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Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts: Before the noble Lord leaves the question of equality, does he agree that one great inequality lies in the rate at which children mature? Does he agree that some children are very mature at the age of 16, but most are not mature until the age of 18?

Lord Plant of Highfield: I spent most of my life in education. I have three sons who have had girlfriends and friends who are boys. To be honest, I have not noticed that type of rigid difference. Obviously--

Baroness Blatch: I apologise profusely to the noble Lord for intervening from a sedentary position. My noble friend was making the opposite point. He was not saying that the difference is rigid; he was saying that young people develop at different stages. However, the general point is that at the age of 16 one is not mature enough to make that type of decision.

Lord Plant of Highfield: I meant to say that my experience of being in a houseful of young children for most of my adult life does not lead me to take the view that the noble Lord took. I do not believe that there is a case for moving from equality.

Although it is not an addition to the argument, perhaps I may say to my noble friend Lord Davies of Coity, who quoted some moving words from W H Auden, that it is worth remembering that Auden himself was a homosexual who for many years lived in a very faithful relationship with Chester Kallman.

Lord Davies of Coity: Before my noble friend sits down, that may well be true. But I do not believe that he was 16 years old when that relationship developed.

Lord Mishcon: We have had a most uninhibited debate. I have been termed a grandfather. However, on first hearing the word "buggery" in this Chamber my own grandfather would have dragged me out. As I said, we have had a most frank and useful debate.

My only contribution arises out of the speech of my noble friend Lord Stoddart. He said that I had had some part, as had he, in the preparation of the Wolfendon report. Indeed, I was a member and, I am told, the last surviving member of the Wolfendon committee. I believe that it would interest the Committee if I were to read an excerpt from the section

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of the report where the committee was considering the very question of age and the appropriateness of age. Then I promise your Lordships, and especially the Whips, that I shall sit down:

    "There must obviously be an element of arbitrariness in any decision on this point"--

that is, the question of consent of age--

    "but, all things considered, the legal age of contractual responsibility seems to us to afford the best criterion for the definition of adulthood in this respect. While there are some grounds for fixing the age as low as 16, it is obvious that, however mature a boy of that age may be as regards physical development or psychosexual make-up, and whatever analogies may be drawn from the law relating to offences against young girls, a boy is incapable at the age of 16 of forming a mature judgment about actions of a kind which might have the effect of setting him apart from the rest of society. A young man between 18 and 21 may be expected to be rather more mature in this respect. We have, however, encountered several cases in which young men have been induced by means of gifts of money or hospitality to indulge in homosexual behaviour with older men and we have felt obliged to have regard to the large numbers of young men who leave their homes at or about the age of 18 and either for their employment or their education or to fulfil their National Service obligations are then for the first time launched into the world in circumstances which render them particularly vulnerable to advances of this sort".

That portion of the Wolfendon report related to any homosexual act. Without taking the liberty of guessing at what members of the committee might have told your Lordships today--it would be wrong of me to do so--I can only give my personal view that that would be their opinion at this stage when relating acts of buggery to the age of 18 instead of 16.

It seems to me to be absurd--I use the word advisedly--to know, as a lawyer, that if a young man of 16 were to sign a tenancy agreement of a bedsitting room, his act would be voidable because under the law it is considered that he is not capable of making a contractual obligation and does not have the experience to do so, but he would be responsible for what happened in that bedsitting room, and so would we if we reduced the age of consent to 16.

Earl Russell: Before the noble Lord sits down, I honour him for his contribution to the Wolfendon committee. However, is he aware that he has made the same mistake as did my great-grandfather in relation to the first reform Bill? He is playing the part of Finality Jack. My great-grandfather ultimately thought better of it. I hope that the noble Lord will do the same.

Lord Mishcon: I respect any ancestor of the noble Earl and will pay my respect to him. However, it may be that that ancestor was even more sensible than the noble Earl.

Baroness Blatch: It is customary in this Chamber to offer congratulations when a maiden speech is made and it is my understanding that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford made his maiden speech this afternoon in the course of this debate. If I am right about that, I wish to congratulate the right reverend Prelate.

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He took at least one of the two main pieces of advice that one receives when making a maiden speech; namely, to be brief. The right reverend Prelate was indeed brief. I am not sure about the other piece of advice--to be non-controversial. But the right reverend Prelate will not be surprised to know that I welcomed his comments and we shall welcome his support this evening.

I rise to support my noble friend Lady Young. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, who was the first to speak after my noble friend, said that he would have preferred a straight rejection of the Bill. I say "amen" to that. That is precisely what I should have preferred and I know that my noble friend would have preferred that too.

