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Mr. Hughes : The hon. Lady indicates otherwise, but my understanding is that the Government would want a technically more perfect option.

Mrs. Currie : We all took a great deal of careful advice, and I was assured that the clauses are in order. It may happen--and I hope that it will--that the Government will take note of the views expressed by the Committee, because there might have to ge a good deal of other messing around. Tonight's debate, however, concerns the age of consent.

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Mr. Hughes : If the new clause is in order, the hon. Lady is right. I share her view, and I hope that we will return to deal with the rest of the muddle. We should take the Bill as an opportunity to sort out other aspects.

Right hon. and hon. Members are clear that they speak only from their own position in this debate. I must be clear not to misrepresent others. My party's view is that the age of consent should be reduced to 16, equally for both sexes.

I agree entirely with the principle of equality. My only concern--I address my comments to colleagues who may yet be undecided, as I have been for a long time, about how to vote on these options--is whether 16 is too young. The hon. Member for Reading, West (Sir A. Durant) addressed that issue. The task for us, therefore, is to try to resolve the matters that are not capable of proof, only judgment. We cannot tonight have a convincing answer that says that one conclusion is inevitable, or that the argument is only on one side.

It seems to me that there are three considerations that we should weigh. The first is equality ; the second is protection of the young and vulnerable ; the third is criminality. I shall speak briefly first on the subject of equality. The question that we are all asking ourselves is whether the circumstances and situations are similar for young men who want a relationship with another young man, and for young men and women who want relationships with each other. Are they similar, if not identical? One could argue the question either way. The most telling argument, however, is that some young people who, at the moment, are criminalised by the law and who, even if the law were changed to 18, would still be in a different position in relation to the criminal law, know that they will still be treated like second-class citizens. If a group in our society can show with justification that the law treats them differently, we must address that. The more important point is that if we retain on the statute book something that discriminates because of orientation between one person and another, we are making a statement about the inequality as citizens of that group for all their activities at whatever age.

Mr. Butterfill : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge) : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hughes : No. Another hon. Member asked first. Let me finish this point.

It seems to me that there is an absolutely overwhelming requirement to be just to people for whom the law at the moment is unjust.

Mr. Butterfill : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I should like to press him on the question of criminality, on which I pressed the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock). I am slightly puzzled. Can he give an example where a young person in a relationship involving an older person has been prosecuted? I agree entirely that it would be wrong for the young person to be prosecuted.

Mr Hughes : It may be my own inadequacy, but I am not entirely clear about the hon. Gentleman's question. I intend in a moment to deal with criminality. I hope that I will answer the question. I apologise in advance if I do not answer it entirely.

Another thing that follows from equality. If we come to the conclusion that we need to treat heterosexual and

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homosexual people in relationships equally, it follows that, as a society, we should allow settled couples to register as being settled couples. The state should allow that. If we believe in stability of relationships, as opposed to changing relationships, we should address that question at some stage, whether for tax purposes, immigration or whatever.

Mr. Devlin : Marriage.

Mr. Hughes : No. Of course, there is a separate argument about marriage. The answer to both questions is that marriage is something that is specifically taken and inherited from a position of Christian faith. It applies also in other faith doctrines. In many countries, a civic ceremony, entirely separate from the religious ceremony, recognises partnership. Some countries do just that, too. I do not want to be distracted by this, but I shall make the point that we must not be naive or dishonest about pretending that there are no other issues on the agenda. The important point is to decide the matters that are subject to equality.

Mr. Nicholls : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

8.15 pm

Mr. Hughes : No, because I have been asked, as we all have, to be as brief as possible.

I hope that hon. Members will come to the conclusion, as the right hon. Member for Islwyn did, that equality is a principle which is not only difficult to oppose but one that must be supported. Of course, that would mean, as of tonight, a law at 16, because for heterosexual relationships that is what it is.

