discuss problems face to face with the young people and in some cases with their parents too. I stress that because those who oppose lowering the age of consent like to argue that their opponents are in some way naive or have been got at by gay activists.

The people for whom I wish to speak this evening are ordinary people trapped in an extraordinary situation which, to a large extent, is the product of Church and state. Your Lordships need to consider the predicament of a young boy entering his teens and beginning to realise that he is attracted to people of the same sex. Many of them described to me feelings of shame, bewilderment and even panic as that realisation began to dawn. Others have closed their mind to any such feelings, only to be rudely awakened by the taunts and humiliations received from classmates who seem to have a sixth sense in detecting a "difference". Just because you do not recognise that you are gay does not mean that others will not.

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Let the young people speak for themselves. I want to quote now from a letter I received from a homeless 18 year-old who wrote to me care of the Albert Kennedy Trust. He said:

    "I have been sexually abused, bullied, beaten up just because I was different, because I was a 'poof, pervert, homo, queer, faggot' and many other horrible names. I have had my head stuck down the toilet because I was 'abnormal' and 'different'. Why? I believe it is because of the way in which we young gay people are treated in school, in society and in law-making decisions".

That young man speaks of the way people like him are treated at school. Sadly, we have had numbers of examples of homophobic teachers--some of them, I am sorry to say, in senior positions--publicly humiliating and isolating pupils thought to be gay.

A deputy head, in a crowded school entrance hall, who noticed a sixth-form boy standing near the school's Christmas tree, called out:

    "Adam, shouldn't you be on top of the tree?". An RE teacher in Scotland isolated and humiliated a pupil who told me:

    "At school my RE teacher took us through all the religions, but when it came to homosexuality, he told the whole class, 'I'm sure nobody wants to know about the poofs apart from Ben'--and told me I'd have to read it on my own".

As another year-11 pupil from Nottingham expressed the matter:

    "I have had to put up with a lot from the pupils at that school because they don't understand how I feel. The teachers did next to nothing to help. Some education would help people to accept me for what I am, but I've been told that the teachers are not allowed to teach about homosexuality because of Section 28. I contemplated suicide on several occasions when I became very depressed". Suicide is a recurrent theme among many of those who have written to me or talked to us. So too is self-hatred and low self-esteem. Another teenager from the Midlands wrote:

    "One time I wrote all over my bedroom walls that I hated everyone and myself. I even tried to take an overdose of pills four times and tried to slit my wrists one time".

It is important to bear in mind that some of these teenagers have yet to have sex with anyone at all. But that does not stop them being picked on, insulted and humiliated.

It has been commonplace in several of the debates on the age of consent, both here and in another place, to speak of those young teenagers as though they have a free choice; as though choosing homosexuality were a perverse and eccentric decision, like joining the Communist Party. It is as though they could give up their sexuality just to please their parents and get married and live happily ever after. For a few who find it possible to be attracted to people of either sex, there may be a choice; lucky them. But for most who have contacted me, they can no more change their sexuality than others can stop being left-handed or can change the colour of their skin.

I ask your Lordships to reflect very seriously on that. If you were to face daily humiliation and even physical attack, your clothes damaged and your schoolwork defaced because you were perceived to be gay, would you not change if you could?

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Some of your Lordships may recall the inquest last November on the 15 year-old Burton schoolboy, Darren Steele, who hanged himself in his bedroom. I quote from the Independent newspaper:

    "One 16-year old friend said that a week before his death Darren had told her that he could stand the point of his bullying no longer. She said he was frequently called a 'gayboy' and 'poof' because he enjoyed cookery and drama lessons. Darren Steele was burnt with cigarettes, battered with school textbooks and branded a homosexual during five years of abuse. His headteacher said: 'The real tragedy is that Darren's parents, the school and his grandparents were not aware of his suffering'".

Perhaps most terrible of all is that boys in that situation very often cannot go home and pour out their hearts to their parents. In the words of a very telling joke--or perhaps it is not a joke, "Why is it easier to be black than gay?" The answer is: "You do not have to tell your mum you're black". I invite noble Lords to think hard about that. It is a story told to me by another of my correspondents.

We have had several accounts of parents finding out unexpectedly about their son's homosexuality. Boys who have grown up in happy, comfortable homes, entirely confident that their parents loved them find themselves suddenly denounced as unnatural and unacceptable, with the words, "No son of mine". They are considered to be such an abomination that mothers can no longer bring themselves to touch their sons. What a tribute to family values those situations are; what a tribute to all those liberal leaders of opinion who use the access they have to newspapers and television to denounce those young people as unnatural and their loving relationships as second rate.

There are those who say that keeping 18 as the age of consent somehow defends family values. It cannot be said too often that people who are gay have mums and dads, sisters, brothers and grandparents. This is an issue for families too. Any parents can find themselves with a gay son or a lesbian daughter. They can face the fear that their otherwise perfectly law-abiding teenage son is in danger of a prison sentence. That is a family matter. Parents need a good deal more information on how to deal with that than they are receiving today from either the state or, usually, the Church. Here, I pay tribute to the excellent speech from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells, but sadly he said that he believed himself still to be in a minority among his fellow Bishops. Therefore, I must include the Church in that.

Now, against that real-life background, let us think how the present age of consent legislation affects the daily lives of the often isolated and anguished young people whom I have described. The age of consent law as it stands sends out what many this evening have described--and the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury has previously described--as a "signal". That signal is that in the eyes of so-called "respectable opinion", sex between two boys at the age of 16 is unacceptable whereas marriage and even parenthood at 16 is acceptable.

