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Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. I spent a fair proportion of my speech quite specifically talking about girls, so it is quite wrong to say that they have not been mentioned in this debate so far.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness. Maybe I put them in a slightly different context. The Home Office report, Sex Offending Against Children, concluded that 60 to 70 per cent of child molesters target only girls: that is

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the important point. That means heterosexual men committing violence against girls. Yet there are still Members of your Lordships' House, as we have heard in previous debates, who somehow believe that young men require greater protection from unwanted sexual advances than young women. They seem to believe that somehow or other young women are less affected by sexual abuse.

I find such a view not only ridiculous, but offensive. It is unbelievable that it can be suggested, as it has been, that a young girl's life is not ruined by being seduced, but a young man's life is. It is amazing how easy it is to find a reason for discrimination. When women wanted the vote they were told that they lacked maturity and rational judgment. Now we are told that a young woman can easily get over being seduced: that she has the resilience, the strength and the moral purpose that is somehow missing in young men. That is to quote what was said in the other place. Of course it is nonsense.

I have said this before and I will say it again: a girl is faced with the prospect of becoming pregnant, of being disbelieved, of possible parental displeasure, of forced marriage, perhaps an abortion or the misery of early separation through adoption. These consequences of abuse on girls were identified by the Royal College of Psychiatrists as far back as 1976. These possible outcomes are likely to have a traumatic effect on her for the rest of her life.

The effect of a young girl being subject to rape was graphically illustrated by an article in the Guardian on Wednesday last. A mother described the devastation that was caused when her 16 year-old daughter was raped. She described how the rapist stole a large and important part of her daughter's life and the harrowing ordeal of three days in the witness box being subjected to a vicious and degrading cross-examination. I suggest that that article should be read by all those who have doubts about the consequences for girls of abuse and rape. Such attitudes, to me, are as discriminatory against girls as the current law is against boys. I do not believe that discrimination has any place in the law.

It was argued by an opponent of this Bill in the other place that there was an extra dimension in the case of young men and that homosexuality takes them outside the mainstream of life. I am sure that such a concept would not find favour with those many well known and highly respected men who are openly gay and who have accepted their sexuality, and the realisation of who they are--a situation so movingly described by my noble friend Lord Alli in speeches in this House. I look forward to the speech he will give to the House today.

The argument based on difference moves us away from the type of society I think we ought to be striving to create: a society which is free from all prejudice, one which understands difference and which does not live a lie by pretending that there is no diversity of sexuality, and a society where all people, gay or heterosexual, are treated and valued as equals. To me, that is a decent society. To put the contra view, that

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this has nothing to do with equality, means that we are saying that young homosexual men are somehow lesser beings than the rest of us. That is an argument that I cannot accept.

However, it is necessary, if we are to achieve that decent society, that there is equality in the law. As my noble and learned friend Lord Williams said, the law has never criminalised same-sex relationships, but only those between males. This leaves young men open to exploitation and, in the extreme, to blackmail. A girl under the age of consent is not charged with a criminal offence if she unlawfully has sexual intercourse with an older man. That is a safeguard which should apply to boys as well as girls, and it is one which is now provided by this Bill.

The Bill will provide protection for the young boy who has a homosexual relationship at school--dare I say even perhaps at his public school?--and is criminalised for it. Without this Bill he will carry that stigma for a very long time, and no family wants that to happen to their son. I am sure that many of us have received letters from young men and from the parents of young men who, through fear of being branded a criminal, have been reluctant to declare their homosexuality. These young people want help. They want advice. How can they question something that is illegal? Removing that fear and creating openness and support are the core to providing protection.

That is why this Bill is so important. They particularly need access to good medical care and they need to understand, as do all young people, the importance of safe sex. There is no evidence, as has been suggested, that the present law reduces the incidence of homosexual activity. There is no indication that it minimises the spread of infection; nor is there evidence that it increases the protection available to young people. In fact it does just the reverse: it restricts the giving of advice, and can delay treatment.

