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Mr. Woodward: Is my hon. Friend aware that the NSPCC, Childline and many other agencies have addressed the issue of child protection? The NSPCC's movement on that issue in the past few years is crucial. It considers it absolutely vital that, if we are effectively to protect children, we need an equal age of consent.

Mr. Blunt: I respect my hon. Friend's point of view and that of the NSPCC, and I shall go on to explain why I support an equal age of consent while also supporting the protection of young boys, aged 16 and 17, from adults over the age of 21. That is the aim of the amendments tabled in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait). I hope that, if we have the chance to vote on them, they will commend themselves to the House.

The Utting report, cited by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), combined with accounts from any police vice squad in the country, the experience of the sex industry in Holland and the changes to the gay sex industry here since we changed the law in 1994, show graphically what will happen if the House passes the new clause unchanged.

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I support the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw. It deals with the abuse of trust, and covers both boys and girls. It meets any conceivable objections to differences between homosexuality and heterosexuality. It is, however, both limited and specific. It is self-evidently common sense, and it should command the support of everyone in the House.

The amendments in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham would go further. They would prevent the exploitation of boys of 16 and 17 by men over the age of 21. This is not some new or unique principle. Exactly the same sort of law exists in Austria, where the age of consent is 14 and where it is illegal for a male over the age of 19 to commit homosexual acts with a male between the ages of 14 and 18. I accept that our amendments discriminate, just as Austrian law does, between homosexual and heterosexual practice. We are dealing with different forms of behaviour; I believe it right that our law should discriminate in that limited way between homosexual and heterosexual practice.

Issues to do with marriage, the upbringing of children, and the lack of psychological and sexual equivalence between boys and girls aged 16 and 17, have led me to conclude that my amendments should apply only to homosexual relationships. I concede that it is arguable that they could apply equally to the exploitation of young girls by older men. However, the everyday experience of adolescents, combined with scientific observations, makes it clear that boys of this age are self-evidently less mature, sexually and in judgment, than their female counterparts. While I accept that, in law, we should tolerate people's choices to follow a homosexual life style and practice, I maintain that those are not equivalent to heterosexuality--nor should we pretend that they are.

Mr. Bradshaw: The hon. Gentleman perpetuates the myth that being gay is a life style choice. It is no more a life style choice than is his sexual orientation.

Mr. Blunt: I am afraid that I cannot accept that. In our culture, the choice of a homosexual orientation tends to become the dominating influence on a person's life: it defines homosexuals in a way that heterosexuality does not. I am not condemning that choice; I believe that it should be tolerated. I do not, however, believe the two choices to be the same.

It is also clear that there is a much greater strand of homosexuality than of heterosexuality which depends for its gratification on the exploitation of youth.[Hon. Members: "Shame!"] I am sorry if Labour Members do not like the truth, but I do not intend to run away from the difficult issues.

Ann Keen: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Blunt: The hon. Lady did not give way to me.

My conclusion is that we have a duty to protect boys of 16 and 17 from exploitation by men of 21 and over. To those who say that my amendment will be struck down by the European Court of Human Rights, I would answer: that has not happened to Austria. My amendments also comply with equalising the age of consent. The ECHR will have to draw the line somewhere--unless we go for absolute equivalence, an idea which I reject.

This discrimination is defensible and, at the very least, should be tested. It properly belongs, as the Government have acknowledged, in the margin of appreciation,

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recognised by the European Court of Human Rights, allowed to democratic states to legislate in controversial areas. That is why I commend my amendment to the House and ask hon. Members to support it, if it is put to the vote. If it is not accepted, I should not want to be associated with the consequences of accepting new clause 1.

I urge hon. Members to consider the consequences of their actions before they vote. If, like me, they consider that there is a case for homosexuality to be tolerated as equally as possible, but balanced by regard for the consequences, they will support my amendment.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough): Given the lateness of the hour, I shall not take interventions in the next few minutes so that other hon. Members can speak in the debate.

The views that I put to the House shall be put as a Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church of England and putting forward its views on the matter. I should not want it to be thought, however, that I do not entirely subscribe to those views.

Mr. Bradshaw: Will my hon. Friend give way on that point?

Mr. Bell: I said clearly that I would not give way.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has made it clear that he does not support further lowering of the age of consent for homosexual practice. He believes that that would send a signal that homosexual practice is on a par with, and equal to, heterosexual relationships, a point which the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) made earlier. The archbishop has made it plain that he recognises that there are valid arguments on both sides, but his view remains that it would not be desirable to send out such a signal.

In a statement this weekend, the House of Bishops made it plain that all who have leadership responsibility in our society, in Church and state, have a particular duty to support young people in their personal development, to protect them from harm and exploitation, and to offer them a vision of what is good. Legislation affecting sexual relationships should therefore offer protection, set an example of what is good, and be rooted in sound moral values.

There is particular need in our culture to support young people. Pressures are at work to legitimise any and every life style, irrespective of any difference of value and quality between them. The Church believes that those pressures should be resisted. The House of Bishops recognises the complexity of the issues facing legislators and the House, but it is concerned that the proposal to lower to 16 the age of consent for homosexual relationships may send wrong messages to young people and to our society as a whole. It is particularly important for it to be understood that actions may be legal without being morally right or socially desirable. I shall refer briefly to that point later.

Although the House of Bishops accepts that there is a debate within in it about the right way forward on this issue--as, indeed, there is in the wider Church--it believes that there is a widespread desire that a broader agenda of moral vision should provide the context for the debate and for the consideration of other social issues. We all need to work for greater stability and flourishing in our personal lives, the building of family life and the deepening of community life.

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For those reasons, the majority of the House of Bishops opposes the new clause to lower the age of consent for homosexual relationships. If something is morally wrong, the fact that the House votes to make it legally right does not make it anything other than morally wrong. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) referred to Church and state, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), who is not in the Chamber, referred to the Utting report. Over the past 30 years, the state has withdrawn from issues of morality.

Like the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield(Sir N. Fowler) and other hon. Members, I voted four years ago for the age of consent to be reduced from 21 to 18. Hon. Members are being asked further to reduce the age of consent to 16. It is my view that soon we shall be asked to vote for a reduction to 14--a point which was touched on by the hon. Member for Aldershot(Mr. Howarth), among others. The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) did not want marches by organisations such as OutRage! In Paris yesterday,20,000 people marched for civil marriage for homosexual couples and for the legal right to adopt children. This is a further undermining of family life, which has been and will continue to be the basis of our society for years to come.

There must be a line in the moral sand. It is the view of the House of Bishops, so clearly stated, that its position is a reflection of a modern, confident Church which is prepared now to state clearly where it stands on morality and to invite the state to join it in a partnership. That can begin tonight by Members opposing the new clause and by marrying Church and state to follow a different route--one that will help younger generations and those who are still children.

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