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Lord Carter: My Lords, perhaps I may remind the noble Lord that the Companion states that in debates which are not time-limited, speakers are expected to keep to within 15 minutes. There are 30 speakers left. At 10 minutes each speaker, that is another five hours.

Lord Tope: My Lords, I apologise to the House. I was on my last sentence. Perhaps I may just conclude quoting from the letter, which goes on to state:

8.37 p.m.

Lord Warner: My Lords, I rise to strongly support the Bill and I shall be brief. Despite some of the speeches made tonight, the Bill is not about family policy, sexually transmitted diseases, health education or homosexuality and whether we approve of such practices. It is a Bill about human rights and equality under the law. It is about a government's ability to honour its international obligations. As the noble Lord, Lord Tope, indicated, it is also about stopping a minority--homosexuals--continuing to be oppressed by a majority of heterosexuals, of which I acknowledge I am a member.

I add, for the reassurance of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, that I did not feel any ambivalence about my sexuality as a teenager so I speak from a different perspective. In this context I want to emphasise some of the points about the human rights arguments that have been strongly put by the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and to try to demonstrate that, frankly, most of the arguments put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and her supporters are irrelevant to the character of the Bill.

As long ago as 1994 the European Commission of Human Rights ruled admissible a complaint by three men that the UK was in breach of Articles 8 and 14 of

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the European Convention on Human Rights because of the different ages of consent for homosexuals and heterosexuals. However, because all three of those men were over 18 and the age of consent for homosexuals was reduced by Parliament to 18 the case was not referred to the European Court. Thus, the previous government responded to a commission view in exactly the same way as this Government are doing today, and to be quibbling about whether the Government should be acting in advance of the court ruling seems to me an act of hypocrisy.

The commission then ruled that the UK had a case to answer in respect of Euan Sutherland who was 16 at the time and who argued that the reduction in the age of consent to 18 was still discriminatory. When the case was considered by Ministers in this Government after the 1997 election, the Government and the complainant agreed to apply to the court for the case to be deferred pending a vote in Parliament at the earliest opportunity and that the parallel case of Christopher Morris was to be dealt with in the same way.

In practice it is pretty clear that the UK has been in breach of the ECHR under both Articles 8 and 14 for some time and both those articles, together, grant homosexuals the same respect for family and private life and the same rights of freedom secured without discrimination on any grounds as apply to everybody else. In my view the Government are acting wisely in trying to put beyond doubt the outcome of this issue before the United Kingdom is exposed to the ridicule of a court decision requiring it to comply with the European Convention on Human Rights.

All that has been taking place while this Parliament passed the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into the Human Rights Act. If we do not pass this legislation, when the Human Rights Act is brought into operation we will be required by British courts in all probability to comply with the legislation.

The Government have done their best to secure that compliance. In 1998 the House of Commons voted on a free vote by 333 to 129 to support lowering the age of homosexual consent to 16. It was thwarted, in my view, last July by the unreasonable and totally irrational behaviour of 290 Members of this House, 188 of whom were Conservatives and 150 of whom were hereditaries. Reading some of the contributions in that debate, one is struck by the way that some who spoke with great authority on sex and its consequences did so against the background that the likelihood of any recent experience seemed quite remote.

Thus, we had an unelected second Chamber thwarting the elected government of the day in discharging their obligation to bring our domestic law into conformity with an international convention into which we freely entered. That is the nub of this Bill and that is what we will be preventing the Government from doing if the amendment proposed by the noble Baroness is passed.

I want briefly to mention three other issues which seem to me strongly to suggest that this House should show a little more maturity than it showed last July. First, the United Kingdom is completely out of step with

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the rest of Europe in its age of homosexual consent, as was made clear by many other speakers. In Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal and Denmark, the age of homosexual consent is 16. France, Italy, Spain and Sweden have a lower age of homosexual consent. In the United Kingdom the private acts of gay young men are quite unnecessarily criminalised compared with their European counterparts. In this country 16 year-olds can go on holiday in most European countries and engage in homosexual acts without fear of prosecution, but not in their own country. That is a totally absurd situation into which we have got ourselves.

Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, last July this House demonstrated how totally out of touch it was with younger public opinion in this country. We have already discussed the NOP poll and I will not go into the details of that. But perhaps most significantly, the only age group with a clear majority in favour of retaining the consensual age of 18 was the over-55s. My noble friend Lady Mallalieu has already drawn attention to the fact that there are not many under-55s in this House. But what we have by comparison in that poll is the overwhelming majority of 15 to 24 year-olds favouring the lowering of the age for homosexual consent.

There is a world outside this place where the majority of people favour lowering the age of consent subject to the safeguards on people in positions of trust that the Government introduced in the Bill. In the same NOP poll, 60 per cent. of people made it clear that they agreed with the Government's package in this Bill. Another vote by this House like that of last July will simply demonstrate to the outside world how out of touch many Members of this House are and how desperately it needs to be reformed.

Thirdly, the Government responded--in my view handsomely--to the parliamentary concerns expressed last time about the risk of potential abuse of trust for children, for example, in residential care. The excuses for not lowering the homosexual age of consent to 16 have been for the most part removed by the clauses in the Bill on abuse of positions of trust. As a former director of social services, I welcome the changes that the Government have introduced. Moreover, they have been welcomed by virtually all children and health interest groups who now want to see this legislation passed speedily so that 16 and 17 year-old young men are not necessarily criminalised.

The arguments about inadequate safeguards are spurious. I draw attention to the fact that in displaying her dismissive attitude of the views of many of the children's services, the noble Baroness was being arrogant. We must bear in mind that we have the overwhelming balance of expert opinion arrayed strongly against the arguments put forward by the noble Baroness and her supporters.

Finally, I should like to mention that in this country many young men, well under 18, are engaged in homosexual acts consensually and privately. We are criminalising them unnecessarily for acts that would not be illegal in virtually the whole of the rest of Europe. We are condemning them to live in fear for a longer

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period than necessary. The UK would be found in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights by discriminating unfairly against them and the Government are rightly trying to honour their obligations under the convention.

It is noteworthy that there is an issue here about different attitudes of different political parties to living within the convention. It is worth bearing in mind that there seem to be party differences over respect for the convention. I observe that around 75 per cent. of the breaches found against the United Kingdom since we signed the convention in 1951 took place between 1979 and 1997, with a rapid increase at the end of that period.

The Government have provided adequate safeguards in this Bill and, rightly in my view, are speedily trying to ensure that we do not have the United Kingdom again in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. I hope that, on reflection, the noble Baroness, Lady Young, will not pursue her misguided amendment this evening.

8.47 p.m.

Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, I hope that this Bill will receive the support of this House and that the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, will be rejected. The noble Baroness is opposed to the Bill. That is her right, but I believe she is mistaken. I hope the House will not feel disposed to reject what has received the overwhelming support of the other place.

The main area of controversy is the age of consent, and Clause 1 provides for an equal age of consent for heterosexual, lesbian and gay sexual activity. I emphasise the word "consent". Consent is important because this is about consensual sexual activity, not non-consensual sex.

I find it difficult to understand why this proposition should arouse such hostility, as it obviously does and it did last time round. There is perhaps a generational problem here--a point already made by a number of other noble Lords this evening. In this House we tend to be older than our colleagues in the other place. Sometimes that can be an advantage and I do not wish to decry in any way the wisdom that many noble Lords can bring to the debates we have in this House. But it is not always an advantage, and we have to understand that time moves on and attitudes change.

The Bill provides equal protection and equal treatment for all young people. Surely that is to be welcomed, as is the provision in relation to persons in positions of trust, so ably explained by the Minister this evening. I could never understand the argument advanced by some people, and again this evening, that young women of 16 do not need protection from predatory heterosexual men, but young men up to the age of 18 apparently do need protection from homosexual men. This appears to spring from the notion which we have again heard this evening, that it is more damaging for a young man to have a homosexual relationship than it is for a young girl to have a heterosexual relationship, even though she may become pregnant with an unwanted child as a result. That does not make any sense to me.

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However, it does now appear that public opinion has moved on. There has been some discussion tonight about the 66 per cent. poll. I do not want to go into the details of that, but clearly there has been some movement in public opinion, although I agree with those noble Lords who have said that if a Bill is right it should be supported irrespective of what public opinion will say. Many reputable organisations concerned with the protection of children now give their support to the provisions of the Bill. The organisation of which I was a council member until recently, Save the Children, has for many years been outspoken in support of equalisation.

