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The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford: I speak as a new Member of this place and within the category of "kindly grandfather". I have five adult children and I have listened carefully to them over the past years and months in relation to the areas that we are continuing to debate. I have also listened carefully to the diocese that I serve, which covers Essex and five east London boroughs. I have met considerable concern from many different age groups and many different constituencies about the proposal to lower the age of consent to 16.

In listening again to the arguments put forward this afternoon, which have been most cogently and powerfully put both in the areas of protection and

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health--indeed, it so important to focus upon these aspects--I recognise how carefully they are balanced. Yet I would want to urge your Lordships to consider very carefully the amendment that has been put before us by the noble Baroness, Lady Young. I have greatly respected the noble Baroness's dogged and consistent working at bringing a reasoned and reasonable--I underline the words "reasoned and reasonable"--opposition to this particular Bill. I have remained opposed in my own mind to this Bill, but I believe that the amendment before us this afternoon offers a way forward.

Earl Russell: We have had an excellent and fascinating debate. However, in terms of principles, language and reference, we must accept that we are living in two different worlds. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, invoked his postbag. When I think of my own postbag on this subject, which is quite a large one, I can say that I have only received a single letter that agreed with the view taken by the noble Earl. I am sorry. Indeed, if they agreed with the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, I do not think that they would write to me. Alternatively, if they agreed with me, I do not believe that they would write to the noble Earl.

Earl Ferrers: In that case, the noble Earl will agree that one is perfectly justified in holding the view held by the majority of people who have written to me--and, as far as I know, to my noble friends--and who are against the Bill.

Earl Russell: It is not clear which side has the majority. However, it is clear to me that there is strong opinion on both sides of the question. It also seems to me that there is a very clear division in terms of age.

The noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, felt offended by what is on the Government's website. I am sorry about that, but I cannot comment on it because I am incapable of reading websites. I belong to the older generation. But from what the noble Baroness quoted, I cannot believe that among my pupils, who are between the ages of 18 and 21, more than one in 100 would have taken any offence at those words. We really are in different worlds.

Indeed, as recently as last Thursday, after a tutorial had concluded, I was trying to persuade one of my pupils who had taken great offence at the noble Baroness, Lady Young, that the noble Baroness was an entirely reasonable, friendly and good-natured person whom I rather liked. I put a lot of effort into that, and I have to do so quite often. So we must accept that we are in different worlds.

However, if we are trying to apply these amendments to a particular age group, we should also take account of the fact that we need a measure of consent within that group. That seems to me to be very largely lacking. Among my pupils, there are one or two who agree with the view taken by the noble Baroness, Lady Young. But they are very few and far between. It

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simply is not the language of the generation. Both my children tell me that they know of no one who takes that view; and they get around a bit.

The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, also raised the point--

Lord Elton: Perhaps I may ask the noble Earl a question that has occurred to me frequently over the past year in this House. Is there not genuinely a form of wisdom that is the wisdom of hindsight; and does not age and experience count for something in the guidance of the young?

Earl Russell: Yes, it does count for something. But consent to the criminal law also counts. My argument is that I do not believe that that consent will be forthcoming. Without it, the law tends to be brought into disrepute. In enforcing the criminal law on a group of people, there is such a thing as a "blocking third": if a third of the population affected by the law believes that there is no justifiable moral basis for the law, it becomes extremely difficult to enforce. One may welcome that or regret it, but either way I believe it to be fact.

The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, also raised the question of the two-stage process. He asked why this had come about so soon after 1994. He might consider the case in 1918 when the vote was given to women--again, with an unequal age of voting: 30 against 21. It took 10 years before the ages were equalised. Sir Charles Oman, the Member for Oxford University, speaking in another place at the time said that that was just about the end of civilisation. However, as I observe the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, in her place in the Chamber today, I do not think that it has been. We should not be too surprised--six years instead of 10--things may have improved a little. But the situation still remains that, where you have a two-bites-of-the-cherry process, you do move on from one to the other.

This Bill was a manifesto commitment for my party, but it is also a matter of a free vote. Therefore, although I speak for party policy, I speak for myself and, in so far as I do ask for support, I seek it from every quarter of the Chamber on an equal basis. I have not tabled any amendments to the Bill. It is a Parliament Act 1911 Bill. Section 2(3) of that Act says:

    "A Bill shall be deemed to be rejected by the House of Lords if it is not passed by the House of Lords either without amendment or with such amendments only as may be agreed to by both Houses".

So while I listen to the debate with an open mind, as I must do, I am not at present minded to support amendments unless I see some chance of their receiving support in another place. Personally, I have been waiting 43 years for this Bill. I do not regard it as precipitate.

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I am also concerned that the Bill should pass through this Chamber because I believe that the issue has done more damage to the reputation of this House, in those quarters within--

Noble Lords: Oh!

Earl Russell: Perhaps noble Lords will allow me to finish my sentence. I was about to say that this issue has done more damage to the reputation of this House in the quarters within which I move than anything else since Irish home rule. I cannot answer for what it has done in other quarters. Those concerned may perhaps answer for that better than I can. I began by saying that this was a matter of intense division of opinion, so all that I say is with that premise--

Baroness Park of Monmouth: I simply want to ask the noble Earl a question because I am genuinely puzzled. As I understand it, the amendment recognises that there shall be freedom for homosexual acts to be committed between consenting adults from the age of 16 onwards and only makes an exception for one particular act, which we have been told by many speakers from all sides carries far greater implications, results and dangers than anything else. Therefore, I do not see what is wrong with accepting the principle of homosexuality and the right of people to make choices, while making it clear from the beginning to both parties to the act (including the older and more experienced person) that that act of buggery is too dangerous to contemplate until we are out of the stage of childhood with 16 year-olds. What is the problem with that compromise?

Earl Russell: The noble Baroness just about anticipates my next few words. I apologise for what may have been a rather long introduction. However, as it appeared to be giving rise to some controversy, I elaborated on one or two points. I hope that the noble Baroness will forgive me.

We all find that we occasionally experience a sense of distaste when hearing about other people's sexual practices--homosexual and heterosexual equally. Indeed, just as happened to me when I read in a newspaper entry on 14th February, "Tinky Winky loves Pig Face". I do not see why I need to know; it has nothing to do with me. I do not really want to know about other people's sexual practices in private because it is nothing to do with me. A great deal of the distaste that I feel is very often because I know that I really should not know anything about it. It is not my business. As for the danger, we are not dealing here only with homosexual practices. We are told that 13 per cent of heterosexuals of both sexes have had experience of anal intercourse. Most of them appear to be still here and in reasonably good health.

The Terrence Higgins Trust which has some knowledge of these matters tells us,

    "The view on anal intercourse being 2,700 times more risky in terms of HIV ... is wholly misleading".

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I do not know the evidence for that but the opinion itself at least deserves a hearing. The trust also points out:

    "There are more newly diagnosed cases of HIV in the UK among heterosexuals than gay men. Indeed ... globally over 90% of HIV infections occur as a result of heterosexual intercourse".

The days when one could associate HIV with homosexuality constituted a brief phase before the disease spread into the heterosexual community. That is now over.

I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Walton, and others. I am not certain that the danger is anything like as great as it is made out to be. But even if it is, I do not believe that danger has ever deterred people from sexual practice. If that had been so, and as the danger to women until recent times in bearing a child was so great, I believe that few of your Lordships would be here now.

5 p.m.

Lord Waddington: Does not the noble Earl agree that the possibility of punishment might deter an older man from having sexual intercourse with a boy of say, 16, particularly if the older man knew that if he infected the boy and gave him HIV the punishment would be heavy?

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