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Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, if the noble Lord, Lord Elton, had caught my remark he would have heard that I said accurately that there is no protection for them from the heterosexual predator who is older. I repeat, that is a correct statement of law.
They are in care. They are in positions where trust can be abused. They are in boarding schools. There may be social workers, doctors, policemen who prey on them. That is why we believe we must look at this question distinctly. Has society a duty to provide for the protection of the vulnerable between 16 and 18 in respect of those who are in a position of trust and possible abusive authority over them? That inquiry has nothing to do with this amendment.
What are we considering? I beg your Lordships' pardon. What should we properly be considering? It is not whether or not any of us believe that homosexual activity at 16 is something we would wish for ourselves or for people we know. It is not a question of whether we want a girl of 16 years and one day to be taken out to a nightclub by someone who is wealthy and to be seduced. The criminal law gives her no protection.
I find it remarkable, sometimes rather dismal, that constantly put before your Lordships is the spectre of the older man seducing the boy. But no thought is given to the older man seducing the girl, who may be just as vulnerable in some circumstances. The fact is that all early sexual activity is going to be full of peril because it is adventurous; it is new; it is novel; there are no real parameters apart from parental instruction and religious advice which may or may not have an effect. So people are feeling out towards adulthood, towards changing experiences. Do we wish them to be criminal? To take the example of the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, do we want the two boys at a public school between the ages of 16 and 18 to be hauled off to court and imprisoned--criminalised? If yes, say "Yes". But not before you think carefully.
I heard someone behind me say, "Yes". Try to imagine the cruel harm that would do. I have known it at first hand, as have other noble Lords here, and my noble friend Lady Mallalieu expressed the matter much more eloquently and better than I ever could.
The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, was good enough to indicate to me, by giving me a copy of her remarks, what she intended to say. She rightly pointed to the European Commission on Human Rights. It is more likely than not, as the noble Lord, Lord Lester, pointed out, that we shall be found to be in breach in that regard. Will it not be disappointing if the massed opinion of your Lordships' House comes to a conclusion--which is possible--that your Lordships wish to act in a way that is not consistent with the principles of human rights as enunciated in the Convention?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, "Oh" will not make the point go away. It is very recently that your Lordships adopted the principle of incorporation which, subject to protections for the media and religious organisations, received a virtually unanimous passage. So "Oh" will not make it go away. And simply lying down, keeping the eyes firmly closed and pulling the duvet over the head will not solve this problem. We
This has been--this has not been written down for me--a genuinely interesting debate; informed by passion and illuminative of some people's views, thoughts and passions. The one thing we cannot do by law, in this society or any other, is to produce a state of perfect innocence. It is too late now to try to legislate to say that the apple should not have gone to the Garden of Eden and that the serpent should have been stopped. What we are dealing with, I hope, is a series of compromises in this very difficult area which should be based on a conscientious approach where, I repeat, honourable people can honestly differ.
Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, during my noble friend's response to the debate he has referred to equality under the law. He has just made reference to the question of discrimination. I recognise that we are talking about an age of consent. I wonder whether my noble friend can help me out on this question. Is it valid and justified to argue the question of equality and discrimination when we are debating a situation where one activity is considered natural and another is considered unnatural?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, it is indeed precisely the point that was made earlier. If one has a society which claims to be civil and civilised, one has to have regard--a proper regard--to the fact, and honour the fact, that other people may have different views about how they wish to live their lives. It is the mark of a decent society that the minority can be cared for--cared for properly--by the majority which may in its own view have a happier life. I do not know. But we must not be prescriptive about things beyond the decent limits.
The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, rightly identified the question. Is it right to discriminate in law against young men aged 16 and 17 for engaging in homosexual activities and to criminalise them? Is it right to look to a conclusion, to which we shall soon be coming, that will be discriminatory and in breach of the European convention--our international treaty obligation, as the noble Lord, Lord Lester, pointed out? I cannot see that it can be right. If it cannot be right, I for one will not support it. I refuse to abstain. I shall vote against the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Young.
Baroness Young: My Lords, I should like to start by thanking all those noble Lords who have been good enough to support me this evening. If I do not say anything about all their speeches, I hope they will forgive me. But the hour is late and I do not want to speak at too great a length.
We have had a valuable debate, but it would have been far more valuable if it could have been at the Committee stage of the Bill when we could have had more time to go into the different questions. I think that the second quotation of the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, from the Wolfenden Report said it all. I tried to write it down but, alas, I could not get it all. However, I think the two points that stood out were that there is always an arbitrariness about ages for all kinds of things in the law; and on this. As I understood it, at the time that the Wolfenden Committee produced its report it determined that the right age was 21, the age of majority. It should now be 18, which is regarded as the age of majority. That encapsulates the argument we have had this evening.
We had a superb moral argument from the noble Lord, Lord Jakobovits, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester. The noble Lord, Lord Jakobovits, was quite right when he said that it is a moral code that distinguishes a civilised society and that we forget that at our peril. Was it not the psalmist who said:
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester quite properly drew our attention to the dangers in all this of downgrading marriage, which is the normal way of living; and for those who are fortunate enough to enjoy a happy marriage, the happiest way of living. It is something that parents want for their children--to grow up, to marry happily and to have children. It is not a homosexual relationship that they wish for.
We touched on this big issue of what the result of a vote tonight will say to the public at large. I always admire the speeches of the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, and I can see why she is such a superb barrister. But I do not believe that the idea of sending a signal is a joke. A lot of social legislation has cumulatively sent a very bad signal to society at large. What it will say if we agree that the age of consent should be lowered to 16 is the point that has been made by its supporters: that it is just as good to have a homosexual relationship as it is to have a heterosexual one and, moreover, to have one at the age of 16, and because everybody is doing it it does not matter. I do not accept any of those arguments. It is the duty of good parents to bring up their children so that they do not have fixed homosexual relationships at 16 or, indeed, fixed heterosexual relationships at that age. It is a very young age. People can grow up a great deal and have very different views in the years that follow.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Annan, that I have had a lot of letters from young people supporting what I am doing. To say that all young people think that the age of consent should be lowered is simply not true. No public opinion poll has been taken on the matter, but it is simply not true. No doubt opinions among young people are divided, but I can only tell the noble Lord that I have had a lot of support from young people for what I am doing.
I turn to the noble Lord, Lord Williams. He quoted a great many organisations in support of the Government. I can only say to him that not one of them, with the notable exception of the BMA, has had the courtesy to send me a brief despite the fact that I have asked for one. I would have been perfectly prepared to talk to any of them about these issues. They failed to send me a brief. My time is limited and I have not had the opportunity to telephone them all. I would respect people far more if they were prepared to discuss their views openly with their opponents instead of acting in this rather underhand way.
I also dislike very much being told that I am ruled by past prejudices. I have been called quite a lot of things over the past day. I suppose that is all part of political life. I have learnt to take it. I shall dine out on most of the stories for a good many years to come. I was slightly shocked when the noble Lord, Lord Lester, came quite close, I thought, to suggesting that we were adopting Nazi tactics. I hope that that was not his intention but if it was, I hope that he will withdraw it. We are as entitled to our point of view as anybody else.
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