The problem under the present law is that it criminalises young men at an age when they should be receiving support. There is much evidence to show that young people are conscious of their sexuality at an early age: certainly by the age of 16. I suspect that was always so and, as far as my generation was concerned, we tended to keep quiet about it. Certainly I was well aware when I was younger than 16 that I was probably going to like men for the rest of my life, and this sexual orientation led me in the direction of a happy marriage which lasted for some 40 years.

Unfortunately, many gay and lesbian youngsters are not so lucky in their lives. If young men are made to feel criminal about their sexuality, that severely hinders their development. Many organisations professionally concerned with young people attest that this is so and, as many noble Lords have said, the European experience would also appear to indicate that the United Kingdom is out of step. In most countries, heterosexuals and homosexuals are treated equally when it comes to the age of consent, and it is about time that we changed our law so that we reflect changes in thinking.

The strongest objections would appear to come from those who profess strong moral or religious views. Of course such views should be respected, although it should be pointed out that not everyone with strong religious views believes that homosexuality should be subject to this kind of discrimination. I recall that some time ago I was successful in this House in getting support for a Private Member's Bill to protect lesbians and homosexuals against discrimination in employment. I was able to produce a fair amount of evidence to indicate that discrimination at work does take place, and unfortunately our laws do not yet prohibit that. Although the Bill was passed by your Lordships, it did not for various reasons secure support in the other place. Nevertheless, there was quite a lot of support for it in principle and it is something to which we must return.

The fact that there is still such discrimination indicates that there is still a lot of prejudice--and that is a further reason for ensuring that we begin to tackle this at its root--and young men are made to feel that they are somehow different and inferior. That is what happens with our present law, and that surely has to end. To those with religious objections I say that while I respect their views--and I really do--this is not a matter for law. It is essentially a private matter. People with religious and/or moral objections do not have the right, in my opinion, to impose their views on others,

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and there are now many who do not share those views. I hope the House will support the Bill and reject the amendment.

8.53 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Winchester: My Lords, it is perhaps appropriate that I should find myself following the last speaker in view of what she said. I shall comment on those remarks in a moment but I want first to apologise and to express regret that I missed the first three speeches of this debate. I had a prior appointment, as Protector of a religious community, to receive the profession in life vows of a sister, and to do so in the diocese of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells, from whose convictions, as those who were here last July will know and as will become clear from what I have to say, I differ on a number of points. However, I was here in time to listen to his contribution today and it seemed to me that he made a distinguished and brave speech. I much regret that that other distinguished and brave speaker, the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, whom I have been privileged to get to know in other circumstances as well as in this House and whom I respect, let himself, it seemed to me, be led astray into a really rather unfortunate attack on the Bishop of Bath and Wells. It is important to say that the Church of England would be poorer and less effective if he were not in his present post.

I want to speak briefly to Clauses 3 and 4 and to Clause 2. Amid all the things that have been said about the Christian faith and the Churches it is important to take up what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Plant, and the noble Baroness, Lady Turner. I should then like to approach the central issue contained in Clause 1.

Abuse of trust is a matter that justifies serious law making, but I do not find that what we have now in this Bill can be reasonably described, as the noble Lord, Lord Warner, just described it, as a handsome response by the Government. It seems to me feeble in the extreme, as shown by the extent to which substantial attempts were made to expand its provisions in the other place, both in Committee and on Report. It seems to me right to say that there is no reference to Church organisations. That is an obvious weakness. A range of voluntary organisations are also devoid of any reference. I cannot see that anybody who is not already minded to support Clause 1 could be encouraged to do so by the presence in the Bill of Clauses 3 and 4.

What is more, as others will have noticed--because I am sure that I am not the only one who reads this material--in Research Paper 994, page 29, Mr. Boateng was reported--not in another place but in some other context--as promising that he would make absolutely certain that the two issues of age and abuse of trust were treated as entirely separate. I am unclear really why Clauses 3 and 4 have a place in the Bill at all.

Clause 2 I find, as I am sure others do, superficially attractive. Here we are clearly talking about children although, as I understand it, the Children Act speaks about children up to the age of 18. Here we are clearly speaking about children and it is clearly attractive that

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they should be entirely removed from the scope of the criminal law. I hope that the clause will be carefully explored. It seems to me to run a grave risk of legitimising, even encouraging, homosexual activity between those under 16 and those just over and just under or between those under and much older. I appreciated what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, about the declaratory and demonstrative roles of law. I am therefore very concerned about Clause 2. It seems to me there are ample grounds for arguing for its deletion in Committee and for saying that for that age group too prosecution should be a discretionary matter, as I think in practice, if not in the letter of the law, it is already at an older age.

