My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.
Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.--(Lord Falconer of Thoroton.)
moved Amendment No. 1:
Page 1, line 5, leave out subsections (1) to (4) and insert--
("(1) In the Sexual Offences Act 1956, in sub-paragraphs (a) and (b) of paragraph 16 (indecency between men etc.) of Schedule 2 (punishments etc.), for the word "eighteen" there shall be substituted the word "sixteen".
(2) In the Sexual Offences Act 1967--
(a) in subsection (1) of section 1 (amendment of law relating to homosexual acts in private), for the words "a homosexual act" there shall be substituted the words "an act of buggery in private with another man or commission of an act of buggery";
(b) after subsection (1), there shall be inserted--
"(1A) Notwithstanding any statutory or common law provision, an act of gross indecency in private with another man or commission of an act of gross indecency shall not be an offence provided that the parties consent thereto and have attained the age of sixteen years.";
(c) in subsection (3), after the words "subsection (1)" insert "or (1A)";
(d) in place of subsection (6), there shall be substituted--
"(6) It is hereby declared that where in any proceedings it is charged that--
(a) an act of buggery with another man or being party to the commission of such an act is an offence the prosecutor shall have the burden of proving that the act was done otherwise than in private or otherwise than with the consent of the parties or that any of the parties had not attained the age of eighteen years;
(b) an act of gross indecency with another man or being party to the commission of such an act is an offence the prosecutor shall have the burden of proving that the act was done otherwise than in private or otherwise than with the consent of the parties or that any of the parties had not attained the age of sixteen years."; and
(e) in section 8 (restriction on prosecutions), for the words "against any man" to the end of section there shall be substituted--
"(a) for the offence of buggery with another man, for attempting to commit an act of buggery, or for aiding, abetting, counselling, procuring or commanding its commission where either of those men was at the time if its commission under the age of eighteen;
(b) for the offence of gross indecency with another man, for attempting to commit an act of gross indecency, or for aiding, abetting, counselling, procuring or commanding its commission where either of those men was at the time if its commission under the age of sixteen.".
(3) In section 13 of the Criminal Law (Consolidation) (Scotland) Act 1995 (homosexual offences)--
(a) in subsection (1) for the words "a homosexual act" there shall be substituted "an act of sodomy in private by one male person with another male person or commission of an act of sodomy";
(b) after subsection (1), there shall be inserted--
"(1A) Subject to the provisions of this section, an act of gross indecency in private or shameless indecency in private by one male person with another male person or commission of such an act shall not be an offence provided that the parties consent thereto and have attained the age of sixteen years.";
(c) in subsection (3), after the words "subsection (1)" insert "or (1A)";
(d) in subsections (5) and (8), for the words "a homosexual act" there shall be substituted "an act of sodomy by one male person with another male person";
(e) after subsection (5), there shall be inserted--
"(5A) Subject to subsection (3) above, it shall be an offence to commit or to be party to the commission of, or to procure or attempt to procure the commission of an act of gross indecency or shameless indecency by one male person with another male person--
(a) otherwise than in private;
(b) without the consent of both parties to the act; or
(c) with a person under the age of sixteen years."; and
(f) after subsection (8), there shall be inserted--
"(8A) It shall be a defence to a charge of committing or to being party to the commission of, or to procuring or attempting to procure the commission of an act of gross indecency or shameless indecency by one male person with another male person under subsection (5A)(c) above that the person so charged being under the age of 24 who had not previously been charged with a like offence, had reasonable cause to believe that the other person was of or over the age of 16 years.".
(a) in paragraph (1), for the words "a homosexual act in private" there shall be substituted "an act of buggery in private by a man with another man or commission of an act of buggery in private by a man with another man";
(b) after paragraph (1), there shall be inserted--
"(1A) Subject to Article 123 of the Mental Health (Northern Ireland) Order 1986, and notwithstanding any other statutory provision or any rule of law, an act of gross indecency in private with another man or commission of an act of gross indecency with another man shall not be an offence provided that the parties consent thereto and have attained the age of 17 years.";
(c) in paragraph (3), after the words "paragraph (1)" insert "or (1A)"; and
(d) in paragraph (5), for the words "a homosexual act" to the end there shall be substituted--
"(a) an act of buggery by a man with another man or being party to the commission of such an act is an offence the prosecutor shall have the burden of proving that the act was done otherwise than in private or otherwise than with the consent of the parties or that any of the parties had not attained the age of 18 years;
(b) an act of gross indecency with another man or being party to the commission of such an act is an offence the prosecutor shall have the burden of proving that the act was done otherwise than in private or otherwise than with the consent of the parties or that any of the parties had not attained the age of 17 years.".").
I begin by saying that we would all like to welcome the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, to our debates this afternoon in his position on the Front Bench. In saying that, I hope that he will recognise, as those of us who have taken part and will take part in the ensuing debates will recognise, that the issues involved today are infinitely more important, more serious and more long-lasting than those involved in the Dome.
This is the third time round on this matter. It is a long time since Second Reading on 11th April. However, I begin by saying that my noble friend Lady Blatch, myself and the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, were grateful for the opportunity to discuss our amendments on this Bill with the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General last week. I only regret that the Government do not appear to have moved at all.
Before turning to the detail of Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 and the consequential amendments, I should like to make two general points. The first is to my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway. I fully understand why he tabled his amendment; he wants to keep the status quo but add further amendments on abuse of trust. I sympathise with that view. But it brings me to my second general point. We would not be in the position in which we find ourselves this afternoon if the Government had not threatened to use the Parliament Acts on this Bill and only recently repeated that threat.
Amendments Nos. 1 to 16 are a compromise. The reason why I and those who support me tabled them is that, on reading what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams, said at Second Reading, it is clear that the principal reason the Government want this measure is on grounds of equality. I point to col. 91 of Hansard, when the noble and learned Lord said,
"[The Bill] will improve our law and ensure equality before the criminal law for young homosexuals".
Again, at col. 93, he said that,
"an unequal age of consent is the mark of an intolerant society".
I am not sure that that follows, but I shall let it go now.
The first group of amendments therefore is to show that those of us who oppose this Bill in principle are willing to move to meet the argument about equality. I should like to think that the Government were prepared to consider moving as well.
Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 have the effect of keeping the age for buggery at 18 for both boys and girls. But they allow homosexual acts, other than anal intercourse, to be committed at 16. That therefore gives an equal age both at 18 and at 16. Under the present law the age at which buggery, or anal intercourse, can be committed is 18. It does not matter whether the act involves two men or a man and a woman. It is unlawful when one or both parties is under the age of 18. My amendments retain that position.
At the same time, the amendments equalise the age of consent for all other heterosexual and homosexual acts at the age of 16; again, an equal age. There are of course some important differences in Scotland and Northern Ireland to which I shall refer in a moment.
I turn to the detail of my amendment. The 1967 Act uses the term, "homosexual acts", to cover offences of both buggery and gross indecency. Amendment No. 1 uses the two offences which were created under the 1956 Act. The amendment breaks down the term, "homosexual acts", into its two constituent parts. Under new subsections (1) and (2), which deal with England and Wales, buggery is kept at 18 for boys and girls, while other homosexual acts are permitted at 16. The relevant amendments are made to the 1956 and 1967 Acts; subsection (1) relates to penalties; both subsections (1) and (2) relate to other homosexual acts.
Perhaps I might turn to the position in relation to girls. In 1994, only six years ago, buggery committed on a girl aged over 18 in England and Wales was made legal. My amendments make no change to that position. The law stays as it is. However, when the Government talk of lowering the age of homosexual consent to 16, in reality they are doing much more than that. The reason is that both homosexuals and heterosexuals can commit anal intercourse. But if 1 per cent of men are homosexuals, as a government study showed, clearly they want this Bill. But girls, half the population, are directly affected by it when the minimum age for buggery goes down to 16. One must accept that the Bill is a gay rights measure which will have a profound effect on girls.
At present buggery and gross indecency are permitted at 18. Under the Bill both ages go down to 16. Under my amendment buggery stays at 18, while gross indecency goes down to 16.
However, there are two special cases. The first is Northern Ireland. Subsection (4) of Amendment No. 1 makes the same exception as the Bill. In the Province, it is still illegal for a man to commit buggery on a woman. The Bill does not change that position and neither does my amendment. The Bill allows anal intercourse at 17 in Northern Ireland for boys, presumably because the current heterosexual age of consent in the Province is 17. Subsection (4) of my amendment keeps the age of anal intercourse for boys at 18 but permits other homosexual acts at 17.
As regards Scotland, my amendment addresses the special position of girls. It extends to under-18 girls in Scotland the same protection currently available throughout the rest of the United Kingdom. My amendment raises the age at which anal intercourse can be committed on girls in Scotland from 16, as it effectively is now, to 18. In Scotland, the position for boys is the same as in England and Wales. Subsection (3) of my amendment permits homosexual acts at 16, except for anal intercourse which is kept at 18.
However, the position is quite different for girls. At present, girls in Scotland have much less protection than boys. In Scotland, it is a criminal offence for a man to commit anal intercourse on a boy aged under 18, but for girls the age is 16. There is no specific offence of sodomy with a girl in Scotland. The Scottish courts have held it to be a breach of the law of "shameless indecency" for a man to commit anal intercourse with a girl, but only where she is under the age of 16. There is therefore an inconsistency in the present law which is corrected by my Amendment No. 2. It creates a new offence for the protection of girls; it simply applies the protection for girls under 18 which already exists throughout the rest of the United Kingdom.
To sum up, in tabling the amendment we are trying to keep the age of buggery for both boys and girls at 18 but to lower it to 16 for all other homosexual acts. That is the compromise. It goes some way to meet the case for equality because it is equal, and I hope that the Government will consider it seriously.
I turn briefly to the arguments of principle which have been well rehearsed. Our concern in tabling this and the following amendment is to protect children. Sixteen year-olds are children in law. By keeping the age of buggery at 18, we protect young 16 year-olds from the most dangerous of sexual practices; namely, anal sex. Others far better qualified than I will speak on this, but I have received a number of letters from doctors pointing out the great dangers to teenagers of this practice.
However, leaving aside what doctors may have said, two facts stand out. The first, stated by the blood transfusion service, is that no one--I repeat, no one--who has had anal sex is ever allowed to give blood. That should say something to us all about the dangers of this practice. Durex, the biggest manufacturer of condoms, states:
"Anal intercourse is a high risk activity because of the potential for infection from STDs, including HIV transmission. Currently, there are no specific standards for the manufacture of condoms for anal sex. Current medical advice is therefore to avoid anal sex".
If there is one thing which is certain about manufacturers, it is that they will be very careful what they say on their products. They could be sued. I believe that we should accept--and again from an outside organisation--that this is a very dangerous practice which the Bill would allow to 16 year-olds.
Finally, I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, is not in his place on the Front Bench, but I wonder whether he will consider the reply he gave to my noble friend Lady Blatch on 6th November about the whole issue. Will he tell us the medical evidence he has for his answers when it is evident that so many eminent doctors and outside organisations disagree?
Not surprisingly, most people, particularly parents and, above all, parents with sons, do not want the age of consent for buggery lowered to 16. One of the arguments put forward is that somehow young people under the age of 18 will not be able to get help unless the age is lowered to 16. Indeed, the BMA is one organisation arguing that; I believe the BMA to be wrong in law. If, following the Gillick case, a girl under the age of 16 can be given contraceptive advice without parental consent, clearly homosexual men can also be given advice on safer sex. If the BMA was right about the law inhibiting safer sex advice, HIV infections among men should have gone down when the age of homosexual consent was lowered from 21 to 18 in 1994. However, quite the opposite has happened. Those are serious points.
