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Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend that it is those who are not directly involved in conflict who are very often affected. I respectfully draw his attention to the enormous suffering caused to those driven from their homes by President Milosevic and to the fact that responsibility for the refugee crisis can be laid entirely at his door. It is there that we see the women and children suffering, separated from their menfolk, many of whom may have disappeared in the most alarming circumstances. The responsibility for that is entirely clear.

As regards bringing the military action to a close, the Government are working as hard as they can. I repeated in the Statement the diplomatic efforts that are taking place. I refer to the bilateral meeting today between the Americans and the Russians and a meeting of the European Council tomorrow involving my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. We seek to open every possible avenue to achieve such ends, but we intend to achieve the objectives I repeated in the Statement. The responsibility for coming to the table to discuss those matters is that of President Milosevic.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead: My Lords, can the Minister explain why it appears that NATO is very reluctant to detach Montenegro from Serbia given that its president in very recent days has distanced himself from Belgrade?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, as the noble Lord points out, the position with Montenegro is a delicate, diplomatic one. In agreement with our NATO allies, we are hoping to support the present situation. It is difficult to know precisely what was said--and on what authority--about the potential neutrality of Montenegro. However, we are supporting Montenegro in practical terms. In terms of the humanitarian crisis, we are adding to Montenegro's ability and resources to deal with the thousands of people who have crossed the borders into that country.

Baroness Ludford: My Lords, may I ask the Minister about the practical arrangements for refugees? We all know that many families have been split up because of the appalling actions of the Serb forces. Press reports suggest that such families have no access to telephones to try to trace lost children, for example. Press reports also state that aid workers and troops are passing around their own mobile phones for use. Is there a practical prospect of getting telephonic equipment to refugees so that they may contact their relatives? Will the Minister ask her noble friend whether the Ministry of Defence will consider paying the private mobile

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phone bills of our troops whom we all say we support strongly and who will have horrendous bills to pay when they arrive home?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, the noble Baroness makes some sensible and practical points. I agree that one of the saddest things that has happened is the disintegration of family units, particularly children being left entirely on their own. I am sure that the international development community and the international development department here see it as an important priority. However, at the moment there are even more important basic priorities such as providing the refugees with food, water and shelter.

I am sure that the noble Baroness will have seen, as I have, the basic communications networks which have been set up. They seem to be producing some results; for instance, the posting around of notices makes it possible for families to maintain contact. I understand the point that the noble Baroness makes. It is one that I shall address to DfID in the first instance. It may be that the NGOs are more suited to set up such networks. I know that DfID has already funded one specific NGO to try to bring families together. I am not clear about the details of the methods it is using, but it is a sensible suggestion.

As to the MoD refunding the Army for its mobile phone bills, that is a new problem for the defence department but I am sure that my noble friend Lord Gilbert heard the suggestion. I thought the noble Baroness might have mentioned the point raised in some newspaper reports regarding American soldiers being given tax breaks. That has not yet been suggested here.

Lord Merlyn-Rees: My Lords, I applaud the clarity with which my noble friend the Leader of the House explained the role of British troops in Kosovo and Yugoslavia in general. However, will she remind those commentators who talk glibly about armed intervention in Yugoslavia of what happened between 1942 and 1945--it will be known to many in your Lordships' House--when Tito's partisans held down 13 German divisions? A partisan war is not a normal war. To walk into one would be a grave mistake, as the Americans learnt in Vietnam.

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend for bringing that extremely important historical perspective to the situation as it exists at the moment. I would just marginally correct him; I am sure he did not mean this. There are no troops in Kosovo at the moment, as he will be aware. It is the situation that the British Army has been involved on several historical occasions when we have been engaged with very determined, extreme, well-organised but small numbers of people virulently determined to further their own aims.

As my noble friend will recall, in my right honourable friend the Prime Minister's original Statement he said that it was calculated that approximately 100,000 troops would be needed to make any impact on the ground in Kosovo. That is certainly not something which would

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ever be undertaken lightly or for the purposes of invasion or fighting our way in. As he rightly suggests, that would be an extraordinarily difficult enterprise.

Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill

4.22 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. I apologise if I disrupted the business of the House. It was an engagement to which I was committed--not a personal one--and I am sorry if business was put out of order. I hope your Lordships will accept that apology.

Turning to the Bill, my belief is that we should, as a matter of duty, ensure equality before the criminal law for young homosexuals and heterosexuals. This concerns a fundamental principle of equality. The Bill would bring that about; that is why I support it.

