Orders of the Day — Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill

– in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 25th January 1999.

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Order for Second Reading read.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department 3:33 pm, 25th January 1999

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill falls into two quite separate parts. Both apply to the United Kingdom as a whole. The first, in clause 1, is the issue of the age of consent for male homosexuals. That is a subject on which we all have our own personal views. As on previous occasions, it will be subject to a free vote. I will be voting in favour of equalising the age for male homosexuals with that of heterosexuals at 16. That is because I believe in equality before the law.

The second, separate, issue is abuse of trust. That arises from widely shared concerns about the need to protect vulnerable young people. We are dealing with the matter in this Bill because of the very strong views about the vulnerability of 16 and 17-year-olds of both sexes expressed during debates on equalising the age of consent held in the House and another place last summer. Proposals to change the age of consent brought that concern to the surface. We decided, therefore, that it was only right to deal with it when we brought the issue of age of consent before this House for a second time. I express my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) and other hon. Members on both sides of the House for the tenacious and constructive way in which they raised the issue.

Photo of Mr Donald Anderson Mr Donald Anderson Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

My right hon. Friend speaks of equality before the law; but cannot the principle of equality often give way to broader public interest considerations, such as the protection of younger people? Given the widespread concern about older men luring younger men into a life style that is not their own, will my right hon. Friend explain why he did not include safeguards in the relevant clause of the Bill that became the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, and why the safeguards are now so limited—excluding, for example, vicars and boy scout leaders? Why is he being so timid and so limited on that subject? Given the importance of the protection issue, why did he not consider it earlier?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

In response to my hon. Friend's second point about not considering it earlier, I must say that we are damned if we consider everything in advance and then serve things up to this Chamber; we are also, apparently, now damned if we listen to debates and seek to respond to them. I plead guilty to the second charge.

I accept that what is before the House, with what I regard as extensive revisions on the abuse of trust, is an advance on what was before the House in summer 1998. We brought it before the House because of concerns expressed in the House and in the other place. As for whether it is extensive, I should be grateful if my hon. Friend would listen to my explanation, and I shall give way again if he asks me to. He also has every opportunity to make a speech in his own way.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

To save the House a great deal of time in later debates and help the motion to be effective, will the Secretary of State let us know now whether it is true or not true that, since the Sutherland decision of the European Court in 1994, there have been no prosecutions for consenting homosexual activity and a limited number of prosecutions involving assault or rape? Whatever happens, could we not save a great deal of time by not bothering to debate all this, as we often do in the House, when decisions have already been taken by European courts on our behalf?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

Hon. Members on each side of the Chamber will have different points of view. In 1997, there were four cautions, one prosecution and no convictions of males aged 16 and 17 for gross indecency; and five cautions, four prosecutions and two convictions of 16 and 17-year-old males for buggery. There were two cautions, nine prosecutions and seven convictions of those aged 18 and over for buggery with 16 or 17-year-olds.

I shall now deal with the issue of the European Court of Human Rights. Its concern is about equality before the law. Of course it would be open to the House, notwithstanding that court's approach, to set a different age, which could be 17 or 18, or which could be as low as 12—although I am not for a moment recommending that—the age which applies in some European countries.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I shall give way to the hon. Gentlemen, but I should be grateful if they would allow me to make a few remarks first.

The second issue raised in the Bill is the abuse of trust. I have already made it clear that that arises from the widespread concerns that were expressed last year. Let me also make it clear that clause 1 will be committed to a Committee of the whole House, so that all hon. Members may have an opportunity to vote specifically on the age of consent, and to bring any specific propositions before the House. The remainder of the Bill will be examined upstairs in Committee and then, subject to the decisions taken upstairs, will have a Report stage in the Chamber.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Conservative, Blaby

I especially want to home in on the abuse of trust measures that the Home Secretary mentioned, which I support. The last time the issue was considered by the House—brought before us by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton)—there was a free vote, and the abuse of trust clause was defeated. What will happen this time? Will there be another free vote? I assume that, if not, it is likely to be defeated by Labour Members.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I have explained that it is a free vote as far as we are concerned; I cannot speak for Conservative Whips.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

The Home Secretary mentioned the experience of European Union countries. Given that he will obviously have taken a view on the subject, not simply on the strength of abstract principle but on the basis of an assessment of consequences, will he tell the House what assessment he has made of the impact of equalisation of ages of consent—which, it must be said, is commonplace in other European Union countries?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

As I told the House a moment ago, the age of consent varies greatly from one European country to another. I shall give the House the details, if I can turn up the relevant table, which I read with great care yesterday. The age of consent ranges from 12 in Spain to 18 in Luxembourg, I think. My hon. Friend the Minister of State will correct that, if necessary.

I have seen no evidence that an equal age of consent has caused problems in any of those countries, but it must be said that the age that has been established, which ranges over that wide span of six years, often reflects considerable differences in history and family traditions. In those other European countries, there are other norms, which ensure that the kinds of conduct about which people would be extremely anxious do not, on the whole, take place. It must also said that where the age of consent is lower than 16, there are often powerful offences in respect of those, say, over 18 who seek to have sexual intercourse with those under the age of 16.

Photo of Stuart Bell Stuart Bell Second Church Estates Commissioner

The House is listening carefully to my right hon. Friend's description of what happens in other European countries in relation to the age of consent. Does he recall the letter that he wrote to me over the summer in which he gave a firm and clear statement of Government policy—that there would be no reduction in the age of consent to 14 for homosexual acts in our country, that no legalisation of homosexual marriages would be proposed by the Government, and that there would be no legal adoption of children by homosexual couples?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I can give my hon. Friend the undertakings that he seeks in respect of each of those propositions. We have no plans whatever to introduce legislation in respect of any of them.

I should now like to make progress. I shall deal first with the age of consent. I do not want to spend too long on the background to that, as it is well known to all of us, but I should remind the House briefly of a few key points.

Most important, perhaps, is the history of the previous votes and where those left us in this House. As hon. Members will recall, an amendment was moved to the Crime and Disorder Bill last Session to equalise the age of consent at 16. On a free vote last June, the House agreed that proposal by a majority of 336 votes to 129. In supporting the proposal, the Government accepted the need to look carefully, and as a matter of priority, at the protection of vulnerable 16 and 17-year-old girls and boys. However, for the vast majority of the House, that did not detract from our firm belief that we should no longer accept the inequity represented by a differing age of consent for homosexuals and heterosexuals.

As hon. Members know, a different view was taken in another place. Now is not the time to debate the rights and wrongs of such a decision against the clear view of principle expressed in this House. That is past history for this Bill, and the constitutional relationship between the two Houses can no doubt be debated in considerable depth on future occasions. The need to secure the passage of the Crime and Disorder Bill, which implemented a number of our manifesto promises, meant that we had no option but to abandon the proposals in that Bill and bring them forward again this Session in a separate Bill.

That brings us to where we are today. The proposals on the age of consent are the same as those discussed last summer. They would reduce the age of consent to 16 for male homosexuals in England, Wales and Scotland, and to 17 in Northern Ireland, equalising it in each part of the Union with the relevant heterosexual age of consent that applies in that part of the Union.

As we made clear last Session, this is not a question of encouraging one life style as against another, or of encouraging young people to have sex—far from it. Instead, it is a question of equality before the law. For a large number of young people of 16 or 17, it may well be the case that they are too young to enter into a significant sexual relationship, and nothing in the Bill should be seen as an encouragement for them to do so; but many young people of that age do enter into such relationships, and where they do so on a fully consenting basis, in my personal view it is not right for the law to discriminate against those who are homosexual, although of course I respect those who take a different view.

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Labour, Exeter

Does my right hon. Friend agree that to use the term "life style" is erroneous in this case because it involves or assumes an element of choice? All the experts agree that the vast majority of people's sexual orientation does not have that element of choice, so we should stop even talking about life styles.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I agree with my hon. Friend, and I hope that he has noticed that I have not used that term.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Conservative, New Forest West

Is it not proper for the law to have the effect of restraining activity which the majority of people regard as undesirable or unnatural? However choice may operate, the fact remains that people have the choice to maintain self-discipline.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I shall try to deal with the hon. Gentleman's point seriously. Those issues were raised extensively in the consideration of the Wolfenden report in 1957. It will be recalled that, before then, homosexual acts at any age were illegal, and buggery attracted a penalty of life imprisonment. There is no evidence that that led to fewer people engaged in homosexual acts if they were determined to be engaged in them, but it led to huge human unhappiness and great injustice. In 1967, the House and the country accepted that the law should be changed for those over the age of 21. Much more recently, in 1994, we accepted that the age of consent should be lowered to 18. I have always believed that the age should be equalised at 16, which is the age of consent for heterosexual sex.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I have already taken several interventions and should like to make progress.

The second key point is that of discrimination, which relates directly to the issue raised by the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor). Many hon. Members will be aware of the current case concerning Euan Sutherland, and the parallel case of Christopher Morris, both now before the European Court of Human Rights. Two years ago, the European Commission of Human Rights decided against the United Kingdom and in favour of the applicants. We reached an agreement with the applicants that we would give the House the opportunity to vote on this issue, and the court case was stayed pending the outcome. However, it cannot be delayed indefinitely, and the court will not permit it. Moreover, given the strong support that the House gave the measure last time round, it would not be right to wait. This is an area where our law is clearly open to challenge, and that must be rectified—[Interruption]—not necessarily, may I say to those who take a different view from mine, by lowering the age of consent to 16, but definitely by changing it to an equal age.

Let me now deal with abuse of trust. During the debate in the previous Session, many hon. Members expressed concern about vulnerable young people of 16 or 17—of both sexes—who might be induced into sexual relationships which they do not really want, for fear or favour of those in positions of trust over them. I stress again that that concern is not limited to protecting young boys. Girls of that age are equally, if not more, vulnerable and deserve equal protection. Protection is needed against all who might abuse their position of trust, whatever their sexuality.

The criminal law is already adequate to deal with all non-consensual sexual activity, including that with children under the age of consent. That does not mean that terrible abuses do not occur. We have all been horrified at the catalogue of abuse, both physical and sexual, which has been uncovered in recent years at children's homes and other establishments. Some of it is still coming to light. As the House knows, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health recently announced a series of reforms to prevent such abuse from occurring again. It includes the "Quality Protects" initiative and the measures announced in response to the "Children's Safeguards" review. In addition, we are changing the criminal law to make it simpler and less traumatic for vulnerable and intimidated witnesses, including children, to give evidence in court. The Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Bill currently being considered in another place contains measures to help such witnesses give their best evidence to the courts.

There remains the important issue of abuse of trust, which falls outside the area of the law of sexual abuse as such. An abuse of trust can occur when someone in a position of authority uses his or her influence or power, either deliberately or unintentionally, to enter into an ostensibly consensual sexual relationship with someone over whom he or she is in a position of authority. The type of behaviour can range from a genuine relationship to one that approaches sexual abuse.

It has long been accepted in the professions that such a relationship—even if genuine—is unacceptable, be it a teacher with a pupil or a doctor with a patient. Harsh disciplinary sanctions usually follow. Even if innocent, such behaviour fundamentally breaches the position of trust between the individuals concerned.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

I shall choose my words carefully, because I am dealing with a case that is sub judice. Will my right hon. Friend, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, consider giving stronger guidance to school governing bodies about their role in this question of trust?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

We will indeed. If my hon. Friend will bear with me, I shall come to the proposals for codes of practice to reinforce the specific provisions in the Bill.

Following the debates in the summer, we asked an interdepartmental working group to look, as a matter of priority, at whether, in the light of the concerns that had been voiced, the disciplinary approach was sufficient or whether criminal sanctions should be introduced. The working group reported on that in the autumn, and I placed a copy of its report in the Library of the House on 25 November. The report forms the basis for the proposals in the second part of the Bill.

The working group conducted a consultation exercise over the summer, and a summary of the responses is attached to its report. The majority of respondents thought that the disciplinary route was the right one. That was influential in shaping the group's conclusions. In particular, the group recommended against any general offence of abuse of trust. It considered, however, that where the relationship of trust was particularly strong, or where the younger party was particularly vulnerable, there was a case for a criminal offence.

That, however, is only part of the action to be taken. The working group also concluded that there was a general need to strengthen codes of conduct throughout all areas where relationships of trust existed, particularly within the large number of organisations in the voluntary sector. That is as important as the proposed new criminal offence. With that in mind, the group started work on this area with a seminar involving outside organisations on 30 November.

I hope that we will have the first working draft of model principles for the construction of such codes ready to make available to Members in time for when the Bill is in Committee upstairs, on the assumption that the House will tonight vote to give it a Second Reading. That is an important issue. All organisations will have to consider carefully the various positions of trust falling within their scope and how to take effective action against any abuse of trust.

Codes will also be needed, if they do not already exist, for areas covered by the proposed criminal offence, which I shall come to in a moment, but those codes will, of course, be in addition to the criminal sanctions.

Photo of Gwyneth Dunwoody Gwyneth Dunwoody Labour, Crewe and Nantwich

The difficulty with relying on codes of conduct and on the sort of disciplinary measures that my right hon. Friend is discussing is that, by their very nature, such relationships will be kept secret. Unless there is protection for those who bring information to the attention of the people in charge, and unless there is also some easy way in which that information can be genuinely verified, a code of conduct will have no impact whatever. It will simply not be worth the paper it is written on.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

We are also proposing clear criminal sanctions, in clauses 2, 3 and 4 of the Bill. The codes are not alternative, in every case, to criminal sanctions; they are supplementary and complementary to them. The Bill is our best effort at the moment, but, as ever, we are open to suggestions for improving the provision. I hope that they will be forthcoming in today's debate and when that part of the Bill is examined in Committee.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West

I approve of the Home Secretary's way of moving forward on this issue. A mixture of legislation and codes of practice is necessary in the area of betrayal or abuse of trust.

With the same inhibitions as the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) expressed, I put it to the Home Secretary—this is not for answer today, but may be fed in—that it is not always possible to produce enough evidence for the Crown Prosecution Service to undertake a criminal prosecution when people are suspected of misbehaving. Whether in respect of a teacher, or someone who works for a voluntary organisation or a Church, it might be worth consulting on some way of setting up a register, so that people could say, in all honesty, "We believe that somebody has been suspected of something, but there is no proof."

If that happened two or three times to the same person in different areas, we would avoid, for example, the present scandal of teachers getting references when people are trying to get them out of their school and into a new school and—where a charge eventually results—the social inquiry reports not looking back to find out what happened in the other four or five schools where such a person may have abused children.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I take the hon. Gentleman's point. There is an ever-present challenge to ensure that enough evidence is available to the Crown Prosecution Service to secure a conviction, given the heavy burden of proof that exists in our criminal courts. We are trying to make it easier for witnesses to come forward, and to gain protection under the provisions of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Bill, which is currently being considered in the other place. That said, I am sure that there will still be a number of cases in which the evidence is clear, but, for a variety of reasons, is not sufficient to secure a conviction in the criminal courts.

That, however, should not prevent those who exercise authority over the individual who is causing a breach of trust from disciplining that person. A responsibility is therefore placed on, for example, leaders of the scout movement and school governors. It is a responsibility which they must undertake: after all, there is a different and smaller burden of proof in their disciplinary processes, whether or not a prosecution is undertaken and is successful.

As for the question of records and registers, the Department for Education and Employment already has what it calls List 99, which contains details not only of people who are convicted of offences, but of others against whom school governing bodies, for example, have clear evidence. A similar list is run by the Department of Health in respect of those involved in social work with children, and there are also the provisions for criminal records which we shall co-ordinate as a one-stop shop in the Criminal Records Bureau.

Photo of Helen Southworth Helen Southworth Labour, Warrington South

Will my right hon. Friend consider the special concerns of young people with learning and other disabilities who give evidence and act as witnesses?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

Yes. We have taken steps to deal with that issue, which is partly covered in the Bill that is currently in another place.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

If I may, I shall continue with my explanation of the Bill, but I will take interventions before I sit down.

As I have said, the working group concluded that a new offence was needed in circumstances in which the relationship of trust was particularly strong, or the younger party was likely to be particularly vulnerable. That relates directly to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Ms Southworth). There are four main groups to be covered. As well as the—as usual—excellent detailed brief from the Library, we have provided detailed explanatory notes with the Bill, which, inevitably, set out the circumstances that we seek to cover in clearer language than the Bill itself.

First, there are young people who are held in any form of detention. They may be personally very vulnerable to undue influence, persuasion or manipulation; in addition, they have no way out of their situation, and may be frightened and friendless. Secondly, there are those who are looked after by a local authority, in a children's home, in foster care or in semi-independent accommodation. Those young people too may be vulnerable and isolated.

The third category consists of those who are resident in an institution providing health or social care: a hospital, a children's home, a nursing home or another form of residential care. Again, such young people may be very vulnerable; again, it is difficult for them to walk away from the situation. Abuse of such a position of trust should not be tolerated, and should be subject to the criminal law.

Finally, there is the area of full-time education. It is a broad category, but education epitomises what many see as the essence of the relationship of trust. Teachers are in loco parentis even when pupils are 16 or 17. That is the first reason for including full-time education as a whole. The second reason is the practical difficulty of creating separate groups within the category. Children at boarding school, like those in residential care or detention, cannot easily walk away from the situation. Because of their position, they are likely—as with the other young people whom I have mentioned—to be particularly vulnerable to undue influence.

Some children, such as those with learning difficulties, may be even more vulnerable, although they are at day schools; but I feel that it would be wholly invidious for some members of a class to be protected by the criminal law from abuse of trust, and others not to be so protected. That would be the position if we attempted a narrower definition, as classes may be of mixed ability, and many schools comprise both boarding and day pupils.

I appreciate that, just as there are some who think that the scope of the new offence is too narrow, there are others who think it too wide. Others think that areas such as residential holiday camps, scouts and guides should also be covered. Drawing the line is not easy. Of course, we are open to the views of the House and to suggestions for improvement, but we think—we do not know; we think—that we may have it right.

The principles of particular vulnerability for the individual, coupled with a particularly strong position of trust, seem to us to be the right criteria. They leave clearly defined categories of occupation where the law will apply and ensure that those covered by it will know—it is an important point—that they fall within its scope. Those outside that scope will also be covered by codes of conduct, but a more flexible approach in respect of them may be possible.

I said at the outset that there were a number of other important developments that I wanted to touch on. Those are relevant both to what is in the Bill and to what is not.

Last July, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael), the then Minister of State, announced our intention to review the law on sexual offences in England and Wales. The present law is archaic and riddled with inconsistencies and inequalities. It has grown as a patchwork of provisions, reflecting the values and policies of previous generations, when, for example, the relative positions of men and women in society was very different. It is time that we took a hard look at the law to decide how it should meet the needs of the new century.

Photo of David Borrow David Borrow Labour, South Ribble

On that point, does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the problems with the existing legislation is that it criminalises young males below the age of consent, whereas all the other age-of-consent legislation seeks to protect young people under the age of consent, rather than criminalise them? The age-of-consent legislation, as it is now and as it will be after the Bill is passed, will still leave young gay males under the age of consent as potential criminals, which will discourage them from whistle-blowing if they are approached by older males, which seems to be a fear among many hon. Members.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. It is a complex area of law. I hope that he will feel able to put in representations to the review, so that they can be considered in proper time.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot

Although the Home Secretary's proposals to deal with abuse of trust are welcome—indeed, 1 supported the amendment that was tabled by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton)—does he not understand that the message that he and those who will vote for the measure today are sending to the country is totally at variance with the message that the Government wish to give about the importance of the family?

Does the Home Secretary not understand that he simply cannot have it both ways? I know that the Government are keen to do that, but it is clear that the message that will go out from the House tonight if it votes for the measure—it is opposed by 70 per cent. of the population, so the House will be out of kilter with the public—is at variance with the Government's proclaimed support for the family, which the measure seeks to undermine.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

That is the hon. Gentleman's opinion. I respect it, but I do not agree with it. I do not believe that anything in the proposition that I support and which, I think, many hon. Members on both sides of the House support—an equal age of consent at 16—is antithetical to the Government's view. That view is by no means a partisan view, and it is that, without preaching about the nature of adults' personal relationships, we should take action better to support families, especially families with children.

We can have a debate about that on another occasion, but I have to give the same answer to the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) as I gave to the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne). The criminal law, when it was imposed with all its severity before 1967, did not prevent or stop homosexual acts taking place between people of any age; I know that for certain. It did discriminate against people who were of a homosexual nature, rather than a heterosexual nature, and caused untold, unnecessary and gratuitous misery to those people and, in many cases, their families as well.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

With great respect, I have taken a large number of interventions and I should like to proceed.

The review that we have established will focus particularly on providing further protection for children and punishing abusers appropriately. It will look at a full range of sex offences from rape and indecent assault to indecent exposure, gross indecency, procuring and abduction. Many of the offences currently on the statute book are deeply anachronistic. I do not think that we would now consider it right that the offence of causing or encouraging prostitution of a girl under 16 can be committed only by parents and that the law cannot be used against pimps. Neither do we want to have offences that require the victim to be proved a "defective". Those are just two of the many examples of how the law is archaic.

The Sex Offenders Act 1997 is also under review. It is a recent Act, but we started a research project into its effectiveness last autumn. It is due to be completed later this year. We shall be looking carefully at the Act in the light of the study. The review will cover the list of offences and whether there should be any judicial discretion in imposing the registration requirement, particularly for juveniles. The inclusion of the new offence of abuse of trust in the list means that it will also be covered in the review.

I have today placed in the Library a copy of the report of the interdepartmental working group on preventing unsuitable people from working with children and abuse of trust. The Government welcome the report as the basis for an integrated scheme to provide greater protection for children and, in due course, vulnerable adults. Primary legislation will be required to put the new schemes in place.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am almost at the end of my speech. Many hon. Members on both sides want to speak.

The integrated scheme envisages a central access point for three sources of information, including criminal records and List 99, which I mentioned earlier to the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley). The Protection of Children Bill currently before Parliament makes provision for the Criminal Records Bureau to be the central access point for the scheme.

The Government have embarked on a major programme to prevent sexual abuse in the home and elsewhere and to put in place safeguards and a new culture of protection of children through all areas of child care and social services. We have discussed that at length on other occasions, in particular in the context of the Government's response to the children's safeguards review.

Those are the major planks of our programme of reform; that is the context of the Bill. I believe that it is a good measure which balances the need to ensure that young people are adequately protected with the right that all citizens should have to equality before the law. I commend it to the House.

Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler Shadow Secretary of State 4:08 pm, 25th January 1999

This is the second time that we have debated the issue and the second time I have spoken, so my speech will be brief.

I welcome two aspects of the Bill. First, it starts as a Bill. Part of my criticism last time that we debated the issues was that the relevant amendment was introduced very late, preventing the House from giving it thorough scrutiny. The measure was offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Now we shall be able to give proper scrutiny in Committee to all aspects of what is being proposed.

Secondly, I welcome the steps taken to recognise that children in care and under supervision need protection. Many of us have argued for that. We shall have to examine the adequacy of the protection offered. I sympathise with the point made by the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson). We shall need to consider issues such as the maximum sentence, but the measure is right in principle. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), whose amendment brought the issue up originally.

Against that background, the question is whether the age of consent should be reduced to 16. For the Opposition, there will be a free vote on the Bill. I shall try to review some of the evidence, but I shall put forward my personal views.

In 1994, I voted for the age of consent to be reduced from 21 to 18. Eighteen is the age of majority, and it seemed to me sensible that young men should make up their own minds at that age. I do not go back on that judgment. There are some who think that that went too far, but I agreed with the Bishop of York, who said at the time that it was a sensible step and allowed the evidence to be assessed.

In coming to the subject, I am strongly and personally influenced by the campaign on AIDS that I conducted at the end of 1986 and the beginning of 1987. AIDS is not an exclusively homosexual issue, although some argue even now, wrongly, that it is. Equally, however, it is clear that it disproportionately affects the gay community. During that campaign and afterwards—when I was a member of the council of the National Aids Trust—I met representatives of the gay community regularly and frequently. I do not wish to be patronising in my praise, but I hope at any rate that I can be acquitted of being hostile to the gay community.

During the AIDS campaign, I learnt two major lessons. It was a unique campaign, inasmuch as we sought to involve all the public and to rely on the public. I do not believe that anything like it has been attempted in the post-war years. The first lesson that I learnt was about what the public expected of Ministers and Governments. I remember that I was urged to lead what was called a moral campaign—in other words, rather than concentrating on practical health education, I was urged to provide a moral message on what was "right" and "wrong". Frankly, I was sceptical of that advice.

I did not advocate a promiscuous life style, but equally I did not believe that the public necessarily regarded Ministers or, dare I say, Members of Parliament, as the automatic role models or moral guardians of the nation. I must admit that some of the things that have happened since 1986–87 have confirmed me in that view. Whether it is back to basics or the third way, a well-meaning message is subject to the slight problem that it can be spectacularly blown out of the water at any stage. My view was that the public wanted sensible advice rather than lectures.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Conservative, Canterbury

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we were to extend his analogy a little further, the House of Commons should not have a debate on economic policy?

Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler Shadow Secretary of State

The point I am seeking to make is that we should proceed with a certain amount of humility on moral issues. I suggest that that is not a bad lesson for any of us, however strongly we may feel about the issues. I add that the history of this century has shown that it is better for the Government and Ministers to give practical advice, rather than seek to put over a moral message without the practical advice. During the 1914–18 war, the advice to "think of King and country" in terms of sexual habits proved to be spectacularly unsuccessful.

That brings me to the second lesson that I took from the AIDS campaign. We were posting leaflets to every house and every home in Britain, so we agonised about the message—how explicit should it be, and what language should be used? I have been criticised or taken off in the press for other messages, most of which are now in folklore. It is totally untrue, but there is nothing I can do about denying it. One of my earliest advertisements was challenged by a senior Minister on the ground that the words "having sex" were not the kind of language that we should use; so we had some difficulty in getting the message across.

The public response to our leaflets was emphatic: there were next to no complaints, and we were criticised neither for the directness of the message nor for the fact that we could have been perceived as protecting the gay community. The British public took a mature and sensible attitude: they thought that we were right to warn and, by implication, they thought it wrong to leave people to their own fate as, tragically, some countries did.

That was significant, because I contend that, just as the public are sensible and mature in their attitude to an issue such as AIDS, they show equal common sense today on the age of consent. The Home Secretary is entirely right to say that the public do not want men in their 20s and 30s—let alone in their 40s and 50s—to be prosecuted for consensual sex. They regard that as a matter for personal judgment, not for the criminal law.

The public's concern comes when the age for consent comes nearer and nearer to what they regard as childhood. In 1994, a Gallup poll suggested that 71 per cent. supported the status quo for the age of consent at 21. Interestingly, when NOP divided the question and gave a choice between 18 and 16, the majority—48 per cent. as against 44 per cent.—favoured 18; but, significantly for this debate, only 13 per cent. favoured 16.

That opposition to going this further stage, from 18—which we introduced only in 1994—to 16, has remained in the opinion polls. At the end of 1997, one poll showed 53 per cent. opposed to lowering the age of consent and 35 per cent. in favour. Perhaps the most interesting of the later polls was the Gallup poll last August, which was taken after the House had voted to lower the age of consent to 16 and the House of Lords had voted the other way. When the public were asked whether they personally thought that the age of consent for homosexual men should be 16 or 18, 26 per cent. said 16 and 65 per cent. said 18.

I do not believe that there is any evidence to suggest that public opinion is unreasonable on the age of consent or that those surveys show an inherent prejudice against the gay community. Many of the public who are polled are parents and are concerned about the impact that a change in the law could have on 16 and 17-year-olds.

