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Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I wonder whether my noble friend would be kind enough to give way. Perhaps I may ask him whether "bollocking" comes in the English language.

Lord Selsdon: My Lords, my noble friend talked also about various other issues such as acts between consenting males in private. He will recall that at our school none of the lavatories had doors, in order to prevent such activities. That was just before the Sexual Offences Act 1956. But my nervousness on the subject is not because of the word, or because of homosexuality or lesbianism, but because of the misinterpretation that goes with it; that opposition to this Bill means that people are against the gay or lesbian community. I do not believe that that is true.

The difference between when I spoke previously and now is twofold. I have never received so many letters on a particular subject in all my time in this House. I received two objections. First, because I linked previously the act of buggery with bestiality and sheep, a former secretary of a particular regiment wrote to

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advise me that his regiment was not the one known as the "sheepshaggers" but that it was another far more eminent; I shall not mention it. I still find today that, in the act, "buggery" relates also to bestiality.

The second objection was because I said that something was "unnatural". However, in the reference to Section 12 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956 in the Explanatory Notes, the heading "Unnatural offences" has been eliminated. We can talk about "natural" or "unnatural" or "abnormal", but what may be natural to some is unnatural or abnormal to others. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester said in a speech which I should like to have been able to make myself, it is the institutions of marriage and of the community which are important. I wonder why I should speak in a different way today.

Since the Second Reading of the previous Bill, there has been the abolition or amendment of the House of Lords and the excommunication of 600 guardians of the nation's morals, or whatever they may be called, replaced by a few, of whom I am one. Although the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, said that none of us have a right to be here, those of us who are here by an Act of Parliament and election probably have more right than others. We have also a responsibility to represent someone. In this debate, I should like to represent the mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and families who wrote to me.

I do not say that homosexuals and lesbians cannot represent families, but almost by definition they do not normally have children. This debate is about children. Last year I went back in time, because I was always brought up that to try to understand the present and to determine the future, one must always go back as far as possible. I went back only to medieval times, but this time I go back to the ancient Greek that I learnt at school and to the word paedea--the bringing up of children both morally and spiritually; then to paediatrics and paediatricians, who study childhood and the diseases of childhood.

As the noble Lord, Lord Monson, pointed out, children are those under 18. In medical terms, a paediatrician looks after or treats children up to the age of 18. Therefore, by definition at present, anyone under the age of 18 is a child. Within that framework, the experts, advisers, individuals and many others to whom I have spoken would draw the logical conclusion that every child is different; every age is different; and upbringings and experience are different. I am told that in general a 16 year-old girl is probably two years ahead of a 16 year-old boy in sexual matters. Be that as it may, we are after the protection of children. We then come to the word "paederast", the unnatural connection with a child. I shall not go on. Some of them are quite disturbing. But there is no doubt that there is exploitation in this field within and without the law.

I do not know whether I can bring myself to say some of the things I shall try to say. This is our country. The matters are domestic. If we want to deal with international issues, I should like to share with your Lordships some of the experiences I have had in

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Africa, the Middle East and other places where small boys and girls are sold almost together and where the buggery of a girl is not unusual; her virginity should be maintained because if it is lost, she would not later be able to get a husband and her family would have to pay more in dowry. These matters tie in with that awful sin or crime of female circumcision to prevent a woman from feeling sexual gratification so that she will not go off with another man.

Sexual gratification goes back into the mists of time. There is nothing new about homosexuality or perverse or strange behaviour. It is just that, suddenly, the Bill has made public things that many of us would possibly prefer to put under the carpet, to be kept quiet, or to say that they concern other people. I am frightened as to where this might lead and by some of the moves that have been made, even on the Continent, for sexual glorification and gratification via the Internet. Young children have shown me how to tap into particular programmes which, frankly, disgust me but which they find of more than passing interest.

I do not know where this Bill will lead us. However, we must consider other issues which are involved. I am concerned about the attack contained in some of the correspondence I have mentioned upon Members of the House of Commons. That is unjustified. It is said that many of them today do not want to cause offence to any minority group. Therefore, they may well support legislation to which they would be opposed if they could have a private word about it. I do not believe that is true. But today it seems as though the Labour Benches support the Government rather than speaking individually for themselves; the Liberal Benches are supporting the party. I do not know whether the Conservatives are supporting the party. We are tending to speak more as individuals. I know not where this will lead.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams, made an excellent speech. When I listen to the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General, I often wonder whether he is prosecuting or defending. I would willingly have him on my side whatever he was doing. At this moment I feel that he is having to defend because there are ingredients of the Bill to which amendments may be desirable. I am not opposed to some of the principles that go with the Bill as long as they relate to the protection of children. But in many ways the Bill as currently drafted opens up dangers for children.

6.3 p.m.

Baroness Massey of Darwen : My Lords, I was not a Member of your Lordships' House when the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill was debated last April. I do not believe I was introduced to your Lordships' House because of an obsession with matters sexual or even, indeed, because of being very married. As I shall undoubtedly miss an all- party parliamentary cricket dinner--which is a true obsession--because of this debate about sex, I shall expect some sympathy.