My second point is about protection of the vulnerable. We clearly have a duty in the House to protect young people as they grow up. There must be an absolute age, below which any sexual relationship with a youngster is one to which that youngster cannot give consent. Anyone who engages in a relationship with that youngster must be punished, and punished hard. There is then an age when people are growing up. It is impossible to police a protection mechanism to keep young people from each other. It is practically impossible, unenforceable and, I would argue, unworkable, to prevent 15, 16 and 17-year-olds from having relationships between each other, or between one age and another of close age. We should not try to do that. We certainly should not criminalise those who are having a relationship with someone of their own near age range as part of their experimental period of growing up.

We should, of course, seek to ensure that young people--the point has been made in interventions--are not the victims of significantly older people who go looking for young people, not because they want a permanent relationship but simply for their own personal gratification. Young people need that protection when they are growing up. That applies also to young women, who are equally in need of protection against the older person seeking to seduce them for personal pleasure.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow) : I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Dail discussed this issue in the teeth of formidable opposition in Dublin and elsewhere. They reached the conclusion, led by Ms Geoghegan Quinn, that there should be a common age

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of consent of 17 years. Does he think that a common age of consent of 17 years would be an acceptable compromise?

Mr. Hughes : I share the view that the Irish Parliament came to recently. The opinion poll that was published yesterday in The Sunday Times showed that 42 per cent. of people think that the heterosexual age of consent should be raised. We delude ourselves because we are hooked on the wrong phrase. It is not an "age of consent", but an age of protection. It is an age during which we protect young people. After that, we say that it is up to them to protect themselves, that education must be their protection, and the law should not intervene.

Dr. Michael Clark (Rochford) : I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman is talking about protection of young people. Will he address for a moment what I call the speed limit syndrome? By that, I mean that when a speed limit is 30 mph, it is most unlikely that there will be prosecutions of anyone going up to 40 mph--perhaps there would be beyond that. Therefore, if the age of consent for homosexual acts should be 16, is not it possible that there would be no prosecutions above the age of 14? Therefore, we have by default allowed the age of consent to go down to 14, which is not what we want in the House.

Mr. Hughes : I understand that point entirely. I can address it personally as someone who trained as a barrister and prosecuted for the Metropolitan police and the Thames Valley police, and also defended people. There was always a practical realisation that, under the present law, it was a completely arbitrary system. Some people were picked up and prosecuted, others were not. We would have to ensure that the law is enforced, so far as it could be, in a uniform way. I accept entirely that if the Committee votes tonight for 16, that is what we will require to be the age below which those who exploit young people should, without equivocation, be prosecuted. I argue for what I hope is the more intelligent outcome--the growing-up period during which one prosecutes not the young person doing the experimenting but the older person doing the exploiting. That is a fundamental principle : one prosecutes the adult who knows better. Let me make one point about the Church of which I am a member, and respond to the quotation from the Archbishop of York. This is not a debate about what the Church teaches or about the Christian ethic. It is not a debate about the one verse in which Christ could be said to have said anything on the subject. There is a difference between personal morality and public law. The Church does not have a common view.

Moreover, the view taken by eminent members of the Church--that 18 is the right age, or that it should be the common age across the sexes--is not a view which they necessarily regard as a final resting place. There is no obvious accurate conclusion. The Church seeks to give wisdom and judgment. I hope, therefore, that the House will not conclude that there is one clear Christian view. This is a difficult area of ethical teaching and everyone must decide today what the law should be, not what morality or the Church should teach.

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Sir Anthony Durant : At no time when I quoted the Archbishop of York did I in any way suggest that he represented the Church. He represented his own views.

Mr. Hughes : I am making the point that there is not a common Church view--only individual views within the Church. The Church should anyway take the view that it was more important for it to concentrate on love, fidelity and monogamy than on the details of this issue.

Why do I favour 17 rather than 16 or 18? It is because some of us are nervous that 16 is too young. More important, we must take into account the fact that, in England and Wales, someone of 16 still has to go to school-- he or she cannot leave until after their 16th birthday. At age 16, therefore, one is still under authority. It seems to me that the time at which to give young people the full rights of adults is the time at which they can make full choices about schooling, education, work, training and so on. That is when they reach the age of other entitlements.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) : They can make love in the school holidays.

