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Lord McCarthy: My Lords, does the noble Baroness have any evidence for the statement she has just made? Did she go on to contact the BMA, the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Nursing? Is she saying that any of the people she contacted contradicted the view expressed in this House that they support the reduction to 16?
Baroness Young: My Lords, I made it perfectly clear. They all wrote to me and said that they supported the reduction to 16. I did not in fact write to every single one of those organisations, but I wrote to quite a number of them. The point I am making is that I believe that had those organisations, at an annual general meeting, put the question, they might have got a very different result. My experience of volunteers is that they are completely opposed to lowering the age of consent.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for giving way. I did in fact get in touch with the NSPCC, a charity which we support as a family, and discovered that it had not taken soundings from its supporters. The decision was made at board level.
Baroness Young: My Lords, time goes not allow me to go further into the other question which has been raised, but I think that it was fully answered. I refer to the argument about the European Court, an argument which we have heard many times in this House, which was completely successfully answered by my noble friend Lord Waddington.
I, and those who think as I do, will not vote against the Second Reading of the Bill today, but that should not be taken to mean that we are in favour of it--quite the contrary. For the reasons which I have given, particularly in the light of the Waterhouse report, we regard this as a bad Bill. It is bad for responsible parents and it is bad for children. It sends out the wrong signal. We shall do our best to improve it at the Committee and Report stages and I hope that we can move some amendments at which the Government will look. I was encouraged by the opening words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams, when he referred to the scout movement and the guide movement. I hope that we may look at other organisations. I take this matter very seriously indeed. But whether the Government use the Parliament Act or whether they do not, the British public should know that the House of Lords has spoken for them this evening--spoken the words which the overwhelming majority want to hear--on this occasion, as it has done in the past.
Baroness Lockwood: My Lords, I have not previously spoken on this matter. I was prompted to do so today because of my concern about the way in which some of the issues are being debated. If I may say so, I think that we had an extreme example this afternoon when the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, spoke from the Opposition Benches. But not only has the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, accused the Government--
Baroness Lockwood: My Lords, first, the noble Baroness accused the Government of being obsessed with sex and suggested that the people who are shortly to be introduced into the House must have been put through a test to make sure that they support the Bill. When my noble friend the Chief Whip objected to that, the noble Baroness did not accept--
Baroness Lockwood: My Lords, I apologise if the noble Baroness agreed with my noble friend in the beginning, but I am afraid that I stick to what I said about the way in which the noble Baroness started her speech. Not only has the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, accused the Government of being obsessed by sex but so have a number of other speakers, including the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe. The noble Baroness went on to say that she found it offensive. I think she was referring in that context to the Government having said that they would use the Parliament Act to get the legislation through. I must say to the noble Baroness that I too find it offensive to have the motives of the Government questioned in this way, and that includes the motives of some Members of the Government, including the Leader of the House.
There was another example this morning in the "Today" programme on that same theme. That programme, in the usual way "Today" has of putting out bright headlines, referred to the Government legislating for homosexual sex at 16--as if the Government were actually trying to promote homosexuality for young people. The Government are attempting to deal with the problem in an effective way within the context of the situation that exists today. None of us in this Chamber, or generally in the country I think, wants to promote either heterosexual or
As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester said, we are looking for the best way to deal with the issues in the circumstances of today's society. So naturally we look, first, at the law, and the law as it stands today is not effective. Although it makes illegal the practice of homosexuality under the age of 18, it does not stop homosexuality happening under the age of 18: nor does it help those whose orientation is homosexual to have access to the help and guidance they might need at a difficult time in their adolescence. Indeed, on the contrary, it is a barrier to their seeking such help and advice.
Nor does the law protect our young people--and here I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, and other speakers--because it does not protect young people of either sex from being abused. The Waterhouse report, which has been referred to in the debate on several occasions, indicates just that: under the law as it stands today young people have not been protected against being abused.
The reality, as I have said, is that the present law does not work and needs replacing by one that will meet the circumstances of the current age. Currently, the law makes heterosexual activity at 16, and even marriage at 16, lawful. We may not be completely happy with that. I think most of us here would prefer young people of either sex not to engage in sexual acts at such an early age, and we might seek to mitigate that. However, like my noble friend Lady Massey of Darwen, the best way to deal with this is through education. The discussion that is going on at present on guidelines to help schools to teach sex education and health-related matters is, I think, one way forward.
In that respect at least, the law is facing up to the reality of today. It recognises that young people are having sex, and it is trying to do something about it. However, it is not facing up to reality when it allows young women of 16 to engage in lesbian activity, but not young men of that age in homosexuality. This is where the law begins to diverge. It is neither realistic nor equitable to treat young women and men differently. It exposes boys to criminal action, and although the law, as the noble Lord, Lord Monson, indicated, is not much used in this respect, nevertheless it sends under cover the natural development of some boys and encourages them to be secretive. It also undermines their confidence and self-respect and inhibits them from discussing their sexuality with parents or others who might guide them. It exposes them to abuse and corruptive action.
These are surely all features that we do not wish to foster. I know that many of your Lordships have said that by amending the law we are sending out the wrong signals, but I do not see it that way. We are recognising something that is very real to a section of our community, albeit a minority in our community, and we are giving them the protection of the law that they need.
In this context it is worth repeating what my noble and learned friend Lord Williams said in opening the debate: that there are many major organisations that are concerned with the care and well-being of children and young people. They think that this Bill is necessary. That has been disputed by some Members of your Lordships' House, despite being on record as having supported the Bill. I think that the Bill will help them in the work they are undertaking with the children and young people in their care in the difficult context of today's society.
This is not legislation that the Government have plucked out of the air. It stems from the experience of those who are working with children and young people. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, when we last discussed the matter and again this evening, has referred to the fact that this legislation was not in the Government's manifesto. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, also made that point. No, it was not in the manifesto but, as a matter of fact, this legislation has been prompted by the European Commission of Human Rights and by a case which went before the Commission and which will go to the European Court of Human Rights unless our domestic legislation is changed. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, has referred to that.
We all know that the European Commission of Human Rights is not an arm of the European Union or a Brussels invention. It is a longstanding institution, which is supported by nearly 40 countries throughout the whole of Europe. It was greatly influenced by that speech of Winston Churchill in 1948, which did much to promote the Council of Europe, which oversees the European Convention on Human Rights--a convention, incidentally, to which we are committed by signature of the Government.
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