The House would do well to take note of the public view. If I am right, and two thirds of the country are against lowering the age of consent, we should take note of that and consider some of the reasons that are advanced. Some, like the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell), will argue, as he did in our previous debate on the subject, that there is a particular need in our culture to support young people. He said: Pressures are at work to legitimise any and every life style, irrespective of any difference of value and quality between them. The Church believes that those pressures should be resisted."—[Official Report, 22 June 1998; Vol. 314, c. 795.] Others will agree with the Lord Bishop of Winchester, who spoke for many other religious leaders when he warned against undermining the position of marriage in our society. Above all, my view is that the public generally feel that we have a responsibility to do everything in our power to prevent young people from being affected by harm or abuse. Indeed, the Government have obviously accepted that principle, as it is the reason for the second part of the Bill. We can debate whether the protection is adequate, but the Government have accepted the principle of seeking to protect.

Photo of Sir Peter Lloyd Sir Peter Lloyd Conservative, Fareham

On the question of protection, does my right hon. Friend agree that the present law is very successful in deterring homosexually inclined and active 16 and 17-year-olds from obtaining medical and moral advice?

Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler Shadow Secretary of State

I do not agree with that. My experience with the AIDS campaign was that we were able to succeed in making advice available to people using drugs and to the great many more who were committing criminal offences. Although I know my right hon. Friend's views and respect them, I do not think that his argument is valid. Even if it were, it would have to be balanced against the greater public good.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

The opinion poll evidence invoked by my right hon. Friend is important. The House should listen to it, but not be slavishly bound by it. My right hon. Friend said that he would offer us his personal view: will he say to what adverse consequences he fears that equalisation at the age of 16 would lead?

Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler Shadow Secretary of State

I shall come to that point in the second part of my remarks. However, I question what my hon. Friend says about public opinion. I think that we should listen to it, as it is important to take public opinion on this matter into account.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

I said that we should not be slavish in our response to it.

Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler Shadow Secretary of State

What that normally means is, "I'll listen to it, and then I'll ignore it." I think that public opinion on this matter is so pronounced that the House would be well advised to listen to what is being said.

Photo of Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Labour, Workington

The right hon. Gentleman told the right hon. Member for Fareham (Sir P. Lloyd) that he did not believe that young people of 16 would be disinclined to seek medical advice. If he were shown to be wrong about that, would he change his mind?

Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler Shadow Secretary of State

I would not so much change my mind as try to change the response of young people. If they were shown to be disinclined to seek such advice, that would be a problem which we should examine and try to resolve. However, whether that amounts to an argument for going as far as reducing the age of consent for everyone to 16 is another question.

I believe that, in respect of the Bill, many people will feel that many more children than those under supervision are in danger and at risk. Will reducing the age of consent make their position more perilous and increase the risk that they face? That is the question which the House must consider. In making that judgment, we must assess the size of the threat.

It is obviously extremely difficult to evaluate the risk of sexual abuse, but an indication of the scale of the problem can be found in the study edited by Donald West of the Cambridge Institute of Criminology. That study drew attention to one piece of research, in which it was found that 12 per cent. of women and 8 per cent. of men reported that they had been sexually abused as children. If accurate, that research means that we are talking about several million adults who have been sexually abused.

Even those who contest those figures would not deny that sexual abuse poses a massive threat. It is not surprising that many parents are worried about what is an inherent fear for them, nor that they feel that the problem could or would be made worse by lowering the age of consent. In that connection, it is worth recalling the words of Sir William Utting, who was quoted in our previous debate and whose advice lay behind the amendment tabled then by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw. In his 1997 Department of Health report, Sir William said of sexual offenders: Persistent sexual abusers are a scourge of childhood. Their numbers are difficult to estimate but each one who adopts a lifetime career will amass hundreds of victims. They inflict unspeakable psychological and physical harm. Some of their victims will become abusers. Their success depends on their ability to ingratiate themselves with adults and children … They establish themselves as trusted friends, colleagues or employees. Exposure may be a matter of chance, often after many years of abuse.

Photo of David Borrow David Borrow Labour, South Ribble

I assume that the right hon. Gentleman's points about child abuse relate to abuse under the age of 16. He argues that a reduction in the age of consent for gay men from 18 to 16 would increase the risk of such abuse. If that is the case, given the figures that he gave, which show that, nationally, more women than men have been abused as children, does he advocate that the age of consent for heterosexual men and women should be increased from 16 to give them more protection from child abuse?

Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler Shadow Secretary of State

No, I do not. That is an issue, but I am arguing that the position should not be made worse. I heard the hon. Gentleman's earlier intervention and he seemed to be arguing for changes that go beyond the Bill—far beyond it. It is all very well arguing such a case, but I am arguing that the position should not be made worse, nor the risk greater. It is a matter of judgment for the House and for the hon. Gentleman—whom I suspect does not exactly share my view on the subject—how seriously one estimates that risk. I happen to consider it serious. I was Secretary of State for Social Services for six years, so I recognise the problem. I feel that it is a serious risk and a serious issue, but I am speaking personally.

Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler Shadow Secretary of State

I will continue for the moment.

Bill Utting' s report was about children living away from home, but his description of the threat has a wider application. We must remember that those who have been found guilty of sexual abuse have usually had a long career as abusers. As the Home Secretary may remember, in our previous debate on the subject I gave the example of the self-styled Bishop Gleaves. He may remember it because I also raised the issue in 1975 when I was last at the shadow Dispatch Box to speak on home affairs and he was adviser to the Secretary of State for Social Services.

Bishop Gleaves was convicted of offences against young people in the 1970s. I raised his case in 1975 and he was convicted last year of further offences and sentenced to 15 years in prison. My point is that he is a lifetime offender, like so many others. It is worth remembering that that is the context of this legislation.

I heard what the Home Secretary said and I certainly agree with him about reviewing the law. However, it is not merely a question of reviewing the law, but of reviewing the adequacy of the treatment of such offenders once they have been sentenced. We need to take into account our lack of success and, at times, the inadequacy of our efforts to change people's habits once they go into prison. The issue does not end at the sentence; in a sense, it begins after sentencing. Too often, we have no realistic hope of sexual offenders changing their ways after they come out of prison. All too often, those hopes fail to be realised, as in the case of Bishop Gleaves.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the twin need to ensure that the offences are in order and that there is better punishment, detention and treatment of offenders. For that reason, as he may know, we are working actively on proposals, which I shall bring before the House shortly, for dealing better with offenders with dangerous personality disorders.

Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler Shadow Secretary of State

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, and I hope that he will bring the proposals before us shortly because it is a fundamental issue. While we repeatedly debate changes in the law, little appears to happen, which negates all our law-making efforts.

I understand and respect the arguments of those who say that the age of consent should be lowered to 16 and that it is a matter of rights for young people. I hope that such people will recognise that it is not a question only of rights but of responsibilities, and in particular of the responsibility that we owe young people not to worsen their position in respect of the risk of abuse. No one can doubt public concern on the issue; nor should we attempt to do so. I believe that the majority of the public would prefer this change not to be made. We should listen to the public and not move to reduce further the age of consent.

Photo of Mr Joe Ashton Mr Joe Ashton Labour, Bassetlaw 4:31 pm, 25th January 1999

I thank my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for introducing this Bill, which I welcome and support. He and the Minister of State have done a magnificent job in listening to Back Benchers and the mood of the House, which was perhaps misunderstood last June. It was the end of the Session and we were trying to do too much, too soon. Now that we have had a another look at the matter, I am sure that the Bill will get a massive majority tonight.

That is a commonsense issue. The matter has been going on for a couple of years or more. As I had to remind Baroness Young on a television programme today, the European Court of Human Rights said that equality between men and women in respect of gay rights legislation was essential and that it would enforce it if the British Government did not introduce legislation. That seems to have been forgotten.

There was never really an anti-gay row about the matter. I voted willingly for the measure that was tacked on to the Crime and Disorder Bill last June. However, the House and Back Benchers resent it when they think that a Committee has not had a chance to study an issue, table amendments and let things take their proper course through the House. A lot of friction lingered after the age of consent was reduced to 18 under Edwina Currie's proposal. There was a three-hour debate without time to examine the issues at leisure. I welcome what the Home Secretary has done.

The Home Secretary will remember that the consent measure had a majority of 207 last June. When the question on my amendment was put, the majority fell to 40. Sad to say, the free vote was taken off. If it had been on, the amendment would have been carried and there would have been even more chaos and mishaps in the Lords. When the measure has been carefully considered in Committee, there will be no reason for the House of Lords to reject it, although one or two may try it on. Many Labour Lords who voted then—a lot of colleagues my age and old trade unionists—were unhappy about what was being done. If the measure goes through as a separate Bill including my amendments, there will be much less resistance in the Lords. I hope that the Lords will also realise that, if it is not passed by Parliament, the European Court will say that we are out of order and impose it one way or another.

I am happy to say that it all started with a written question, which I tabled, about equality in other countries, to which I shall return later. The idea of a position of authority, influence or trust seems to have been reduced in the Bill to trust alone. I will come to that also.

The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldsfield (Sir N. Fowler) has outlined the extent of the problem and I do not want us to repeat the debate that we had last June. The Utting report told us that 200,000 children under the age of 18 were living in children's homes, foster care and boarding schools, with 1,700 in Prison Service establishments, 110,000 in boarding schools and 35,000 in foster care.

After public uproar, Esther Rantzen set up a child abuse helpline which thousands of kids called because they had no one to turn to. However, many children could not even afford the cost of the call, until the BBC fixed up a free phone line. The right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), when he was still Prime Minister, set up the Utting inquiry, but, unfortunately, it reported just after the general election when everything was in turmoil and the media were preoccupied with the post-election euphoria. The report never received the analysis it merited—indeed, it was not even debated in Parliament until my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health made a statement on the subject.

Parliament was in danger of allowing a major social cause of public concern to go unanswered. I felt like people must have felt in the days of "Oliver Twist" or Dr. Barnardo: here we were debating every subject under the sun, while rent boys and young prostitutes were on the streets, having been shoved out there through no fault of their own. I am glad that the House is now studying a social problem on a non-partisan basis and that, as it does when at its best, it will eventually come to a conclusion that is mutually acceptable to Parliament and the public. I am sure that my friends on both sides of the House are also happy to be a part of that.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Liberal Democrat, Oxford West and Abingdon

I should like to raise with the hon. Gentleman a point that I was unable to raise with the Home Secretary, although I should still be interested to hear the Home Secretary's view. Last year, the hon. Gentleman was careful to introduce his amendment in a non-discriminatory way; he was at pains to point that out and we respected that. Does he feel entirely comfortable with the current provision, whereby heterosexuals accused of abuse of trust will have a get-out through marriage, which is legal for 16 to 18-year-olds with parental permission, whereas that course of action is not open to homosexuals? Can the hon. Gentleman suggest any means of resolving that continued discrimination? I understood that the Government were keen to introduce a non-discriminatory provision along the lines of the hon. Gentleman's amendment last year, but, so far, they do not appear to have done so.

Photo of Mr Joe Ashton Mr Joe Ashton Labour, Bassetlaw

My personal view is that marriage is a partnership: neither partner is in a position of supervision or trust in respect of the other. I have often wondered why homosexuals do not draw up a contract to cover long-standing partnerships, enabling them to leave pension rights to a partner, or even to obtain a spouse's travel warrant to the House of Commons. I would have no objection to such arrangements.

However, to answer the hon. Gentleman's question, I believe that the public would insist on there being some form of written contract that would stand up in law. If the framework for such contracts were to be put before Parliament, I believe that the majority of Members and of the public would find it acceptable. The public will not regard mere mutual friendships, which can end without recourse to the courts, as being equal to marriage. The possibility of marriage is a separate issue, which can be dealt with in the Standing Committee, of which the hon. Gentleman might be a member.

I should like to thank some of the newspapers. Although we often criticise them, there is no doubt that, in respect of major social problems such as child abuse, the newspapers have the feel of the public and they know the causes of public protest. I have saved many cuttings since our debate last year. They include a story in the Yorkshire Post with the headline, "Pervert teacher preyed on children for 16 years", which describes how a teacher in Leeds raped a 12-year-old girl in a cupboard and terrorised his victims into not reporting him. Referring to the "epidemic in our midst", The Guardian named paedophiles, published photographs of them and described the crimes "that went unnoticed". The newspaper told of events at Greystone Heath, the approved school for boys in Warrington, saying: a 21-year-old student teacher … went to work there. Over the ensuing four years, he raped … 16 boys". Other members of staff there included Alan Langshaw who raped … 24 boys; Dennis Grain who raped … 18; Roy Shuttleworth who raped … 10; Jack Bennett who indecently assaulted two".The Guardian described how they "fanned out" and went to other institutions, including a Catholic boys' home, and other areas, such as north Wales. I give credit to the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and every other newspaper that has spent a great deal of time and effort exposing what has happened. An article entitled "Innocents on our streets of shame" dealt with children lured on to the streets by vice gangs. We should be reminded time and again of what is going on. The newspapers are not perverting public opinion but responding to it, and we have to respond as well.

Photo of Mr Andrew Rowe Mr Andrew Rowe Conservative, Faversham and Mid Kent

I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Does he agree that one of the changes that will be greatly welcomed when it is finally implemented is that it will be an offence of child abuse for an adult to buy sex with someone under the age of 16? At the moment, people who buy sex from youngsters, often children, get treated much more leniently in the courts than they should be.

Photo of Mr Joe Ashton Mr Joe Ashton Labour, Bassetlaw

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point, which I was going to come to later in response to what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said about another Bill, perhaps in the next Session of Parliament, on sexual offences. It is not possible to put everything in this Bill; if we were to try to do so, it would take six months to get it through. The hon. Gentleman is right, as was the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield. According to figures that he gave, 8 per cent. of men had suffered sexual abuse as a child, and I think that he said that the figure for women was 12 per cent. According to The Guardian, the figure for women was 20 per cent., revealing that abuse of women as children was far more prevalent.

People who did not know where to turn go to court when they are 25 or 30 years old and, quite rightly, receive massive damages, which the councils have to pay. The crux of the matter is that, when abuse has been discovered, it has been covered up. That has been the case with teachers. Teachers have told me that they are not happy with the Bill, which they regard as a sledgehammer to crack a nut. They say that the number of teachers involved is very small—certainly only a few get caught and are prosecuted.

As the Utting report showed repeatedly, schools, teachers governors and councils do not want the bad publicity. Cases have been covered up. In the Evening Standard, there was, quite rightly, a big row about Islington council and the extent of child abuse there. It was hushed up, not for political reasons but because of demands by staff and headmasters who do not want other parents to take their children from the school. They do not want parents storming down to the school, protesting and telling teachers that they are not doing their job. That has gone on for years.

Photo of Mr Paul Stinchcombe Mr Paul Stinchcombe Labour, Wellingborough

Does my hon. Friend share with me the concern felt by many that insurance companies effectively compel local authorities to keep their information hidden lest they lose their insurance cover?

Photo of Mr Joe Ashton Mr Joe Ashton Labour, Bassetlaw

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. About eight years ago, I was a member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs. We undertook an inquiry into criminal injuries compensation legislation. We considered various cases, one of which involved a man who had sodomised his wife and stepson, for which he had gone to prison. He was beaten up by other prisoners and then put in a claim for criminal injuries. The claim was of course kicked out because he was not entitled to compensation.

In the Select Committee, I asked who had claimed for the boy. There was no answer, only a deadly silence. No one had claimed for him—no councils were claiming for abused children. However, the case started an avalanche of claims. If I remember rightly, the insurance company Municipal Mutual ran into serious difficulties as a result. It put a great deal of pressure on local councils to get rid of the offenders and not to take them to court, because that would have saved them a lot of money.

List 99 was supposedly a blacklist of teachers who had been sacked. I understood that there were about 100 teachers on that list. I am grateful to the Daily Mail, which—again since the previous debate on this matter—printed an analysis of a survey by the BBC2 education programme, "Just One Chance". That survey found that 39 authorities were keeping blacklists, and that more than 1,000 teachers had been sacked who had never been placed on List 99. They were suspected, but never convicted, of abusing children and were still working freely in schools. They appeared on the informal blacklist, but that information was not passed on. The Association of Chief Education Officers says that the rules operated by the Government's official central register, List 99, are too tight because it effectively contains only those people who have been convicted in a court.

There was obviously a conspiracy of silence. Paedophiles have a network. One can gain access to that on the internet and buy child pornography. They move around the country from the care of one education authority to that of another and start their practices all over again.

The situation has reached the stage where, for some local councils, the most important consideration is not looking after the poor abused child but keeping quiet and not blowing the whistle. Anybody who blows the whistle is ostracised. The average county council or borough council discipline code for employees who have to be sacked or suspended—they can be suspended for six or nine months on full pay—consists of about 200 pages of procedures that must be followed. The union can provide a defence. The whistleblower is hauled up before the inquiry committee and may change his evidence because he is put under pressure. At the end of all that, everybody says of the alleged abuser, "For God's sake, let's get rid of him and move him on." He moves on to abuse again.

We should be grateful to newspapers for highlighting those matters. Detective Chief Inspector Gould of Avon and Somerset police warned about children at risk on foreign exchange trips. He had uncovered 500 cases of abuse and neglect involving children sent on trips by schools and firms. He said that English children … have unwittingly been placed by their school with known paedophiles in Spain, France and Canada. Of course people should be responsible for that. We should know which schools have not made checks.

I said that I welcomed the Bill, but I have a couple of doubts. I do not blame my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for those doubts, which relate not to a loophole but to a serious social problem.

Parents have rights too. I have received a lot of criticism from the National Association of Head Teachers saying that head teachers are being put under a great deal of pressure, but the response from parents has been overwhelming. I have also received letters from women aged over 40 who said that when they were 16—above the age of consent—they fell in love with their music teacher. They had wanted to be professional musicians and had a close relationship with their teacher, but they bitterly regretted that. When their parents complained to the school, the response was that the girl was 16 and the school could do nothing.

Men wrote saying that they had wanted to get into the football team. They knew that what their teacher was doing was against the rules but they had badly wanted to get into the team because they had wanted to be a professional footballer. I shall not reveal names or addresses, but those letters were cries from the heart. Many people, who were over the age of consent, suffered an emotional trauma.

I mentioned two loopholes to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. People have asked about cases involving 16-year-olds at work, whose boss is on to them. They do not want to lose their job and they are frightened of being made redundant or not being promoted. I understand that the Bill does not cover 16 and 17-year-olds at work who are being harassed because they can generally go home and tell their mother and father. They have somebody to go to, to lean on, whereas a youngster in a boarding school or a young offenders institution, or who lives with a foster parent, has not. That is why such youngsters have to seek help from Childline, which was set up by Esther Rantzen.

I am happy with what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has done with regard to work, but there is another category of youngsters who are terribly abused: those who are put on the streets by pimps. Such people run away from care or a foster parent because of abuse, and find a friendly face on the street who, in two or three days, has them on drugs and selling themselves.

I know that we do not want to make the Bill so big that it covers every sexual offence. My original amendment concerned authority, supervision and trust. I think that a pimp who puts a young woman on the game, as it is called, by supplying her with drugs has authority over her. I hope that, in Committee, we can alter the Bill to include authority, especially concerning those who give drugs to a 16 or 17-year-old in order to make some financial gain.

I happen to live about half a mile from where the Yorkshire Ripper was caught. The area goes up and down, but I will not go into details. A woman who lives quite near there wrote to me, and every other Member of Parliament who represents a Sheffield constituency, about her daughter. Mrs. Irene Iveson is a constituent of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), whom I will chide in a minute. Mrs. Iveson's daughter, Fiona, was enticed away from her middle-class family at the age of 16 by a pimp, who put her on drugs. She was totally under his control. He put her on the streets, where she was murdered by a client. On what grounds can the pimp be charged, bearing in mind that the girl was 16? I think that he was charged with some minor offence and bound over. Mrs. Iveson rightly says that there should be legislation to prevent such events. Fiona would never have been murdered if that man had not put her on drugs at the age of 16 and put her on the streets.

The hon. Member for Hallam took up the case. The Star in Sheffield reported him saying that he was the only person who had done anything about the matter, that the Prime Minister had done nothing. Two weeks after speaking and voting against the amendments that I tabled, he was out saying that the Liberals are the only ones who care.

Photo of Mr Richard Allan Mr Richard Allan Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment)

I shall respond briefly to the hon. Gentleman's direct challenge. I have tremendous respect for the spirit of what he is attempting to do, but felt—I thought that I had made it clear in my speech, which I shall check—that the wording of his amendment was rather all-encompassing. I know that he has a different view about driving parliamentary draftsmen to do something. I tabled amendments specifically on the offence of pimping, and will continue to support the call for the creation of specific offences. I felt that his amendments were too general and that it was a problem that they did not distinguish between pimps and other people.

Photo of Mr Joe Ashton Mr Joe Ashton Labour, Bassetlaw

We are always ready to welcome a sinner who has repented. I accept the hon. Gentleman's apologies. I very much welcome the fact that he will join us in the Lobby. Perhaps we can discuss that matter, and the question of whistleblowers, in Committee.

I welcome the Bill. It will become major and important legislation. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is due great credit for introducing it.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 4:53 pm, 25th January 1999

I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), even though he chided my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) inaccurately. I respect the hon. Gentleman for moving forward the discussion and opening up a relevant area of debate as a Back Bencher. I commend him, even if he thinks that that is too dangerously like Lib-Lab co-operation. I shall move on because I know that he is not very keen on that sort of thing.

For Liberal Democrats, this a free-vote issue. Our party manifesto supported equalisation of the law, while reserving the right of Members of Parliament to dissent in a free vote. We welcome the fact that the Government have given the House an opportunity to consider protection for young people of either sex from abuse of a position of trust, whether of a heterosexual or homosexual nature. Many of us supported the amendments of the hon. Member for Bassetlaw, although they also concerned a free-vote issue. We shall all need to consider the relevant clauses in detail—but, first, let us consider the main issue.

There is a very wide range of opinions on homosexuality. Although there appear to have been some shifts of opinion in recent years, it still ranges from those who regard homosexual activity as morally repugnant to those who wish to affirm homosexuality as a commendable life style. Some people are disapproving but tolerant, whereas many others seek a society in which people of different sexual orientation can quietly go about their lives without its being an issue.

My view is that the present discriminatory law cannot be justified from any of those standpoints, and that it has harmful consequences. Moral disapproval on the part of some people, however strongly held, does not provide grounds for making private acts into criminal offences. Of course, if there is no consent, or if a position of trust has been abused, or if one of those involved is too young to be presumed able to give informed consent, the protection of the criminal law may be needed, and other parts of the Bill make that possible; but I do snot think that a person over 16 who is allowed to marry and required to pay taxes can be presumed to be too young to give consent. If they are to be so presumed, it follows that heterosexual activity at 16 and homosexual acts involving 16-year-old girls should be subject to identical protection—and the House has consistently decided against that course of action.

Many of us who are worried about premature sexual activity by teenagers and its consequences for health have to recognise that turning teenagers into criminals does not help. If someone needs to seek medical advice about HIV or AIDS, or needs guidance at a time of emotional turmoil, having to admit to a criminal offence can be a powerful deterrent to getting the help that they need.

I welcome the inclusion of provisions about abuse of trust, whether heterosexual or homosexual conduct, not least because so much evidence is coming to light of systematic abuse of young people by adults in such positions, but hon. Members in all parts of the House will want to be sure that those clauses have the right scope.

There is, rightly, an emphasis on protection for young people in residential institutions; but, beyond that boundary, where should the lines be drawn? Does it make sense to include teachers in day schools but not people who supervise young people at work, or who supervise them in the activities of youth organisations, some of which are residential? Doctors are not included, presumably because they are subject to medical disciplinary procedures. Some of my hon. Friends share the view of teaching organisations that a strong General Teaching Council—which we advocate in any case—should be the body to discipline teachers in a similar way for such breaches of professional conduct. Either way, I believe that something must be done. As the hon. Member for Bassetlaw said, the practice in schools has sometimes been to get rid of abusers as quickly and quietly as possible, by giving them an ultimatum accompanied by a good reference, thereby passing the problem on to another school, but there is scope for considerable argument about how some professions should be dealt with.

Photo of Mr Andrew Rowe Mr Andrew Rowe Conservative, Faversham and Mid Kent

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that many of the people who, in middle age, become systematic and vicious abusers start out, as young people, with a much less developed criminality, and that, if it were made easier to intervene effectively earlier, there would be a much better chance that they could be diverted? Does he agree that the idea that it is kind to a professional colleague to allow them to slide discreetly into another job is very misguided as well as, later, potentially very dangerous?

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman may have a point. I should like to reflect on it, because I am not sure whether objective evidence shows that patterns of behaviour have limited incidence in earlier years and greater incidence in later years. However, I rest on the argument that something needs to be done for the sake of victims of abuse. Early intervention may well be desirable, even from the abuser's standpoint, as I believe is the case in other respects.

There are other areas in which there is not equality before the law for male homosexuals. The review of the Sex Offenders Act 1997 will need to consider some of those areas. For example, as my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) has often pointed out in debates, private consensual sexual acts involving more than two people do not constitute a criminal offence if the conduct is heterosexual or if all the persons are female, but they do if all the persons are male. That matter is the subject of an application to the European Court of Human Rights, so we shall have to give it further attention.

The sex offenders register is another area of concern. I hope that the Home Secretary will reflect carefully on the issues. The names of all offenders under the Bill will be put on the register. I shall cite two possible cases that raise concerns.

First, a man who was put on the register because he had a single consensual sexual relationship when he was 17, before the enactment of the Bill, will remain on the register even though that action would no longer be an offence. I do not think that that is reasonable. Describing to me the review that is taking place, the Home Secretary stated in a letter: I should make clear that none of the changes which may be brought forward"— that is, following the review— will be retrospective, and we do not propose any retrospective changes to the scope of the register in respect of equalisation of the age of consent. Not many members of the general public would regard it as reasonable for someone in the limited circumstances that I described to remain on the sex offenders register, which is designed to deal with case such as those to which the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) referred, involving a repeat offender and a strong possibility of further offences. Names should not be left on the register as a result of a single offence that is no longer an offence.

Secondly, it is questionable whether a 22-year-old teacher, who on one occasion formed a relationship with a 17-year-old pupil, which might even have led to marriage, should be on the sex offenders register. It may have been right for the teacher to lose his job and suffer some penalty, but the purpose of the register is to reduce the risks from potential repeat offenders, which such a person would not be.

Even after the Bill is passed, the law relating to sexual offences will still be beset with anomalies and anachronisms. However, if it is passed, an unjustified element of discrimination will be removed; the role of the criminal law will be more precisely limited to what it can usefully and properly do, rather than serving as a statement of some people's moral convictions, which not everyone shares; and the protection of young people against abuse of positions of trust for sexual purposes of any kind will be significantly strengthened.

Photo of Ann Keen Ann Keen Labour, Brentford and Isleworth 5:02 pm, 25th January 1999

Much has been said about this issue in the House over the years, and the House has had many opportunities to debate the age of consent. I am particularly pleased that many hon. Members, across all parties, supported my amendment last June, although I was disappointed and concerned that it did not become law. I am extremely pleased that the Government have returned to the issue in a Government Bill, and that it is so strongly supported by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Many, many young gay men and women look to Parliament to make it possible for them to be accepted and respected in our society. There continues to be so much damage to our young people. Persecution, discrimination and prejudice still exist. Today, we have another opportunity to end that and to show that we value all our young people.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is to be commended on all her work. The Good Friday agreement covers many areas, including not only political and religious elements, but sexual orientation. It is an excellent example of the new thinking that is needed to embrace all the people and end discrimination against any of our people, wherever they live.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) introduced provisions relating to the abuse of trust, and I am pleased to participate in the debate tonight on the abuse of trust of young people. I want to make it quite plain, however, that I consider the age of consent to be a separate issue from that of the abuse of trust of young people in care. In previous debates, it was suggested that those who believe in an equal age of consent do not have at heart the well-being of our young people. I find that offensive.