What signal does Parliament and, indeed, the Church of England, excluding the right reverend Prelate to whom I previously referred, send by refusing to equalise

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the age of consent? What signal do they send to homophobic bullies and tormentors? Are they not encouraged to feel that they have all decent people behind them? What signals do we send to the young men, the sixth-form boys who know themselves to be gay; that they cannot risk on embarking on a loving relationship or even a slight intimacy without the fear of being reported to the police? If they feel the need to take that risk and obtain advice on safe sex to protect their own lives, they doubt whether confidentiality can be preserved.

A sixth-former from north London wrote to me last July explaining how the age of consent laws made him so fearful that he could not even have resort to the police when he was raped. I quote a real life experience. In his own words, he said:

    "During this period I was raped by a man. Because I was under the age of consent, at the age of sixteen, I thought that if I told anyone, I would be arrested and put into prison. And so I did nothing. I was discouraged from reporting this incident to the law as a direct result of its inequality".

I raise that particular matter because so many noble Lords seem to believe that, in some way, they are protecting 16 and 17 year-old boys. As I have just demonstrated, the exact reverse is all too often the case.

I took a recent opportunity to ask a Parliamentary Question to establish what would be the effect of sentencing a sixth-form boy to prison for consenting to a homosexual act. I am, after all, an education spokesman. What would such a boy's educational opportunities be during his detention? I was told that there was provision to overcome difficulties with literacy and numeracy. I am pleased about that, but it will not assist a sixth-form boy in applying for university entrance. Perhaps we should reflect on what in real life is likely to happen in a prison cell at night to such a middle-class sixth-form boy with no previous criminal record.

Some of your Lordships will point to the fact that, in practice, very few boys under the age of 18 are imprisoned for such offences. I merely remark that the Home Secretary assured the press that there was no question of his asking the police not to enforce the law as it stood. The law remains and, even more importantly, the fear remains. It is real and it hangs over the lives of young men who would otherwise be respectable and law-abiding citizens with promising futures ahead of them.

It will be said--indeed, it has been said endlessly--that the age of consent laws are there to control the activities of older men "preying on" young lads who do not know their own minds. Other speakers have dealt with that point very well. Most of us who are parents of teenagers are used to hearing almost anyone over the age of 25 written off as a "crumbly" or a "wrinkly". It would be very odd indeed for a teenager, whether straight or gay, to find an older man sexually attractive.

However, let us suppose that that did happen and that the teenager, to use that crucial word, "consented". Let us also suppose that the affair is exposed and the older man is prosecuted. What sort of experience is that for the teenager, to have someone he perhaps quite likes or is even fond of, dragged into court and sent to prison for an activity to which the teenager willingly consented; to

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have to give evidence about intimate behaviour in a public court at the age of 16? Do noble Lords really think that that is a life-enhancing experience for a boy of that age? It is a very different matter for a victim who rightly demands justice. For a consenting partner, it is to be forced into the role of coward and betrayer.

I am very much struck by the difference in reaction on this matter of law between your Lordships' House and those in another place. It is paradoxical because in the other place Members have to seek re-election and we do not, at least not yet. As others have commented, it seems to me to be a generational difference of opinion that is reflected in the difference between our two Houses.

Thirty years ago and more, many of us were educated in single-sex schools. A good many of us were in boarding schools and girls were a species to which many had little or no access. The sex drive of teenage years drove some to--shall we say?--make their own fun. They were not gay, although intense friendships may have made them wonder. When they were liberated into the real world, of course they fell in love with girls and got married and had children of their own. Looking back now, they think of homosexuality as "just a phase which people grow out of". I am sure many people really believe that.

I hope that I have said enough tonight to make such people see that this view simply does not relate to the lives of boys and young men who really are gay in the world of today. Those boys grow up surrounded by girls from playschool through primary school to their comprehensive. Some of them tell me they began to realise they were in some way different by the age of seven or eight. Some of them wish very much that they were able to change. Some teenagers, crying themselves to sleep tonight because of the vile day they have had, would be very glad if it were a phase, but it is not and I have to say that it is cruel, however unintentionally, to keep saying that it is a phase.

Last year was the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By coincidence, as I was preparing for my debate on homophobic bullying last October, the United Nations Association sent me a summarised version of the declaration. I should like to quote some of the articles from that summary and to invite your Lordships to consider them in the context of the young people we are discussing tonight. Article 1 states:

    "All human beings are born free and with the same rights". Article 2 states:

    "These rights apply to everyone whatever their race, gender, religion or any other factor which might make them different from other people". Article 3 states:

    "Everyone has the right to life, and to live in freedom and safe from harm". Article 5 states:

    "No one shall be tortured or punished cruelly or treated in a degrading way". Article 6 states:

    "Everyone counts as a full human person before the law".

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    Most importantly of all, Article 7 states:

    "The law must be the same for everyone". As we enter upon the new millennium, I find it simply appalling that a whole group of young people in Britain find it impossible to secure their basic human rights as drawn up over 50 years ago.

I conclude with the words of someone just a little older, a young man in his 20s, who has triumphed over bullying and harassment to emerge into a successful career after graduating from university. He said:

    "The media thinks that gay people are just born at the age of 25 and sadly it isn't true. They're kids and they're growing up in every school, in every playground, in front of every TV and homophobic tabloid newspaper in the country, and they're being hurt very seriously.

    Teachers need to be able to say 'It's OK if you're gay. It's no big deal. It doesn't matter and you're just as worthy as anyone else. We're here if you need to talk'. It's not about encouraging people to be gay, dishing out condoms to kids or making straight people turn gay--that's impossible. It's just about letting people breathe and have a life and facing up to the fact"--

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