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Baroness Blatch: Does the noble and learned Lord accept that both boys and girls can indulge in heterosexual sex but that under the amendments, both boys and girls would not be allowed to indulge in homosexual activity? It is equal for both in both cases.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I accept entirely the description which the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, has given of the amendments. It was just as clearly put by the noble Baroness, Lady Young. But homosexual intercourse involves anal intercourse; heterosexual intercourse will not. In those circumstances, it is being said that a different rule should apply to heterosexuals from that which should apply to homosexuals. That is the basic premise in relation to equality which we advance in rejecting the amendments.

Lord Carlisle of Bucklow: Is the noble and learned Lord really saying as the logic of his argument that one should equate vaginal intercourse with anal intercourse? Many would not accept that.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: The proposition that underlines the rejection of the amendment advanced by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, is that homosexuals and heterosexuals, in relation to the expression of their sexual activity, should have equality before the law. That is exactly the proposition

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that has been put--I notice that the noble Baroness, Lady Young, is nodding--and that is the logic of the Government's position.

The noble Baroness and those who support her say that as long as the situation is the same in relation to anal intercourse there will be equality before the law. With respect, the Government do not accept that proposition. Homosexuals are entitled to an equal age of consent to that of heterosexuals. That is the basic position that we accept and put forward in relation to this Bill. That is the point of principle that divides those who support the noble Baroness, Lady Young, from those who support the Government in rejecting the amendment.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: I am a little muddled about the definition. I am not an expert on this matter. Is the Minister saying--this may be a stupid question--that the only form of homosexual intercourse is anal intercourse? I understand that to be part of his argument in relation to equality.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I say that homosexuals and heterosexuals are entitled to equality before the law, and that will include the homosexual being entitled to express his sexuality in the way that he wants.

The second argument advanced in relation to this amendment was that to protect children and to avoid health risks that arise from anal intercourse the age of consent for anal intercourse, whether female or male, should be 18. So the medical risks and the interests of children were put at the forefront of the arguments of the noble Baroness.

The noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, in a well-measured speech, set out the position of the BMA in relation to that matter. That organisation rightly identified that anal intercourse presents a much greater risk for HIV transmission for homosexuals and bisexual men than most other types of sexual activity. Therefore, it is of the highest importance that young men who are at such risk have access to health promotion advice from professionals such as doctors, teachers or youth workers to help them to avoid infection.

However, the BMA said:

    "Continued criminalisation of this activity for those under 18 is likely to prevent a significant number of young gay men from seeking professional advice. It is also likely to inhibit professionals from providing adequate information to those under 18 about how to make the riskiest practices safer including the use of condoms. The BMA Foundation for AIDS believes there is no convincing medical reason for retaining a higher age of consent for anal intercourse between men, but strong medical reasons why it should be reduced to 16 years".

That is the view of the British Medical Association in relation to the health risks. Not for one moment do I want to become involved in the detail of the health issues, but I look at the views of an independent body of doctors in relation to that and that is their considered view in relation to the health risks.

It was said that this amendment will put children at risk. Like the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, perhaps I may indicate some organisations that

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support the Bill: the NSPCC, Barnardo's, the National Children's Homes, Action for Children, the National Youth Agency, the National Children's Bureau, the British Youth Council, Save the Children Fund, Family Welfare Association, Health Education Authority, British Medical Association, Family Planning Association, Children's Rights Development Unit, National Association of Probation Officers, British Association of Social Workers, Royal College of Nursing, Royal College of Psychiatrists and Amnesty International.

Those bodies plainly have as their main concern the interests of young people and they support the reduction in the age of consent to 16. On a regular, day-to-day basis, they deal with the problems that people face. I respect their views and before the Committee decides what view it wants to take in relation to the amendment, it must carefully consider the views of those bodies. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Young, that this is a very important decision.

Baroness Blatch: First, is the Minister aware that not one of the voluntary organisations that he has named consulted its members in relation to this Bill? My family are contributors to the NSPCC and when we got in touch with that organisation, apart from being treated rather shabbily on the telephone, it said that the decision was that of the board, exclusive of the membership.

Secondly, is the Minister aware that Barnardo's, in writing to my noble friend Lady Seccombe, who had referred to the fact that the Bill not only lowered the age of consent for boys but also lowered it to allow buggery against girls at the age of 16, said:

    "What I can say is that Barnardo's has not been aware that young women would be affected in the way you point out, and I would be grateful if you could let me know which Clause of the Bill you are referring to".

Not only has that organisation given an opinion without consulting its members or its contributors, but it has also misunderstood the Bill.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I am not in a position to describe the process of consultation that those bodies went through, but I have little doubt that in expressing their views to Parliament in a matter of great significance, they gave their bona fide views as to what was in the best interests of children whom they are designed to protect. Maybe they could have had a better consultation process, but I am quite sure that that was their view according to their experience.

Lord Northbourne: Can the Minister confirm that all those organisations have been consulted on the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and not on the principle of reducing the age of consent on which we all agree?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: According to the piece of paper that I have seen from those organisations, they have commented on the amendment of the noble

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Baroness; for example, the NSPCC have set out in detail why it is keen to reject the amendment. My belief is that the vast majority of them have been consulted on that, although no doubt the noble Baroness can tell the Committee whether she consulted any of them before putting forward her amendment.

Lord Waddington: We must be clear about this. When I came into the House today I received the briefing from the organisation to which the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, has referred, and there is no specific reference to the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Young.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: Perhaps I can read from a communication from the NSPCC:

    "The amendments to Clause 1 of the Bill by Baroness Young and Baroness Seccombe would create two different ages of consent--an age of consent at 18 for anal intercourse, whether homosexual or heterosexual, and an age of consent at 16 for all other homosexual or heterosexual sexual relations".