Mr. Hughes : Of course, and I have made it clear that there should not be any criminality attached to such activity at that age.

Mr. Tony Banks : Behind the bike sheds?

Mr. Hughes : Behind the bicycle sheds or anywhere else. There may be a consensus in the House about the relevant age being the age soonest after which youngsters are no longer compulsorily at school. The hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) reminded us that in Ireland the age is 17.

The choice before us is between 16 and 18, or, if both are defeated, 17. I believe that the Committee will reach a view in favour of 16 or 18 and that the 17 option is unlikely to remain available. We must, therefore, choose between 16 and 18 even if we prefer something else. I hope that, as a result of tonight's vote, we shall choose equality at 16, but return--I ask the Home Secretary to make sure that we do--to the question whether that equality should be at 16 or 17. I believe that there may be widespread support, from gay people included, for a re-examination of that issue. We can then have a debate not about criminality but about the right way to order without discrimination private activity in Britain today.

Mr. Howard : In what I hope will be a relatively brief speech, I propose to seek to set the debate in historical context and to give some personal views.

I should make it clear at the outset that the Government regard this as an issue which should be decided by a free vote. They will respect the wishes of the House. I should also make it clear, however, that the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill is not a sexual offences Bill and the Government have no intention of embarking on any wide-ranging programme of sexual offences reform within it. The present law relating to homosexual conduct between adult males in private owes its origin to the report of the committee chaired by Sir John Wolfenden, which was asked to examine these matters in 1954. The committee reported in 1957. Among its central conclusions, to be found at paragraph 71 of the report, was that

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"a boy is incapable at the age of 16 of forming a mature judgement about actions of a kind which might have the effect of setting him apart from the rest of society."

Wolfenden proposed that the relevant age should be 21, and the Sexual Offences act 1967 translated that proposal into law. When the Home Office Policy Advisory Committee referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Sir A. Durant) revisited Wolfenden's arguments a quarter of a century later, it did not depart significantly from its predecessor's analysis of the key issues. In answer to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie), I do not think that that analysis is necessarily devalued by the fact that the report was published in 1981. That committee received a similar variety of expert evidence on the psychological and sexual maturity of young men between the ages of 16 and 21. It was also able to reflect on the experience gained by the police and prosecuting authorities of the Sexual Offences Act 1967. The committee could not reach a unanimous view. But the majority of its members concluded, like Wolfenden, that the key question was to determine an age at which most young men could be said to be mature enough to take a decision on these matters for themselves. The committee's conclusion, which was informed by the public consultation which preceded its report, was that the age of consent should be reduced to 18. Although current medical opinion seems more rather than less certain that sexual orientation is fixed in both sexes by 16 in most cases, there will still be some young men for whom homosexual experience after that age will have profoundly influential and potentially disturbing effects.

It is also still unquestionably the case that most parents hope and expect their sons to follow a heterosexual lifestyle and hope that in due course they will build a family life of their own. The committee put it in the following way at paragraph 38 :

"The majority of parents would surely wish their children to grow up with the desire and possibility of marriage and children, and anything which puts this expectation at risk would be deplored." I believe that those arguments still hold good. It is still true that in following a homosexual way of life a young man sets himself apart from the majority. From a certain age, he should be free to take that decision and no persecution or discrimination should flow from his decision, but he should not be misled into thinking that his decision will have no effect on his dealings with society at large. At the very least, he deserves time in which to make up his mind.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent) : Is my right hon. and learned Friend confident that a young man as confused as the one whom he is portraying will be greatly assisted by having what he is experimenting with deemed to be criminal? Does he not accept that the way in which society at present handles the whole question of homosexuality creates so many barriers and pressures that the young man would well understand that he was entering into a minefield, without the sanctions or otherwise of criminal law?

