Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill

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

Alert me about debates like this

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

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--