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Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, protecting people from themselves has, throughout history, been an excuse for promoting prejudice and denying individuals the right to choice. We have seen societies in which black and white people have been denied the right to a relationship and in which people from one class were not supposed to have relationships with people from another. But in such societies people have still had relationships that have fallen outside those particular laws. They have still fallen in love and sometimes have paid a high price for it. I do not believe that we in Britain today want a section of our society to pay a high price for falling in love with someone.

The noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, was absolutely right when she said that the world outside your Lordships' House would scarcely understand the debate tonight; and certainly those under the age of 25 have a totally different concept of the kinds of issues that we are debating. I believe that they would be slightly shocked at our concentration on aspects of sexual behaviour with so little mention of love, concern and relationships. I do not believe that they see sex as separate from care or love, as some speakers have implied.

It is no coincidence that the age group that least supports this Bill is the 55-plus age group. Passion and romance in this world belong mostly to the young. As we move further and further from the experience of

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being in love, if we are not careful we can become cynical and look only for the worst of motives among the young whom we no longer understand.

Being a teenager is difficult. Falling in and out of love, unrequited love and the power of sex that dominates thought are a difficult bunch of issues to tackle at the same time as taking exams, applying to enter university, applying for a job and leaving home. No one between the ages of 16 and 18 should be left to deal with life-changing issues without help and advice.

I know to my cost as a parent that a huge amount of time is spent on the telephone by the 16 to 18 age group seeking advice on relationships, usually from friends. But parents need to know that their child can approach the family doctor on health issues and the youth counsellor on emotional problems. If one is a gay young man barred from receiving advice, how is one to make considered and informed choices? It is very hard to make those choices by oneself. If one is regarded as a criminal, one's self-esteem will suffer enormous harm and one's prospects in every area will be affected.

Several times this evening we have heard listed the organisations which support this Bill. I shall not repeat them. All of those organisations support this measure because they are very much aware that to deny help to a group of young people at the most vulnerable moment of their lives is extremely dangerous. If the aim is to protect this group, your Lordships must heed the advice of all those groups which work with young people. The best way to help young people to resolve the difficult issues of sexuality, relationships, love, health, rejection and acceptance is to allow them to be as open as possible about their feelings and their situation. If a relationship criminalises an individual, how can he turn to anyone for advice?

I am quite aware that a number of noble Lords may wish that homosexuality did not exist; and some noble Lords may even wish that young people did not have sexual relationships at 16, 17 or even 18. But I do not believe that we are here to reinforce our subjective views, especially when dealing with matters of sexuality where most individuals would find a full and frank discussion of their own feelings difficult and probably impossible.

This evening we should be part of the process of constructing a society that is open and fair. This Bill helps us towards that goal. I welcome the protection that this Bill offers to all young people. It has always seemed extraordinary to me that anyone can claim that a young girl's life cannot be ruined by a relationship with an older man. Few can deny that such abuses of trust have led to as much misery and problems as those between older men and boys. The Bill enables all those young people to have an equal chance to make the best of their sexual and emotional lives. I want the best chance for all the next generation; and I support the Bill wholeheartedly.

9.34 p.m.

Baroness Seccombe: My Lords, the night is late, so I shall be brief. My purpose in speaking today is to give a personal view as a mother and grandmother and as a

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close observer of the development of young people as they go through the turbulent years of puberty. I should like also to place on record that I have no problems with people who as adults choose a homosexual way of life. That is their prerogative and should be accepted. However, I believe that a heterosexual lifestyle is natural while a homosexual is not.

But the Bill for me sends out an astonishing message to young people. The Government's case seems to stem from political correctness and a doctrine that reducing the age of consent is an issue of equality and justice. Much is made of the fact that the European Court of Human Rights may rule that the law must be amended. But I understand that there is a strong body of opinion which believes that the court may take the view that on such sensitive issues national governments should make the final decision. We should therefore not be fettered, but come to our own conclusions without reference to what a court may or may not state some time in the future.

There is no doubt that girls mature much earlier than boys. Boys very often are only just coming to terms with their sexuality at 16. Consequently, I accept that there is more of a case for the age of consent for girls to be lower than for boys. Personally, I feel that 18 would be more appropriate for girls too, and would probably cause less anguish. However, that is not possible; nor is it part of the Bill.