That is what they are considering. At the end it says:

    "The NSPCC therefore rejects these amendments. We ask Peers to support the new offence of abuse of trust as currently drafted in the Bill. The NSPCC supports the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill. We support the equalisation of the age of consent at 16".

I am told by my noble and learned friend the Attorney-General that that is dated today. So I believe that the NSPCC considered it in detail and gave detailed arguments as to why it rejects the amendment.

I put before the Committee the point that those organisations, all of whom are concerned with the welfare of children and all of whom would put their bona fide views to the Committee, take the view that this is not a sensible amendment. I ask noble Lords to take that into account when they make up their minds in relation to these amendments.

Perhaps I can deal with the point about Scotland. Sodomy is a common law offence in Scotland and it is defined as buggery of one man by another. There is no heterosexual equivalent. In Scotland, having anal intercourse with a consenting adult woman--for example, over the age of 16--is not an offence. To change that situation would require a new definition of sodomy to be introduced into Scottish law. It is far from clear whether the amendment does that, but a further important issue that we have not touched on is that that would be a substantive change to the criminal law in Scotland which goes beyond the age change at present in the Bill. That is a devolved matter and, therefore, it is something on which the Scottish Parliament should properly decide and legislate.

As Members of the Committee know, the Scottish Parliament supports the present proposals in the Bill. It endorses them by a large majority and asks Westminster to enact them for Scotland on its behalf. However, it did not give its agreement to the creation of a wholly new offence such as the one proposed, which criminalises practices which are currently lawful in Scotland.

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I ask Members of the Committee to reject Amendment No. 1 and the consequential amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, first, on the principle of equality and, secondly, because far from providing the protection for children which the noble Baroness claims they will, many people involved in the process feel that they will have the reverse effect. I therefore invite the Committee to reject the amendment.

6 p.m.

Baroness Young: My Lords, first, I thank all those who supported me this afternoon. If I do not mention everybody by name, it is not that I do not greatly appreciate all that they said; it is that time will not allow. We have had a good and fair debate. Perhaps I can add my congratulations to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford and say how much I appreciated his comments.

Basically, two main issues arose in this debate and I turn to those before addressing the points raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer. The first issue is obviously an important one. A dispute arose between my noble friend Lord McColl, who made an extremely important speech on the medical dangers of anal intercourse--the statistics he gave on smoking and anal sex and the shortening of young people's lives as a consequence of those activities should be remembered by us all--and the noble Lord, Lord Walton, whom I have known for years as a neighbour and friend in Oxford and who clearly does not support my amendment today.

I suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Walton, that the BMA is mistaken in thinking that, by lowering the age of consent to 16, it will provide better advice and safer sex for young people. The evidence, which is what we are considering, indicated that when the age of consent was lowered from 18 the amount of infections increased. That suggests that lowering the age of consent will not help and I have not the slightest reason for thinking that if the age of consent is lowered to 16, fewer infections will occur. The BMA should recognise that.

The BMA says that anal intercourse is such a risky activity from the medical point of view that the age of consent should be lowered from 18 to 16 in order for young men to seek better safe sex advice. But the amount of advice already available is enormous. One only needs to look at commonly-accepted publications such as the one I hold in my hand, in which at least eight organisations are listed which can be contacted by telephone, to realise that it is a fallacy to think that young people cannot readily obtain advice.

As one would expect from a lawyer, the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, asked an important question of the noble Lord, Lord Walton, when he asked what a court would decide. Following on from the Gillick case, it is apparent that a doctor would not be sued for giving professional advice to a young person under 18 who asked for it. So the noble Lord's argument in that regard does not hold up.

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The second argument advanced came from the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, who asked me straight out: what is the point of introducing my amendments because they are unenforceable? I am sure that the noble Viscount has studied this matter as closely as myself. He will recognise that the law at the moment is that heterosexuals can commit sexual acts at 16 but must wait until they are 18 to commit buggery. What I am proposing is no different in principle. The question of enforceability therefore does not arise any more under my amendments than under the law as it stands at present.

Perhaps I can comment once again on equality. My colleagues and myself thought hard and long about this point and made a genuine effort to meet some of the arguments. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, will know as well as I--it was mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Stoddart and Lord Davies of Coity--that all sorts of age limits exist for different activities such as smoking, drinking, driving and probably for signing a contract for a bedsitting room, though I am not sure what age that is. They are all accepted. Why we should feel that we have to accept the narrowly defined terms of equality put forward by the Government I simply do not know.

But there is a profound difference between heterosexual sex and anal sex which I must underline. One is an extremely dangerous activity; the other involves dangers, but not in the serious medical sense to which reference has been made. Once again, the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, in reading out the section from the Wolfenden report, accurately summed up the arguments on the age of consent being 18.

Finally, I turn to the charities. I have not heard from the NSPCC. None of the charities write to me on these issues. I have offered to see them but they never wish to discuss it. I am not sure why. I sometimes think that they are a little uncertain about discussing the issue with someone who has strongly-held opinions. Charities do many good works. But they are not always right and this argument does contain a moral aspect.

I have said it before and I repeat: I speak as a Christian. In all our debates there has been a great feeling among the Christians, among the Moslems in this Chamber, among the Sikhs, the Jews and the Hindus of what we believe is right and wrong. If charities thought about the views of their founders, they too would look at that aspect of this whole debate.

So I come back to the amendments before us. We are fighting to protect children from dangerous activities which could damage their health. I hope that my amendment receives support and I wish to test the opinion of the Committee.

6.8 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 1) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 205; Not-Contents, 144.

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