Mr. Howard : I do not agree with the second part of my hon. Friend's question. This is one of those matters on which a young man needs time. In answer to the first part of my hon. Friend's question, that young man is likely to be assisted by that extra time.

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Mr. Bill Walker : Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that we must also consider the parents of that young man? The vast majority of parents are concerned about the protection of such young men. That is why the law was set as it was, and the consideration is still relevant today.

Mr. Howard : I certainly agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) that the views of parents need to be taken into account. He put that question as a parent and I speak as a parent, as did the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock), who made an especial point about that in his speech.

Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North) : I understand, although I no longer agree with, the Secretary of State's assumptions about maturity at age 18 as compared with 16, which would apply to almost any decision that a young person makes. The Home Secretary's whole argument seems to be based on two assumptions. Will he confirm that those assumptions are, first, that between the ages of 16 and 18, young men are converted to homosexuality rather than discovering that they are homosexual and, secondly, that that conversion can be stopped by the threat of criminal action? Will he confirm that, because it underlies everything that he has said, as he will realise when he re-reads his speech.

Mr. Howard : I do not accept that the argument that I put to the Committee rests on that assumption at all. I have said that there are likely to be, not all, but a number of young men between the ages of 16 and 18 who do not have a settled sexual orientation and who may benefit from the extra time which may be available if a new clause other than the one which the hon. Gentleman supports is passed by the Committee. That is the essential point that I am making and it is rather different from the assertion that lay behind the hon. Gentleman's intervention.

8.30 pm

Ms Marjorie Mowlam (Redcar) : If we want young men to grow up happy, secure and stable, and if the picture the Home Secretary paints is something that some young men go through between 16 and 18, how does it help them by making it a criminal act?

Mr. Howard : One of the functions of the criminal law in that area, which I suspect everyone in the House accepts, because everyone is arguing that there should be a minimum age, is to protect the young and the vulnerable. That point was made earlier from the Opposition benches. It was a phrase used by the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). That is an important factor and one to which the House must give full weight in considering the matter.

Mr. Alan Howarth (Stratford-on-Avon) : My right hon. and learned Friend made the point that a person's sexual activities were an aspect of their dealings with society at large. Does he accept that the age of consent is a civil rights issue? Does he agree that unless it can be demonstrated that to bring the age of consent for male homosexuals into line with the age of consent for heterosexuals and for female homosexuals would do some distinctive damage to society, we ought to do it? Does he agree that no evidence has been produced which justifies discrimination against male homosexuals?

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Mr. Howard : That is precisely what is under discussion and precisely the point that I have been addressing in the remarks that I have made and in the interventions that I have answered. The point that I have put merits careful consideration and in my judgment, as I shall make clear in a moment, is a compelling argument for not reducing the age of consent to 16.

There are two further arguments--

Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey) : I have been listening to what the Home Secretary has said about the maturity of 16-year-old boys and I do not understand why he is making a distinction between those who are homosexual and those who are heterosexual. Is he not arguing that there should be a difference in the ages of consent for men and for women and that the age of consent for all boys should be 18 rather than 16? I do not understand the distinction that he is drawing between the two orientations.

Mr. Howard : I shall try to explain. It is based, as I have sought to explain, on the factor recognised by the Wolfenden committee and by the Policy Advisory Committee which later considered the matter on behalf of the Home Office. The point that led them to the view that it was appropriate to have a different age of consent for men than for women was not simply that one may mature later than the other, but because of the consequences of homosexual activities. That is the point at issue and the point which Opposition Members seem to find difficult to understand.

Ms Abbott rose --

Mr. Tony Banks rose--

Mr. Howard : I shall put it again in the words of the Wolfenden committee. [Interruption.] It is an important point which merits consideration whatever view one takes of it. The committee said : "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."

The consequences of such a decision go to the heart of the issue and it is that consequence which led the Wolfenden committee and the Policy Advisory Committee to reach the conclusions in their reports.

