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Baroness Young: My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Annan, will withdraw his remarks about what he has alleged that I thought about the speech made previously by the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu.

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I am a great admirer of her abilities and I would not impugn in any way either her integrity or her views in this matter.

Lord Annan: My Lords, I think the noble Baroness misunderstood what I said. I said that when she referred to the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, in the previous Session, of course she praised her ability as a barrister, but she gave the impression, to me at any rate, that she thought her argument was the kind that a barrister puts forward in a very poor case. I said a moment ago that I do not believe for one moment that she thought that the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, was morally corrupt, but--

Lord Elton: My Lords, as the noble Lord has spoken for 17 minutes and has now told us that he may not be here at the end of the debate, I feel he should have mercy on the rest of us who will be here then.

Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

Lord Annan: My Lords, I take the noble Lord's point. I was just about to say that I was right at the end of my speech, and I was imploring the House not to be insular, not to ignore our role in Europe, and not to have a fit of the sulks just because life has changed in the past 40 years. We are not living at the beginning of the 20th century; we are living at the very end of it.

6.5 p.m.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I am not sure where that speech leaves us, but we are always fascinated to hear the intellectual speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Annan. His feet seldom touch the ground, and those of us who do not have his intellectual gravitas and try to catch up with him are rather thankful that we do not have the intellectual gravitas of the noble Lord.

The subject matter of this Bill has been debated on a number of occasions over the past few years, and I do not find that my views have changed on the matter--not, I like to think, because I am obdurate, but because of reason. These matters are always acutely sensitive, and I hope that one can equally put one's views at least sensitively.

I tried hard to agree with just one thing that the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said, but despite my best endeavours and the fact that he has already vanished--I do not blame him for that--I could not agree with one of them.

Then the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells made a speech at which I confess amazement and astonishment. He seemed to address most of his remarks to the fact that we should recognise gay people, not to the lowering of the age of homosexual consent, which is what the Bill is about. When he made his speech--he will forgive me for saying this--I shuddered for the Church of England. The only encouragement he gave me was the fact that he said that his brother prelates did not agree with him. I thought "Hooray for that, so we're saved at last."

I am opposed to the lowering of the age of homosexual consent to 16, for what I consider to be one simple reason. Of course, one always does consider

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one's reasons to be simple. My simple reason is that men and women are made differently, for obvious and basic reasons: fundamentally, for the procreation and continuation of the species. Heterosexuality must therefore be the norm. Homosexuality, whatever its cause, must therefore be an aberration from the norm.

It may well be that some people are born a certain way, and that some of their genes may be placed in a different pattern to others', or however one likes to put it, and that that predetermines the way they are.

There is no doubt, though, that people also can be drawn into homosexuality by the conditions in which they find themselves, by the people whom they meet or by circumstances or events which take them down certain unexpected avenues. Civilisation is, after all, a very thin veneer. It lies on the surface of raw humanity and can easily be stripped away. The purpose of going to school, the purpose of a proper upbringing, the purpose of being given good books with which to edify the mind, is all part of the effort to put a veneer of civilisation over basic humanity.

I have no doubt whatever that the most unsuspecting and most upright of people can be drawn from the path of rectitude and into stealing, or thuggery, or rape, or murder, or even cannibalism, by the circumstances in which they may happen to find themselves. The same applies to homosexuality. People do not have to be born that way to be homosexuals; they can be drawn into it.

It must surely be the aspiration of the majority of parents that their children shall be born and brought up as heterosexual individuals, which will eventually, with luck, result in the furtherance of the family. That is the natural way of life. That is how society and life continue.

Of course, things do not always turn out in the way people either want or expect. The law must make allowances for that, and it does. So should individuals; and they do sometimes, but not always. But to argue that the law of homosexual consent should be brought into line with that of heterosexual consent because it is not fair that the two should be different, or that there is somehow a basic inequality which ought to be rectified, is, I venture to suggest, wholly fallacious.

Homosexuality and heterosexuality are not equal choices to be picked up or discarded at will like the purchase of a commodity of one's choice. One is the norm; the other, for all its different reasons, is an aberration from the norm.

Do we really want our young children of 16 to be given the legal right to indulge in homosexual activity with other young people--or older people, provided that they are not in a position of trust? One can just imagine the argument that will go on about that. Do we really want young men, or even older men, now to have the legal right, if I may so put it without undue inelegance, to bugger a young girl of 16 provided that the girl does not mind? I look with incredulity at what the Government are doing. We all know of rape cases where the man says "She consented to what we did", and the girl says, "I was raped". Do we want those young girls

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of 16 to be subjected to that far more traumatic ordeal; to be put through that far worse legal, personal and frantic psychological miasma?

