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Lord Northbourne: My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that, as it stands, the law covering the age of consent for buggery for both males and females is 18?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, that is not at all to the point of my submission. The age of heterosexual consent is 16 here and 17 in Northern Ireland and it is not the same age of consent for homosexual activity. With great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne--whom I can describe as my noble friend because we agree on many more matters than we disagree--I do not think that the noble Lord's point goes to what I am saying here.

I repeat, in this House we have a good history of supporting individual liberty and of challenging prejudice. Sometimes, although not always, we have been in advance of the other place. I suggest to noble Lords that the time has come to put this matter right. We already have laws in place to punish those who sexually abuse others. The Home Secretary announced

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a fundamental review of the laws relating to sexual offences. The aim of that review is to protect the vulnerable and to punish the predator.

Perhaps I may observe, from my own experience in the criminal courts--shared, I daresay, by all those who have ever practised--that abusers may be either heterosexual or homosexual. We need to be able to deal effectively with both. It is morally wrong to suggest that homosexual abuse is any more common than heterosexual abuse, whether it takes place in the home, in care institutions or in schools. Furthermore, it is equally wrong and offensive to suggest that if one's sexual orientation is homosexual one is more likely to be a paedophile than if one's sexual orientation is heterosexual.

Perhaps I may now turn briefly to the remainder of the Bill. The second change concerns decriminalising the younger partner in buggery and homosexual acts. This is an important child protection measure. At present, anyone under the age of consent commits a criminal offence if he takes part in such activity with someone over the age of consent. In contrast, a girl of under 16 commits no offence if she has sexual intercourse with someone over the age of 16. For that reason, we think that the protection should apply equally to both. First, the threat of the criminal law can be a tool in the hands of sexual predators. Secondly, if the matter is not decriminalised, any child in these circumstances might be dissuaded, or at least influenced against, seeking medical help, advice and guidance. This is a needed reform and I commend it to your Lordships.

Finally, I turn to abuse of trust. Again, this is a child protection measure and I hope it will have the support of noble Lords. We considered it as long ago as 1998 when an amendment was moved in another place to the Crime and Disorder Bill. This offence has been considered at some length. It is intended to protect young persons--girls and boys--who are most at risk and vulnerable, or where the position of trust is most strong. The circumstances currently defined include residential care, detention and hospitals. They also include full-time education, given the special status of teachers and their well-established positions of trust. Perhaps I may repeat that I gained much benefit from conversations with the noble Baroness, Lady Young, about the difficulties one encounters as regards those engaged in positions of trust in full-time education.

Some will say--I have every sympathy with this--that the provisions covering the definition of abuse of trust do not go far enough. For instance, they do not cover Scouts or Guides. I accept that we may need to look at this again. That is why I mentioned earlier the order-making power that has been provided in the Bill to extend the scope of the new offence at a later date if there is demonstrable evidence of need.

The Bill is not difficult to understand, either in its scheme or detail, and, most important, in the reasoning behind it. I repeat that I recognise that there are many noble Lords who will find this matter unacceptable. I recognise that people hold very strong views. However, I hope that noble Lords will look

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again at the real issues. We have held back these measures for too long and we should now progress to action in pursuit of equality and justice. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.--(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

3.45 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, first, I welcome the return of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, to the Dispatch Box. I hope he will forgive me for resorting to military language when I describe him as one of the Government's "big guns", or, to use the language of the boxing ring, he is a man who, "regularly punches above his weight". The noble and learned Lord has also paid a great compliment to my noble friend Lady Young and her supporters in that no less a person than the Attorney-General has been assigned the task of taking this Bill through the House. Because the Bill and its deliberations are subject to a free vote, it is important for me to make clear that I speak from these Benches in a personal capacity.