As your Lordships know from previous discussions, this is a matter of a free vote. Should any noble Lord wish to understand my position, I repeat it. It is a matter of principle and we ought to support that principle in this Bill. I know perfectly well from discussions in your Lordships' House--and helpful discussions outside--that others do not take that view, and I respect that. We had a lengthy discussion when we looked at similar proposals in the Crime and Disorder Bill. I hope that if your Lordships do not agree entirely with what we have done, the fact will at least be recognised that we paid careful attention to the matters raised on all sides of this House regarding the protection of young people from those in a position of trust in relation to them. We have done good work in introducing a protection for children who might be in relationships of trust from an abuse of that trust. I ask your Lordships to think carefully about voting down, at this stage or indeed any stage, a Bill giving protection which, I repeat, does not exist in our law for those who are vulnerable and need it.

Perhaps it is as well to distinguish what we propose in the Bill from what many of us would prefer to have if the world were ideal. During my tenancy of this lifetime I have not found the world to be ideal. It may be that some of your Lordships have a different experience. We need to distinguish between what we believe to be desirable by way of conduct and what the criminal law ought to be. It is a clear distinction which needs to be drawn.

We are not advocating sexual promiscuity. We are not opening the floodgates of social change for further reductions in the age of consent. I remind your Lordships that the age of consent in a country which is historically socially conservative and where the power of religion still remains significant--namely, Spain--is 12. I would never vote for such a reduction.

The age of 16 is about right. The proposal here, if one approaches it in the dual way I commend, is simply to bear in mind that the age of consent for heterosexual relationships is set at 16. That may be too young for many people as a matter of desirability or of consequence. We know the undesirable consequences--

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unwanted pregnancy and all that flows from it which may blight two young lives. There is the risk of sexually transmitted disease. It is important that all young people should have good access to medical advice. But the law acknowledges, and has done so for many years past in our country, like it or not as we may, that young people will have such relationships whatever we try to stipulate by law.

The age of 16 for heterosexual sexual activity in terms of consent, I repeat, has been with us for a long time. If the propositions I put out in a moment or two are true for young heterosexuals, then they are true also for young homosexuals.

Noble Lords: No!

Noble Lords: Yes!

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, two views were there expressed: one was no and the other yes. At the end of the day, as happened in the debate we had last time, that is what it comes to. I am not sure whether the power of rational arguments, whether for or against my proposals, will have an ultimately determinative effect--I put that as tactfully as I may.

Perhaps it is as well to bear in mind in support of my proposition earlier that this is not an attempt to deal irresponsibly with young children. Let us be plain about it. All of us who have or have had young adolescent children, virtually without exception, would prefer it if, at the age of 16 and one day, our daughters were not in sexual partnerships; and we would prefer it similarly if our sons at 16 and one day were not. But our preference and our shuddering at the thought of the dangers that exist and the wrong choices that they may make--as we all may have made at one period or another at various times in our lives--is no basis for the criminal law.

It is in the hope of providing a little background and not in any sense designed to be tendentious when I say that the organisations which support the equalisation of the age of consent are not revolutionists; they are not subversives of moral order. What commends them perhaps is that they deal with these problems on a daily basis. I take a few of them. The NSPCC--I declare again my interest for I was until the election a trustee--Barnardos, the National Children's Home, Action for Children, the National Children's Bureau, Save the Children, the Family Welfare Association, the Health Education Authority, the British Medical Association, the Family Planning Association and the National Association of Probation Officers all have a certain knowledge of these problems on a daily basis. I would add the British Association of Social Workers, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Royal College of Nursing.

The fact that they support this proposition will not determine the outcome but I think I can fairly, reasonably and legitimately say that these people have pondered the questions in depth and at length. They would not have come to a conclusion lightly or frivolously. Therefore I believe that we should approach the matter, if we can, on the basis of fairness and not on

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what our particular approval or disapproval may be. We should not be side-tracked on to other issues, a danger which was apparent at the time of our last discussion.

There are predatory older people who want to use (therefore misuse) young children of the age of 16 plus. There are predatory older men who do exactly the same with girls of 16 plus, as the experiences which your Lordships were fearful of describing on the last occasion show. I do not myself see any moral distinction between a man of 47 or 57 having sexual intercourse with a girl of 16 plus and a man of that same age having sexual relationships with a boy of 16 plus. I do not see myself--

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