Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill

– in the House of Lords at 3:28 pm on 11th April 2000.

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Photo of Lord Williams of Mostyn Lord Williams of Mostyn Attorney General, Law Officers' Department, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 3:28 pm, 11th April 2000

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. Your Lordships will want to know the Government's position. First, as far as we are concerned, this is a free vote. If my advice is wanted, and even if it is not, I offer it. I support the principle and the detail of the Bill. I believe that it will improve our law and ensure equality before the criminal law for young homosexuals and young heterosexuals. Secondly, should the Bill be once more rejected by your Lordships, we shall use the Parliament Act procedure.

On 28th February this year, the House of Commons passed the Bill at Third Reading by 317 votes to 117, a majority of 200 votes. The House was entitled to know, from the outset, what our intention is, and I hope I have made it clear. Apart from that, when I offer my own opinion to your Lordships, for what it may be worth, I am fortified by the fact that I am in good company. I shall mention just one or two organisations: Barnardo's, NCH Action for Children, Save the Children, the Family Welfare Association, the British Medical Association, the Family Planning Association, the National Association of Probation Officers, the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. I again declare my former interest, having been a trustee until the date of the last election of the NSPCC. Perhaps I may say about all of those organisations--I hope without dissent--that every one of them is a deeply respected organisation absolutely committed to the welfare and well-being of young people.

Your Lordships may allow me another short list: the Prime Minister, Mr Ashdown when leader of the Liberal Democrats and Mr Charles Kennedy now all support this step towards equality. So did Mr Hague. I repeat what I said last time about Mr Hague's position. I think that it was an act of political and moral courage. What I said last time was not "cosmetics" and I repeat it now. Mr Portillo supports this position. He voted in favour of the Bill at Third Reading in the Commons. I repeat that what I said about Mr Hague applies abundantly to Mr Portillo. His has been a stance of political and moral, sometimes quite rare, courage.

Sometimes the human mind is capable of being changed by rational argument; not, I readily admit, on every occasion. Perhaps I may give a citation which particularly struck my mind on looking at the proceedings in the House of Commons on 10th February. Mr John Bercow, Member of Parliament for Buckingham, stated:

"I have changed my mind on this subject ... The words, 'I was wrong' do not readily trip off my tongue, but that is what I believe".

Mr Bercow continued,

"I intend to vote for the Bill, for reform, and, I think, progress".--[Official Report, Commons, 10/2/2000; col. 455.]

It is idle to attribute bad faith to anyone. Your Lordships who have attended debates on this topic and similar topics will, I think, recognise that I have never tried to impute bad motive to anyone. I would ask your Lordships to wonder if you are entirely in tune on past history with what the young think; what they do; how they run their lives and the sweetness of heart and greatness of mind with which they view those who are different from them.

It is deeply necessary not to confuse what we may disapprove of with what must be criminalised. There is, after all, a libertarian thread that runs through our public life and, indeed, still has reflection among many of those in the Conservative Party who voted for this Bill in the other place. I have mentioned only one or two but there were others. It is one of the most attractive features of this country. It is worth remembering it and protecting it. One noble Lord said in a context not dissimilar on the continuing--I almost said "endless"--discussion about Section 28 that homosexuality is wrong; adultery is wrong and fornication is wrong. That may be so but they are not criminal offences, nor should they be in any world that aspires to be sane or civilised.

Photo of Earl Ferrers Earl Ferrers Conservative

My Lords, perhaps I may interrupt the Minister. I rather fancy, from what he said and the way that he was looking, that he was attributing those words to me. However, if he would do me the courtesy of reading Hansard correctly, he would see that I said that the Churches said that.

Photo of Lord Williams of Mostyn Lord Williams of Mostyn Attorney General, Law Officers' Department, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Earl was, indeed, quoting what some church leaders say. However, the consequences of those views do not produce an equivalent response in all bishops, as the noble Earl knows perfectly well. He and I have studied the way the bishops voted last time and they were not unanimously against what I am presently putting before your Lordships. Nor were they unanimous in the debate on Section 26 and its related matters.

It does not really matter who said it first or who thought of it first because I do not regard it as a flash of blinding illumination, but it is still the position in some states of the United States that some of these activities remain notionally subject to the criminal law, and if they are, it simply makes the law a nonsense.

We have examined the issues, and related ones, at great length. I do not do your Lordships any great service by adding to the tedium. The Bill does three things, which are very important. First, Clause 1 reduces the age of lawful consent for certain sexual practices, including buggery, to 16 from 18; that is, to the lawful age of consent for heterosexual intercourse. In Northern Ireland, as your Lordships will have seen, there is equality, but at 17 because 17 is the age of consent for heterosexual intercourse in Northern Ireland.

Secondly, Clause 2 provides that a person under the age of consent no longer commits an offence if the other party is over the age of consent. Clause 3 introduces a new offence where a person of 18 or over has sexual intercourse or engages in sexual activity with or directed towards a person under that age if he or she is in a position of trust.

Those are extremely important matters. Your Lordships know from our previous discussions that I have been, I hope, a strong protagonist of the protection presently lacking in our law in respect of the abusive misuse of a position of trust. Clause 4 defines a position of trust. It is important, as we shall see in a moment, that Clause 4(1) allows the extension of that definition by statutory instruments.

I shall be brief. We need to be clear--I say this with great respect--about what we are debating. We are not debating whether homosexuality is a good idea or a bad idea. We are not debating whether homosexuality should be lawful; it already is between consenting adults--that is 18 and over--in private. What we are debating is quite simple: should the present age of consent for buggery be reduced from 18 to 16? That relates also to male homosexual activity.

Many of the organisations which I have specified, and many others, support this reform. The arguments are well known. I do not recapitulate them. I have said that my personal stance is that I support this reform. I suggest, though this may not please all your Lordships, that an unequal age of consent is the mark of an intolerant society. This country, and this House--I believe that we can glory in some of our history--has a long tradition--

Photo of Lord Northbourne Lord Northbourne Crossbench

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

Photo of Lord Williams of Mostyn Lord Williams of Mostyn Attorney General, Law Officers' Department, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bill is not difficult to understand, either in its scheme or detail, and, most important, in the reasoning behind it. I repeat that I recognise that there are many noble Lords who will find this matter unacceptable. I recognise that people hold very strong views. However, I hope that noble Lords will look again at the real issues. We have held back these measures for too long and we should now progress to action in pursuit of equality and justice. I beg to move.

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

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative 3:45 pm, 11th April 2000

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

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

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

Photo of Lord Carter Lord Carter Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Lords Chief Whip (HM Household)

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

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative

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

Photo of Lord Carter Lord Carter Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Lords Chief Whip (HM Household)

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

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative

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

If that does not work, then Mr Blair, the Prime Minister, will resort to the Parliament Act. As I have just said, he will do that on an issue which is said to be a matter of conscience for each Member. Why is there this obsession with sex and sexuality and, given the timetabling difficulties, what is the urgency?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clause 28 is to be repealed, which will remove protection of young people from those who wish to promote homosexuality. Only today we learnt about a newsletter written by Berkshire Health Authority which is being circulated to schools. The letter advertises websites which carry blatant sex material and recommends courses run by an organisation teaching homosexuals how to "cruise" for sex. Are not the Government concerned about that corrupting material being made available to school children? Not only is there a case for retaining Section 28; there is also a strong case for extending it to include health authorities.

Photo of Earl Russell Earl Russell Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I beg the pardon of the noble Baroness for being out of the Chamber for a moment. Am I right in understanding that she is raising the item from Berkshire Health Authority reported in this morning's paper?

Photo of Earl Russell Earl Russell Liberal Democrat

My Lords, in that case she might be interested to know that that material was not distributed to pupils. It is part of an HIV prevention document and was distributed only to head teachers and personal health and safety advisers.

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative

My Lords, yes, with an invitation to head teachers to make it available to their children in the schools.

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative

My Lords, we will have to agree to differ on that. I was speaking to someone in Berkshire only this morning and I know that many heads have been appalled by the letter that they received on behalf of their children.

There are so many mixed messages here. The Government express concern over the education and health of the nation's children, and yet this Bill represents a serious health risk to young people. There is also an inconsistency; even--dare I say?--a misleading message coming from the Prime Minister and Mr Donald Dewar, First Minister in Scotland, when they claim that sexuality role-playing by children in school does not happen and will not happen under this Government.

First, it does happen. On page 16, paragraph 4.4 of the Government's guidelines, which are out for consultation, it specifically advocates role-playing as a way of dealing with sex and sexuality in schools. The teaching book which is used in the Avon area sets out detailed lesson plans, including lists of characters to which I referred in a previous debate, representing every form of sexuality including some pretty deviant ones.

Government Ministers have been extremely critical of the media, and of the effective campaign that has raged in Scotland, which opposed these proposals and the repeal of Clause 28. Well, I thank God that we still live in a country where the voice of the people can be given expression without fear or favour of the government of the day--any government of the day.

There is another dimension to this Bill which should be explored. I recently asked a Written Question about the effect of the Human Rights Act where there is a ban on homosexual and heterosexual activity in boarding schools. For example, would the human rights of two boys to have sex while in the care of a school override the school rules? What I found extremely disturbing is that, after all the reassurances that were given to Members of this House when the Human Rights Bill was considered, the Minister, in answer to my Question, was unable to clarify the position and said that it must be a matter for the courts. That will come as cold comfort for the parents who see the schools as acting in loco parentis. My noble friend Lord Waddington will speak further on that issue.

As I have said, the abuse of trust clauses in this Bill are feeble and are deeply flawed. First, there are many other categories of people who are in a position of trust but who are not included in the Bill and the Government appear reluctant to accept amendments. In fact, this Bill had only cursory debate in another place and I hope that that will not be the case in this House. Secondly, what is the position, for example, of a teacher or youth worker who has sex with another 16 year-old from a neighbouring school or youth club for whom they are not directly in a position of trust?

One only has to read the Waterhouse Report, Lost in Care, about the child abuse scandal in Wales to know that the abuse of trust clauses are wholly inadequate to protect vulnerable young people. No account is being taken by government of the particular vulnerabilities of 16 to 18 year-olds in care--a point highlighted in the report with great poignancy when referring to the unbelievably cruel abuse of "Child B".

Much of the abuse suffered by the children in the Waterhouse Report was committed by people who were not in a position of trust as defined in the Bill. Does not that concern the Government? My noble friend Lady Young will deal with that point in detail. Meanwhile, I must appeal to the Minister that if this Bill is not to be abandoned, as I believe it should, then the abuse of trust clauses must be strengthened.

If equality is the issue, then the age of 16 is highly debatable, not simply because many of us believe it is far too young, but because other ages can be considered; for example, 17 in Ireland or 18 as is the case now. One can level upwards as well as level downwards. I put the Minister on notice that he will hear more on that at Committee and Report stages.

I was fascinated to see that, although Scotland now has a Parliament and this is a devolved matter, the Bill includes Scotland as well as Wales, Northern Ireland and England. Can the Minister say why that is? Has the Scottish Assembly waived its right to consider and determine the matter? If so, was it formally agreed in the Parliament by all of its Members and when? Do the people of Scotland who have expressed serious concerns over the repeal of Section 28 know that there is a probability that the Westminster Government will use the Parliament Act to impose these measures on Scotland as well as on England, Wales and Northern Ireland? I believe members of the public in Scotland will be as appalled as some of us are that, on a matter of conscience, the Government intend to invoke the Parliament Act. I would have thought that the Ayr by-election just might have given Mr Blair second thoughts, especially given the second thoughts he has had over the devolution process in Scotland and Wales.

Bullying is another very real issue. But bullying of young people should not be used to defend this Bill. As has been said on many occasions, bullying is an issue which must be addressed by schools, just as respect for tolerance of others is fundamental to a civilised society and must be taught by parents and teachers and supported by the community.

In bringing forward this Bill, the Government have taken no account of the delicate stage of development of pubescent teenagers. Little account has been taken of public opinion on this issue. The Bill provides little or no protection for the most vulnerable children. Their health and well-being will be put at greater risk by these proposals. The Government have been too ready to listen to and take heed of the more vociferous campaigning gay and lesbian groups. "Children's rights" have given way to "gay rights".

In the name of equality, men will now be allowed to commit buggery on girls as young as 16. How can that be defended? And predatory men will now be able to claim that their victim consented. And if they are to be convicted, it will be up to the victims to prove that they did not consent. In this regard the Government would do well to read and to learn from the report on the child abuse scandal in Wales.

Childhood should be nurtured and cherished, not corrupted and damaged by persons who are not in the position of trust, as in the case of "Child B" in Wales--a situation that would be permissible under this Bill.

Those who share the view of my noble friend Lady Young and myself will spare no energy in the coming weeks in pressing amendments to persuade the Government that this is, above all, about the protection of children. This House has a duty, if it so decides, to ask the Government to think again, and I hope that it will.

Photo of Lord Lester of Herne Hill Lord Lester of Herne Hill Liberal Democrat 4:00 pm, 11th April 2000

My Lords, in his masterly study of the struggle between the House of Lords and Asquith's Government, my noble friend, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, recalled how, in 1886, the prospect of Irish Home Rule threw the great mass of Liberal peers into the arms of the Conservative majority and how, seven years later, Gladstone's second attempt at Irish Home Rule was defeated in this House by 419 to 41 votes. By their disregard of the authority of the elected chamber on Irish Home Rule, as well as in voting down the "people's Budget" in 1909, the House demonstrated the aptness of Lloyd George's quip that this House was not the watchdog of the constitution; it was "Mr Balfour's poodle". It was, of course, the obstinate refusal by the House of Lords to accept the supremacy of the democratically elected House that led to the Parliament Acts.

The present House is no more democratic now than it was in 1911. Despite the creation of many new Lords by new Labour, the present House remains both undemocratic and politically unbalanced. It wholly lacks democratic legitimacy. Because none of us has been elected by the people, we have no right to claim to be a legislative chamber, representative of the people or for the people of this country, whatever the letters to the noble Baroness, Lady Young, or the opinion polls may say.

This time it is not the prospect of Irish Home Rule which tempts the opponents of this Bill to obstruct its passage in the face of the wishes of the great majority of members of the other place, expressed in a free vote. What drives the opponents of this second Bill is the continuing fear and moral disapproval among the older generation, so strongly represented in this House, of consenting sexual activity between adult homosexual men.

This time the opponents of the Bill will not obstruct a Second Reading, so as to allow the Government to invoke the Parliament Acts immediately. Their tactics will be to use their temporary majority in the House to wreck the Bill slowly and then to play parliamentary ping-pong with the other place. We on these Benches will support the Government in defeating these tactics, however much parliamentary time it may take.

Equalisation of the age of the age of consent was in my party's manifesto at the last general election and our support for the Government is in accordance with the manifesto that we put before the people.

Photo of Lord Monson Lord Monson Crossbench

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord saying that those on his Benches will not have a free vote in the matter?

Photo of Lord Lester of Herne Hill Lord Lester of Herne Hill Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am not learned and I doubt my nobility, but on these Benches we of course allow a free vote. I am simply expressing what is the policy of my party, as put to the country at the last general election. If any Liberal Democrat peers do not agree, then no doubt they will express their disagreement in one way or another, as is their important right.

The Attorney-General has stated on the face of the Bill that in his view its provisions are compatible with the Convention rights. I respectfully agree with that position. The enactment of this Bill will enable the United Kingdom to comply with the obligations binding in international law on Parliament, the executive and the judiciary. The rejection or the wrecking of the Bill would lead to inevitable condemnation by the European Court of Human Rights, and by our own courts after 2nd October. If this Bill were not enacted now, it would have then to be enacted--after the United Kingdom had faced international public humiliation.

The criminal legislation fixing the minimum age for lawful homosexual activities at 18 rather than 16 undoubtedly interferes with the rights of adult male homosexuals, under Article 8 of the Convention, to respect for their private life, which includes their sexual life. The very existence of the legislation directly affects the private lives of such men. Either they respect the law and refrain from engaging in any prohibited sexual acts prior to the age of 18, or they commit such acts and risk criminal prosecution.