It seemed to me that the admirable reference by the noble Lord, Lord Plant, to the great man Karl Barth was very apt. It is right that he should be referred to in this House. All the same, he has lost his particular position and has sought to import it into what is a very different tradition. I believe that the English tradition of government, both ecclesiastical and political, is symbolised by the presentation to a monarch of a Bible at the monarch's coronation. The clear implication is that it is the responsibility--certainly it has been for hundreds of years when the Churches have, rightly, not had the same kind of powers that they had many centuries ago--both of Christian and of people of other faiths and traditions very specifically to argue for particular positions in public life and public legislation out of a conviction common not only to Christianity but to other major faiths in different ways, although, speaking as a Christian, there are claims of God upon the character and nature of human society which ought to be expressed within and through the law-making process. Those are not to be imposed--the word used by the noble Baroness, Lady Turner--but the points need making. Therefore it seems to me that the noble Lord, Lord Plant, was inaccurate in alluding to Karl Barth in that way and drawing on that as an authority.

Clearly Clause 1 is the heart of the Bill. I find myself in the end no more disposed to agree with it and support it than I was last July. However, I still find myself strongly moved by the arguments in favour of change which I have heard again today as weighing heavily with many Members of your Lordships' House, including the Bishop of Bath and Wells, the noble Lord, Lord Tope, the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, and many others. I think of the argument in particular which note that young gay people and children and young people who worry whether they may be gay can be greatly distressed, ill used, driven to despair and even to suicide by the ways in which they or others understand these provisions. They may be stopped from seeking medical help. All those arguments, experiences and true description weigh heavily with me too. They are powerful arguments.

Then there is the other range of powerful arguments for equality and against discrimination. I take the latter first. For me it simply does not follow from a belief that all human beings are equal--ultimately because they are made by God in His image, loved by Him and destined by Him for a place in His eternal purposes--that everything human beings do with or to each other is

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equally valuable and desirable and should be equally and indiscriminately permitted as being actions that have equal rights. I hold--as it seems to me do the vast majority of adherents both of the Christian and of the other major faiths--that some forms of sexual fulfilment are intrinsically better and more in accord with God's will, let alone safer, than others. If I and others hold that view, it seems to us entirely legitimate that the law should continue to permit certain sexual behaviour only to those of whatever age it deems mature. I take this to be a proper, defensible and legitimate discrimination. I place those words together advisedly. It seems to me that we really have to be careful that words that are currently partial should not simply frighten us out of thinking responsibly.

I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for his extreme clarity in speaking as he did about the commission of human rights. However, I was not convinced by either of the arguments of the commission as he reported them, and by the second still less than the first. Both seem to me heavily ideologically weighted, precisely what the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, warned us against--to be accepted with the breakfast cereal, as it were, as if it were the most normal thing in the world and could not be questioned.

As I said, I take seriously the evidence that some children and young people are being hurt, isolated and driven to despair and even suicide by the signs and messages that arise for them and for those around them from the difference in the age of consent. I noted, too, the point, made, I believe, by the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, that there is something of an uncomprehending and alien world as regards those of us who speak as I am speaking. I need to take that seriously too.

But it needs to be said that these questions of a proper concern for younger people's welfare and the questions of equality and discrimination, though proper issues for us to think about--in terms of people's welfare, it is absolutely right that they should be (if I can put it this way) almost the sole matter of attention for statutory and voluntary organisations engaged in the care of young and gay people--are not the only issues that we have to consider as law makers, let alone as Bishops. I take the view that these same young people are potentially being hurt just as much--and many others, both younger and older, are being no less seriously damaged--by the remorseless sexualising of society, for which we all have to share some responsibility. That is a culture that is especially hard on young people and probably especially hard on young gay people in its pressing upon us all to act as if every kind of sexual activity is as good or wholesome as any other if it is what one wants at the time or if one can persuade oneself that it harms no one else.