I have read last year's debate. During seven hours or so many issues were discussed, and many are being discussed tonight. There remains little to add. It seems

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to me that certain principles need restating. It feels a little like looking thorough a kaleidoscope where the elements remain the same but the pattern becomes different with each shake. Maybe we will readjust and enrich that pattern this afternoon. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, feels so disturbed. Maybe I can reassure him.

I want to thank the many organisations and individuals who have discussed the Bill with me and have written to me--they include those involved with children, parents and young people--in relation to issues of health, welfare and education.

I believe that the Bill will ensure both justifiable rights and necessary protection for young people of 16. Where the age of consent is equal for young men and young women and is 16 or even lower, such as in Spain or Sweden, there is no evidence of negative consequences to young people or society. We need a balance between protecting young people and allowing them rights. When rights are established, it becomes more imperative to educate for responsibilities. I believe that young people of 16 are old enough to expect rights and to accept responsibilities. We must not put ourselves in what one writer, in relation to sexuality, described as "the ostrich position".

In the debate last year, the noble Lady, Baroness Young, stated:

    "I believe that in public life one must stand up for those things which one believes to be right and believes to be true".--[Official Report, 13/4/99; col.656.]

My noble friend Lord Alli echoed her view. I also believe that. There is an eternal tension about issues defined as "moral" when people of goodwill stand at opposing ends of the spectrum. That dilemma was alluded to by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester.

I am not sure that today's debate will change attitudes suddenly but it may clarify some issues and narrow the divide. Perhaps we are involved in a debate about views of life which are only symbolised by this particular topic. I do not believe that adults as well as young people should be expected to base the way in which they behave on ignorance, threat and fear. I believe that people have the right to information and education which enables them to make life choices in a supportive climate. That includes laws which are seen to be just and protective but which do not stigmatise particular groups.

There was a statement in the editorial in yesterday's Guardian which said, about another issue,

    "Politicians have a duty to articulate people's fears, but they have to do so in ways which do not endorse or authenticate raw and dangerous prejudice. What they say helps create a climate".

Surely in arguing that one section of society--gay young men--should be treated in a discriminatory way creates and fosters prejudice, not only about them but about male gay relationships generally. I recognise that there are strong moral and religious views about gay people and what they do, real or imagined. I doubt that sexual acts of whatever orientation have changed

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much since sex began--much earlier than the 1964 of Philip Larkin's poem. Open and honest climates which recognise the richness and diversity of sexual expression would seem to me to be less open to negative consequences. Certainly, this has been shown to be true in international research. Open and honest climates do not encourage debauchery and abuse. They contribute to people's abilities to know about unwanted pressure, resist it and tell about it. I suggest that this--the likelihood of a victim informing on an abuser--discourages abuse as much as does law, although I support laws which make a firm statement about abuse and exploitation.

The high moral ground belongs to people who are realistic as well as idealistic. We must be realistic about the context of young people's lives today, as has been said before by several speakers. Each generation of young people is different; no more or less moral, no more or less caring, in my experience, but subject to different influences and trends. Many young people of 16 would say that we adults have no right to dictate what they need; our reality is different. Young people of 16 are more mature in many ways, not only sexually, than young people in my day. I believe that by showing them respect and understanding we do more to further independence and dignity. If we believe that young people can be trusted to make informed decisions and helped to resist unwanted pressure and make judgments, we are more likely to have fruitful dialogue with them. Fruitful dialogue is more likely to breed responsibility than diktats.

There is surely a warped logic in allowing young men to join the Army at 16, but not to choose their sexual partners. The key issue must be that we are not talking about legalising the encouragement of a particular kind of sexual behaviour; we are concerned with equalisation under the law and with appropriate protection of young people--all young people, not only gay young men. Sexual violation is always wrong, whether it happens to a man or a woman, within or outside a relationship. Statistics tell us that young women are more likely to be violated than young men, as my noble friend Lady Gould said so forcefully. Violation does not teach people to be either homosexual or heterosexual. It damages them, whatever their gender.

Sexual orientation is neither taught nor caught. It is what it is, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, said so eloquently. Indeed, I suspect that people are more likely to be drawn into heterosexuality rather than homosexuality. Young men usually know that they are gay by the age of 16. Some deny it. Some go on to have women partners, even wives and children, sometimes with tragic consequences for all parties. How much better it would be to recognise what one is and to have that validated and supported.

The law as it stands gives permission for stigma and exclusion in relation to gay young men. The extension of that stigma and exclusion to all gay people is easily made. Stigma and exclusion of a section of society that comprises ordinary citizens, not criminals or murderers, has to be wrong in any just and civilised society.

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I believe that one reason for passing the Bill concerns attitudes; it is about valuing people, whatever their sexual orientation, and about acknowledging that young people of 16 are capable of making decisions about their own lifestyles, given education and support from adults. They do need sex and relationships education where they learn about respect for themselves and others, but that point is for another debate. Young people learn most from adults they respect and who will listen to their concerns in a constructive way. Adults should feel encouraged and able, without fear of the law, to give that support to young people of all ages, whatever their sexual orientation.

