Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:15 pm on 24th July 2000.

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Photo of Lord Mishcon Lord Mishcon Labour 7:15 pm, 24th July 2000

My Lords, it is a shame that the debate on a great issue for the people of our country should be divided politically; it should never have been allowed. This issue should have been freely discussed between responsible Members of this ancient House without the burden of a Whip on one's shoulder.

Having said that, perhaps I can share a bit of history with noble Lords. It was way back in 1954 when I was invited by the then Home Secretary--I was then chairman of the London County Council--to sit on the Wolfenden Committee, which was set up to consider and make recommendations on the law and practice relating to homosexual acts. At that stage people were liable to imprisonment, and indeed suffered imprisonment even though they were committing homosexual acts as between consenting adults in private.

I am the only surviving member of that committee and will not guess what our recommendation might have been today. All I know is that, against the injustices that such criminality resulted in, such as blackmail and the invasion of criminal law into the home, I and other members of that committee--there was only one dissentient--recommended that homosexual acts between consenting adults in private should no longer be a part of the criminal law but should be a matter of moral law. It was a long time before that victory was achieved by a provision being placed on the statute book. We reported in 1957. There was a Conservative government and a bit of a Labour government before the 10 years elapsed. We were unable to persuade politicians of all parties that the cancellation of that injustice should be registered on the statute book. In 1967--10 years later--it was achieved in the Sexual Offences Act.

That was followed by the gratitude of the homosexual community, who accepted that victory as being a victory for justice and decency. What happened afterwards was an awful pity. Some local authorities acted in a completely irresponsible way--I could use stronger words, but I will not--and a minority of the homosexual community decided (and I regret it) to be quite aggressive in regard to homosexuality itself. As I said, I shall not state the opinion of those who are no longer with us. But knowing of the discussions that we had, I believe that members of that Wolfenden Committee, who sat and deliberated for three years, would have discouraged that attitude. Whether or not they would have recommended that we deal with the issue by legislation and by direction to local authorities is another matter into which I shall not enter at this stage. It was dealt with by legislation and we have got that legislation.

The extraordinary thing is--this is why I talked of it being a shame to deal with this matter politically--that if I were to address every single Member of this House and ask the question, "Do you think local authorities ought to promote homosexuality?", I would receive the answer from all sides, "No, not promote". And if the amendment had been tabled for which I pleaded on a previous occasion, which said, after "prohibition promoting", "but local authorities should, in all their actions, preach tolerance towards others who are not quite as we are", such an amendment may well have been approved by this House. But, as a previous speaker said, the amendment in front of us makes it extremely difficult for those who feel as I do to vote, as I would always want to do if in conscience I could, for my own Government.

What are we asked to approve by way of a Commons amendment? Anyone referred to our statute book will not be referred to the Learning and Skills Act, as it will become, even if that is relevant--I believe it is. There is no reference to that. Generations to come will not know of your Lordships' speeches in this House, even if generations present know what we say in this House in this debate. They will see in the Bill, when it becomes an Act, the words,

"Insert ... (Section 2A of the Local Government Act 1986 (prohibition promoting homosexuality by teaching"-- we were told that teaching had nothing to do with this and never did have--

"or by publishing material) ceases to have effect)".

You do not have to be skilled in the law; you can read this wording as an ordinary layman. Let us take the usual gentleman who inhabits the top of the Clapham bus. He is told here that all this business about prohibition on "promoting homosexuality" ceases to have effect. The amendment refers to "Repeal of prohibition" in the rubric, but puts nothing in its place. As I sit down, I repeat: what a shame that this was not a discussion instead of being a political debate. All that we can do is to make the best of things that we can, knowing that we are voting in honesty. I do not think that, in honesty, I can vote for what this amendment says; indeed, it says, "Look at me! I am saying that it is repealed; it is to have no effect--and that includes teaching". That cannot be right.