Contracting states are entitled to exercise some control over homosexual conduct, to provide safeguards against exploitation of those who are specially vulnerable by reason, for example, of their youth. The contracting states are not entitled, however, to maintain in force laws that discriminate against anyone on the basis of sexuality or sexual preference.

A difference of treatment is discriminatory, for the purpose of Article 14 of the convention, if it has no objective or reasonable justification. Under the present law a young man of 17 years of age who wishes to enter into and maintain sexual relations with a male friend of the same age is in a relevantly similar situation to a young man of the same age who wishes to enter into and maintain sexual relations with a female friend of the same age. Indeed, young male homosexuals are also treated differently from and less favourably than young lesbians, because it is not a criminal offence for lesbians or heterosexuals to have sexual relations at the age of 16.

The United Kingdom is out of line with most other European countries in maintaining a different age of consent for male-female and female-female relationships, as compared with male-male relationships. Of the 15 European Union countries only two others--Finland and Luxembourg--maintained discriminatory age differences in 1997. All of the major countries have equal ages of consent; as do, for example, Ireland, Portugal and Spain--countries noted for their strong Christian traditions.

In 1981, in the Dudgeon case, the European Court of Human Rights held that the criminal offence forbidding homosexual conduct in Northern Ireland between adult men amounted to an unjustified interference with the convention right to respect for private life. Where there are restrictions on a most intimate part of an individual's private life, the Court explained, there must be "particularly serious reasons" to amount to a justification. The Strasbourg Court reached the same conclusion in 1983 in a case against Cyprus, and in 1988 in a case against Ireland.

Last September the European Court unanimously ruled that the exclusion of homosexuals from the British Armed Forces violated various convention rights. It observed that a predisposed bias on the part of the heterosexual majority against the homosexual minority in the Armed Forces could not amount to a justification for the interference with the applicants' rights, any more than similar negative attitudes towards those of a different race, origin or colour. The Court pointed out that the hallmarks of a democratic society include--words that I have not heard very often from some in this House--pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness.

Last December the Court ruled, again unanimously, that the Lisbon Court of Appeal in Portugal had discriminated against a homosexual father by granting custody of his child to his former wife, on the ground that he was a homosexual living with another man. The Portuguese court had said that the child had to live in what it called "a traditional Portuguese family" and that

"children must not grow up in the shadow of abnormal situations".

In July 1997, in the Sutherland case, the European Commission of Human Rights decided by a large majority that there was no objective and reasonable justification for maintaining a higher minimum age of consent for male homosexual than for heterosexual acts, and that there had been a violation of the applicant's convention rights, in breach of Article 8 read with Article 14 of the convention.

In that very important case, the commission referred to the evidence from the council of the British Medical Association that most researchers believe that sexual orientation is usually established before the age of puberty and that reducing the age of consent would be unlikely to affect the majority of men engaging in homosexual activity. The BMA council concluded in its report that the age of consent for homosexual men should be set at 16, as the existing law might inhibit efforts to improve the sexual health of young homosexual and bisexual men.

As the commission noted, an equal age of consent was also supported by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the Health Education Authority and the National Association of Probation Officers, as well as by other bodies concerned with health and social welfare in this country. The commission also noted that the great majority of member states of the Council of Europe now recognise equality of treatment in respect of the age of consent.

The commission rejected two arguments made in Parliament and by the then government in favour of retaining the criminal law as it stands. In the first place, it was argued that some young men between the ages of 16 and 18 do not have a settled sexual orientation and that the aim of the law is to protect such vulnerable young men. It was claimed that criminal sanctions against persons aged 16 or 17 would have a deterrent effect and give the individual the time to make up his mind. Secondly, it was argued that society is entitled to indicate its disapproval of homosexual conduct and its preference that children follow a heterosexual way of life.

The European Commission of Human Rights pointed out that current medical opinion is to the effect that sexual orientation is fixed in both sexes by the age of 16 and that men aged 16 to 21 are not in need of special protection because of the risk of their being "recruited" into homosexuality. As noted by the BMA, the risk posed by predatory older men would appear to be as serious whether the victim is a man or a woman and does not justify a differential age of consent. Even if there might be some young men for whom homosexual experience at the age of 16 would have influential and potentially disturbing effects, it is not a proportionate response to the need for protection to expose to criminal sanctions not only the older man who engages in homosexual acts with a person under the age of 18 but also the young man who is claimed to be in need of such protection.

The argument that society is entitled to indicate disapproval of homosexual conduct and its preference for a heterosexual lifestyle was rejected as an objective or reasonable justification for inequality of treatment under the criminal law. The commission referred to the Dudgeon case, where the court had said that "decriminalisation" does not imply approval, and that fear that some might draw misguided conclusions from the reform of the legislation does not afford a good ground for maintaining the legislation in force with all its unjustifiable features.

That case is now pending before the European Court of Human Rights which would, in my view, as I have said before in previous debates, be virtually certain to come to the same conclusion. The proceedings have sensibly been adjourned to allow this Bill to be enacted, if necessary by invoking the Parliament Acts if the Bill is torpedoed yet again in this House.

As the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General very clearly told the House, this Bill gives protection to vulnerable young people by creating the offence of abuse of trust and by decriminalising the younger partner. Those provisions are a proportionate response to legitimate concerns from the Bill's opponents.

When I spoke on this subject on 22nd July 1998, I recalled the wise words of the Prime Minister, spoken in 1994 when he led for the Opposition. I recall them again today. Mr Blair said that the issue is,

"not at what age we wish young people to have sex. It is whether the criminal law should discriminate between heterosexual and homosexual sex. It is therefore an issue not of age, but of equality ... At present, the law discriminates. There is no doubt about the personal misery that such discrimination brings to young people frightened to admit their own sexuality and of the fear of imprisonment".--[Official Report, Commons, 21/2/94; cols. 97-98.]

We believe that the Bill should be enacted speedily and as it stands, so as to secure compliance at long last with the basic human right, which is as much a moral question as the morality that the opponents of this Bill deploy, to respect for one's private life without discrimination against young homosexual men.

Photo of Baroness Young of Old Scone Baroness Young of Old Scone Labour 4:15 pm, 11th April 2000

My Lords, I rise to speak with some diffidence today as much has already been said about this issue on previous occasions. I have to confess that I have absolutely nothing new to add to the excellent expositions given by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, and by the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill. However, I have chosen to speak for a selfish--or some might think frivolous--reason, which, nevertheless, has a serious point at its heart.

Some noble Lords may have noticed that there are two "Baroness Youngs" on the speakers' list. First, there is the noble Baroness, Lady Young, who sits on the opposite Benches and who is a key campaigner against gay rights and gay equality. Secondly, there is myself, Baroness Young of Old Scone, on these Benches. I am equally committed, but in the opposite direction: to equality and rights for gay and lesbian people. Alas, during the past few months, the newspapers have found themselves singularly unable to distinguish between the two of us. Indeed, the most recent perpetrator, Private Eye, was unable to distinguish between us and yet another person. That confounds the issue even further. I am now probably in the unique position in this country of having gained an unmitigated and unasked-for apology from Private Eye, without even having to sue.

I am afraid that even the BBC--I must declare an interest because I am vice-chairman--has also fallen into the trap, although it has now realised the error of its ways. In typical BBC style, although this may not be the case in the future under the leadership of Greg Dyke, it has introduced a new policy concept; namely, that of "the Ying and Yang of Young", which enables people to describe us and to tell us apart.

Today I simply want to give your Lordships some handy hints on how to tell the "Baroness Youngs" apart. First, there is the small matter of the 20-year age difference. I have discussed the matter with the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and we have agreed that we should simply leave it to your Lordships to decide which of us is which on that issue; indeed, we shall bow to noble Lords' judgment.

Perhaps the most important distinguishing peculiarity is the issue that I believe to be at the centre of the Bill. I want to make it very clear that I am the Baroness Young who believes that the time for equality for homosexual people on this issue is long overdue--

Photo of Baroness Young Baroness Young Conservative

My Lords, I have, of course, been listening to this delightful speech from the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone. I am delighted when we are mistaken in photographs because I promptly look 20 years younger, which is certainly well worth while. However, it would help the whole debate if the noble Baroness did not keep saying that there are two "Baroness Youngs": if I may say so, I am the Baroness Young, while she is the Baroness Young of Old Scone. We would not run into such difficulties if the noble Baroness were to refer to herself in that correct form of address on all occasions.

Photo of Baroness Young of Old Scone Baroness Young of Old Scone Labour

My Lords, I am delighted to have that clarification from the noble Baroness. Indeed, I hope that I can assure the House that I work ceaselessly to clarify my name to all those who are prepared to listen. Alas, as we have seen even in our august organs of the press, some people find it difficult always to be correct on that point. However, for the avoidance of doubt, I simply want to make the point that the issue at the heart of the Bill is one that I firmly support.

I believe that the time for equality for homosexual people on this issue is long overdue. I am indeed the Baroness Young (of Old Scone) who believes that the measures in the Bill to safeguard l6 and 17 year-olds from abuse of trust and to decriminalise the younger partner deserve support. I am the Baroness Young (of Old Scone) who believes that those who oppose this Bill--many of whom sincerely believe that they are protecting young people in this country--continue to endorse the idea that gay and lesbian people are morally unacceptable in our society.

My noble and learned friend Lord Williams of Mostyn said that young people today are more accepting, believe instinctively in equality, and show qualities of greatness of mind. I believe that a great blow for freedom, acceptance and care for our fellow human beings will be struck when this Bill becomes law, as it inevitably will. I, Baroness Young of Old Scone, shall be proud to be part of a Parliament which achieves that.

Photo of The Bishop of Gloucester The Bishop of Gloucester Bishop 4:20 pm, 11th April 2000

My Lords, I am not a habitual speaker in this House and I have not made any contribution to previous debates on this Bill. I therefore rise to speak with some humility, aware of many distinguished speeches, not only today but on previous occasions, both in this House and in another place. Nevertheless it seems appropriate that on the matter before us today there should be a modest contribution from these Benches. On the question of identity, I am the Bishop of Gloucester, not the Bishop of Bradford, with whom I am frequently confused.

In a statement issued on 21st June 1998, on the age of consent for homosexual relations, the House of Bishops said:

"All who have leadership responsibility in our society, both in Church and state, have a particular duty to support young people in their personal development, to protect them from harm and exploitation, and to offer them a vision of what is good".

I have no doubt that all noble Lords would assent gladly to that statement. The Church therefore warmly welcomed the fresh steps which the Government have taken in order to afford protection in law for young people against those in certain positions of trust who might seek to abuse that trust. I have followed with interest the discussions on the detail of the Government's proposals in order to ensure that workable, effective and adequate safeguards are in place. The Home Office booklet, Caring for young people and the vulnerable? Guidance for preventing abuse of trust is a clear and helpful guide to those safeguards. However, I was grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, for suggesting that further safeguards could be considered if, in due course, the House asked for them. I believe that if this Bill is to be pushed through, such extra safeguards would be essential.

Photo of Baroness Knight of Collingtree Baroness Knight of Collingtree Conservative

My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for giving way. Does he recognise that the step which he has just mentioned was taken to protect children? Surely children are in need of protection. However, does it not give protection only in a limited and "ring-fenced" area? As my noble friend Lady Blatch said, many children may be accosted by schoolmasters or schoolmistresses other than their own schoolmasters or schoolmistresses. Does the right reverend Prelate agree that protection must be more widespread?

Photo of The Bishop of Gloucester The Bishop of Gloucester Bishop

My Lords, I believe that my comments gave that impression. I supported the noble Baroness in saying that further safeguards would be required if the Bill were to be pushed through.

As I said, I think that we in this House would agree that all who have leadership responsibility have a particular duty to support young people in their personal development, to protect them from harm and exploitation and to offer them a vision of what is good. The problem for me, and, I guess, for most of us, is how best we do this, and whether this Bill helps us or hinders us as regards our responsibilities to the young. It is absolutely clear both from our debate so far today and from previous debates that within society and within the Church there are different opinions which are held strongly and passionately and with sincere conviction. Had the entire Bench of Bishops been able to attend today, there is little doubt that we too would express different opinions, as we did on a former occasion. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, has already alluded to this in his opening speech. I therefore speak in a personal capacity and not on behalf of the whole Bench.

However, this division of opinion is hardly surprising. It surely does not reflect any deep division among the Bishops on a basic principle. Some years ago the House of Bishops, through its statement, Issues in Human Sexuality, made it clear that the teaching of the Church, which is, of course, based on the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels, is that the norm for all human sexual relationships is that they should take place within the context of a life-long marriage between one man and one woman. That is a moral principle which we strongly underlined in September last year in a teaching document which we issued to all our clergy and parishes which is entitled quite simply, Marriage.

Bearing in mind that, sadly, some marriages break down and end in divorce, and that such people often wish to marry again and have the ceremony in their parish church, we have also recently issued another document, Remarriage after Divorce, which has been sent to all parishes for detailed discussion and comment. The discussion will continue throughout the year before the House of Bishops and then General Synod look at this crucial matter once again. We hope that this long and democratic process will enable our parish clergy to have clear and consistent guidelines which continue to stress the supreme importance of marriage, but also make possible through repentance, forgiveness and understanding, a second marriage in church under carefully defined circumstances.

I believe that Bills such as this one can so easily distract us from emphasising as strongly as we possibly can the venerable institution of marriage. I believe that that institution continues to be vitally important to many people in society today, in spite of the considerable pressures, conscious and unconscious, which act against commitment, stability and perseverance. I believe that marriage is a major building block in our contemporary society and contributes strongly and obviously to that aspiration of the House of Bishops that all who have leadership responsibility in our society, both in Church and state, have a particular duty to offer young people a vision of what is good and to support them in their personal development.

I am a happily married man with four married children and 10 grandchildren. I count myself as blessed in enjoying a strong and stable family life. Therefore noble Lords would expect me to say what I am saying, not only as a bishop but as a very married bishop. I could undoubtedly be accused of bias and even prejudice on this matter. But to stand firm--as I do--on the vital importance of marriage does not imply homophobia; nor does it imply in any way the exclusion of those whose lifestyle does not conform to these moral principles.

There are surely moral principles and pastoral compassion. Moral principles are usually clear, particular, simple and normally easy to understand. Pastoral compassion is offered to all and is indiscriminate--in its scope it is entirely without judgment and discrimination. As my right reverend brother the former Bishop of Norwich said in a previous debate in this House, there can so easily be a muddle when the two become confused or opposed to each other; for example, when those who hold strong moral principles are accused of lacking compassion, or when compassion for everyone is elevated to the highest moral principle that there can possibly be. On these Benches, as on all other Benches, we share moral principles and deep pastoral compassion. But those principles and that compassion can lead us to different conclusions about what is expedient or timely in our shared duty and concern for the young.

In the Bill before us and in our debates, there are powerful arguments for equality and against discrimination. Of course, all human beings are equal--that is absolutely basic. In the words that I would use, we are all made in the image of God; deeply loved by Him and called by Him to take a proper part in His eternal purposes by living a fully human life in society to the very best of the abilities which God has graciously given us.

But surely this equality does not imply that everything that human beings do with or to each other is equally desirable or valuable. Like many other noble Lords, I have received many letters on this matter from concerned people, from all over my diocese and beyond. I share with them the conviction that some forms of sexual fulfilment are intrinsically better and more in accord with God's will than others--not only better, but it seems that they are also safer. If I and others hold that view, it would seem to us entirely proper that our law should continue to allow certain sexual behaviour only to those of whatever age it deems mature and responsible. That, to me, argues strongly against lowering the age of consent.

Our society today is dominated by sex in all its forms, too often presented as simply an appetite like any other which must be satisfied whatever the cost. I believe that all of us have to share some responsibility for that. We are all--old as well as young--damaged and hurt by that remorseless sexualising of life today. It is a culture which is particularly difficult for our young people--and perhaps especially hard for the young who are struggling to discover their own sexuality among so many pressures and siren voices.