Until recently, I was a member of the Select Committee on Health and contributed to a report on the migration of our young people who were sent out to Australia and New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s, and the treatment that they received. Sadly, those young people are now gravely damaged adults, having experienced abuse by the religious organisations to which they were sent, such as the Christian Brothers. Their lives and futures have been seriously blighted as a result.

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Labour, Exeter

Does my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the incredibly enlightened remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) on the desirability of registering partnerships? Does she share my hope that the Home Secretary will take note of that?

Photo of Ann Keen Ann Keen Labour, Brentford and Isleworth

I am sure that all hon. Members will have noted those remarks.

I was dealing with the issue of trust. I am extremely pleased that young women have been mentioned. When this matter was debated previously, many members of the other place argued that it was unnecessary to protect young women because they dealt with abuse much better than young men. Many female Members of Parliament, and many more of our constituents, were greatly offended by that suggestion.

For that reason and many others, a different approach must be taken in relation to the age of consent. It is a key issue. Young people and many experienced organisations that work with them, including the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing, Barnados, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, counselling groups, social workers, the Terence Higgins trust, HIV and AIDS workers, all say that an equal age of consent is crucial if young people are to be protected and valued. Young people need to grow emotionally; they need self-esteem; and they need a youth that they can talk about. The message that the House can send out today is that all young people are to be valued.

Some people suggest that the involvement and enforcement of the law can discourage young people from being gay. Do they seriously suggest that close family members and friends should report young people to the police? If a son informs his mother about his sexuality, should she tell him in an emotional way, "Of course, this will all end with criminal action, because that is what is best for you"? No one who seriously cares about young people would do that. Advice and support should never be denied to a young person.

Much has been said about young gay men that has been offensive to those concerned, but also to their parents, many of whom have contacted me to say so. Many more will continue to do so until we put the matter to rest. What sort of love for one's child is it when one calls for the law to be enforced more vigorously? If we go down that route, the message is that bullying at school, homophobia, beatings and persecution are the right way. Mothers and head teachers—and, sadly, the number of recorded suicides—tell us differently. Real love, care and concern mean ensuring that young people are not criminalised for their sexuality.

I have already mentioned health protection. The White Paper, "Our Healthier Nation", deals with that issue. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), who is not in his place, was involved in bringing AIDS and HIV to people's attention, and much good work was done. He said that it was difficult to communicate on sexuality and to get the message across. How much more difficult it is to get that message across when some young people—young gay men—are criminalised. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned public concern and said that public opinion was against the age of consent being reduced to 16. I would ask him to look more carefully at that opinion poll rating, because it says what most parents would say: 16 is too young for their children to have sex, whether heterosexual or homosexual sex.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

Does my hon. Friend agree that reducing the age of consent to 16 for homosexual acts would be a crucial consolidating measure—which would bring heterosexual and homosexual acts together, give credibility to the age of consent and reinforce it at 16 for homosexuality and heterosexuality—and a crucial child protection measure?

Photo of Ann Keen Ann Keen Labour, Brentford and Isleworth

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, because he is right; that is exactly what would be enforced.

For the first time, the extent of abuse against young people is being recognised by head teachers, education departments and school nurses, and the excellent document produced by Stonewall shows the extent of bullying in schools. The law as it stands is unworkable; the police have a difficult job in dealing with unrest in our society, and they believe that the law as it stands is a hindrance to the important work that they are doing to combat homophobic violence.

With this extended Bill and the extended time that the House has been given for debate, and as our Government are introducing much-needed measures to protect young people in all aspects of life, let us please send from this House the message that tolerance, fairness and protection are what we are about. I hope that, this time, the Bill will become law.

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Conservative, Witney 5:12 pm, 25th January 1999

Hon. Members may be aware of a statue, which was put up last year near the Strand, dedicated to Oscar Wilde. It is a sad and sobering statue, but, like much good and great art, it is provocative. Looking at that statue, I see a face of misery, and perhaps other things about the way in which we, as a society, have behaved. I see what we, as a society, did to an individual, and have continued to do through much of this century. Our society has, I believe, been intolerant and hypocritical and has perpetuated the belief that the behaviour of people such as Oscar Wilde was unnatural, wrong and, by our statutes, criminal.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Conservative, Blaby

I am not an expert on Oscar Wilde, but I understand that it is well documented that he went to north Africa with a friend, where they spent some time in the company of unfortunate children—boys, who were acting as prostitutes—whom they bought. I hope that every hon. Member would condemn that. Does my hon. Friend not agree that we should not make too much of Oscar Wilde's virtues?

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Conservative, Witney

My hon. Friend makes an interesting intervention, but one which I fear only trivialises the issue that we are trying to address—not because of the particular actions of which he speaks, although I have no evidence and know nothing about the matter to which he refers, but because we are discussing how we wish to behave in future. That is crucial.

There have been improvements in this century. The Wolfenden report, for example, was an important new chapter in the story of our progress towards behaving as a more civilised and more tolerant society. That chapter continued with our vote in 1994, and today's debate is one more chapter in what started as a sad and miserable story for our country. It is also a chapter that owes no small debt to last year's amendment to the Crime and Disorder Bill, tabled by the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen). It was a brave and important amendment, and, like a number of other people, I am only sorry that it was lost in another place.

I should register an interest: I am a director and former deputy chairman of Childline, the charity set up to help children in trouble or danger, which has worked with young people. As the subject has been referred to a number of times in another place, I should also register my interest as an Anglican. It may be the province of some Anglicans to speak against the amended legislation this evening, but many people who believe in God also believe that perpetuating the law as it stands is a profoundly unchristian and unloving action.

All hon. Members should recognise at the outset that amendment of the law is now overwhelmingly supported by organisations that are specifically concerned with protecting children and young people. Those organisations are not pressure groups; many, such as Childline, are simply there to listen, and the role that they play in listening is crucial. Evidence from the young people who have telephoned Childline paints a sad picture—a picture of misery, fear and bullying, which is perpetuated by the stand of the current legislation.

A tragic fact of which many hon. Members will be unaware is that young people trying to come to terms with their sexual identity often become desperate. Not only do they feel that they are not part of the mainstream; they feel that they are ostracised from society. As a result, they are compelled to disguise their feelings, and, far from supporting them, we force them into isolation. Their hiding place is the repository of fear and worry.

We set such young people apart. We do not help them with the current legislation; we hurt them. Any attempt to engage in a relationship with someone of the same sex faces them with a terrifying dilemma, in that what they are doing is committing a criminal offence. That fear cannot possibly breed any desire for a loving relationship with another individual. It is a wholly destructive force, but it will continue for as long as the present legislation exists.

It is not surprising that Childline has evidence from a number of young people who, as a result of that dilemma, have tried to take their own lives. Sexual identity is a significant factor in suicides and attempted suicides, especially in the case of young men, and our current legislation must bear a heavy responsibility for perpetuating such desperate feelings.

Over the past 200 years, Parliament has debated a number of moral issues, the crucial question being whether something is right or wrong. Those issues have tested our humanity, and our sense of Britain as a civilised and civilising nation. We have discussed the abolition of slavery, universal suffrage, votes for women, civil rights and racial discrimination. In every instance, there has come a moment at which Parliament has been the focus of a great national debate.

Those arguing against change have always reached for the morality of the enfranchised majority, but does any hon. Member believe today that Wilberforce was wrong—although at the time the Cabinet, the monarchy and Britain's most powerful interests were ranged against him? The same enfranchised majority wished to deny women the vote, but does anyone believe today that the country would be a better place if women did not sit in the House? Until tragically recently, a similar morality justified the treatment of some people as different members of the human race, and as inferior beings, because of the colour of their skins.

Today, we are debating again whether the criminal law should continue to discriminate between heterosexual and homosexual relationships. This is an issue of compassion, and of protection; but it is also, crucially, an issue of discrimination. The current law is wrong because it is wrong. Hon. Members should consider carefully what we mean by right and wrong. Currently, young people may be forced to spend the first years of their sexual awareness—their early adult years—knowing that, if they express their true feelings, they may spend time in prison. That can breed only shame, fear, resentment and—as the evidence of countless children's organisations shows—a culture of bullying.

Let us be clear. The issue is about whether a relationship between one human being and another should be a criminal act. It is not about urging people to be promiscuous, or urging young people to have sex at 16. It is not a debate about anal intercourse. It is a debate about whether society should judge young people to be criminals because, at 16, their sexual orientation sets them apart from a so-called majority.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Conservative, New Forest East

Will my hon. Friend explain how the argument that he advances could not then be applied to any new age of consent set at a lower level: 15 or 14, as other organisations are already requesting?

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Conservative, Witney

My hon. Friend makes a fair point. It is something to which I will come to in my remarks.

We need an equal age of consent to protect young people from injustice and from prejudice. It will protect them from fear and from exploitation. Crucially, it will also protect their health. By amending the law, we will make them part of a civil and civilised society and strengthen our society for all of us—heterosexual or homosexual.

I respect the views of those who take a different view from me on the important moral issue of the age of consent, but, in thinking of their reasons, hon. Members should ask themselves the actual reason behind their arguments. Is it reason, is it principle or is it prejudice masquerading as principle?

We load on to those young people whom we ostracise at the moment a burden of responsibility, and risk ignoring the far greater worries that I have seen many times in my work for Childline. The immorality is not committed by gay young men who wish to engage in a consenting relationship with someone of their age but by those in the heterosexual community: by and large, the abuse of children is committed not by homosexual people, but by heterosexual people. Very often, they are in a position of trust. Sadly, the Bill will not make it any easier to identify them. Far too often, the abuse happens in the confines of the home and is perpetrated by those whom children most trust. The issue of the age of consent is far different because it is something that the House can change.

The Bishop of Bath and Wells spoke eloquently on the subject in what was probably the most important speech in another place last year. He said: I cannot help but feel that there is a scapegoating procedure going on here which is not new in history and not new in our society."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 22 July 1998; Vol. 592, c. 953.] Tonight, we have a chance to end the scapegoating. We have a chance because we genuinely have an opportunity to ask ourselves whether we speak from principle or from prejudice; whether we speak from knowledge, or are simply rehearsing old stories and old prejudices that we have given ourselves no time fully to reflect on and consider.

I say again to hon. Members who are unhappy with the Bill: have they truly looked at the evidence? Have they spoken to organisations that work with young people? Have they spoken to the medical profession? Have they spoken to the psychiatrists who have to pick up the pieces for those who are damaged by the legislation as it currently stands? After all, it was so-called principle which led us to sustain a slave trade, and which, in South Africa, allowed the townships of apartheid to be sustained for so long.

Let those who reach easily for opinion polls ask what a Gallup or a MORI in the mid-18th century would have told us about the slave trade. Would it have been right to use that evidence to sustain that inhuman, unjust and barbaric practice, which degraded not only those engaged in that trade but the society that condoned it?

The House would do well to remember the views of one of its most principled members this century. Enoch Powell argued from first principles. Soon after the 1967 report on homosexual offences, he stood firmly—against many—for its implementation. Public opinion would not have been with him, but today a majority are in favour of what he stood for. He was convinced on principle. For him it was a matter of freedom, but it was also about leadership, which required bravery. This is a time for Parliament to do the right thing: to amend the law and demonstrate leadership.

Parliament is addressing the issue in 1999. There can be no more fitting time to change the law than as we approach the next millennium. This has been a remarkable century—remarkable for its achievements, but remarkable for its injustice, too. As a society, we may like to think that we have come a long way, but there is still much that we have to learn, and much to do.

Some hon. Members may be aware of the wonderful lectures given by Leonard Bernstein at Harvard. He spoke of the repeated cycle in this century of greed and hypocrisy, which led to genocidal war, which led to a time of post-war hysteria, injustice, booms, crashes and totalitarianism, before the cycle repeated itself. In all that, there is a profound sense of injustice. Our capacity for injustice is enormous. Tonight we have an opportunity to redress that.

Some will say that there is a moral case not to amend the law, but there is a stronger moral case for change. The argument is not about numbers and how many people will be affected. It should not be about majorities or minorities. It does not matter whether we are talking about 5,000, 50,000, 500,000 or 5 million people. Discrimination is bad. It is abhorrent in principle and should be removed wherever we find it.

The House should be aware of the pain that the law engenders. We need to look at the evidence. That must come before our feelings. I ask those who are against the Bill to look .again at the evidence. If they will not, they must ask themselves why. In 1989, the United States Department of Health and Human Services produced a report on youth suicide, which said: Gay youths are 2-3 times more likely to attempt suicide than other young people. They may comprise up to 30 per cent. of completed youth suicides annually. It also said: The root of the problem of gay youth suicide is a society that discriminates against and stigmatises homosexuals while failing to recognise that a substantial number of its youth has a gay or lesbian orientation. A number of voluntary organisations that work with young people in this country provide tragic evidence of the loneliness and despair that those young people feel because of the way in which our society continues to discriminate. Bullying is a real problem in our schools. Accusations of homosexuality provide plenty of cause for those who wish to bully.

Some argue that we should uphold the discrimination because boys, unlike girls, are not mature enough at 16 to make decisions about their sexuality. Many hon. Members will find it bizarre that young men should be thought to need such protection, but that young women should not. That is an insult to young men and a crude injustice to young women. I ask those who fight for the status quo, why should not women be equal before the law, too?

The greatest responsibility that any of us will assume in our adult lives is that of being a parent. I have four children. The first was born when I was nearly 30, but legally I could have been a father at 16. Our current law recognises the maturity of a 16-year-old for the greatest responsibility that any individual can undertake—that of being a parent responsible for another human being during their childhood years. Yet as regards personal orientation, the law would seek to deny that individual his or her maturity. If one's orientation is homosexual, one is an outlaw. To practise it is criminal.

As a Conservative, I believe firmly in freedom and the rule of law. As a Conservative, I ask my hon. Friends this: why should the law interfere in the private behaviour of citizens when that behaviour does no harm to others? The answer should be the same for those who dislike homosexuality as for those who practise it. The answer should be that there should be no discrimination—for a Conservative, because he or she believes in individual freedom; for a Socialist, because he or she believes in equality.

The rule of law should be there to uphold our freedom, and to protect it. We must protect our children, and that is why we need an age of consent. However, the question that we are addressing today is not whether there should or should not be an age of consent—of course there should. Today, we are debating whether we should continue to use the power of criminal law to discriminate between heterosexual and homosexual acts, and by doing so, terrorise young people and cause terrible damage at the critical age when they are embarking on their first adult, mature relationships with another human being.

Photo of Mr Joe Ashton Mr Joe Ashton Labour, Bassetlaw

The age of consent was not plucked out of thin air in the first place. It goes back to the case of W. T. Stead, who bought a young child to prove that children could be bought for prostitution. The age of consent was then 13. Eventually, 16 was chosen as the age for marriage because that was the age when it was thought that a young girl could deliver and feed a child that would have a fair chance of living—which, in those days, it would not have had if the mother was 12 or 13. Sixteen was also the age at which it was thought a young man could earn a living wage. That is why the age for marriage was set at 16. It came from a court case concerning a newspaper editor who bought a child to prove that it could be done. He went to prison because he defended himself instead of having a lawyer who could have proved that the child's parents were not married. It is a long saga, but the hon. Gentleman will see how the age emerged if he reads the books in the Library.

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Conservative, Witney

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Crucially, the debate is not about whether we should lower the current age of consent for heterosexual people. It is about whether or not we should continue to outlaw and criminalise the activities of those people who, through no fault of their own—and far too often people wish to ascribe fault in this matter, which is a nonsensical proposal—are homosexual. There is no discrimination in the eyes of most people in this country. There is in the law, and the law needs to be amended. The purpose of the Bill is to amend the law and remove the discrimination.

Let us be clear about what the law can and cannot do. As a trustee of Childline, I am aware that the sexual abuse of children is a criminal offence—rightly so. The sad truth is that the law alone has not been able to prevent sexual abuse within the family. In the past 10 years, Childline has worked hard to change the climate in which children can report sexual abuse.

Childline's work is based on listening to children—listening to their pain and their suffering. Perhaps 15 or 20 years ago, people in this country did not want to recognise the scale of sexual abuse. However, it was there, and Childline now deals with tens of thousands of cases of child abuse every year.

Childline has learnt from listening to children, and we should learn from listening to young people. If we believe in learning and listening, we would do well to study the considerable volume of work by those charities working in the field of child protection. It is significant that the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children supports an equal age of consent, saying: In our view, there should be equality because continuing discrimination in law against homosexuals stigmatises young people growing up gay, hinders them from developing a positive self image and prevents them from seeking information and help in coming to terms with their sexuality. The NSPCC is in the company of charities such as Save the Children, Barnardos, National Children's Bureau, the British Youth Council, the Family Welfare Association and the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux—the organisations are legion—as well as those in the medical profession. Medical professionals believe that we better protect young people by an equal age of consent.

The evidence is supported most clearly by the work of the British Medical Association, but there are others. We should remind ourselves of the BMA statement: There is no convincing reason against reducing the age of consent for male homosexuals to 16 and to do so may yield positive health benefits. The Health Education Authority supports that position, believing that the current legislation works against promoting health care in young people. It believes that the law as it stands restricts getting health information about sexual diseases, AIDS and HIV to young people. Teachers and youth workers are inhibited from working with young homosexual men and women because of the law. Do we really believe that Parliament should ignore the advice of all those bodies and all those professionals who work with and listen to young people?

Let us clear up one ludicrous myth that continues to be perpetuated by those who want to hold on to the status quo. Homosexuality does not cause AIDS; the HIV virus does. The all-party parliamentary group on AIDS said: Effective health promotion strategies work best in a supportive and open climate. The evidence presented to the hearing made clear that barriers to such a climate were perceived to include the unequal age of consent for homosexual men. Unprotected sex carries health risks, not only for young men engaging with young men but for young men engaging with women. Whatever one's orientation, unprotected sex is dangerous. Unsafe sex always carries the risk of HIV infection, and it is significant that HIV is highly prevalent in Africa because of unsafe sex; it is of epidemic proportions and, by and large, it is devastating heterosexual, not homosexual, communities in Africa.

Those who have painted AIDS as a gay plague face a heavy responsibility for the spread of AIDS and HIV today. Their prejudice and ignorance and their refusal to examine the medical and social evidence mean that entire heterosexual communities in Africa are being wiped out, because of the failure to understand that AIDS and HIV are spread by unsafe sexual practices.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Conservative, New Forest East

To help to set my ignorance at rest, can my hon. Friend tell me whether he accepts that the practice of anal sex, whether between a man and a man or between a man and a woman, is more likely to spread HIV and AIDS than the practice of what is generally called straight sex?

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Conservative, Witney

The House has an opportunity to examine some of the prejudices behind my hon. Friend's comments. In his amusing autobiography, Stephen Fry points out that anal intercourse is of course not the prerogative of the homosexual community. He says that many homosexuals do not practise anal sex and that, if one considers the numbers and the fact that most people are heterosexual, it is a practice indulged in largely by heterosexuals: the straight people to whom my hon. Friend referred.

The reality is that the continuation of the wish to belittle, trivialise and caricature the relationships between homosexuals does enormous damage in our society. When people are prepared to grow up and approach the issue in a mature, considered way, we will be able to have a serious debate.

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Labour, Exeter

I thank my hon. Friend—and I use that term deliberately—for giving way. Perhaps I can help him in his conversation with the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis). The main cause of the spread of HIV in Africa is heterosexual, vaginal intercourse. The infectivity of the virus is exacerbated by the heavy presence of other sexually transmitted diseases with which it might be possible to deal if the appropriate medical treatment were available.

I am sorry to have interrupted my hon. Friend's excellent speech. If his party had the sense to grasp the sort of leadership that he is showing, it might regain power in 15 years or so.

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Conservative, Witney

I may have to be cautious in responding to the hon. Gentleman's approbation, but I welcome it.

In this country, the greatest risk associated with unprotected sex is not that of spreading HIV or AIDS. It arises when heterosexual people engage in unsafe sex, and it involves not only sexually transmitted diseases but the possibility that a young woman will suffer an unwanted pregnancy and that a young man will become a father.

At 16, young males are engaging in their first meaningful physical relationships. It is a time for learning, and for maturing—not for fathering a child. I am grateful that I did not do so until I was nearly 30: if I had fathered a child at 16, my life would have been very different. To have become a father at that age would not have been good, but I do not believe that it would have been right if the law had said that, at 16, I should not have engaged in a mature relationship with another person. The reality is that, in Britain, there are 14,000 pregnancies every year involving young girls. If my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East is worried about risks, he should concentrate his efforts on that figure.

However, we do not use the criminal law to prevent heterosexual 16-year-olds from taking those risks. Instead, we rightly resort to education and information. My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East may have proper motives in wishing to examine the sexual practices of people in Africa and the regularity of indulgence in anal intercourse in heterosexual or homosexual relationships, but I can tell him that time spent with those organisations that work with and help young people suffering from HIV and AIDS is time well spent.

By the same principle, we should use education and information rather than the criminal law to help young gay men aged 16 and over to avoid exposing themselves to unnecessary risks.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Liberal Democrat, Oxford West and Abingdon

I wish to associate myself 100 per cent. with all the points that the hon. Gentleman has made in his magnificent speech, and to point out, in connection with the earlier intervention by the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), that decriminalisation is very important in helping to get health and education messages through to people who may be putting themselves at risk. The British Medical Association is in many ways a conservative body, but it supported unanimously—for reasons of health education and for other reasons—the proposal to reduce and equalise the age of consent at 16.

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Conservative, Witney

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. The criminal law will never stop people having sex. However, an effective HIV prevention strategy will be impossible to implement if the law always makes the activity in question a criminal offence.

Many people have raised the question whether a change in the law will lead to more young men becoming the victims of predatory older men. There is no evidence of that happening in other countries where there is an equal age of consent, although I am entirely sure that that prejudice is not the exclusive prerogative of these shores. However, the question gives rise to another: why should the law protect young men—if it can—from the predatory individual, but not young women? If we need a law to protect young men from predatory older men, why should not women be protected as well?

The sad truth is that some people in our society will prey on younger people. The evidence for that is plentiful in every square in every town in the country. We need to encourage a climate in which those who are preyed upon feel safe to report those who menace them.

The law should not distinguish between young men and young girls in consenting relationships, but young men and women are equal victims when it comes to predatory behaviour. Predators are predators, victims are victims and all victims need protection.

We are discussing the relationship between consenting people. The debate is not about an activity that is forced on young people. Rape is rape and indecent assault is indecent assault, whether it is between a man and a woman, a woman and a woman, or a man and a man. All acts that are illegal because they are not consenting are illegal and should remain so. No one is suggesting that this Bill should in any way legitimise assault. Indeed, by changing the climate in which assaults can be reported, the Bill will do the very opposite. We need to feel sure that we are putting in place a better judicial system, in which victims will be able to come forward. This legislation will help.

The present climate, by its very discrimination, often prevents pėople from reporting rape and indecent assault by other men. Many police officers say that it is a real problem that remains to be tackled. However, it is just as important for a 17-year-old man to report such an offence as for a 37-year-old man. Many 37-year-old or 57-year-old men and women still do not report assault and rape because they are afraid of the stigma that goes with it.

Discrimination against gay people discourages them from going to the police because they continue to fear the stigma that society bestows on them. All young adults in consenting relationships need sex education. They need advice, which is important. Indeed, it is particularly important for young people who may be gay because they are often going through a particularly uncertain period and it is particularly challenging to them. They hesitate to seek such advice because they fear that in so doing they will be breaking the law. The same law inhibits those who want to help or counsel young people. We should remember that while homophobia may be a new word it is not a new experience. It is deep-rooted in our society and it affects young people tragically.

If young people who are gay are attacked, they can be at risk of being prosecuted simply by reporting that they have been involved in what is effectively illegal activity as the law stands. They render themselves open to blackmail and to exploitation. Where is the morality in continuing with such injustice?

In 1994, when the House debated lowering the age of consent to 18, some Members thought a compromise was necessary. Apparently, that would allow the consequences of stopping halfway at 18, rather than taking the law to an equal age of consent at 16, to be assessed. That was five years ago. Since then, too many young people have continued to suffer and yet there is no evidence to support the argument that a discriminatory age of consent has been of benefit.

We are all aware of the crime problems on our streets. Is it sensible and wise for the House to continue to encourage police resources to be used to pursue young people engaging in consensual activity, predominantly with people of their own age? Of course, it is not.

Photo of Mr Andrew Rowe Mr Andrew Rowe Conservative, Faversham and Mid Kent

Homosexual behaviour sometimes comes to light when the police are investigating something else. It is suggested that when it does come to light, they are distracted from the crime that they originally intended to pursue and pursue that with rather more vigour. That is part and parcel of the discrimination of which my hon. Friend speaks.

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Conservative, Witney

Clearly, discrimination in whatever form is bad. The distraction of the police at a time when people continue to worry about crime is bad.

Criminalising consensual relationships is wrong. The law can continue to outlaw meaningful relationships, but we can be certain that it will not suppress the expression of feelings between one individual and another. Our present law is the law of the intolerant and it has a bullying element. For those who are homosexual, it is a law that encourages not meaningful relationships but clandestine behaviour, fear and isolation. As the columnist Simon Jenkins wrote a few years ago, The current situation represents the persecution of a minority to appease the prejudice of a majority. Today, we have the opportunity to end the persecution and let prejudice give way to reason, evidence and principle. Historians will look back at this period of discrimination against young people with the same opprobrium with which we now look back on those who sought to justify the slave trade. Historians will simply ask, "How could they go on justifying something that was so patently unfair and unjust?"

A few months ago, I celebrated my 40th birthday and was given a cigarette box; politically correct Members will disapprove because smoking is deeply unfashionable. On the box was a quote from the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. It is very meaningful because it talks about the pilot light in all our lives that burns for something better. Bernstein often reflected in his work on the meaning of our life. He felt compelled to talk about the life and death importance of living out what he described as "the will to love". He spoke of the struggle to ensure that love was a practical reality", and of the need To remind ourselves by nudging our awareness of the profound moral imperative we share to make our lives, moment by moment, an uninterrupted action of bearing witness. Today, whatever our faith, we have the opportunity to show our humanity, to nudge our awareness, to encourage meaningful relationships for those who are homosexual but have the misfortune to be between 16 and 18. We have the chance to bear witness, to show our maturity and to make our country a better, more tolerant and more understanding society. I hope that hon. Members will take this chance to do something that is not only right but good.

Photo of Kali Mountford Kali Mountford Labour, Colne Valley 5:52 pm, 25th January 1999

I must congratulate the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward) on one of the most powerful speeches that I have ever heard. It was certainly one of the most reasoned, and I found it emotional too. I do not disagree with a word that he said. In years to come, his speech will spark a chord in all our hearts and remind us of a day when reason overtook the unreasonable, and compassion took the place of prejudice.

I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) and for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen) because without them, we would not be discussing this crucial progression in our social history. I thank them wholeheartedly for their contributions.

Having heard some of my best arguments stolen in this reasoned debate, I shall revert to the position of a mother who must consider as her children grow the sort of world that she wants them to occupy, the space that she wants them to live in, the values that the world upholds and what she wants for them. The teenage years are turbulent for us all, regardless of sexuality. It is a difficult and traumatic time even for members of the majority. Members of minority groups of any sort—sexuality can constitute one—find life incredibly difficult. One need have only a few freckles or red hair, or wear spectacles—I speak from experience—to know the cruel remarks that friends at school will make. That must be multiplied a thousand times if one stands out like a sore thumb as a result of one's—I hesitate to use the word "preference" even though Stonewall do—sexuality, or of the people to whom one is most attracted.