Finally, I hope that the age of consent will not be lowered. We have seen the notorious video from Avon health authority and its accompanying booklet, which is full of illustrations, containing advice to young people to try out sex with boys or girls and see who they feel most comfortable with. That seems to me the most dreadful piece of advice to be giving to young people under any circumstances. Furthermore, I was astonished to read a report in last week's newspaper of a free trip, a weekend break, organised by the Healthy Gay Life Project and funded by the Birmingham health authority at £1,000. It was designed for people who are either homosexual or confused about their sexuality. It was for those aged between 10 and 18. It was called off, I may say, because of a public outcry!
Those are not just idle remarks made by me or my colleagues. I would not have gone through what we have gone through on this issue if I were not deeply concerned to protect children. We in this Chamber have a duty to continue to do so and I hope very much that the Committee will support me and my colleagues in these amendments. I beg to move.
I have so much respect for the noble Baroness, who is a Christian champion, that I am inclined to follow her blindly in these matters. I am sorry that she has produced a compromise because I should have liked a straightforward rejection of the idea of reducing the age of consent for homosexualism from 18 to 16. However, one must accept her view that this is the best that can be obtained.
My views on these matters have not changed and I shall put them briefly. I stated them more than 40 years ago when I was the first person to back the Wolfenden report in this House by introducing a debate. Last Saturday, two days ago, I visited a gentleman in prison who is serving many years for homosexual offences. He had become a Catholic and I was honoured to be his sponsor when he was received into the Church. But my views have not changed and they can be stated briefly in three propositions. First, I regard homosexualism, certainly lifelong homosexualism, as a sad disorder and handicap. It makes it very unlikely that a proper, healthy family life can be attained. Secondly, homosexual leanings are not to be condemned, any more than schizophrenia or a tendency to alcoholism. However, when they are put into practice they are sinful by Christian standards, and I believe by the standards of other Churches, from whom we shall no doubt hear later. I regard them as sinful when carried into practice, but that does not mean to say that they are criminal. Thirdly, on the question of equality, it sounds good to put them on the same footing, but that argument can be over emphasised. One would not say that a woman should be included in the British rugby team every year to make sure that equality is satisfied. I believe that a lot of humbug is spoken about equality, but I am an old-time feminist.
Why do I say that age should represent a difference for young men and young women? In passing, I do not believe that the age of 16 is good for women anyway, but, assuming an age of 16 for women, there is a great difference between a young girl of 16 and a young boy of 16. If a young girl of 16 is seduced, it may do her a great deal of harm. If a young man of 16 is seduced, he may be turned into a rent boy, possibly ruining him for life. That is why I draw the distinction. I shall vote for the noble Baroness, Lady Young, though I would much rather see something stronger.
I have not previously participated in debates on this Bill or its predecessor. I was spurred to do so by something that was said by the noble Baroness at Second Reading. She said:
"It is the job of responsible adults in public life to support responsible parents".--[Official Report, 13/4/99; col. 653.]
She went on to say that by voting against Second Reading, we shall be supporting good and responsible parents.
The clear implication of her remarks is that only an irresponsible adult and an irresponsible parent could possibly support this Bill. I disagree with this sentiment and find it deeply offensive. I am in the fortunate position of having two teenage sons, the elder being within 16 months of his 16th birthday. I try my best to be a responsible parent.
I strongly support the Bill. I do so primarily for reasons of equality, but also because of the signals that the Bill sends out. There remains in our society a considerable ongoing degree of ignorance, confusion and prejudice about homosexuality, not least among young people. In my view, responsible adults in public life should be doing all they can to reduce inequality and prejudice, wherever they occur. That is what this Bill seeks to achieve. The amendments tabled for discussion today may appear nominally to be based on the principle of equality. However, the noble Baroness made it clear at Second Reading that she opposes this Bill in essence because she does not believe that there is a moral equality in heterosexual and homosexual relationships. I reject that view. I therefore urge the Committee to reject all the amendments today.
I added my name to this amendment because I have had a long-term concern about this subject in general and about one aspect in particular; namely, the consensual buggery of girls. I wish to support my noble friend Lady Young who has proposed this amendment with great clarity and in her characteristic measured manner.
I believe that this is a very important matter that could have disastrous effects on the lives of young girls aged between 16 and 18. It is not understood by the vast majority of people in this country that girls are involved in any way. In a letter dated 28th June 1999, Barnardos told me that when they signed up to the Government's policy they
"were not aware that young women would be affected in the way you point out".
During the passage of the 1994 Bill, Tony Blair said that the issue was not one of age but one of equality. The Prime Minister and the Government failed then, and still fail, to take into account the fact that the bodies of males and females are different. They can never be treated as equal.
I was very interested to hear the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal eulogising over the Labour Party's publication, Voices. The noble Baroness said:
"the magazine includes at the back detailed information...on a range of issues and lists addresses to which people may apply for practical advice".--[Official Report, 25/10/00, col. 323.]
As a result, I thought that I would do as the noble Baroness had suggested. I turned to page 64 of Voices, headed "Allyouneedtoknow". The other side of the page was entitled, "Modernising Government". There I found a website, www.lovelife.org.uk. When I saw the word "lovelife", I imagined that there would be comments on relationships, highlighting the traditional understanding of the word "love"--affection, respect, commitment. That was what I expected. However, when I eventually found my way to the website, I was surprised, and indeed a little shocked, to see what appeared on my screen as advice to 16 year-olds, who I believe deserve a more sensitive and sensible approach.
I am hesitant to reveal what I saw, and I hope that your Lordships will forgive me if it is offensive, but I feel that I should share with your Lordships the type of advice recommended by this New Labour publication for young people of 16. It states:
"Condoms are available in all sorts of colours, shapes, flavours, textures and sizes. The range and choice can make them fun to use. Condoms can take time and practice. It may seem a bit of a nuisance at first but once condoms have become part of your sex life, you should feel more comfortable with them. Knowing that you are playing safe can make sex more fun".
Safe? There is not such a product as a safe condom for those who indulge in anal sex. The chance of developing sexually transmitted diseases is multiplied by a factor of nearly 3,000. The publication also states:
"Whether or not you have sex can be a difficult decision to make. But in the end it is what is right for you that is important, and only you can answer it. Remember, it is your body, your choice and your right to say 'no'. If you decide to have sex, it is best to play it safe and practise safer sex with less worry about getting pregnant or getting sexually transmitted infections".
Again, the reference to safe sex astounds me.
Nowhere does the website entry differentiate between vaginal and anal intercourse, except to suggest the use of a stronger condom with plenty of water-based lubricant for anal intercourse. I cannot accept that they are in any way comparable. One is as nature intended, the other is unnatural and dangerous. The latter involves an increasing vulnerability to HIV and other infections and, in addition, carries particular risks of physical damage to the receptive partner. For young girls, the dangers are further increased.
It greatly saddens me that young people should be encouraged to treat sex in such a casual manner and without thought for the other person involved. It seems to me an extraordinarily selfish attitude; one could almost imagine it to be a one-person activity. Adults can give as much credence to such advice as they wish, but I believe that 16 year-olds should be encouraged to think carefully about natural sexual activity, never mind an unnatural and hazardous one, and not just dash for a condom. As my noble friend Lady Young has said, we should never forget that anyone who has indulged in such a practice is not permitted to give blood. That must surely make us all think carefully before encouraging young people into such a way of life. I know that there are those on other Benches who may think that I am bigoted and out of touch with the vast majority of people, but my only motivation is the protection of the young. I find the inclusion of this website in the Labour publication offensive.
This is a bad Bill in every way. However, it would be improved by this amendment. Without it, girls could be in jeopardy of being physically and mentally traumatised, unable to make lasting and loving relationships in the future. I remind your Lordships of what the Criminal Law Revision Committee said in 1984:
"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".
My research leads me to believe that it is the new Labour Government who are out of touch and have failed to carry public opinion. It would be an outrage if they chose to "Parliament Act" a Bill of conscience, and I believe that they should, and would, pay the price.
I do not believe that the noble Baroness is bigoted. All Members of the Committee respect the honesty and integrity with which the noble Baroness puts her case. I hope that the noble Baroness will treat my remarks in the same way. On 13th April 1999 I stood up in your Lordships' House for the second time. It was much the same as today: the Benches were fairly full, hundreds of eyes looked at me and I was a little nervous. For the first time I spoke publicly of my experience of being gay. I described what it was like to be 16 and to grow up in a country in which my very being was illegal. I also spoke about the fear which built up inside which meant that you hid from those whom you loved and from who you were. I told noble Lords of my beliefs about equality which were not abstract but a reality.
I am a little less nervous tonight. I want to tell the Committee why I believe that it should support the Bill and reject the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Young. I believe that the argument for change has been won with the public, politicians of all parties in the other place, including the Leader of the Opposition, and charities and professional workers who work with young people. It is only in this House that change is resisted. The arguments against change which we hear again today are not new; they were fully rehearsed in our previous debate. There are Members of the Committee, whose honesty I respect, who are opposed to change in principle and practice.
Some Members of the Committee may recall the speakers last year. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, spoke about homosexuality as a sin. He then likened it to a sickness from which he believed people could recover. He told us the story of a boy at Eton who indulged in homosexuality and subsequently recovered from it to become a pillar of society. The noble Lord, Lord Seldson, told us that it was a simple issue between good, clean, healthy sex and bad, unclean sex. He also went on to outline his distress at the use of the word "gay" in this particular context as he believed that it should remain a good old-fashioned English girl's name. My noble friend Lord Davies of Coity made an impassioned speech on why, in his view, homosexuality was unnatural. I shall listen with interest to his contribution. Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, made an interesting speech on anal sex. Those speeches were made by noble Lords who were utterly opposed to change. They were joined by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, who today has tabled detailed amendments, to which I turn next.
I should welcome recognition by the noble Baroness of the principle of equality. If I understand the noble Baroness correctly, she proposes a common age of consent. Her amendments go on to categorise various sexual acts which require consent at various ages. I understand that she would permit all sexual acts, apart from buggery, at the age of 16 and make the common age of consent 18. The noble Baroness appears to take an inconsistent position. In her speech on 13th April 1999 she said:
"If you consider, as I do, that it is wrong to lower the age for homosexual consent from 18 to 16, in effect this Bill is unamendable".--[Official Report, 13/4/99; col. 652.]
Just over a year later, the noble Baroness seeks to amend a previously unamendable Bill.
I thank the noble Lord for giving way. He raises a very important matter of principle. I thought long and carefully about this matter. I made clear today that I would prefer not to have the Bill at all. However, I have been in public life a very long time--longer than the noble Lord, Lord Alli--and have also been a Minister. One is aware that there are occasions when it is right to test whether there is any measure of agreement, because one particularly wants the amendments on trust. I do not want the noble Lord to believe that I or my colleagues have changed our minds on some kind of whim.
But if change in the age of consent was completely unacceptable a year ago, why is it now acceptable? My own explanation, which the noble Baroness may not like, is that this is a wrecking amendment, plain and simple, and a further attempt by the noble Baroness to win votes and to stop reform. Principle and morality are ditched to get a few extra votes on your Lordships' Benches so that the noble Baroness may carry the day when she has lost the argument. There are men and women on all sides of the Committee who have fought a principled battle.
