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Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for giving way. I am sure that when he reads Hansard tomorrow he will see that I said that our party had a policy which it included in its manifesto before the previous election, but that individual Members on these Benches are entirely free to take whatever course they like.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for reminding me of that, which I remember him saying, but I believe that it was in answer to a question from my noble friend Lord Monson. However, if the noble Lord, Lord Lester, looks at the earlier part of his remarks, he will see that he said that the Liberal Democrat Party was behind the Government.

Earl Russell: My Lords, perhaps I may set this matter to rest. My noble friend correctly stated the policy of our party. He did not say that this party intended to whip for that policy.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for saying that his party is not going to whip for the policy. That is fine. We shall look with interest to see which way the various members of the Liberal Democrat Party go.

I wonder whether at least part of the momentum behind the Bill is due to the pressures of the homosexual lobby. It is a very powerful lobby. Once one of its objectives has been obtained, it moves on to

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another. Having got the age of consent lowered to 16, it will make one of its next objectives the legalisation of homosexual acts in public lavatories. It is almost--

Lord McCarthy: My Lords, the noble Earl said that the Government are in the pocket of the homosexual lobby. Does he believe that the 22 organisations, such as the BMA, the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of Nursing and Barnardos, are all in the pocket of the homosexual lobby?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I did not say that even the Government were in the pocket of the homosexual lobby. If the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, believes that they are, that is fine. I do not like to think that any of those normally fine organisations are in the pocket of the homosexual lobby. I am surprised that such organisations which often carry such respect should necessarily have bowed to the prevailing wind of the homosexual lobby. As I said, it is a very powerful lobby and, having obtained one success, it will move on to another.

I did say, as, indeed, members of that lobby have said quite clearly, that they wanted homosexual acts in public lavatories to be allowed to take place. I believe that that is quite appalling. I believe that no one should doubt that, should the lobby achieve what it wants today, that will be the next issue on the agenda. I do not like this Bill. I do not like it at all. I believe that the Government were wrong to introduce it.

5.31 p.m.

Lord Freyberg: My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers. I am sorry that I cannot follow his tact. I welcome this important Bill. It seems extraordinary that the law still discriminates between various kinds of sexual activity. Such discrimination can only encourage the stigmatism of homosexuality, and that is both mindless and cruel.

The Bill successfully fulfils the Government's undertaking to the European Court of Human Rights to equalise the age of consent for heterosexual and homosexual sexual acts. Most important of all, it puts homosexuals on an equal footing with heterosexuals in terms of sexuality. Certainly, prejudices against homosexuality exist, but there is no excuse and no reason for those prejudices to be enshrined in the law.

As someone in his late twenties, I can say confidently that among my contemporaries homosexuality is rarely regarded with distaste or alarm but as a perfectly normal way of being. The additional Clauses 3 to 6, relating to people's positions of trust, are sensible and as necessary for heterosexual relationships as for homosexual ones. I am pleased that the Government have brought back the Bill and I support it wholeheartedly.

5.32 p.m.

Lord McCarthy: My Lords, I have listened with great interest to the speeches that have been made on behalf of the different sides of this argument, even if I have agreed with about only half of them. However,

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having read the debates that took place in this House when the matter was discussed on the previous occasions--in the Crime and Disorder Act, in the 1999 version of the Bill and in the present version--I am struck by the fact that there are two types of argument from both sides, although I do not suggest that only one side in the debate has two types of argument.

We are told either that it concerns a matter of conscience, morality and moral principle; or, after a while, whoever is taking that particular line feels that they should perhaps move on to a different position and appeal to reason or evidence.

I believe that that is understandable. What do people mean when they say that this is a matter of moral principle or of conscience? It is not the type of comment that they make when, for example, they say that they are pacifists or that they cannot support the return of capital punishment or are against abortion. In this situation, what they are really saying is that they do not intend to take any notice of the principles of other people. Indeed, what they infer is that they do not intend to pay any attention to a whole series of arguments; for example, to what the Whips say (that has arisen this afternoon), to what government policy is (we have had that, too), to what Europe wants (several people have said in effect that they do not give a damn what Europe wants; they disregard that), to the views of Stonewall (that is something that one can easily dismiss), or to the opinions of the electorate. Although I must say briefly in passing that, according to successive polls, the sympathy of the electorate lies far less on that side than that side appears to believe.