I cannot believe that every kind of sexual activity is as good and as beneficial as any other just so long as you may want it and so long as you can persuade yourself that it harms no one else. Despite many who attempt to persuade me to agree with them, I continue to judge that we shall do much more harm to young people, and to many older people, of whatever orientation, by going along with our modern culture in this regard. By appearing to legitimise it at an earlier age, we are giving unhelpful and muddled signals to many people who look to us to enunciate clear moral principles.

Photo of Lord Waddington Lord Waddington Conservative 4:32 pm, 11th April 2000

My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the right reverend Prelate.

The Bill is not really about bestowing rights on young people. To use such language is rather like saying that a railway company bestows rights on its passengers when it leaves the train doors unlocked. To be honest with ourselves, the Bill is about removing from young people aged between 16 and 18 the protection that they now have from older people minded to prey on them. That is what the Bill is about.

Government spokesmen say that the Bill is about equality. When he was moving the Second Reading of the Bill, Mr Jack Straw said:

"The Bill is based on ... equality before the law".--[Official Report, Commons, 10/2/00; col. 432.]

The noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General used much the same language today, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone.

But we have to face this fact: to insist that the age of consent must be the same for homosexual and heterosexual acts on the ground of equality makes no sense at all unless one is suggesting that homosexual and heterosexual acts are of equal quality. It makes no sense at all unless one is suggesting that homosexual and heterosexual lifestyles are of equal validity and morally the same. That is something which many people, including the right reverend Prelate, find extremely difficult to accept and it is, I believe, contrary to the teachings of most, if not all, religions.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alli, for nodding. He has taken my point. One cannot escape that conclusion. One can rest one's case for the Bill on the ground of equality only if one is saying that both acts are of equal quality.

Photo of Earl Russell Earl Russell Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord. We extend equality between ourselves to all political parties. Does that mean that we regard them as of equal merit?

Photo of Lord Waddington Lord Waddington Conservative

My Lords, I do not base my opposition to this Bill on the ground of equality. If I was arguing for the Bill, I would not base my arguments on equality. All I am saying is that the logic of the position taken by the noble Lord, Lord Alli, the logic of what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, and the logic of the arguments advanced by Mr Jack Straw in another place and by the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General here today, is exactly as I have stated. I do not think that anybody can gainsay that.

Photo of Lord Alli Lord Alli Labour

My Lords, if I may respond to that, I do feel that I am the noble Lord's moral equal; I do feel that morally my lifestyle is as valid as his. If that is what the noble Lord is saying, I agree with him wholeheartedly.

Photo of Lord Waddington Lord Waddington Conservative

My Lords, I respect the noble Lord, Lord Alli, for saying that. I can see that he accepts the logic of the argument advanced by the Government. I am grateful for that.

Photo of Lord Lester of Herne Hill Lord Lester of Herne Hill Liberal Democrat

My Lords, am I right in understanding that the noble Lord disagrees with the judgment of the European Court and of the European Commission of Human Rights in the cases I mentioned: that it is right to compare the treatment of homosexual and heterosexual people? As I understand it, the noble Lord is saying that it is not right to draw a comparison on the basis of equality of treatment. Is that right? Is the noble Lord therefore disagreeing with the Strasbourg case law on this?

Photo of Lord Waddington Lord Waddington Conservative

My Lords, all I shall say at this stage is that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, need have no fears. I hesitate to bore the House, but I am afraid that I shall have to advert to some of the arguments he has advanced and mention the case of Sutherland. I apologise in advance to the House for having to do so.

Worse, to say that the debate is all about equality is to say that the achievement of equality in this area is more important than the protection of vulnerable young people from sexual molestation, harassment and seduction. That is a most extraordinary position for anyone to argue himself into.

There has been much talk during this debate, and in similar debates in recent months, about the need for tolerance. But to send out a signal to young boys that homosexual acts are healthy and acceptable is not a mark of tolerance but an act of gross irresponsibility. I say that not least because of the very special and extra health risks involved in a homosexual lifestyle. As Dr Nicholls, the chief executive of the Public Health Laboratory Service, said in his recent report:

"The risk of contracting AIDS is vastly greater in homosexual people than in heterosexuals".

We also know that there is little to suggest that those drawn into a homosexual lifestyle find lasting happiness and fulfilment. It is surely our duty to discourage young men, who often at the age of 16 are confused about their sexuality and can go through what turns out to be a passing phase when they are attracted to older men, from going down this road.

It certainly is not true to say that all experts now accept that young men of 16 are settled in their sexual orientation. That is perhaps--I mention this to the noble Lord, Lord Lester--one reason why one may doubt whether the court will follow the commission in the case of Sutherland. If I have followed the noble Lord's speech, he attaches considerable weight to an assertion made by the commission that there was no doubt at all that all these young men's sexual inclinations were fixed irreversibly at the age of 16.

Photo of Lord Lester of Herne Hill Lord Lester of Herne Hill Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. That opinion was based on the view of the British Medical Association, which gave evidence that was relied on by the commission. It was not the opinion of the commission.

Photo of Lord Waddington Lord Waddington Conservative

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, would agree with me that all experts are not of that view. I also submit that we should not be telling young people that homosexuals have no choice but to commit homosexual acts; that if you have an appetite for homosexual sex, you are entitled to gratify it. We should be telling them, surely, that some urges are better resisted, particularly when they may involve making a commitment one may later live to regret.

But, in my submission, far worse than giving the wrong signal to young people is making them the legitimate prey of older men. In reintroducing the Bill, the Government seem to have learnt nothing at all from the appalling revelations in the Waterhouse report on the North Wales child abuse inquiry. I would only remind noble Lords of one key finding. Sir Ronald Waterhouse concluded that the dangers to those out of care are as great as for those actually in care. As my noble friend Lady Blatch mentioned, at paragraph 52 of the report is cited the case of "Child B" and the abuse he suffered between the ages of 16 and 18 from people who were not in a position of trust but were paedophiles outside the care system.

In the light of that and other revelations in the report, the breach of trust provisions in the Bill are absurd. By putting the provisions in the Bill, the Government concede that boys of 16 can be exploited and need protection. But does anyone seriously believe that the only people from whom they need protection are those who fall within the various categories set out in Clause 4? Of course, no one believes that.

Lastly, there is no reason in logic why the age of consent for homosexual and heterosexual acts should be the same when young men generally reach puberty some years after girls. But we are told by some--the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, is of this number--that we have to equalise the age because of the European convention. I do not want to get into that debate, except to say that I have seen an opinion from Mr Paul Diamond of counsel, who said that it is unlikely that the Court will accept the commission's view of Sutherland--that there is no pressure from Europe with regard to the equalisation of the age of consent--and that it is wholly a matter for our Parliament. If, however, the noble Lord, Lord Lester, is right, I would rather see the age of consent put up to 18 for all than see this Bill pass.

Of course, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, to this extent: there are obviously serious issues to be addressed as a result of recent legal developments. I hope that I can address them briefly without trying the patience of noble Lords and being thought to be digressing. I think that this Bill and the Government's presentation of it are frightening reminders of the dangerous path we are treading as a result of an obsession with equality which has, I fear, infected not only the Government but the courts.

In the middle of last year, the president of the Family Division expressed her approval of adoption by homosexual couples; and in October last year the Appellate Committee of this House, in a vivid example of judges making new laws, decided in the case of Fitzpatrick that a homosexual partner is a "member of the family" for the purposes of succeeding to a tenancy under the Rent Acts. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Slynn of Hadley, was at pains to say that the decision did not undermine the traditional concept of marriage and the family. But, as I predicted would happen--I take no pride in this--in the debate on the Address on 24th November last year (at col. 469 of the Official Report), the fall-out from that decision was soon to become apparent; for within a matter of months Mr David Pannick, a very eminent QC, was arguing, in an article in The Times on 29th February of this year, that as the courts had held that a homosexual couple could constitute a family, Section 28, designed to prevent local authorities dealing out homosexual propaganda, offended against,

"the right to respect for family life" provisions in the European convention simply because our courts had now recognised that homosexual relations amount to family life.

Well, my Lords, if Mr Pannick is right, the conclusion is inescapable. The courts, because of their obsession with equality and determination to treat homosexual and heterosexual relations alike, have succeeded at one and the same time in torpedoing the traditional family and destroying one of the protections that now exist against young people being showered with homosexual propaganda; and now we have this Bill which itself is born of a belief that homosexual and heterosexual acts are as good as each other.

The next stage--this was suggested in plain terms by a Liberal Democrat in another place on 10th February of this year (at col. 482 of the Official Report): I am referring to a speech by Dr Harris--will be, if not homosexual marriage, a complete equalisation of the rights of a homosexual couple with those of a man and wife.

I think that we have to call a halt to this madness. We all know the importance of the traditional family for the bringing up of children and for the stability of society. But the courts and Parliament are allowing its destruction, with completely unpredictable results for both society and civilisation. I will have none of it.

Photo of Baroness Gould of Potternewton Baroness Gould of Potternewton Labour 4:46 pm, 11th April 2000

My Lords, I start by fundamentally disagreeing with the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, as might be expected, and with the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. I should add that my free vote will be used in support of the Bill. I speak as an individual; I do not speak on behalf of the Government. I would also add that I have no obsession with sex or sexuality. What I do have is an obsession with making sure that young people are protected and that we show concern about the future for them. That is what the Bill does. It is a great shame that your Lordships' House has twice rejected the possibility of providing that protection--protection that has meant that young people have lacked the safeguards that could have been put in place some time ago. I sincerely hope that we will not do that again.

My concern for protection arises because there are and will continue to be predatory men who want to abuse, rape and use young girls and boys. Crucially, the Bill provides equal protection for young men and women against adults who may use their position of authority to gain sexual advantage. I hope that the argument about protection and the areas that it covers will not be used in Committee to get rid of that part of the Bill. I have some reservations about whether this part of the Bill goes far enough. Therefore, I was delighted to hear the Minister say, although I think that some noble Lords did not hear him, that the clause would be looked at and that it would be possible under Clause 4(1) for a statutory instrument to be brought forward to extend the areas of protection.

I have a particular difficulty in understanding why part-time education is excluded when full-time education can mean part-time education in two establishments. I do not accept the view--pressure has been brought to bear on this point by some of the teachers' unions--that teachers should be exempt. One cannot realistically argue that those who run a children's home should be subject to the criminal law and at the same time exclude teachers. I hope that we might look at the extension of the clause.

It has also been suggested--it was suggested in the other place--that the clauses of the Bill providing protection are not necessary if there is no equal age of consent. That is to deny protection for young girls. So far we have had little comment about young girls and I want to make some remarks about that. I find extraordinary the indifference and lack of concern on the part of some people as to the consequences for young girls. The Home Office report--

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative

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

Photo of Baroness Gould of Potternewton Baroness Gould of Potternewton Labour

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness. Maybe I put them in a slightly different context. The Home Office report, Sex Offending Against Children, concluded that 60 to 70 per cent of child molesters target only girls: that is the important point. That means heterosexual men committing violence against girls. Yet there are still Members of your Lordships' House, as we have heard in previous debates, who somehow believe that young men require greater protection from unwanted sexual advances than young women. They seem to believe that somehow or other young women are less affected by sexual abuse.

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

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

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

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

The argument based on difference moves us away from the type of society I think we ought to be striving to create: a society which is free from all prejudice, one which understands difference and which does not live a lie by pretending that there is no diversity of sexuality, and a society where all people, gay or heterosexual, are treated and valued as equals. To me, that is a decent society. To put the contra view, that this has nothing to do with equality, means that we are saying that young homosexual men are somehow lesser beings than the rest of us. That is an argument that I cannot accept.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo of Lord Waddington Lord Waddington Conservative

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

Photo of Baroness Gould of Potternewton Baroness Gould of Potternewton Labour

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

Photo of Lord Waddington Lord Waddington Conservative

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

Photo of Lord Northbourne Lord Northbourne Crossbench 4:59 pm, 11th April 2000

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

Photo of Lord Norton of Louth Lord Norton of Louth Conservative 5:00 pm, 11th April 2000

My Lords, the most powerful case for a particular measure is sometimes to be found in the arguments used against it. I do not flatter myself that what I say today will change votes but I want to put on record that the case against this Bill rests, both intellectually and morally, on the flimsiest of stilts and it is time that they were kicked away.

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

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

"given the wrong influence and circumstances".

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo of Lord Alli Lord Alli Labour 5:09 pm, 11th April 2000

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo of Earl Ferrers Earl Ferrers Conservative 5:14 pm, 11th April 2000

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surely one of the most important things for Parliament to do in this day and age when all previously accepted attitudes are being turned upside down is to protect young people. People under 18 are still young, and often uncertain as to the values of life. To say, as the Bill permits, that two people who have reached the age of 16, who are still at school and possibly even in the choir together, should be allowed to bugger each other whenever and wherever they like--a matter about which not even the headmaster can do anything and, as my noble friend Lady Blatch said, if he does he is likely to run foul of the Human Rights Act--seems to be totally wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps the noble and learned Lord does not really believe in all this, but it is government policy. Periodically, government policy requires the wheeling in of the heavy brass, which is what has happened today. Of course, the Government will find no more able a person than the noble and learned Lord, who is capable of applying himself to any argument and of advocating either side of a case with equal conviction and abandon, as he once admitted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

When I asked the noble and learned Lord, who was in then in the Home Office, whether the advice of his officials was the same as it was when I was a Minister, he said that he had not asked them. That was, if I may say so, a crafty lawyer's answer. It did not mean to say that they had not given it. My modest experience is that officials are only too happy to give advice, even if they have not been asked for it. Indeed, today the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, said that he would give us advice even if we did not want to hear it.

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

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

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

Photo of Lord Lester of Herne Hill Lord Lester of Herne Hill Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for giving way. I am sure that when he reads Hansard tomorrow he will see that I said that our party had a policy which it included in its manifesto before the previous election, but that individual Members on these Benches are entirely free to take whatever course they like.

Photo of Earl Ferrers Earl Ferrers Conservative

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for reminding me of that, which I remember him saying, but I believe that it was in answer to a question from my noble friend Lord Monson. However, if the noble Lord, Lord Lester, looks at the earlier part of his remarks, he will see that he said that the Liberal Democrat Party was behind the Government.

Photo of Earl Russell Earl Russell Liberal Democrat

My Lords, perhaps I may set this matter to rest. My noble friend correctly stated the policy of our party. He did not say that this party intended to whip for that policy.

Photo of Earl Ferrers Earl Ferrers Conservative

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for saying that his party is not going to whip for the policy. That is fine. We shall look with interest to see which way the various members of the Liberal Democrat Party go.

I wonder whether at least part of the momentum behind the Bill is due to the pressures of the homosexual lobby. It is a very powerful lobby. Once one of its objectives has been obtained, it moves on to another. Having got the age of consent lowered to 16, it will make one of its next objectives the legalisation of homosexual acts in public lavatories. It is almost--

Photo of Lord McCarthy Lord McCarthy Labour

My Lords, the noble Earl said that the Government are in the pocket of the homosexual lobby. Does he believe that the 22 organisations, such as the BMA, the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of Nursing and Barnardos, are all in the pocket of the homosexual lobby?

Photo of Earl Ferrers Earl Ferrers Conservative

My Lords, I did not say that even the Government were in the pocket of the homosexual lobby. If the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, believes that they are, that is fine. I do not like to think that any of those normally fine organisations are in the pocket of the homosexual lobby. I am surprised that such organisations which often carry such respect should necessarily have bowed to the prevailing wind of the homosexual lobby. As I said, it is a very powerful lobby and, having obtained one success, it will move on to another.

I did say, as, indeed, members of that lobby have said quite clearly, that they wanted homosexual acts in public lavatories to be allowed to take place. I believe that that is quite appalling. I believe that no one should doubt that, should the lobby achieve what it wants today, that will be the next issue on the agenda. I do not like this Bill. I do not like it at all. I believe that the Government were wrong to introduce it.

Photo of Lord Freyberg Lord Freyberg Crossbench 5:31 pm, 11th April 2000

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers. I am sorry that I cannot follow his tact. I welcome this important Bill. It seems extraordinary that the law still discriminates between various kinds of sexual activity. Such discrimination can only encourage the stigmatism of homosexuality, and that is both mindless and cruel.

