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Lord Alli: I think I said that I was the only openly gay member, not the only gay member of your Lordships' House.

Lord Selsdon: What I wanted to point out was that in this House we welcome everyone. We welcome their contribution. I have learnt from the noble Lord, Lord Alli. But I support wholeheartedly the amendment of my noble friend Lady Young.

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Lord Davies of Coity: I respect the views expressed by my noble friend Lord Alli but I do not share them. When I spoke on this issue in April last year--in opposing the reduction in the age of consent for homosexual relationships--I made it plain that I had no difficulty in supporting the Government's proposals in respect of protecting young people from those in positions of trust. Indeed, they were government provisions which I felt reinforced my concerns and drove me further in my opposition to the reduction of the age of consent from 18 to 16 years.

Today I still have confidence in the Government's approach to protecting young people exposed to the influences and pressures of those in positions of trust. Nevertheless, this has not made me change my view about reducing the age of consent in respect of anal intercourse.

But I appreciate we have moved on. The terms of the amendment today are different from those previously debated. However, as time passes we learn more and more about the frightening health risks of anal intercourse and the widespread abuse to which young people are subjected. We would be neglecting our duty if we ignored these dangers.

When we last debated the matter, the arguments the Government marshalled in support of their proposals were about equality, justice and the removal of discrimination. It was said that the different age levels were in contravention of the European Court of Human Rights. That was based on the ground that heterosexual intercourse is legally permissible at 16 years of age and yet homosexual intercourse is not legally permissible until 18 years of age. I said then, and I say now, that, because the two acts are different, the question of equality of age does not arise under the law, although I recognise that it would be a dangerous wrong if a girl above the age of 16 could be subjected to buggery when boys would be protected until the age of 18. But the amendment thoroughly deals with this danger. The amendment draws a clear distinction between what I shall call normal, usual intercourse and anal intercourse. It accepts that normal intercourse is legally permissible at 16 years of age for men and women, and it provides that anal intercourse in respect of both men and women will be legally permissible at 18 years of age.

The amendment clearly addresses the question of equality under the law. It quite correctly and sensibly concentrates on the acts, which are different, and applies the law in respect of each of them to men and women equally. I know that this view will not be acceptable to those who are not prepared to acknowledge that the respective acts of intercourse are different. But there is a clear difference. As long as the amendment, as it does, applies the same standards equally to both men and women in respect of each act, no charge of discrimination can legitimately be made.

By way of example, albeit perhaps not a very good one, I say this. In this country it is illegal to sell tobacco to any person, male or female, under the age of 16 years, whereas when it comes to alcohol the age is 18 years for both young men and young women. The

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products are different; different ages apply; but they apply equally to both sexes; and, as far as I know, no one suggests that any discrimination is taking place. In what is before us, these acts of intercourse are different. The age proposals in each case apply equally to both sexes. Therefore, in my view, there is no discrimination.

Now, as I have demonstrated, there is no question of discrimination in what is proposed in the amendment. But I also feel that it is important to justify why it is sensible and necessary to apply different age levels to the different acts of intercourse. I feel that there is a broad spread of views as to why this should be so and they will all have been canvassed in debates in this House. But my reasons for supporting the amendment are focused in two areas: first, health; and, secondly, avoiding as far as possible extending the risk of abuse to which young people are exposed.

However, before I address those two areas, let me say that there is still widespread concern in this country about homosexuality which we should not ignore. We must not forget that the legalising of homosexuality was enacted only a relatively short time ago, with the age of consent being 21. It was reduced to 18 an even shorter time ago. Now it is proposed to reduce the age to 16. Many people think, "Where is it going to end?". There are many who oppose the reduction in the age of consent because they are either morally or religiously opposed totally to homosexuality; and much of our postbag confirms that. Many believe the act of homosexuality to be unnatural and say that it should not be permitted at all. On the other hand, there are those who see homosexuality as no different from heterosexuality as far as concerns the law. There are also those who believe there should be no age limit at all.