The BMA and the RCN continue to stress the concerns of the medical profession as a whole that the present law can inhibit efforts to improve the sexual health of young homosexual men. All the major organisations at the forefront of dealing with the problems caused by the present inequality in the law are calling for change. My noble friend the Minister identified some of them and I will add a couple more: the British Association of Social Workers, the National Children's Bureau, the BMA and the RCN, the British Youth Council and the British Youth Agency. These are respected organisations: they need to be heard and their expertise taken note of.

As responsible parliamentarians, we should not dismiss lightly such expert opinion. We have a responsibility to take seriously the views of those organisations who work on a day-to-day basis with vulnerable young people. Their views have been wrongly ignored in the past and I hope they will be listened to today. I cannot accept the view, as expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, that there is a contradiction between equality of the age of consent and protection. Equality in no way overrides

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the imperative to protect young people; rather, equality should be enshrined in the law to provide adequate protection, as this Bill does.

The statute book, as it presently stands, delivers a recipe for confusion, misery and fear. I return again to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, about the young man who had been abused and who was unable to do anything because of his age, since he would be outside the protection area. In fact if this Bill goes through, such a boy will then feel free to be able to complain and to have his case heard, but at the moment he is fearful of doing that because he might also be criminalised.

Voting against this Bill, or any of its clauses, would be to vote to retain that recipe of misery and fear. It would mean voting against the protection of a vulnerable section of society and continuing to penalise young homosexuals by ensuring that they continue to be subject to ignorance and bigotry. I firmly believe that passing this Bill, as I sincerely hope we will, through all its stages in your Lordships' House will help to provide the decent society I believe all of us, whichever side of the argument we are on, wish to see.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, would she not agree, going to her point about the likelihood that young boys may not go and complain about what has occurred because they may be criminalised, that that is an argument for having no age of consent at all? Once having reduced the age to 16, there will surely be those under the age of 16 who get involved with older men and, on the noble Baroness's argument, they will not be able to go and make a complaint because they will be criminalising themselves.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: My Lords, that is not the case. Under this Bill they will be protected just as are the 16 year-olds.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, but they will not be protected if they are of the same age as the person who has sex with them.

4.59 p.m.

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I detect that this debate will go on for rather longer than I expected. As I have an engagement which means that I must leave the House at about seven o'clock, I shall respect the custom of the House and not speak in the debate. I rise only to put the Attorney-General on notice that later I shall table amendments to try to extend the category of persons who are in positions of responsibility and trust; and I hope also to join with others in addressing the much greater danger of anal sex. I shall write to the Minister.

5 p.m.

Lord Norton of Louth: My Lords, the most powerful case for a particular measure is sometimes to be found in the arguments used against it. I do not flatter myself

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that what I say today will change votes but I want to put on record that the case against this Bill rests, both intellectually and morally, on the flimsiest of stilts and it is time that they were kicked away.

Let me address the various arguments deployed against this Bill. We are told that by not lowering the age of consent we are protecting young people at a vulnerable stage of their development and that if the age of consent is lowered vulnerable teenagers, who are uncertain as to their sexuality, may be drawn towards homosexuality. That argument does not survive even the most cursory examination. It confuses two completely separate matters: uncertainty as to what one is with what one chooses to be. There is certainly evidence that some young people are confused as to their sexuality, but that is confusion as to what they are. The question that they ask is, "What is it that I am?" not, "What is it that I choose to be?" They are discovering that they are homosexual, not choosing to be homosexual.

There is little or no evidence of sexuality being a matter of choice. People do not choose to be homosexual or heterosexual. If one believes that argument one should ask oneself at what point one chose one's own sexuality. If it was a matter of choice, why on earth would one choose to be homosexual, even in today's supposedly liberal society? One variation of this argument is to claim that, even if homosexuality is not a matter of choice, none the less it may be the product of nurture rather than nature. That claim has been advanced by Mr Brian Souter. In an article in the Scotsman he said that teenagers could be cultivated into any type of sexual activity,

    "given the wrong influence and circumstances".