In any event, if we proved that 90 per cent of the electorate were on the side of the Bill, one would not expect them to take any notice of their opinions or, of course, of the provisions of the Parliament Act.

Therefore, when speakers invoke their conscience, or their moral principles, they are dismissing other people's statements or, rather, their conception of other people's positions.

There are two problems with that: first, one usually slightly misrepresents what the other person is saying; and, secondly, dismal though it may be, we all know that one never obtains agreement and one is unlikely to make progress or reach a compromise if one states one's position and says that it is based on a moral principle, that it is a matter of conscience and one does not propose to take into account the susceptibilities of anyone else. I have principles, he has beliefs, you have only prejudices.

Therefore, I believe that at this late stage we should focus as far as possible on the appeals of reason and evidence. Anyone who has evidence or an argument which seems to stand up will use it. As John Locke said:

    "I note that all sects make use of reason when it does serve. When it does not, they do cry out: it is a matter of faith and above reason".

Therefore, let us see what the reasons are. I have tried to boil down in my mind the three reasonable and evidential propositions which, for those who oppose

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the Bill, could be capable of being buttressed by facts. I find it very difficult to take two of them seriously. I shall come to them later. The third is the real and serious argument, but here they do not have enough evidence.

The first, put very strongly by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, when she last spoke on this matter, is that the removal of the 16/18 anomaly in favour of heterosexual sex would be a body blow to the institution of marriage. I do not say that the institution of marriage is in a good state. It is in a rather parlous state. An increasing number of young people do not seem to want it. However, it seems to me utterly bizarre to suggest that the reason that they do not want it and live outside it is because other people are not heterosexual but homosexual.

The institution of marriage is in a bad state and I deplore that. But I speak as someone who has been happily married--at least, I am happy on my side of the marriage; one can never speak for anyone else--for 44 years. Some of my friends have never been married. Some of them have large families and have never been married. They seem to be as happy as anyone else. Some of my friends have been persistently unhappy and they have gone through one marriage after another. They are still trying, so there must be something in that institution! However, I believe that it is arrogant to say that what has suited you for 44 years must suit everyone and everyone should do it; that what undermines it is the growth of homosexuality and the progressive liberalisation of the law relating to homosexuality. What is bad for marriage is not gay sex but the availability nowadays of sex and children without its constraints. That is what is doing marriage in. I wish I knew what to do about it, but it is nothing to do with this Bill.

The second argument which is used is that the removal of that anomaly will give rise to an increase in homosexuality and that there is something particularly irreversible about a sinking into homosexuality at the beginning of life--at 15, 16 or something of that kind. I find it amazing that people can say that in all seriousness. In Eton, in the Guards and in the Navy people move from homosexuality to heterosexuality and have very happy lives. They may occasionally go backwards and forwards but they are not condemned and damned for ever to live in a permanent sink of homosexual activity.

Several of our most successful monarchs were bisexual most of the time. It is rumoured--and, indeed there is some evidence--that one of our greatest and most honoured queens (I hesitate to give the name) was a little out of the straight from time to time. Yet there are those who believe that, somehow, once you become a homosexual, you live in that slough of despond for ever, and especially you are subject to people preying on you when they are older than you. But those who believe that are living in a phantom world. That is not the situation in other countries where the age of consent is different or where it is the same. It did not occur when we lowered the age of consent last time or the time before that.

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What worries me about current sexual behaviour is not an irresistible movement towards homosexual practices brought about by increasing liberality and the work of homosexual lobbying. It is the growth and apparent total inability of any of us to know what to do about the irresistible attraction of promiscuity; about the death of fidelity, both for heterosexuals and homosexuals. What that has to do with the law, I confess I do not know.