I was moved last year by the speeches of the right reverend Prelates, the Bishop of Bath and Wells and the Bishop of Oxford, the noble Lords, Lord Lester of Herne Hill and Lord Freyberg, my noble friend Lady Mallalieu, my noble and learned friend the Attorney-General and many others. Ours is a case of principle, equality, fairness and justice. We do not ask Members of the Committee to approve of homosexuality or homosexual acts, or even to understand why they happen, but to remove the weight and penalty of the criminal law from those young men aged 16 and 17 who consent to have sex with other men. Surely, except for those on the very extreme of this debate, no one believes that we should criminalise 16 and 17 year-olds for having consensual sex.
Do not be fooled by the arguments of abuse; they are a red herring and are designed to scare. The noble Baroness does not have a monopoly on concern for children. Does she really believe that all those in another place and in this Chamber who support the Bill and the organisations which welcome this reform are of the view that it will lead to the abuse of children? That suggestion is both offensive--
That must work both ways. Sexual abuse of any kind to anybody, regardless of age, sex or sexuality, is wrong and offensive, and we have laws in place to prevent it. This Bill further strengthens the law and extends protection to vulnerable young men and women. I understand the concern of the noble Baroness but her generation is different from mine. The noble Baroness's values, experience and aspirations are different. I accept all of that and understand that her motives are well intentioned. I liken them to the concerns of a kindly grandparent. In that spirit, I ask the noble Baroness to let people of my generation live their lives in their own way. This legislation will proceed with or without the consent of the noble Baroness. The time has come to remove discrimination, oppression and fear from the statute book. I ask Members of the Committee to support the Bill and oppose the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness.
The noble Lord, Lord Alli, was kind enough to mention me, but he took some of my previous remarks out of context. As the noble Lord has only recently become a Member of the House, perhaps he will allow me to respond. One's experience based on 38 years in this Chamber is that one must gauge its mood and recognise that, whether elected or not, one has a duty to try to represent the nation as a whole without prejudice. When I spoke I did not say exactly what the noble Lord attributed to me. I said that one aspect of sex was natural and the other unnatural. What may be natural to some may be unnatural to others, but not usually the other way round.
We have long departed from the kinds of remarks that people might have used, for example that God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. The insults which were once thrown about have long since disappeared as we reach this particular stage of the Bill.
I intended to table two amendments until I read the amendments of my noble friend Lady Young. One amendment would have concentrated on the protection of the young, accepting at the moment that someone under 18 is young. It does not mean that they are not intelligent, that they are not well trained or that they cannot fight in a war. But there is a need for protection from the older generation in one form or another.
I found it extraordinarily difficult actually to use the word "buggery" for the first time in your Lordships' House. Then I thought back to my time in the navy and realised that sometimes it was a friendly phrase--"Well, I'm buggered"--whereas the use of religious words was a criminal offence.
The decriminalisation of homosexuality has taken place over a long period of time. What consenting adults may do in private is their business. In general, we are a very tolerant society. But the moment we start to threaten the parent--the lioness with her cubs--a whole new mood begins to come out. That was manifest by the enormous number of letters I received. Knowing that the noble Lord, Lord Alli, might well say that I am one of those with a faded parchment name downstairs, wrinkled all over, I thought I would consult in the period of the past six months. I formed a number of private committees, with the youngest member being 10 years old. We discussed the noble grandmother. We talked about family values. We spoke about how out of date we were regarding people's attitudes--the young and one to the other. But everyone had one thing in mind that caused them fear--disease. That was the purpose behind the amendments that I intended to table.
During my working life I have come across female circumcision and the problems of Africa. I have been to Gabon. I believe I have even eaten the private parts of a green monkey. But I am concerned about the impact of various diseases, some known and some unknown, and the spread of those diseases which in certain cases--HIV--is through anal intercourse. The two quickest ways, so I am advised, of getting things into the body are to sniff them up your nose or to shove them up your rear end.
In a discussion on drugs I heard someone say, "When you smoke a spliff and you can afford only one, if you shove a plastic tube up your backside it gets into your bloodstream quicker". That made me think of this: in my younger days on the Continent I was given a pill and I tried to swallow it, with considerable difficulty, only to find that it should have gone up the other end because it went into the bloodstream quicker.
What I am coming to is, in part, the spread of AIDS, but perhaps also other diseases that are not necessarily well known, and how we can protect the younger generation from such possibilities. In general, it will be the transmission of AIDS by older to younger generations that we may have to concern ourselves with.
My noble friend's amendment gets over my need to introduce an amendment simply to point out that, if two persons were together and one was under 18, and either had AIDS and failed to disclose it, effectively consent would be deemed to be withheld. If the Government are determined to force the Bill through, will they give considerable thought to the impact that this might have on the spread of this devastating and frightening disease? At least one aspect of the disease has made itself manifest; namely, it is not just a homosexual disease but a disease that spreads widely through both sexes and through blood.
This led to the second amendment that I was proposing to introduce: that it should be illegal to give blood if one has HIV. I was then told that this is not actually necessary because one's finger is pricked before one gives blood and that is thus determined. At the moment if one tries give blood one is asked to sign a form that one does not have HIV. I gather that in certain cases--this sounds an outrageous thing to say--those who suffer in this way are actively seeking to spread the disease. I am not sure whether that is true. But it is these two areas, the question of blood and the transmission of HIV through anal or even vaginal intercourse, that cause me concern. My noble friend's amendment makes those two amendments and my two fears about that no longer necessary.
Therefore, I end by returning to the noble Lord, Lord Alli, whose speeches I have always enjoyed. When he spoke at Second Reading I think he pointed out in a friendly way that he was the only gay member of your Lordships' House. I questioned that at the time.
I respect the views expressed by my noble friend Lord Alli but I do not share them. When I spoke on this issue in April last year--in opposing the reduction in the age of consent for homosexual relationships--I made it plain that I had no difficulty in supporting the Government's proposals in respect of protecting young people from those in positions of trust. Indeed, they were government provisions which I felt reinforced my concerns and drove me further in my opposition to the reduction of the age of consent from 18 to 16 years.
Today I still have confidence in the Government's approach to protecting young people exposed to the influences and pressures of those in positions of trust. Nevertheless, this has not made me change my view about reducing the age of consent in respect of anal intercourse.
But I appreciate we have moved on. The terms of the amendment today are different from those previously debated. However, as time passes we learn more and more about the frightening health risks of anal intercourse and the widespread abuse to which young people are subjected. We would be neglecting our duty if we ignored these dangers.
When we last debated the matter, the arguments the Government marshalled in support of their proposals were about equality, justice and the removal of discrimination. It was said that the different age levels were in contravention of the European Court of Human Rights. That was based on the ground that heterosexual intercourse is legally permissible at 16 years of age and yet homosexual intercourse is not legally permissible until 18 years of age. I said then, and I say now, that, because the two acts are different, the question of equality of age does not arise under the law, although I recognise that it would be a dangerous wrong if a girl above the age of 16 could be subjected to buggery when boys would be protected until the age of 18. But the amendment thoroughly deals with this danger. The amendment draws a clear distinction between what I shall call normal, usual intercourse and anal intercourse. It accepts that normal intercourse is legally permissible at 16 years of age for men and women, and it provides that anal intercourse in respect of both men and women will be legally permissible at 18 years of age.
The amendment clearly addresses the question of equality under the law. It quite correctly and sensibly concentrates on the acts, which are different, and applies the law in respect of each of them to men and women equally. I know that this view will not be acceptable to those who are not prepared to acknowledge that the respective acts of intercourse are different. But there is a clear difference. As long as the amendment, as it does, applies the same standards equally to both men and women in respect of each act, no charge of discrimination can legitimately be made.
By way of example, albeit perhaps not a very good one, I say this. In this country it is illegal to sell tobacco to any person, male or female, under the age of 16 years, whereas when it comes to alcohol the age is 18 years for both young men and young women. The products are different; different ages apply; but they apply equally to both sexes; and, as far as I know, no one suggests that any discrimination is taking place. In what is before us, these acts of intercourse are different. The age proposals in each case apply equally to both sexes. Therefore, in my view, there is no discrimination.
Now, as I have demonstrated, there is no question of discrimination in what is proposed in the amendment. But I also feel that it is important to justify why it is sensible and necessary to apply different age levels to the different acts of intercourse. I feel that there is a broad spread of views as to why this should be so and they will all have been canvassed in debates in this House. But my reasons for supporting the amendment are focused in two areas: first, health; and, secondly, avoiding as far as possible extending the risk of abuse to which young people are exposed.
However, before I address those two areas, let me say that there is still widespread concern in this country about homosexuality which we should not ignore. We must not forget that the legalising of homosexuality was enacted only a relatively short time ago, with the age of consent being 21. It was reduced to 18 an even shorter time ago. Now it is proposed to reduce the age to 16. Many people think, "Where is it going to end?". There are many who oppose the reduction in the age of consent because they are either morally or religiously opposed totally to homosexuality; and much of our postbag confirms that. Many believe the act of homosexuality to be unnatural and say that it should not be permitted at all. On the other hand, there are those who see homosexuality as no different from heterosexuality as far as concerns the law. There are also those who believe there should be no age limit at all.
For me, this amendment is not about these issues. It is argued on the question of health and abuse, and I stand four square with that approach. The amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and others recognise that homosexual relationships will be legally permitted at the age of 16 for both boys and girls, short of buggery--short of permitting anal intercourse. No doubt many will be dissatisfied with that. Others will say that the amendment before the Committee reflects only a measure of damage limitation. Some will say that it is a shabby compromise. I do not accept any of those things. I believe that what is proposed in the amendment can be accepted by the Government.
Yes, it is a compromise, but a compromise which recognises and addresses the reality of the age of consent for heterosexual intercourse at 16 years of age, which has been with us since the 19th century when it was raised from the age of 12 years. At the same time, it is a compromise which displays an awareness of the dangers of abuse to which young people are exposed and a consciousness of the health risks associated with anal intercourse. The health risk, we know, cannot be totally removed, but we should not take any step that places young people in greater danger, particularly at a time when the scourge of HIV and AIDS is sweeping this planet.
Others can no doubt point to numerous examples of the health risk associated with anal intercourse. Therefore, I shall draw to the attention of the Committee only two examples of the dangers. First, in a healthcare analysis published as far back as 1994 it was stated:
"The risk of HIV infection from anal intercourse is extremely high: for men it is at least 2,700 times the risk from vaginal intercourse".
Secondly, the UK blood transfusion service leaflet states categorically:
"If you are a man who's had sex with another man, even 'safe sex' using a condom, you should never give blood".
Those two examples certainly convince me that we should take no steps that could increase the health risk to young people.
Finally, I should like to refer to the danger of abuse to which young people can be exposed. I need not spend a great deal of time on this matter as we are all aware of the alarming number of reports of abuse in children's homes and at the hands of priests and others--often involving children below the age of 16, where paedophiles are involved. I know that we cannot prevent every criminal act but I do believe that we should never do anything that can lead to further abuse by unnecessarily making it easier for such abuse to take place. We know that when someone is abused it does not always end there, as those abused sometimes become abusers themselves.