I continue to judge that we shall do still more harm to more young people and to many older people of whatever sexual orientation or preference by colluding with this culture and further legitimising it, as I believe Clause 1 of the Bill does, than we shall do by holding to the present position, notwithstanding the difficulties to which I recognise it contributes for a number of younger people in particular. I am clear therefore that

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I cannot vote for the Second Reading; I am still weighing the question of whether it is wise, including from a constitutional point of view, to vote for the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Young.

9.6 p.m.

Lord Harmsworth: My Lords, it is a pity that this subject is capable of sometimes emotional consideration. From the point of view of a parent, the problems are much more likely to be practical.

I, too, begin from the standpoint that a heterosexual relationship--if that is the way the genetic die have been cast--must surely be not only the norm, but the most fulfilling and beautiful state--certainly no "well of loneliness". Other than in extreme chromosomal situations, I do not believe for one minute that sexuality is, as has been stated by some, determined irrevocably at an age before 16. I think the good Lord was far more subtle when he shuffled the genetic pack. Not only do sexual orientations change during a lifetime, but the swings may be quite strong and quite marked when a child is in his teens and later.

From a parent's point of view, the ability to influence the position must not be removed for as long as it is of value to hold on to it. Lowering the age of consent by two years could make a very crucial and possibly irredeemable difference. Once that crucial experience has been had, made much more easy by legitimisation, the chances of parental help in accelerating a likely swing later the other way may be lost for ever. I would not wish to make it more difficult for the parent to take advantage of that chance.

I remember that in my late school days and early university days the conventional wisdom was that no student of constitutional history--or any other subject for that matter--would fail to flirt with communism before seeing the light. Likewise with a child's body over that period; it is going through much turmoil and evolution. As I have said, I would have trouble believing any physician who might try to persuade me that sexuality was fixed and stable before the age of 16. Indeed, one hears of extreme and wretched cases of perfectly normal heterosexual marriages which break up much later owing to one party deciding that he or she is homosexual.

The Minister pointed to a formidable array of institutional supporters for the lowering of the age of homosexual consent. These included the British Medical Association, the National Association of Probation Officers, Barnados, NSPCC, the Terrence Higgins Trust and the UK Health for All Network. I wonder whether those institutions are in a rather Mandy Rice-Davies type position: "They would say that". They are in the position of dealing with the inevitable problems that result from blunt law applied to subtle chemistry. Parents are in a different position. They--all of them-- are trying to prevent a trend which results later in the discomfiture of those institutions.

Finally, when the Minister winds up, will he help us on the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, who laid his professional reputation on the line? He said, effectively, that he would bet his bottom

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dollar that the European Commission of Human Rights would be followed by a similar judgment by the European court in the Sutherland case. I believe that many of your Lordships have been sent an opinion by a barrister, who draws our attention to what is known as the "margin of appreciation", which allows legislative aberrations in certain national socio-ethical areas. Will the Minister be kind enough to advise the House how he sees that playing a part in any judgment by the court?

I would not wish to seal the fate of an extra number of unfortunate children for the sake of legislative neatness.

9.11 p.m.

Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, I must immediately confess that it is with some trepidation that I rise to my feet to speak in this debate, trepidation prompted by what seems to be perceived as the politically correct stance to take, particularly among Labour parliamentarians. However, my much deeper feelings on this issue far outweigh any feeling of trepidation I experience. In my view, it is the way we feel and the emotions by which we are driven which are of considerable importance. They cannot be simply disregarded and wholly discounted by way of logical argument or intellectual concepts. I propose to expand on this a little later.

Noble Lords may recall that when this question was debated in this House in July last year, I intervened when my noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn was winding up the debate. I intervened on that occasion because I was moved by the way my noble friend was very strongly using the arguments of inequality and discrimination, suggesting--to me at least--that those of us who opposed the reduction in the age of consent were in fact supporting inequality and discrimination. Indeed, the Home Secretary employed much the same arguments in the other place when moving the Bill in January of this year. However, my intervention in the debate was to ask my noble friend the Minister whether he thought it valid to use these terms when comparing one relationship which is generally considered natural with another which is generally considered unnatural. Although the answer "yes" was brief and to the point, I did feel it was less than satisfactory.

However, in the following week a noble friend of mine, writing in a national newspaper, referred to my intervention, without naming me, I might add, and challenged the description of "natural" and "unnatural", conceding that the two relationships were different but arguing, it seemed to me, that the correct term for the different relationships were "usual" and "unusual".