It is the Prime Minister's intention, should this House take a contrary view to the other place, to invoke the Parliament Act on an issue which is highly sensitive and is a matter of conscience. That will serve only to confirm this Government's distorted sense of priorities. One must join with a growing number of people from both Houses--including some Members of the Labour Benches--to ask: what is the Government's obsession with sex and sexuality?

No manifesto pledge was made on the age of consent. Clauses have been tacked on to Bills at late stages and counter-clauses have been introduced to Bills, also at late stages. This House is now to be packed with compliant Labour and Liberal Peers who, no doubt, have all been subjected to and passed the Section 28 test.

Lord Carter: My Lords, will the noble Baroness be kind enough to give way? Is the noble Baroness aware that I interview every single newly appointed Peer who enters this House and joins the Labour Benches? I would not dream of asking for their views either on Section 28 or on the age of consent.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I have no reservation whatever in believing what the noble Lord, Lord Carter, has just told me.

Lord Carter: My Lords, will the noble Baroness be kind enough to give way again? I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw that remark. I repeat, I have interviewed every single newly appointed Labour Peer. I have not asked them about their views on Section 28 or on the age of consent--I shall give way.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I repeat, I have no reservation whatever in taking the noble Lord at his word.

If that does not work, then Mr Blair, the Prime Minister, will resort to the Parliament Act. As I have just said, he will do that on an issue which is said to be a

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matter of conscience for each Member. Why is there this obsession with sex and sexuality and, given the timetabling difficulties, what is the urgency?

No doubt during the course of the debate we shall again hear many criticisms of those of us who see the lowering of the age of consent for homosexuals and the repeal of Section 28 as moral issues and, significantly, a matter of child protection. They will say that we are prejudiced, bigoted and exclusive. Indeed, only an hour ago I faced that criticism on television from Mrs Alice Mahon, MP. I refute those criticisms most strongly.The Bill does not invite us to legislate for same-sex friendships between young people. Let us examine its specific proposals. First, the Government propose that boys and girls of 16 may lawfully consent to buggery and certain homosexual acts defined in Section 13(4) of the 1995 Act as,

    "sodomy or an act of gross indecency or shameless indecency by one male person with another male person".

Secondly, the Government are proposing that a person under the age of 16 may lawfully commit buggery or certain homosexual acts with a person over the age of consent. Thirdly, the Government propose a feeble and deeply-flawed attempt at introducing safeguards for vulnerable young people.

Almost no publicity has been given by the Government or the Minister for Women, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, to the fact that that buggery on girls of 16 is made lawful by this Bill--a practice which must be a nightmare for parents, not to mention the girls themselves. For a government who have spent unprecedented funds on public relations, they are uncharacteristically coy when it comes to this measure. Where are the consultation documents dealing specifically with that issue? How many schools, parents and interested parties have been consulted? Where are their responses?

We know that a majority of people, when asked, do not support the Government on these proposals. My noble friend Lady Seccombe, who has patiently and with great concern pursued this matter with the Government, will address it when she comes to speak.

Where is the logic in these proposals. The Government talked of strengthening the prohibition on boys and girls of 16 buying alcohol and cigarettes. An army of 20,000 mentors is to be recruited by the Government to guide young people of that age at school. The Children Act defines 16 year-olds as "children"; and the Government, quite rightly in my view, wring their hands about the number of teenage pregnancies, about promiscuity, about children becoming sexually active at too young an age, and are also concerned about the spread of HIV and AIDS. Yet the message of this Bill is: sex is OK for children of 16, whether between boys and boys, or girls with girls or, worse, between young boys and older men.

Clause 28 is to be repealed, which will remove protection of young people from those who wish to promote homosexuality. Only today we learnt about a newsletter written by Berkshire Health Authority which is being circulated to schools. The letter advertises websites which carry blatant sex material and recommends courses

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run by an organisation teaching homosexuals how to "cruise" for sex. Are not the Government concerned about that corrupting material being made available to school children? Not only is there a case for retaining Section 28; there is also a strong case for extending it to include health authorities.

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