In my submission, it would be a dereliction of duty if we allowed this legislation to reach the statute book. Governments have always been concerned with the protection of children and young people. So it seems distinctly odd that the Bill should be before us at a time when there are so many initiatives to stop abuse of the young. I am convinced that to allow the age of consent to be lowered to 16 could be seen as a form of cruelty as legally it could expose vulnerable adolescent boys to predatory older or indeed younger men. I understand that the Bill tries to cope with that difficult situation. But the Government's case is undermined as the major part of the Bill leads everyone to believe that that way of life is normal and therefore not a change of any magnitude. I cannot agree with that opinion.

On a previous occasion I referred to a list of activities in which one cannot indulge until reaching the age of 18, including, for example, serving on a jury, voting in any election, buying a house or flat, opening a bank account without a parent's signature, or even buying alcohol. It therefore strikes me as very strange that this highly important proposed change seems to be just accepted and indeed proposed by the Government. After all, a decision taken by an immature young man might lead him into a life that he would not have contemplated given another two years of development.

I am also deeply concerned about young people who have not had the advantage of a stable family background. I feel that it is up to your Lordships to ensure that their interests come before any fashionable correctness. I could never bring myself to vote for the age to be lowered to 16, and I urge noble Lords to support my noble friend Lady Young who outlined her case with such clarity and conviction.

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On the "Today" programme this morning, we heard that the opponents of the Bill were mainly over 60 and out of touch. Why, I wonder, should a speaker who is 51 know better? I think that the age of Members of your Lordships' House is immaterial and that all views should be respected. Perhaps if age is so important I can conclude by saying that my 14, soon to be 15, year-old granddaughter agrees with me wholeheartedly. She said, "You won't let them do it, will you, Granny?"

9.40 p.m.

Lord Freyberg: My Lords, last time this subject was debated in the House I listened carefully to the arguments put by both sides. Sexuality and the age of consent are emotional topics and I was aware that the tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality common among my generation is a recent phenomenon. One cannot, however, expect people who are brought up to consider it a terrible thing--morally unacceptable, corrupting, shameful, something to be kept hidden and illegal to boot--to shed these bad associations even though attitudes to homosexuality have undergone a sea change in the past few decades. I therefore expected that some older Members would find it difficult to reason dispassionately. None the less, I was distressed by the prejudiced tone of the discussion and by the illogical and plainly ridiculous arguments expressed by people I respect from all sides of the House--some of which I have heard repeated tonight.

It is my belief that the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill is a timely piece of legislation which corrects an unfair anomaly in the law for a maligned and vulnerable group of people. Not only are young homosexuals condemned by the widespread prejudice of their seniors, they are deprived of legal parities with their own age group. In particular, homosexual men between the ages of 16 and 18 are turned into criminals if they have a sex life, while heterosexual men and women are not.

It is cruel to punish one group of young people because of their sexuality. The message thus given is that homosexuality is somehow wrong, something to be afraid of, and that the needs of gay men matter less. I do not believe that the law necessarily stops young gay men pursuing a sex life, but it undoubtedly sends them a negative message.

One of the worries often cited against lowering the age of consent for homosexuals is that it will encourage homosexuality, because boys mature later than girls. Medical evidence suggests otherwise. The view of the British Medical Association is that,

    "adult sexual orientation is usually established before the age of puberty in both boys and girls". Developmental arguments for an unequal age of consent are also rejected by the Royal College of Psychiatrists. You cannot change sexual orientation simply by making it harder for people to embrace one kind of sexuality than another. That is already the case, and, indeed, it is common for young men to delay accepting their homosexuality, such is the pressure to conform to society's "norms".

Homosexual men and women will continue to exist in the future as they have in the past. Sexuality refuses to be confined by rules and regulations. There are,

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inevitably, no figures to show how often the law of banning homosexual sex below the age of 18 is flouted at present. That thousands of heterosexual couples under the age of consent engage in sexual activity is evidenced by the depressingly large number of girls under 16 who become pregnant. The figure for conceptions to girls aged between 13 and 15 in England and Wales in 1996 was 8,800. The number who actually had sex is inevitably far greater.

The BMA maintains that, from a medical point of view, the purpose of age of consent legislation is,

    "to protect vulnerable young people from sexual exploitation and abuse".

It states further that,

    "there is no clear justification for a differential age for homosexual male activity and other sexual activity. Unwelcome sexual attentions of a seriousness warranting criminal prosecution are equally offensive whether the victim is a man or a woman: the same law should therefore apply to all". The large number of bodies which work with young people--we have heard many mentioned tonight--also agree that the age should be reduced. Such expert opinions should not be lightly dismissed.

