Committee (2nd Day) (Continued)

Part of Criminal Justice and Courts Bill – in the House of Lords at 7:45 pm on 21st July 2014.

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Photo of Lord Sharkey Lord Sharkey Liberal Democrat 7:45 pm, 21st July 2014

My Lords, next Wednesday night there will be a late second promenade concert at the Royal Albert Hall. There will be only one work in this prom: “A Man from the Future” by the Pet Shop Boys, who I am sure are familiar to all your Lordships. The piece is based on the life of Alan Turing and is an orchestral biography for electronics, orchestra, choir and narrator.

The piece as it will be performed is different from its final draft, because after the final draft was completed Alan Turing was granted a posthumous royal pardon. This pardon, for homosexual acts that would not now be illegal, left some with mixed feelings. Andrew Hodges, Turing’s biographer, on whose work much of the libretto is based, said about the pardon:

“I don’t think it’s right in principle to make an exception for one person on the grounds of what they did for the State. It should be for everyone who was in that situation”.

Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe—the Pet Shop Boys, as your Lordships will know—will explicitly address this contradiction in the finale of Wednesday’s performance. They say:

“We had to rewrite the ending to point out that the convictions of tens of thousands of other men remain and that hasn’t been discussed”.

They are right to raise this issue. Under the dreadful Labouchère amendment of 1885 and other equally dreadful laws, 75,000 men were convicted of homosexual acts. These laws were eventually repealed in the 1960s.

In 2012 this Government did something to put right this injustice. We passed the Protection of Freedoms Act, which allowed all those convicted under those old statutes to apply to have their convictions disregarded. This would happen if it could be demonstrated that the acts for which they were convicted would not now be illegal. Of the 75,000 men convicted under the now-repealed Acts, 16,000 were still alive and could now apply to have their convictions disregarded. This provides real help and comfort for them, their families, relatives, friends and loved ones, and helps to put right a serious and enduring historical injustice.

However, this still leaves the 59,000 men similarly convicted but now dead. In March 2012 I tried to do something about this. I tried to amend the Protection of Freedoms Act, via the LASPO Bill that was then before us. I wanted to extend the right to have a conviction disregarded to apply to those 59,000 men. I wanted friends, relatives or supporters to be able to apply for a disregard posthumously on their behalf. I said then that I believed that this simple extension was fair and right in principle. I wanted equality of treatment for all those convicted under the cruel Labouchère amendment and other laws, whether alive or dead. I believed then, as I still do, that this would go some way towards making amends to the many thousands of men who were cruelly and unjustly persecuted simply for being gay.

The Government were not persuaded. The Minister said in reply:

“I do not believe that the provisions for disregarding convictions, which are concerned with the practical consequences of conviction, are an appropriate means of putting right the wrongs done to people who are no longer alive to suffer those consequences. As my noble friend himself points out, the numbers involved are potentially very large”.—[Hansard, 20/3/12; col. 876.]

This seems to be very mean-spirited and wholly legalistic. It entirely fails to take into account the feelings of friends, relatives and supporters of those convicted but now dead. It fails entirely to acknowledge a moral duty to help put right a serious injustice. It also devalues the disregard for those convicted and still alive. The purpose of the disregard is not just to help with the practical consequences; it is also to publicly acknowledge a very grave injustice.

The last sentence of the Minister’s response seemed to imply a worry about being overwhelmed by applications for a disregard. I thought that very unlikely. Now there is some concrete evidence to show exactly how unlikely it is. The Protection of Freedoms Act was commenced in October 2012. In a Written Answer of last Thursday, my noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach gave the latest figures for application for disregard. There are 16,000 men who may apply. Since the Act commenced, in total 147 have applied. Of these, 13 applied in the last three months. This is not an avalanche. The MoJ has confirmed to me that it is not able to put a cost on processing these applications because they have been dealt with within existing resources.

In conversations I had with the Minister and his officials in 2012, the MoJ raised another objection to the idea of a posthumous disregard. It was concerned that many of the posthumous cases might be so old that there would be no safe way of demonstrating that the conviction in question involved consensual and over-age sex. This did not seem to me at the time to be a valid argument and it still does not. The essence of the application process is that the applicant must supply evidence to convince the Secretary of State that the historical offence would not now be an offence at all. That applies to the living. It would also apply to applications on behalf of the dead.

Our amendment simply sets out to give equal treatment to all those gay men convicted under the cruel and homophobic Labouchère amendment and other Acts. It sets out to treat the dead and the living equally. It would bring closure to an extremely unhappy period in our criminal law. It would give comfort to the relatives, friends and supporters of those gay men convicted but now dead. It would help to put right a serious historical injustice.

I hope that this is an uncontroversial measure and that my noble friend will now take a sympathetic view. It would be very good to be able to attend Wednesday’s prom in the knowledge that we had been able to bring a satisfactory end to this long-running injustice.