The Bill successfully fulfils the Government's undertaking to the European Court of Human Rights to equalise the age of consent for heterosexual and homosexual sexual acts. Most important of all, it puts homosexuals on an equal footing with heterosexuals in terms of sexuality. Certainly, prejudices against homosexuality exist, but there is no excuse and no reason for those prejudices to be enshrined in the law.

As someone in his late twenties, I can say confidently that among my contemporaries homosexuality is rarely regarded with distaste or alarm but as a perfectly normal way of being. The additional Clauses 3 to 6, relating to people's positions of trust, are sensible and as necessary for heterosexual relationships as for homosexual ones. I am pleased that the Government have brought back the Bill and I support it wholeheartedly.

Photo of Lord McCarthy Lord McCarthy Labour 5:32 pm, 11th April 2000

My Lords, I have listened with great interest to the speeches that have been made on behalf of the different sides of this argument, even if I have agreed with about only half of them. However, having read the debates that took place in this House when the matter was discussed on the previous occasions--in the Crime and Disorder Act, in the 1999 version of the Bill and in the present version--I am struck by the fact that there are two types of argument from both sides, although I do not suggest that only one side in the debate has two types of argument.

We are told either that it concerns a matter of conscience, morality and moral principle; or, after a while, whoever is taking that particular line feels that they should perhaps move on to a different position and appeal to reason or evidence.

I believe that that is understandable. What do people mean when they say that this is a matter of moral principle or of conscience? It is not the type of comment that they make when, for example, they say that they are pacifists or that they cannot support the return of capital punishment or are against abortion. In this situation, what they are really saying is that they do not intend to take any notice of the principles of other people. Indeed, what they infer is that they do not intend to pay any attention to a whole series of arguments; for example, to what the Whips say (that has arisen this afternoon), to what government policy is (we have had that, too), to what Europe wants (several people have said in effect that they do not give a damn what Europe wants; they disregard that), to the views of Stonewall (that is something that one can easily dismiss), or to the opinions of the electorate. Although I must say briefly in passing that, according to successive polls, the sympathy of the electorate lies far less on that side than that side appears to believe.

In any event, if we proved that 90 per cent of the electorate were on the side of the Bill, one would not expect them to take any notice of their opinions or, of course, of the provisions of the Parliament Act.

Therefore, when speakers invoke their conscience, or their moral principles, they are dismissing other people's statements or, rather, their conception of other people's positions.

There are two problems with that: first, one usually slightly misrepresents what the other person is saying; and, secondly, dismal though it may be, we all know that one never obtains agreement and one is unlikely to make progress or reach a compromise if one states one's position and says that it is based on a moral principle, that it is a matter of conscience and one does not propose to take into account the susceptibilities of anyone else. I have principles, he has beliefs, you have only prejudices.

Therefore, I believe that at this late stage we should focus as far as possible on the appeals of reason and evidence. Anyone who has evidence or an argument which seems to stand up will use it. As John Locke said:

"I note that all sects make use of reason when it does serve. When it does not, they do cry out: it is a matter of faith and above reason".

Therefore, let us see what the reasons are. I have tried to boil down in my mind the three reasonable and evidential propositions which, for those who oppose the Bill, could be capable of being buttressed by facts. I find it very difficult to take two of them seriously. I shall come to them later. The third is the real and serious argument, but here they do not have enough evidence.

The first, put very strongly by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, when she last spoke on this matter, is that the removal of the 16/18 anomaly in favour of heterosexual sex would be a body blow to the institution of marriage. I do not say that the institution of marriage is in a good state. It is in a rather parlous state. An increasing number of young people do not seem to want it. However, it seems to me utterly bizarre to suggest that the reason that they do not want it and live outside it is because other people are not heterosexual but homosexual.

The institution of marriage is in a bad state and I deplore that. But I speak as someone who has been happily married--at least, I am happy on my side of the marriage; one can never speak for anyone else--for 44 years. Some of my friends have never been married. Some of them have large families and have never been married. They seem to be as happy as anyone else. Some of my friends have been persistently unhappy and they have gone through one marriage after another. They are still trying, so there must be something in that institution! However, I believe that it is arrogant to say that what has suited you for 44 years must suit everyone and everyone should do it; that what undermines it is the growth of homosexuality and the progressive liberalisation of the law relating to homosexuality. What is bad for marriage is not gay sex but the availability nowadays of sex and children without its constraints. That is what is doing marriage in. I wish I knew what to do about it, but it is nothing to do with this Bill.

The second argument which is used is that the removal of that anomaly will give rise to an increase in homosexuality and that there is something particularly irreversible about a sinking into homosexuality at the beginning of life--at 15, 16 or something of that kind. I find it amazing that people can say that in all seriousness. In Eton, in the Guards and in the Navy people move from homosexuality to heterosexuality and have very happy lives. They may occasionally go backwards and forwards but they are not condemned and damned for ever to live in a permanent sink of homosexual activity.

Several of our most successful monarchs were bisexual most of the time. It is rumoured--and, indeed there is some evidence--that one of our greatest and most honoured queens (I hesitate to give the name) was a little out of the straight from time to time. Yet there are those who believe that, somehow, once you become a homosexual, you live in that slough of despond for ever, and especially you are subject to people preying on you when they are older than you. But those who believe that are living in a phantom world. That is not the situation in other countries where the age of consent is different or where it is the same. It did not occur when we lowered the age of consent last time or the time before that.

What worries me about current sexual behaviour is not an irresistible movement towards homosexual practices brought about by increasing liberality and the work of homosexual lobbying. It is the growth and apparent total inability of any of us to know what to do about the irresistible attraction of promiscuity; about the death of fidelity, both for heterosexuals and homosexuals. What that has to do with the law, I confess I do not know.

I come now to the third reason; that the removal of the anomaly will be fatal and disastrous because it will become the core of sexually transmitted disease. In that regard, I believe that those on the other side--or those on the other side of this side, if I may put it like that--really should have consulted the evidence which some of us have received from distinguished bodies like the BMA, the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of Nursing and so on. Those people have really looked into the matter. After all, they have lived at the edge of the problem for a long time.

They say two things to us. First, the critical variable in the escalation of sexually transmitted disease is unprotected sex of any kind. Since many more people are heterosexual than homosexual, the danger is on the heterosexual side. Unprotected sex of any kind is the danger. The solution--and the BMA is particularly strong on this--is the critical influence of education and treatment.

The reason that all those distinguished bodies, which the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, admires when they do not disagree with him, support the Bill is that they want to increase education and treatment for people who are made illegal practitioners by the present state of the law. They are convinced of that, not just the professional doctors and nurses but all the institutions like the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Barnardos. Do we think that all these bodies are controlled by the homosexual lobby? To say it is to be ridiculous.

So I cannot see why there is much of an argument. I read the last debate when this matter was discussed and I was surprised that the noble Baroness, Lady Young, did not feel that she should see and talk to those people or read their information and arguments. As far as I understand it, she said that they did not communicate with her. That is not a sufficient reason. I hope she will deal with that matter this evening. She said, "I think I know some of the things that they say", or something like that. That is not good enough. Those who oppose the Bill should be prepared to tell us why they cannot find one really well-known, respectable organisation which supports their position. They should tell us that.

Finally, I turn not to the opponents outside my own party but to the opponents inside it. I know that there are those within my own party--for some of whom I have the greatest possible respect, whom I normally find myself on the side of and even drinking with--who hate this Bill, just as they hate Section 28. I say to them, "It is a question of time. You are all changing. We are all changing. It is a question of time. You have not quite changed enough".

One of the finest speeches that was made in the other place was the speech made by the Member for Buckingham, a Conservative, who said that he could now see that what we have here is unjustified discrimination. That is what he said: unjustified discrimination. Those within my own party to whom I referred do not believe in unjustified discrimination. If there is no evidence or rational argument, I say that they must put aside their prejudices.

To put aside our prejudices, we must think of ourselves as we used to be. I have always found that one of the ways that I can purge my prejudices is to think of my past attitudes to Shakespeare. When I first saw "The Taming of the Shrew", I sided with Petruchio. I cheered for Petruchio. I cannot now stand "The Taming of the Shrew". I certainly cannot stand the last speech in "The Taming of the Shrew". Petruchio was a sick sexist and should have been arrested. But I did not think that in 1948. I call that progress.

I cannot remember when I first began to dislike the last act of "The Merchant of Venice". There are nasty people in "The Merchant of Venice". But I can remember the first time I felt what an insult, what a horror it was, when Antonio makes Shylock become a Christian. I did not think that many years ago.

Finally, since we are talking about homosexuality, up until the 1960s, the actor who played Osric invariably played him as an effeminate ponce--what the actors called at the time a "ponce" part. He flipped around with his handkerchief all the time. If your Lordships are interested, there is on tape, eternally captured, Peter Cushing's wonderful example of the effeminate ponce in the Olivier film. Nobody would play it like that now. There is such a thing as progress. You just have to get there.

I say to my noble friends on this side of the House who may not see their way to keeping up with this Bill: respond to your innate beliefs; respond to your belief in equality, in non-discrimination and tolerance. Believe me, you can vote for this Bill all right.

Photo of Lord Monson Lord Monson Crossbench 5:47 pm, 11th April 2000

My Lords, two things need to be said about this Bill. First, it is far more important than the debate on Section 28, about which so many thousands of column inches have been written. Section 28 is of powerful symbolic importance but its practical significance is limited.

Secondly, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, himself pointed out, we are not discussing the rights and wrongs of homosexual activity in general. For 35 years I have consistently maintained that consenting adults should have a legal right to do whatever they want together in private, however physically dangerous or aesthetically degrading such activity may be. I believe that nowadays the great majority of people subscribe to that view, but strictly in respect of adults.

However, we are not talking about adults today but about children. It is almost universally accepted, I think, that where minors are involved the libertarian principles so rightly extolled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams, are frequently heavily circumscribed by the criminal law. One has to think only of restrictions on alcohol, tobacco, gambling, the ownership and use of shotguns and air rifles, the driving of cars and the riding of motorcycles and mopeds. Not all those restrictions are always logical or justifiable when subjected to close analysis, but the point is that most of the electorate endorse them and do not believe that young people are being treated unfairly.

I spoke of children rather than of young people because "children" is how the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child describes all those under the age of 18 whom it rightly deems to need protection against sexual exploitation. Surely no one can deny that the sodomising of 16 and 17 year-old boys or girls amounts to sexual exploitation, since few of the boys and virtually none of the girls can actually enjoy the experience, however persuasively they have been inveigled into submitting to it. Of course, with the United Nations convention still in mind, such ordeals would not be limited to 16 and 17 year-old boys and girls as there is always a grey, hazy borderline area just below the legal age of consent into which one can be certain that 15 year-olds and even some 14 year-olds would be drawn were the law to be altered.

Clearly, the Government are not basing their case on some alleged fundamental human right to sexual fulfilment. If that were so, they would be lowering the age of consent not to 16 but to 12 or 13. Certainly, young people in Northern Ireland would not have to wait 12 months longer than their contemporaries in England, Scotland and Wales to obtain such fulfilment. The Government seem to be basing their case on equality; not so much on the sacred doctrine of sex equality, but on the newly devised doctrine of equality of penetration. Need one say more?

Yes, indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, is right; the existing law is widely disobeyed. But the law which forbids the smoking of cannabis is also widely disobeyed, which does not prevent the Government from remaining adamantly opposed to relaxing the law on cannabis smoking. The fact is that hardly any youngsters ever go to prison for smoking cannabis, as opposed to dealing in it, and hardly any youngsters ever go to prison for homosexual activity. That is as it should be. The law is there not to punish--whatever may superficially appear to be the case--but essentially to act as a marker; the unspoken reasoning being that if the laws deter no more than 5 or 10 per cent of those who might otherwise be tempted to experiment and to drift into dangerous habits, the laws are therefore justified. No one can deny that being sodomised is far more dangerous physically, and probably psychologically, than smoking a joint of cannabis.

Moreover, the mere existence of the law can help someone hovering on the brink, so to speak, who is not entirely sure of his orientation, to resist temptation. Some will argue--indeed, a great many noble Lords have already done so--that all homosexuals are born, not made and therefore no law will deter them. Of course it is true that some are born that way; few would deny that. It may even be that the majority are born that way. But others are undoubtedly made, as the former Archbishop of York, the noble Lord, Lord Habgood, who is as well versed in matters scientific as he is in matters spiritual, reminded us on the previous occasion we debated the matter. It is such young people, who in the last resort do have a choice, which the existing law helps to protect.

Clause 3 has been briefly mentioned. It appears not to go far enough in some respects, but too far in others. It would seem that an 18 year-old hospital nurse could go to prison for kissing a 17 year-old patient, if one reads subsection (4) of Clause 4 in conjunction with Clause 3. Perhaps the Minister will confirm whether that is so when he comes to reply. For the sake of people's children and grandchildren, we shall have to endeavour over the weeks ahead to make this regrettable Bill less dangerous. The general public will expect no less from your Lordships' House.

Photo of Lord Selsdon Lord Selsdon Conservative 5:54 pm, 11th April 2000

My Lords, I feel extraordinarily nervous. I wondered why, after so many years in your Lordships' House. I believe that in part it is because I was brought up to believe that one should never use foul language and that if one had a command of the English language, one need never use swear words. The word "buggery", or "bugger", was extraordinarily offensive to me. I tried never to use it.

Last year during Second Reading I asked whether I could use that word. I was told, yes, it was a legal word. At the time I made the point that blasphemy was wrong. I remember that at the school I went to, if people were bowled out just before their 50, they might use foul language. I once said something unholy and was given a complete bollocking by the sports master who said that had I not been bowled out, I would have been dismissed out of hand.

Photo of Earl Ferrers Earl Ferrers Conservative

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

Photo of Lord Selsdon Lord Selsdon Conservative

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

The difference between when I spoke previously and now is twofold. I have never received so many letters on a particular subject in all my time in this House. I received two objections. First, because I linked previously the act of buggery with bestiality and sheep, a former secretary of a particular regiment wrote to advise me that his regiment was not the one known as the "sheepshaggers" but that it was another far more eminent; I shall not mention it. I still find today that, in the act, "buggery" relates also to bestiality.

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

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

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

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

I do not know whether I can bring myself to say some of the things I shall try to say. This is our country. The matters are domestic. If we want to deal with international issues, I should like to share with your Lordships some of the experiences I have had in Africa, the Middle East and other places where small boys and girls are sold almost together and where the buggery of a girl is not unusual; her virginity should be maintained because if it is lost, she would not later be able to get a husband and her family would have to pay more in dowry. These matters tie in with that awful sin or crime of female circumcision to prevent a woman from feeling sexual gratification so that she will not go off with another man.

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

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

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

Photo of Baroness Massey of Darwen Baroness Massey of Darwen Labour 6:03 pm, 11th April 2000

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

I have read last year's debate. During seven hours or so many issues were discussed, and many are being discussed tonight. There remains little to add. It seems to me that certain principles need restating. It feels a little like looking thorough a kaleidoscope where the elements remain the same but the pattern becomes different with each shake. Maybe we will readjust and enrich that pattern this afternoon. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, feels so disturbed. Maybe I can reassure him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surely in arguing that one section of society--gay young men--should be treated in a discriminatory way creates and fosters prejudice, not only about them but about male gay relationships generally. I recognise that there are strong moral and religious views about gay people and what they do, real or imagined. I doubt that sexual acts of whatever orientation have changed much since sex began--much earlier than the 1964 of Philip Larkin's poem. Open and honest climates which recognise the richness and diversity of sexual expression would seem to me to be less open to negative consequences. Certainly, this has been shown to be true in international research. Open and honest climates do not encourage debauchery and abuse. They contribute to people's abilities to know about unwanted pressure, resist it and tell about it. I suggest that this--the likelihood of a victim informing on an abuser--discourages abuse as much as does law, although I support laws which make a firm statement about abuse and exploitation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo of Lady Saltoun of Abernethy Lady Saltoun of Abernethy Crossbench 6:16 pm, 11th April 2000

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

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

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

I have to tell the House that I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, and I entirely disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, as regards the many letters which the noble Baroness, Lady Young--sitting to my right--and I, along with others, have received from people concerning both this Bill and Section 28. I accept that we are not the elected representatives of the people of this country, but the reason we are receiving such letters is because the elected representatives are not representing the people of this country.