So when we consider which Lobby each one of us goes through, I ask noble Lords to contemplate the following quotation from W.H. Auden which I came across recently:
"I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return".
I ask noble Lords to consider also this question. If it is right to protect those under the age of 18 from abuse by people in positions of trust, is it not equally right to protect all those below the age of 18?
I intervene only to raise one practical point which I hope the proposers of the amendment will explain. However, before doing so, I cannot forbear saying, rather like the noble Lord, Lord Alli, that it is odd to find high-minded grandparents suggesting that this somewhat elderly House knows best what people want and what parents want. If this measure is really so unpopular with those people, is it not surprising that those who are dependent on their votes at next election should be universally advancing this measure whereas those who do not need votes are saying how unpopular it is?
If one has a law which states that sexual activity at the age of 16 is lawful unless it is anal intercourse, how on earth can it be enforced? What we are concerned with are consensual acts between people who are entitled to be in bed together. One cannot know whether they have committed a criminal offence unless it turns out that they have had anal intercourse. The authorities will not know whether they had anal intercourse except in two circumstances; first, where the 16 to 18 year-old needs to seek advice--probably medical advice or perhaps counselling--and then finds that he dare not do so because he will be dropping his partner in serious trouble; and, secondly, where the 16 to 18 year-old becomes vicious and wants to indulge in blackmail. How on earth will this law be properly enforced? And if it cannot be properly enforced, we should certainly not put it on the statute book.
I should like to confine my remarks to the important medical facts about anal intercourse, which is practised by heterosexual and homosexual people. In fact, anal intercourse between male and female is commonly used as a form of contraception, which may account for the rapid transmission of AIDS in some areas.
As the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, pointed out in a previous debate, the rectum is lined with a delicate gut epithelium, or lining, which is only one cell thick, measuring a very small fraction of a millimetre. That is in marked contrast to the lining of the vagina, which is a tough skin-like structure many cells thick. As the rectal lining is so delicate, it is frequently damaged by intercourse and therefore infected with a variety of hostile germs, the most severe being AIDS, hepatitis and a virus leading to anal cancer, together with the usual venereal diseases of syphilis, gonorrhoea and other infections. The vaginal lining, being much thicker and of tougher material, is more robust and resistant to infection, even to AIDS, unless there have been previous breaches in the lining due to venereal disease.
In addition to the damage to the lining of the rectum, the tight and powerful muscles that surround the anal canal can also be damaged and those subjected to persistent damage can even become incontinent. In one series, the rate of incontinence has been one in three. Of course, when anal intercourse is practised on infants, the damage is even more severe and devastating. Cases have been recorded of infants as young as six months being subjected to this practice.
The use of condoms is said to reduce the danger of anal intercourse, but in one series there was a breakage rate of 32 per cent, which was six times more common for the same group during vaginal intercourse. The slippage rate was 21 per cent, which was three times more common. Stronger, thicker condoms have passed laboratory tests, but they are not used consistently because of discomfort and decreased sensation. (This was recorded in a paper published by Silverman et al, in the journal Sexually Transmitted Disease, 1997, vol. 24 at page 14.) The failure rate of condoms for vaginal sex in one series was 52 per cent. Some 52 per cent had experienced condoms bursting or slipping off in the previous three months. (This was recorded by Kirkman et al, British Journal of Family Planning, 1990, vol. 15 at page 107.) Condoms have a pregnancy failure rate among the most motivated couples of 5 to 15 per cent. According to Williams in the British Medical Journal, 1995, vol. 311 at page 807, the main factor in unplanned teenage conception is contraceptive failure, not the lack of contraceptive knowledge and availability. Condom failure has become the leading cause of unwanted pregnancy, according to the British Medical Journal, 1996, vol. 312 at page 1059.
There are, of course, inherent flaws in latex condoms and those flaws are at least 50 times larger than the AIDS virus. Incidentally, the AIDS virus is 450 times smaller than human sperm, so it is no surprise that the effectiveness of condoms for AIDS prevention is much worse than for contraception. That was pointed out by C.M. Rowland, the editor of Rubber Chemistry and Technology.
Having dealt with the dangers of anal intercourse in terms of infection and damage, the question of mortality should also be considered. Of 100 teenagers who continue to smoke 20 cigarettes a day, half of them will take, on average, 20 years off their life. Of 100 teenagers who practise anal sex, all of them, on average, will take 20 years off their life. As most males start anal sex at the age of 21, we would prefer them--from the medical point of view--not to begin this practice any earlier. I therefore see no point, medically, for lowering the age of consent.
I defer to the medical advice and opinion given by the noble Lord, Lord McColl of Dulwich. Every word that he said about the constitution of the anal canal, the rectal mucosa and the risks of HIV infection is absolutely right. But those same risks apply to the condition of the anal canal and the rectum at the age of 18, 20, 21, 24 or, indeed, at any age.
I have agonised before deciding to speak in the debate because I find this to be an agonisingly difficult issue. It is so easy to understand and appreciate the absolute sincerity of those who speak on both sides of the argument. I personally find the whole idea of anal intercourse distasteful and even abhorrent. That is a view that I have held throughout my professional life. However, homosexuality has been a fact of life through the centuries. We need only look back to see that many notables in history, such as Alexander the Great and, indeed, an enormous number of distinguished people in public life--actors, politicians, scientists and others--have openly confessed to their homosexuality. Furthermore, there is increasing evidence, which is, I believe, now incontrovertible, that homosexuality is not a perversion produced by events in early childhood or even in the teenage years, but that it is genetically determined. It is a characteristic inborn in the individual as a result of their genes. That, I believe, is one of the most important facts to be considered.
I should like to make one more point. When I was president of the General Medical Council, we agonised over the issue of whether advice should be given to underage girls and boys on matters related to contraception, abortion and so forth. We were then advised that, under the Family Law Act, valid consent, given by an individual of 16 years of age, is as valid as if given by an individual of full age. Then along came the Gillick judgment in the case of Gillick v. West Norfolk and Wisbech Area Health Authority. Mrs Gillick went to the courts to try to prevent doctors and other healthcare professionals from giving advice to her teenage children without her consent. Eventually, under that judgment, it was accepted that there were circumstances when, with total confidentiality, if a young person could not be persuaded to consult his or her parents, it might be valid in the interests of health to offer contraceptive or other appropriate advice, even under the age of 16.
I have the greatest possible respect for the views held by the noble Baroness, Lady Young. Since I came to this House 11 years ago, I have admired her support for universities, medical research, her consistent support for family values and her spirited advocacy of many other important matters, often based on her long-held and sincere Christian beliefs. She has won the respect of Members on all sides of the Committee. However, on this occasion, I have to say that I find myself in disagreement with her--but only for a few reasons. Why is it that the British Youth Council, NCH Action for Children (established by the Methodist Church), the Family Welfare Association, the Save the Children Fund, the National Children's Bureau and the NSPCC all favour this Bill? Furthermore, why do the medical opinions--after the most careful and earnest consideration--of the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the Health Education Authority, the Royal College of Nursing and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on AIDS all favour this Bill? A number of good reasons may be put forward.
No one in this House would ever condone the horrors of paedophilia or of child abuse. However, medical evidence states that, by the age of 16, people's sexuality is established and is unlikely to be influenced by any of their experiences beyond that age. A second, most important point--and one which arose as a result of the Gillick judgment--is that even though that legal judgment may be clear; namely, that in certain special circumstances a doctor could give advice on issues such as contraception and abortion to a young boy or girl under the age of 16, at the time there were many doctors who--although they had accepted that advice and had received consequential advice from the General Medical Council--felt unable and unwilling to give such advice because they believed that they were condoning an illegal act.
The same issue arises in this situation. Of course anal intercourse presents a much greater risk of HIV transmission for homosexual and bisexual men than most other types of sexual activity. As the BMA pointed out, in genital urinary medicine clinics the Department of Health figures showed that one in 17 men were found to be HIV positive. Many of them had clearly been infected for years, some having plainly acquired the infection before the age of 18.
It may be argued that if a young man of 16 seeks advice about his sexuality and whether it is right or wrong, whatever way he is protected, to have anal intercourse--which, as I said, I abhor--if the amendment were to be agreed, many doctors would now feel that, in giving health promotion advice to such individuals under the age of 18, they were condoning an illegal act. The same would be true of teachers and youth workers. For that reason, continued criminalisation of this activity for those under 18 is likely to prevent a significant number of young gay men seeking professional advice. It is also likely to inhibit some professionals--
I am grateful to the noble Lord. We have heard a great deal today about the advice that is necessary for young people of 16--and possibly even younger--on the subject of homosexuality. Can the noble Lord say whether it is general practice, when giving such advice, to give warnings about the dangers of this act, about which we have heard a great deal?
Without question. It is entirely right that health professionals who are fully informed about the risks must say to an individual, "If you persist and if you go ahead, the risks are these". It is very important that the dangers should be made clear to individuals. But if they persist, the health professional would give advice about every possible means of protection, including the use of appropriate condoms.
As a parent, a grandparent and now a great-grandparent twice over, I support the views of those who are concerned with the protection of young people and with the protection of the family. But, after agonising over this issue, for all the reasons I have given, I believe that the Bill should be supported.
I am grateful. Does the noble Lord, for whose medical knowledge we all have such admiration and regard, really believe that the law would move against any doctor who gave the advice, "Please do not do it. But if you have to do it, and you will not follow my advice, these are the consequences"? The law indeed would be an ass if it moved a prosecution on those grounds, would it not?
We have to recognise that this is an area in which people of good faith can properly and rightly take a different view. I do not subscribe to the view that the law has nothing to do with morals; the law can have the important function of stating common ground. Nevertheless, I do not believe that an attempt to enforce morals in this area is likely to be a proper or effective use of the criminal law.
Quite rightly, in my judgment, the debate has focused on the issue of protection, of which there are two aspects. The first aspect is the issue of health, on which persons far more knowledgeable than I--notably the noble Lord, Lord Walton--have spoken. The issue of health applies as much to those over 18 as to those under 18. That is absolutely fundamental. If the kinds of activities being described are so terrible that they need to be made a criminal offences for those under 18, surely they should be made criminal offences for those over 18. But that is absurd because we are talking, in general, about consensual acts.
The question that has to be asked--in fact it has been asked already--is this: if young people need serious and informed advice and help in this area, are they likely to be helped by the knowledge that this has been made a matter of the criminal law? I do not think that they are. I think that they are more likely to ask for and find help if it is not criminalised.
The second issue concerns the proper protection of young people from an abuse of trust by people in more powerful positions. Here I welcome the amendments brought forward by the Government in the version of the Bill that now stands before the Committee. I hope that, on balance, we shall feel able to support the Government and to resist these amendments.
Before the right reverend Prelate sits down, does he not agree that while adults should be allowed to make terrible mistakes which endanger their health, minors are different? Minors should be protected from such mistakes in so far as they possibly can be.
It is a question of what is likely to be the more effective mode of protection. I do not believe that the criminal law is likely to be sensible or effective in this area.
This is the first time that I have spoken in any of these debates, although I have sat through several and read carefully the Second Reading debate, which I was unable to attend, in full. I do not have the qualifications of the noble Lord, Lord Walton, nor those of the right reverend Prelate, to speak about these matters. I have one qualification, to which I shall return.