Let us examine where attraction comes from. It is not correct to talk about choice and life style. We all make choices about our partners, but we do not choose any old partner. As a woman, looking around the Chamber, I could not say that I would be automatically attracted to every man here. Indeed, as a happily married woman, I hesitate to say that I would be attracted to anyone. In their choices of partners, women choose from a selective group of particular individuals who are attractive to them. Likewise, heterosexual males are not attracted to any old woman; I like to think that they have some discrimination in their choice of partners. The same is true of same-sex couples.

Towards the end of his speech, the hon. Member for Witney used the word "love". I think that that word needs to be introduced to this debate with some vigour. Same-sex couples, male or female, have the same deep love for each other as other couples. I do not argue that when we fall passionately in love at 16, that love will sustain us throughout our lives; I have made such errors myself, as I am sure have other hon. Members. We cannot denounce one sort of love as less valuable than any other. For the person who loves, love is an absolute feeling. To deny people that love would be criminal in itself.

In supporting children in their burgeoning sexuality—exploring as they do, often tentatively, how to develop their relationships, how to speak to people to whom they are attracted, and what experiments are safe—I would not want anyone's child not to feel free to approach a parent or guardian, or someone with whom they feel safe, to discuss how to go forward.

Photo of Laura Moffatt Laura Moffatt Labour, Crawley

As one mother to another, I am sure that if we were going to act on our prejudices, we would say that our love is so fierce for our children that we would not want them to have anything to do with the same or opposite sex until they were 30—but that is not a reasonable response or a reasonable love. We would not want our children to grow up like that. Does my hon. Friend agree that what comes from within sometimes has nothing to do with how our society best moves forward or with how we ensure that our children are best protected?

Photo of Kali Mountford Kali Mountford Labour, Colne Valley

I have often wished that my children would wait until they were 30 or even 45 because I want to protect them from any mistake in their choice of partner or in having children at an early age. It is reasonable for a mother to feel that, notwithstanding the fact that one does not want to accept that one has reached such an age. If we truly love our children, we want them to have the best from relationships that they can possibly have. That means that we sometimes have to accept them as sentient beings, capable of making their own decisions and choices. We must accept that their feelings are valid, even if we would wish that they were not as they are. We may fear for children when they choose same-sex partners because we know the prejudice that they will encounter in daily life. If as parents, or as a society, we denounce them and deny them the support that they need, what a difficult life we impose on them. That leads to the traumas that the hon. Member for Witney described, and the possibility of facing suicidal choices.

Can people go on denying themselves as people and conform to some social view? If ever there was a debate where the personal and the political, the public and the private, were brought together, this is it. Here we have Parliament making statements and pronouncements on our most intimate feelings and on the most intimate ways in which we conduct ourselves in our public and private lives.

Whatever our children's sexuality, we would all want to make distinctions about how they operate in their sexual lives. We certainly do not want too many public demonstrations of sexuality, because in the normal run of a day's events, that is not appropriate behaviour. However, it is bizarre to believe that someone who has a preference for a partner of the same sex is likely to be more demonstrative in public, more promiscuous and more offensive than someone who prefers a partner of the opposite sex. I have often had occasion to view the passions of teenagers displayed in public places and I have thought such behaviour inappropriate. If it were a child of mine, I would admonish that child, saying, "That is something to be done in private, my dear." However, I have never had occasion to admonish a same-sex couple for that sort of behaviour.

The very fact that same-sex couples keep their affections secret strikes me as sad. Society already denounces their relationships to such an extent that even to hold hands in the street is difficult for same-sex couples, regardless of how much they love each other; whereas for heterosexual couples quite extraordinary behaviour in the most public of places appears to be perfectly acceptable. There is a real contradiction in the value our society attaches to different sets of couples.

The crucial word in all of that has to be love, and if we think about love, we must think about compassion. Some hon. Members have deeply held religious feelings, but I would point out that all the world's major religions about which I have read are based on compassion and love. Although interpretations of those religions vary—I accept that people hold different views on the teachings of all the world's religions, not only Christianity—I urge hon. Members to look again at their religious values and beliefs, for they are saying something sad about civilisation as a whole if they are without compassion.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

The hon. Lady is making a thought-provoking speech. In the course of that speech, will she set out her view, as my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward) set out his, on the practical effects of equalisation?

Photo of Kali Mountford Kali Mountford Labour, Colne Valley

I had hoped to come to those remarks later. Everything we do has practical effects, and the law as it stands has practical effects. One of those practical effects is prejudiced bullying, resulting in the state of mind of individuals who are denounced reaching the point where they conclude that they have to commit suicide. Sadly, suicide is not a rare event in the homosexual community. The incidence is especially high in the younger age group, whose members are not emotionally ready to deal with such prejudice being heaped on them at a tender age. For such an overwhelming social view and the weight of the law to be dumped upon a mere child is heavy indeed.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Conservative, New Forest East

What does it say about the state of mind of a 16 or 17-year-old child—I use the word child deliberately—that he would commit suicide rather than wait 18 months or two years until his act was perfectly legal? What does that say about his vulnerability and about his suitability to engage in any sort of sexual relationship?

Photo of Kali Mountford Kali Mountford Labour, Colne Valley

It would be extraordinary if all individuals had to be psychologically tested before being allowed to commit any sexual act. If we were in that position—with so much hatred being heaped upon us by the people who were prejudiced against us, or being subjected to the indifference of society as a whole to our love and feelings—we might conclude, as some people do, that suicide was a rational act, because of our fears about how our life would unfold and because of society's lack of acceptance of our feelings for others. How we love another individual is such an intrinsic part of our humanity that for society to denounce it is far too great a burden to impose, not only on 16 or 17-year-olds, but on anyone at any stage of his or her life. Suicide is not an act committed only by homosexuals. My point is that such denunciation is too much of a burden to place on young people, because it can lift the threshold of despair to such a level that suicide is a more likely choice.

The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) asked about practical effects, and we have not fully investigated that subject. One practical effect of equalisation would be the opening up of society as a whole to greater acceptance of one individual by another. That effect is a valid aim in itself. By basing our society on compassion and love, and by being supportive of individuals and not threatening them, we remove one criminal act, which means that police time can be spent on matters more fruitful than investigations into the private behaviour of individuals whose actions are of concern to no one but themselves. We must stop pretending that the law as it stands offers protection to the individual. When they fall in love, people do not necessarily require our protection, whether or not they form a same-sex couple. What they need is protection that allows them to investigate their sexuality in private, which brings us to the root of the problem.

We started the debate by discussing choice and preference, but I contend that no choice is made, other than that of a particular partner. Our sexuality is an intrinsic part of ourselves—I believe that it is intrinsic at the time we are born. I know that there is debate about whether or not an individual's sexuality is fully developed by the age of 11, 13, or 16, but there is physical evidence to suggest that our sexuality is determined while we are still in the womb. There is plenty of evidence from family groups that suggests that sexuality is a genetic trait. That evidence is so strong that it is daft to pretend that, somehow and at some point, we can be lured into a type of sexuality that is against our nature. It is as ridiculous as saying that our eye colour, which is determined at birth, can be changed at the age of 16 without the aid of contact lenses. I cannot change my eye colour from blue to brown; nor can I change my sexual orientation. I cannot accept that we can be lured away from our nature.

That is not to say that people do not need protection from sexual predators. That is why I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw, even though I do not want the debate on the age of consent and the acceptance of individual sexuality to be confused with arguments that homosexuals are more likely to be predatory, to be paedophiles, to commit lewd acts in public, or to be promiscuous.

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Labour, Exeter

I have just heard an hon. Member say, from a sedentary position, "They are." Perhaps my hon. Friend can help that person by referring to some of the evidence quoted by the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward), to the effect that, as a proportion of the population, paedophilia is far more prevalent among heterosexuals.

Photo of Kali Mountford Kali Mountford Labour, Colne Valley

I did not hear the remark to which my hon. Friend refers, but he is quite right: paedophiles most often prey on young girls. Although there is some evidence that young boys are preyed on, it is often young girls who need our protection most. The House should be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw for raising the issue, because it changes the scope and content of the debate from consent and the acceptance of homosexuality as valid to how we as a society should be acting and how we should be protecting people—taking account of individuals' circumstances—not trying to police sexuality, which is what is happening at present.

If the Bill is passed, those who prey on young people and exploit their blossoming sexuality will have to change their behaviour. We shall have recourse in law to challenge that behaviour and do something about it. All too often, society has viewed the issue upside down and sought simply to prevent people's legitimate activities and loving relationships, as if that would somehow have an impact on the sort of illegitimate activity that has been mentioned.

The example has been cited of a young person who might want to get on in their career and of someone else using their more powerful position to exploit that fact. In this example, the senior person—possibly a teacher or boss—might say, "I'm senior to you, and if you want to get on or see your talent nurtured, it would be a good idea to have a relationship with me." Quite often, such activity might even seem legitimate to the young person. Blinded by their passion for their art or craft, or possibly by their passion for the other person, they might not recognise the exploitative nature of such a relationship—and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw for raising that particular point.

I have represented much older women who had been exploited by their bosses and who realised at a later date what had happened. They found that they had no recourse in law to do anything about it. To me, the issue is not one of age or acceptance of someone's sexual orientation but one of how we as a society accept the exploitative nature of some relationships and the loving nature of others. There is a distinction: to blur the two does a huge injustice to people who simply want a mutually consenting relationship.

To judge from their sedentary comments and their interventions, it seems that some hon. Members have a very confused attitude towards sexuality overall. All prejudice is based on fear, often fear of the unknown or, in this instance, fear of someone making unwelcome approaches. What I would say to those people is similar to what the hon. Member for Witney said. I would say, "Examine your conscience and your feelings." Prejudice based on fear and ignorance does no service to the law. The law should be written on and upheld by facts and evidence. There is no evidence to support the disparity in the law for those who prefer same-sex partners, yet there is room in the law to say that exploitative relationships should be denounced wherever they are found and that there should be recourse to the law to deal with them. I have some reservations about the Bill because it seems to continue that confusion.

Going back to what I said earlier about nurturing and motherhood, I would dread to think that a child of mine might be preyed on by an adult in the formative years and that that child would feel that there was nowhere to go to deal with the dreadful sense of inadequacy that arises from having been used and abused. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw mentioned many of the famous cases concerning children in local authority care. In Committee, I should like to explore further the relevant part of the Bill because I am concerned about those individuals, mostly women, who, even under the Bill, would still find themselves exploited but would have no redress. In his closing remarks, perhaps the Minister will be able to remind me of where in law such women can seek redress.

In recent years, we have heard of many high-profile cases involving, for example, stalking, to which the Government responded admirably and introduced a new law. Exploitative relationships certainly occur in the workplace. The ones I am talking about took place when I was a trade union activist, representing members who had been exploited in the workplace. In my view, no exploitative relationship is acceptable. I am glad that we are taking steps to deal with that aspect of some people's sexuality. However, it is a part of the Bill that needs more consideration.

I asked at the beginning what sort of society we want and what values we are going to uphold. For me, equality, both before the law and in society, is an absolute. The House turns its back on equality at its peril. Opposition Members have cited examples of polls taken in many and varied ways, involving different questions asked at different times. They used these polls as evidence to say that the public do not want change. I would challenge that because of the way some of the polls were conducted, but I would also challenge the House to consider its position at this moment in history, and to consider how it can take a lead in changing society's views.

Very often, the House is at odds with public feeling. That is not a reason or an excuse to do nothing. Much of this debate has centred on morality and what we consider morality to be. A society that excludes people, whether it is one to 500,000 or 500,000 to 1 million, on spurious grounds is not a civilised society. If we reject the Bill, in years to come we will look back and wonder why we did not take the opportunity to move forward. Doing nothing is not an option. If we do nothing, progress in accepting each other as equals will be knocked back. We will be saying that we are continuing down a reactionary road, a road that I do not want to travel. It is my contention that in years to come the public will not wish us to have travelled it either. My constituents certainly do not wish me to do so.

I shall not share the contents of my postbag with the House, but I shall mention just one of my constituents who has written to me. He is in education at the moment, but feels that there is no future for him as things stand. He feels isolated and he feels that if we miss this opportunity, we will be denouncing him personally. He does not deserve to be denounced and I, for one, will not denounce him.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party 6:20 pm, 25th January 1999

There is a daring principle held by those who reject the morality of the Bible that a nation can be morally sound without obedience to God's commandments. That principle is directly hostile to the experience of all nations. That morality can exist without conformity to God's law is destitute of both proof and probability. The phenomenon of morals without religion has never been witnessed in any nation in the past and will not be witnessed in the future.

Those who want to destroy standards and lower safeguards can easily apply the label of morality to their principles, but when they advocate those principles, their real objective is to get rid of morality and religion. This nation has a soul and a conscience, but it has no eternity. Every person in this Chamber has a soul and a conscience and every person has eternity to face. We shall all give account of ourselves to almighty God at the end of the day, but nations are judged in time for their policies, their moralities, their violence and their crimes.

What of the great nations of the past—the dominant nations that led the world, controlled destinies and became the great empires? What of Babylon? What of Persia? What of the Greek kingdom? What of the great Roman empire? What destroyed them? One has only to read the history books to realise the debris that they left because they gave themselves over to the very things that pervert society and take it down a road that has only ruin at its end. The House very well knows that there is no history book that does not record the ruin of nations because of their departure from morality, truth and righteousness. Judgment will come in time, but it would be far better for us, as legislators, to try to avert such judgment coming upon this nation.

When the Home Secretary opened the debate, he referred to Europe. What Europe does today, the House will have to do tomorrow. There is no doubt about that. We can see that Europe is moving fast towards lowering the age of consent. Already, in Denmark, the age of consent is 15; in Finland, it is 15; in France, it is 15; in Italy, it is 14 to 16; in Spain, it is 12 and in Sweden, it is 15. Does the House really think that it will stand against the force of legislation from Europe on this matter?

We in Northern Ireland know what happened to our laws. It is perfectly clear that in Northern Ireland, for once, all the parties agreed that the age of consent should not be lowered, but it will come under the axe. [Interruption.] I do not know why anyone would laugh when we consider that one nation in Europe has lowered the age of consent to 12. That nation should hide its head in shame.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Liberal Democrat, Oxford West and Abingdon

The hon. Gentleman may be interested to hear that the age of consent in Spain is not strictly 12. There is a provision whereby children between the ages of 12 and 16 will be prosecuted only if their parents complain about their relationship. That is not the same as saying that the age of consent is 12, and it does not suggest that we must follow that example. The argument is not that we follow Europe. Sin, according to the hon. Gentleman's terms, is no more rife in other parts of Europe than it is here and it need not be rife here if we modernise and equalise our laws.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

The hon. Gentleman should be very clear about Spain because in Spain, as he knows, and as a document supplied to me by the Library says, there is no statutory age of consent. In general … sexual relations are not penalised from the age of 12. To say that the House will not follow Europe is absolutely wrong. The House must follow Europe because power will rest in Europe.

It is perfectly clear that across Europe—I have witnessed this since the first elections to the European Parliament—the edge of prosecution for certain criminal offences is being dulled. Countries increasingly roll back the laws of the land and remove the criminality from some offences. That is a movement that is most dangerous for us.

We have heard tonight, and rightly so, of the need for compassion and love, but parents feel that our actions will increasingly affect their children. In other words, their children are potential victims who are being targeted. In the House today I was given some propaganda published by Outrage! that makes it clear that children should be questioning their teachers. It says: You have the right to know and asks: Why don't your teachers tell you the truth? That undermines teachers' integrity and challenges their accuracy. The purpose of that document is to target young people and children. No parents with compassion and love—or, in other words, intolerance of evil—want their children to be targeted. Do we want that? Is that the aim of the House tonight? When we consider what is happening in Europe, we should be strengthening, not pulling down safeguards.

I know that there are many religious arguments on this matter. In such a debate, it is usually said that the Bible may make strong statements in the Old Testament, but not in the New Testament. That, of course, demonstrates ignorance of the New Testament, which is equally strong in its denunciation of what the Bible states is not normal practice, but abnormal practice and perversion. We need to face up to that if we are to be honest about the matter. This is a solemn subject because it affects our children and our children's children.

The House would do better not to follow those who agitate that we should lower the age of consent because even they must admit that public opinion is not with them. We should safeguard our children and our future. We can do so only by sticking to the principles of true morality, which are found in the 10 commandments of God's word.

Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane Labour, Rotherham 6:30 pm, 25th January 1999

Two remarkable speeches have been made from the Opposition Benches. One was of the politics of tolerance, enlightenment and compassion, a politics which rarely dares to speak its name in the Conservative party, and one, which we have just heard, of the politics whose name is all too often spoken in Northern Ireland. I welcome very much the speech by the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward). I hope that he is glad, as I am, that we will give this modest piece of legislation—I would not elevate it to the importance that he did—a Second Reading under a Labour Home Secretary, just as 30 years ago, another Labour Home Secretary, now Lord Jenkins, took the first steps in this direction.

By contrast with the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler)—I was not sure from his Uriah Heepish speech, in which he seemed to want to be nice to the gay community but terrified of saying no to the opinion polls, how he intends to vote—I shall say which way I shall vote. I shall vote in support of the Bill.

I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) and for Brentford and Isleworth (Mrs. Keen), who have given the lie to the widespread thesis propagated by commentators that Back Benchers have no influence. This major piece of legislation, which has been worked out in considerable detail by Ministers and officials, is taking up parliamentary time to become law because my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw, who I think described himself in debates on the Queen's Speech as Compo, but would be very much one of the younger members of the "Last of the Summer Wine" team, dug in his heels, and because my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth very bravely stood up in the House, drawing very much from her family experience, to do something that brought her opprobrium from some at the time. The House should note that.

I shall vote for this Bill for three simple reasons. First, the law is cruel and also an ass. As far as I can see from the very complex columns of figures in the document on this measure provided in the House of Commons Library, there have been no more than five convictions for crimes involving people between the ages of 16 and 18 in the past two years. A law that has become out of date perhaps needs revision. Secondly, I was struck the other day to learn that the British Army still recruits boy soldiers. If we can send young men under the age of 18 to die for Britain and ask them to shed their blood for our country, we can allow them to express their sexuality in their private lives.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

Is the hon. Gentleman advocating a reduction of the age at which cigarettes and alcohol may be purchased to 16, or is he happy that young men can go to war—possibly giving their lives—at the age of 16, as he correctly said, but are not allowed to have a pint of beer and a cigarette afterwards?

Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane Labour, Rotherham

That remark is not worthy of a debate which, on the whole, so far, has been conducted fairly seriously on both sides of the House.

Thirdly, the point that has most influenced my opinion is that, as a parent of three girls and one boy who have not yet reached the age of 16, I find it preposterous that, whatever their sexuality, the three girls may do as they wish once they reach the age of 16 without facing criminal sanctions, but should my son declare himself gay or become, or express himself as a gay, he could face criminal sanction. As a parent, I find it unacceptable that the law should say yes to my daughters, but mean that I would have to visit my son in prison.

Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane Labour, Rotherham

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I should like to develop some points.

I make such remarks to explain why I shall vote as I will. It is illogical and preposterous that such discrimination is still written into our law. Having made that point, I want Ministers, who have voted for compassion and taken a libertarian and tolerant road—I applaud them for it—to ask themselves whether there is not more that we as a Government and a House can do to protect children. A boy or a girl, a young man or a young women, is very often still in a state of childhood at the age of 16.

We are seeing the relentless commercialisation, sexualisation, privatisation and, indeed, politicisation of childhood in our society. The best conclusion that we can draw from this debate and in passing the Bill is to commit ourselves as parents and elected Members of Parliament to do more to protect the family. This measure does not in any way reflect negatively on the new political imperative, which I feel strongly, to do more to protect the family. That cuts across left and right. Let no one from any party claim any monopoly on wisdom in that regard.

The commercialisation and privatisation of childhood is derived from the fact that, non-stop for the past 20 years, we have increased and strengthened the concept of the individual at the expense of the collective—the family is above all a collective community. In the labour market, for example, we have allowed complete freedom. Every person, notably women, has been encouraged—almost obliged due to low pay and lack of adequate protection for the family—to go out to work. We have undermined family life through an economic libertarianism, which has done so much damage.

We all applaud to the skies the role of the internet and of electronic commerce, without noticing that the main driving force on the internet at the moment is pornography—very often paedophiliac pornography. Each year, £2.5 billion is made in Hollywood from pornographic films. Anybody whose children log on to the internet, despite the gateway protection offered by service providers, will see how quickly paedophile messages come through. In this area, the libertarian approach, the economic anything-goes, the idea that the individual can do what he or she wants, must be balanced with a social obligation to stop the internet being a paedophile's paradise.

The hon. Members for Witney and for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) referred to the problem of advice on sexual education that is given to schools. I wish that the hon. Member for Witney had been present in the previous Parliament, when the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney), formerly the right hon. Member for Peterborough, as a Minister in the Department of Health, tore up and threw out of the window a very modest sex education manual because the Daily Mail told him to. He pandered to the worst reactionary prejudices in our society.

To paraphrase the hon. Member for Witney, the problem with sex is not whether it is gay sex or so-called straight sex, but whether it is safe sex; sex in a context of advice and eduction and sex within a loving relationship. I say to my hon. Friends, one of whom is a Minister in the Home Office following his promotion from the Department of Health, that, when our turn comes to provide adequate sex education for our children, let us not buckle under the pressure of the reactionaries on the Opposition Benches or those who write in many of our newspapers, who fill their colour magazines and feature pages with semi-paedophiliac adverts for clothes and other goods, which sexualise and trivialise our young people.

Photo of Mrs Teresa Gorman Mrs Teresa Gorman Conservative, Billericay

I have been listening very carefully to what the hon. Gentleman is saying, especially about the advice that he would give his young children as they grow up. How does he explain the fact that AIDS is far, far more prevalent among men than among women, and is almost unknown among young people? How does he advise his children about practices that may lead them—as they do to men especially, in the age group between 20 and 25—to a very serious health risk?

Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane Labour, Rotherham

I advise the hon. Lady to spend a long time in Africa, and then return. There she will find that the problem of AIDS is not confined to gay men.

I almost regret having mentioned my children at the start of the speech, but it was on a subject about which I feel passionately. Hon. Members who pray in aid their children open themselves to the newspaper treatment—children of hon. Members on both sides of the House have experienced this. The cheap way that much of the press gets at us as MPs is by using our children against us.

I conclude by extending an invitation to Ministers. I start by referring to a nice quotation by the Home Secretary. I do not know whether it was in last night's television documentary on the occupants of the Home Office; I confess that I recorded that and watched "The Scarlet Pimpernel". Now and then, we must have a moment off politics.

"You seek him here, you seek him there, you seek that Jack Straw everywhere." He is a fine Home Secretary and will render great service to our country, but he said that discussing the politics of families was like "walking on eggshells". One senses, across the party divide, the clear tension between what one might call the spirit of 1968—the libertarian, the individualistic, the "anything goes" spirit—and the instincts of those who now believe that preserving and strengthening the family must have a greater priority than ever it was afforded under the previous Government, when their economic policies, their labour market policies, their destruction of traditional male breadwinner policies and their fiscal policies did so much to undermine the family.

I invite the Home Secretary to get off the eggshells. I invite him not to worry too much about opinion polls or focus groups. A politics that is committed strongly to backing the family in fiscal policy, labour market policy and schools policy will command support in the House and in the country.

Tonight we shall vote on a necessary measure to relieve all parents of all children of both sexes of the preposterous notion that what their daughters might do is legal, but that what their sons might choose to do, if that be the case, is a crime. It will thus be a relief for parents and a modest contribution to family life, but there is far, far more to be done in that direction.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough 6:43 pm, 25th January 1999

The result of tonight's vote is clear. The House will vote for the Bill—and, as in every other free vote that has ever come before the House, I shall be on the losing side. Whether it is on abortion, divorce, capital punishment or hunting, I always seem to find myself on the losing side, but that does not shake my resolve. When I heard the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) speak about all the rather naughty, although pleasurable, things going on in Babylon, my determination wavered for a second, but I shall hold true to what I believe in, and I shall vote against the measure tonight, for clear reasons.

My first reason for voting against the measure is the fact that this vote will undoubtedly send the wrong message to the country, whatever hon. Members may say. There have been some good speeches, notably—although I did not agree with it—the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward), although I do not know whether it is necessary to take 40 minutes to make one's point. I shall try to speak for a slightly shorter time.

I believe that the measure will send the wrong message, for the following reason. I know that it is not popular in this place to talk about opinion polls—we consider the idea that we simply respond to what opinion pollsters say to be bad taste—but, that aside, let us ignore the fact that every opinion poll says that 70 per cent. of the country will disapprove of what we are doing tonight. Let us not talk in terms of statistics and figures. Let us just think what ordinary people—people like us—who have children really want.

What those people want, surely, is that their children grow up and start a family, in the way that they did, and bring up children in a loving environment at home. I think that, when those people learn the result of tonight's debate, they will feel that Parliament has betrayed them, and they will feel that Parliament has decided that there should be a moral equivalence between homosexuality and heterosexuality.

Photo of Mr Gerry Bermingham Mr Gerry Bermingham Labour, St Helens South

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when, last year, my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), myself and one or two others tabled the amendment that the then No. 2 Minister at the Home Office—now Secretary of State for Wales—agreed to, we were told that there were to be proper and adequate safeguards for those aged 16 to 18? Does he agree with me, as a fellow practising lawyer, that two years is by no means an adequate sentence? The offence of indecent assault carries a sentence of 10 years, but the offence of incest carries a sentence of only two years—there has been a judicial eruption about that—while other graver sexual offences carry much more serious sentences.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

I agree with that point. Moreover, apparently, the Home Office has accepted that there will be very few prosecutions under the Bill. I may come to that in a moment, but I was making some general points of principle.

Parliament will vote for the measure—Parliament could vote for anything that it wanted; it could vote that there are 400 days in the year—but the public will not accept that there is a moral equivalence between those two sorts of behaviour. I know that those who promote the measure feel very strongly about these things, but perhaps they should accept that.

Why do the public reject that moral equivalence? There is, I think, engraved on us a deep moral sense of what is right and wrong. Although we are no longer a Christian—or even a fundamentally religious—society, much of what we believe comes from that religious and moral foundation. Moreover, if one considers the teachings of any of the great spiritual leaders of the past 2,000 years—if one reads the Koran or the sacred writings of the Sikhs or the Hindus, let alone of the Christian religion—one sees that there is an unanimous viewpoint.

I say to the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford) that, of course, all those religions stress the need for compassion. Every Member of Parliament is appalled by homophobic behaviour; every Member of Parliament believes in toleration of those who may enjoy or believe in a different life style; but every one of those great world religions is absolutely clear, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that—for very good reasons—homosexual behaviour is wrong, and that it degrades society. Although the House sometimes giggles when the hon. Member for North Antrim stands up, because he speaks in a very old-fashioned way—an absolutist way—what he said is right. It does harm society if Parliament sends out this message.

It does not really matter what we do tonight. The public know in their heart of hearts what is right, and I believe that they are right.

The well-known phrase that Saint Paul wrote in Corinthians was quite clear. He believed—writing all those years ago—that those who indulged in such behaviour will not inherit the kingdom of God". There is no need to emphasise that, because people know that writing well. I mention that in this debate only because a Dutch MP who quoted that well-known phrase was subsequently prosecuted in the Dutch courts, because he was said to be indulging in discriminatory language. I hope that, in this country, we are not embarked on the road that leads to our prosecuting those who quote sacred texts that may be out of fashion—out of tune with current thinking. That is not happening in this country yet, but it has happened in Holland.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

My hon. Friend certainly should not be castigated for invoking Christianity, but does he accept that the argument that he is developing appears to be a case against allowing homosexuality at all, rather than specifically, and limitedly, against the terms of the Bill?