I come now to the third reason; that the removal of the anomaly will be fatal and disastrous because it will become the core of sexually transmitted disease. In that regard, I believe that those on the other side--or those on the other side of this side, if I may put it like that--really should have consulted the evidence which some of us have received from distinguished bodies like the BMA, the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of Nursing and so on. Those people have really looked into the matter. After all, they have lived at the edge of the problem for a long time.

They say two things to us. First, the critical variable in the escalation of sexually transmitted disease is unprotected sex of any kind. Since many more people are heterosexual than homosexual, the danger is on the heterosexual side. Unprotected sex of any kind is the danger. The solution--and the BMA is particularly strong on this--is the critical influence of education and treatment.

The reason that all those distinguished bodies, which the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, admires when they do not disagree with him, support the Bill is that they want to increase education and treatment for people who are made illegal practitioners by the present state of the law. They are convinced of that, not just the professional doctors and nurses but all the institutions like the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Barnardos. Do we think that all these bodies are controlled by the homosexual lobby? To say it is to be ridiculous.

So I cannot see why there is much of an argument. I read the last debate when this matter was discussed and I was surprised that the noble Baroness, Lady Young, did not feel that she should see and talk to those people or read their information and arguments. As far as I understand it, she said that they did not communicate with her. That is not a sufficient reason. I hope she will deal with that matter this evening. She said, "I think I know some of the things that they say", or something like that. That is not good enough. Those who oppose the Bill should be prepared to tell us why they cannot find one really well-known, respectable organisation which supports their position. They should tell us that.

Finally, I turn not to the opponents outside my own party but to the opponents inside it. I know that there are those within my own party--for some of whom I have the greatest possible respect, whom I normally find myself on the side of and even drinking with--who hate this Bill, just as they hate Section 28. I say to them, "It is a question of time. You are all changing. We are all changing. It is a question of time. You have not quite changed enough".

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One of the finest speeches that was made in the other place was the speech made by the Member for Buckingham, a Conservative, who said that he could now see that what we have here is unjustified discrimination. That is what he said: unjustified discrimination. Those within my own party to whom I referred do not believe in unjustified discrimination. If there is no evidence or rational argument, I say that they must put aside their prejudices.

To put aside our prejudices, we must think of ourselves as we used to be. I have always found that one of the ways that I can purge my prejudices is to think of my past attitudes to Shakespeare. When I first saw "The Taming of the Shrew", I sided with Petruchio. I cheered for Petruchio. I cannot now stand "The Taming of the Shrew". I certainly cannot stand the last speech in "The Taming of the Shrew". Petruchio was a sick sexist and should have been arrested. But I did not think that in 1948. I call that progress.

I cannot remember when I first began to dislike the last act of "The Merchant of Venice". There are nasty people in "The Merchant of Venice". But I can remember the first time I felt what an insult, what a horror it was, when Antonio makes Shylock become a Christian. I did not think that many years ago.

Finally, since we are talking about homosexuality, up until the 1960s, the actor who played Osric invariably played him as an effeminate ponce--what the actors called at the time a "ponce" part. He flipped around with his handkerchief all the time. If your Lordships are interested, there is on tape, eternally captured, Peter Cushing's wonderful example of the effeminate ponce in the Olivier film. Nobody would play it like that now. There is such a thing as progress. You just have to get there.

I say to my noble friends on this side of the House who may not see their way to keeping up with this Bill: respond to your innate beliefs; respond to your belief in equality, in non-discrimination and tolerance. Believe me, you can vote for this Bill all right.

5.47 p.m.

Lord Monson: My Lords, two things need to be said about this Bill. First, it is far more important than the debate on Section 28, about which so many thousands of column inches have been written. Section 28 is of powerful symbolic importance but its practical significance is limited.

Secondly, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, himself pointed out, we are not discussing the rights and wrongs of homosexual activity in general. For 35 years I have consistently maintained that consenting adults should have a legal right to do whatever they want together in private, however physically dangerous or aesthetically degrading such activity may be. I believe that nowadays the great majority of people subscribe to that view, but strictly in respect of adults.