Teenagers often go through a phase and (he wrote),

    "This is not the time to send the 'gay is OK' message to a confused adolescent".

That is an intellectual sleight of hand. It is the same argument as that which I mentioned earlier, but dressed up in slightly different form. It completely misunderstands the argument about nurture. Psychologists who deal with nurture are concerned with pre-school developments. There is no suggestion that "nurturing" in the way that is claimed here takes place at 16 or 17 years of age. Exposure to literature, or to particular messages, thus has no relevance in the context of this Bill.

Those are not the only arguments advanced in favour of the contention that the existing law protects young people. We have heard the claim this afternoon that if the age of consent is lowered 16 year-olds will become prey to predatory older males. The same argument was deployed in 1994 against lowering the age of consent, yet there is no evidence that 18 year-olds have been preyed on by older males following the passage of the 1994 Act. Furthermore, the argument misses the point that we are talking about the age of consent. To prey on an unwilling teenager is not permitted by this measure.

We are also told that boys develop more slowly than girls. That may or may not be, but it is not particularly relevant to this debate. To be relevant, one has to show

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that boys who are homosexual, or confused about their sexuality, somehow develop at a different rate from boys who are heterosexual; otherwise, one has to argue that the age of consent for boys to engage in homosexual or heterosexual sex should be set at 18 years of age. As far as I am aware, most people do not seek to do that. The whole argument appears to derive from a premise that may or may not be valid; and much of it appears to derive from highly subjective anecdotalism.

I deal briefly with the other arguments deployed against lowering the age of consent which are concerned more generally with homosexuals and homosexuality. We are told that there is a moral argument; namely, that homosexuality is (as one former MP frequently put it) "unnatural and abnormal", that it is condemned by the Bible and that it conflicts with family values. These are trotted out essentially as soundbites and their validity is taken almost as self-evident. They are not self-evident--far from it. The claim that homosexuality is unnatural and abnormal is in part wrong and irrelevant. It is wrong to claim that it is unnatural. It is natural to the person engaging in it and it is known in the natural world. My noble friend the Duke of Norfolk has claimed that only human beings engage in homosexual acts. That is not the case. Homosexuality is to be found in the animal kingdom. Recent research shows that it is far from uncommon, especially among certain species.

The claim that homosexuality is abnormal is true in the sense that homosexuals do not constitute a majority in society, but to be left-handed is abnormal. We are all aware of the dangers of legislating against those who differ from the rest. We have witnessed the effects of that not only abroad but also in our own history. It is not that long ago that left-handers were discriminated against--were seen, by definition as sinister--simply because by definition they were different. The fact of being different--to be a minority--is no basis in itself for legal discrimination.

I turn to the argument that homosexuality is condemned by the Bible. There are those who assert that the Bible is unambiguous in its condemnation. There are biblical scholars who take a different view. John Elford, Canon Theologian of Liverpool Cathedral, is the latest to question the belief that the Bible prohibits active homosexual relationships. Nor is this questioning confined to a particular wing of the Church. The evangelical Michael Vasey has been among those who have questioned it. In so far as the Bible can be taken to condemn homosexuality, the Old Testament condemnation is exactly the same in relation to the eating of oysters or for women to remain indoors while having a period. No one suggests the use of law to outlaw either of those. One cannot be selective in this way without incurring the charge of hypocrisy.

I turn to the argument that homosexuality conflicts with family values. I do see how the two can be taken to relate one to the other in an adversarial way. What are family values? The answer that is frequently offered is a description, not an explanation. Homosexuals come

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from families, usually heterosexual ones, and frequently wish to create their own family relationships. Given that homosexuality is not a matter of choice, it is not a case of people threatening family values by choosing not to marry or by engaging in homosexual activities. Homosexuality is a state of being. Family values are precisely that: values. There is no inherent conflict between these two things. Indeed, if one really believed in the concept of family one would encourage homosexuals to form stable relationships and to be an integral part of wider family relationships, with their parents and so on, not seek to isolate them from society and the opportunity to create such relationships. Most people now accept that homosexuality is neither right nor wrong, but simply a fact of life. Seventy-two per cent of those questioned in a Gallup poll published in the Daily Telegraph on 11th February gave that response.