If protecting the young is our aim, we should consider the difficulties faced by young homosexual boys between the ages of 16 and 18 if they want to consult a doctor on sexual matters. Because gay sex is illegal at this age, doctors, teachers and youth workers are all banned from giving practical advice on health and the prevention of HIV infection. Barnardos states that:

    "We find ourselves in the ludicrous situation of handing out condoms to girls who are 16 and to heterosexual boys who are 16 but not to gay 16 year-olds".

One of the many misconceptions of homosexuality quoted in this House this evening is that it is unnatural. This is blatantly untrue. As the distinguished scientific committee organised by Dr. Miriam Rothschild pointed out to the Wolfenden Committee in the 1950s, nature is full of examples of homosexual acts, in creatures as diverse as fleas, ducks and apes. In this genetic aspect we are no different from the rest of the animal kingdom. And while in all cases homosexuality is a minority pursuit, it is humans alone who have stigmatised it. To speak more locally, Britain and Luxembourg are the only countries in the EU with an age of consent that still discriminates between heterosexuals and homosexuals. Our laws exist in this unequal way because of prejudices against homosexuality. That is what is unnatural.

In the last few months many polls have canvassed people for their views on the age of consent. While some statistics indicate opposition to lowering it, an equal number support the idea that the age of consent should be the same for heterosexuals and homosexuals. Many of those against lowering the gay age of consent were also in favour of raising the age of consent for all, heterosexuals included. While most people find it difficult to make moral judgments about sexuality, a majority do seem to believe that all young people deserve to be treated equally by the law. As there is no move for the general age of consent to be raised to 18, maintaining a higher age of consent for homosexuals simply discriminates against young gay men.

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They are an already much put-upon group. As the noble Earl, Lord Russell, recounted this evening homophobic bullying and abuse are common. The children's charity Save the Children believes that the discriminatory age of consent contributes to intolerance and prejudice, and refers to the body of evidence linking it to the high levels of attempted suicide, family rejection and intimidation of young homosexuals. I am sure that this is very far from what those who oppose this Bill want, but they have not come up with any solutions, let alone positive role models, to affirm the worth of young gay men.

As far as the law is concerned, the Bill is largely academic. There is little public benefit or police interest in spying on acts of consensual sex. As Mike Bennett, chairman of the Metropolitan Police branch of the Police Federation, said to a newspaper last year,

    "It's common knowledge that we don't actually prosecute 16 to 18 year-olds." At present only a handful of cautions or prosecutions against 16 or 17 year-old males for buggery and gross indecency are made each year. Consensual sex is not a crime. Do we really want a law that stigmatises a whole group of young people for which only a very few will be prosecuted and even fewer convicted each year? As the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, said so forcefully, what is the point in a law there is no will to enforce?

Therefore, while I have no desire to encourage sex at a young age, I also have no desire to promote one form of sex over another either. While I would never suggest that those who engage in any kind of sexual activity can escape emotional, psychological or even physical damage I am certain that each of us should be equal before the law. I therefore oppose the amendment to this Bill, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Young.

9.48 p.m.

Lord Ashbourne: My Lords, it is getting late, and I shall try not to detain your Lordships too long.

This Bill would reduce from 18 to 16 the age at which men can legally commit acts of gross indecency with boys and acts of buggery, an unnatural, unsanitary and dangerous act, on both boys and girls. The Government's manifesto commitment was to allow a free vote in Parliament on this issue. Last summer, Parliament was given that opportunity. Another place voted for a reduction in that age, and this House voted by an equally substantial majority against it. In allowing those votes, the Government fulfilled their manifesto commitment. They have no mandate to go any further. I intend to support the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lady Young, and I hope to find the amendment carried.

We must be clear that ordinary people are very much against this Bill. Opinions polls always show support for vague concepts of equality, but when it is spelt out that this means giving homosexual men legal access to schoolboys, opinion is solidly against. It is ironic that your Lordships' House will be acting more democratically in rejecting this Bill than the elected Chamber.