Miss Joan Lestor (Eccles) : If the age of consent becomes 18 and, in the Home Secretary's words, young men may be unsure of where they stand between the ages of 16 and 18, how on earth will they find out what they are unless they experiment? But if they experiment, he will send them to prison. Prison is hardly the place to get people out of homosexuality. [Interruption.]

Mr. Howard : I am afraid that the hon. Lady-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse) : Order. The House must settle down. I must draw to the attention of people in the Gallery that there must be no clapping or demonstrations whatever.

Mr. Howard : I am afraid that the hon. Lady has totally misunderstood the point made by the Wolfenden Committee and by the Policy Advisory Committee. It is a serious point and one which merits being taken seriously by the Committee.

Mrs. Currie : Will my right hon. and learned Friend give way?

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Mr. Howard : No, not at the moment. There are two further arguments. I want to deal in particular with the two points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South.

Two further arguments have been put with especial frequency in the discussions leading up to the debate and I want to deal with them. They both concern equality, although to my mind the analysis offered by Wofenden and by the Policy Advisory Committee, which I have just discussed, offers a more robust basis for what the criminal law can and should do in the area than an over-simple reliance on parity, either as between the sexes or as between countries.

Equality of treatment under the law between homosexuals and heterosexuals does not in my view represent an end in itself. Whatever the scientific evidence about the age at which sexual orientation is fixed, it would be wrong to ignore the instinctive and deeply-held concern of many people that a decision to have homosexual sex is quite different from a decision to have heterosexual sex. Both Wolfenden and the Policy Advisory Committee recognised the general desirability of avoiding unnecessary discrepancies in the law's treatment of men and women, but both eventually supported recommendations that acknowledged that such discrepancies were still justified. In my view, therefore, we shall not offend against any fundamental political or civil right if we continue to reflect in the criminal law a public understanding of the difference between homosexual activity and heterosexual activity.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley) : If the Home Secretary is being quite honest about that, why does he not address the point about female sexual orientation in respect of which there is no age limit? The Home Secretary's argument is destroyed when no protection is offered so far as women are concerned.

Mr. Howard : It does not destroy my argument. I said at the outset that the Bill is not a vehicle for the wholesale reform of our law relating to sexual offences. We are dealing with a particular set of new clauses which relate to one question before the Committee and that is the question that I am addressing.

Mrs. Currie : Does my right hon. and learned Friend realise that he is in danger of making a circular argument? If he is saying that young men who might be gay should wait because they face so many difficulties, and he then says that he intends to maintain and vote for those difficulties, he has a problem.

With regard to equality, if people in this country and Members of this House in years gone by had not voted for equal rights, neither my right hon. and learned Friend nor I would be Members.

Mr. Howard : My hon. Friend distorts--unwittingly, I am sure--my argument. I did not say that it was important to have a separate age of consent so that people should have time to consider the difficulties which they might face. That was the argument made by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South. It is not a question of legal impediments or other difficulties of that kind. It is a question of confirming themselves in a way of life which, in the words of the Wolfenden committee, will set them apart from the rest of society. That serious point was not addressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South in her question to me.

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Mr. Tony Banks : Will the Home Secretary give way?

Mr. Howard : I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, but then I must conclude.

Mr. Banks : I have two quick points. First, the Wolfenden report was written 30 or 40 years ago and things change. Secondly, and more importantly, the Wolfenden report says that those young people would be set apart from society. Does that not say something about the discrimination that society holds against young gay men? It is a problem of society, not of those young men.

Mr. Howard : No, I do not believe that it does. Again, I refer the hon. Gentleman to a point made by the Policy Advisory Committee, which found an echo in the remarks of the right hon. Member for Islwyn. The Policy Advisory Committee concluded that the majority of parents would surely wish their children to grow up with the desire and possibility of marriage and children. It is a fact that the way of life that we are currently discussing involves an abandonment of those possibilities which sets those people who choose it apart and which requires the criminal law to give all the protection that it can to the young and vulnerable before they are confirmed in that orientation and before they take that decision.