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

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

Photo of Lord Waddington Lord Waddington Conservative

My Lords, does the noble Baroness know any better than I do who speaks for those organisations? I do some work for the NSPCC and I asked people who work for that organisation who they thought spoke on its behalf and said that it was in favour of the Bill. The answer was that they had not got the faintest idea.

Photo of Lady Saltoun of Abernethy Lady Saltoun of Abernethy Crossbench

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. I too have not got the foggiest idea.

To remove, as this Bill does, with totally inadequate safeguards the only legislation under which it is often possible for the police to obtain a conviction of many of the paedophiles who destroy children's lives is a wicked thing to do. Safeguards will be necessary. But they are necessary now, before the Bill receives Royal Assent, not later, when many more children have had their lives ruined. I shall be supporting amendments at Committee stage to introduce such safeguards.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, mentioned a free vote and almost in the same breath he referred to using the Parliament Act to railroad the Bill through. I am a little mystified, therefore, as to exactly what the Government are planning to do. But to railroad the Bill through under the Parliament Act, as they threatened, will be a total and utter disgrace.

Photo of Baroness Seccombe Baroness Seccombe Conservative 6:22 pm, 11th April 2000

My Lords, I suppose all governments are remembered for a specific reason. There is absolutely no doubt that this new Labour Government will always be associated with their obsession with sex. The Government have brought Bills on sex before your Lordships' House and, not content with that, as my noble friend Lady Blatch said, they have sought ingenious devices to keep the dialogue going by adding amendments at late stages of Bills, such as the Local Government Bill and the Learning and Skills Bill. So here we are again with a Bill before us which the Government are determined to get on the statute book, even if they have to resort to the Parliament Act. I find it offensive that a Bill which is a matter of conscience, and hence a free vote, is to be treated in this way.

In a previous speech on this subject in this House, the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, who is just leaving the Chamber, mentioned her age of 51. I hope that in so doing she was not implying that, because she is 20 years younger than my noble friend Lady Young, she takes the view she does. I cannot accept that premise. I can assure her that I have had discussions with people of all ages, including the very young. It is certainly not our age which determines our views; it is our beliefs.

Photo of Baroness Young of Old Scone Baroness Young of Old Scone Labour

My Lords, perhaps the noble Baroness will give way. Perhaps I can just draw her attention to a recent opinion poll which demonstrated that there is a considerable gradient between older and younger registers of opinion in supporting this Bill. It showed that 78 per cent of those aged between 15 and 24 support the Bill, which compares very differently with those who were 55 and over. So there is a much greater acceptance of the principles of this Bill among younger people.

Photo of Baroness Seccombe Baroness Seccombe Conservative

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.

Photo of The Earl of Longford The Earl of Longford Labour 6:31 pm, 11th April 2000

My Lords, we have just listened to a very moving speech. I cannot go along with everything that the noble Baroness said because she was so harsh about the Government. However, she spoke from her special knowledge.

There has always been a free vote on this matter and therefore I am happy to think that I am able to vote against the policy advocated, so ably as always, by the Minister. I am aware that there are deeply-held views on this subject and therefore I shall speak very briefly.

I suppose that I must present my pro-homosexual credentials by saying that I was the first person who dared touch the subject 40 years ago, when I introduced a Motion in relation to the Wolfenden Report. I said then, as I say now, that we must treat people with homosexual leanings with proper respect; but in those days that was not at all a popular thing to say.

Turning to the present time, I am not bigoted against homosexuals and I hope that nobody thinks I am. I visit in prison two who have been homosexuals, sentenced for grave offences: one to 10 years and the other to 15 years. In the second case the prisoner has now abandoned those ways, and I shall have my hand on his shoulder as his sponsor when he joins the Catholic Church next week--so no one must call me "an enemy of the homos".

Do we or do we not wish our children to be homosexual? Do we just laugh it off, as some people do? The strange fact is that, in the 50 years that I have been in this House, there has been only one man, and no women, who has got up and said that he is homosexual--Lord Alli. I salute him; I give him all credit, and we want men like him. If it is a normal fact of life that people are homosexual, why has no one here said that they are homosexual? We cannot see it in the same way as backing Manchester United rather than the Arsenal, or something like that. It is really very serious and it is very rare.

We have to ask ourselves why we--why Christians, if you like--consider that it is wrong. Christians consider that sex outside marriage is wrong--heterosexual sex or homosexual sex. In that sense, therefore, they are on a par. That, logically, is one way of looking at it. Nevertheless, very few of us would want our children to be homosexual. I have been very lucky, having had eight children, 26 grandchildren, and heaven knows how many great-grandchildren.

Homosexuality is not normal; though that does not prove that it is necessarily wrong, it is very abnormal. People have to bear that in mind. People cannot be blamed for the leanings, of course; it is the performance, the act, which is wrong.

Why is it that so few of us would want our children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren to be homosexual? One obvious answer is that they cannot have families, and most people look upon families as a vital part of human life. That is the very sad fact about being homosexual. We therefore do not want to encourage it. Does anyone want to encourage homosexuality? I cannot believe that anyone does, except possibly my noble friend Lord Alli. I do not think that anyone would get up and say, "I am in favour of homosexuality. There is a lot to be said for it". You may perhaps find people saying it in some artistic club but, in my experience, you will not find it being said here.

We have this problem. Do we want to encourage homosexuality? This proposal will encourage it. We have to face the fact that it will encourage homosexuality in the young, and we do not know where that will lead. Maybe they will recover. The boy who assaulted my son in the bath at Eton, and was later expelled for doing the same to another boy, became a much-respected member of county society and captain of the cricket team. You can recover from it. Nevertheless, I think you are doing permanent damage to young people if you encourage them to be homosexual. I am therefore against this present proposal.

Photo of Lord Quirk Lord Quirk Crossbench 6:37 pm, 11th April 2000

My Lords, it is a great privilege to follow the noble Earl, Lord Longford, who has so long and distinguished a record in defending personal freedoms.

As a society, we send out peculiarly mixed messages as to when we can do what. At 16 we can leave school; we can join the Army; we can buy a lottery ticket; marry; smoke tobacco; and drive a nippy little motorbike. At 17 we can drive a car. At 18 we can take out a mortgage; we can buy alcohol for ourselves, and we can vote. At 20, if we are fast learners, we can pilot a passenger-carrying aircraft. At 21 we can drive a lorry or bus; we can drive a train; we can stand for Parliament. All of these without sex discrimination: men and women have the same rights. Indeed, it is only as we approach a rather higher level of maturity that gender raises its head. At 60 a woman can travel free on London Transport; a man has to wait a further five years.

All of these age points no doubt have their own rationale. From time to time the ages are adjusted, usually downwards; but sometimes, as with the school-leaving age, upward. But the rationale is multi-factored: a balance between such considerations as public safety, community health, adequacy of information and, far from least, personal freedom in a free society.

It may seem odd to have to wait till you are 18 before voting and then be restricted to voting for someone at least three years older. It may seem odd that you can pilot a passenger airliner at 20, but must be 21 before you can drive a passenger bus. It may seem odd that you cannot drive a Mini till you are 17 but you can scoot around on a rather more lethal moped at 16. It may seem odd to refuse a girl of 16 a glass of wine while letting her buy a packet of cigarettes. The White Paper published yesterday mitigates this (at page 36) only to allowing the girl her glass of wine if she is,

"accompanied by a supervising adult", which hardly offers us any useful analogy as we approach this Bill today.

In the Bill before us, we are responding to what again seems odd to many people; namely, that boys and girls may have vaginal sex at 16, but have to wait till they are 18 if they wish to have anal sex. There is indeed pressure--from men at any rate; I, for one, have had no letters from women's organisations urging me to support this Bill--for what is loosely and misleadingly referred to as the "equalisation" of the age of consent, meaning an equalisation not of male and female consent rights (they are equal already) but an equalisation of vaginal and anal intercourse.

Many people, of course, regard such an equalisation as a nonsense, even as an affront--or, as the noble Earl, Lord Longford, has just said, as wrong--but, as in past debates going back nearly three years, I shall address only the health issues involved. Let the young be properly informed, as the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, urged.

Bodies such as the Health Education Authority have done young people a serious disservice not only in breezily offering vaginal and anal sex as valid alternatives but in neglecting to inform the readers of the risks of damage and disease that are specific to anal sex--issues to which the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, for example, alluded. The sole exception so far as the HEA is concerned has been information, welcome enough, on AIDS. But although condom wearing may protect the inserting partner (especially if he adopts the recommended thicker condom), no word is said of the risks of physical damage to the recipient partner, girl or boy, though this is actually increased for pretty obvious reasons if her or his partner is using a thicker, less sensitive condom. And no word is said of the manifold risks to the girl whose partner is bisexual. No word, for example, from the various authorities listed by the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy.

These are matters that I have raised before, but on this occasion I hope the Minister, the noble and learned Lord, will assure the House that full and frank information on the health implications of anal sex will now be made widely available, irrespective of whether the consensual age for boys and girls is lowered. The relevant research results are in the public domain: for example, there is T.E. Schmidt's 1995 book, Straight and Narrow, or, closer to home, the more technical study of 1993 by three Fellows of the Royal College of Surgeons at the Westminster Hospital, right here in SW1, and published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. All that is needed is for such material to be distilled into the reader-friendly style in which the Health Education Authority is so expert.

I am dismayed to see teenagers smoking but I take some uneasy comfort in the knowledge that (unlike me when I started smoking) they have been clearly and repeatedly warned--on every packet. I am alarmed to have teenagers flash past me on 50 cc machines, but I recognise that the health risks to themselves--if not to me--are mitigated by an obligatory helmet. Sex, as we surely know in this House by now--having had so many debates on it--is a commoner pursuit than motor cycling or even smoking. Let the information thereon, so far as social responsibility and personal well-being are concerned, start to be at least as cogent and clear.

Photo of Lord Stallard Lord Stallard Labour 6:46 pm, 11th April 2000

My Lords, as usual, I rise to speak when there is little left to say; indeed, everything has been said and most of it--at least that with which I agree--I have been pleased to hear. I respect the views of my noble friend Lord Alli, who always puts an honest and straightforward view when he speaks about prejudice, and so on. However, I have to remind him that some of us, perhaps from a different generation, have Christian beliefs and have tried to stand by them. We have also suffered a great deal of discrimination and abuse. We still do. So discrimination, inequality, and so on, do not apply simply to homosexuals or to people like my noble friend Lord Alli. We are talking about a much wider field than that. That is not to say that it is right; but it is there. We have all experienced some of it.

I shall try to shorten what I intended to say. My basic belief comes from my Christian upbringing. I still believe in the Bible and the Ten Commandments. I was delighted to hear the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester emphasise the need to promote marriage as the base of a good relationship.

This discussion both here and in the other place tends to try to equalise homosexuality and homosexual relationships with heterosexual relationships. There is no similarity. One is firmly based on religious and moral teachings. The noble Lord, Lord Norton, spoke about homosexuality as being a case of having no choice; in other words, it is something that is inbred in people. But not so long ago I read a letter in reply to correspondence that had been carried on for some time in newspapers regarding chromosome X and chromosome Y. It was held for a long time that different chromosomes determined whether a person would be heterosexual or homosexual. This argument was dismissed and ridiculed by a leader of the homosexual community. He said quite clearly that that business was rubbish and that the whole thing about homosexuality was a matter of choice. It is not something that you are born with; it is something that you choose. That is not a problem for me but people ought to be honest about this matter and not try to hide behind some kind of a generation--

Photo of Lord Norton of Louth Lord Norton of Louth Conservative

My Lords, the noble Lord provides anecdotal evidence, but can he provide any firm empirical evidence because all we have heard this afternoon is assertion after assertion on this point? What is the hard empirical evidence which bears out what the noble Lord says?

Photo of Lord Stallard Lord Stallard Labour

My Lords, I am recounting the comments of a leading homosexual who wrote in a letter to a newspaper that the whole argument about chromosomes is rubbish and that one is not born to be homosexual but that it is a matter of choice. The noble Lord cannot accept that, but I take it that I may be speaking of one of his friends. I have to accept that I come from a different world, background, education, environment and beliefs from some of my younger friends. Now there is a much wider gap between the generations than was ever the case in the past.

Those of us who still hold firm to Christian morals and beliefs find it difficult suddenly to overthrow them and become so lackadaisical of anything that is decent. That seems to be the conduct of the new generation--the "www dot com" thing. Everything has been taken out of context and, unlike in the past, there is nothing to link the generations. There was not a big gap between myself and my grandfather, but there is a huge gap between me and my grandchildren. That is a problem that most of us have to face. We try to come to terms with it, but the one thing I cannot come to terms with is the concept that homosexuality must be equated with heterosexuality and that homosexual couples must be equated with married couples. That is not the case and I am glad that at least the right reverend Prelate had the guts to say that the heterosexual relationship must be emphasised. That is the basis of the society that I know and the basis of the society that I espouse and one that I shall continue to espouse.

The Bill before us reduces the age of homosexual consent from 18 to 16. It also lowers the age at which men can commit buggery on girls. Those of us who have read of the abuse scandals in north Wales must be horrified at this prospect. I know that in view of the scandals, the court cases and what was exposed in north Wales there is no public support for lowering the age of homosexual consent from 18 to 16. The Waterhouse report specifically concluded that in the matter we are discussing the dangers for those outside care are as great as for those in care. I should like to discuss the report at greater length as it discusses in great detail the differences between 16 and 18 year-olds in terms of the problems that they experience and their need for protection. We are talking about the need to protect children from the kind of incidents that occurred in north Wales. As I say, there is little public support for the Government's proposals in the Bill.

There is even less support for the Government's determination to steamroller the Bill through. If the Government do not get the Bill through this House, they will invoke the Parliament Act. That is quite disgraceful, given the severity of the proposals and the opposition to them. Although I admit that the Government have introduced safeguards since the incidents in north Wales, they have not yet gone far enough. We need to introduce further safeguards. People who share my views would make those changes. If we rely on others to make the changes, they will move in completely the opposite direction. I am happy to endorse the comments of those who have spoken in favour of Christian morals and beliefs, which most of us support. We need to do all we can to amend the Bill to ensure that children are given the protection to which they are entitled.

Photo of Baroness Young Baroness Young Conservative 6:54 pm, 11th April 2000

My Lords, this is the third time that we have debated lowering the age of consent. The Government's case has not altered, nor, I believe, improved. The overwhelming majority of the population do not want the lowering of the age of consent for homosexuals. This is a view shared by Peers on all sides of the House.

I was interested to hear the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams, and others speaking from the Labour Benches, mention the number of Conservatives who support the Bill. My noble friend Lord Norton has supported it this afternoon. There is, of course, an equal number of Labour Peers who are opposed to the Bill. A great many Labour Members of the House of Commons voted against it. Therefore the Bill cuts across party. However, it is also opposed by all the major religions: the Christians, the Muslims and the Jews. I would have thought that we should take that into account. Like others, I warmly support the wise words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester.

To force the Bill through against all those considered opinions the Government have made clear, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams, has said, that they will use the Parliament Act on this Bill, which most believe to be a matter of conscience, which has been subject to a free vote in both Houses and which was not in the Labour Party's manifesto. The Bill had neither Report nor Committee stage when debated in the Commons earlier this year. The Parliament Act has been used only five times since 1911, and never in circumstances such as these. I believe that that is a parliamentary disgrace.

The noble Lord, Lord Lester, said, I believe, that people like me are torpedoing the Bill. However, I do not think that he had many qualms of conscience over voting with us on, for example, the order which would have allowed a free election leaflet to be sent out in the elections for the Lord Mayor of London. Was that a case of torpedoing the Government or not? Noble Lords believed that their action was right on that occasion; I believe it is right that we should stand firm now.