Before I continue on this point, I wish to pause for a moment to emphasise that this issue is not about homosexuality versus heterosexuality but is clearly and unequivocally about protecting young males from abuse by adults, a protection the Government recognise is necessary for all youngsters which is reflected in the Bill, and to which I shall refer later.

Returning now to the article to which I referred and the differing views of the two relationships, I must confess that the view expressed, which was contrary to

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my own, has some merit and indeed I found the argument quite thought-provoking. That led me to re-examine my approach to the issue. I was driven to re-examine my logical approach to the issue and I was persuaded to re-examine my intellectual approach to the situation. I was also forced to re-examine my emotional feelings towards all the circumstances.

This is where I found the solution to my dilemma. I now return to what I mentioned at the outset of my remarks--feelings, the emotions which influence our thinking about heterosexual relationships and the emotions which influence our thinking about homosexual activity; but, most importantly, the way these feelings impact upon our view of inequality and discrimination.

The views expressed on this issue by homosexuals are not, I suggest, wholly motivated by logical and intellectual arguments but to some extent by the way they feel and by the direction in which their emotions take them. When this issue was debated in the other place in January an honourable Member on the Labour Back Benches confessed his heterosexuality, saying that sex dominated about 1 or 2 per cent. of his thinking whereas it seemed to him that sex dominated the thinking of homosexuals 100 per cent.

I doubt very much whether those figures are correct. But that is not the point. In my view, the point is that, whatever the thinking, it stems at least in part from emotional feelings. That is not something I object to. It is just a demonstration that the approach taken by homosexuals is to some extent motivated by their emotional feelings. Therefore, there must be no complaint about those of us who are heterosexual also being driven by our emotional feelings. It is indeed unjust for us to be criticised and charged with being guilty of discrimination and inequality simply because we do not believe that it is in the best interests of young men to expose them to greater risk by lowering the age of consent to 16 years.

I turn specifically to the terms of the Bill before us. The Bill proposes two legislative changes, as clearly described in the Explanatory Notes accompanying the Bill. The first proposed change is to reduce the age of consent for homosexual activity from 18 years of age to 16 years of age and the second is to introduce particular protection for all youngsters, male and female, under 18 years of age. I have no difficulty whatever in supporting the second proposed change, which makes it a criminal offence for an adult to have sexual intercourse or engage in any other sexual activity with a person under 18 years of age if the adult is in a position of trust in respect of the person under 18 years of age.

My problem arises, as already indicated, in respect of the first change proposed in the Bill--to reduce the age of consent generally from 18 to 16 years in respect of homosexual activity. My concern--I emphasise it again--is that young males will not be at greater risk from abuse than they are at present by anything that we might do. Indeed, I feel that my concern has been reinforced by the Government because of the second proposed change in the Bill. Their proposed protective

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measure clearly recognises the threat of abuse to which young people are often exposed from some of those in positions of trust. Indeed, I share the Government's concern. That is why I wholly support that part of the Bill.

At this point perhaps I may digress just a little. I believe that my digression is germane to the essence of this debate. Noble Lords will recall that only recently Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector of Schools, was reported as saying that sex between a teacher and a pupil can be "educative", and that a teacher involved should not automatically be drummed out of the profession--and that comes at a time when the Government are introducing legislation to stamp out that kind of relationship. I appreciate that Mr. Woodhead has apologised for his remarks and that the Secretary of State did not sack him, although it was reported at the time that he was seething over the remarks.

The reason I bring this matter to the attention of the House is that if those remarks reflect the thinking of someone as important as the Chief Inspector of Schools, how wide is such thinking among many of those in positions of trust? Should we not be very careful indeed of taking any steps whatsoever that are likely to increase the risk to any young person?

That is where I part company with the Government. Whereas they may well believe that they have done enough in the Bill to reduce the degree of abuse and remove the level of risk, I do not. I also recognise and appreciate that, in framing this Bill in the way that they have, the Government are trying to straddle two horses at the same time with the two proposed changes to the law: first, to increase the protection of all young people under the age of 18, whom they undoubtedly see as being at risk and in danger of being abused by some of those who are in positions of trust; and, secondly, to meet what they believe will be the requirements of the decision of the European Court of Human Rights.