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

My hon. Friend knows where I come from, and he knows my views. One must compromise. I thought that the law that we had before was perfectly satisfactory. We cannot go back in time. If adults in their 20s, 30s and 40s wish to do something in private, we cannot prosecute them and drag them before the criminal courts. I know that. I am a realist.

We had a satisfactory compromise. We all agreed that once people were grown up and had firmly decided that they wanted to engage in a certain activity, they were not to be prosecuted for it. Why is it necessary for Parliament to continue to advance against the deeply held religious and moral views of the bulk of society? Why are we doing that? Why is it necessary?

It is said, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney, who laboured the point, that the subject is a great moral issue, and that people who express the views that I am expressing are somehow like those who advocated the slave trade. I did not understand his argument. I think that he was trying to say that people who advocate my point of view are just the sort of people who used to oppose legislation that outlawed discrimination on the grounds of race or gender.

However, our point is entirely different. I shall quote General Colin Powell, the first black chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. He said: Unlike race or gender, sexuality is not a benign trait. It is manifested by behaviour. While it would be decidedly biased to assume certain behaviours based on gender or membership in a particular racial group, the same is not true for sexuality. Our point is that we cannot help our race or gender. If I throw scorn on my hon. Friend because of his race or gender, I am rightly condemned by Parliament, but surely I have a right to condemn something that is not to do with his race or gender, but is manifested by his behaviour.

What we are discussing is fundamentally a matter of choice. I know that it is argued by many hon. Members that the homosexual gene is inside some people. Of course I accept that. Some of my best friends are homosexuals. [Laughter.] Why do hon. Members laugh? I know from close friends of mine that homosexuality is inherent. It is not something to which they came by chance or by influence after the age of 16.

We are talking about boys—they are still boys at 16—and girls. Let us get this straight. Let us talk straight language. [Interruption.] That may be an unfortunate phrase. We are talking about men being allowed to bugger boys and girls who are aged 16. Nobody likes speaking such language, but that is what the Bill is about. If Parliament thinks that boys and girls at that age should be treated like that, I do not know what Parliament is coming to.

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Labour, Exeter

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for laughing. He had just spent some time trying to draw a distinction between homophobia and racism, when he trotted out the same sort of comment that we always heard from racists—"Some of my best friends are black."

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

I do not know how that advances the hon. Gentleman's case. I thought that I was advancing a perfectly justifiable argument based on the fact that people can choose to indulge or not to indulge in the activity under discussion. They cannot choose their race or their gender. I therefore say that the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Witney—who unfortunately is no longer with us, no doubt for good reasons—was fundamentally flawed and was not acceptable.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Liberal Democrat, Oxford West and Abingdon

There is a gaping hole in the hon. Gentleman's argument. He said that it is feasible to discriminate against homosexuals because they choose their behaviour, yet a moment later he said that homosexuality was inherent. On that basis, it would be reasonable to discriminate against a practising Jew, as opposed to one who just happened to inherit that racial characteristic. The hon. Gentleman's entire argument is nonsensical.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

We shall have to agree to differ. I was not trying to take an absolutist point of view. I do not accept what is often said by the other side—that homosexuality is always inherent. The hon. Member for Colne Valley said that homosexuality was like eye colour—one was born with it. I have never accepted that it is acquired in the womb, but, for the sake of argument, I will accept that for certain people, homosexuality is inherent, but not for all.

My point is that the age of 16 is an extremely vulnerable age. It is well known that many young boys go through a narcissistic or a homosexual phase, during which they are easily influenced. Do we, as a Parliament, want to give the message to those young people that, before they are fully mature, while they are still 16 years old, advantage can be taken of them?

Photo of Kali Mountford Kali Mountford Labour, Colne Valley

I accept the hon. Gentleman's view that a person's sexuality is not necessarily inherent, but how does criminalising behaviour that seems natural to those taking part in it advance our society or the law?

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

I agree that it would be worrying if large numbers of mature people in society were engaging in a particular activity, and were criminalised and sent to prison. However, how many 16-year-olds are we sending to prison for engaging in consensual homosexual activity? The answer, of course, is none.

Let us be realistic about the debate. We are about sending messages. Hon. Members who support the Bill know that in their hearts. The message that they want to get across is that Parliament says that there is no moral distinction between homosexual and heterosexual behaviour. That is what the debate is about, and I accept that the Bill will be passed tonight.

Once that has happened, the pressure will then shift to a campaign to allow homosexuals to adopt children, for clause 28 to be repealed, and for legal marriage between homosexuals. That is the agenda. It is not just I who say so. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) has a little pink, or red, booklet produced by Stonewall, which lists the demands. We should not think for a moment that, once the Bill is passed, the agenda will not move on. The booklet refers to equal recognition for young lesbians, gays and bisexuals in our schools. That is the agenda.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot

In addition to the aspirations set out in the booklet, there is literature pre-dating this debate which shows that some people want to reduce the age further, from 16 to 14, and that this is merely the thin end of the wedge. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

I accept that, for many people, although not for all, that would be the agenda.

Strangely, even after tonight, the law will still express a view not just on the matters about which we have spoken in the past minute or two, but on the offence that we are discussing. The Sexual Offences Act 1956 refers to homosexuality—buggery—as an unnatural activity. That will remain on the statute book, but of course the young will not read "Halsbury's Statutes". The message emanating from the House will be that there is no distinction between homosexual and heterosexual behaviour.

A further reason why I oppose the Bill relates to vulnerability. It is said that the Bill will go a long way to redress the law and provide extra protection, but the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) has been sold a pup. What we are discussing tonight is a much weaker proposal than what he proposed last year. As I said in response to an earlier intervention, the Home Office, which has been slow in pushing this proposal forward, accepts that there will be only 10 or 15 prosecutions. That point was made in good intervention by the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) right at the beginning of our debate. If someone is occasionally in authority, such as a vicar or a scout leader, rather than permanently in authority, he or she will not be covered by this legislation.

The weakest part of our argument concerns the health risks. I say that because it is not for me to lecture people if they want to indulge in a fundamentally unhealthy activity. If people want to smoke, it is none of my business. People need not listen to me, but they should listen to the Terence Higgins Trust, a body trusted by the homosexual lobby, which says that one in five gay men in London is HIV positive. No fewer than 871 gay men died from Aids in the last recorded year.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Conservative, New Forest East

What causes the disproportion in the prevalence of HIV among gay men? I am not talking about Africa, where other factors come into play. What can be the cause be, other than anal sex? Has my hon. Friend or anyone else any idea?

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

No. We are now entering a debate that embarrasses many of us. However, it must be said that anal sex is a fundamentally dangerous activity because the Almighty did not design that part of the anatomy for that purpose. Any doctor would say the same. We are passing a Bill that permits that activity. Had Parliament debated 50 or so years ago a Bill that allowed men to bugger 16-year-old girls and boys, people would have thought that the devil was abroad. It may be old fashioned to talk about the devil, but I wonder whether he is lurking somewhere because these proposals are so extraordinary—so totally outwith what the public want. They are designed to increase ill health among the population.

Photo of Peter Viggers Peter Viggers Conservative, Gosport

The Bill is always described as "reducing the age of consent", which sounds perfectly acceptable, but has it occurred to my hon. Friend that, if the description were to go on to list the acts in question, that would put a different complexion on the matter?

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

We are all too polite to mention such things. We do not like talking about them because we are all embarrassed about sex. If something that an hon. Member did in his past were thrown back at him in this Chamber, he would go bright red in the face. None of us wants to discuss the matter, but let us at least be honest. Let us not hold ourselves up as being morally virtuous, but let us have the courage to say what is right. Just because Members of Parliament stand up in this Chamber and say that adultery or homosexuality is wrong, it does not mean that they never fail; it simply means that they have the courage to stand up for what is right and good. That is why I shall vote against the Bill tonight.

Photo of David Borrow David Borrow Labour, South Ribble 7:04 pm, 25th January 1999

When Leo Abse's Bill was passed in 1967, I was a grammar school boy in a small town in west Yorkshire. Although I was only in my early teens, I was aware of the kerfuffle that it caused. In the subsequent years, like many other young school boys at that time, I had to struggle with coming to terms with my sexuality. During the sixth form and my years at university, I eventually concluded that I was gay, but I knew that, despite the 1967 Act, I was still considered a criminal if I acted on the feelings and instincts that were fundamental to me.

About 10 years later, in the late 1970s, when I was convenor of the Preston group of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, I went to lobby three local Members of Parliament: Ron Atkins, then the hon. Member for Preston, North, who is still a friend and colleague—I served for 10 years as a councillor with him in Preston; Stan Thorne, the then hon. Member for Preston, South, who became my MP in 1983 when the boundary changed; and George Rodgers, the then hon. Member for Chorley, whose constituency included the town of Leyland, which is now part of my constituency.

The positive reaction that I received from those three Members of Parliament led me to believe that it would not be too long before we moved on from the 1967 Act to equality in the age of consent. I did not imagine then that more than 30 years later, the issue would still be unresolved and that it would fall to me to put the case for equality in the Chamber.

We need the change for a number of reasons, the first and most important of which is equality. No one can argue convincingly that a 16 or 17-year-old male is old enough to father a child, but not to decide whether to have a sexual partner of the same sex. If it is fair to discriminate, for whatever reason, against homosexuality, why does the law discriminate against male but not female homosexuals? The age of consent is not 18 for female homosexuals.

I want equality between men and women, and between heterosexuals and homosexuals. This proposal is to make the age of consent 16, and I shall support it on the basis of equality. I have yet to hear a valid argument—in this Chamber tonight or several months ago, when I sat through the whole debate, or in the other place in the early summer—for why the existing discrimination should continue.

The second reason why we should reform the law relates to criminality. As I said earlier in the debate, the existing legislation makes criminals of 16 and 17-year-old males who have sex with members of their own sex. It does not protect them. I wonder whether Conservative Members who have spoken strongly against a change would want to see the existing law enforced if their sons or grandsons were on the receiving end. Only a handful of cases involving 16 or 17-year-olds have been brought to court under the present legislation, and even fewer have resulted in convictions because most people instinctively know that it neither protects nor helps a young person to make a criminal of him at that age.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Conservative, New Forest East

Will the hon. Gentleman answer the question that I put earlier to my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward), which he signally failed to answer? How will he defend any age of consent that may be agreed today against the arguments of those who want it lowered to 15, 14 or even younger, given his argument that no one should ever be "criminalised" for having a relationship below a given age of consent?

Photo of David Borrow David Borrow Labour, South Ribble

My first point related to equality; I want equality in the age of consent. Criminality is the second point in the argument for reform; the existing law on the heterosexual age of consent protects heterosexuals below the age of consent. Boys and girls under 16 who have consensual sex are not subject to criminal prosecution. If they have consensual sex with a partner above the age of consent, that partner may be subject to criminal conviction, but the law protects heterosexual young people who are below the age of consent.

One of the flaws in this measure is that it will still leave males under the age of 16 technically open to criminal prosecution in the event of a consensual sexual relationship with someone of their own age.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Conservative, Blaby

The hon. Gentleman asked Conservative Members about the issue of criminality. It is unwise to personalise things in respect of whether one would be concerned about one's son or grandchildren. I have a son, however, and when he reaches the age of 16 I would, of course, want to protect that child as much as possible. If a man aged 40 were to have a homosexual relationship with him, I would want that man to be prosecuted. Indeed, should I have a daughter aged 16, I would be pretty unhappy about a relationship with a man aged 40.

Photo of David Borrow David Borrow Labour, South Ribble

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. As a father, he feels that a 40-year-old man who had an affair with his 16-year-old daughter would under existing law—which there is no proposal to change—suffer no penalty, although a 40-year-old man who had a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old male would suffer a penalty. I want equality, and there is no reason why 16-year-old males need the benefit of protection any more than 16-year-old females.

I return to the issue of criminality. I wonder what happens day to day—in institutions such as public schools, or on camping trips or trips to youth hostels—when schoolteachers or youth leaders come across young men of 16 or 17 engaged in consensual sex. Parents will occasionally discover their sons in an embarrassing situation. Youth leaders, schoolteachers and parents do not suddenly say about a member of a youth group, their student or their son, "He has been involved in criminal activity, so I'll ring up the local bobbies and get them to come down to arrest him, because that is what he needs." That is not what most people would think was appropriate. For that reason, the number of prosecutions is so low.

Photo of David Borrow David Borrow Labour, South Ribble

If it is zero, what is the point of keeping on the statute book legislation that could criminalise 16 and 17-year-old males, but is never used, even though we all know that the law is breached and that sexual activity among 16 and 17-year-old males goes on, probably every day of the year, without prosecutions taking place?

Photo of David Borrow David Borrow Labour, South Ribble

I will take another intervention from the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Conservative, New Forest East

The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is surely that he misunderstands the role of the age of consent. The purpose of the age of consent is not to criminalise people below it, but to protect people below it by criminalising the activities of people above it. The fact that nobody below it is prosecuted should reassure the people below it; we do not want to reassure the predators above the age of consent by lowering it.

Photo of David Borrow David Borrow Labour, South Ribble

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has yet again failed to listen to the debate. The existing law, as defended by him, criminalises 16 and 17-year-old males. That is the law that this House passed; if we do not amend it in the weeks ahead, as it goes through the parliamentary sausage machine, that will remain the situation as we approach the end of this century.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Liberal Democrat, Oxford West and Abingdon

Will the hon. Gentleman accept from me that, although they are certainly criminalised, 16 and 17-year-olds are also prosecuted under this law? We know that in Bolton, a male aged 17 and a half was prosecuted for having consensual sex with his boy friend, convicted and sentenced. Such prosecutions are happening this year and they happened last year. I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman that they must not be allowed to happen again.

Photo of David Borrow David Borrow Labour, South Ribble

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Conservative Members have said that there are no prosecutions or convictions; I am well aware of the Bolton case of the 17-year-old who was prosecuted successfully for having consensual sex, which makes nonsense of some of the comments from Conservative Members.

Thirdly, we should make a change because of the extent to which the existing law helps to stigmatise young homosexual men, makes their lives more difficult, encourages prejudice and hostility and makes it more difficult for them to get on with their lives. Reducing the age of consent to 16 would send to those young men the important message that they have a valued place within our society and a role to play, rather than the message that they are inferior beings, as some Conservative Members may want to show.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He is right to say that, to some degree, homosexuals aged 16 are stigmatised and currently can be criminalised. If the Bill is passed, homosexuals aged 15 years and 11 months would similarly be stigmatised and, as he correctly described, would also be criminalised. Does he accept that his argument favours the removal of any age of consent whatever? If his objections to criminalising 15-year-olds for homosexual activity are to be believed, presumably he will have to vote against the Bill on the ground that it would criminalise exactly the people who he wants to be non-criminals?

Photo of David Borrow David Borrow Labour, South Ribble

The question of prejudice and stigma is why it is so important to have an equal age of consent. That message of equality sends to young men the right signal—the important signal—that they are not lesser beings because of their sexuality. I shall come to points that have been made in the debate, in a number of documents and in meetings that I have had in my constituency about the Bill.

The fact that opinion polls show strong opposition among the population at large to changing the age of consent was mentioned earlier. I have had a number of meetings with constituents who have argued that I should vote against the Bill. They have generally done so on the basis that they want to protect young men. They somehow believe that the existing law protects young men and that changing it would mean that young men were no longer protected. The existing law criminalises young men; it does not protect them. If it were enforced rigorously, rather than protecting young men, it would bring many of them through the courts.

Part of the issue of protection rests on the basis that some young men are not entirely sure about their sexuality. All the evidence suggests that most gay men have their first sexual experiences at about the same age as most heterosexual young men—if anything, a few months later, but at about the same age, about the age of 16. I have seen various figures, ranging from just under 16 to just under 17, but statistics are statistics.

Young men who may be unsure of their sexuality are not helped by having their private sexual goings-on dragged through the courts and publicised. It may well be that some young men will engage in same-sex activities at the age of 16 and 17, and will end up happily married with kids, feeling that they are heterosexual later in life. I must tell Conservative Members that I know plenty of men and women who felt that they were heterosexual, or ought to be, at 16 and 17, and who now have children as a result.

On both sides of the divide, there is an element involving a small number of people whose sexuality is not definite as they grow up. We must ask ourselves whether criminalising young men for engaging in same-sex relationships at the age of 16 and 17 makes it easier or more difficult to go through a period of uncertainty. I am certain that it makes it more difficult. I am certain that, if I asked parents in my constituency whether, if they discovered their 16 or 17-year-old son in bed with the lad next door, it would be a good idea to call the police and take them through the courts, the answer would be, "No. We must support and help our son. If he ends up being gay for the rest of his life, we will support him, and if it is a phase, we will help him through that". No instinct would lead a parent to say that it was a good idea to bring in the law.

Another argument that has been advanced relates to health. I have received a leaflet from the Christian Institute entitled "Gay Pressure on the Young", which includes many claims that the Bill should not proceed because of the higher prevalence of AIDS among gay men, as against the rest of the community. AIDS is a disease, which does not discriminate on the basis of whether people are gay or heterosexual. In north America and Europe, most transmission has been among gay men; worldwide, the vast majority has been in the heterosexual community.

If documents such as that seek to prove that the fact that the prevalence of AIDS in the United Kingdom is greater among gay men is something to hold against gay men, and something with which to foster prejudice against them, will they use the same arguments against black people, on the basis that most cases worldwide, and the areas of highest prevalence of AIDS in any community, are in the black African community—particularly east Africa? Those cases occur through heterosexual transmission.

Photo of Mrs Teresa Gorman Mrs Teresa Gorman Conservative, Billericay

That point was made earlier in the debate. It is a fact that, where AIDS is quite common among females as well as males, it is because anal sex is practised as a form of contraception. It is practised widely in Africa and extremely widely in Romania, which explains the prevalence of AIDS there. I do not want to mention all the biological details, but those are the facts.

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

Order. I think it is better for the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow) to deal with one intervention before he deals with another.

Photo of David Borrow David Borrow Labour, South Ribble

I do not know on what basis the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) made her comments, but my understanding is that transmission in Africa is by vaginal rather than anal sex, and I know of no basis for what she has said.

May I make a general point? I am a member of the all-party parliamentary group on AIDS and, in the early summer, spent several weeks taking evidence on a number of parliamentary hearings to produce a report entitled "A Strategy for AIDS". I hope that it will form the basis of discussions that are currently taking place in Government.

The all-party group included parliamentarians who voted against the proposal to lower the age of consent last summer, but the unanimous finding of all who were present for the hearings was that the existing age of consent—the age of 18—constituted a barrier to the obtaining of proper health information and promotion by young gay men. That finding has been backed by my hon. Friends who have spoken earlier today, and by the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward); it has also been supported by the British Medical Association, and by many other medical organisations and children's charities.

With the age of consent at 18, it is very difficult for many who are involved in the provision of advice on sexual health to give that advice to 16 and 17-year-old males under the age of consent, whether they are teachers, youth workers or medical health workers. I do not argue that we should change the law because the all-party group on AIDS felt that the existing age of consent constituted a barrier to getting information across. I am saying to those—in the House or outside—who are using AIDS and all the issues surrounding it as a reason for opposing this measure that there is no foundation for their stance. I believe that the employment of such statistics feeds prejudice—the sort of prejudice that I remember in the mid-1980s, and the sort of prejudice that I thought and hoped had eased in the last 10 years.

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Labour, Exeter

Can we deal once and for all with the question of transmission in sub-Saharan Africa? HIV and AIDS are spread in sub-Saharan Africa predominantly through vaginal sexual intercourse. They are spread more easily there than in the west because of poverty and the prevalence of other sexually transmitted diseases, which make the transmission of HIV much easier.

Photo of David Borrow David Borrow Labour, South Ribble

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. As for the issue of AIDS generally, I listened carefully to the comments of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), who is not present now. He was at the heart of Government when the AIDS epidemic started, and was responsible for many of the measures that were adopted then. I hope that, when the debate ends, he will give some thought to the evidence that is available about the way in which AIDS prevention is made more difficult by his support for the existing age of consent. I hope that he will think about that before he decides how to vote.

I hope that, as the right hon. Gentleman has used experience in terms of the AIDS epidemic to support his position, in the light of information of which he was obviously not aware at the beginning of the debate, he will reconsider his position and, instead of supporting the view that 18 is the right age, accept that all the information and evidence on AIDS goes the other way and supports a lowering of the age of consent.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot

I do not wish to prolong the hon. Gentleman's speech unduly, but what he has said contradicts the facts. The same argument was deployed in 1994 when the decision was taken to reduce the age of consent from 21 to 18. It was then said that doing so would enable young people to have advice on safer sex and all the rest of it, and reduce the level of HIV infection. The reality was different. Between 1995 and 1996, HIV infections among homosexual men increased by 11 per cent. His argument is completely flawed.

Photo of David Borrow David Borrow Labour, South Ribble

Having peaked, the number of new HIV infections among gay men is now declining. The number of gay men in the United Kingdom who have the virus or the disease is increasing because treatment has become much more effective, and more and more gay men who have been infected by the virus are living. That has led to an overall increase in the number within the population.

One or two Opposition Members touched on the Christian belief that homosexuality is wrong. My understanding is that, in both the Catholic Church and Church of England, there is an acceptance that human sexuality is not a matter of choice, but something that people come to learn about themselves.

It is on that basis that within the Anglican communion—it happens in significant numbers—clergymen who are homosexual by inclination are accepted into the priesthood if they remain celibate. There is an acceptance that gay men have no choice in their sexuality, but the Church, because its teaching is that sex should take place only within marriage and that marriage can take place only between a man and a woman, says that sinless sex can take place only within marriage.

I accept and understand that argument, but, if the major Churches argue that sex should take place only between a man and a woman within marriage, I am somewhat perplexed that the Churches do not argue that we should bring the criminal law into adultery and into sexual relationships outside marriage. I respect the Churches for holding that position, but I question seriously why, in their submissions to many people—I accept that the Churches are divided on the issue—they argue so strongly that legislation should discriminate and be prejudicial towards gay men. The Churches do not make similar strong arguments against sex between heterosexual couples outside marriage.

I was brought up as an Anglican. In the past 20 or 30 years, my religious observance has varied according to the extent to which I felt welcome within the church to which I went. At the moment, I feel less than welcome within the Church of England. That saddens me.

The main reason why hon. Members argue—[Interruption.] We have until 10 o'clock. The main reason why Members argue against a change in the law is because of prejudice.

Photo of Mr Gerry Bermingham Mr Gerry Bermingham Labour, St Helens South

Has my hon. Friend not read the European Court's decision in the Sutherland and Moms case? In reality, there is no argument about the age of consent or homosexuality, legal or not. The argument on the Bill must surely be whether the protection for that group of vulnerable persons between 16 and 18 is adequate.

Photo of David Borrow David Borrow Labour, South Ribble

I recognise the point that my hon. Friend makes, but the bulk of the correspondence and representations that I have received, and much of the emphasis in the debate, has been on the age of consent, rather than the protection that is afforded to 16 and 17-year-old males and females. There is scope for further discussion on that part of the Bill, but I recognise its importance and the fact that it goes a long way towards dealing with supporters of the existing legislation—rather than the revised legislation—who want to keep the age of consent at 18 on the basis that that protects people.

The measures that have been introduced by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary strengthen the age of consent legislation, but it is important not to view the Bill simply in terms of sexuality. We should recognise that, through these measures, we are protecting both young men and young women from unwarranted sexual attention by whoever.

I touch on what I think is at the heart of much of the opposition. It centres on the argument that equality of the age of consent will undermine family life. Families are made up in various ways, but every homosexual man or woman is part of a family. Every homosexual man or woman comes from a family, and depends on the love and support within that family. The argument that giving rights to homosexuals undermines the family is totally fallacious.

Over the past 30 years, there has been a big increase in the number of family breakdowns. I find it difficult to believe that that increase is because more gay men and women are choosing to live openly as gay and to settle down with their partners, rather than, as they would have done 30 years ago, getting married to hide their sexuality, or having a public face as single people, but keeping a part of themselves hidden away, somehow shameful and dark.

Over the past 20-odd years, I have noticed the extent to which gay men and women have been successful in living a more open life style, building relationships and having partnerships that can, in many cases, last many more years than marriages. I have a significant number of friends who have been in relationships for 30 or 40 years. The Bill and other measures to combat prejudice and remove discrimination against gay people will make it easier for young men and women growing up now to plan and live their lives openly, which was not possible for those who are 20 or 30 years older than me. They will be able to plan long-term relationships and feel that they can play a full and open part in the wider community.

Contemporaries of mine when I was growing up who did not have as supportive a family as I had were kicked out of their home and ostracised by their family. The same happens now, but not to the same extent. Those young people were treated badly in that way because of the climate of prejudice and hatred. We must send a signal that prejudice and hatred have no place in our society and that everyone has the right and opportunity to play a full part in our community.

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

I appreciate that there are some deeply considered views to be put forward in the debate, but I suggest that a little urgency might now be injected into it. A large number of hon. Members still want to contribute, and at the present rate not all of them will succeed in catching my eye. I call Mr. Edward Leigh; I am sorry, Mr. Andrew Robathan. It was not my intention to give the hon. Member for Gainsborough double rations.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Conservative, Blaby 7:42 pm, 25th January 1999

I shall be a great deal briefer than the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow). As he showed, the Bill is a triumph—a triumph for the persistence of single-issue pressure groups and political correctness. There is no huge demand in the country for a change. We have heard about opinion polls, but I do not want to dwell on them. There are deeply held beliefs on both sides. The only letters and telephone calls that I have received have been from those who oppose the Bill, but I know that I have constituents who would like it to pass.

I have received several briefings, some of which, from both sides, I have thought erroneous. The best bit of rubbish that I have had arrived this morning from the National AIDS Trust, which said: equalising the age of consent for homosexual sex will have significant health promotion benefits for young gay men … In this sense, an equal age of consent recognises young people's basic right to health. I understand that there are strongly held principles involved, but I have to disagree with that.

I also received a letter this morning from Lady Hayman thanking me for responding to her appeal to give blood, which I did a couple of weeks ago in Leicester. There was a shortage of blood and she wanted a higher profile for the National Blood Service. To those who say that this is not a health issue, I must point out that there is no equality in giving blood. The politically incorrect advice from the National Blood Service says: You should never give blood if you are a man who has had sex with another man". No one can say that male homosexual intercourse is judged to be equivalent in health terms.

I understand the wish of the hon. Member for South Ribble to stress the case for equality. Stonewall's submission opens with the words: Our case is the case for equality. That is the core of the argument for changing the law. However, there is no equality between homosexual and heterosexual intercourse. Neither biologically nor physically can the acts be equated. I would add that there is no moral equivalence, but apparently in these morally ambivalent times legislators are not allowed to suggest that an act might be right or wrong.

We are debating what protection the law should give to children, and what children should be allowed to do. That is not just my opinion, but that of United Kingdom law. The Children Act 1989 says: A child is a boy or girl under the age of 18. In international law, the United Nations convention on the rights of the child says that A child means every human being below the age of 18 years. It is perfectly reasonable to say children should be allowed to do this or that without being protected, but we should know exactly what we are debating.

