HOMOSEXUAL AGE OF CONSENT – 10 February 2000

Dr Julian Lewis: Once again, Mr Deputy Speaker, I found myself quite rightly corrected by you earlier for making an over-long intervention. I trust that I shall not be corrected now for making too short a speech, because I intend to make simply the point that I tried to make in that intervention and one other.

I did not intend to speak, because I made two substantial speeches in our previous debates. They are on the record, and can be found on my website – www.julianlewis.net – for the edification of my constituents and anyone else who wants to know my views.

The argument about the need to decriminalise people who are currently below an age of consent would, if carried to its logical conclusion, undermine the very concept of any age of consent. Yet, as societies have become more civilised, they have taken greater care of their children, raising ages of consent rather than lowering them. The first age of consent in this country was 12. It was later raised to 13, then to 16. At any one of those stages, it could have been argued that it was wrong to pitch the age of consent so high, because it would criminalise those who were below that age.

As I have said before – it remains as true as it was – the purpose of an age of consent is not to criminalise those below that age, but to protect them from being seduced by people above that age. That is the concept on which the age of consent is based. It is thus fatuous to say that the age of consent must be reduced in order to decriminalise those below it, because those people are never prosecuted in any case.

My second and final point is the one that I unavailingly tried – not once, but twice – to put to the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr Harris) during his speech. I was surprised to hear him say that I had not advocated that the age of consent should be equalised. The hon. Gentleman attended a sitting of the Standing Committee for the previous version of the Bill at which I argued that, if equality was the prime issue, there was a stronger argument for equalisation at 18 than at 16. [See: Age of Consent (Committee Stage) – 10 February 1999, under COMMONS SPEECHES on this website.] The reason for that is medical – as I started to explain earlier. I maintain that the argument is not about morality, but about health.

I could not attend the whole of today's debate because I had to move an amendment in Committee on another Bill; but, on this and other occasions, I have never heard a refutation of the medical fact that HIV most frequently results from penetrative, anal sex – whether between two males or between a male and a female.

Ms Ward: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that health issues are not age-related, but are the same whether one is 16, 17, 18 or 80?

Dr Lewis: I am delighted that I gave way to the hon. Lady because her point brings me to what my brief contribution is primarily about – the difference between an adult and a child. Someone aged 16 or 17 is not an adult and is not recognised as an adult. Those Members who argue that such people are adults, when it comes to the risk of contracting HIV through unprotected anal sex with people who really are adults, are the same Members who argue that 16 or 17-year-olds should not be allowed to be put in harm's way in the armed forces. As usual, such opponents want it both ways.

Mr Shaun Woodward: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. There is a serious misunderstanding. HIV and AIDS do not know the barriers of sexuality. The problem with HIV and AIDS is that millions of women and small children will die – not because they are homosexual, but because HIV is a virus that spreads through penetrative sex. It is wholly unfair and irresponsible of the hon. Gentleman not to recognise those problems in Africa.

Dr Lewis: In forgetting which party he was elected to represent, the hon. Gentleman has also forgotten the content of a debate in which we both participated some months ago. It was explained then that the circumstances appertaining in Africa to resistance to the HIV virus did not apply in this country. The hard medical fact in Britain – it is only for Britons that we legislate at present – is that, if one has unprotected anal sex with a man, whether one is a man, a boy or a woman, one is at much greater risk of contracting AIDS than one would otherwise be.

Mr Gerald Howarth: I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Unfortunately, the turncoat hon. Member for Witney (Mr Woodward) was not in the Chamber when my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs Gorman) mentioned that the chief executive of the Public Health Laboratory Service said that gay men still remain the single largest group at risk of acquiring HIV. Is that not game, set and match?

Dr Lewis: I believe that, in terms of what has been recognised by the medical authorities in this country, it is beyond doubt, beyond question, beyond a scintilla of the slightest hesitation, that the people most at risk in this country, for whom we are legislating, are the people who engage in unprotected anal sex.

Kali Mountford: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr Lewis: No, I will not. I must conclude my remarks.

As a result of that increased risk, the logic of what is being proposed today is that people who are recognised as being under the age of majority – under the age of 18, under the age at which this society recognises that people have the responsibility to take life-and-death decisions for themselves – are being exposed to a greater risk of catching a deadly disease.

Mr Fabricant: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Dr Lewis: No, I am not giving way. I am concluding my remarks.

That was my position in the first debate on this issue and that was my position in Committee in that first argument about this issue. Nothing that I have heard this afternoon has encouraged me to alter that position in the slightest degree.

* * *

[NOTE: The short speech above was made as a result of the following earlier exchanges –

Dr Julian Lewis: Before the hon. Gentleman [Liberal Democrat MP, Evan Harris] concludes his remarks, I should be very grateful if he would again address himself to the point that perhaps I did not make clearly enough in my earlier intervention. HIV results from unprotected anal sex, whether between males and males or males and females. Unprotected sex occurs more frequently between homosexual males than between straight couples and of course between gay women. The Bill legalises homosexual relations –

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Michael J. Martin): Order. The intervention is far too long.

Dr Harris: The hon. Gentleman's intervention was far too long and far too incoherent. The point of health education is to ensure that sexual activity is safe, not of a specific nature. The hon. Gentleman does not have to do anything if he does not want to, but he should not criticise others whom we consider to be adults for having consenting sexual relations.

Dr Lewis rose

Dr Harris: I shall not give way again, because the hon. Gentleman wants to make an argument that has already been answered by all the medical organisations that can be cited.

Dr Lewis: Sixteen and 17-year-olds are children.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. I have already told the hon. Gentleman that he had finished speaking. That is the end of the matter.

Dr Harris: The council of the British Medical Association, which is relatively conservative, voted unanimously that the reduction in the age of consent from 18 to 16 was a necessary step to improve health education and provide information about how people can protect themselves when engaging in sexual activity. The same applies to heterosexuals. That argument was made forcefully by the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr Bercow) and I wish that the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr Lewis) would take it on board.

Ms Ward: The hon. Member for New Forest, East seemed to suggest that 16 and 17-year-olds were not capable of making the decision. They are capable of deciding to join the armed forces and go on the front line for their country if necessary. Surely they are able to determine their sexuality.

Dr Harris: The hon. Lady is right. Sixteen and 17-year-old girls are capable of giving consent to having sexual relations with the hon. Member for New Forest, East. I have never seen an amendment tabled by him to raise the age of consent to 18. Until he tables such an amendment his arguments will be prejudicial because he is selecting one group for criminalisation.

Dr Lewis rose

Dr Harris: The hon. Gentleman has had his say.

Dr Lewis: I was cut off from having my say.

Dr Harris: He will have an opportunity.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman was not cut off from having his say. Interventions should be brief. That is what I was trying to point out to him.]