What has struck me most about the difference between today and the Second Reading debate, is that the principles of equality, tolerance and non-discrimination which figured so largely now appear to be, in large measure, common ground. In my view, what matters is the extent to which the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness achieve equality, and the extent to which they achieve the concerns which have rightly been addressed by the right reverend Prelate--that is, the protection of children and the health of children.
When I looked at the evidence of those who know far more about this than I do, I was impressed by the medical reasons in favour of reduction of the age of consent for anal intercourse. Of course it is the fact that anal intercourse is a risky form of sexual activity, but HIV experts agree that safe sex practices can largely--I shall not enter into the debate as to how far--eradicate those risks. That is why it is so important that young people receive good health advice about both the dangers and the measures which may reduce risks.
Criminalising this conduct is not likely to prevent young persons with homosexual tendencies from having sexual experiences. Even before the age of consent was reduced from 21--
May it not dissuade men of mature years from having sex with children? One has to remember that when we talk of 16 year-olds, we are talking of children according to international law. I can understand the noble Lord's comments when he is addressing his remarks to two young men aged between 16 and 18 having sex relations with each other. But should we not bear in mind that the Bill does not merely legalise sex between two young people aged between 16 and 18, but legalises a man of mature years having anal sex with a boy of 16--a child? That is the point.
I want to deal with that. First, criminalising conduct in which young people may engage in any event will discourage and inhibit them from obtaining the advice and counselling that they need. That is not my view; it is the view of people who know far better than I do--namely, the NSPCC and the BMA, both of which recently stated that discrimination in law discourages young gay men from accessing sexual health services and help in coming to terms with their sexuality. It inhibits health agencies from providing advice to young people engaging in consensual, but criminalised, sexual activities. It is not a question of what the law provides; it is a question of inhibition.
The Bill already deals with the question of persons in a position of trust. That is the most important way of dealing with the concerns that we all have about abuse by certain people--I give way to the noble Baroness.
I am grateful to the noble Lord. Does he agree that a large number of categories are left outside the categories relating to those in a position of trust? If the noble Lord is making a point of that argument, I hope that he will support the inclusion of some of the categories that are the subject of the amendments before the Committee.
The noble Baroness deals with amendments that are yet to come. The Bill as it stands deals with the most important categories: educational institutions and residential care. But that is a matter to which the Committee will return.
I do not believe, on the evidence, that young people are in need of special protection. As the noble Lord, Lord Walton, said, current expert medical opinion is that sexuality is fixed at an earlier age.
I have also considered the experience of other countries where the age of consent is generally the same. I said at the outset that I have only one qualification to speak: I am the father of teenage children--two boys and a girl, who are around precisely the age bracket about which we are concerned. Their care and protection is dearest to my heart. I am old-fashioned and traditional enough to be sure that I should be saddened if one of my boys came to me and said that, rather than having found a young woman whom he wanted to marry, he was setting up with a young man. But I should be more saddened still if he were slinking in corners, if he were fearful and suffered guilt because of his particular activity.
In another place, Mr John Bercow made a courageous speech indicating that he had changed his mind. He said that now was the time for progress and reform. I respect the opinions of all Members of the Committee. I hope that many will enter the Lobby in support of the Bill and in opposition to the amendments.
We are all concerned about the health of children and of young children. I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Longford: I should have preferred no reduction in the age at which these activities are permitted. But, as my noble friend Lady Young said, the amendment is an effort to meet the Government part way, by providing that homosexual acts should be permissible at 16, other than buggery, whether of men or of girls.
My noble friend Lord McColl told us of the sensitivities of the lining of the rectum, the breaking and slippage of condoms and the possibility of infection. He, together with the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Coity, said that the possibility of infection was 2,700 times greater with anal intercourse than with vaginal intercourse. That is a telling figure. To lower the age from 18 to 16 is to place people at risk, particularly girls, who, apart from anything else, may be deeply traumatised by such activity. Parliament has the right, indeed the duty, to protect young people. Lowering the age to 16 puts girls and young men at risk.
It is sometimes forgotten that anal intercourse has only been permitted at age 18 since 1994. Before that the permitted age was 21. I was in the Home Office when the legislation came through. I was obliged to respond to an amendment to the Bill. I do not like to rub the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General's face in it--actually, I do rather like doing that, but I know that it is his noble friend who will reply. When I came to answer the amendment, I did not think it was right that the age should be lowered from 21 to 18. I said: "Can I say that, because I think it is wrong". The advice from my officials was perfectly clear. They said: "No, you can't. This has always been a matter for conscience and it should be decided by the free vote of those in the House of Lords or in another place". I said: "Can I say at the end which way I intend to vote?". They said: "Yes, you can say that. That is your view. But it is not the Government's view". That was good advice, because this has always been a matter of individual conscience.
I want to know why the provision is being changed. Why have the Government suddenly decided to take up this matter and why do they believe it is right to change and to lower the age? There is no strong public opinion in favour of it. It was not in the Government's manifesto. Why have they decided to make this change on a matter which has never been a subject of government policy?
It is a great mistake for the Government to interfere on this matter. In the previous debate about the morality of mink farming, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, referred to the overwhelming number of people who had written in in favour of the proposal. She said that the postbags show that the Government are right. If that is to be the criterion on which government decisions are made, then I point out that the overwhelming number of people who have written to me and to other noble Lords have been wholly in favour of not lowering the age to 16.
The Government are wrong, first, to lower the age; secondly, to consider it their responsibility to do so without any mandate or any evidence that it is the right thing to do. They are making a great mistake in introducing this provision so quickly after the age was lowered to 18--only six years ago. What has happened in the past six years to make the Government behave almost like the Gadarene swine and say that now the age must be changed from 18 to 16? There has been no demand for such a change. Indeed, there has been widespread anxiety. I hope that the Committee will agree with my noble friend Lady Young in her amendment.
I speak as a new Member of this place and within the category of "kindly grandfather". I have five adult children and I have listened carefully to them over the past years and months in relation to the areas that we are continuing to debate. I have also listened carefully to the diocese that I serve, which covers Essex and five east London boroughs. I have met considerable concern from many different age groups and many different constituencies about the proposal to lower the age of consent to 16.
In listening again to the arguments put forward this afternoon, which have been most cogently and powerfully put both in the areas of protection and health--indeed, it so important to focus upon these aspects--I recognise how carefully they are balanced. Yet I would want to urge your Lordships to consider very carefully the amendment that has been put before us by the noble Baroness, Lady Young. I have greatly respected the noble Baroness's dogged and consistent working at bringing a reasoned and reasonable--I underline the words "reasoned and reasonable"--opposition to this particular Bill. I have remained opposed in my own mind to this Bill, but I believe that the amendment before us this afternoon offers a way forward.
We have had an excellent and fascinating debate. However, in terms of principles, language and reference, we must accept that we are living in two different worlds. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, invoked his postbag. When I think of my own postbag on this subject, which is quite a large one, I can say that I have only received a single letter that agreed with the view taken by the noble Earl. I am sorry. Indeed, if they agreed with the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, I do not think that they would write to me. Alternatively, if they agreed with me, I do not believe that they would write to the noble Earl.
It is not clear which side has the majority. However, it is clear to me that there is strong opinion on both sides of the question. It also seems to me that there is a very clear division in terms of age.
The noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, felt offended by what is on the Government's website. I am sorry about that, but I cannot comment on it because I am incapable of reading websites. I belong to the older generation. But from what the noble Baroness quoted, I cannot believe that among my pupils, who are between the ages of 18 and 21, more than one in 100 would have taken any offence at those words. We really are in different worlds.
Indeed, as recently as last Thursday, after a tutorial had concluded, I was trying to persuade one of my pupils who had taken great offence at the noble Baroness, Lady Young, that the noble Baroness was an entirely reasonable, friendly and good-natured person whom I rather liked. I put a lot of effort into that, and I have to do so quite often. So we must accept that we are in different worlds.
However, if we are trying to apply these amendments to a particular age group, we should also take account of the fact that we need a measure of consent within that group. That seems to me to be very largely lacking. Among my pupils, there are one or two who agree with the view taken by the noble Baroness, Lady Young. But they are very few and far between. It simply is not the language of the generation. Both my children tell me that they know of no one who takes that view; and they get around a bit.
The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, also raised the point--
Perhaps I may ask the noble Earl a question that has occurred to me frequently over the past year in this House. Is there not genuinely a form of wisdom that is the wisdom of hindsight; and does not age and experience count for something in the guidance of the young?
Yes, it does count for something. But consent to the criminal law also counts. My argument is that I do not believe that that consent will be forthcoming. Without it, the law tends to be brought into disrepute. In enforcing the criminal law on a group of people, there is such a thing as a "blocking third": if a third of the population affected by the law believes that there is no justifiable moral basis for the law, it becomes extremely difficult to enforce. One may welcome that or regret it, but either way I believe it to be fact.
The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, also raised the question of the two-stage process. He asked why this had come about so soon after 1994. He might consider the case in 1918 when the vote was given to women--again, with an unequal age of voting: 30 against 21. It took 10 years before the ages were equalised. Sir Charles Oman, the Member for Oxford University, speaking in another place at the time said that that was just about the end of civilisation. However, as I observe the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, in her place in the Chamber today, I do not think that it has been. We should not be too surprised--six years instead of 10--things may have improved a little. But the situation still remains that, where you have a two-bites-of-the-cherry process, you do move on from one to the other.
This Bill was a manifesto commitment for my party, but it is also a matter of a free vote. Therefore, although I speak for party policy, I speak for myself and, in so far as I do ask for support, I seek it from every quarter of the Chamber on an equal basis. I have not tabled any amendments to the Bill. It is a Parliament Act 1911 Bill. Section 2(3) of that Act says:
So while I listen to the debate with an open mind, as I must do, I am not at present minded to support amendments unless I see some chance of their receiving support in another place. Personally, I have been waiting 43 years for this Bill. I do not regard it as precipitate.
I am also concerned that the Bill should pass through this Chamber because I believe that the issue has done more damage to the reputation of this House, in those quarters within--
Perhaps noble Lords will allow me to finish my sentence. I was about to say that this issue has done more damage to the reputation of this House in the quarters within which I move than anything else since Irish home rule. I cannot answer for what it has done in other quarters. Those concerned may perhaps answer for that better than I can. I began by saying that this was a matter of intense division of opinion, so all that I say is with that premise--
I simply want to ask the noble Earl a question because I am genuinely puzzled. As I understand it, the amendment recognises that there shall be freedom for homosexual acts to be committed between consenting adults from the age of 16 onwards and only makes an exception for one particular act, which we have been told by many speakers from all sides carries far greater implications, results and dangers than anything else. Therefore, I do not see what is wrong with accepting the principle of homosexuality and the right of people to make choices, while making it clear from the beginning to both parties to the act (including the older and more experienced person) that that act of buggery is too dangerous to contemplate until we are out of the stage of childhood with 16 year-olds. What is the problem with that compromise?
The noble Baroness just about anticipates my next few words. I apologise for what may have been a rather long introduction. However, as it appeared to be giving rise to some controversy, I elaborated on one or two points. I hope that the noble Baroness will forgive me.
We all find that we occasionally experience a sense of distaste when hearing about other people's sexual practices--homosexual and heterosexual equally. Indeed, just as happened to me when I read in a newspaper entry on 14th February, "Tinky Winky loves Pig Face". I do not see why I need to know; it has nothing to do with me. I do not really want to know about other people's sexual practices in private because it is nothing to do with me. A great deal of the distaste that I feel is very often because I know that I really should not know anything about it. It is not my business. As for the danger, we are not dealing here only with homosexual practices. We are told that 13 per cent of heterosexuals of both sexes have had experience of anal intercourse. Most of them appear to be still here and in reasonably good health.