The Bill is presented as a theoretical debate about equality. However, it is not even a case of equality in the United Kingdom, because the proposed age is 16 in England, Wales and Scotland and 17 in Northern Ireland. The debate is not about equality at all but about children. As we all know, the lowering of the age to 16 would in practice mean 14. All the arguments that have been adduced about the difficulties that 16 year-olds face would apply equally to 14 year-olds if the Bill becomes law.

I refer to two other points that have been raised. The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, spoke at considerable length on sex education. I am doubtful about the value of sex education. It seems to me that the more sex education there has been, the more difficulties young people have experienced. Having read much of the literature, I can see why there are so many teenage pregnancies, as some of the literature constitutes positively a kind of "do-it-yourself" kit.

Nowadays the health promotion units pose dangers. They are now issuing dangerous material. I refer to the article in today's Daily Mail--this has been mentioned--and the material which was sent to the headmistress of a girls' school in Slough. I have spoken to that headmistress. I assure the House that the material was sent to her and that she was asked to distribute it in her school. She refused to do so and has sent me a copy of it. It is an appalling piece of literature to distribute to schoolchildren. The Berkshire health promotion unit has now commented on the issue. But those are the facts of the case as I know them.

My noble friend Lady Blatch and many other noble Lords have pointed out the different ages at which we are legally permitted to do things. We forget that 18 is the age of majority; and we forget that, under the all-important Children's Act 1989, 16 year-olds are defined as "children". I find it curious that the Government have introduced the Children (Leaving Care) Bill--under which 16 and 17 year-olds will have mentors to guide and help them after leaving care up until 18--and at the same time they have introduced a Bill which will lower the age of consent for homosexuals and turn 16 year-olds into adults, without any care, help or back-up from the law. That is completely inconsistent. We find that in one Bill the Government will look after 16 year-olds and in another they send out the message that sex is all right at 16, never mind the health risk.

We have heard little from the Government Benches about the very real health risks referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, and by my noble friend Lady Seccombe. The health risks are real. It is worth repeating that no one who has had anal sex is ever allowed to give blood. That should say something to us all about the dangers.

We have only to look at the video distributed by the Avon health promotion unit. Its message is quite clear: try experimenting with boys and girls and see who you feel most comfortable with. This is not the message that most responsible parents want to hear, nor do the British public.

I turn now to the question of legalising buggery with girls of 16. I can only suppose that this has been put into the Bill to please the Women's Unit, the leader of which, I believe, is the noble Baroness, Lady Jay. She will no doubt want to boast about her latest achievement in equality. I confidently expect that this proposal will feature prominently in the next issue of that glossy magazine, Views. To be serious, I believe that most girls would find this act repulsive and that most responsible people would say that it was dangerous.

The noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, said that he was looking for evidence to show that there were dangers, as did my noble friend Lord Norton. My noble friend Lord Waddington referred to the Waterhouse report, as have a great many other speakers. The very important report of Sir Ronald Waterhouse, Lost in Care, is the one major difference since we last debated this matter. I was surprised that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams, did not refer to it. If he did and I did not hear him, I apologise.

Most unusually, Sir Ronald draws the attention of Parliament to the vulnerability of boys aged 16 to 18, precisely the age group that we are discussing. He said:

"We have concentrated our attention on evidence relating to children who were in care at the time, having regard to our terms of reference, but we have necessarily heard some evidence about others who were on the fringe of the care system, that is, children who were later committed to care and youths who had recently been discharged from care. In our judgement, the perils for such persons are as great in this respect as for those actually in care and our findings emphasise the importance of continuing support by Social Services for those who are discharged from care. We draw the attention of Parliament also to the abuse suffered by B between the ages of 16 years and 18 years, in circumstances which appear to have made him question his own sexuality for a period. Much of the later abuse was not inflicted by persons in a position of trust in relation to him and there can be no doubt that he was significantly corrupted and damaged by what occurred".

Those are very strong words. They are surely words which all of us who take a responsible view of our role in Parliament should consider very carefully.

I shall be the first to acknowledge that the Government have made some proposals to answer the recommendations in the report, but the abuse of trust provisions proposed by the Government in this Bill would not have covered much of the abuse which took place in North Wales. For example, some of the boys met their abusers outside the care home, a point not covered in the Bill. At least two of the abusers would not have been convicted had the Bill before us been an Act. They were convicted when the age of consent was 21.

But perhaps most worrying of all is the theme which runs through the report of the complacency of the statutory services, in particular the local authority social services department. The Home Office consultation paper on abuse of trust stated:

"The responses to the consultation exercise indicated that the large majority of organisations, including the majority of voluntary organisations working with children, believed that such conduct was better regulated by professional codes".

It also stated:

"The majority of the respondents stated that they were opposed to the introduction of a criminal offence to cover cases of abuse of trust".

They may have given that evidence, but we must recognise that today there is evidence of widespread abuse of children. Some 32--I repeat, 32--major police investigations are under way, some of them, I understand, much larger than that in North Wales. The truth of the matter is that if we support this Bill we are weakening the law and giving less protection to children.

It is quite clear that, at the end of the day, there may be homosexual boys who want the right to have sex at 16 with men; there may even be girls--although I suspect hardly any--who want the right to buggery. But there is no way of changing the law to give them freedom without taking away the protection of the law from the overwhelming majority of vulnerable 16 to 18 year-olds who could be subject to predatory abuse.

We have been told that we in this House are too old; that young people think differently; that certainly anyone of my age is obviously over the hill and should not express an opinion on anything. I believe that it is our duty--I do not mind saying what I said before--to speak to what we believe to be right and believe to be true. Before we take a final decision on the Bill, every one of us should study the Waterhouse report. It is a report from an independent inspector who was looking at a terrible case. I have been appalled and sickened by some of the things I have read. I can hardly bear to think of what may be happening in other tragic cases to boys, and to a lesser extent to girls, while we are debating this issue. It will be dreadful for both. It is our duty to speak out.

Public opinion polls may be split on age groups, but there is no doubt that in every poll taken the overwhelming majority of people are worried about this Bill and do not like it. They are worried because they, too, know about these kinds of cases. They are worried that it might happen to their particular child--and that is what they do not want.

All the abuse in the North Wales inquiry took place when the age of consent was 21. We must ask ourselves what would happen if the age of consent was 16.

I turn now to answer the question about the charities which has been raised by a number of noble Lords. I have been asked what I think on this matter. I will tell your Lordships' House exactly what has happened. None of the charities has sent me a brief. They did not send me one a year ago. They have not sent one at this time, and so on this occasion I have not heard directly from them.

Those noble Lords who took part in the previous debate may recall that at that time there was a large advertisement in The Times specifically aimed at me to show that I was the only person in the United Kingdom who was intolerant and that everyone else was on the side of tolerance and all the good qualities that one can possibly think of. The advertisement listed all the charities. I was rather surprised when I saw the advertisement, so when the debate was over I wrote to every one of the charities. I said that I was surprised to see that organisations like them, well respected in the country at large, and, I thought, intended to be non-political, would have lent their names to that advertisement. Every single one of them wrote back and said that they had never given permission for their names to appear on the advertisement at all. I was slightly surprised that most of the charities, which raise considerable sums of money and do not hesitate to send all of us vast quantities of begging letters, did not employ someone to read the newspapers and correct the matter before I needed to write to them. However, let that pass.

I then went on to inquire what the views of the charities were not only about the age of consent but about the adoption of children by homosexuals. I quote from a letter from Barnado's:

"We do not exclude anyone from consideration as an adopter or foster carer on the grounds of sexual orientation. Barnado's is concerned that emphasising traditional family structures can discourage potentially valuable applicants from coming forward".

I was rather surprised to receive that reply from one of the charities. I ask myself why they have all said that they support the lowering of the age of consent. All of the letters which I received said that the charities had put the matter to their main committees--I have no doubt that they did--and the main committees decided. Had the charities actually taken a poll of their supporters or invited all their supporters to come to a meeting to decide whether or not they should do this, I think that they would have got a very different result. I am bound to say that I have been very disappointed by their attitude.

Photo of Lord McCarthy Lord McCarthy Labour

My Lords, does the noble Baroness have any evidence for the statement she has just made? Did she go on to contact the BMA, the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Nursing? Is she saying that any of the people she contacted contradicted the view expressed in this House that they support the reduction to 16?

Photo of Baroness Young Baroness Young Conservative

My Lords, I made it perfectly clear. They all wrote to me and said that they supported the reduction to 16. I did not in fact write to every single one of those organisations, but I wrote to quite a number of them. The point I am making is that I believe that had those organisations, at an annual general meeting, put the question, they might have got a very different result. My experience of volunteers is that they are completely opposed to lowering the age of consent.

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for giving way. I did in fact get in touch with the NSPCC, a charity which we support as a family, and discovered that it had not taken soundings from its supporters. The decision was made at board level.

Photo of Baroness Young Baroness Young Conservative

My Lords, time goes not allow me to go further into the other question which has been raised, but I think that it was fully answered. I refer to the argument about the European Court, an argument which we have heard many times in this House, which was completely successfully answered by my noble friend Lord Waddington.

Photo of Lord Lester of Herne Hill Lord Lester of Herne Hill Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. I have heard no answer to the point that I made other than that there is a opinion--I have never been shown it, nor have I read it--which states arguments that I have never seen. This may not be a very fair question to ask someone who is not a lawyer, but I wonder whether we can have some indication of how on earth we could comply with the convention if this Bill were not carried. I do not understand the beginning of an argument that would show that we could comply with our international obligations if this Bill were not passed. It is obvious that that is the position. No one who has spoken has given any answer. I have raised this matter in three debates, as the noble Baroness and other noble Lords know to their misery. I have raised it again and again. No one has ever given a reasoned answer.

Photo of Baroness Young Baroness Young Conservative

My Lords, I thought that my noble friend Lord Waddington had given a reasoned answer to it. Perhaps I may quote the legal advice which I have been given on this matter. It states:

"It is commonly argued that 'Europe' requires the UK to lower the age of consent. This is not true. Sutherland v. UK is the case usually cited. The Court of Human Rights has yet to hear this case. A provisional, advisory opinion has been issued by the Commission of Human Rights, but this does not legally bind the Court itself".

It goes on to say that we do not know whether the Court,

"would agree with the Commission that unequal ages of consent for homosexuals and heterosexuals breach the European Convention of Human Rights".

The fact of the matter is that the issue of the homosexual age of consent is a matter for national parliaments, not the Court of Human Rights. After all, it varies in quite a number of places in the European Union.

I, and those who think as I do, will not vote against the Second Reading of the Bill today, but that should not be taken to mean that we are in favour of it--quite the contrary. For the reasons which I have given, particularly in the light of the Waterhouse report, we regard this as a bad Bill. It is bad for responsible parents and it is bad for children. It sends out the wrong signal. We shall do our best to improve it at the Committee and Report stages and I hope that we can move some amendments at which the Government will look. I was encouraged by the opening words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams, when he referred to the scout movement and the guide movement. I hope that we may look at other organisations. I take this matter very seriously indeed. But whether the Government use the Parliament Act or whether they do not, the British public should know that the House of Lords has spoken for them this evening--spoken the words which the overwhelming majority want to hear--on this occasion, as it has done in the past.

Photo of Baroness Massey of Darwen Baroness Massey of Darwen Labour

My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, perhaps I may suggest that she has confused two noble Baronesses. I would not wish my words to be attributed to the noble Baroness, Lady Masham of Ilton.

Photo of Baroness Young Baroness Young Conservative

My Lords, I did not mean to call the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, the noble Baroness, Lady Masham. It was a slip of the tongue and I apologise.

Photo of Baroness Lockwood Baroness Lockwood Labour 7:17 pm, 11th April 2000

My Lords, I have not previously spoken on this matter. I was prompted to do so today because of my concern about the way in which some of the issues are being debated. If I may say so, I think that we had an extreme example this afternoon when the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, spoke from the Opposition Benches. But not only has the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, accused the Government--

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative

My Lords, I should be deeply grateful if the noble Baroness could say which aspect of my speech was extremely extreme.

Photo of Baroness Lockwood Baroness Lockwood Labour

My Lords, first, the noble Baroness accused the Government of being obsessed with sex and suggested that the people who are shortly to be introduced into the House must have been put through a test to make sure that they support the Bill. When my noble friend the Chief Whip objected to that, the noble Baroness did not accept--

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative

My Lords, I take great exception to that. I agreed with it in the beginning. It was the noble Lord, Lord Carter, who misunderstood what I said.

Photo of Baroness Lockwood Baroness Lockwood Labour

My Lords, I apologise if the noble Baroness agreed with my noble friend in the beginning, but I am afraid that I stick to what I said about the way in which the noble Baroness started her speech. Not only has the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, accused the Government of being obsessed by sex but so have a number of other speakers, including the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe. The noble Baroness went on to say that she found it offensive. I think she was referring in that context to the Government having said that they would use the Parliament Act to get the legislation through. I must say to the noble Baroness that I too find it offensive to have the motives of the Government questioned in this way, and that includes the motives of some Members of the Government, including the Leader of the House.

There was another example this morning in the "Today" programme on that same theme. That programme, in the usual way "Today" has of putting out bright headlines, referred to the Government legislating for homosexual sex at 16--as if the Government were actually trying to promote homosexuality for young people. The Government are attempting to deal with the problem in an effective way within the context of the situation that exists today. None of us in this Chamber, or generally in the country I think, wants to promote either heterosexual or homosexual activity at 16, or at any young age. But equally nobody in this Chamber has a monopoly of moral standards.

As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester said, we are looking for the best way to deal with the issues in the circumstances of today's society. So naturally we look, first, at the law, and the law as it stands today is not effective. Although it makes illegal the practice of homosexuality under the age of 18, it does not stop homosexuality happening under the age of 18: nor does it help those whose orientation is homosexual to have access to the help and guidance they might need at a difficult time in their adolescence. Indeed, on the contrary, it is a barrier to their seeking such help and advice.

Nor does the law protect our young people--and here I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, and other speakers--because it does not protect young people of either sex from being abused. The Waterhouse report, which has been referred to in the debate on several occasions, indicates just that: under the law as it stands today young people have not been protected against being abused.

The reality, as I have said, is that the present law does not work and needs replacing by one that will meet the circumstances of the current age. Currently, the law makes heterosexual activity at 16, and even marriage at 16, lawful. We may not be completely happy with that. I think most of us here would prefer young people of either sex not to engage in sexual acts at such an early age, and we might seek to mitigate that. However, like my noble friend Lady Massey of Darwen, the best way to deal with this is through education. The discussion that is going on at present on guidelines to help schools to teach sex education and health-related matters is, I think, one way forward.

In that respect at least, the law is facing up to the reality of today. It recognises that young people are having sex, and it is trying to do something about it. However, it is not facing up to reality when it allows young women of 16 to engage in lesbian activity, but not young men of that age in homosexuality. This is where the law begins to diverge. It is neither realistic nor equitable to treat young women and men differently. It exposes boys to criminal action, and although the law, as the noble Lord, Lord Monson, indicated, is not much used in this respect, nevertheless it sends under cover the natural development of some boys and encourages them to be secretive. It also undermines their confidence and self-respect and inhibits them from discussing their sexuality with parents or others who might guide them. It exposes them to abuse and corruptive action.

These are surely all features that we do not wish to foster. I know that many of your Lordships have said that by amending the law we are sending out the wrong signals, but I do not see it that way. We are recognising something that is very real to a section of our community, albeit a minority in our community, and we are giving them the protection of the law that they need.

In this context it is worth repeating what my noble and learned friend Lord Williams said in opening the debate: that there are many major organisations that are concerned with the care and well-being of children and young people. They think that this Bill is necessary. That has been disputed by some Members of your Lordships' House, despite being on record as having supported the Bill. I think that the Bill will help them in the work they are undertaking with the children and young people in their care in the difficult context of today's society.

This is not legislation that the Government have plucked out of the air. It stems from the experience of those who are working with children and young people. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, when we last discussed the matter and again this evening, has referred to the fact that this legislation was not in the Government's manifesto. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, also made that point. No, it was not in the manifesto but, as a matter of fact, this legislation has been prompted by the European Commission of Human Rights and by a case which went before the Commission and which will go to the European Court of Human Rights unless our domestic legislation is changed. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, has referred to that.