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We must lay to rest some of the myths carefully engendered by the Bill's proponents. Especially important is to nail the "born that way" myth. If men are born homosexual, we should be unkind to deny them homosexual equality. If, on the other hand, the origins of homosexuality are more complex, we may be right to see homosexual activity and acts of buggery as pathological. I have been impressed by a briefing from the American National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, sent to me by Christian Voice. It demonstrates that, in the view of a majority of respected scientists, homosexuality is the result of a combination of social, psychological and biological factors. It is still regarded by conservative psychiatric professionals as pathological, and it can be successfully treated.

The law of Almighty God which Her Majesty solemnly promised, in her coronation oath, to maintain, views homosexual activity a crime at any age. The adolescent age range is one in which homosexuals are particularly interested, hence the importance of not lowering the age of consent to 16.

I have an interest to declare in that I am chairman of the Lords and Commons Family and Child Protection Group, an all-party group made up of Back-Bench Members of both Houses of Parliament, formed some years ago by parliamentarians who were particularly disturbed at the incessant and repeated attacks on the traditional family. The Family and Child Protection Group does not favour sexual relations outside marriage. As for homosexuality, it is unnatural; it is a perversion; and it is repeatedly and firmly condemned in holy scripture.

This is an unrighteous Bill, and I trust and pray that Almighty God will give this House the courage to stand up to the Government when, as in today's Bill, they are wrong. That is our constitutional duty before God, the Monarch and the people of this United Kingdom. It is a duty from which we must not shrink.

9.52 p.m.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I shall keep my remarks brief because I very much agree with the contribution made by the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg. I start from the same premise which he so clearly identified; namely, that homosexuality, of course, is a minority condition but it is a basic natural condition found in all societies, in all humankind and wider than humankind.

But children need protection from those who may take advantage of them. That is why it is unlawful to have heterosexual intercourse with anyone under the age of 16. It has not been established in this debate why homosexuals, boys or girls, need greater protection than heterosexuals.

Should the law follow opinion polls? That seems to represent much of the case presented for supporting the amendment. I think not. Democracy requires representation, not opinion polls. Of course majorities can oppress. We are not talking just about totalitarian states; for example, when the Nazis discriminated against the Jews or the Serbs against the Albanian Kosovars at present. Democracies may be guilty of

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oppression against minorities: for example, the Americans against their native Indians, the Australians against the Aborigines. There have been many other cases in which distinct minorities have had to look to democracy to protect their rights, not through opinion polls which are the state expression of majority prejudice, but through the proper responsibility of a democracy to care for the rights of minorities. That is an absolutely essential principle of the way in which democracy should work.

So democracy must be protective of minorities. That is why, in this particular case, the issue of whether the legislation was foreshadowed in the manifesto is not appropriate. This is a conscience issue. We know it is not party politics for a party to campaign in a general election and say there are no matters of conscience for its Members when elected to the House which should be presented in the manifesto. Of course there are not, but these issues should be debated and decided by Members of Parliament elected to do their job representing their constituents.

The lower House has spoken not once with regard to this Bill but twice. After all we had before us the presentation of this issue the previous year. I recognise that under the strict terms of the Parliament Act this is not the same Bill. However, the idea that the case can be made that there has been insufficient consideration of this important issue by the lower House does not stand up. What is more, it seems to me that the lower House has so much greater legitimacy on this issue than we have here. I take the obvious points about personal characteristics. This is a matter which affects a particular generation. We are talking about 16 to 18 year-olds. Who are closer to them as legislators? In the lower House many Members are fathers and mothers of such children whereas we on the whole are a House consisting, by and large, of Members who are two generations away from the issue with which we are concerned.

Society has changed significantly over the period of time under consideration. That is why in my view, in terms of its representation, the lower House has greater legitimacy. I take this obvious point: of course, it is easy for those backing this amendment to quote opinion poll positions. We all know, however, that this is one of the issues in which a majority of citizens who, tolerant though they may be, on the whole display elements of prejudice against a minority group. However, the issue is surely that this is not a question of opinion polls translated into action but a question of judgment of representatives of the people elected by them. After all, the lower House has Members who must go back to their communities, be answerable to the people they represent and answer the questions and challenges presented to them by the local press. We, on the whole, are expressing predominantly private opinions, admittedly in a highly public place in the upper House of the legislature, but, nevertheless, opinions for which we cannot be held directly responsible. On those grounds, therefore, I do not believe that the case has been made out for this House to reject the absolutely significant majority, 183, at Second Reading of the Bill in the lower House. It seems to me that we would be ill-advised to support the amendment.