Leaving aside the moral opinion of people like me, and even the teachings of Christianity and other religions, the Government seem to be ignoring even their own focus groups. Opinion polls suggest that between three fifths and three quarters of people in this country do not want the age of consent to be reduced. It would be easy to condemn such a proportion of the population as homophobes, but on this occasion the ordinary British public show a great deal of common sense.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Labour, Blackpool South

The hon. Gentleman is attempting to make a case based on public opinion. He said earlier that there was no huge public demand for the reform—an assertion which in any case I dispute. Would he say that the lack of a huge public demand for the abolition of bear baiting or public hanging meant that those measures should not have been enacted? The hon. Gentleman is in error when he talks about a vast tide of public opinion in this country against the reform. A Gallup poll in July last year for The Daily TelegraphThe Daily Telegraph, note—found that 42 per cent. believed that homosexual acts were morally equivalent rather than morally inferior to heterosexual acts. Only 39 per cent. disagreed. Whatever else the Great British public think about the issue, they are not giving carte blanche to the hon. Gentleman and his argument.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Conservative, Blaby

The hon. Gentleman, in his rather long intervention, tries to put words into my mouth. I did not say that there was a great groundswell of opinion against the measure; when asked, however, people almost invariably say that they do not think that the law should be changed. People to whom I have talked and those who respond to opinion polls do not accept that the two acts are equivalent.

The general view, and mine—the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) may agree with me on this—is that what people get up to in the privacy of their own bedroom is largely their own affair. However, the Great British public do not wish to see boys threatened by predatory older men. The hon. Member for South Ribble did not address that. I should be appalled if, when my son is 16, a 40-year-old man seduced him. Surely that is a widely held view.

It is not homophobic to oppose the Bill. "Homophobe" must be one of the most contrived words to have entered our language recently. Common sense says that there is a difference between homosexual and heterosexual relationships. Society and the law should point that out. By reducing the age of consent, Parliament will be telling young people that there is no difference, which is contrary to logic and biology. That may encourage more of the confused young men, to whom the hon. Member for South Ribble, who is no longer in his place, referred, into homosexual relationships. We will be saying that society is ambivalent on the issue. We should be encouraging all young people to show more self-restraint.

When I was a child, I used to put money into a box shaped like a house, provided by Barnardos. The purpose was to encourage people such as me, from a relatively privileged background, to help those from less privileged backgrounds. Sadly, Barnardos seems to have abrogated its responsibilities to give guidance to young people—if the quotation that I have from a spokesperson is correct. It says: We find ourselves in the ludicrous situation of handing out condoms to girls who are 16, to heterosexual boys who are 16, but not to gay 16-year-olds". It would be better if Barnados encouraged and taught abstinence and self-control in all 16-year-olds in their care. I shall not be giving my son one of those little Barnardos boxes.

Last year's debate, in which the amendment of the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) was defeated, revealed the true wishes of the House. I am not sure whether there was a payroll vote, but I note that the Home Secretary voted against the amendment.

The Government have been let off the hook by the House of Lords, in that they are now introducing an extremely weak exemption clause for teachers and others. Most people outside this House would be appalled at the idea of any teacher having an affair with a child in his care. However, only last year, this House refused to provide such protection for children. I am delighted to say that even the politically correct in the Government baulked slightly at that.

We hear a lot from the Government about strengthening the family. This Bill does nothing to strengthen the family, as even the most absurd Labour Member must admit. The Bill will further undermine family life. It is bound to be passed tonight, with a large majority of the politically correct. Few outside this place will think that British society will be better as a result.

Photo of Mr Gerry Bermingham Mr Gerry Bermingham Labour, St Helens South 7:50 pm, 25th January 1999

I propose not to be long. I hope to set an example that others will follow, rather than follow the example that I have been set. The Bill is very simple. Whether homosexuality is good or bad is not the issue; it is not in the Bill. It is decided by Parliament, and by the European courts. What the age of consent should be is not the issue; it is decided by others.

On 1 January 2000, we become a party to the European convention on human rights. In the case of Sutherland and Morris, the courts have said that a deal must be done, so the one way to stop our law being condemned is to pass the relevant section of the Bill. There is nothing we can do about that. We waste time arguing about it.

We should be looking at a far more important issue—the protection of the handicapped, the mentally disabled and the youngsters who are in a position where they trust the older persons around them. I was the main supporter of the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) last time we debated this issue, and I spoke in the debate. I said then that what mattered was the protection of those in disadvantaged positions who had to take and abide by the rules, guidance, orders and instructions of their elders and betters: the teacher, the scoutmaster, the priest, the vicar, the doctor—I could go on ad nauseam.

One does not have to be very old to realise that, in the children's homes of this country, exploitation of the young has been rampant over the years. We have never had the guts to admit it. In Cheshire, an inquiry has been going on for ages. Kincora in Northern Ireland is another example. Various public school masters who exploited their children have been prosecuted. There have been examples of exploitation up and down the land—in Leicester, Newcastle and all over the place.

We are talking not just about youngsters of 10, 11, 12 or 13, but often of 15, 16 and 17. Those of us who tabled the amendment last year sought to protect those youngsters. In an intervention on the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), I indicated that the Bill proposed a maximum two-year sentence. What are we talking about in terms of the abuse of a child? Anal sex? Rape? Indecent assault? We are talking about all the things that we should never allow a child to suffer at any age. We must never allow a child in a position of dependency to be exploited.

As a practising lawyer, I have dealt with hundreds of such cases over the years. Time and time again we read of the persuasiveness of those involved. "I will just help you here. Would you like a treat of this sort or that?" It is slimy, miserable and horrible, and it ruins the lives of children not just for a year or two, but for ever.

Those of us who supported the amendment to the Crime and Disorder Bill thought that we would achieve something. We cannot beat the law, or the European courts. We cannot stop the reality of equality, but let us protect the vulnerable. In a case of which I am aware—I shall not name names, or say where it is—mentally handicapped children of 16 and 17 were treated to the pictures or a visit to the shopping market. What was the payment? Sex. Can we tolerate that? No.

The sentence proposed by the Bill in terms of 16 and 17-year-olds will be two years. That means one year, because of time off for good behaviour. The offender will no sooner be tried than he will be out. Is that a deterrent to the paedophile or the slimeball? Not on your life.

If the offender was prosecuted for indecent assault—with a maximum sentence of 10 years—it would become a deterrent. If he was prosecuted for rape—with a maximum sentence of life—it would become a deterrent. If he was prosecuted for anal sex—with a sentence of 20 years to life—it would become a deterrent. That is how the Bill should have been drafted. Someone who is in a position of trust, and abuses that trust by misusing the person in his care or under his control, should be prosecuted for the offence.

I say to Home Office Ministers that I cannot support the Bill until the proper penalties are put in. When that is done, I will support it. It is not my job to be the moral conscience of this country. I have lost that argument too often in the past, and I know that I would lose it again. I would lose it in the courts today, and we will lose it in the European courts. That argument is over. Now let us protect the children.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Liberal Democrat, Oxford West and Abingdon 7:56 pm, 25th January 1999

I broadly welcome the Bill. I was one of the six sponsors of the amendment to the Crime and Disorder Bill which brought the issue of the age of consent to the House. I was proud to be one, just as I am proud now to associate myself with the speech of the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward). He made almost all the points that could be made in support of clause 1, and I do not intend to repeat them.

I warmly endorse everything the hon. Member for Witney said. Indeed, he has done many hon. Members a favour. If they receive letters from constituents on this matter, they can do no better than to associate themselves with his speech and pass it on to their constituents. It was eloquent, and superb in many ways.

I regret that the measure that I backed was lost in another place, but it was predictable, given the time limits. It was not unreasonable for the other place to express its opinion once, although I disagreed violently with many, if not all, of the arguments made to defeat the views of this House. It was inevitable that it would take more than one pass at the House of Lords to get the measure through. The timing of the original measure was unfortunate, at best, and reckless, at worst, as it did not have the time to go back to the House of Lords to enable them to think again.

I respect the courage of those in the other place who spoke eloquently in defence of the reduction in the age of consent—particularly the Bishop of Bath and Wells, who made it clear that there were views both for and against the measure from those who described themselves as Christians.

Given what I am going to say about the need for wider law reform in terms of homosexuality, it may be appropriate at this point—the historic Second Reading of a Government Bill on the age of consent—to pay tribute to people who have campaigned for far longer than I have in support of this move; people like Antony Grey and Allan Horsfall of the Campaign for Homosexuality Equality, the former of whom received an award recently from the gay press for his long campaigning work. When progress is made—I hope for wider progress than the limited measures in the Bill—this legislation will stand as testimony to their campaigning and that of organisations such as Stonewall.

I am delighted to see that the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) is the Minister in charge of the Bill. He has a proud tradition of working against discrimination against the gay community; that has been well recorded in the gay press and elsewhere. I broadly welcome both parts of the Bill, but I hope that he will accept the few caveats that I have to offer.

Clause 1, which reduces the age of consent, contains shortfalls that I hope to be able to examine in Committee, and I hope that the Government will accept amendments. The hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow) mentioned the fact that the Bill still criminalises the victim. Clause 1 is a lost opportunity to decriminalise the victim and protect the young.

The law will still not treat homosexual and heterosexual offences equally, because there is no statutory defence for homosexuals. For heterosexual offences, it can be argued that the accused did not realise that they were committing an offence because they were misled or were not in a position to know the age of the person with whom they were having a sexual relationship; but the Bill makes no such provision for homosexual sex, and that is discriminatory. Gross discrimination also remains in sentencing, and people who are no longer considered guilty of an offence will still be subject to inclusion on the sex offenders register, in a prospective way, from the point of enactment onwards.

The Bill was an opportunity to make more than the limited, but historic and welcome, change that it makes. The Government were forced to act by the findings of the European Court of Human Rights in the Sutherland and Morris cases, which suggested that if they did not act they would be in breach of the European convention on human rights, to which we are a signatory and which, in a laudable step, the Government incorporated into British law.

I hope that the Government will take further action; otherwise there may be further instances of Britain being brought before the European Court of Human Rights or being found to be in breach of British law after the incorporation of the convention. I fear that the Home Secretary's declaration that the Bill is compatible with the convention and with the Human Rights Act 1998 will be open to debate, and, on closer scrutiny, I do not believe that it can be sustained.

Sexual offences law is a complex matter, and I am glad that the Government have issued details of the review, but significant problems remain. The current law and the Bill fail to protect the victim—the young man, in the case of homosexual sex—and he will be a criminal by the very same act that makes him a victim. That may be unique in British law, and it cannot be right if we seek to protect the younger party.

As Conservative Members have said, perhaps not deliberately, it cannot be right that, if we seek to protect the party who is below the age of consent, the Bill does not contain a simple provision to ensure that that party cannot be prosecuted and criminalised. The Tyrell principle applies to girls; there can be no prosecution of a consenting girl for aiding and abetting under section 6 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956, which concerns unlawful sexual intercourse, even though there may be cases in which a girl under the age of 16 has been the instigator.

For there to be equality, and for Britain not to be found once again to be subject to sanction under the European convention and the Human Rights Act 1998, that provision needs to be built in. The hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) made the point that his daughter can do as she pleases at the age of 16 but that boys over 16 will still be in fear of criminal sanction even if they are the victim of a crime under the law relating to the age of consent.

Stonewall says: Simply amending the 1967 Act to replace '18' with '16' would leave this flawed structure"— of the differential lawsin place. A gay 15 year old would still be criminalised if he had sex, although of course a 15 year old girl would not.

Photo of Mr Gerry Bermingham Mr Gerry Bermingham Labour, St Helens South

Currently, when a girl under 16 has sexual intercourse with a man under 23, there is that statutory defence—I agree that the same defence should apply for homosexual acts—but there is also a provision in English law that says that one cannot give evidence if one is going to incriminate oneself; so in such a case the young man would immediately be warned by the judge that he need not give any evidence at all. That is his protection.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Liberal Democrat, Oxford West and Abingdon

But in that protection lies, in a sense, protection of the offender. Labour Members have said that if there is fear of prosecution and criminalisation of the victim, that victim is less likely to report the offence. I know that the hon. Gentleman feels strongly about the protection of minors, and I share that feeling. It is vital to ensure that victims are not criminalised. In the recent case in Bolton, a 17½-year-old who was deemed to be the victim of the sexual relations as the result of which the other men in the case were deemed to be criminals was himself criminalised, prosecuted, convicted and sentenced for the same offence.

I see that the Minister is listening intently, and I hope that he will address that point in his summation. I have had representations on the matter from many outside the House, and I am sure that he has, too. I would support any amendment tabled by the hon. Member for South Ribble or others who feel strongly on the point. Protecting the victim from prosecution would be a relatively limited measure and need not open up the whole issue that the Government's review deals with; indeed, I may be moved to seek to amend the Bill myself in that respect, to ensure that the discrimination ends.

I am concerned about the discriminatory absence of the statutory defence. One might argue the merits of the statutory defence under section 6(3) of the Sexual Offences Act 1956, according to which, if a man under 24 has sex with a girl under the age of consent and did not know that she was so young, a defence can be mounted—whether the court believes him is an issue for the court—but that defence is not available to men prosecuted for consensual homosexual sex with boys under the age of consent under the current law or the law as amended by clause 1.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot

I have been hugely impressed by the hon. Gentleman's grasp of the law. Given that he is a doctor of medicine, can he address some of the concerns that have been expressed by doctors about the dangers to young people from the practice of anal intercourse?

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Liberal Democrat, Oxford West and Abingdon

That was not the subject of my remarks, but I will be happy to send the hon. Gentleman copies of speeches made by myself and by other hon. Members on the subject. I remind him that I was a member of the British Medical Association council that voted unanimously in favour of equalisation of the age of consent at 16; that council, as I found out on other issues, is generally a conservative body, and it recognised that there were huge health benefits to be achieved by the equalisation of the age of consent and the decriminalisation of consensual sex for young men between 16 and 18.

That view is shared by many organisations that work with children, as well as the Health Education Authority; the Royal College of Nursing; the Royal College of Psychiatrists; the Royal College of Physicians; and an endless list of medical organisations. I shall certainly send the hon. Gentleman a reference. The provision cannot be opposed on the basis of medical opinion. The arguments deployed against it were refuted many years ago by the World Health Organisation, the American Medical Association and others. That is just one example of how the current law is way behind the times.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Liberal Democrat, Oxford West and Abingdon

I should prefer not to give way on that matter, as I have other points to make that will be of more interest to the House.

The third way in which the Bill falls short of equalisation is in its sentencing provisions. Given what the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) said earlier, I do not want to go into those provisions as there may be confusion in the record, but it is a matter worthy of greater study in Committee to ensure that equality, as opposed to leniency, is achieved.

My fourth question is one that I have raised before and it has to do with the sex offenders register. During the passage of what became the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, an amendment was tabled in my name and in the name of hon. Members from all parties. It would have inserted a provision into the Sex Offenders Act 1997, and it stated: Notwithstanding the provisions of this section, a person subject to the notification requirements of this Part by reason of an offence which ceases to be an offence after the commencement of another Bill, such as this one, which decriminalises certain acts, shall no longer be subject to those notification requirements after the commencement of those sections. I do not believe that that is retrospective legislation. It seems bizarre that the House can deem consensual sex between a 17-year-old and his older boy friend to be legal now, yet can still cause the older party to be placed on the sex offenders register from the moment of the enactment of this Bill. There are hon. Members in all parties, regardless of whether they agree with all my views on equalisation or with my determination to end all discrimination in sexual offences, who feel that there is something wrong with the legislation. I hope that the Government will look at the matter again.

In a letter to my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), the Home Secretary wrote: I should make clear that none of the changes which may be brought forward as a result of either review will be retrospective, and we do not propose any retrospective changes to the scope of the (sex offences) register in respect of equalisation of the age of consent". I understand that as far as it goes, but I maintain—and other hon. Members agree—that the provisions of the sex offenders register should not apply prospectively from the time that the offence for which a person is included in the register ceases to be an offence. That would be bizarre. We are not proposing letting people out of prison—that is a separate question—but we are asking whether they should remain subject to the provisions of the sex offenders register. Indeed, I believe that most hon. Members support clause 1 because they do not consider that consenting sexual activity between men over 16, in which there is no abuse of trust by an older person in loco parentis, should ever have been covered by the sex offenders register.

Again in connection with the Bolton case, two of the men were required to sign the sex offenders register after they were convicted last year of consenting gay sex with a man aged 17 and a half. That man did not complain, was not harassed and opposed the prosecution of the two men. One of them was his boy friend, with whom he had had a long-standing relationship and with whom he now lives. That injustice must be put right, although people who have written to the Home Office have not received the clarification that they sought.

I now turn to the review of sexual offences law announced today. The Minister may remember that I proposed a new clause to the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 to get rid of the ludicrous anomaly that exists with regard to the privacy of homosexual sex. As The Pink Paper reported in June 1998, Home Office minister Alun Michael this week announced a wide-ranging review of sexual offences law. The move came just days after a Liberal Democrat MP tabled two further amendments to the Government's Crime and Disorder Bill that could remove more gay inequalities from the statute book". I welcomed that review, but I wanted legislation to follow it that would equalise the law and end discrimination within the lifetime of this Parliament. There is nothing in the published remit of the review that guarantees that such legislation will be forthcoming. Lowering the age of consent to achieve equality is crucial, but it is not the only requirement. Many people would hate this Government, who made a manifesto pledge to end unjustifiable discrimination wherever it exists", if they stopped at just equalising the age of consent. I hope that the Minister will say, when he responds to the debate, whether he envisages legislation being introduced and whether the terms of the review are meant to address the "unjustifiable discrimination" that exists in our law covering sexual offences such as the offence of gross indecency.

I could list the anomalies with the sexual offences law, but I shall not detain the House with them today. So far, the Home Office has said only that the law on sexual offences, including the homosexual offences, is much in need of review. I think that it is much in need of legislation to amend it. The Home Office added that the law does not meet the needs of modem society. I contend that it does not meet the requirements of the European convention on human rights, or of the Human Rights Act 1998, now that it has been incorporated into British law.

In October 1997, The Independent stated that the age of consent is the last serious piece of legislation that treats homosexuality as a lesser, shameful expression of human love". That is not true; it is just one of many of our current laws that do so. In a sense, the first part of the Bill misses an opportunity to put right some of those wrongs. There may be no votes in sexual law reform, but I hope that the Government will not be influenced by fear on this matter and that they will take the opportunity to demonstrate that they are a radical and reforming Administration.

Finally, I wish to turn to the second part of the Bill and deal briefly with some of my concerns about the scope of the abuse of trust measures. I also want to bring to the House's attention another example—the fifth—of a discriminatory application of the law.

On 27 July last year, the Home Secretary wrote to the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen). In the letter, he correctly described how the Government intended to deal with the abuse of trust measures, as proposed by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), when they introduced their Bill. The review that led to clauses 2 to 4 of this Bill was said to concern both young men and young women, and in a non-discriminatory way. It did not say that it would concern young men and young women in a non-discriminatory way, which would be taken to mean that there would be equal protection for boys and girls aged between 16 and 18. When I received a copy of the letter, I took the deliberate use of the word "and" in and in a non-discriminatory way to mean that the law would not treat homosexuals separately or more severely.

However, the Government have decided to include in the Bill exemptions for heterosexuals that are not available for homosexuals. For example, a teacher aged 23 who is married to a student aged 17 cannot be prosecuted, but of course marriage is available only to heterosexuals. I was delighted to hear the hon. Member for Bassetlaw, in response to an intervention I made earlier, recognise that that was discriminatory and state—I hope that I do not misquote him—that he would have no problem if the Government were to acknowledge an arrangement equivalent to marriage in terms of exemption from the law, under which people aged between 16 and 18 could acquire parental consent for a homosexual relationship, as people of that age have to do when they get married. Imperfect though it may be, such a measure would allow the law not to be discriminatory. That is an important point because the Secretary of State is on record as saying, in response to an intervention that I made during our consideration of the Crime and Disorder Bill on 28 July, that the legislation will concern both young men and young women and in a non-discriminatory way."—[Official Report, 28 July 1998; Vol. 317, c. 208.] The question that produced that response was whether there would be different rules for some heterosexuals as opposed to homosexuals.

The Bill gives rise to several other concerns. The abuse of trust legislation, which I broadly welcome, could be used as a form of blackmail against homosexuals. People reporting such a relationship could still be criminalised, as I said earlier. Also, the framing of the Bill is too broad—the National Association of Head Teachers shares that concern. The offence is not restricted to cases in which the abuser is in a position of trust and in loco parentis, but is expanded to include, for example, the 23-year-old male teacher who does something foolish and unprofessional with a consenting 17-year-old sixth former at a school dance, which should be condemned, and who would be subject to the full force of the criminal law in a way that the House would regard as an over-reaction, particularly if there had been no direct educational link between those two people. They may even have had a relationship before either of them came to the school.

I hope that the Minister will accept that although I have been the only hon. Member to raise those concerns today, there is a view outside the House that the legislation is too wide. I also hope that in Committee those of who feel that that is so will have an opportunity to make those points.

In conclusion, the Bill is welcome in all its parts, except that clause 1 could have been a little wider and clauses 2 to 4 a little narrower.

Photo of Mr Jamie Cann Mr Jamie Cann Labour, Ipswich 8:22 pm, 25th January 1999

My speech will be both briefer and less popular than most that I have heard tonight. Essentially, in the Bill we are being asked to accept by the gay lobby—by Outrage! of course, and by Stonewall in a more measured way—that homosexuality is equal in value to heterosexuality in our society. I do not believe that to be the case and, therefore, I cannot vote for the Bill and I shall tell the House why.

According to my observations, it is a fact that homosexual society is totally centred on a person's sexuality. If I may be forgiven at the age of 52 for saying so, sex counts for 1 or 2 per cent. of my life nowadays—on holiday, perhaps 5 per cent., and that is putting it a little strongly. However, in the gay community sexuality seems to matter almost totally. There are gay clubs, gay bars, the gay press, gay this and gay that, and it is not healthy. Despite what other hon. Members have said, I believe that there is far more promiscuity among at least a section of the gay community than in the community as a whole.

Photo of Mr Jamie Cann Mr Jamie Cann Labour, Ipswich

No, I will not give way as 1 only want to speak for five minutes. I am sure that my hon. Friend will get a chance to have his say.

Homosexuals cannot have a normal—and I do not hesitate to use that word—family life with children. Equally importantly, homosexuality is dangerous to the males who practise it. I have heard what other hon. Members have said about the prevalence of AIDS among heterosexual as compared to gay populations and I do not believe that it is true. Uganda is one of the few places where AIDS is rampant among the heterosexual population and anal intercourse is used as a method of contraception there. Of course, for homosexuals that is one of the major methods of making love. The anus is not made for such things. The vagina and the penis are made to fit, but the penis and the rectum are not. The mixing of blood and semen is one of the best ways to pass on, not only AIDS but many other virulent diseases. We are told to wash our hands when we leave the toilet because, at some stage, our hands may get near our lips. Those homosexual practices are set out in the Terrence Higgins pamphlet—not a publication that one would expect to be against such practices. For example, rimming—

Photo of Mr Jamie Cann Mr Jamie Cann Labour, Ipswich

It happens. Rimming, where one man licks out the rectum of another man, is not a practice that I would want my sons to get involved in; nor indeed is fisting, which is where one inserts the whole of one's fist and part of one's forearm up someone else's rectum. Those things happen.

We have heard a lot of talk about love, compassion and toleration. It is time that we got a few facts into the argument and decided whether we really believe that those practices are as equal as family life—for me, no, and for my sons, no. If it is not right for my sons, it is not right for other people's sons. If the House passes the Bill—no doubt it will—we will be sending the message that homosexuality is of equal value to heterosexuality and that it is just as good. I do not believe that that is so.

If it were true that one cannot help being homosexual and one is born that way, there would be no point in trying to fight against it. However, that is not always the case. It is wrong to argue from the particular to the general, but if the House will forgive me, I will do so on this occasion. I have a friend who went away to sea at 15, as a lot of other young lads did. They were out on the deep sea for a long while and, according to him, it is true that normal lads—I shall use that word again—were turned by some of the old lags because they were out there for all that time. If it is possible for young lads, or young lasses, to be turned in that way, it is the duty of our legal system to prevent it for as long as we possibly can. For that reason, I shall certainly vote against the Bill.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Conservative, New Forest East 8:28 pm, 25th January 1999

Comparing the atmosphere in the Chamber today with the atmosphere on 22 June 1998 when we debated this matter for the first time, is like replaying a football match after one already knows the final score. However, because of some of the remarks made by those in favour of the Bill, who have termed those of us who will vote against it tonight as "deeply prejudiced"—"prejudice based on fear" is a phrase that has been used again and again—I must say for the record that I can well remember being deeply impressed many years ago by a film called, "Victim", which starred Dirk Bogarde and which showed how outrageous, monstrous and unfair it is for people to be open to blackmail, public humiliation and the destruction of their professional career because they happen to be homosexual.

For me, this debate is not primarily about homosexuality. I am just as concerned about the effect of the measures on heterosexual girls as on homosexual boys aged 16 and 17. My hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward), in a long and articulate speech, observed that predators are predators, and victims are victims. I add that adults are adults, and children are children. I am concerned about ages of consent, the protection of children and the transmission of disease.

I mentioned the debate last year. I remember how struck I was with the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill), who pointed out that the effect of the measure then proposed, which is proposed again tonight, would be to legitimate the act of buggery or anal sex, not only between adults and male children of 16 and 17 but between adults and female children of 16 and 17.

We have heard much about criminalisation. Several hon. Members have generously let me intervene when time was less pressing than it is now to put this point: how can one argue against retaining the age of consent at 18 without saying that the same arguments apply to any other age of consent that one cares to name? I am talking about the ratchet that will lead us inevitably from 16 to 15 to 14 and to other ages that campaigning groups have in mind.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about reducing the age of consent below 16. Surely an equal age of consent at 16 is an excellent way to add credibility to that limit and avoid a flaw in the system that unscrupulous people can exploit? Many other laws, such as those relating to marriage and to the age at which children leave home and finish full-time education, coalesce at 16, making that age more effective. This is a child protection issue above all.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Conservative, New Forest East

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention but not for its length at this late hour. I would like to give way to other hon. Members. If I do, I hope that they will keep their interventions briefer. It is the essence of my case that the Bill legitimises a dangerous physical activity that will increase radically the prospects of children—boys and girls of 16 and 17—contracting fatal diseases. I shall come on to that presently.

Returning to ages of consent, I have the Library research paper prepared for the debate on Edwina Currie's Bill in 1994. I will read a short paragraph into the record. It states: The history of the age of consent for girls shows that 16 is a relatively high age compared to previous centuries. For over 700 years the criminal law has by statute prohibited men from having unlawful sexual intercourse with girls below a certain age. Originally, in 1275, the age was 12 and it was not changed until 1875 when the Offences Against the Person Act raised it to 13. In 1885"— only 10 years later— the Criminal Law Amendment Act raised the age again—this time to the present age of 16. The 1885 legislation was enacted after a campaign aimed at eliminating child prostitution and the sexual exploitation of young girls. It was also the legislation which introduced the offence of gross indecency between men. I contend that the purpose of ages of consent is not to criminalise the people below them but to criminalise the people above them and stop them preying on the people below them. The record of civilised societies is that, as they advance, the age of consent is raised to afford greater protection, not lowered to afford less. If the argument for equality is so overwhelming to hon. Members who will vote the other way—if they are so desperate for equality—they could consider the state of society and teenage pregnancies and examine raising the age for heterosexual consent to the same as that for homosexual consent.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Conservative, New Forest East

No, I shall not give way again.

Let us move on to the question of the protection of children. We are dealing with one of the two activities that appear, in this country, to be primarily responsible for the transmission of the HIV virus and AIDS: the sharing of needles and anal sex. It is interesting to note that, for all the reams of argument advanced by those who will vote for the Bill, not one has given, or even attempted to give, a convincing argument—or any argument—to explain why the incidence of HIV and AIDS in this country is so much higher among people who engage in anal sex than among those who do not.