We all know that the European Commission of Human Rights is not an arm of the European Union or a Brussels invention. It is a longstanding institution, which is supported by nearly 40 countries throughout the whole of Europe. It was greatly influenced by that speech of Winston Churchill in 1948, which did much to promote the Council of Europe, which oversees the European Convention on Human Rights--a convention, incidentally, to which we are committed by signature of the Government.

Photo of Earl Ferrers Earl Ferrers Conservative

My Lords, perhaps I could interrupt the noble Baroness for one moment. Would she agree that the European Commission of Human Rights is not the same as the European Court of Human Rights; that the European Court takes precedence over what the Commission has said; and that the Court has not yet spoken?

Photo of Baroness Lockwood Baroness Lockwood Labour

My Lords, I said--or certainly intended to say--that the matter had gone before the Commission and would go before the European Court of Human Rights if domestic legislation was not changed. That clearly justifies the Government taking action to promote legislation, albeit on a free vote in both Houses. But there is more to it than the involvement of the European Court of Human Rights. One must also consider all the social implications to which reference has been made in today's debate. When this matter was debated last April I was struck by the views of the two youngest Members of this House: the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, who has spoken briefly today, and the Earl of Clancarty, who is no longer with us. They both spoke for their generation. In particular, the Earl of Clancarty said that if the issues dealt with that day had been debated by the under 25s they would have taken a different and much more realistic view of the situation.

Photo of Lord Monson Lord Monson Crossbench

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that not many people under 25 are yet parents, still less grandparents?

Photo of Baroness Lockwood Baroness Lockwood Labour

My Lords, certainly not many of those under 25 are grandparents but a great number are parents. Regrettably, many of them are single parents, which is one of the problems related to the matter that we are now debating. I was impressed by the contributions of those two young Members of your Lordships' House. We must remember that in the 21st century we are legislating for the young people of this country whose views and needs should guide our decision on this Bill.

Photo of Lord Brightman Lord Brightman Crossbench 7:32 pm, 11th April 2000

My Lords, I am the last speaker before the gap at my own request. I am grateful to whatever usual channels have arranged that privilege for me. My reason is that I wish to speak to a matter of importance that arises on this Bill, although it has nothing whatever to do with sex. I wish to enter a strong protest at the way in which this Bill is drafted. I sincerely hope that I shall not cause any offence to parliamentary counsel, for whose skill I have the greatest respect. I do not expect the Attorney-General to reply to anything that I say, unless he wishes to do so, because I have not warned him in advance.

This Bill deals with the Sexual Offences Acts 1956 and 1967 and comparable legislation that affects Scotland and Northern Ireland. I shall confine myself to Section 1 of the 1967 Act by way of example. Section 1 as originally enacted contains seven subsections. If a Bill seeks to amend a section it can do so in one of two ways. It can amend the section in piecemeal fashion by inserting a word here and taking away a word there; or it can repeal the section in toto and re-introduce it in the amended form which it is intended to take. If the section has already been heavily amended by previous Acts of Parliament and is intended to be further re-amended, obviously the time will come when the only sensible course is to repeal the section and substitute a new one.

Section 1 of the 1967 Act has already been amended in eight respects by the Mental Health (Amendment) Act 1982 and the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. It is now intended to amend it a further five times by this Bill. In consequence, if the Bill reaches the statute book in its present form and someone wishes to read the whole of Section 1 of the 1967 Act, as amended, he will need to proceed as follows. For subsection (1) the reader must first go to Schedule 11 to the 1994 Act to amend line two. The reader must then go to Section 145 of the 1994 Act and Clause 2(3) of the Bill for the remainder of the subsection. Subsection (2) is unaltered. For subsection (3) the reader must go to paragraph 34(a) of Schedule 1 to the 1982 Act to amend lines one, two and eight. The reader must then go to paragraph 34(b) of Schedule 3 to the 1982 Act to insert a new subsection which is numbered (3A). Subsection (4) is unaltered. For subsection (5) the reader must go to Section 146 of the 1994 Act to learn that it has been repealed. For subsection (6) the reader must back-pedal to Section 145 of the 1994 Act and then go to Clause 1(2) of the Bill for the final words of that subsection. Subsection (7) is unaltered.

Your Lordships will see, therefore, that in order to discover the text of Section 1 in the amended form that it is intended to take under the Bill the reader will have to cope with amendments spread over the text of three Acts of Parliament and two schedules. In my respectful submission, that is not fair to the public, to lawyers who have to advise the public or to anyone else.

The reader may think of turning to what used to be called the Notes on Clauses (now the Explanatory Notes) to discover the text of Section 1 in its amended form. He would be ill-advised to do so. Page 11 purports to set out the subsections amended by the Bill and identify the subsections which continue unaffected by the Bill. Subsection (5) is included as a provision which is unaffected by the Bill, but that subsection has been repealed by Section 146 of the 1994 Act. Furthermore, subsection (7), which continues unaffected by the Bill, is omitted from the list of subsections unaltered by the Bill, and the reader will therefore think that it is not there.

If the editor of Notes on Clauses cannot get things right, what hope is there for the rest of us? Why on earth does the Bill not repeal Section 1 of the Sexual Offences Act and set out a new Section 1 in its amended form and save everyone a great deal of trouble and the possibility of making mistakes. I do not place any blame on the editor of Notes on Clauses. I found it a difficult and tedious task to build up Section 1 into its intended final form. It is extremely easy to make a mistake and I made several mistakes before I got it right.

If I had the opportunity I would table an amendment to the Bill in the form of a Keeling schedule setting out the section in its amended form. The contents of the schedule could then be removed at a later stage and placed in the body of the Bill. This happened with the Trustee (Delegation) Bill of the last Session. The Bill as drafted amended Section 25 of the Trustee Act 1925 which had already been heavily amended. I tabled a Keeling schedule which rewrote Section 25 in its amended form. The Government accepted the amendment in principle, repealed Section 25 of the Trustee Act and set out the amended Section 25 in full in the body of the Bill. I refer to Hansard, 9th March 1999, at col. 125. However, having regard to the rubric which is printed at the top of page 1 of this Bill, I doubt whether this course is practicable in the present case.

Finally, the guidelines for the drafting of Community legislation produced under the Treaty of Amsterdam state:

"To make texts more readily comprehensible, references to other Acts should be kept to a minimum. Cross-references ... should be avoided ... Amendments should take the form of a text to be inserted in the Act to be amended".

When I inquired not so very long ago, I was told by the Office of Parliamentary Counsel that there were no guidelines here for the drafting of Bills. In my respectful opinion it is high time that there were.

I apologise for taking up so much of your Lordships' time on a matter which is peripheral to the substance of the Bill. But as the Bill is one of the most extreme cases of piecemeal amendments which I have encountered, I felt that I should not allow the occasion to pass without comment. As the guidelines for Community legislation say:

"Clear, simple ... drafting ... is essential if it is to be transparent ... and readily understandable by the public".

That ends my protest, and I hope that I have not caused offence to anyone who has been involved in the formulation of the Bill.

Photo of Earl Russell Earl Russell Liberal Democrat 7:43 pm, 11th April 2000

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, for reminding us of the virtues of the Keeling schedule. It is something which should be employed more often.

We on these Benches have a free vote. Thanks to the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, I do not need to elaborate that point further.

One or two points struck me from the debate. For me the high moment of the debate was the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, emulating Nell Gwyn by throwing open the windows of the carriage and saying, "Good people, I am the Labour Young".

I return also to the matter of the Berkshire Health Authority which the noble Baroness, Lady Young, reintroduced. I have an official press release from the health authority dated last Friday. Its exact words are these:

"Circulation of the newsletter was recently extended to personal health and sex education advisers in Berkshire schools and student counsellors in colleges. This is to give people in key positions information about sources of help and advice to assist them in their work. It has not been circulated directly to school pupils".

That seems to be an official statement which demands at least some degree of attention.

Photo of Baroness Young Baroness Young Conservative

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for giving way. I never said that it had been circulated to school pupils. I said that it had been sent to the headmistress. That is what she said to me.

Photo of Earl Russell Earl Russell Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that welcome clarification. However, I am somewhat bewildered by her insistence that the Waterhouse report is a key document in this debate. First, paedophilia and homosexuality are two completely different things. In a previous debate on the subject, the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton of Eggardon, said that what most paedophiles are looking for are pretty boys of seven or eight, not pimply youths of 17. I understand that there is one case in the report involving someone of an age to be within the provisions of the Bill, but it is my understanding, and indeed to me the definition of abuse, that it happens without consent. So I do not see what difference the age of consent makes to it.

Photo of Baroness Young Baroness Young Conservative

My Lords, I am reluctant to interrupt the noble Earl once again. The Waterhouse report is of great relevance. It is far too large a report to go into great detail now, but one of the points made is that young boys are manipulated by older people and that is one of the reasons that they get into difficulties. I shall not elaborate now. But the report has real relevance to the Bill we are debating.

Photo of Earl Russell Earl Russell Liberal Democrat

My Lords, that is a point to which I shall return, if I may, in its proper place later. It is an argument we have been having since 1994, and I am sure that we shall debate it for a good deal longer.

I am afraid I have one more question to put to the noble Baroness. It is about the European Court of Human Rights. The noble Baroness must accept that there is at least a theoretical possibility that in the Sutherland case there will be a finding against the United Kingdom. I want to ask the noble Baroness--and in due course as the debates continue, the Conservative Front Bench will also have to answer the question--if there is such a finding against the United Kingdom would it be the view of the Conservative Party that this country should accept its international legal obligation entered into by a Conservative government and fortified now by all the panoply of a sovereign Act of Parliament? Before they answer, I hope that they will reflect that the European Court of Human Rights is not in any way an emanation of the European Union. It represents a much wider collection of countries.

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative

My Lords, I am very happy to come to the Dispatch Box to answer that question directly. First, when in power, my government had a record of complying always with the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights and we would do so in future. Secondly, a decision has not yet been reached. Thirdly, we would still want to strengthen the abuse of trust clauses in the Bill, which are wholly unacceptable.

Photo of Earl Russell Earl Russell Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for a helpful answer. On the other hand, I was not so well satisfied by her allegations about the Government being obsessed with sex. It seems to me that what we are dealing with is not the Government's obsession with sex but the obsession of certain people on the Conservative Benches and in some other places with prohibition. These are matters that many of us would far rather treat as private. But when there is an insistence on what many of us see as an indefensible and unenforceable prohibition, that prohibition brings the matters within the public domain. So long as that prohibition is defended, it will not be possible to treat these matters as private.

As we have been reminded, we have before us a Bill with the Parliament Act sailing in attendance. If the Government go ahead and use that Act, they will enjoy support from far beyond their circles. I ask people who are opposed to the Bill to recognise that others as well as them have convictions. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, referred to "compliant" Liberal Democrats. I have been waiting for a Bill such as this to reach the statute book since I first took up the issue on the publication of the Wolfenden report in 1957. The present Prime Minister was then only four years old. I did not have a good enough crystal ball to set out to be compliant to him. In any case, I believe that I have as much right to express my convictions when they happen to agree with the Government as when they do not.

Furthermore, I am not aware that there is anyone in my circle of friends or close acquaintances who does not support the Bill. One of the reasons why I believe that we are dealing with a profound division within the country is that each of us talk only to each other.

I shall not express the certainty voiced by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, that public opinion is on my side. The opinion polls seem to me to be all over the place. When that is the case, I am tempted to draw the conclusion that many members of the public have not yet made up their minds. They are therefore unduly easily led either by the wording of the question or even by the tone of the interviewer. It is certainly clear, as was said by the noble Baronesses, Lady Young of Old Scone and Lady Lockwood, that there is a clear difference of age.

When I listen to my pupils discussing the subject, I hear the same voice that I heard and applauded from the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg. I can believe that it is true of one exception, who happened to be an extremely able young man and happened to get a first. However, in numerical terms, he does not constitute a majority. I find it almost impossible to convince most of my students that there are any people, or were even in past centuries, who take the kind of attitudes which we have heard expressed today. They just do not know that people think like that.

There is opinion poll evidence. The Brook Advisory Centre commissioned from NOP, a perfectly reputable organisation, an opinion poll which found that 73 per cent of people in the 15 to 24 age group believed that the age of consent should be equal. When asked what that equal age of consent should be 70 per cent said that it should be 16 and only 4 per cent said that it should be lower than 16. No one mentioned any higher age.

If in Committee we should be offered an amendment to bring the age of consent to equality at 18, in my opinion that would be totally and utterly unenforceable. If an attempt were made to enforce it by draconian measures, we could end up imprisoning 25 per cent of the age group. If no attempt were made to enforce it in that way, it would introduce total contempt for the law.

I did not believe the Sun when it announced the death of the Conservative Party. At worst, it will not fall further than we did in 1945. But were the Conservative Party to adopt such a course, I should believe that it had voted its own extinction. The ribaldry that would greet it whenever it came to argue its case in school would be more than it could survive. Perhaps it is masochist enough to do so, but I rather hope that it is not.

We start from the fact that there is a profound division of opinion, and that is a division of moral principle. We have moral principles, too. They are not the same as everyone else's--they are not the same as those we have been hearing from that quarter of the House--but they are none the less moral and they are none the less principles.

On 23rd March, the noble Baroness, Lady Richardson, spoke for me when she said:

"Love, fidelity, stability and joy are not limited to those who have entered into the holy state of matrimony. Such qualities can also be found within other relationships. Neither are those values guaranteed by the state of matrimony. Marriage can be abusive and unstable".--[Official Report, 23/3/00; cols. 447-448.]

Those words spoke for me as much as they did for her. Morality is not, as Belloc would have it, a matter of simple little rules and few. It is a matter of how things are done; whether they are done with kindness, honesty and love. Therefore, in some circumstances, a relationship between two homosexuals, who are so and know that they are so, entered into with love, can be a moral relationship while a marriage entered into without love, and perhaps carried on with cruelty, can be an immoral relationship.

Photo of The Earl of Longford The Earl of Longford Labour

My Lords, does the noble Earl reject the whole Christian approach to these matters?

Photo of Earl Russell Earl Russell Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I do not happen to be a Christian. I have no objection whatever to Christians within their own churches believing whatever they see fit to believe. What I do not concede is that they have any right to enforce their own private moral principles on the rest of us. We are a divided society. The law must recognise that fact and it is the duty of the law to keep the peace between people whose moral principles differ from each other.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, asked: why now? First, it is because those of us who believe that the existing law is morally wrong are a growing number. Secondly, it is because we have reached the point where homosexuals are no longer prepared to accept inequality. That is a stage which many groups have reached. The working class has reached it; women have reached it; racial minorities have reached it; and people with disabilities are beginning to reach it. If homosexuals reach it now and they speak their minds, they are saying something to which, as a good Whig, I have centuries of training encouraging me to respond.

I am concerned not only about morals; I am also concerned--and just as much as the noble Baroness, Lady Young--about the protection of children. I am concerned about the protection of children from useless and unnecessary fear. If the law does nothing else, it generates such fear in those who are subject to it. I also believe that as soon as one labels any group of people "unequal" one encourages them to be bullied. I speak with feeling; I have been in that situation. I was labelled "unequal" when I was at school in the United States of America at the age of five because I was English. I am not ashamed of being English. That labelling me unequal for it gave me a stubborn and bloody-minded pride in it. It gave me no impulse to conform. But I did, literally as well as metaphorically, shed blood for it.

Therefore, I do not believe that labelling people "unequal" and then saying that they should not be bullied is any good. The worst thing you can do for a child is to produce it out of a marriage entered into by one or two people of uncertain orientation and without vocation. That is the most immoral thing of all that you can do to a child.

People who have opposed the Bill are constantly afraid that teenagers may be, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, put it, "corrupted". I find the word offensive because I do not believe that being homosexual is corrupt. My own morality says:

"To thine own self be true".

If that is what you are, that is what you should do. In addition, I do not believe that people's sexual orientation is that easily changed.

I took the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, in one of the best speeches of the day, that we can still argue about "nature" or "nurture". However, whichever it is, in the words of the BMA,

"A common feature of these factors is that they operate at a much earlier age than 16".

