Last edited: February 14, 2005

Gay Campaigners Celebrate Legal Milestone

Government uses Parliament Act to push through sex at 16 legislation despite last-ditch protests

The Guardian, December 1, 2000
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By Sarah Hall

Gay 16-year-olds will be able to have sex without fear of prosecution for the first time after controversial plans to lower the homosexual age of consent from 18 to 16 were finally pushed through Parliament yesterday.

Despite a last-ditch attack by religious leaders, family values campaigners and Tory MPs, the government used the rarely-invoked Parliament Act to put the sexual offences (amendment) bill on to the statute books after it was consistently rejected by the Lords.

The move — which will see the measures become law after being given royal assent before December 6 — was acclaimed by gay rights groups celebrating the 100th anniversary of the death of Oscar Wilde as "a great step towards equality.

"When the history books come to be written, I believe it will be seen as the moment when this country finally began to change, when lesbians and gay men started to take our place as equal members of society," said Angela Mason, executive director of Stonewall.

"This is a welcome and historic milestone in the long struggle for gay human rights," said OutRage!’s Peter Tatchell. "My only regret is that it has taken 33 years, during which time hundreds of gay men have been unjustly jailed for victimless relationships."

Yesterday’s decision to invoke the Parliament Act — only used twice in the last 10 years — means that men and women will legally be able to have anal sex at 16. Before, buggery between 16 and 18, even if consensual, could invoke a five-year prison sentence.

The Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act also creates a new offence of "abuse of trust", ensuring teachers and workers in children’s homes, hospitals and care homes can be jailed for up to five years if they sexually abuse a child in their care, although critics have argued too few adults in positions of trust are covered.

The reduction of the age of consent — while voted through with three massive majorities in the Commons — provoked fierce opposition on moral and health grounds, with religious leaders yesterday writing a protest letter to the Daily Telegraph, and peers twice throwing it out of the Lords.

Yesterday the family values campaigner Lady Young, who has spearheaded the opposition, accused the government of treating Parliament in "a completely dictatorial manner" by ignoring the views of peers and denying MPs the chance to debate an amendment approved by peers to keep the law for anal sex for both men and women at 18 but lower the age for other sexual practices to 16. She added that it was "constitutionally quite wrong" to invoke the Parliament Act for a bill which had not completed all its stages in both houses, and which was not a central piece of government legislation but "a matter of conscience".

A spokesman for the staunchly Catholic Commons Speaker Michael Martin — who, as the servant of the house, has no discretion over whether to invoke the act — insisted: "Everything that has happened was absolutely in order."

The Parliament Act allows the government to present a bill for royal assent if it has been rejected in the Lords in one parliamentary session and has not been approved by peers by the end of the second session.

The decision to force through the act came as MPs ended their longest parliamentary session since the 1930s. Sessions typically end in mid to late November, with the Queen’s speech on November 24 last year.

The reason for the late date of December 6 is the number of bills held up by defeats in the Lords. The Independent, 1 December 2000 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL England (E-Mail: ) ( ) html Editorial: Now let’s have real equality for lesbians and gay men

A mere two and a half years after MPs voted to equalise the age of consent for homosexual men at 16, Tony Blair has used the Parliament Act to overcome the House of Lords to put the measure on the statute book. This modest Bill to remove one element of discrimination has provoked a furious reaction €" which speaks volumes for the sexual obsessions of its opponents.

However, Mr Blair should learn from his recent experience of confronting the demons of Eurosceptic prejudice and have the courage to take decisions that may seem unpopular but are right.

It is shocking, for example, that lesbians and gay men should have no legal protection against being sacked for being gay. Anti-gay prejudice may be rife, but Mr Blair should trust to the greater strength of the belief in fair play. That will eventually overcome the prejudice, but speeding up that process demands leadership.

This requires a simple law against unfair discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. The 1950 European Convention on Human Rights offers only ambiguous protection to homosexuals. A clearer law would give gay partners pension rights, tenancy rights and rights to inheritance. But the Government resists this, because legal recognition of gay partnerships would be condemned by reactionaries as "gay marriage". This is not a shadow which should make ministers jump. Many homosexuals would like the public affirmation of marriage; why should they not have it?

The emotive issue is that of child-rearing, but it has to be recognised that the only good argument against gay couples raising children is the pressure on the children of popular prejudice. But many children face prejudice, and gay couples must by definition be unusually determined and committed parents. Equally, though, more needs to be done in schools to ensure that homosexuality is not used as a term of abuse and as an excuse for bullying, as the tragic case of Damilola Taylor demonstrated so painfully.

Mr Blair should take heart from doing the right thing yesterday, and press on with securing full equality for homosexual men and women.

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