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9.57 p.m.

Lord Annaly: My Lords, I have three young children--two daughters aged 9 and 11 years, and an 8 year-old son. I therefore declare an interest as a parent. I am sure that I am no different from the majority of parents in this country in wanting to safeguard my children during their formative years until they reach adulthood.

Although supporting the principle of the Bill's provisions on abuse of positions of trust, I strongly believe that lowering the homosexual age of consent is not in the long-term interests of young people. Generally speaking, young men mature physically and emotionally rather later than girls. I believe that by keeping the homosexual age of consent at 18, time is allowed for adolescent boys to mature and to be in a better position to decide their sexuality. After all, the age when young people are allowed to vote is 18, as is the age when a young man can fight for his country. That all seems quite consistent.

I believe that there is a danger for adolescent boys (who are going through a phase when they are unsure of their sexuality) of being befriended and abused by older, homosexual men. That could then lead to infection of sexually transmitted disease and could then draw them into a homosexual lifestyle. Thus, what may have been a passing phase in that young person's growing up could easily become permanent because the homosexual subculture is not one from which it would be easy for young people to extricate themselves.

Why then are we considering the Government's proposals to reduce the age of homosexual consent? This Bill, if passed, will give the wrong signals to young people by indicating that society approves of homosexual sex at a younger age. That is surely not how we should best be protecting our children, who in law are all people under the age of 18. This Bill legalises buggery and gross indecency with children, both boys and girls, for the first time.

There has been much made in this debate about equality between the sexes and the need to make the age of consent the same for boys as for girls, namely, at 16 years. This is misleading in the extreme. The law at the moment allows a girl of 16 to consent to heterosexual sex, but anal intercourse with that same 16 year-old girl is illegal. This Bill is proposing to make anal intercourse legal for both sexes at 16. This is against a background where we know that anal intercourse is deemed to be very dangerous from the medical viewpoint. As well as causing physical damage--that was well highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Quirk--and giving rise to a number of other infections, 72 per cent. of all male HIV infections in the UK arise through homosexual intercourse. When the age of consent was last lowered in 1994, the incidence of HIV infections acquired from sex between men increased, despite considerable health promotion about so-called "safer sex". Proof of the danger is evident in that any man who has ever had homosexual sex is banned for life from giving blood, as we have already heard.

Young people--be they boys or girls--who are not sure of their sexuality should be able to seek advice--this is important--and feel able to do so in confidence. The

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law currently requires that secondary schools provide HIV and sex education. There are also a number of advice agencies, drop-in centres, telephone helplines, leaflets and booklets especially for homosexuals that do not have any lower age limit. In addition to those sources of advice, there is the family doctor from whom contraceptive advice and contraceptives are available for girls and boys under 16 who are below the heterosexual age of consent. I do not therefore agree with the argument that by keeping the homosexual age of consent at 18 years, homosexual boys aged 16 and 17 will be denied access to advice and help. It is just not true.

Finally, there is a wide variance both within and outside Europe on the homosexual and heterosexual ages of consent. The homosexual age of consent varies within Europe from an effective age of 12 in Spain through to 18 in Austria, as we have already heard. The age of 18 also applies in Luxembourg, Portugal and this country. In Luxembourg, the heterosexual age is 16 and the homosexual age is 18. In Austria, the heterosexual age is 14 and the homosexual age is 18. The relevant age is not the same in those various different countries.

I conclude simply by saying that I shall support my noble friend Lady Young in her amendment because I do not believe in my heart of hearts that this Bill is in the best interests of young people.

10.2 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Birmingham: My Lords, the majority of my episcopal brethren believe that this Bill is mistaken. I disagree with them. I tried to persuade them that this is a fight in which they ought not to engage, but without success. I intend to support the Bill, though I have a question to which I shall return later.

Deeply important issues are at stake, notably the recurrent question of the relationship between morality and law. There is no doubt to my mind that the sanctions of the law have a place in giving social support to moral norms; no doubt that the state of the law not only reflects but also has an effect on what people in general believe to be acceptable behaviour. But we cannot draw a tight line of correspondence between a morally wrong and a legally impermissible. Adultery is an obvious example. Adultery is certainly wrong and its effects are seldom limited to the man and woman in question. In other words, it is not a simply private act. It affects other people; it has social consequences.