It was intriguing to hear the arguments in respect of Africa—a continent for which we are not currently legislating. It was said that, in Africa, transmission of the HIV virus is effected primarily through heterosexual sex. I do not know whether that is so, but, even if it is, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) shot down that argument by explaining, very lucidly, that heterosexual sex in that community is far more likely to spread AIDS because resistance is weakened by the presence of so many other rampant sexually transmitted diseases. If we were conducting the debate in that context, the hon. Gentleman's argument would be irresistible. However, we are not debating in that context, because, in this country, people's resistance is not weakened by rampant STDs; therefore, we do not have to consider that argument here.

Even if in such countries the practice of heterosexual straight sex transmitted AIDS easily, in this country and in our circumstances, manifestly it would not and manifestly it does not. It does not help to have people such as the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) regale the House with a long list of profound bodies that are all in favour of the Bill when he, as a practising doctor, cannot come here and tell us why the prevalence of transmission of HIV/AIDS is so much higher among the homosexual community in Britain than it is among the female or male/female communities, unless it is because of the indulgence by members of our male homosexual community in the practice of anal sex. Hon. Members going into the Lobby tonight to vote in favour of the Bill should congratulate themselves while they can. They will not be thanked when the victims of the legislation receive their death sentence diagnoses in a decade's time.

The clause dealing with the abuse of trust offence has already been criticised for its inevitable anomalies by responsible bodies such as the National Association of Head Teachers. We recognise that a person set in authority over a child—I repeat, a child—of 16 or 17 is in a position to exercise undue influence on that child, but what about what may be termed "personality power"? If children of 16 and 17 need to be protected from people who exercise too much power because of a position of authority, what about the need to protect them from people who exercise too much power because of their greater age, their forcefulness and their personality? In other words, should we be making these provisions at all? The clause has been tacked on, like a piece of elastoplast slapped on in an attempt to cover up a dangerous wound.

Looking at this mish-mash, I was tempted to describe the Bill as a dog's breakfast; but, having listened to the arguments, some of them—perhaps all of them—sincere, I realise that that description is both inadequate and inaccurate. The Bill is not to be likened to something that goes into the front end of an animal, but to that which comes out at the rear.

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Labour, Salford 8:40 pm, 25th January 1999

I am delighted to contribute, albeit briefly, but I do not recognise the terms of the debate in the language used by the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis). The language that he used and the sentiments that he expressed are certainly not those used by many of my Salford constituents who have raised the issue with me, having thought at great length about the complex matters involved. I certainly should not want the debate to be conducted in the terms used by some hon. Members tonight.

The issue was last debated in June. I was delighted to vote in favour of amendment on that occasion, and I will be doing so again tonight because I believe that we are debating a fundamental issue of human rights, equal rights and citizenship. The Bill is based on fundamental values—respect, tolerance, equality, compassion and understanding. They are the values of our Government, and they should be the values that guide our policy making and our legislation. Tonight we have an opportunity to rid ourselves of the bigotry and prejudice which have pervaded our law for far too long.

The subject is a matter of concern in every constituency in the land. I have had many letters supporting both sides of the argument, but the ones that have moved me the most are those from young gay men who were frightened and in despair and who felt extremely vulnerable because of the current law. They have been denied the right to express their sexuality in a loving relationship. They certainly do not feel that they should face the terrifying prospect of being branded criminals.

I believe that the Bill will improve the health prospects of many young gay men. I noticed that the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) was not convinced by the National AIDS Trust; nor was he convinced by the all-party parliamentary group on AIDS; but perhaps he will be convinced by the British Medical Association, which states in its report: Of prime concern … to the medical profession as a whole, are the concerns that the present law may inhibit efforts to improve the sexual health of young homosexual and bisexual men. The average age of first homosexual encounter has been found to be 15.7, and it is vital that these young homosexual men received effective health education and health care. That is the real issue at stake.

Research has shown that in many cases the law as it stands hinders the vital work of teachers, youth workers and health promotion professionals in trying to educate young men to help them to negotiate the minefield of sex and to help them have safer sex which will protect their health.

It is true that young men are frightened to discuss these vital matters and that professional advisers are often caught in a nightmare, struggling to balance the issues of trust and confidentiality to their clients with their obligations under the current law. It is an invidious position to be in—to know that one's prime duty is to try to help young people who are desperately seeking assistance while, at the same time, having to worry whether, as a professional, one might be aiding and abetting a criminal offence. That is a ridiculous state of affairs.

The choices that young men have to make must be informed by accurate and up-to-date knowledge about HIV and, indeed, wider health issues. As one Opposition Member said, it is also crucial that young women should have access to good sex education. The prevalence of teenage pregnancy has a most dreadful effect on young people's health, and the damage can last for many years. It is therefore vital that young men and young women have access to high-quality health education.

The effect of the current law on young men's mental health ought to be of great concern to us all. Much has already been said about the prevalence of suicide and suicide attempts by young people who feel vulnerable and isolated. The long-term effects on their mental health cannot be underestimated. Certainly in the north-west, especially in Manchester, the incidence of suicide among young men is very high. We must all recognise our obligation to do whatever we can to support and sustain those young men.

I have to comment on what I believe to be the unhealthy emphasis placed by Members on both sides of the Chamber on the subject of anal intercourse. Research has revealed that only a minority of gay men engage in that activity and the vast majority of those do not have their first such experience until the age of 21. It is legal for them to engage in anal intercourse at the age of 18, but they do not do so. They make a mature decision about how they want to conduct and express their sexuality. The unhealthy emphasis on those issues is to be deplored.

The Bill contains excellent proposals to protect young people from exploitation by those who are in a position of trust. Last November, the Government published their response to the Utting report on safeguards for children. I recall the memorable occasion when the Secretary of State for Health acknowledged the failure of Ministers, councillors and professionals such as social workers—all of society, in fact—to safeguard and protect children in care. That was one of the most refreshing statements ever made by a Cabinet Minister about our collective responsibility to those particularly vulnerable children.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, played a pivotal role in drafting the Government's response to the report. The Bill is part of our move towards joined-up government and towards bringing together health, social services and the criminal justice system to try to deliver important policies. In his statement, the Secretary of State for Health said that our proposals are intended to ensure that those responsible, at any level, for children in care behave towards them as any good parent tries to behave towards his or her children".—[Official Report, 5 November 1998; Vol. 318, c. 1011.] The Bill will extend that duty of responsibility to those who are in a position of trust regarding our most vulnerable children.

The response also said that we shall extend the duty of local authorities to assist, befriend and advise young people in care from the age of 16 to the age of 18 because we recognise that those duties should not come to a full stop when young people are at the vulnerable age of 16. As a society, we ought to be caring for, sustaining and supporting young people in the way that good families automatically do. We also recommend that there should be legal safeguards to protect children in care.

The Bill will play a vital role in fulfilling those commitments. It is but one step and there is still a great deal to be done in health and social services to protect those children, but it demonstrates how we can use the criminal justice system as well as other areas of policy to try to ensure that children are protected.

Many of my constituents were absolutely devastated last year when the amendment on the age of consent was rejected by the other place. I received almost an avalanche of correspondence from people who were not only disappointed at the result because of personal interest but devastated that the democratic view of the House should be contravened by the other place. The sooner we embark on our programme of reform and remove the prejudice and bigotry that the other place has exhibited on this issue, the better.

Finally, I draw the attention of the House to a terrible incident that has brought the issues into sharper focus in my mind: the arranged commercial marriage that took place in Birmingham this afternoon of a couple who had never met before, who had never embarked on a relationship and who have been brought together for commercial advantage and entertainment. That is a travesty of the meaningful relationship of marriage. We live in a society where such a sham is perfectly legal and acceptable, yet a close, loving relationship between two young men who want to express their sexuality together in a warm and caring way is illegal. What kind of society do we live in when that expresses our values? I urge colleagues to think carefully and to support the Bill.

Photo of Mr Andrew Rowe Mr Andrew Rowe Conservative, Faversham and Mid Kent 8:49 pm, 25th January 1999

This is a hugely difficult subject. I have not the faintest idea whether the Bill will achieve what we hope that it will achieve. That is partly because the moment that it is passed, as I am sure it will be, the goalposts will move and it will be impossible to attribute any measurable outcome to it.

I find it impossible to believe that, in a world where some people even undergo surgery in order to align their body with their perception of their sexuality, some are not born to be homosexual. Of course they are. It is hard for someone like me, whose primary frame of reference is Christian, when so many Christians assume that there is only one possible way to vote. I wish that it were as simple as that. I shall explain why I, as someone who tries to follow Christ, will almost certainly vote to lower the age of consent. Much of what I have to say was very much better put by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward).

I shall touch on three issues that seem to be central to this question. The first is the age and nature of sexual behaviour. What, for example, is appropriate, and is it the same as moral? Secondly, is the law effective at protecting vulnerable young people, or does it do more harm than good? Thirdly, why are the sins of sexual behaviour regarded by so many Christians as peculiarly dreadful?

I believe that the desire of most people, as expressed in many opinion polls, is to have a lasting, exclusive relationship with one other person. That expresses a recognition that such a relationship is normally the best for building up both participants and, where children are involved, for building up children also. That is why the Christian religion lays such stress on faithfulness and asks for such big promises from marrying couples. It seems that the same desire for a long-lasting, stable relationship characterises most homosexuals also.

We all know that human behaviour frequently falls short of the ideal. It is a truism that, when young people first become sexually aware, they frequently find it exciting and attractive to enjoy sex with another person. Some, indeed, become highly promiscuous. Like anyone else engaged in immoral behaviour, they justify their action by involving as many others in similar behaviour as possible. Such herd behaviour is often prominent in public demonstrations on this issue. It makes me less rather than more sympathetic when I hear it. The underlying theme to many hon. Members' concerns about the costs of inappropriate or immoral sexual behaviour is in fact that promiscuity is frequently the spreader of disease, the cause of unwanted pregnancies, and so on. That is the key.

In such herd behaviour, people are often supported by self-appointed experts, many of whom base their public pronouncements on their personal experience of a messy private life to which they never admit. If they are counsellors of such activity, they should be made to state their own position. Needless to say, they often conceal it. Such behaviour is destructive. I am very glad that much greater efforts are being made to support the many young people who want to resist peer pressure to carry sexual experimentation further than they want. We should be doing everything in our power to assist them and the agencies that try to help.

There is a case for saying that, as we prolong the dependency of childhood, often into people's early 20s, the age of legal sexual relations should be raised for all sexual orientations. One could argue that the law reflects the age at which the independence of a job gave promise of starting an independent household, and that all that has changed for most young people today. It is quite unrealistic to suggest any such change. Only the Taliban—not even new Labour—could realistically turn the clock back in such a way. Paradoxically, good food and good health are bringing down the age of puberty, just as our social behaviour is lengthening the period of dependency on parents. That is one of the unresolved difficulties that underlie much of our confusion in this debate.

Even if I have an unrealistic thought that 18 would be a better age, I believe that there is some sense in removing legal sanctions from sexual behaviour at the age that we have all accepted to be the age when young men and women are able to take full-time employment and leave behind the status of pupil.

If sex outside a permanent relationship falls short of the ideal, that is often the definition that people use of immorality. However, I expect that most of us would distinguish between experimentation between friends and the exploitation of vulnerability by a man or woman whose aim is only self-gratification. That is not only immoral but cruel, and often causes lasting damage to the victim.

That brings me to my second point. Is the law effective? I do not know. What I do know is that most of the people who want to keep the law as it is do not know, either. One group of people who know more than I do is the group that works to pick up the pieces after a young person has been exploited. I am a trustee of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which perhaps sees more of such victims than most other organisations, and its advice to me is that its work would be more easily done, and a number of young men would be more effectively safeguarded, if it were not a crime to have had a homosexual relationship, willingly or unwillingly.

In an area as difficult and complex as this, I give most credence to those who have the skills and generosity to work with the victims of sexual abuse, and I question the role of the law in matters of this kind. It can too often be used as a prop, which allows the rest of us to evade our human duty to help and support people who are in confusion or distress.

Finally, I should like to ask a question of my Christian friends, some of whom I know will be disappointed at the position that I have adopted. Why does the Christian family give such pre-eminence to our falling short of excellence in sexual matters? Why does it not place equal emphasis on the many other ways in which we all fall short? I am sorry that the most authoritarian interpreter of scripture in the House, who spoke earlier, is not in the Chamber.

In the New Testament, our Lord gives much greater prominence to injustice, greed, hypocrisy and dishonesty than he does to sexual shortcomings. I sometimes wonder: does our ferocity about homosexuality stem from the fact that, for most of us, it has never been an issue? Would it disturb our equanimity if we were to meet equal ferocity about our—almost obscene—level of comfort in this country compared with the poverty of most of the world? Is it because, like me, so many of us have broken the promises that we made before God at our wedding, and it is disturbing to be asked to look at that?

I cannot know whether I have taken the right decision today, but I hope and believe that I may have done, and I hope and pray that we can take a generous view of behaviour that we do not share. I believe that if we do so, we may be better placed to help young people come to terms with their sexual confusions, and thereby protect them from the exploitation that we all deplore.

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Labour, Stretford and Urmston 8:58 pm, 25th January 1999

I shall keep my remarks brief, but I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I am very pleased to follow the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe); I shall not mention many of his comments because I wholeheartedly agree with them. I shall start by countering some of the arguments that have been made against the Bill.

It has been argued that because, under current legislation, there have been no convictions of 16 to 18-year-olds, there is no need to repeal the legislation. That is a spurious argument, because the incidence of convictions is irrelevant to the principles of the Bill and what it is designed to achieve. The aims of the Bill are, first, to ensure that we treat young people equally before the law; and, secondly, to ensure that, wherever possible, and as far as possible, we do not criminalise young people for behaviour that is not inherently criminal.

Secondly, we have heard the argument that homosexuality is abnormal, disease-ridden and dangerous, and not equal to heterosexual behaviour and relationships. That is an ill-informed point of view, to put it mildly. It assumes that homosexual behaviour, unlike heterosexual behaviour, is entirely or almost exclusively focused on physical sexual activity. Of course that is not true. It is not true of heterosexual behaviour and it is not true, in my experience, of homosexual behaviour between people who love each other.

The argument is spurious also in so far as it presents homosexuality as posing undue risk of disease or damage. In one sense, all sexual activity involves some risk. Without recent advances in medical science, women could have been forgiven not long ago for refusing to engage in sexual behaviour because of the risks that that posed to them—the risks of illness, the effects of contraception, and childbirth.

Photo of Mr Christopher Gill Mr Christopher Gill Conservative, Ludlow

Is it the hon. Lady's understanding that women are protected by the law from the act of buggery? Does she believe that that is correct, or does she believe that the law is imperfect in that respect and should be changed? Will she explain her answer to those questions?

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Labour, Stretford and Urmston

I am making a much simpler point. The hon. Gentleman has misunderstood me. I am simply saying that any physical sexual activity involves a degree of risk. The arguments that we have heard tonight, which parade homosexuality as some highly abnormal, disease-ridden activity which presents great risks, are spurious and inaccurate.

I have always felt that people who speak in such authoritarian, intolerant and inflammatory terms about an activity in which they do not engage and which they do not share are giving us much more information about themselves and their attitudes than about the subject of their remarks.

Thirdly, and more important, we have heard that lowering the age of consent for young men in homosexual relationships would be tantamount to encouraging young men to enter homosexual relationships. That is a false premise. Equalising the age of consent is not tantamount to promoting homosexuality. I share the view of the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), who has left the Chamber. He suggested that we should discourage all young people from engaging in sexual activity too early. I agree with that.

Adolescence is a time when young people have a great deal to cope with. The complications and the emotional resources that a sexual relationship demands can add another layer of difficulty. That is the same for young women and for young men. It is not an argument against lowering the age of consent for homosexuality.

Indeed, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Ms Blears), most young men who subsequently define themselves as homosexual have so defined themselves well before the age of 16. The argument that lowering the age of consent would push young men early into homosexuality against their nature does not hold up.

My main point relates to the arguments about child protection. That is a subject with which I was greatly concerned in my professional life, before entering the House. I must tell hon. Members that lowering the age of consent has no impact, one way or the other, on whether or not we protect children adequately.

A few years ago, I undertook major research for the Department of Health, investigating the incidence, and the nature, of organised and ritual sexual abuse. Some of that research was traumatic. It involved reading the transcripts of children's evidence in some 20,000 cases in which an allegation of sexual abuse of an organised or ritual nature had been made.

I can tell hon. Members that the vast majority of those cases involved children well below the age of 16. There were various ways in which children were drawn into sexual abuse—for example, through paedophiles. Paedophiles are people in our community—youth workers, teachers, piano teachers and scout masters. Although I do not wish to taint everyone in those professions, a number of paedophiles use those activities to access and groom young children. They do not access and groom 16 to 18-year-olds.

Another area in which children are abused is prostitution. The vast majority of young girls and boys who go into prostitution do so mainly because they were sexually abused as younger children by men, and very occasionally, by women.

The idea that lowering the age of consent for young boys will have an impact on the inadequate way in which we protect all children is not a valid argument against doing so. To protect children more adequately, we must address the flaws in the criminal justice system—we are doing so. We must also act strongly against prostitution and give sentences that measure up to the seriousness of those crimes.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

One of my hon. Friends referred earlier to the ratchet effect. Does the hon. Lady understand that, if the age of consent is lowered to 16, there will be downward ratchet effect? No prosecutions are effectively brought against abusers or those who get 13-year-old girls pregnant now, so none will be brought against the abusers of 13 or 14-year-olds. Does the hon. Lady realise that that will damage the safety of those to whom she rightly refers as "children"?

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Labour, Stretford and Urmston

No, I do not accept that argument. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there are very few convictions in relation to the sexual abuse of children. Research shows that the reason is largely because the children are very young and are not regarded as credible witnesses in court. It is not because 13-year-olds consent to sex. Thus, we need to deal with our criminal justice system and evidential rules if we are to protect children better, and lowering the age of consent will have no impact on that.

The Bill as a whole addresses some important issues. One is that of equality before the law for young people. Many families of young people who are engaged in homosexual relationships, and the organisations that represent them, write to me about the difficulty and pain caused to young men who want to relate to another young man—in an emotional, not necessarily a physical, way. The current position makes their lives extremely difficult. So far in this debate, the arguments against lowering the age of consent have not been valid. However, there is a valid reason for taking this course of action.

The second issue is that of abuse of trust. It will become a criminal offence for someone in a position of trust to abuse that position. For the reasons that I have outlined, and because of my experience in this area, I very much support that provision. Children are, or have been, badly abused in residential care and institutional settings, and the provision is therefore long overdue. It is about protecting children, but lowering the age of consent will have no impact on it one way or the other.

Several hon. Members:

rose

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I am keen to let at least another four Back Benchers speak before 9.30, when the winding-up speeches will be made. That can be done if they take five minutes each.

Photo of Mr Richard Allan Mr Richard Allan Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment) 9:09 pm, 25th January 1999

A key feature of this debate, and something that has driven us into lengthy discourse, is the fact that we have ranged very wide of the subject in hand—the age at which British citizens can freely engage in consensual sexual acts under our criminal law, and the age at which they are free from criminal penalty for acts in which they choose to engage.

This debate is not about sending messages, or encouraging or discouraging forms of activity; it is about how we see our criminal codes fitting into our national life. I fundamentally disagree with comments made early in the debate by the hon. Member for New Forest, (Dr Lewis), and by other hon. Members since, that our criminal law should be about telling people what they should do according to the will of the majority.

Our criminal code, many centuries ago, indeed included laws against adultery and about all sorts of behaviour, including, in various periods, whether people should dance, sing or go to plays. Our law has evolved in a positive direction since then, towards a modern and liberal code. The foundation of that is the belief that the criminal law fundamentally and primarily exists to prevent citizens from committing harm to each other and, once such harm has been committed, to punish the perpetrators. It does not exist to tell us what to do.

I am wary of politicians telling us anything about how we should carry out our sex lives. I am pleased that the criminal code has evolved in a much more liberal direction, often because it had been shown to be hypocritical and because politicians had set rules that they, due to their own human nature, could not live up to. As power structures have become more democratic, people have rightly demanded a more democratic criminal code.

We must be wary of any criminal provisions that deprive citizens of their liberty. That is a fundamental issue; we must have a proportionate response to any actions that are carried out. The age of consent is primarily about deciding at which age young people acquire certain rights—it is their right to do with their bodies as they wish—and the responsibilities that go with those rights. I would not in any way claim that there are no responsibilities.

As other hon. Members have said, we should discourage anyone from having sexual relations at such an early age, but that discouragement would not be assisted by threatening people with a gaol sentence. They would have acquired responsibility for their bodies, and it would not be helpful if the nanny state tried to usurp that responsibility. It would be much clearer to say at 16, "You are responsible for your sexual activity. We can offer advice and assistance, but we will not throw you in prison for choosing to do things in your own way."

To a degree, the age of consent will always be set arbitrarily, but, on that basis, 16 is a sensible age at which we can assume that a young person has acquired sufficient responsibility. An age of permission is not the same as an age of compulsion. We do not require people to smoke when they reach 16, or to get married, and making something permissible in no sense makes it compulsory. We must always bear that in mind in the debate.

I generally welcome the abuse of trust provisions. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) was right to raise the issue previously and, as I said in response to his earlier comments, I was disappointed that it became an argument between us. We agree on a common end, but not on the method of achieving it.

A general position of authority provision would lead to considerable problems and would not be a workable law. For example, if a sexual relationship began between assistants aged 21 and 17 who were working for me, and the 21-year-old was the line manager of the 17-year-old, a general authority provision would catch them. That would be unworkable. I understand that the hon. Member for Bassetlaw, whose knowledge of parliamentary procedure is deeper than mine, was trying to tease the Government towards giving a more detailed response, and I welcome that response.

We agree about abuse of a position of trust and/or authority. The other issue that was referred to was how we deal with pimping. We could introduce specific criminal provisions—outside the scope of the Bill and dissociated with the age of consent—and I have corresponded with the Minister of State, Home Office, who has responsibility for those matters, and with his predecessor. No one can consent to be pimped, and we should deal with pimping in a serious way.

I generally welcome the Bill and hope that it receives a fair wind.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Labour, Ealing North 9:14 pm, 25th January 1999

Tonight's debate is not only about young men growing up. In many ways, it is about us growing up as a society. I have been greatly impressed by many of the comments from both sides of the House, although I have been saddened by many of the representations made to me, some of which were of the same type as those mentioned earlier in the debate.

Some of the most lubricious details that have been sent to me contain an element of denial. I suggest that people who send so much information are perhaps asking questions that they should answer.

Overall, however, I am asked why I—as a Christian, and a person who tries to lead my life in the imitation of Christ—would, as I intend to, support the Bill tonight. Like many others who have spoken, I have no doubts, no fears, no worries and no concerns about that. The essential, core element of my Christianity is the love that Our Lord showed us, and in my view it is far better for us to include than to exclude. Tolerance is better than intolerance, and recognition of reality must be the way forward.

We have heard tonight that this is the thin end of the wedge. I consider that to be an intellectually fraudulent argument. I know of no Labour Member who has any hidden agenda to extend the legislation to loose mere anarchy on the world, and to reduce us to a libertarian society, if such a thing exists. With the exception of the repeal of the iniquitous section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988—which I hope every one of us with half an ounce of wit or sense will seek to repeal at the earliest opportunity—I am aware of no move towards any further legislation or to furthering lowering of the age of consent; quite the reverse, in fact.

The other equally offensive and intellectually fraudulent argument suggests that homosexuality is a fad—something that a teenager assumes like this year's fashions, and then discards. My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Cann) spoke of the experience of young matelots on the deep sea. I recall little sexual activity on the blue waters when I was a 16-year-old sailor; what there was, it must be said, tended to be of a solitary nature. To imply, as my hon. Friend did—in an extraordinary expression, which completely failed to appreciate the reality—that young men could be "turned" in that way is contrary not only to my experience at sea, which admittedly was not very long, but to my experience of human life and of human nature. With respect, I must say that people are not "turned"; they are inherently what they are. It is not a fad.

Many speakers have referred to the heart-searching that they have done in deciding how to vote. They have talked about their children, and I think that is right. My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen) spoke eloquently and poignantly about her son; I am sure that every hon. Member will join me in paying tribute to what she said tonight and in June. I too have a son. I am something of a failure in west London Roman Catholic circles in that, as the eldest of eight children, I have only two of my own, although that may be due to the political life.

My son is not yet 16. I love my son, and I hope that I will always love my son. I do not know whether he will be gay, straight or bisexual—that is up to him; that is what he will be—but, if he comes out as a gay man at the age of 16 or 17, I would like to show my love and respect for him by saying that I value and respect his sexuality just as much as I respect his sister's sexuality.

If we refused to pass the Bill tonight, we would condemn young men to be a lesser breed within the law. We would condemn people to be considered inferior, and to be excluded. That is inequitable and indefensible. Tonight, we have an opportunity to strike a blow for the one key, glorious principle that has been mentioned so many times—for the one word "equality".

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot 9:19 pm, 25th January 1999

Like the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound), I spent some time at sea, as a utility steward on a P and O liner. My cabin mates gave me this advice: if I went for a drink with the welfare officer and the welfare officer invited me to discuss my sex life with him and asked me to shut the door, I should shut the door, but should make sure that I was on the outside. I took that advice.

This has been a serious debate. I am sorry that those hon. Members who have vigorously supported the Bill have tried to portray those of us who deeply and profoundly oppose it as bigots or intolerant, saying that we do not care. That is far from the truth. It takes a lot of guts to fight for one's cause, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) did superbly, because the accusation is quickly made that one is intolerant and uncaring.

Let me address the key issues. First, the debate and the Bill are about the protection of young boys aged 16 or 17. We are not talking about the principle of homosexuality. We are talking about the issue as it applies to young boys of 16 or 17.

Secondly, as I said to the Home Secretary, the House has to understand what message will be sent from this place to our constituents, to the wider public and to the nation as a whole on how we wish society to be organised. That is the question that will go out from the House tonight. The Government are trying to have it both ways.

The Bill is not a Back-Bench measure; it is a Government Bill. The Government say that they are inclusive and all the rest of it, and wish to curry favour with certain sections of society, but, at the same time, they publish a weighty document on the family because all their polling says that the family is a good thing, so that is what they need to support if they are to continue to curry favour with voters.

The Government's document, much of which I agree with, says: This Government believes that marriage provides a strong foundation for stable relationships. It goes on to say: we do share the belief of the majority of people that marriage provides the most reliable framework for raising children. The Bill sends a message that conflicts with that one. It strikes at the heart of the concept of the nuclear family forming the basis of society.

I say that because, like the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Cann), whose contribution was extremely courageous, frank and accurate, I do not believe that homosexual activity is the same as heterosexual sex. The procreation of children cannot, by definition, take place within a family of homosexuals; it is not possible. The nation continues through heterosexual relations.

My fear is that the Bill reinforces the idea that is already being broadcast through various organs of the media—newspapers and, particularly, television, which is the most instrumental and influential—that a young person can choose between two equally valid life styles. That is not my view. I am sorry if others disagree, but I do not believe that that is the way in which to build a sound society.

The matter was well summed up by Baroness Young, who said: It is said that this whole issue is one of equality. I do not myself believe that there is a moral equivalence between heterosexual and homosexual relationships. Furthermore, I think that boys and girls are not equal in emotional development. I believe it is a very doubtful argument to bring equality into this issue at all. In many respects it simply does not apply. We are not talking about equal things."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 22 July 1998; Vol. 592, c. 939.] I entirely support what she said in her courageous fight in the other place.