Sixteen is an extremely formative age. Believe it or not, I find that 69 is still a formative age, too. But, at 16, young people are still very vulnerable. They are unsure about themselves, although, of course, they will never admit it. They are unsure about life and their relationships. Their bodies are changing, and so are those of their friends. What is right and wrong? How do they tell the difference between the two? Those are the swirling waters of conflict by which they are surrounded. At that age, life is full of uncertainty, but it is full of interest. It is full of change, but it is full of questing. It is an unstable period in a young person's life. That is the time at which people need support and not more uncertainty.

If there are people who are so deeply homosexually inclined, then they have to wait only two years to have all the freedom of the law under which they can live the lifestyle which they consider appropriate to them. I suggest to your Lordships that that is a small price to pay for the protection of the majority of young people.

I find what the Government are asking your Lordships to approve almost unbelievable. I presume that they are doing so on the basis that it is good for young people. There cannot be any other basis for doing it. They cannot be doing it on the basis that it is bad for young people. But in fact it is because of the successful pressure from self-interested pressure groups. One merely has to look at the advertisement in The Times today to realise how important and how expensively financed are those pressure groups.

In my view, it is quite wrong for the Government to introduce this Bill. They have not a whisper of a mandate for it. It was not in their election manifesto. People do not want it. Parents do not want it. The right honourable gentleman the Prime Minister tells us that this Government are a government who wish to protect family values. I applaud that. I believe that the right honourable gentleman is an honourable man. But this Bill runs counter to that. It is another example of the Government giving way to political lobbying and pressure groups.

I agree with my noble friend Lady Young when she referred to the European Commission of Human Rights. It has been argued that the Bill is necessary because of the commission's decision. That is not so. The European court has not yet given its judgment in the Sutherland case. The European commission has given a purely provisional, advisory opinion and its opinions are frequently overturned by the European court. Therefore, I hope that we shall reject the European commission argument as being a factor in favour of the Bill.

Perhaps I may tell your Lordships that I once had the privilege of being an ornament in the Home Office. I endeavoured to fulfil, but totally inadequately, the responsibilities which the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, now fulfils with such ability, intellect and courtesy. When I had to give the Government's view in a debate about the lowering of the age of homosexual consent on 20th June 1994 on the Criminal Justice and

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Public Order Bill, my officials were kind enough, as they always were, to give me their courteous advice and to offer me a speech which they suggested that I might care to deliver. It was an "on the one hand this and on the one hand that" kind of speech. I said that I should like to say more clearly what I thought. The advice which I was given, and which I greatly respected, was that on that subject, and as a government Minister, I should be even-handed; that that was a deeply personal matter which had always been a matter for Parliament.

However, we agreed that I should not be offside if I were to say in my speech which way I was going to vote. Perhaps I may quote what I said. It is deeply pompous for anyone to quote their own speeches, but as nobody else bothers to quote mine I hope that I may be allowed to do so. Standing from the Dispatch Box where the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, stood some time earlier, I said then:

    "This is an issue of conscience, which the Government consider falls properly to be decided by a free vote".--[Official Report, 20/6/94; col. 43]. That was a government Minister speaking and not Ferrers.

The point which I wish to make about that is that I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, was given the same advice today. He shakes his head. It may be that the officials have changed or it may be that, because he is a robust kind of fellow, he decided to reject it. He and the Government of which he is a distinguished member have decided, not for the first time, to propel through their views on a very sensitive matter, and with all the panoply and authority of government, by bringing them forward in a government Bill.

Why do the Government do that? I know why, or at least I believe I do. There was an amendment to the Crime and Disorder Bill which was tabled by a Back-Bencher. The Government did not want it to go through as part of that Bill because they thought that it would capsize the Bill and that it would run into trouble. Therefore, they told the Back-Benchers to take away the Bill and that they would ensure that another Bill would be introduced later through which those views could be put forward. That is fine. There was a similar problem with the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill. But why did the Government not demand that the Back-Benchers put the matter through as a separate Bill? The Government did not do that. They decided to pick up that thorny issue, run with it and tell the people of this country, "We, the Government, think it is right that the age of homosexual consent should be lowered to 16". I believe that that is wrong. A Guardian/ICA poll showed that 69 per cent. of the people in this country want that age to remain at 18.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, has made today, as he always does, a very plausible and engaging case for the Bill. But the noble Lord is a professional advocate who can put a case, whether good or bad, in the most persuasive and convincing manner possible. As we know, the noble Lord is very good at that. That is why he rose to the position in his profession that he

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did. I admire that and I covet it. The problem is that unless one keeps one's wits in a state of perpetual overdrive, it is not clear whether the case which the noble Lord puts is good or bad. I believe that the case which the noble Lord espoused today, however eloquently presented, is bad. It is bad for the family, for young people and for the moral and physical health of the country. The Government have no mandate for it at all. I hope that your Lordships will join my noble friend Lady Young in rejecting the Bill.

