My Lords, perhaps when the noble Baroness reaches the age of 55, she might have thought more and changed her mind.
Since this Bill was last in your Lordships' House there has been an important event; that is, the publication of the Waterhouse report. It made for disturbing and horrifying reading. In fact, I felt quite sickened when I read how young people were subjected to acts of such depravity and brutality when "in care". How bizarre those two words appear in this context. We supposed that they were in a safe and caring situation when, in fact, the carers were abusers of the worst kind.
I cannot believe that such wickedness has taken place in this day and age. One had hoped that evil people would no longer be able to act in that way. I feel that all those young people who suffered were completely let down, particularly by those in authority, but also by all of us. So we must accept responsibility and do everything in our power to ensure that such ghastly events never occur again. That is why I find it inconceivable that this new Labour Government are going ahead with this Bill, and at this particularly sensitive time.
As I have said before, one aspect of the Bill gives me great concern; that is, the effect on girls. It was only as recently as 1994 that the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act lowered the age of consent from 21 to 18 for homosexual acts. Also, for the first time, it decriminalised consensual buggery in private of a woman by a man where both parties were over 18. Not many people realise that the Bill before us will in any way affect girls. In fact, I have still not found anyone who understands that that is the case; and I have to report to your Lordships that their reaction is one of horror when told that the Bill will legalise the buggery of girls as young as 16.
During the passage of the 1994 Bill, Tony Blair--now the Prime Minister--referred to the debate as one not about age, but about equality. I cannot accept that. As the bodies of boys and girls are very different, they can never be treated as equal. But I accepted the majority view of the House when the age of consent was lowered from 21 to 18. It is at 18 that young people become adult and are able to make up their minds and make their own decisions. If that means following a homosexual way of life, then that is their prerogative.
I am reluctant to go into detail, but I hope your Lordships will forgive me if I do so just a little. There has been extensive research on the effect of consensual buggery which makes for distressing reading. Anal intercourse carries particular risk for the transmission of disease and increased vulnerability to HIV. It also carries the risk of actual physical damage for the receptive partner as the soft tissues can become traumatised and impaired permanently. The use of condoms cannot offer adequate protection. Also, there is great significance in the fact that those who have ever had anal intercourse are not permitted to donate blood in the UK through the National Blood Service.
It is therefore my belief that we have a duty to protect young girls. This Bill would send a message to them that this type of activity was safe, and the message to predatory older men that it was all right for them to lure the young into a way of life that they may later regret.
I know that some noble Lords feel that, because I hold the views that I do, I must be bigoted and out of tune with society. They take an opposite view. But I respect them, even though I am in total disagreement. I feel just as passionately as they, and certainly speak from the heart. I am no expert, but I am the mother of two sons, and the grandmother of a boy and two girls. I am also a magistrate and in that capacity I have listened to lurid details of young people being subjected to appalling acts. Having seen the impact of this behaviour in the raw, one never forgets these things. I see this Bill not as an added freedom for the young but as a licence for evil men to abuse young people.
I only hope that new Labour, as opposed to old Labour, understand that it is they who are out of tune with society, as the vast majority of people in this country do not want this Bill. This Government live not by the sword but by spin, and I do not know which is worse. They appear to employ, at public expense, more and more of those highly paid people to put over their message; but you cannot fool all the people all of the time. It may be that, one day soon, nobody will know whether or not to believe anything that this Government say.
I conclude by quoting from the fifteenth report of the Criminal Law Revision Committee in 1984. It stated:
"The differing opinions as to whether the age should be 16 or 18 expressed on our Working Paper are taken by these members to demonstrate that this is a sensitive issue, on which the law would do well not to move too far in advance of public feeling".
I believe that those words are just as relevant today and that the Government would do well to heed them. I can only ask your Lordships to agree.