Nevertheless, unless we want to go back to Calvin's Geneva, there are few of us who would think it prudent or right to make adultery subject to the sanctions of the criminal law. Similarly, and a little closer to the matter in hand, few of us can think that casual sex between male and female teenagers--or, come to that, between men and women of any age--is a matter of social indifference. Its widespread acceptance has harmful social effects, but few of us suppose that this is an area where the criminal law will do any good. Just imagine an Act against fornication!

That being so, I can see no good case for the continued crimninalisation of criminal activity involving young men of 16 or 17. What good does it do? It is true that the Church's traditional inherited teaching is clear.

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The proper and normal place for sexual relations for anyone is within marriage, but that is not an argument for making other kinds of sexual activity illegal, except in one important case. That is, in circumstances where the weak are vulnerable to exploitation by the strong and, in particular, by persons who are in a position of trust or responsibility over the young.

For this reason I should have had great difficulty in voting for the proposals which your Lordships' House rejected last summer. This time I am ready to support the Government's proposals, and for two particular reasons. First, as we have heard, this Bill removes the stigma of criminality from young men who are involved in homosexual behaviour. Some of them certainly need help, but they are less likely to be able to find it if they know that their behaviour is labelled as criminal.

Secondly, I welcome the Bill because of the protection it gives to young women as well as to young men. I do have one question which has already arisen in one form or another--a question to which I hope the Minister will be able to address himself in due course. I refer to Clause 4 which sets out the conditions for establishing whether or not A is to be seen as occupying a position of relevant trust in relation to B.

I note of course the provision for extending the number of conditions by statutory instrument. Nevertheless, as the Bill stands, I suggest that the conditions are too narrowly drawn in two respects. First, why is the fourth condition limited to full-time education? Surely, young people in part-time education ought to receive the same protection. And what about other situations such as the teaching of music to individuals? And what about youth workers?

Finally, what about the wide field of part-time voluntary activities which involve positions of trust? This has been raised before. I speak of choirs, youth clubs, youth camps, Army and Sea Cadets, and so on. Surely the abuse of trust is just as possible, just as harmful and just as reprehensible here as in any full-time educational establishment.

10.8 p.m.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede: My Lords, I intend to make a brief contribution. The last time we debated this issue was on 22nd July last year. When the noble Baroness, Lady Young, made her contribution she divided it into two halves. She talked about the procedure of dealing with the amendment, as it was at that stage, and she also spoke about the substance of the issue. I intend to divide my contribution along similar lines.

On 22nd July the noble Baroness made much of the rather peremptory way in which the other place had treated the amendment. She complained that it had been rather "slipped through" on a night when England were playing Argentina at football, with very unfortunate results. She said:

    "What is undoubtedly true is that the amendment was never considered either in Committee or on Report in either House of Parliament. So there has been no opportunity at all for detailed consideration of this change in the law and of the issues involved".--[Official Report, 22/7/98; col. 937]

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    It is therefore a bit rich that the noble Baroness's amendment tonight will deny precisely those opportunities to this House at later stages of this Bill.

I simply do not understand why the noble Baroness could not remove the Clause 1 stand part provision. I do not understand why she could not amend the abuse of trust provisions which she said she thought were important but were flawed in some way. I do not understand why she does not want to decriminalise children under 16 who engage in sexual activity. The noble Baroness prefers to have a Pyrrhic victory. She knows that by winning her amendment tonight she will only postpone a measure which the Government are rightly determined to bring back at a later stage. I believe that casts a shadow over the workings of this House because this House is at its best when it is using its expertise to consider detailed amendments and to amend legislation. What will be gained by this procedure? The noble Earl, Lord Russell, spoke about the integrity, determination and courage of the noble Baroness, Lady Young. I recognise those qualities, but I ask why is this procedure being adopted? What will be gained?

I turn to the issue of substance. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, also said in her introductory remarks that parents do not want their sons encouraged into homosexuality. I agree with that. She also said that a change in the law will send a signal. I agree with that too. But there is nothing inconsistent with parents preferring a particular lifestyle for their children and at the same time not wanting their children's choices to bring them into a criminal lifestyle. Over the past few weeks I have received a number of letters from parents of young gay men who make this very point; namely, that they do not love their sons any less because of their sons' chosen lifestyle. They believe passionately that the criminal law should not value their sons any less either. The noble Baroness said that a change in the law will send a signal. It will send a signal to the parents of young gay men, and to the young gay men themselves, that the law protects them and values them equally with other young people of that age. It will remove a legal stigma, although heaven knows many far more brutal stigmas and taboos will remain.

The noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, made much of the age of Members of this House in her speech. I think I am right in saying that the only noble Lord in his twenties who has contributed to the debate tonight is the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg. I think that is a reflection of the make-up of this House. The national opinion poll, to which a number of Peers have referred, graphically illustrates that point. It is undoubtedly true that older people are less inclined to support an equal age of consent. I think it is also true that young people do not want the protection which this House may seek to give them.

I argue that humility is required here. The House of Commons has voted twice for this measure with massive majorities. Younger people have far more tolerant views than was the case even when I was of the age when this was an issue. That has been well borne out by recent polls. Humility is a virtue. We are talking to one another in this House. Out there, the world has moved on, and

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so will the law, if not this year then next year. We claim to have equality before the law, but we do not. This Bill merely brings it a small step closer.

10.13 p.m.

The Earl of Clancarty: My Lords, the vast majority of young people would certainly support this Bill. Indeed, if young people under 25, for example, whether gay or heterosexual, were here in this Chamber to debate this issue--as perhaps they should be--we would have a very different and, I believe, more realistic debate. Young people find the current law both intolerable and undignified. They find it undignified because 16 to 18 year-olds today are not as young and naive as many older people imagine them to be, or perhaps as they would like to keep them. They find the current law intolerable because inequality under the law is, effectively, a system of apartheid, with one rule for young women under 18, and another for young men.

It is interesting how the current law exemplifies how closely inequality impacts on education, including access to information. The law as it stands helps to create a two-headed monster in this respect. When young men wish to seek advice and guidance they are fearful of doing so, and worse fears are created. The second head of the monster is that the current law makes it difficult for many organisations, such as Save the Children, to do their job because they would be seen to be condoning illegal behaviour. This, of course, includes the passing on of information about HIV infection and other aspects of health. Indeed, there should be far more such education and counselling in general than there is presently in the United Kingdom, right through the childhood years. In this context, young gay men are currently in a particularly disadvantaged position.

On both sides of the debate people are arguing from the best of intentions, including those whose professed primary concern is the wish to protect young people. But protect them from what? From the things that young people themselves wish to do? The reservations of many noble Lords last July about the problems of abuse of trust cannot now be maintained. To put it bluntly, it seems to me that only prejudice against gays and bisexuals and/or homosexual activity, which, despite protestations to the contrary, does in effect amount to the same thing, can now support opposition to the Bill.

Young people have rights of equality and self-expression, and it is time that they were acknowledged. I fully support the Bill and shall vote against the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Young.

10.16 p.m.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, the House will be glad to know that I am not going to make the speech that I wrote this morning. However, there are one or two things that I would like to say.

I do not know how the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, knows that most 25 year-olds would be in favour of the Bill. They have not been writing to me in great numbers,

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and those who have written to me are against the Bill. I do not know how he can assert so confidently that 25 year-olds are for the Bill.

However, I have been interested in one or two points which have been raised. A number of noble Lords have said that we are the laughing stock of Europe because we are keeping the age of homosexual consent at 18. There are good and consistent reasons why we are doing so. In the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Bill we are legislating to safeguard young children up to the age of 18 from exploitation by the press. If we legislate to protect young people from exploitation by the press, is it so wrong to want to protect them from sexual exploitation? The United Nations believes that, in particular, young people between the ages of 16 and 18 need special protection from sexual exploitation. So there are very good reasons why we should not be held in contempt in Europe for keeping the age of consent--certainly for the present--at 18.

There are various ages of consent in Europe. In one country it is 14 years of age and in Spain it is as low as 12. How far along that road do the people who support the Bill want to go? What is the next milestone after 16? Is it 14? And then should we be the same as Spain and make the age of consent 12? We need an answer to that. When people make such glib remarks about Britain being held in contempt by other European countries, they should think it through and think what the end game may well be.

I wish to make another point. The Government obviously believe that it is safe to bring forward the Bill and that no adverse consequences will flow from reducing the age of homosexual consent to 16 and equalising the age at which both sexes can be legally involved in buggery. But they have introduced safeguards. If no adverse consequences will flow from the Bill, why do they need safeguards? They need safeguards because there is an element of doubt; and they know there is an element of doubt. That is why they have put the safeguards in.

I know that I shall be labelled as a bigot and reactionary.

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