6.17 p.m.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: My Lords, I must start my comments by expressing my fundamental disagreement with the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, on many counts on which I hope I shall be able to elaborate in the course of my comments. I speak not for the Government but as a Back-Bencher and as an individual with a free vote.

The noble Baroness, Lady Young, referred to the many letters which she received opposing the Bill. We have all received letters--and we have received letters from parents who are in despair, concerned that their sons are not only seen as different but are also criminals in the eyes of the law.

I wish to read an extract from one of the many letters that I have received, from a mother in Lancashire who wrote:

    "My son is gay and I am writing to ask you to vote in favour of an equal Age of Consent. The issue is one of social justice and equality. My son suffers discrimination because of his sexuality. To the shame of this country he is considered to be unworthy of equality before the law of the land". I am sure those are the comments of a very responsible parent.

That is what this debate is about. It is about the fundamental principles inherent in that mother's words. It is about human rights, equal rights and citizenship, respect for each other, tolerance, equality, compassion and understanding. We cannot legislate to change human behaviour but what we can do, and what this Bill does, is to legislate to provide protection to young people from sexual predators and to provide a framework under the law to eliminate the prejudice, bigotry and injustice which has pervaded our society for far too long.

Surely it is fundamental in any democracy that the rights and responsibilities of all citizens are protected equally under the law--not over-protected, but protected equally. The law should be clear, certain and enforceable. Like the noble Earl, Lord Russell, I too cannot believe that there is anyone in your Lordships' House, irrespective of their views on this issue, who does not accept that it has to be cruel and unjust to punish one group of young people because of their sexuality; nor can it be morally or legally right for young men between the ages of 16 and 17 to be arrested, prosecuted and possibly subject to two years' imprisonment if they have a gay relationship.

I could more easily understand the arguments for not lowering the age of consent and for retaining the law as it stands if the law provided protection for those young

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people, but the reverse is the case. The current law does not protect the vulnerable; nor does it adequately punish those who exploit them. It protects the abuser, not the abused; it allows prejudice to protect abuse rather than prevent it; and it creates fear and secrecy rather than openness and support.

The law is recognised as unworkable. It is a hindrance rather than a help to the police in their efforts to combat homophobic violence. That will continue for as long as the law continues to criminalise both parties in a homosexual act. Such abuse goes unreported and unpunished. Because of the law, there are young men who are terrified of revealing their developing sexuality, who face abuse and bullying and who all too easily become the prey of the bullies and bigots.

There is no justification for allowing such a situation to continue. That is a position recognised by the majority of childcare organisations, as was identified by the Minister in his opening remarks. The view on equalisation expressed by Save the Children which, I believe, speaks for all the organisations is that,

    "the protection of young people is best maintained by the consistent and fair application of the law rather than legislation which is both hard to justify and damaging in application".

Of crucial importance also is the support for the Bill by medical and nursing opinion, including the BMA and the RCN. They are clear that the law has to change, aware as they are that, fearful of being branded criminals, many gay young men are unable to seek health advice and sex education. All young people, heterosexual and homosexual, should have equal access to education and information on sexual health from responsible adults and organisations.

The Health Education Authority has expressed its concern that the current legislation works against promoting healthcare and restricts the giving of advice about sexual diseases and the prevention of HIV infection among homosexual men. In support, the BMA states:

    "of prime concern to the medical profession as a whole are the concerns that the present law may inhibit efforts to improve the sexual health of young homosexual men". As the right reverend Prelate said, as responsible parliamentarians we cannot dismiss lightly such expert opinion. We have a responsibility to take seriously the views of those organisations which work on a day-to-day basis with vulnerable young people.

I wish to refer to one or two other issues raised during our previous debate and again today. First, I refer to the question of public opinion. It has again been maintained that the public are unequivocally opposed to an equal age of consent. However, whether one likes it or not, the NOP poll referred to showed that 60 per cent. of the public are in favour of the Bill, and in disagreement with the noble Baroness, Lady Young. The question was set out in detail, as the noble Earl identified for us. The polling also showed that 66 per cent. of people are in favour of an equalisation of the age of consent, 54 per cent. of whom believe that that age should be 16 years. Of course, we should not fully accept public opinion, but, at the same time, we have to take note of it; it is important.

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Those figures show that when the principles of equality are balanced with principles of protection, there is majority public support. Such support arises from the Government's action in consulting widely with children's organisations and others--

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