HOMOSEXUAL AGE OF CONSENT – 25 January 1999

Dr Julian Lewis: Comparing the atmosphere in the Chamber today with the atmosphere on 22 June 1998 when we debated this matter for the first time, is like replaying a football match after one already knows the final score. However, because of some of the remarks made by those in favour of the Bill, who have termed those of us who will vote against it tonight as "deeply prejudiced" – "prejudice based on fear" is a phrase that has been used again and again – I must say for the record that I can well remember being deeply impressed many years ago by a film called "Victim" which starred Dirk Bogarde and which showed how outrageous, monstrous and unfair it is for people to be open to blackmail, public humiliation and the destruction of their professional career because they happen to be homosexual.

For me, this debate is not primarily about homosexuality. I am just as concerned about the effect of the measures on heterosexual girls as on homosexual boys aged 16 and 17. My hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr Woodward), in a long and articulate speech, observed that predators are predators, and victims are victims. I add that adults are adults, and children are children. I am concerned about ages of consent, the protection of children and the transmission of disease.

I mentioned the debate last year. I remember how struck I was with the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr Butterfill), who pointed out that the effect of the measure then proposed, which is proposed again tonight, would be to legitimate the act of buggery or anal sex, not only between adults and male children of 16 and 17 but between adults and female children of 16 and 17.

We have heard much about criminalisation. Several hon. Members have generously let me intervene when time was less pressing than it is now to put this point: how can one argue against retaining the age of consent at 18 without saying that the same arguments apply to any other age of consent that one cares to name? I am talking about the ratchet that will lead us inevitably from 16 to 15 to 14 and to other ages that campaigning groups have in mind.

Mr Dawson: I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about reducing the age of consent below 16. Surely an equal age of consent at 16 is an excellent way to add credibility to that limit and avoid a flaw in the system that unscrupulous people can exploit? Many other laws, such as those relating to marriage and to the age at which children leave home and finish full-time education, coalesce at 16, making that age more effective. This is a child protection issue above all.

Dr Lewis: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention but not for its length at this late hour. I would like to give way to other hon. Members. If I do, I hope that they will keep their interventions briefer. It is the essence of my case that the Bill legitimises a dangerous physical activity that will increase radically the prospects of children – boys and girls of 16 and 17 – contracting fatal diseases. I shall come on to that presently.

Returning to ages of consent, I have the Library research paper prepared for the debate on Edwina Currie's Bill in 1994. I will read a short paragraph into the record. It states:

"The history of the age of consent for girls shows that 16 is a relatively high age compared to previous centuries. For over 700 years the criminal law has by statute prohibited men from having unlawful sexual intercourse with girls below a certain age. Originally, in 1275, the age was 12 and it was not changed until 1875 when the Offences Against the Person Act raised it to 13. In 1885" –

only 10 years later –

"the Criminal Law Amendment Act raised the age again – this time to the present age of 16. The 1885 legislation was enacted after a campaign aimed at eliminating child prostitution and the sexual exploitation of young girls. It was also the legislation which introduced the offence of gross indecency between men."

I contend that the purpose of ages of consent is not to criminalise the people below them but to criminalise the people above them and stop them preying on the people below them. The record of civilised societies is that as they advance, the age of consent is raised to afford greater protection, not lowered to afford less. If the argument for equality is so overwhelming to hon. Members who will vote the other way, if they are so desperate for equality, they could consider the state of society and teenage pregnancies and examine raising the age for heterosexual consent to the same as that for homosexual consent.

Mr Gordon Marsden: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr Lewis: No, I shall not give way again.

Let us move on to the question of the protection of children. We are dealing with one of the two activities that appear, in this country, to be primarily responsible for the transmission of the HIV virus and AIDS: the sharing of needles and anal sex. It is interesting to note that, for all the reams of argument advanced by those who will vote for the Bill, not one has given, or even attempted to give, a convincing argument – or any argument – to explain why the incidence of HIV and AIDS in this country is so much higher among people who engage in anal sex than among those who do not.

It was intriguing to hear the arguments in respect of Africa – a continent for which we are not currently legislating. It was said that, in Africa, transmission of the HIV virus is effected primarily through heterosexual sex. I do not know whether that is so, but even if it is, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) shot down that argument by explaining, very lucidly, that heterosexual sex in that community is far more likely to spread AIDS because resistance is weakened by the presence of so many other rampant sexually transmitted diseases. If we were conducting the debate in that context, the hon. Gentleman's argument would be irresistible. However, we are not debating in that context, because, in this country, people's resistance is not weakened by rampant STDs; therefore, we do not have to consider that argument here.

Even if in such countries the practice of heterosexual straight sex transmitted AIDS easily, in this country and in our circumstances, manifestly it would not and manifestly it does not. It does not help to have people such as the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr Harris) regale the House with a long list of profound bodies that are all in favour of the Bill when he, as a practising doctor, cannot come here and tell us why the prevalence of transmission of HIV/AIDS is so much higher among the homosexual community in Britain than it is among the female or male/female communities, unless it is because of the indulgence by members of our male homosexual community in the practice of anal sex. Hon. Members going into the Lobby tonight to vote in favour of the Bill should congratulate themselves while they can. They will not be thanked when the victims of the legislation receive their death sentence diagnoses in a decade's time.

The clause dealing with the abuse of trust offence has already been criticised for its inevitable anomalies by responsible bodies such as the National Association of Head Teachers. We recognise that a person set in authority over a child – I repeat, a child – of 16 or 17 is in a position to exercise undue influence on that child, but what about what may be termed "personality power"? If children of 16 and 17 need to be protected from people who exercise too much power because of a position of authority, what about the need to protect them from people who exercise too much power because of their greater age, their forcefulness and their personality? In other words, should we be making these provisions at all? The clause has been tacked on, like a piece of elastoplast slapped on in an attempt to cover up a dangerous wound.

Looking at this mish-mash, I was tempted to describe the Bill as a dog's breakfast; but, having listened to the arguments, some of them – perhaps all of them – sincere, I realise that that description is both inadequate and inaccurate. The Bill is not to be likened to something that goes into the front end of an animal, but to that which comes out at the rear.