The Terrence Higgins Trust which has some knowledge of these matters tells us,
"The view on anal intercourse being 2,700 times more risky in terms of HIV ... is wholly misleading".
I do not know the evidence for that but the opinion itself at least deserves a hearing. The trust also points out:
"There are more newly diagnosed cases of HIV in the UK among heterosexuals than gay men. Indeed ... globally over 90% of HIV infections occur as a result of heterosexual intercourse".
The days when one could associate HIV with homosexuality constituted a brief phase before the disease spread into the heterosexual community. That is now over.
I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Walton, and others. I am not certain that the danger is anything like as great as it is made out to be. But even if it is, I do not believe that danger has ever deterred people from sexual practice. If that had been so, and as the danger to women until recent times in bearing a child was so great, I believe that few of your Lordships would be here now.
Does not the noble Earl agree that the possibility of punishment might deter an older man from having sexual intercourse with a boy of say, 16, particularly if the older man knew that if he infected the boy and gave him HIV the punishment would be heavy?
It might, but it might also, among those who are attracted by the idea of danger, turn the man on. I am not convinced that on balance it makes any great difference. When people are sufficiently determined in this area they are not often deterred by punishment, especially if they think that detection is unlikely. In the case of buggery, I do not see by what means it could be detected. One wonders whether it might be detected by means of CCTV, but I cannot believe that the framers of the amendment contemplate anything so drastic, particularly as there are considerable risks in what might happen to the film thereafter. If it is not to be detected that way, we are left with the point made with great power by the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, and by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham; namely, how can we know? If we cannot know, we cannot enforce the law. I am against making laws which cannot be enforced.
I know how the noble Baroness, Lady Young, will reply to that. She will say, more or less, that the purpose of the law as she intends it is to send a signal. I do not approve of that method of legislating. I do not think that the law is a form of sermon. As soon as you pass a law for no other purpose than to send a signal, knowing you cannot enforce it, you are giving the signal that the law can be disobeyed with impunity. As one who respects the law, I do not like giving the signal that the law can be disobeyed with impunity.
The noble Baroness, Lady Young, talks about the protection of children. That is a common objective. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith. I also care about the protection of children, but I want to protect them from the fear and guilt of knowing that they risk punishment and disgrace for being what they are when they cannot be other than they are. That is not what I think the law should be for. I shall support the Bill and oppose the amendment.
Before the noble Earl sits down, is there not the possibility of the criminal law being applied where an older man, say, 30 years old, seduces a 16 year-old and causes that 16 year-old damage of which he ultimately complains?
If the act was not consensual, there can be a complaint. Otherwise--I speak as one whose parents met when one of them was 65 and the other was 19--if the noble Lord's philosophy had been followed, I might not be here now and I should regret that!
I have an abiding recollection of an observation made by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor during the debate on the then House of Lords Bill. It was in relation to what was known as the Weatherill amendment. He said,
"I must be brutally frank".
When the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, had the courage as a layman to speak in regard to the anal intercourse versus vaginal intercourse debate, there was almost a sense of embarrassment in the House on the basis, I think, that we were dealing with an issue of discrimination and therefore we did not need to go in to all the irrelevant, sordid details.
I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Young, as she has produced an amendment which gets away entirely from the question of discrimination. Therefore the kind of attitude I mentioned cannot be adopted by the House. We are not haunted--as we were--by the spectre of the European courts, nor by the pleasure of hearing a tutorial on the subject from the noble Lord, Lord Lester. This is a situation where there is no question of discrimination. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord McColl, on doing what is essential where one is dealing with questions of health; namely, setting out the situation as a doctor so that the issue of embarrassment does not arise.
My next point has not been mentioned. Strangely enough, there is a letter in today's Daily Telegraph, signed by a number of doctors, and headed "dangers of unnatural sex". The letter states, among other things,
"The Government's commitment to reducing the age of consent introduces vulnerable teenagers to a lifestyle strongly linked to premature death. It causes physical damage to the anus and spreads infections such as hepatitis and sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV. Men who practise anal sex and then have sex with women give them very severe pelvic infections with resulting infertility or chronic ill health".
We have at last reached the position in this House where it is accepted that homosexuality in relation to this kind of activity--which some regard as a perverted activity--involves the young, and anyone else who takes part in it, in considerably greater risk. In those circumstances the Government are legislating in a manner which it is agreed may well increase the prospect of disease or ill health among those whom it is our principal duty to safeguard--the very young. In that situation, the onus on the Government must be particularly high. They must justify why it is necessary to reduce the age from 18 to 16 in regard to this activity. What is the principle involved to justify that? It is not discrimination; that has gone out of the window. What remains? Is it the difficulty in policing the activities between 18 or 16 year-olds and those older? But that applies to every situation where one has the age of consent. On that argument, one would abolish restrictions on age altogether.
What other explanation or suggestion is made? Is it that safe sex is an answer to this particular risk. But it is not. That has been made clear by the medical experts. I quote from an article published about a year ago by Dr Jeffrey Satinover. He says that,
"comparable tears in the vagina are not only less frequent because of the relative toughness of the vaginal lining, but the environment of the vagina is vastly cleaner than that of the rectum. Indeed, we are designed with a nearly impenetrable barrier between the bloodstream and the extraordinarily toxic and infectious contents of the bowel. Anal intercourse creates a breach in this barrier for the receptive partner, whether or not the insertive partner is wearing a condom".
The suggestion is that the ultra tough condom will suit the bill. Everyone knows that the ultra tough condom will not be worn. No condom is often the case because, as has been said, some people delight in taking the risk.
In all the circumstances, I cannot see how this heavy onus can be discharged. That seems to be the right test. The Government are about to embark upon something which can seriously and significantly prejudice the health of the young. In those circumstances, what is their justification? The answer is: none that we have heard here.
As a signatory to the amendment, perhaps I should explain some of my reasons for signing it. I believe, as does the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, that this measure equalises the position. We have to bear that very much in mind. I also signed the amendment because I believed that it was a reasonable compromise between opposing points of view. I believe that it was a compromise which would be welcomed on all sides of the Committee; and from all sides of the argument. However, that does not appear to have been the case today. That is a matter for regret.
My noble friend Lord Alli said that the amendments were designed to wreck the Bill. That is wholly untrue. The amendments do not wreck the Bill. I believe that the amendments do what amendments should do: they improve the Bill. In no sense do they wreck the Bill; and in no sense can they wreck the Bill. The Bill will stand as the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill with the amendments in the same way as it would without them. So they are not wrecking amendments.
The noble Earl, Lord Russell, also said that the public view is not behind the amendments. Where on earth has the noble Earl taken his opinions from?
From students, yes. That is a very good intervention. All the letters I have received are in favour of the amendments and have urged me to support the amendments. I did not need to be urged because I was going to do so anyway. But the total number of letters and representations that I have received support the amendment.
Like the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, the noble Earl asked how the amendments will be enforced and said that they are unenforceable; that there will have to be video cameras in the bedrooms. If that is true at 18 and 17 years, it is just as true at 16. So the noble Earl is saying that we should abolish all legislation for any age. Is that not the outcome of the argument? I shall give way in my time.
Does the noble Lord recognise that if a man of 20 is in a bedroom with a boy of 17, it raises a strong presumption (probably from the state of the bed) that they have been indulging in sexual activity. If all sexual activity is illegal, there you are. But if some form of sexual activity is legal, and one particular form is illegal, without prying cameras how on earth does anyone know what has gone on in that bedroom?
I did not suggest that we should have video cameras; it was the noble Earl, Lord Russell. I do not follow the noble Viscount's argument. He appears to be arguing against me and yet the words he uses appear to be arguing for me.
I repeat that if you cannot enforce the law in relation to buggery at 18, it will be just as difficult to do so at 16. The noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, shakes his head but I should have thought that that was obvious. I say this to the noble Viscount and to the noble Earl, Lord Russell. Generally speaking, people are law abiding. I do not believe that homosexuals are any less law abiding than anyone else. If we had such law, we would expect and hope that they would obey it.
We have also heard today about the generation gap. The noble Lord, Lord Alli, again referred to it. Of course, there is a generation gap. I can remember the Wolfenden report. Indeed, I knew Sir John Wolfenden because I was a member of the court and the council of Reading University at the time when he was preparing his great report. My noble friend Lord Mishcon helped to prepare the report. Those of us who defended that report had to argue very strongly indeed--more strongly than is being argued at present--to get that report set into law. So we do not want to be lectured about generation gaps, when some of us fought to get rid of the serious injustices that were practised against homosexuals. We were there. We fought for the Wolfenden report and got it administered.
Are we now saying that older people may not give counsel and leadership to young people? Young people deserve our assistance and advice and should expect the benefit of our experience. There is no generation gap. I hope that there will be co-operation between the generations.
We have heard from two members of the medical profession this afternoon, both of whom agreed on the medical aspects. The medical fact is that anal sex is dangerous. That has been established and we should not overlook it.
We have an overriding duty to protect the young and the vulnerable. We should do that in all circumstances. I find it amazing that we all apparently want to protect children from everything else--tobacco, hard and soft drugs, alcohol, financial exploitation, contract signing and paedophiles--but not from buggery. Why do we not want to protect them from buggery, when we have heard distinguished medical opinion this afternoon that it is dangerous to their health and their longevity?
We have had a good debate and I have listened carefully to everything that has been said, but I believe now, as I did when I signed the amendments, that we are being offered a reasonable compromise. For the sake of our children and young people, we should unite behind the amendments.
Rather unusually, we are making legislation for Scotland as well as for the rest of the United Kingdom. At Second Reading, the Attorney-General pointed out that there was a full debate on the procedure for the Bill in the Scottish Parliament on 19th January this year. It was argued that, as the Bill had been thought through in its first incarnation at Westminster before devolution, and as the Government wanted to be in a position to invoke the Parliament Act if they saw fit, this further stage of legislation should be carried through at Westminster on the basis of the Bill presently before us.
Some of the Labour Members in that debate showed a marked antipathy to the idea of anyone having a further say on legislation proposed by the other place. They take great delight in single-chamber legislation in Scotland and they are probably not familiar with the number of government amendments and others that are routinely added in your Lordships' House. Also, probably through a lack of familiarity with our procedures, one Member accused us of going against parliamentary procedure for previously turning down the Bill. Presumably that accusation derived from ignorance of the fact that the procedure applies only to policies contained in a Government's election manifesto. As my noble friend Lord Ferrers has pointed out, this was not part of the Labour Party's Westminster manifesto, though no doubt in Scotland they will have had to adopt it as part of their coalition settlement with the Liberal Democrats.
If I may digress, that raises an interesting theoretical issue for voters under a proportional representation system, because they could end up getting all of both parties' manifesto proposals, even if the majority voted for only one set of them.
I have tried to follow the arguments that have been put before the us and I have asked questions of a considerable number of people who work in areas that seem to be germane to the issue. The Government's contention, given in their Answer on 6th November to my noble friend Lady Blatch, that there are no differences between the risks involved in anal and normal sex, was presumably supposed to refer to promiscuous sex among both heterosexuals and homosexuals. There is a clear difference between the risks for the two groups in monogamous sexual relations.