As I have already said, I have no difficulty whatsoever in supporting, as a stand-alone provision, the protection of all those under 18 years of age from the risk of abuse by adults in positions of trust. But it does not follow that equalising the age of consent for both heterosexual and homosexual relationships is a necessary and justifiable course of action.

I have advanced my view that emotions play a considerable part in forming our opinions on all sides of the argument. But I appreciate that logic must also play a part. I know that there will be many heterosexuals as well as homosexuals who take the view, which they see as logical, that both relationships are equal and therefore should be treated as equal under the law. I understand that anyone taking that view will logically move on to conclude that, if the ages of consent remain different, inequality and discrimination will persist.

However, if your Lordships reach the conclusion, as I do, that the two relationships are not compatible comparisons, and hence the different relationships are not to be seen as equal and that to compare them is like comparing apples to pears, we shall not see our stance as one of supporting inequality and discrimination and therefore any charges of that kind are unfair and unjust.

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Therefore, because I do not see the two relationships as being the same, I do not accept the reasoning for treating them equally under the law. I shall therefore oppose the reduction in the age of consent from 18 to 16 years of age for homosexual relationships.

In conclusion, I wish to make two short points. The first is by way of a caution. When legislation was first introduced, the age of consent for homosexual relationships was 21. It was then reduced to 18. It is now proposed to reduce the age to 16. Therefore, I think we can be forgiven for wondering what will come next if we do not make a stand now. Secondly, the Government have given a free vote on this issue. Therefore, if this House opposes the Bill, I certainly hope that the Government will not use the Parliament Act. I know that there is precedent for doing so, but I shall be extremely disappointed if a Labour Government resort to that procedural action.

9.24 p.m.

Lord Gray of Contin: My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow that brave speech from the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Coity. We have listened to a number of interesting speeches during the debate, some from experts and some from noble Lords who were closely associated with the earlier Bill last year. I cannot claim to belong to either category, but I suggest that some of my comments might find favour with many outside this House and certainly reflect the discussions which I have had with friends and acquaintances over the past few months.

First, I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, on his Privy Counsellorship, which I think we all agree is richly deserved. When he opened the debate he suggested that minds might already be made up, and I wholly agree. For that reason, and because so much of what I had intended to say has already been said at least once, I shall be brief so that we can proceed more quickly towards the vote and a little respite.

I shall support my friend Lady Young, who spoke with such conviction and whose arguments against the Bill I found compelling. I have always regarded homosexuality with the detachment of a heterosexual male. None the less I fully accept that in a free society everyone has the right to follow the lifestyle of their choice and in doing so to be free from discrimination.

I draw a dividing line between, on the one hand, two adult males who, after consideration, decide to live together and whose homosexuality remains private, known probably to only a handful of close friends, and, on the other hand, the male prostitute or even enthusiastic amateur to be found in gay clubs or even less desirable surroundings. Sadly, it is the latter rather than the former whom the young teenager is likely to encounter and from whom he needs protection.

Of course, the teenage youth may also meet homosexuality with older men in perfectly respectable surroundings, as a result, for example, of hero worship. Sportsmen, actors and musicians are three categories, but anyone whose talents he greatly admires and who happens to have a yearning for young men may prey on his affections.

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I need go no further than Clause 1 to find the stumbling block to my giving the Bill my support. The heading of that clause is:

    "Reduction in age at which certain sexual acts are lawful." That age is to be reduced from 18 to 16. My contention is that, as legislators, we must take account of the fact that maturity at 16 is by no means automatic. Although some 16 year-olds are physically mature, they may well not be either mentally or emotionally mature; nor does maturity affect all in the same way at the same time. Although the difference between 16 and 18 is but two years, they are two vital years. They are highly impressionable years when young people can easily be influenced.

Several speakers have stressed the desirability of uniformity in the age of consent, instancing heterosexual sex and homosexual sex. Surely at 16 the young male cannot be certain that he is homosexual and that it is homosexual sex which he really desires. Those extra two years may well save him from becoming involved in a homosexual relationship which he might bitterly regret later in life.

If the Bill is lost tonight and the Government are forced to use the Parliament Act, one consequence will result; namely, present 16 year-olds will probably have at least 18 months before a new Bill could be enacted. That is, in my view, a great advantage for them. It might also give the Government time to think again about Clause 1. I wish my noble friend's amendment every success.

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