There are those who will remain unpersuaded and believe that the law should be used to prohibit homosexual activity and to send a signal. Even then there are problems, certainly for any Conservative. Let us not delude ourselves that the existing law is strictly adhered to, or even that it is enforceable. Should we have a policeman or a camera in every bedroom? Of course not. Do we really suggest that two consenting 17 year-olds should be sent to prison? For most people, I suspect that the answer is no. Conservatives do not believe in law that is unenforceable. A measure that is unenforceable serves to undermine respect for the law.

Even if the law is not enforceable it is still claimed that it should remain in order to send a signal--in essence saying what legislators believe people should think about the subject. One can argue that, but one cannot really put that forward as a Conservative. That is not how Conservatives view the purpose of law. Conservatives believe in diversity and in allowing people to make the most of their lives unencumbered by the state and equal before the law. The present law is discriminatory, unenforceable and serves no demonstrable purpose. It is time to bring it to an end. I shall support this Bill throughout and I urge other noble Lords to do likewise.

5.9 p.m.

Lord Alli: My Lords, first, perhaps I may say what a privilege it is to follow the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. I wish to associate myself with many of his arguments. I shall try not to repeat them.

I did not want to speak in the debate today. However, I speak on behalf of those who are unable to speak, too frightened to speak or who dare not speak. The Daily Mail will inevitably attack me again tomorrow morning and ask what right I have to be here, why I am championing the pervert's course and what I have done to earn the right for noble Lords to hear my words. The answer is simple. I do not believe that I have done anything particularly special, noteworthy or good that gives me this privileged position in this House. But I do know that having got here there is an immense responsibility to be true unto one's self. I know that that responsibility is shared throughout the House.

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It is because I wish to be true unto myself that I once again put forward the case for equalising the age of consent. I am a reluctant champion of any pressure group, rights organisation or cause. However, I look around me and see tasks that need to be done. I look around me and I want to understand. I know what my job is. It is my responsibility to advocate the case for equality. This is not about whether 16 or 18 years is the right age for sexual activity: it is about the abolition of discrimination. It is about supporting young people--young, vulnerable men in our society.

The views of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, are well known, as are the opposing views held by many noble Lords opposite. But so are the views of the organisations that support the change and work with young people on a daily basis. This change in the law is supported by--I repeat the list because I think that it is worth repeating--Barnardos, NCH Action for Children, the Family Welfare Association, Save the Children and the NSPCC. This change in the law is supported by medical institutions: the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of Psychiatrists. This change of law is proposed by the other place with the consent and support of the Prime Minister and the majority of the Government, William Hague--and I share with the tribute from the Attorney-General for his courage in standing up for the change--Charles Kennedy, Paddy Ashdown, the overwhelming majority of MPs on a free vote, and the overwhelming majority of MPs within each political party. We have opinion polls too--opinion polls to counter opinion polls to counter opinion polls.

Over the past few years the arguments have not changed. I have listened carefully to the voice of the noble Baroness, Lady Young. Generations have heard her voice, and voices like hers in this Chamber and beyond. There are voices from the past that 100 years ago would have told us that a black man is not equal to a white man. The voices of the past would have told us 50 years ago that women should not have the right to vote. The voices of the past would have told us that Catholics are not entitled to the same rights as Protestants. The voices of the past tell us that to oppress the poor for the rich is all right. They are the voices which believe that they have right on their side and that right is achieved by denying equal rights to all.

They are the voices that this House must resist. Today the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, ask us what rights do Members of another place have to invoke the Parliament Act on a matter of conscience? I am content that they are the only people who have the right to use the Parliament Act on a matter of conscience. They are the servants of the people. They are accountable to the people. It is for that reason that we do not have the right to stand in the way of the free will of another place. Its Members are the legitimate, elected representatives of the people; and they are satisfied on this question. They were agreed across party, religion and gender. I shall sleep more easily tonight knowing that my fate is in their hands and not in the distant voices of the past.

