Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Norton of Louth: My Lords, the noble Lord provides anecdotal evidence, but can he provide any firm empirical evidence because all we have heard this afternoon is assertion after assertion on this point? What is the hard empirical evidence which bears out what the noble Lord says?

Lord Stallard: My Lords, I am recounting the comments of a leading homosexual who wrote in a letter to a newspaper that the whole argument about chromosomes is rubbish and that one is not born to be homosexual but that it is a matter of choice. The noble Lord cannot accept that, but I take it that I may be speaking of one of his friends. I have to accept that I come from a different world, background, education, environment and beliefs from some of my younger friends. Now there is a much wider gap between the generations than was ever the case in the past.

Those of us who still hold firm to Christian morals and beliefs find it difficult suddenly to overthrow them and become so lackadaisical of anything that is decent. That seems to be the conduct of the new generation--the "www dot com" thing. Everything has been taken out of context and, unlike in the past, there is nothing to link the generations. There was not a big gap between myself and my grandfather, but there is a huge gap between me and my grandchildren. That is a problem that most of us have to face. We try to come to terms with it, but the one thing I cannot come to terms with is the concept that homosexuality must be equated with heterosexuality and that homosexual couples must be equated with married couples. That is not the case and I am glad that at least the right reverend Prelate had the guts to say that the heterosexual relationship must be emphasised. That is the basis of the society that I know and the basis of the society that I espouse and one that I shall continue to espouse.

The Bill before us reduces the age of homosexual consent from 18 to 16. It also lowers the age at which men can commit buggery on girls. Those of us who have read of the abuse scandals in north Wales must be horrified at this prospect. I know that in view of the scandals, the court cases and what was exposed in north Wales there is no public support for lowering the age of homosexual consent from 18 to 16. The Waterhouse report specifically concluded that in the matter we are discussing the dangers for those outside care are as great as for those in care. I should like to discuss the report at greater length as it discusses in great detail the differences between 16 and 18 year-olds in terms of the problems that they experience and their need for protection. We are talking about the need to protect children from the kind of incidents that occurred in north Wales. As I say, there is little public support for the Government's proposals in the Bill.

There is even less support for the Government's determination to steamroller the Bill through. If the Government do not get the Bill through this House,

11 Apr 2000 : Column 145

they will invoke the Parliament Act. That is quite disgraceful, given the severity of the proposals and the opposition to them. Although I admit that the Government have introduced safeguards since the incidents in north Wales, they have not yet gone far enough. We need to introduce further safeguards. People who share my views would make those changes. If we rely on others to make the changes, they will move in completely the opposite direction. I am happy to endorse the comments of those who have spoken in favour of Christian morals and beliefs, which most of us support. We need to do all we can to amend the Bill to ensure that children are given the protection to which they are entitled.

6.54 p.m.

Baroness Young: My Lords, this is the third time that we have debated lowering the age of consent. The Government's case has not altered, nor, I believe, improved. The overwhelming majority of the population do not want the lowering of the age of consent for homosexuals. This is a view shared by Peers on all sides of the House.

I was interested to hear the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams, and others speaking from the Labour Benches, mention the number of Conservatives who support the Bill. My noble friend Lord Norton has supported it this afternoon. There is, of course, an equal number of Labour Peers who are opposed to the Bill. A great many Labour Members of the House of Commons voted against it. Therefore the Bill cuts across party. However, it is also opposed by all the major religions: the Christians, the Muslims and the Jews. I would have thought that we should take that into account. Like others, I warmly support the wise words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester.

To force the Bill through against all those considered opinions the Government have made clear, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams, has said, that they will use the Parliament Act on this Bill, which most believe to be a matter of conscience, which has been subject to a free vote in both Houses and which was not in the Labour Party's manifesto. The Bill had neither Report nor Committee stage when debated in the Commons earlier this year. The Parliament Act has been used only five times since 1911, and never in circumstances such as these. I believe that that is a parliamentary disgrace.

The noble Lord, Lord Lester, said, I believe, that people like me are torpedoing the Bill. However, I do not think that he had many qualms of conscience over voting with us on, for example, the order which would have allowed a free election leaflet to be sent out in the elections for the Lord Mayor of London. Was that a case of torpedoing the Government or not? Noble Lords believed that their action was right on that occasion; I believe it is right that we should stand firm now.