To me, a more appropriate summary would be:

"By no endeavour

Can magnet ever Attract a Silver Churn!". Of course, it is different for people who live in an entirely one-sex environment, as prison warders and prison governors know. I recall a detective story in which the detective said:

"I have known people who would drink whisky and soup if they had no other option, but I have never known anyone who did not have a decided view in the water or soda controversy".

I believe that that remark is the point.

I make one more point, and that is in relation to the reputation of this House. I love this House. It has a right to throw out the Bill if it wants. I hope that it will not exercise that right. This House is often right, but not always. It has often had the sense to back away on the really big confrontations. In 1832, for example, it backed away because Sir Robert Peel, with great wisdom, had recognised in private three years before the event and in public two years after it that reform could no longer be resisted. With great reluctance this House did the same in 1911.

It was a different matter in 1893 when we threw out the Irish Home Rule Bill, to which my noble friend has referred, by 419 votes to 41. If noble Lords look at the picture in the Bishops' Corridor, they will see a House that believed that it had done something rather clever. It had not. The trouble was that for centuries Englishmen who dealt with the Irish had been totally unwilling to concede their moral claims to equality. The Irish were treated as second-class citizens--a lower form of life to whom rights of equality did not extend. That is why in 1893 this House did what it did, and we are still paying for it. I hope that homosexual equality is not going to be the Irish Home Rule of the 21st century.

I have one final thought, and I shall ask your Lordships to forgive Eric Shipton's language on Mount Everest:

"For God's sake, let's climb the bloody thing and then get back to real mountaineering".

Photo of Lord Selsdon Lord Selsdon Conservative

My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down, perhaps I may ask him to think again about dismissing the Waterhouse report so out of hand. Although I have little knowledge about these matters, I should like to remind him that paedophilia is effectively an abnormal, especially sexual, love of young people, whereas pederasty is an unnatural connection with a boy, meaning sodomy. I believe that he is wrong to say that the one was not connected with the other in the case of the Waterhouse report. Since those were his reasons for dismissing it, I believe that he should think again.

Photo of Earl Russell Earl Russell Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I was following all medical opinion in making that distinction. If all medical opinion is wrong, at least I have erred in good company.

Photo of Lord Williams of Mostyn Lord Williams of Mostyn Attorney General, Law Officers' Department, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 8:03 pm, 11th April 2000

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, for her very courteous and generous welcome to me in returning to the Dispatch Box. Like the noble Earl, Lord Russell, I have a good regard for this House. As the noble Baroness, Lady Young, pointed out, this is the third--I almost said "canter"--stroll around this particular course and I thought it only right to continue with the work that I had started earlier. I hope that that does not meet with disapproval from your Lordships.

The noble Baroness also said--I must say that my mind was really boggling!--that we on this side (I believe that she even cast her net to include the Liberal Democrats) were obsessed with sex. I must say that, three years since the last election, you could have fooled me. I am not attributing any personal forgetfulness myself. I simply point out that the best way to ensure a full House here is to discuss for 26 days the abolition of the hereditary element, or the removal of most of it, followed only by any subject relating to sex. On each occasion that I have been here in the past two weeks, Question Time has been rather sparse. At Question Time today, just before we were about to begin our debate, the place was packed.

I believe that the noble Earl has a point. We are not obsessed with sex. We are trying to deal in a civilised way with the true distinction, which I venture to repeat, between what we may approve or disapprove of for ourselves--mainly for others when it is disapproval--and what should be the subject of criminal sanction.

The second point raised by the noble Baroness was the question of Scotland. Perfectly reasonably, she wanted to know the position in Scotland and I shall give her the precise details. There was a full debate there on 19th January this year. The Motion was that:

"The Parliament [in Edinburgh] endorses the principles of equalising the age of consent for homosexual and heterosexual activity, creating a new criminal offence of breach of trust as set out in the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill to be considered by the United Kingdom Parliament in the 1998-99 parliamentary Session and to agree that the UK Parliament should consider any Bill introduced in the same terms in the current Session".

The noble Baroness also perfectly helpfully asked whether or not there was a vote. There was; the Motion was carried by 90 votes to 16. That was in Scotland.

There were then further questions which focused largely on Waterhouse. The noble Earl did not dismiss the Waterhouse report out of hand. I believe that I can say that I have as much knowledge of those particular circumstances as most in this House. I was counsel involved in one of the closely related cases and I conducted an inquiry into a children's home which had a certain degree of overlap. The point that I was about to make was two-fold: first, that no one of any political view or persuasion will feel other than horror, shame and virtual disbelief at what is contained there. However, perhaps I may point out that there were no laws to protect the children in that closed gulag. There were no laws in terms of breach of trust; none. That is not a political point; it is an accusation of reproach to all of us.

Secondly, the noble Earl is right. The vast majority of the allegations in the Waterhouse report relate to physical and sexual abuse; that is, not consensual. That is why--I believe that I took his point correctly--although the Waterhouse saga is bitterly shameful, in substantial part it does not cover the issues with which we are dealing this evening. On the earlier occasions when we discussed this Bill I asked your Lordships not to throw it out because that would mean that for a time there would be no breach of trust laws to protect vulnerable young people. Noble Lords came to a view contrary to the one that I urged upon them, and there still are no breach of trust laws to protect young people.

I move on. The noble Lord--

Photo of Baroness Young Baroness Young Conservative

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for giving way because this is a very important point. I believe that we are all agreed that it is a shameful episode. I do not apportion blame to anyone with regard to what happened in North Wales. However, whereas there were some cases of consensual sex, does he agree that in other cases highlighted by the report unquestionably boys were manipulated and there was not consensual sex? Does he agree that those matters should be addressed if we are addressing this whole issue?

Photo of Lord Williams of Mostyn Lord Williams of Mostyn Attorney General, Law Officers' Department, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, that is precisely my point. If sex is not consensual, it remains a criminal offence, whatever the age of the victim. That is entirely the point that the noble Earl was making and the one that I ventured to reiterate.

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for again giving way because, I agree with my noble friend, this is a very important point. Does the noble and learned Lord agree that it is a matter for victims to prove that they did not give consent? Does he also agree that we are talking about young people who in any case have very damaged lives and are much intimidated by the way in which they are treated? Therefore, proving that they did not give consent would be extremely difficult for them. We have an opportunity in this Bill to strengthen the protection for them.

Photo of Lord Williams of Mostyn Lord Williams of Mostyn Attorney General, Law Officers' Department, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, of course I agree with those propositions. As in all criminal charges, it is for the prosecution to prove its case. There was much physical abuse in Bryn Estyn, almost savage beyond understanding in some instances. The abuse was not simply sexual. Of course, one has to rely on the evidence of the complainant. One looks for corroboration. But many of those young men--and they were mainly young boys rather than young girls that Sir Ronald dealt with--were not consenting. They were being coerced and subjected to favours. They were given alcohol. Sometimes they were physically threatened. That is not consensual, despite the age of the victim.

Photo of Lord Lester of Herne Hill Lord Lester of Herne Hill Liberal Democrat

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that criminalising the behaviour of the victim makes it much less likely that the real predator will be able to be proceeded against and that the best way of securing protection and enforcement is by not criminalising the victim but rather the behaviour of the predator?

Photo of Lord Williams of Mostyn Lord Williams of Mostyn Attorney General, Law Officers' Department, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill. That was the second aspect to which I spoke briefly in my introduction. It bears repetition and I am obliged to the noble Lord for his reminder. It will now put young men in the same position as young girls. They are not criminalised either if they are subjected to sexual intercourse at an inappropriate age.

The accusation of the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, was that the Government are obsessed with equality. I can bear that with a degree of fortitude. At least it is not the same as being accused of being a freemason or a keen golfer!

There is an important point here. I find that there is a terribly sexist approach towards young boys and young girls. I raised this on the last occasion. Nobody has beaten any metaphorical drums or tubs about what I regard as the immorality of someone who is wealthy, successful, powerful, possibly in his 50s who seduces a young girl. Nobody seems to complain about that. They say, "Oh, it is just jolly old Bill". Nobody has made that point this evening. When I raised that on the last occasion, it did not meet with universal applause. Some young women of the age of 16 and one week are quite vulnerable to the sort of seduction of which I have spoken. There is no law to protect them nor, as I understand it, is there any present proposal that there should be. The idea was floated that the age might be raised to 18 for young men and young women. I do not think that I can helpfully add to the guidance given by the noble Earl about the possible consequences of that.

The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, criticised the decision of your Lordships' House sitting judicially and, in particular, the decision and speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Slynn of Hadley, that someone might inherit a tendency because he had been living in a very long-term homosexual relationship; and that was very long term indeed--from memory, 20 years plus.

The noble Lord will remember, now that I remind him of it, that the Inheritance (Provision of Family and Dependants) Act extended rights to those who were not part of the conventional family and I think that that is as long ago as 1975. The world does change. The certainties which we all imbibed with our mother's milk do not remain constant.

We need to remember, too, that until very recently, certainly during the professional life of the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, and myself, which does not extend beyond the memory of man, it was a criminal offence for a husband and wife, within their marriage, to engage in sodomy, punishable by life imprisonment. That is very recent indeed.

I believe that the answer to the question of my noble friend Lady Gould about split-site education will be found, I hope to her satisfaction, in Clause 4(8).

I pay tribute, which is genuine, to the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. It really was a masterly exposition with not a word wasted and not an ounce of fat upon it. I should find it very difficult to improve on his description of the present law as unenforceable, discriminatory and insupportable.

I enjoyed the contribution of the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, as always. I thought that there were two novel constitutional propositions to be found there. The first was that if the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, did not exist, it would undoubtedly be necessary to invent him. The noble Earl always looks at me because we are on such good terms and he is able to direct his acid criticisms at me. The second was his bitter criticism that it was very wicked to try to use the Parliament Act because there was no mandate. But the figures are 371 to 171, a majority of 200 on a free vote in the other place, with Conservatives voting for the Bill, including Mr Hague and Mr Portillo. This is not a plot; it is not the homosexual lobby.

Photo of Earl Ferrers Earl Ferrers Conservative

My Lords, perhaps I may interrupt the noble and learned Lord on this fascinating point. Will he accept that there are two Houses of Parliament through which a Bill must pass and the second is now a House of Parliament of the Government's own making? Therefore, the Bill must pass through both Houses.

Photo of Lord Williams of Mostyn Lord Williams of Mostyn Attorney General, Law Officers' Department, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, of course, that is the purpose of the Parliament Act. It would be quite wrong of me to try to remember whether or not the noble Earl was a member of the government when the War Crimes Act was similarly "Parliament Act-ed" through without an apparent mandate. I think that he was but, of course, memory does fade.

Photo of Earl Ferrers Earl Ferrers Conservative

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord's memory fades to such a degree that I feel uncomfortable and I shall put him out of his misery. I was a Member of that government and I thought it was the wrong thing to do.

Photo of Lord Williams of Mostyn Lord Williams of Mostyn Attorney General, Law Officers' Department, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, I forgive the noble Earl for his past misdeeds, and even possibly for his future ones.

He overstepped his usual moderate bounds by saying that this matter is something to do with the homosexual lobby. No one has spoken to me about this Bill at all. No one ever seems to write to me. My noble friend Lord Bach suggested that I should start writing to myself because I would have a ready audience. One person alone has spoken to me about anything to do with homosexual law reform. I have known him for many years. He had been living with a partner of 15 years who recently died. They had shared a faithful and happy life for 15 years. He found it deeply and bitterly offensive that that relationship was typified as a pretended family relationship. That is the only conversation that I have had.

I am not part of any homosexual lobby. I hope that I have an open mind. To suggest that the Prime Minister--than whom no more devoted family man and father could be found--is in league with any sort of partisan lobby is to be in Cloud-cuckoo-land.

I was interested--and my noble friend Lord McCarthy beat me to it--as to whether or not any of the organisations with which the noble Baroness, Lady Young, had been in correspondence had resiled from the views they had expressed. The answer is that they have not resiled from those views. They remain the views as I expressed them; as my noble friend Lady Gould expanded on them; and to which my noble friend Lord McCarthy also spoke.

Photo of Lord Boardman Lord Boardman Conservative

My Lords, the noble Lord referred to those charities which support him. Those charities were listed on previous occasions as supporters of the Bill. I wrote to those to which I make small annual contributions and asked for the authority on which that support was based. The replies, while mixed, gave no general authority for that support being given to the Bill.

Photo of Lord Williams of Mostyn Lord Williams of Mostyn Attorney General, Law Officers' Department, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I do not know whether the noble Lord was here when the noble Baroness was explaining her correspondence. She said--if I heard her properly and understood her aright--that the charities had been authorised at board level to adopt that stand. In the case of the NSPCC I do not know whether it was at board or trustee level. But not one of those bodies has resiled from its position.

There was a substantial amount of publicity on the last occasion. The noble Lord, Lord Boardman, is right to say that I read out the names of most of those bodies on the last occasion. I anticipated there would be questions and not one has resiled from its position.

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord not agree that the NSPCC would be nothing if it were not for the supporters who donate to it?

Photo of Lord Williams of Mostyn Lord Williams of Mostyn Attorney General, Law Officers' Department, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, of course. I have said on several occasions that I was a trustee of the society for many years so I know a certain amount about how it raises money. Any society depends on the members. But I repeat that none of those organisations has resiled from that position. I take up the point of my noble friend Lord McCarthy that no similar organisation is to be found supporting our opponents.

I shall, of course, take fully on board the helpful suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Quirk. I shall undertake to bring his remarks about health education in this area to the attention of my noble friends Lord Hunt and Lady Blackstone.

My noble friend Lord Stallard said, as he did in the previous debate, that he comes from a different world and a different background. I am not so sure. Quite a few of us had a similar upbringing but recognise that the world has changed, sometimes for the better, and that one cannot equate religious precept with the true foundation and basis of the criminal law. In an extremely moving speech--if I may say so--my noble friend said that he still abided by and revered the Ten Commandments. I honour his commitment. I simply point out again that adultery is not a crime; coveting one's neighbour's ass is not a crime; various forms of activity of which some organised religions do not approve--in fact, which they violently and vigorously condemn--are not criminal offences. I believe that my noble friend and I live in the same world, although we view it from a slightly different perspective.

The issues remain by and large the same and in the same form as we discussed them on the previous occasion. I said then that the force of rational argument on either side might not necessarily be determinative of people's final views. That point remains the same tonight as it was then. I must say--I am not being disrespectful to the House; indeed, I hope that I am being respectful to the House--that we shall continue with the Bill.

A number of matters were raised. The noble Lady, Lady Saltoun of Abernethy, said that she had received a disagreeable matter through the post. I am sorry about that; such matters should play no part in our political discourse. I was looking at Hansard and I read what happened to Mrs Ann Keen, who was rung up after the Soho bombing where people had lost their lives and limbs by someone wondering whether she would like to come round to pick up the arms and the legs. That was done more than once. I am not sure that there is a monopoly of vice on either side in this particular argument.

We are determined in this matter. We believe that it is right and that is why we shall continue.

Photo of Lord Lester of Herne Hill Lord Lester of Herne Hill Liberal Democrat

My Lords, before the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General completes his reply, will he give the House the benefit of his advice as to the prospect of success in the European Court of Human Rights if the Bill were not to be enacted?

Photo of Lord Williams of Mostyn Lord Williams of Mostyn Attorney General, Law Officers' Department, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right. I had in fact intended, when dealing with the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, to deal with the matter in that context. I know that the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, raised the question.

The position is that the case of Sutherland went to the European Court of Human Rights. At that time, it was necessary--as the noble Lord knows full well, I am simply explaining fully--for the Commission to rule it admissible or not. The Commission ruled it admissible. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, is quite right; that would not determine the final outcome of the court. The advice that the Government had was that Sutherland would win. Accordingly--it is only right that your Lordships should be reminded of this--the case in Strasbourg was adjourned for the introduction of this Bill or something similar. We are therefore continuing on that path. My own view is that Sutherland is much more likely to succeed than not. I am in the same state of ignorance as the noble Lord, Lord Lester, about any material which might satisfactorily persuade me to the contrary. I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.