My second point concerns the question: is the Bill the thin end of the wedge? Although others have argued that it is not, I believe that it is. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) made it clear that he views the Bill as a limited measure and wishes to go further; he set out ways in which he felt that that could be done. Labour Members have said that they wish section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 to be repealed. Indeed, the other day, I heard the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), on the radio, assuring someone on a programme about homosexuality that the Government would introduce measures to repeal section 28 at the earliest possible opportunity.

My third point concerns health. I must point out to the hon. Members for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes) and for Salford (Ms Blears) that the National Blood Service refuses to accept blood from any man who has had sex with another man. If anal sex does not cause HIV, what does? Why is the National Blood Service giving that clear instruction to all those who come before it?

I shall conclude now, because I know that others want to speak. We should pay heed to public opinion. Some 70 per cent. of people are not in favour of lowering the age of consent. We have heard a lot about democracy in another place. Perhaps we should listen to the public on this. The Bill threatens to be a charter for the abuse of young boys. That is why I shall oppose it.

Photo of Tony McNulty Tony McNulty Labour, Harrow East 9:26 pm, 25th January 1999

In the few moments available to me, I should like to dwell on at least two speeches that I have had the privilege—in one case the dubious privilege—to hear, because they were both extremely honest. One was by the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe), who took us through the struggles that he had had with the issue, coming from a deeply Christian background. He came out in favour of tolerance and all that is virtuous about Christianity by coming down in favour of the Bill.

The second very honest speech—I do not know about courageous—was by my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Cann). He said clearly what many of those who oppose the measure are scared to say: that, in their opinion, homosexuality does not equate in any way with heterosexuality. I entirely dispute that view, but it is sincerely held, even if the speech was rather strange.

I have no truck with the mean-minded, nasty little speech, bereft of any humanity and laced with intolerance—as expected—by the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis). It was unmitigated nonsense from start to finish. Sadly, he is not here at the moment. When I see him, I shall remind him of what I have just said. He needs to be told and have that put in his face. More than any other hon. Member, he probably shares, hook, line and sinker, the feelings that my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich had the courage to stand up and express, but he hid behind all sorts of tricks and loquaciousness to avoid saying so. That was a disgrace.

The only substantive argument that we have heard against equalising the age of consent today—or in the previous debate on the issue—is the view expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich, which fails to recognise homosexuality as natural or normal, regarding it only as a perversion or an aberration. On that basis, many of the arguments against the Bill are at least logical. They are still profoundly wrong, but at least they can be viewed as logical and, to some extent, honest. I do not support those arguments, because they are unsustainable, un-Christian, intolerant and logically and morally flawed.

If I were reflecting my mailbag, on balance I would go to the No Lobby rather than the Aye Lobby. I submitted a petition reflecting that opinion last time that the issue was debated. It included my mother's signature on one page, so I am not necessarily even reflecting my family's view.

Those who want intolerance, inhumanity and a lack of equality in this country in the 21st century should vote in the No Lobby. Those who want tolerance, fairness and equity at 16 should come with us in the Aye Lobby.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 9:29 pm, 25th January 1999

This has been an interesting, and at times passionate, debate. At the outset, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) said that this matter would be the subject of a free vote among Conservative Members. I shall be speaking for myself in the debate, and I will make it clear that I shall be voting for the age of consent to remain at 18. I accept that I will be in a minority in the vote because, as my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) said, after the earlier debate on this issue in this Parliament, this is a bit like playing a football match when the result is already know. This has not been like the occasion in 1994, when the outcome was in some doubt until a late stage.

We have heard speeches of some passion. Pre-eminent among them was the sincere, passionate and good speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward)—although I did not agree with him. He spoke in favour of the freedom of the individual, and made memorable points that were bound to appeal to hon. Members on both sides of the House. Certainly, he appealed to Conservative Members by appealing to the Conservative traditions of freedom, tolerance and respect for minorities. He quoted the late Enoch Powell as an authority on the need to protect minorities in these matters. I do not go down the same road as my hon. Friend, but I pay tribute to him on his speech. I appreciate that he made it with relevant experience, as a director of Childline and as someone who has thought about the issues carefully.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) made an equally outstanding speech. He spoke with great conviction, sincerity and passion. He emphasised that the vote inevitably sends a message to members of the public—we must face that fact. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) made the same point. There seemed to be some dissent in some quarters about that proposition, but it is difficult for hon. Members on the other side of the argument to dispute that we are sending a message—not least because a number of them made the self-same point.

Contrary to what has just been said by the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East made a powerful and honest speech in which there was no mistaking his point of view. I do not think that it was entirely fair of the hon. Gentleman to describe my hon. Friend's speech as he did. My hon. Friend made a powerful speech, which may not have been agreed with in all quarters, but was sincere, honest and clear.

My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) made an equally sincere and powerful speech, and made important points about the nature of marriage. He spoke for many in the House when he referred to the need to avoid promiscuity, and for all relationships of whatever nature to be faithful. My hon. Friend also spoke from a position of experience, as a trustee of the NSPCC.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) made some important points, and it was fair of him to say that those on the other side of the argument are wrong to characterise those taking his view, in favour of retaining the age of consent at 18, as bigoted, intolerant and uncaring. My hon. Friend proceeded to demonstrate exactly why that is a bogus assertion. He made clear his concerns, which will lead him, as matter of conscience, to vote against the Bill.

We have heard a number of speeches of equal passion from Labour Members, who have, in the main—although not exclusively—spoken in favour of the Bill. First, I must mention the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), who has done the House a great service by raising the issue of how best we protect our children. He made some extremely powerful points, and spoke about the large numbers of children who live away from home in boarding schools, foster care or whatever. That is a huge problem, and we have only to look at some of the alarming things that have happened in recent history to realise that the hon. Gentleman has done the House a service.

The hon. Member also referred to the second part of the Bill, which will have to be considered in some detail in Committee. He underlined the need for that consideration when he said that the House resents it when a Committee does not have the time and opportunity to consider a matter, as was the case with the amendment to the Crime and Disorder Bill. Now we have an opportunity to consider a Bill properly, and some time will have to be spent on that detailed consideration.

The short but powerful speech by the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) amply supported the case for detailed consideration. He clearly wants to go into detail about the adequacy of the maximum sentence proposed in the Bill, as well as about other important issues. He spoke powerfully about his experience, as someone professionally involved in the resulting cases, of the terrible consequences of abuse in children's homes.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) made a considered speech. I did not agree with his general point of view, but his well-thought-out speech went into some important points of detail, especially concerning the defences that would be available under both parts of the Bill. The points that he made on the statutory defence, the anomalies on sentencing and the sex offenders register constituted a strong case for detailed consideration of the second part.

Labour Members spoke in support of lowering the age of consent, with the exception of the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Cann). I join the hon. Member for Harrow, East in saying that, although I do not agree entirely with that hon. Gentleman's speech—my reasons for voting against the Bill will be different from his—I know a courageous speech when I hear one. The House should recognise that the hon. Member for Ipswich made a courageous speech.

I do not agree with the point of view of the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen), but I acknowledge that she made a sincere and passionate speech, as she did in our previous debate on the subject when she moved the amendment to the Crime and Disorder Bill. I acknowledge her sincere approach to these issues.

I approach all our debates and decisions on moral issues with a certain amount of humility. I am not one of those who like to give people great lectures about how they should run their lives. I accept, however, that, on this occasion, like every other hon. Member, I am called upon to exercise my judgment and do what I as an individual think is right.

In 1994, I voted to reduce the age of consent from 21 to 18. I thought then that there was a strong case for such a change. I hope that I will be acquitted of any suggestion that I am against homosexuals or trying to condemn homosexuality. I am thinking about what is the appropriate age of consent. I have listened carefully to all the arguments that have been made in favour of lowering it, but I am far less convinced of the case for reduction to 16 than I was of the case for reduction to 18.

I feel—as many members of the public do, if surveys are to be believed—that 16 is too young for something of this importance. The Home Secretary earlier cited with approval—rightly, I believe—the Wolfenden report, which, as he acknowledged, brought about a sea change in these matters. He made it clear—and I agree with him—that, before the report and the changes that it eventually brought about, there was huge unhappiness. Other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Witney, have acknowledged the same point.

I look back to Wolfenden, which ushered in an age of tolerance of homosexuality, to see exactly what it said about the age of consent. That report can certainly be acquitted of any suggestion of being anti-homosexual. What did it say? We know that it set the age of consent at 21. Some members of the committee favoured 18, but the view taken on the age of 16 as an age of consent was clear: While there are some grounds for fixing the age as low as sixteen, it is obvious that however 'mature' a boy of that age may be as regards physical development or psycho-sexual make-up, and whatever analogies may be drawn from the law relating to offences against young girls, a boy is incapable, at the age of sixteen, of forming a mature judgment about actions of a kind which might have the effect of setting him apart from the rest of society. We all know that society has changed a great deal since 1957, but there is still some merit in that approach. Actions of that type would, at the very least, have profound consequences for a young person that could follow him for the rest of his life. In a matter of such importance, it is not too much to ask someone to wait until he is 18 before he is able to take such a step. A large section of public opinion shares that view on the appropriate age of consent.

There are people who, for various reasons, are anti-homosexual. There is a section of opinion that is, as some hon. Members would put it, prejudiced. However, a much larger element of public opinion feels some unease on this subject, and feels that 18 is a more appropriate age than 16. The public are far more tolerant than they once were of gay life styles and so forth, but even among those tolerant people who wish to treat homosexual people as equals, there remains unease at the prospect of lowering the age of consent from 18 to 16. I share that concern.

My hon. Friend the Member for Witney spoke of Enoch Powell and of the protection of minorities. We should not, he said, slavishly follow the enfranchised majority. That is a fair point; Enoch Powell made a memorable speech—about capital punishment, I think—on whether Members of Parliament should or should not, when called on to exercise their individual consciences, have any regard for public opinion. It is an interesting question, but I shall not go into it now.

I believe, however, that public opinion should be listened to on this matter. The public have it right: no matter how much people may wish to tolerate homosexuality and accord equality to it, a large element of public opinion is uneasy about the step we are considering. People are concerned that 16 is simply too young, and believe that 18 is more appropriate. It would be a mistake, and it would not be good for young people, so soon after Parliament had reduced the age from 21 to 18 to reduce it still further to an age that many people—myself included—regard as too young.

Photo of Mr Paul Boateng Mr Paul Boateng Minister of State, Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) 9:43 pm, 25th January 1999

The House has heard a good debate in which a topic that arouses deep feelings has been discussed with seriousness and passion. Feelings are deep on both sides of the House, among those who are for and against the Bill, and feelings also run deep in the country. It is right that we should have a free vote, and I shall vote, as I always have, for the equalisation of the age of consent at 16. Each of us must approach this issue informed by our consciences, our experience and our personal views.

It is interesting that hon. Members both for and against the Bill have felt able to talk about faith, and about love. That does the House great credit.

As we move forward in this process, it is important that we continue, both on the Floor of the House and in Committee, to approach the topic in a way that does not harden attitudes or alienate our fellow citizens who have strongly held views and also in a way that recognises that we are dealing with a subject that goes to the heart of people's very existence. During the debate, hon. Members have mentioned the anguish that individuals and their families feel as they approach their own sexuality and its impact on themselves and on those they love.

The Bill falls into two distinct parts. We owe a debt of gratitude to my hon. Friends the Members for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding)—she could not be present tonight for reasons that we all know and understand—and for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen) for enabling us to examine the Bill in this way and to give it the detailed consideration that it deserves.

The first part of the Bill deals with the age of consent, which is a matter of principle and, for many hon. Members who spoke, is very much a matter of equality before the law. The second part, quite differently, deals with abuse of trust and must be seen as part of the Government's much wider work—how we protect children and vulnerable people—and I am glad it enjoys the support of both sides of the House. That is a top priority for the Government.

My hon. Friends the Members for Salford (Ms Blears) and for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes) said that it is important that we recognise the significance of what we are doing in terms of that wider programme of work on the "Quality Protects" initiative, the children's safeguards review and our response to that. During the review of sexual offences that we announced earlier, we will ensure that the goal of protection from abuse is the paramount goal for the criminal law in that area. Nothing must be subordinated to it.

We must ensure that we prevent unsuitable people from working with children. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced earlier, we will make available the report of the group of experts that we asked to examine the matter to ensure that we work out the details of an integrated scheme to protect vulnerable people and children as a matter of priority. We have to do so not because we are discussing the equalisation of the age of consent today, but because it is the right thing to do. It was always the right thing to do and it has been neglected for far too long.

Also, we must deal with the wider issues that have been raised in the debate, particularly, but not exclusively, by those who oppose equalisation of the age of consent, saying that it is the thin end of the wedge. That point was made by the hon. Members for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) and for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis).

My hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) expressed concern about the importance of ensuring that we get the penalties right in cases of abuse of trust. I am here to assure him, first, that we are determined to ensure that the provisions contained in the Bill on abuse of trust are clearly understood to refer to consensual activity. With the sort of activities that he described—rape and indecent assault—it is right that the full penalties invoked by the law for such offences should apply. The Bill deals with abuse of trust in relation to consensual acts. I am sure that he appreciates the difference. That is precisely the sort of matter that we will discuss in Committee.

The same is true of the matters of detail raised by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris). They properly relate to the wider issues of equality dealt with by our review of sexual offences. The review again seeks to build a broad consensus in our society that recognises deeply held feelings and the issues of faith and belief that inform all hon. Members in their approach to the subject.

On the thin-end-of-the-wedge argument, let me make this crystal clear: the Government are wholly opposed to any further reduction in the age of consent for either sex. We will not countenance a reduction to 14, 12 or any of the other ages mentioned with reference to our European neighbours.

Photo of Mr Paul Boateng Mr Paul Boateng Minister of State, Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office)

Not at the moment.

This is not about encouraging teenage sex but about ensuring that the law is fair and seen to be fair. We know that the criminal law is a blunt and often deeply unsatisfactory instrument in dealing with the difficult and complex issues raised by teenage sexuality. It would be folly to pretend otherwise.

Photo of Mr Paul Boateng Mr Paul Boateng Minister of State, Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office)

Not at the moment.

The hon. Member for New Forest, East asked about the mental state of a young man who committed suicide when he had only to wait another 18 months or so. My response is this: what sort of society allows a young man to get into that frame of mind in the first place? We must ensure that, as a society, we recognise the impact on the mental health of the young people concerned. The House will wish to consider that. While we must be concerned about AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases, I ask hon. Members, who I know hold their views in all sincerity, to bear that in mind in examining the measure's health implications. Their arguments are not supported by the British Medical Association or those who have an interest in, or who spend their professional lives tackling, issues of adolescent sexual health.

I want to move on to abuse of trust. We want to ensure that the Bill has a proportionate response to the concerns expressed in the debate, both here and in another place last summer. It was a fundamental principle in considering the new protections proposed in the Bill that they should be wholly non-discriminatory. I believe that we have achieved that end.

The new offence is a useful additional means of addressing concern about the lack of a suitable range of protection for vulnerable 16 and 17-year-olds of both sexes. It must form part of a wider programme of work, both statutory and non-statutory. It is in that context that we will address the codes of practice that are so important in ensuring that we reflect the concerns raised by several hon. Members, not least the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), who mentioned the impact of the abuse of trust provision on the professions. We believe that it is necessary that the provision should apply to teachers, because teachers stand in loco parentis: that is what distinguishes them from the members of various other professions who also exercise a degree of care and responsibility over children and young people. That is why we have included teachers as we have. There is room for discussion with the professions on the code of practice and we intend that that discussion should take place.

It is important to recognise what lies behind the marriage exception, a subject raised by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon. He has to understand that the marriage exception is a specific reflection of the importance and special status that the European convention on human rights gives to marriage. It would be wrong if, in the provisions relating to abuse of trust, no reference was made to marriage. It must be emphasised and clearly understood that the provision does not in any way excuse abuses of trust prior to marriage.

Photo of Mr Gerry Bermingham Mr Gerry Bermingham Labour, St Helens South

Given what Ministers have said about the points relating to abuse that I raised earlier and about the codes of practice, is the Minister saying that he and the Government have an open mind on the whole subject of the codes of practice, penalties and the way in which abuse is dealt with?

Photo of Mr Paul Boateng Mr Paul Boateng Minister of State, Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office)

I assure my hon. Friend that those are indeed matters which we shall examine in Committee and during our consultations and discussions with the professions. We need to get it right, because our first duty is to the children and young people who will be most affected by the legislation.

Tonight has been a night of speeches that reflect the concern about the issues that is felt in the wider community. We approach the subject from the perspective, not only of rights, but of responsibilities. We have to get the balance right between rights and responsibilities. One word has not been mentioned as often as it might have been: we have heard about tolerance, which is important; but even more important than tolerance is respect—respect for difference and respect for institutions that contain individuals who have a particular responsibility of trust in connection with children and vulnerable people. The debate is about rights and responsibilities, but, above all, it is about respect—respect for one another, respect for childhood and the vulnerability that comes with childhood.

If we get the balance right and if hon. Members bear that in mind when they cast their vote tonight and subsequently, we stand a good chance of getting the legislation right. There is a great deal riding on our getting it right, for, if we get it wrong, the consequences for many vulnerable and young people will be extremely serious. Tonight, I shall vote in support of the Bill. Hon. Members have an opportunity to make up their own mind. I have no doubt that they will do the right thing.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 313, Noes 130.

Division No. 46][9.59 pm
AYES
Ainger, NickBorrow, David
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)Boswell, Tim
Allan, RichardBradley, Keith (Withington)
Allen, GrahamBradshaw, Ben
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale)Brake, Tom
Armstrong, Ms HilaryBrooke, Rt Hon Peter
Ashdown, Rt Hon PaddyBrown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E)
Ashton, JoeBrown, Russell (Dumfries)
Atherton, Ms CandyBrowne, Desmond
Atkins, CharlotteBuck, Ms Karen
Austin, JohnBurden, Richard
Ballard, JackieBurgon, Colin
Barnes, HarryButler, Mrs Christine
Barron, KevinByers, Rt Hon Stephen
Bayley, HughCable, Dr Vincent
Beard, NigelCaborn, Richard
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs MargaretCampbell, Alan (Tynemouth)
Begg, Miss AnneCampbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Beith, Rt Hon A JCampbell, Menzies (NE Fife)
Benn, Rt Hon TonyCampbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Bennett, Andrew FCampbell-Savours, Dale
Bermingham, GeraldCanavan, Dennis
Berry, RogerCaplin, Ivor
Best, HaroldCasale, Roger
Betts, CliveCawsey, Ian
Blears, Ms HazelChapman, Ben (Wirral S)
Blunkett, Rt Hon DavidChaytor, David
Boateng, PaulChidgey, David
Chisholm, MalcolmHanson, David
Church, Ms JudithHarman, Rt Ron Ms Harriet
Clapham, MichaelHarris, Dr Evan
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)Harvey, Nick
Clark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands)Heal, Mrs Sylvia
Healey, John
Clark, Paul (Gillingham)Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)
Clarke, Charles (Norwich S)Heath, Rt Hon Sir Edward
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N)
Clelland, DavidHenderson, Ivan (Harwich)
Clwyd, AnnHeppell, John
Coaker, VernonHesford, Stephen
Coffey, Ms AnnHewitt, Ms Patricia
Cohen, HarryHill, Keith
Coleman, IainHinchliffe, David
Colman, TonyHodge, Ms Margaret
Cook, Rt Hon Robin (Livingston)Hoey, Kate
Cooper, YvetteHome Robertson, John
Corbett, RobinHoon, Geoffrey
Corbyn, JeremyHope, Phil
Corston, Ms JeanHopkins, Kelvin
Cotter, BrianHowarth, Alan (Newport E)
Cousins, JimHowarth, George (Knowsley N)
Cranston, RossHoyle, Lindsay
Crausby, DavidHughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)
Cryer, John (Hornchurch)Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Cummings, JohnHughes, Simon (Southwark N)
Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr Jack (Copeland)Humble, Mrs Joan
Hurst, Alan
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)Hutton, John
Darling, Rt Hon AlistairIllsley, Eric
Darvill, KeithJackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)
Davey, Edward (Kingston)Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)Jamieson, David
Davies, Rt Hon Ron (Caerphilly)Jenkins, Brian
Dawson, HiltonJohnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)
Dean, Mrs JanetJohnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)
Denham, John
Dismore, AndrewJones, Mrs Fiona (Newark)
Dobson, Rt Hon FrankJones, Helen (Warrington N)
Doran, FrankJones, leuan Wyn (Ynys Môn)
Dowd, JimJones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)
Drown, Ms JuliaKaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Duncan, AlanKeeble, Ms Sally
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)Keetch, Paul
Efford, CliveKelly, Ms Ruth
Ellman, Mrs LouiseKemp, Fraser
Ewing, Mrs MargaretKennedy, Jane (Wavertree)
Feam, RonnieKey, Robert
Field, Rt Hon FrankKidney, David
Fitzpatrick, JimKing, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)
Fitzsimons, LornaKingham, Ms Tess
Flint, CarolineKumar, Dr Ashok
Follett, BarbaraLadyman, Dr Stephen
Foster, Don (Bath)Laing, Mrs Eleanor
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings)Lawrence, Ms Jackie
Foster, Michael J (Worcester)Laxton, Bob
Foulkes, GeorgeLepper, David
Galloway, GeorgeLeslie, Christopher
Gapes, MikeLevitt, Tom
George, Andrew (St Ives)Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)
Gibson, Dr IanLiddell, Mrs Helen
Gilroy, Mrs LindaLinton, Martin
Godsiff, RogerLivingstone, Ken
Goggins, PaulLloyd, Tony (Manchester C)
Gordon, Mrs EileenLock, David
Gorrie, DonaldLove, Andrew
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)McAllion, John
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)McAvoy, Thomas
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)McCabe, Steve
Grocott, BruceMcCartney, Ian (Makerfield)
Grogan, JohnMcDonagh, Siobhain
Gunnell, JohnMcDonnell, John
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)McGuire, Mrs Anne
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)McIsaac, Shona
Maclennan, Rt Hon RobertSedgemore, Brian
McNulty, TonySheerman, Barry
MacShane, DenisSheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Mactaggart, FionaShipley, Ms Debra
McWalter, TonyShort, Rt Hon Clare
Mahon, Mrs AliceSimpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
Mallaber, JudySkinner, Dennis
Mandelson, Rt Hon PeterSmith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)
Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)Smith, Angela (Basildon)
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)Smith, Rt Hon Chris (Islington S)
Marshall-Andrews, RobertSmith, Jacqui (Redditch)
Martlew, EricSmith, John (Glamorgan)
Maxton, JohnSmith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Meale, AlanSmith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Merron, GillianSoley, Clive
Michael, AlunSouthworth, Ms Helen
Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)Squire, Ms Rachel
Milburn, AlanStarkey, Dr Phyllis
Miller, AndrewStinchcombe, Paul
Mitchell, AustinStott, Roger
Morley, ElliotStrang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin
Morris, Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)Straw, Rt Hon Jack
Mountford, KaliStuart, Ms Gisela
Mullin, ChrisStunell, Andrew
Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)Swinney, John
Murphy, Paul (Torfaen)Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)
Öpik, LembitTaylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Osborne, Ms SandraTaylor, Matthew (Truro)
Palmer, Dr NickTimms, Stephen
Pearson, IanTipping, Paddy
Pendry, TomTodd, Mark
Perham, Ms LindaTouhig, Don
Pickthall, ColinTrickett, Jon
Pike, Peter LTurner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Plaskitt, JamesTwigg, Derek (Halton)
Pond, ChrisTwigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Pope, GregTyler, Paul
Pound, StephenVaz, Keith
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)Ward, Ms Claire
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)Watts, David
Primarolo, DawnWhite, Brian
Quin, Ms JoyceWhitehead, Dr Alan
Quinn, LawrieWicks, Malcolm
Rammell, BillWilliams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Rapson, Syd
Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)Willis, Phil
Rendel, DavidWinnick, David
Roche, Mrs BarbaraWinterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Rooney, TerryWise, Audrey
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)Worthington, Tony
Rowe, Andrew (Faversham)Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Ruddock, Ms JoanWright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Russell, Ms Christine (Chester)
Ryan, Ms JoanTellers for the Ayes:
Sanders, AdrianAnn Keen and
Sawford, PhilMr. Shaun Woodward.
NOES
Amess, DavidCann, Jamie
Ancram, Rt Hon MichaelChope, Christopher
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)Clappison, James
Baldry, TonyClark, Dr Michael (Rayleigh)
Beggs, RoyClarke, Eric (Midlothian)
Bell, Martin (Tatton)Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Rushcliffe)
Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough)
Benton, JoeClifton-Brown, Geoffrey
Bercow, JohnCormack, Sir Patrick
Beresford, Sir PaulCran, James
Blunt, CrispinDalyell, Tam
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs VirginiaDavies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Brazier, JulianDavies, Quentin (Grantham)
Breed, ColinDavis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice)
Browning, Mrs AngelaDay, Stephen
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)Donaldson, Jeffrey
Butterfill, JohnDorrell, Rt Hon Stephen
Duncan Smith, IainPaisley, Rev Ian
Ernery, Rt Hon Sir PeterPaterson, Owen
Evans, NigelPickles, Eric
Fallon, MichaelPollard, Kerry
Flight, HowardPowell, Sir Raymond
Forth, Rt Hon EricRandall, John
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir NormanRedwood, Rt Hon John
Fox, Dr LiamRobathan, Andrew
Gale, RogerRoe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Garnier, EdwardRogers, Allan
George, Bruce (Walsall S)Ross, William (E Lond'y)
Gill, ChristopherRowlands, Ted
Gorman, Mrs TeresaRuffley, David
Gray, JamesRussell, Bob (Colchester)
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir ArchieSt Aubyn, Nick
Hammond, PhilipSayeed, Jonathan
Hawkins, NickShephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian
Hayes, JohnSimpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)
Heald, OliverSmyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)
Heseltine, Rt Hon MichaelSoames, Nicholas
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Hunter, AndrewSpicer, Sir Michael
Jack, Rt Hon MichaelStanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Johnson Smith, Rt Hon Sir GeoffreyStreeter, Gary
Swayne, Desmond
King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)Syms, Robert
Kirkbride, Miss JulieTapsell, Sir Peter
Lait, Mrs JacquiTaylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Lansley, AndrewTaylor, John M (Solihull)
Letwin, OliverTaylor, Sir Teddy
Lidington, DavidThompson, William
Lilley, Rt Hon PeterTredinnick, David
Lyell, Rt Hon Sir NicholasTrend, Michael
MacGregor, Rt Hon JohnTyrie, Andrew
McIntosh, Miss AnneViggers, Peter
McLoughlin, PatrickWalter, Robert
Madel, Sir DavidWardle, Charles
Maginnis, KenWareing, Robert N
Malins, HumfreyWaterson, Nigel
Maples, JohnWells, Bowen
Marshall, David (Shettleston)Whitney, Sir Raymond
Mates, MichaelWhittingdale, John
Maude, Rt Hon FrancisWilkinson, John
Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir BrianWinterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
May, Mrs TheresaWinterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)Yeo, Tim
Moss, MalcolmYoung, Rt Hon Sir George
Nicholls, Patrick
O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)Tellers for the Noes:
Ottaway, RichardMr. Edward Leigh and
Paice, JamesDr. Julian Lewis.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63(3) (Committal of Bills),That Clause 1 of the Bill be committed to a Committee of the whole House;That the remainder of the Bill be committed to a Standing Committee;That when the provisions of the Bill considered, respectively, by the Committee of the whole House and by the Standing Committee have been reported to the House, the Bill shall be proceeded with as if the Bill had been reported as a whole to the House from the Standing Committee.—[Mrs. McGuire.]

Question agreed to.

Committee tomorrow.