The Bill is presented as a theoretical debate about equality. However, it is not even a case of equality in the United Kingdom, because the proposed age is 16

11 Apr 2000 : Column 146

in England, Wales and Scotland and 17 in Northern Ireland. The debate is not about equality at all but about children. As we all know, the lowering of the age to 16 would in practice mean 14. All the arguments that have been adduced about the difficulties that 16 year-olds face would apply equally to 14 year-olds if the Bill becomes law.

I refer to two other points that have been raised. The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, spoke at considerable length on sex education. I am doubtful about the value of sex education. It seems to me that the more sex education there has been, the more difficulties young people have experienced. Having read much of the literature, I can see why there are so many teenage pregnancies, as some of the literature constitutes positively a kind of "do-it-yourself" kit.

Nowadays the health promotion units pose dangers. They are now issuing dangerous material. I refer to the article in today's Daily Mail--this has been mentioned--and the material which was sent to the headmistress of a girls' school in Slough. I have spoken to that headmistress. I assure the House that the material was sent to her and that she was asked to distribute it in her school. She refused to do so and has sent me a copy of it. It is an appalling piece of literature to distribute to schoolchildren. The Berkshire health promotion unit has now commented on the issue. But those are the facts of the case as I know them.

My noble friend Lady Blatch and many other noble Lords have pointed out the different ages at which we are legally permitted to do things. We forget that 18 is the age of majority; and we forget that, under the all-important Children's Act 1989, 16 year-olds are defined as "children". I find it curious that the Government have introduced the Children (Leaving Care) Bill--under which 16 and 17 year-olds will have mentors to guide and help them after leaving care up until 18--and at the same time they have introduced a Bill which will lower the age of consent for homosexuals and turn 16 year-olds into adults, without any care, help or back-up from the law. That is completely inconsistent. We find that in one Bill the Government will look after 16 year-olds and in another they send out the message that sex is all right at 16, never mind the health risk.

We have heard little from the Government Benches about the very real health risks referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, and by my noble friend Lady Seccombe. The health risks are real. It is worth repeating that no one who has had anal sex is ever allowed to give blood. That should say something to us all about the dangers.

We have only to look at the video distributed by the Avon health promotion unit. Its message is quite clear: try experimenting with boys and girls and see who you feel most comfortable with. This is not the message that most responsible parents want to hear, nor do the British public.

I turn now to the question of legalising buggery with girls of 16. I can only suppose that this has been put into the Bill to please the Women's Unit, the leader of which, I believe, is the noble Baroness, Lady Jay. She

11 Apr 2000 : Column 147

will no doubt want to boast about her latest achievement in equality. I confidently expect that this proposal will feature prominently in the next issue of that glossy magazine, Views. To be serious, I believe that most girls would find this act repulsive and that most responsible people would say that it was dangerous.

The noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, said that he was looking for evidence to show that there were dangers, as did my noble friend Lord Norton. My noble friend Lord Waddington referred to the Waterhouse report, as have a great many other speakers. The very important report of Sir Ronald Waterhouse, Lost in Care, is the one major difference since we last debated this matter. I was surprised that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams, did not refer to it. If he did and I did not hear him, I apologise.

Most unusually, Sir Ronald draws the attention of Parliament to the vulnerability of boys aged 16 to 18, precisely the age group that we are discussing. He said:

    "We have concentrated our attention on evidence relating to children who were in care at the time, having regard to our terms of reference, but we have necessarily heard some evidence about others who were on the fringe of the care system, that is, children who were later committed to care and youths who had recently been discharged from care. In our judgement, the perils for such persons are as great in this respect as for those actually in care and our findings emphasise the importance of continuing support by Social Services for those who are discharged from care. We draw the attention of Parliament also to the abuse suffered by B between the ages of 16 years and 18 years, in circumstances which appear to have made him question his own sexuality for a period. Much of the later abuse was not inflicted by persons in a position of trust in relation to him and there can be no doubt that he was significantly corrupted and damaged by what occurred".

Those are very strong words. They are surely words which all of us who take a responsible view of our role in Parliament should consider very carefully.