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5.14 p.m.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, one of the charms of your Lordships' House is that by the curious operation of the speakers' list one often finds oneself following a speaker from whom one holds diametrically opposed views. The noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, found that today when following my noble friend Lord Waddington; and I find that when following the noble Lord, Lord Alli. Nevertheless, views are listened to usually with courtesy and the recognition that even if one does not agree with the argument being put forward it is at least a view which can be reasonably held and should be properly heard. That is one of the great advantages which noble Lords have--I would say over almost any other chamber.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Alli, that one must be true to one's self. The noble Lord is true to himself; and I like to hope that I am true to myself, too. However, I find it fairly disagreeable and discouraging that we are yet again discussing the subject of sex. In the past 18 months we have done so on a number of occasions. One might even be forgiven for thinking that the Government have sex on the brain. But on this occasion it is because the Government are insisting on trying to alter the law in a way to which most people object and for which the Government have no mandate.

Everyone knows that sex is a delicate subject, and that people's views as to what is or is not acceptable, and legally acceptable, vary considerably. Perhaps it is because of that that people have a fear that there is a common tendency to push the barriers of freedom, acceptability or licence (call it what one will) just that bit further down the road. Perhaps it is easier not to defend what one believes to be right for fear of inviting ridicule or being cast as old fashioned. Perhaps it is because the lobby which may be opposed to one's views is so powerful that it is easy to believe, often erroneously, that the volume of the noise reflects the breadth of support for the argument--like the politician who had written in the margins of his speech, "Weak point. Shout."

Yet no one should be deterred from standing up for what he or she believes is right. Whenever Bills come before your Lordships for which I do not feel a great deal of sympathy--as is the case with this Bill--I take comfort from the words of a previous Archbishop of Canterbury, Archbishop Fisher, who said,

    "There is no unreasonable argument which cannot be proved reasonable by reason".

In other words, take a rotten argument, dress it up with fine words and it sounds quite acceptable.

Surely one of the most important things for Parliament to do in this day and age when all previously accepted attitudes are being turned upside down is to protect young people. People under 18 are still young, and often uncertain as to the values of life. To say, as the Bill permits, that two people who have reached the age of 16, who are still at school and possibly even in the choir together, should be allowed to bugger each other whenever and wherever they like--a matter about which not even the headmaster

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can do anything and, as my noble friend Lady Blatch said, if he does he is likely to run foul of the Human Rights Act--seems to be totally wrong.

So much has been said about the subject that I shall desist from wearying your Lordships with all the reasons why I believe the Bill to be wrong, other than to encapsulate my views by saying that I believe that heterosexuality is the norm. That is why we are made how we are. Most people would hope that their children would follow that natural path. Homosexuality, for whatever its reasons, is an aberration from the norm; and while some people may be born that way others can be drawn into it. Children need protection.

I now have the pleasure of turning to the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General. We have not seen so much of the noble and learned Lord lately since he left the Home Office. It is a pity that when he comes to the House he is always leading some disagreeable Bill. I feel sorry for him because he has been given the task of taking the Bill through your Lordships' House. He took the last one through and I dare say that his colleagues told him that he could take this one through, too.

The noble and learned Lord is an honourable man of the highest integrity, even if in the recesses of his mind he periodically harbours some wayward ideas. However, I find it hard to believe that, having introduced the Bill with such conviction, he considers it right to subject young people between the ages of 16 and 18 to the legal approbation of these homosexual experiences. After 18, they can do what they like. Is it really too long to wait for a further two years before being able to be exposed legally to those experiences? That time can be spent in formulating their judgments.

I find it hard to believe that the noble and learned Lord really believes that it is right for men, by law, to be able to bugger girls of 16--something which they were not allowed to do previously. That is the kind of thing which the Bill would allow and I do not believe that it is right. A few years ago, it would have made one's hair stand on end! I suggest that it ought to make one's hair stand on end now, if we are to be a country with any moral code.