I make my living as a livestock farmer, so I may not be as squeamish about some of the issues as might be proper in the Chamber as we sail in great style through all the goings on. I have read the study published recently under the name of B. G. Silverman, which was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord McColl, on the effectiveness of condoms and their breakage and slippage rates. That is a considerable risk, even before we consider the preference of some, referred to a few minutes ago, for no form of protection.
We have heard in some detail about the pathogens involved. We have great faith that whatever infectious disease comes upon us, medical science can be relied on for a cure. That faith was temporarily dented by the advent of AIDS, but we still like to think that science will win out in the end. However, another publication tells me that there is widespread increased resistance to penicillin in homosexual and bisexual men. That is presumably due to the number of times that they have to resort to such medication to maintain their preferred lifestyle.
We allow those whose settled view is that that is the lifestyle that best suits them the freedom to continue with it. The amendment addresses the fact that some young men mature later. Their smooth young looks may even make them more attractive to those looking for a pretty boy. The noble Lord, Lord Walton, tells us that their sexuality is fixed. Can he also tell us whether they are still uncertain of their sexuality? The amendment would give them some protection from the undoubted dangers of anal sex until they reach the age of 18, when presumably they will be clear in their choice.
Given our reliance on the effectiveness of education to persuade girls that it is better to postpone sexual activity until they are 16, it should be equally possible to persuade boys that they should postpone anal sex for another two years. Those who give such teaching should also impart an understanding of sexuality and explain that differences do occur.
I read somewhere a text that is probably familiar to some of your Lordships. It says:
"Put not your faith in princes, nor in any child of man".
We are almost getting to the stage of saying, "put not your faith in condoms or in antibiotics".
I shall speak briefly in favour of the Bill, as I have done on previous occasions. My main point is equality between heterosexual and homosexual relationships. In a democratic society, there are certain core values, such as equality of concern for each individual, equality of respect for each individual and equality of interests, in the sense that each person's interests should be considered equally with everyone else's. There can be no greater interest to someone than their sexuality or sexual orientation.
What might be the arguments for moving away from equality of treatment? We have heard three this afternoon. The first, put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, and my noble friend Lord Davies of Coity, is that homosexual acts are somehow unnatural. I believe that that is a dangerous argument in that what is natural and unnatural cannot determine a moral point of view. Most of human civilisation occurs in a fantastic struggle against nature. One cannot assume that what is natural is good and what is unnatural is bad. We must look at what is natural and unnatural from our own moral perspective. It is because each of us has a moral perspective that we believe that something that is natural is good or that something unnatural is bad. What is natural and unnatural does not determine that perspective.
In a democratic society moral perspectives will differ markedly, as is obvious from the debate this afternoon. Therefore, in a democratic society I believe that those who have strong views about issues of morality should be prepared to stay their hand over those views if forcing them through a legislature would disadvantage particular groups in the community and infringe the basic democratic values that I have mentioned.
The second reason for departing from equality would be if the actions were harmful to others--that is, others outside the relationship. However, as such relationships are private, it is difficult to see how others could be harmed by them. A great deal of play has been made of the third reason; namely, self harm, and the idea that such acts are likely to cause harm to the individuals who engage in them.
I listened carefully to the noble Lord, Lord McColl. Everything that he said was most telling. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, agreed with everything that the noble Lord, Lord McColl, said. However, he drew very different conclusions from exactly the same set of medical facts. My sympathies in this argument lie with the noble Lord, Lord Walton. I share many of his hesitations and concerns but, in the end, I go along with his views.
Therefore, I believe that whether in terms of nature, in terms of harm to others or in terms of self harm, there are no good grounds for moving away from the idea of equality. On other occasions my noble and learned friend the Attorney-General has made equality of treatment central to this issue. I believe that there is the strongest possible case for doing so again.
Perhaps I may--
Before the noble Lord leaves the question of equality, does he agree that one great inequality lies in the rate at which children mature? Does he agree that some children are very mature at the age of 16, but most are not mature until the age of 18?
I spent most of my life in education. I have three sons who have had girlfriends and friends who are boys. To be honest, I have not noticed that type of rigid difference. Obviously--
I apologise profusely to the noble Lord for intervening from a sedentary position. My noble friend was making the opposite point. He was not saying that the difference is rigid; he was saying that young people develop at different stages. However, the general point is that at the age of 16 one is not mature enough to make that type of decision.
I meant to say that my experience of being in a houseful of young children for most of my adult life does not lead me to take the view that the noble Lord took. I do not believe that there is a case for moving from equality.
Although it is not an addition to the argument, perhaps I may say to my noble friend Lord Davies of Coity, who quoted some moving words from W H Auden, that it is worth remembering that Auden himself was a homosexual who for many years lived in a very faithful relationship with Chester Kallman.
We have had a most uninhibited debate. I have been termed a grandfather. However, on first hearing the word "buggery" in this Chamber my own grandfather would have dragged me out. As I said, we have had a most frank and useful debate.
My only contribution arises out of the speech of my noble friend Lord Stoddart. He said that I had had some part, as had he, in the preparation of the Wolfendon report. Indeed, I was a member and, I am told, the last surviving member of the Wolfendon committee. I believe that it would interest the Committee if I were to read an excerpt from the section of the report where the committee was considering the very question of age and the appropriateness of age. Then I promise your Lordships, and especially the Whips, that I shall sit down:
"There must obviously be an element of arbitrariness in any decision on this point"-- that is, the question of consent of age--
"but, all things considered, the legal age of contractual responsibility seems to us to afford the best criterion for the definition of adulthood in this respect. While there are some grounds for fixing the age as low as 16, it is obvious that, however mature a boy of that age may be as regards physical development or psychosexual make-up, and whatever analogies may be drawn from the law relating to offences against young girls, a boy is incapable at the age of 16 of forming a mature judgment about actions of a kind which might have the effect of setting him apart from the rest of society. A young man between 18 and 21 may be expected to be rather more mature in this respect. We have, however, encountered several cases in which young men have been induced by means of gifts of money or hospitality to indulge in homosexual behaviour with older men and we have felt obliged to have regard to the large numbers of young men who leave their homes at or about the age of 18 and either for their employment or their education or to fulfil their National Service obligations are then for the first time launched into the world in circumstances which render them particularly vulnerable to advances of this sort".
That portion of the Wolfendon report related to any homosexual act. Without taking the liberty of guessing at what members of the committee might have told your Lordships today--it would be wrong of me to do so--I can only give my personal view that that would be their opinion at this stage when relating acts of buggery to the age of 18 instead of 16.
It seems to me to be absurd--I use the word advisedly--to know, as a lawyer, that if a young man of 16 were to sign a tenancy agreement of a bedsitting room, his act would be voidable because under the law it is considered that he is not capable of making a contractual obligation and does not have the experience to do so, but he would be responsible for what happened in that bedsitting room, and so would we if we reduced the age of consent to 16.
Before the noble Lord sits down, I honour him for his contribution to the Wolfendon committee. However, is he aware that he has made the same mistake as did my great-grandfather in relation to the first reform Bill? He is playing the part of Finality Jack. My great-grandfather ultimately thought better of it. I hope that the noble Lord will do the same.
It is customary in this Chamber to offer congratulations when a maiden speech is made and it is my understanding that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford made his maiden speech this afternoon in the course of this debate. If I am right about that, I wish to congratulate the right reverend Prelate.
He took at least one of the two main pieces of advice that one receives when making a maiden speech; namely, to be brief. The right reverend Prelate was indeed brief. I am not sure about the other piece of advice--to be non-controversial. But the right reverend Prelate will not be surprised to know that I welcomed his comments and we shall welcome his support this evening.
I rise to support my noble friend Lady Young. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, who was the first to speak after my noble friend, said that he would have preferred a straight rejection of the Bill. I say "amen" to that. That is precisely what I should have preferred and I know that my noble friend would have preferred that too.
The noble Lord, Lord Newby, said that he supports the Bill for reasons of equality. The noble Lord is not present in his place but I should wish to remind him that my noble friend has dealt with the whole issue of equality, which dominated our previous debates.
The noble Lord, Lord Alli, accused my noble friend Lady Young of being unprincipled because her amendments before the Committee represent a compromise. My noble friend explained the amendments very well, in my opinion. The Government have stated their intention to use the Parliament Act on this matter of conscience, which removes our power to succeed in opposing the lowering of the age of consent. I agree with my noble friend Lady Seccombe who said that the use of the Parliament Act on a matter of conscience is an outrage.
Has the noble Lord, Lord Alli, ever heard of politics being the art of the possible? We know that the Government intend to use the Parliament Act and we have no power to prevent that on this matter of conscience. Therefore, we are doing what we can to protect the most vulnerable young people in our communities.
I am referring to this legislation. We are concerned about the protection of young people. The amendments are an attempt to offer greater protection to girls and the more vulnerable young people from that dangerous practice of buggery.
To describe my noble friend as unprincipled is deeply offensive. My noble friend is a person of the highest integrity and principle.
Reference was made to the fact that the public have not been sounded out on this issue. But I remind the Committee that there was a referendum of all the people in Scotland. The overwhelming reply from the people of Scotland--and I have no reason whatever to believe that the answer would be different from the people of this country--was that they supported my noble friend in all her efforts and they certainly do not wish to see any lowering of the age of consent.
As has been said, we make laws on drinking, smoking and dropping litter in the street. To say that we are not fit to address this issue, which is serious in terms of morality and health, is simply not true.
The noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, referred to it as being high-minded to discuss these matters. But we discuss education, youth policies and all sorts of issues which affect young people. This is just another social issue which affects young people.
But when we pass laws in Parliament, we send messages in relation to what the government of the day think about the laws of the land. This is an important message which should be modified. If we cannot reject the Bill, then, in my view, it should be modified.
The most significant point that I want to make this evening is that, apart from the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, little has been said about the most vulnerable young people in our community. Later this evening, we shall be discussing what may be described as the Waterhouse amendments. We know, because of the evidence in the report of those dreadful happenings in Wales, that much of the sexual activity which took place in those cases would be made legal under this Bill. We know that vulnerable young people, especially those who live their lives in institutions, go to great lengths to seek affection. Very often, they are inveigled into situations in which, because they seek affection and want to be loved and wanted, they find themselves seriously compromised.
We know from the conclusions of Professor Waterhouse's report that many of those young people between the ages of 16 and 18 are farmed out to third parties--not those named in the abuse of trust clauses in the Bill--for sex. That would be made legal under the Bill.
The case for these amendments has been made powerfully by my noble friend Lady Young and others. Therefore, I shall not detain the Committee any longer. My noble friend has fought for the health and protection of children with great courage. She has often been subjected to much ridicule and offensive comment. I shall willingly join her in the Division Lobby this evening and I hope that the majority of Members of the Committee will also do so.
First, I join with the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, in congratulating the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford on his maiden speech. I, too, noticed two things about it: first, it was commendably short; and, secondly, it was very clear and sincere. I hope that we shall hear more from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford in the months and years to come on a whole number of topics, because he plainly has a great deal to contribute to the proceedings of this House.
I turn now to the issues. There has been an extremely powerful and strong debate today in which both sides of the argument have been strongly and clearly put. I should not assist the Committee by going through each of the contributions which have been made. I hope that the Committee will forgive me for not doing that.