The noble Lord, Lord Newby, said that he supports the Bill for reasons of equality. The noble Lord is not present in his place but I should wish to remind him that my noble friend has dealt with the whole issue of equality, which dominated our previous debates.

The noble Lord, Lord Alli, accused my noble friend Lady Young of being unprincipled because her amendments before the Committee represent a compromise. My noble friend explained the amendments very well, in my opinion. The Government have stated their intention to use the Parliament Act on this matter of conscience, which removes our power to succeed in opposing the lowering of the age of consent. I agree with my noble friend Lady Seccombe who said that the use of the Parliament Act on a matter of conscience is an outrage.

Lord Alli: If it is a matter of principle, as the noble Baroness has just said, why is she supporting the amendment? If it is a matter of principle, surely she should be seeking to vote out the Bill and not to support the amendment moved by the noble Baroness.

Baroness Blatch: Has the noble Lord, Lord Alli, ever heard of politics being the art of the possible? We know that the Government intend to use the Parliament Act and we have no power to prevent that on this matter of conscience. Therefore, we are doing what we can to protect the most vulnerable young people in our communities.

Earl Russell: On the point of the Parliament Act and a matter of conscience, does the noble Baroness remember the War Crimes Act 1991?

Baroness Blatch: I am referring to this legislation. We are concerned about the protection of young people. The amendments are an attempt to offer greater protection to girls and the more vulnerable young people from that dangerous practice of buggery.

To describe my noble friend as unprincipled is deeply offensive. My noble friend is a person of the highest integrity and principle.

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Reference was made to the fact that the public have not been sounded out on this issue. But I remind the Committee that there was a referendum of all the people in Scotland. The overwhelming reply from the people of Scotland--and I have no reason whatever to believe that the answer would be different from the people of this country--was that they supported my noble friend in all her efforts and they certainly do not wish to see any lowering of the age of consent.

As has been said, we make laws on drinking, smoking and dropping litter in the street. To say that we are not fit to address this issue, which is serious in terms of morality and health, is simply not true.

The noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, referred to it as being high-minded to discuss these matters. But we discuss education, youth policies and all sorts of issues which affect young people. This is just another social issue which affects young people.

But when we pass laws in Parliament, we send messages in relation to what the government of the day think about the laws of the land. This is an important message which should be modified. If we cannot reject the Bill, then, in my view, it should be modified.

The most significant point that I want to make this evening is that, apart from the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, little has been said about the most vulnerable young people in our community. Later this evening, we shall be discussing what may be described as the Waterhouse amendments. We know, because of the evidence in the report of those dreadful happenings in Wales, that much of the sexual activity which took place in those cases would be made legal under this Bill. We know that vulnerable young people, especially those who live their lives in institutions, go to great lengths to seek affection. Very often, they are inveigled into situations in which, because they seek affection and want to be loved and wanted, they find themselves seriously compromised.

We know from the conclusions of Professor Waterhouse's report that many of those young people between the ages of 16 and 18 are farmed out to third parties--not those named in the abuse of trust clauses in the Bill--for sex. That would be made legal under the Bill.

The case for these amendments has been made powerfully by my noble friend Lady Young and others. Therefore, I shall not detain the Committee any longer. My noble friend has fought for the health and protection of children with great courage. She has often been subjected to much ridicule and offensive comment. I shall willingly join her in the Division Lobby this evening and I hope that the majority of Members of the Committee will also do so.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: First, I join with the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, in congratulating the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford on his maiden speech. I, too, noticed two things about it: first, it was commendably short; and, secondly, it was very clear and sincere. I hope that we shall hear more from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of

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Chelmsford in the months and years to come on a whole number of topics, because he plainly has a great deal to contribute to the proceedings of this House.

I turn now to the issues. There has been an extremely powerful and strong debate today in which both sides of the argument have been strongly and clearly put. I should not assist the Committee by going through each of the contributions which have been made. I hope that the Committee will forgive me for not doing that.

Perhaps I may identify what seem to me to be the main issues in relation to this matter. First, the Bill is advanced by the Government on the basis of equality. The point was made by my noble and learned friend the Attorney-General on Second Reading that homosexuals are entitled to equality before the law. That is the reason that the Bill was introduced.

The equality issue requires that homosexuals should be entitled to the same rights before the law in relation to sexual activity as heterosexuals. That principle of equality before the law appears to be accepted by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and those who support her in relation to putting forward the amendment.

But in those circumstances, homosexual sexual activity, including anal intercourse, is to be regarded in a different way from heterosexual intercourse. So a distinction is to be drawn between the homosexual and the heterosexual. So there is not equality on that basis.

Therefore, the Government do not accept the basic premise advanced by the noble Baroness--namely, that her amendment provides equality.

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