Is it right that in Clause 4 it should not be an offence for a person to have sexual activities with another person if before the passing of the Bill that person was already in a sexual relationship with the other person and when he was in a position of trust? In other words, because something appalling is going on when the Bill becomes law, that appalling thing will be allowed to continue. That is what the Bill does and I find it unbelievable.

Perhaps the noble and learned Lord does not really believe in all this, but it is government policy. Periodically, government policy requires the wheeling in of the heavy brass, which is what has happened today. Of course, the Government will find no more able a person than the noble and learned Lord, who is

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capable of applying himself to any argument and of advocating either side of a case with equal conviction and abandon, as he once admitted.

I wish that he had put his head further down in the scrum behind the scenes and had pushed more purposefully for rectitude and for young people to be surrounded by the good facts of life. It seems that nowadays everything has to be hurled at young people on the basis of breadth of knowledge. They are told, "We have told you everything. It is now up to you. You choose". But the duty of parents and teachers is to "mould" the young. That is what is meant by "bringing up".

There was a parson at home who possessed many virtues, but of which speaking in the pulpit was not one. I remember some 35 years ago he made a very profound observation. He said, "What will destroy this world will not be the atom bomb or the hydrogen bomb, but the inability to discern between right and wrong". Those words ring true today.

Wherein lies the great desire of the Government to lower the age of consent to 16? They know that almost every poll shows that the majority of people do not want it. The Government have no mandate for it. It was not in their manifesto and, I dare say, had it been they would not have had such a large majority in Parliament. Why do they want to make this change?

Your Lordships will remember that during debates on the House of Lords Bill the Government spokesmen--the noble and learned Lord was at the head of the pack--said that the abolition of hereditary Peers was in the manifesto, that the Government had been elected to do that, and therefore hereditary Peers should not complain that the Government had introduced that measure. That was an argument which I found a little difficult to swallow, especially when the Government decided to keep 100 hereditary Peers, which was not in their manifesto. After that, we did not hear too much about what was in it.

However, the lowering of the age of consent was not in the Labour Party's manifesto. The Government can claim no mandate for this. They cannot begin to say that they are carrying out the will of the people. Why, therefore, do they want to do it?

On the previous occasion, I reminded your Lordships that when in 1994 we debated the lowering of the age of consent from 21 to 18, I had the privilege of being an ornament in the Home Office. I was therefore the hapless character who had to deal with the amendment. My officials stressed firmly that it would be quite wrong for me, as a member of the Government, to give my views as to the virtues of the amendment. I was told that it was, as are all matters relating to sex, a matter of conscience for the individual Members of Parliament and that the Government must remain neutral. Needless to say, I took the advice of my officials--and I used to take their advice when it was right.

When I asked the noble and learned Lord, who was in then in the Home Office, whether the advice of his officials was the same as it was when I was a Minister, he said that he had not asked them. That was, if I may

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say so, a crafty lawyer's answer. It did not mean to say that they had not given it. My modest experience is that officials are only too happy to give advice, even if they have not been asked for it. Indeed, today the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, said that he would give us advice even if we did not want to hear it.

I wonder why only a few years ago the official view of the Home Office was that this was a matter of conscience for individual Members of Parliament and that the Government must not intervene, yet today the Government are saying that it is their policy to go ahead with the change without any mandate or the approval of the people. The Government are saying, "We shall dictate the age of consent. If Parliament does not like it, we shall force it through under the Parliament Act".

By what right do the Government believe that they are in such a unique position to decide such issues better than are individual Members of Parliament? How can the noble and learned Lord say that this is a free vote of Parliament when they say that they will use the Parliament Act if one House objects to it?

The noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, said that all the members of his party would back the Government, despite getting himself into a slight intellectual tangle as a result of a question from my noble friend Lord Monson. That means that the Liberal Democrats will not have a free vote.

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