For me, this amendment is not about these issues. It is argued on the question of health and abuse, and I stand four square with that approach. The amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and others recognise that homosexual relationships will be legally permitted at the age of 16 for both boys and girls, short of buggery--short of permitting anal intercourse. No doubt many will be dissatisfied with that. Others will say that the amendment before the Committee reflects only a measure of damage limitation. Some will say that it is a shabby compromise. I do not accept any of those things. I believe that what is proposed in the amendment can be accepted by the Government.

Yes, it is a compromise, but a compromise which recognises and addresses the reality of the age of consent for heterosexual intercourse at 16 years of age, which has been with us since the 19th century when it was raised from the age of 12 years. At the same time, it is a compromise which displays an awareness of the dangers of abuse to which young people are exposed and a consciousness of the health risks associated with anal intercourse. The health risk, we know, cannot be totally removed, but we should not take any step that places young people in greater danger, particularly at a time when the scourge of HIV and AIDS is sweeping this planet.

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Others can no doubt point to numerous examples of the health risk associated with anal intercourse. Therefore, I shall draw to the attention of the Committee only two examples of the dangers. First, in a healthcare analysis published as far back as 1994 it was stated:

    "The risk of HIV infection from anal intercourse is extremely high: for men it is at least 2,700 times the risk from vaginal intercourse".

Secondly, the UK blood transfusion service leaflet states categorically:

    "If you are a man who's had sex with another man, even 'safe sex' using a condom, you should never give blood".

Those two examples certainly convince me that we should take no steps that could increase the health risk to young people.

Finally, I should like to refer to the danger of abuse to which young people can be exposed. I need not spend a great deal of time on this matter as we are all aware of the alarming number of reports of abuse in children's homes and at the hands of priests and others--often involving children below the age of 16, where paedophiles are involved. I know that we cannot prevent every criminal act but I do believe that we should never do anything that can lead to further abuse by unnecessarily making it easier for such abuse to take place. We know that when someone is abused it does not always end there, as those abused sometimes become abusers themselves.

So when we consider which Lobby each one of us goes through, I ask noble Lords to contemplate the following quotation from W.H. Auden which I came across recently:

    "I and the public know

    What all schoolchildren learn,

    Those to whom evil is done

    Do evil in return".

I ask noble Lords to consider also this question. If it is right to protect those under the age of 18 from abuse by people in positions of trust, is it not equally right to protect all those below the age of 18?

4.15 p.m.

Viscount Bledisloe: I intervene to--

Lord McColl of Dulwich: I should like to--

Noble Lords: Cross Benches!

Lord Bach: I think it is the turn of the Cross Benches.

Viscount Bledisloe: I intervene only to raise one practical point which I hope the proposers of the amendment will explain. However, before doing so, I cannot forbear saying, rather like the noble Lord, Lord Alli, that it is odd to find high-minded grandparents suggesting that this somewhat elderly House knows best what people want and what parents want. If this measure is really so unpopular with those people, is it not surprising that those who are

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dependent on their votes at next election should be universally advancing this measure whereas those who do not need votes are saying how unpopular it is?

If one has a law which states that sexual activity at the age of 16 is lawful unless it is anal intercourse, how on earth can it be enforced? What we are concerned with are consensual acts between people who are entitled to be in bed together. One cannot know whether they have committed a criminal offence unless it turns out that they have had anal intercourse. The authorities will not know whether they had anal intercourse except in two circumstances; first, where the 16 to 18 year-old needs to seek advice--probably medical advice or perhaps counselling--and then finds that he dare not do so because he will be dropping his partner in serious trouble; and, secondly, where the 16 to 18 year-old becomes vicious and wants to indulge in blackmail. How on earth will this law be properly enforced? And if it cannot be properly enforced, we should certainly not put it on the statute book.

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