Perhaps I may identify what seem to me to be the main issues in relation to this matter. First, the Bill is advanced by the Government on the basis of equality. The point was made by my noble and learned friend the Attorney-General on Second Reading that homosexuals are entitled to equality before the law. That is the reason that the Bill was introduced.
The equality issue requires that homosexuals should be entitled to the same rights before the law in relation to sexual activity as heterosexuals. That principle of equality before the law appears to be accepted by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and those who support her in relation to putting forward the amendment.
But in those circumstances, homosexual sexual activity, including anal intercourse, is to be regarded in a different way from heterosexual intercourse. So a distinction is to be drawn between the homosexual and the heterosexual. So there is not equality on that basis.
Therefore, the Government do not accept the basic premise advanced by the noble Baroness--namely, that her amendment provides equality.
Does the noble and learned Lord accept that both boys and girls can indulge in heterosexual sex but that under the amendments, both boys and girls would not be allowed to indulge in homosexual activity? It is equal for both in both cases.
I accept entirely the description which the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, has given of the amendments. It was just as clearly put by the noble Baroness, Lady Young. But homosexual intercourse involves anal intercourse; heterosexual intercourse will not. In those circumstances, it is being said that a different rule should apply to heterosexuals from that which should apply to homosexuals. That is the basic premise in relation to equality which we advance in rejecting the amendments.
Is the noble and learned Lord really saying as the logic of his argument that one should equate vaginal intercourse with anal intercourse? Many would not accept that.
The proposition that underlines the rejection of the amendment advanced by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, is that homosexuals and heterosexuals, in relation to the expression of their sexual activity, should have equality before the law. That is exactly the proposition that has been put--I notice that the noble Baroness, Lady Young, is nodding--and that is the logic of the Government's position.
The noble Baroness and those who support her say that as long as the situation is the same in relation to anal intercourse there will be equality before the law. With respect, the Government do not accept that proposition. Homosexuals are entitled to an equal age of consent to that of heterosexuals. That is the basic position that we accept and put forward in relation to this Bill. That is the point of principle that divides those who support the noble Baroness, Lady Young, from those who support the Government in rejecting the amendment.
I am a little muddled about the definition. I am not an expert on this matter. Is the Minister saying--this may be a stupid question--that the only form of homosexual intercourse is anal intercourse? I understand that to be part of his argument in relation to equality.
I say that homosexuals and heterosexuals are entitled to equality before the law, and that will include the homosexual being entitled to express his sexuality in the way that he wants.
The second argument advanced in relation to this amendment was that to protect children and to avoid health risks that arise from anal intercourse the age of consent for anal intercourse, whether female or male, should be 18. So the medical risks and the interests of children were put at the forefront of the arguments of the noble Baroness.
The noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, in a well-measured speech, set out the position of the BMA in relation to that matter. That organisation rightly identified that anal intercourse presents a much greater risk for HIV transmission for homosexuals and bisexual men than most other types of sexual activity. Therefore, it is of the highest importance that young men who are at such risk have access to health promotion advice from professionals such as doctors, teachers or youth workers to help them to avoid infection.
However, the BMA said:
"Continued criminalisation of this activity for those under 18 is likely to prevent a significant number of young gay men from seeking professional advice. It is also likely to inhibit professionals from providing adequate information to those under 18 about how to make the riskiest practices safer including the use of condoms. The BMA Foundation for AIDS believes there is no convincing medical reason for retaining a higher age of consent for anal intercourse between men, but strong medical reasons why it should be reduced to 16 years".
That is the view of the British Medical Association in relation to the health risks. Not for one moment do I want to become involved in the detail of the health issues, but I look at the views of an independent body of doctors in relation to that and that is their considered view in relation to the health risks.
It was said that this amendment will put children at risk. Like the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, perhaps I may indicate some organisations that support the Bill: the NSPCC, Barnardo's, the National Children's Homes, Action for Children, the National Youth Agency, the National Children's Bureau, the British Youth Council, Save the Children Fund, Family Welfare Association, Health Education Authority, British Medical Association, Family Planning Association, Children's Rights Development Unit, National Association of Probation Officers, British Association of Social Workers, Royal College of Nursing, Royal College of Psychiatrists and Amnesty International.
Those bodies plainly have as their main concern the interests of young people and they support the reduction in the age of consent to 16. On a regular, day-to-day basis, they deal with the problems that people face. I respect their views and before the Committee decides what view it wants to take in relation to the amendment, it must carefully consider the views of those bodies. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Young, that this is a very important decision.
First, is the Minister aware that not one of the voluntary organisations that he has named consulted its members in relation to this Bill? My family are contributors to the NSPCC and when we got in touch with that organisation, apart from being treated rather shabbily on the telephone, it said that the decision was that of the board, exclusive of the membership.
Secondly, is the Minister aware that Barnardo's, in writing to my noble friend Lady Seccombe, who had referred to the fact that the Bill not only lowered the age of consent for boys but also lowered it to allow buggery against girls at the age of 16, said:
"What I can say is that Barnardo's has not been aware that young women would be affected in the way you point out, and I would be grateful if you could let me know which Clause of the Bill you are referring to".
Not only has that organisation given an opinion without consulting its members or its contributors, but it has also misunderstood the Bill.
I am not in a position to describe the process of consultation that those bodies went through, but I have little doubt that in expressing their views to Parliament in a matter of great significance, they gave their bona fide views as to what was in the best interests of children whom they are designed to protect. Maybe they could have had a better consultation process, but I am quite sure that that was their view according to their experience.
According to the piece of paper that I have seen from those organisations, they have commented on the amendment of the noble Baroness; for example, the NSPCC have set out in detail why it is keen to reject the amendment. My belief is that the vast majority of them have been consulted on that, although no doubt the noble Baroness can tell the Committee whether she consulted any of them before putting forward her amendment.
Perhaps I can read from a communication from the NSPCC:
"The amendments to Clause 1 of the Bill by Baroness Young and Baroness Seccombe would create two different ages of consent--an age of consent at 18 for anal intercourse, whether homosexual or heterosexual, and an age of consent at 16 for all other homosexual or heterosexual sexual relations".
That is what they are considering. At the end it says:
"The NSPCC therefore rejects these amendments. We ask Peers to support the new offence of abuse of trust as currently drafted in the Bill. The NSPCC supports the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill. We support the equalisation of the age of consent at 16".
I am told by my noble and learned friend the Attorney-General that that is dated today. So I believe that the NSPCC considered it in detail and gave detailed arguments as to why it rejects the amendment.
I put before the Committee the point that those organisations, all of whom are concerned with the welfare of children and all of whom would put their bona fide views to the Committee, take the view that this is not a sensible amendment. I ask noble Lords to take that into account when they make up their minds in relation to these amendments.
Perhaps I can deal with the point about Scotland. Sodomy is a common law offence in Scotland and it is defined as buggery of one man by another. There is no heterosexual equivalent. In Scotland, having anal intercourse with a consenting adult woman--for example, over the age of 16--is not an offence. To change that situation would require a new definition of sodomy to be introduced into Scottish law. It is far from clear whether the amendment does that, but a further important issue that we have not touched on is that that would be a substantive change to the criminal law in Scotland which goes beyond the age change at present in the Bill. That is a devolved matter and, therefore, it is something on which the Scottish Parliament should properly decide and legislate.
As Members of the Committee know, the Scottish Parliament supports the present proposals in the Bill. It endorses them by a large majority and asks Westminster to enact them for Scotland on its behalf. However, it did not give its agreement to the creation of a wholly new offence such as the one proposed, which criminalises practices which are currently lawful in Scotland.
I ask Members of the Committee to reject Amendment No. 1 and the consequential amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, first, on the principle of equality and, secondly, because far from providing the protection for children which the noble Baroness claims they will, many people involved in the process feel that they will have the reverse effect. I therefore invite the Committee to reject the amendment.
My Lords, first, I thank all those who supported me this afternoon. If I do not mention everybody by name, it is not that I do not greatly appreciate all that they said; it is that time will not allow. We have had a good and fair debate. Perhaps I can add my congratulations to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford and say how much I appreciated his comments.
Basically, two main issues arose in this debate and I turn to those before addressing the points raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer. The first issue is obviously an important one. A dispute arose between my noble friend Lord McColl, who made an extremely important speech on the medical dangers of anal intercourse--the statistics he gave on smoking and anal sex and the shortening of young people's lives as a consequence of those activities should be remembered by us all--and the noble Lord, Lord Walton, whom I have known for years as a neighbour and friend in Oxford and who clearly does not support my amendment today.
I suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Walton, that the BMA is mistaken in thinking that, by lowering the age of consent to 16, it will provide better advice and safer sex for young people. The evidence, which is what we are considering, indicated that when the age of consent was lowered from 18 the amount of infections increased. That suggests that lowering the age of consent will not help and I have not the slightest reason for thinking that if the age of consent is lowered to 16, fewer infections will occur. The BMA should recognise that.
The BMA says that anal intercourse is such a risky activity from the medical point of view that the age of consent should be lowered from 18 to 16 in order for young men to seek better safe sex advice. But the amount of advice already available is enormous. One only needs to look at commonly-accepted publications such as the one I hold in my hand, in which at least eight organisations are listed which can be contacted by telephone, to realise that it is a fallacy to think that young people cannot readily obtain advice.
As one would expect from a lawyer, the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, asked an important question of the noble Lord, Lord Walton, when he asked what a court would decide. Following on from the Gillick case, it is apparent that a doctor would not be sued for giving professional advice to a young person under 18 who asked for it. So the noble Lord's argument in that regard does not hold up.
The second argument advanced came from the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, who asked me straight out: what is the point of introducing my amendments because they are unenforceable? I am sure that the noble Viscount has studied this matter as closely as myself. He will recognise that the law at the moment is that heterosexuals can commit sexual acts at 16 but must wait until they are 18 to commit buggery. What I am proposing is no different in principle. The question of enforceability therefore does not arise any more under my amendments than under the law as it stands at present.
Perhaps I can comment once again on equality. My colleagues and myself thought hard and long about this point and made a genuine effort to meet some of the arguments. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, will know as well as I--it was mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Stoddart and Lord Davies of Coity--that all sorts of age limits exist for different activities such as smoking, drinking, driving and probably for signing a contract for a bedsitting room, though I am not sure what age that is. They are all accepted. Why we should feel that we have to accept the narrowly defined terms of equality put forward by the Government I simply do not know.
But there is a profound difference between heterosexual sex and anal sex which I must underline. One is an extremely dangerous activity; the other involves dangers, but not in the serious medical sense to which reference has been made. Once again, the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, in reading out the section from the Wolfenden report, accurately summed up the arguments on the age of consent being 18.
Finally, I turn to the charities. I have not heard from the NSPCC. None of the charities write to me on these issues. I have offered to see them but they never wish to discuss it. I am not sure why. I sometimes think that they are a little uncertain about discussing the issue with someone who has strongly-held opinions. Charities do many good works. But they are not always right and this argument does contain a moral aspect.
I have said it before and I repeat: I speak as a Christian. In all our debates there has been a great feeling among the Christians, among the Moslems in this Chamber, among the Sikhs, the Jews and the Hindus of what we believe is right and wrong. If charities thought about the views of their founders, they too would look at that aspect of this whole debate.
So I come back to the amendments before us. We are fighting to protect children from dangerous activities which could damage their health. I hope that my amendment receives support and I wish to test the opinion of the Committee.