I shall be the first to acknowledge that the Government have made some proposals to answer the recommendations in the report, but the abuse of trust provisions proposed by the Government in this Bill would not have covered much of the abuse which took place in North Wales. For example, some of the boys met their abusers outside the care home, a point not covered in the Bill. At least two of the abusers would not have been convicted had the Bill before us been an Act. They were convicted when the age of consent was 21.

But perhaps most worrying of all is the theme which runs through the report of the complacency of the statutory services, in particular the local authority social services department. The Home Office consultation paper on abuse of trust stated:

    "The responses to the consultation exercise indicated that the large majority of organisations, including the majority of voluntary organisations working with children, believed that such conduct was better regulated by professional codes".

It also stated:

    "The majority of the respondents stated that they were opposed to the introduction of a criminal offence to cover cases of abuse of trust".

They may have given that evidence, but we must recognise that today there is evidence of widespread abuse of children. Some 32--I repeat, 32--major

11 Apr 2000 : Column 148

police investigations are under way, some of them, I understand, much larger than that in North Wales. The truth of the matter is that if we support this Bill we are weakening the law and giving less protection to children.

It is quite clear that, at the end of the day, there may be homosexual boys who want the right to have sex at 16 with men; there may even be girls--although I suspect hardly any--who want the right to buggery. But there is no way of changing the law to give them freedom without taking away the protection of the law from the overwhelming majority of vulnerable 16 to 18 year-olds who could be subject to predatory abuse.

We have been told that we in this House are too old; that young people think differently; that certainly anyone of my age is obviously over the hill and should not express an opinion on anything. I believe that it is our duty--I do not mind saying what I said before--to speak to what we believe to be right and believe to be true. Before we take a final decision on the Bill, every one of us should study the Waterhouse report. It is a report from an independent inspector who was looking at a terrible case. I have been appalled and sickened by some of the things I have read. I can hardly bear to think of what may be happening in other tragic cases to boys, and to a lesser extent to girls, while we are debating this issue. It will be dreadful for both. It is our duty to speak out.

Public opinion polls may be split on age groups, but there is no doubt that in every poll taken the overwhelming majority of people are worried about this Bill and do not like it. They are worried because they, too, know about these kinds of cases. They are worried that it might happen to their particular child--and that is what they do not want.

All the abuse in the North Wales inquiry took place when the age of consent was 21. We must ask ourselves what would happen if the age of consent was 16.

I turn now to answer the question about the charities which has been raised by a number of noble Lords. I have been asked what I think on this matter. I will tell your Lordships' House exactly what has happened. None of the charities has sent me a brief. They did not send me one a year ago. They have not sent one at this time, and so on this occasion I have not heard directly from them.

Those noble Lords who took part in the previous debate may recall that at that time there was a large advertisement in The Times specifically aimed at me to show that I was the only person in the United Kingdom who was intolerant and that everyone else was on the side of tolerance and all the good qualities that one can possibly think of. The advertisement listed all the charities. I was rather surprised when I saw the advertisement, so when the debate was over I wrote to every one of the charities. I said that I was surprised to see that organisations like them, well respected in the country at large, and, I thought, intended to be non-political, would have lent their names to that advertisement. Every single one of them wrote back and said that they had never given permission for their names to appear on the

11 Apr 2000 : Column 149

advertisement at all. I was slightly surprised that most of the charities, which raise considerable sums of money and do not hesitate to send all of us vast quantities of begging letters, did not employ someone to read the newspapers and correct the matter before I needed to write to them. However, let that pass.

I then went on to inquire what the views of the charities were not only about the age of consent but about the adoption of children by homosexuals. I quote from a letter from Barnado's:

    "We do not exclude anyone from consideration as an adopter or foster carer on the grounds of sexual orientation. Barnado's is concerned that emphasising traditional family structures can discourage potentially valuable applicants from coming forward".

I was rather surprised to receive that reply from one of the charities. I ask myself why they have all said that they support the lowering of the age of consent. All of the letters which I received said that the charities had put the matter to their main committees--I have no doubt that they did--and the main committees decided. Had the charities actually taken a poll of their supporters or invited all their supporters to come to a meeting to decide whether or not they should do this, I think that they would have got a very different result. I am bound to say that I have been very disappointed by their attitude.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page