As I said earlier, once that decision has been taken, once society has fixed the relevant minimum age, those people should be free to pursue their lives in private without discrimination of any kind. However, it is a legitimate and important function of the criminal law to protect the young and the vulnerable before that orientation is fixed and determined.

Several hon. Members rose --

Mr. Howard : I said that I would not give way any more and I now intend to conclude.

There is a second element of equality on which some reliance has been made. It has been suggested that we in this country should change our age of consent because it has been changed in other countries. That is a rather extraordinary argument, particularly as there is no consensus in other countries about what that age should be. If we are unusual in Europe in respect of our age of consent for homosexuals and we are satisfied that there is good reason for us to do so, we are entitled to maintain that position. That is an issue which we can and should decide for ourselves.

I have sought to describe the main features of the expert consideration of this issue by the Wolfenden committee and the Policy Advisory Committee. Having said that, the essence of this debate is that it concerns a subject which defies decision by expert committee. Each of us must vote according to conscience and the merits of the arguments as we see them.

For my part, I believe that reducing the age of consent from 21 to 18 strikes the right balance. On the one hand, we should not criminalise private actions freely entered into by consenting mature adults. On the other hand, we need to protect vulnerable young men from activities that their lack of maturity might cause them to regret. I believe that those arguments are the key considerations in this debate. They do not rely on abstract considerations of equality, but address directly the fears and aspirations of our constituents. I shall accordingly vote against new clauses 3 and 6, but in favour of new clause 5.

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8.45 pm

Mr. Blair : I shall support new clause 3 moved by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie). I congratulate her and my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) on the way in which they have spoken to the clause.

Let us be clear about the issue before us tonight. It is not at what age we wish young people to have sex. It is whether the criminal law should discriminate between heterosexual and homosexual sex. It is therefore an issue not of age, but of equality. By supporting equality, no one is advocating or urging gay sex at 16 any more than those who would maintain the age of consent for heterosexual sex advocate that girls or boys of 16 should have sex. It is simply a question whether there are grounds for discrimination.

At present, the law discriminates. There is no doubt about the personal misery that such discrimination brings : to young people frightened to admit their own sexuality and of the fear of imprisonment, and to any man who is homosexual and who knows that the criminal law treats that in a different and more incriminating way. The argument--and the only argument-- advanced to justify that discrimination and its attendant tragedy is that it is necessary for the protection of young people. Without it, it is said, young men unsure of their sexuality may be preyed upon by older homosexuals and induced to become homosexual when they otherwise would not. I will attempt to deal with that argument tonight.

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn (Perth and Kinross) : I hope that the Committee will not be misled by the fact that heterosexual activity is normal and homosexual activity, putting your penis into another man's arsehole, is a perverse--

The First Deputy Chairman : Order. We can well do without talk like that.

Mr. Blair : I do not think that I will answer that intervention.

Mr. Bill Walker : On a point of order, Mr. Lofthouse. For those of us who wish to speak in the debate, may I ask whether it would be in order to describe what it is that we are debating--the actual act? [ Hon. Members :-- "We all know."] We may all know, but would it be in order? Would it be in order to describe an unnatural act so that we can be absolutely certain that there is no doubt outside this Chamber about what we are debating?

The First Deputy Chairman : It is a matter of the words and language that are used. Long interventions do not help.

Mr. Blair : I was trying to deal with the argument put forward by the Home Secretary earlier. I have great difficulty with the very premise of that argument. I do not believe that sexuality is determined by persuasion. The overwhelming evidence--scientific or indeed merely experience of life--suggests that being homosexual is not something that people catch, are taught or persuaded into, but something that they are.

It is not against the nature of gay people to be gay ; it is in fact their nature. It is what they are ; it is different, but that is not a ground for discrimination. The vast bulk of evidence suggests that, at 16, boys and girls, particularly

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