A further reason for supporting the Bill relates to the health of young people, in particular to the health of gay young men. Of course laws should protect individuals. I suggest that laws in relation to health issues give rise to great complexities. Those relating to issues such as the wearing of seat-belts and smoking give rise to perhaps fewer ambiguities and nuances than those related to sexuality, which essentially is an issue of private morality and intimate acts. I believe that the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, referred to it as "delicate".

However, the need to encourage safer sex practices among all young people is essential, as has been reflected in national statistics. Incidentally, last year heterosexual infection with HIV exceeded that of homosexual infection for the first time. It is an inadequate response to say, "Don't have sex". Male gonorrhoea in those under 16 and between 16 and 19 rose by 50 per cent between 1998 and 1999. We have a generation of young people who were not exposed to the HIV awareness campaigns of the 1980s and the early 1990s. It is vitally important that they understand about safer sex and sexual health. The medical imperative is clear. Young people--most people--are going to have sex. Laws and exhortations will not alter that. They need to learn about avoiding the unwanted consequences of sexual activity, such as infection. Furthermore, if they become infected, they must have the confidence to be tested and to receive treatment. If the law says "no" to sex at 16, it may be assumed by young people that treatment will be denied to them or strong disapproval will deter them from seeking help.

In relation to gay men, health arguments sometimes become distorted and can, by implication and innuendo, add to damaging perceptions about gay men. One argument puts it that gay men are particularly vulnerable to HIV and that therefore the law should be punitive in order to discourage gay sex. The other argument states that HIV is no longer a gay issue. Again, we must recognise reality. Gay men are disproportionately affected by HIV, certainly in western Europe and the US. Their health risks are related to the environment in which they live. This environment is largely punitive. Health-related behaviour is influenced by cultural, social and economic constraints and possibilities. Punitive laws do not change people's behaviour; they send negative

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signals to those directly affected by them and give permission to those who are looking for an excuse to penalise and marginalise those affected.

Gay young men grow up in a culture of homophobia. There is a great deal of evidence that they feel that education and other services do not meet or even take account of their needs. If a person feels that he--in this case it is "he"--is not equal and that his relationships are less valid, then he will feel rejected by society. Those rejected by society may feel less responsibility towards it.

The difference in the age of consent reinforces that sense of marginalisation and sense of inequality. If we want to reduce the numbers of gay men who become infected with HIV or other infections each year, then we must support young men and enable them to be assertive in seeking help and advice, rather than being worried about the law. Blaming gay young people and punishing them in law is not a way to encourage healthy lifestyles. It merely adds to the problems and prejudice which affect health and well-being.

I put forward three reasons for supporting this Bill: the first relates to the dignity of gay people and to all young people; the second to protection, and the third to health and welfare. All of these are important and I believe that this House should send out positive signals that, in our society, we value all three.

6.16 p.m.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy: My Lords, it has been clear to me for a long time that the Government appear to subscribe to a religion called "political correctness". It appears to be a polytheistic religion. It has important gods and less important gods, but one of the most important is called "Equality".

I am rather mystified because there seems to me to be no logic whatever in this Bill. If the age at which young people become adult--in that they can legally buy a drink, buy cigarettes, vote, fight for their country and enjoy homosexual activities--is 18, surely it is rather strange that they may enjoy heterosexual activities at 16 and hold a driving licence at 17? That does not make much sense because it does not equate to equality. Surely it would be more sensible to raise the age at which the last two activities become legal to 18 years old? That would be much simpler than reducing the age of homosexual consent and the age at which girls can legally be buggered to 16 years old. Or do the Government propose to make buying drink and cigarettes legal at 16 and to allow 16 year-olds to vote or fight for their country? As I said, I am rather mystified.

I support everything that has been said by noble Lords who have spoken against this Bill. Furthermore, I expect I shall wish to support everything that will be said later in the debate by those who will speak against the measure. I cannot understand why the Government are so determined to push it through against the wishes of the vast majority of people in this country and in the face of the Waterhouse report.

I have to tell the House that I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, and I entirely disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, as regards

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the many letters which the noble Baroness, Lady Young--sitting to my right--and I, along with others, have received from people concerning both this Bill and Section 28. I accept that we are not the elected representatives of the people of this country, but the reason we are receiving such letters is because the elected representatives are not representing the people of this country.

The Government are yielding to what I believe to be a small but very noisy and violent pressure group. Many noble Lords will remember the violence offered to Members of this House after votes against previous attempts to lower the age of consent; and I do not suppose that I was the only one of your Lordships to be sent a piece of used loo paper through the post. Of course, it came in a buff envelope addressed in leggy capitals and did not have on it the sender's name and address, so I cannot prove that it came from members of that group. But because I received it just after that vote, I put two and two together.

Those are the kinds of people the Government are trying to protect at the expense of defenceless young people. Could it be that there are supporters of that group in the Cabinet as well, apparently, as on the Front Bench of the Opposition in another place and among a huge list of apparently highly-respected organisations? The noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, gave us most of those names, and the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, gave us a few more. I have to say that the fact that those organisations support the Bill does not impress me. I believe that they are wrong, and from now on not one of them will receive a penny of my money.

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