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Tuesday, April 13, 1999 Published at 04:21 GMT 05:21 UK

UK Politics

Peers prepare for gay consent clash

The issue of gay rights has provoked angry protests

Pressure is being stepped up on the House of Lords not to block a law lowering the age of homosexual consent for the second time.

Sadaf Maruf reports: "We're not talking about sex, we're talking about equality"
Five leading health organisations have joined in pleas to peers not to throw out the government's Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill when it is debated in the Lords on Tuesday.

The gay rights group Stonewall has also presented Parliament with a 30,000-signature petition, urging the Lords to pass the Bill which would cut the age of consent for male homosexuals to 16.

Another gay rights group, OutRage!, is planning a candle-lit vigil outside Parliament during the vote.

A full-page newspaper advert in The Times newspaper has also been scheduled to coincide with the debate, and will claim that opponents of equality are becoming isolated.

Current law 'discriminatory'

Lady Young of Old Scone: "We are in violation of the Human Rights Convention"
In a joint statement, the health organisations - the National Aids Trust, the Family Planning Association; Brook Advisory Centres; the Sex Education Forum and the Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health - said the present legal position was unfair and unhealthy.

"The current unequal age of consent is fundamentally discriminatory. Young gay men are criminalised for having sex when they are over the age of 16," they said.

"Their heterosexual peers are legally able to have sex once they are 16.

"This discrimination marginalises young gay men at a critical time in their physical and emotional development.

"As a result, many young gay men experience low self esteem and are not able to ask for help and safer sex advice."

Opponents resolute

However, the former Conservative Leader of the Lords Baroness Young remains resolute in her campaign to stop the Bill.

[ image: Lady Young says teenagers will suffer if 16 becomes law]
Lady Young says teenagers will suffer if 16 becomes law
She will be urging peers to throw the bill out as she argues it will put some vulnerable young men at risk.

Speaking for Stonewall, Angela Mason said: "Last July Baroness Young justified her opposition quoting the number of people who had written to her.

"Now 30,000 people across Britain are asking her to reconsider and listen to public opinion, to the experts and the will of the elected House," she said.

Baroness Young: "It sends out a very bad signal to young people"
The Lords do not habitually defy the will of the government but as the bill did not form part of Labour's manifesto some peers could feel free to reject it.

The bill is being debated on a free vote. If it is defeated, the government could invoke the rarely-used Parliament Act to force it through.

'Thin end of the wedge'

Lady Young said: "I never speculate on the level of support I may get and this is a more difficult time as many peers are still away on holiday, but the important thing is that I am doing this in the interests of young people.

"This is the thin end of the wedge. If the age of consent is lowered to 16 it won't be long before someone is calling for it to be 14."

Lady Young has decided to invoke a rarely used parliamentary procedure to have only a vote and no debate on the bill.

Ms Mason said: "It is incredible that Baroness Young would move to kill this bill without any debate and sacrifice the new proposals which protect all young people simply to deny young gay men an equal age of consent.

"Baroness Young and the Christian Institute are determined to ignore not only the will of elected MPs but also all those who are involved in the welfare of young people," she said.

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Gay consent clears Commons

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