However, we are not talking about adults today but about children. It is almost universally accepted, I think, that where minors are involved the libertarian

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principles so rightly extolled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams, are frequently heavily circumscribed by the criminal law. One has to think only of restrictions on alcohol, tobacco, gambling, the ownership and use of shotguns and air rifles, the driving of cars and the riding of motorcycles and mopeds. Not all those restrictions are always logical or justifiable when subjected to close analysis, but the point is that most of the electorate endorse them and do not believe that young people are being treated unfairly.

I spoke of children rather than of young people because "children" is how the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child describes all those under the age of 18 whom it rightly deems to need protection against sexual exploitation. Surely no one can deny that the sodomising of 16 and 17 year-old boys or girls amounts to sexual exploitation, since few of the boys and virtually none of the girls can actually enjoy the experience, however persuasively they have been inveigled into submitting to it. Of course, with the United Nations convention still in mind, such ordeals would not be limited to 16 and 17 year-old boys and girls as there is always a grey, hazy borderline area just below the legal age of consent into which one can be certain that 15 year-olds and even some 14 year-olds would be drawn were the law to be altered.

Clearly, the Government are not basing their case on some alleged fundamental human right to sexual fulfilment. If that were so, they would be lowering the age of consent not to 16 but to 12 or 13. Certainly, young people in Northern Ireland would not have to wait 12 months longer than their contemporaries in England, Scotland and Wales to obtain such fulfilment. The Government seem to be basing their case on equality; not so much on the sacred doctrine of sex equality, but on the newly devised doctrine of equality of penetration. Need one say more?

Yes, indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, is right; the existing law is widely disobeyed. But the law which forbids the smoking of cannabis is also widely disobeyed, which does not prevent the Government from remaining adamantly opposed to relaxing the law on cannabis smoking. The fact is that hardly any youngsters ever go to prison for smoking cannabis, as opposed to dealing in it, and hardly any youngsters ever go to prison for homosexual activity. That is as it should be. The law is there not to punish--whatever may superficially appear to be the case--but essentially to act as a marker; the unspoken reasoning being that if the laws deter no more than 5 or 10 per cent of those who might otherwise be tempted to experiment and to drift into dangerous habits, the laws are therefore justified. No one can deny that being sodomised is far more dangerous physically, and probably psychologically, than smoking a joint of cannabis.

Moreover, the mere existence of the law can help someone hovering on the brink, so to speak, who is not entirely sure of his orientation, to resist temptation. Some will argue--indeed, a great many noble Lords have already done so--that all homosexuals are born,

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not made and therefore no law will deter them. Of course it is true that some are born that way; few would deny that. It may even be that the majority are born that way. But others are undoubtedly made, as the former Archbishop of York, the noble Lord, Lord Habgood, who is as well versed in matters scientific as he is in matters spiritual, reminded us on the previous occasion we debated the matter. It is such young people, who in the last resort do have a choice, which the existing law helps to protect.

Clause 3 has been briefly mentioned. It appears not to go far enough in some respects, but too far in others. It would seem that an 18 year-old hospital nurse could go to prison for kissing a 17 year-old patient, if one reads subsection (4) of Clause 4 in conjunction with Clause 3. Perhaps the Minister will confirm whether that is so when he comes to reply. For the sake of people's children and grandchildren, we shall have to endeavour over the weeks ahead to make this regrettable Bill less dangerous. The general public will expect no less from your Lordships' House.

5.54 p.m.

Lord Selsdon: My Lords, I feel extraordinarily nervous. I wondered why, after so many years in your Lordships' House. I believe that in part it is because I was brought up to believe that one should never use foul language and that if one had a command of the English language, one need never use swear words. The word "buggery", or "bugger", was extraordinarily offensive to me. I tried never to use it.

Last year during Second Reading I asked whether I could use that word. I was told, yes, it was a legal word. At the time I made the point that blasphemy was wrong. I remember that at the school I went to, if people were bowled out just before their 50, they might use foul language. I once said something unholy and was given a complete bollocking by the sports master who said that had I not been bowled out, I would have been dismissed out of hand.

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