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Wednesday, 29 November, 2000, 17:02 GMT
Q and A: The age of consent
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The Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill is entering law in the UK. It cuts the age "at which a person, whether male or female, may lawfully consent to a homosexual relationship." Find out more about this historic legislation.

What has changed?

The law means that for the first time in British legal history, the age of consent for heterosexual and homosexual men and women is now 16 in England, Wales and Scotland and 17 in Northern Ireland - equalising the age for all.

Until now, the age of consent for homosexual men was 18 while there was no statutory age of consent for lesbian sex.

The second change means that a person under the age of consent will not commit an offence if they have a homosexual relationship with someone over the age of consent.

The final change (see below) introduces a new offence against adults "in positions of trust".

Why has the UK had different ages of consent?

Until the reign of Queen Victoria, gay sex was punishable by death.

Age of consent (heterosexual and homosexual)
France: 15
Germany: 16
Ireland: 16
Italy: 14
Portugal: 14/16
Source: Stonewall
Although the threat of hanging was removed, the law against homosexuality was strengthened. In the 1950s, a Home Office-sponsored report recommended an age of consent of 21.

But it was not until the government of Harold Wilson in 1967 that homosexuality was legalised at 21.

Scotland and Northern Ireland only came into line with the 1967 legislation in 1980 and 1982 respectively.

In 1979, a Home Office group recommended lowering the age to 18 because that was the point when "society deems a young man to be an adult and responsible". Nothing happened.

So how did the age of consent get lowered to 18?

Fifteen years later, Conservative MP Edwina Currie brought forward an amendment to a Bill to equalise the age of consent at 16.

Large numbers of Labour MPs supported Ms Currie, including the then shadow home secretary, Tony Blair.

Outlining the position of the pro-16 camp, Mr Blair said "People are entitled to think that homosexuality is wrong, but they are not entitled to use the criminal law to force that view upon others.

"A society that has learned, over time, racial and sexual equality can surely come to terms with equality of sexuality." The move failed but a compromise amendment of 18 was accepted.

What happened to bring it back on to the agenda?

Many sympathetic MPs vowed to bring the issue back as soon as they could.

But the catalyst for action was the European Court of Human Rights. In May 1996 it began hearing a case alleging that the different ages of consent breached human rights.

In 1997, the case was suspended after the new Labour home secretary, Jack Straw, said that the government would do everything possible to change the law.

So what happened next?

Labour MP Ann Keen introduced an age of consent amendment to the Crime and Disorder Bill.

It sailed through a free vote in the Commons with a majority of 207 MPs.

But in July 1998, the Lords threw it out with a majority of 168. Amid bitter exchanges, the amendment's opponents insisted that they were not anti-gay, but seeking to protect children.

Jack Straw dropped the amendment, fearing that the government would lose the entire Bill, a major part of its legislative programme.

And the opponents?

Led by the former Conservative minister Baroness Young, they pledged to scupper future attempts to amend the law.

But Mr Straw reintroduced the measure as the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill in the 1998-99 parliamentary session. The Lords defeated it for a second time in April 1999.

Supporters of the legislation said that the second defeat hit particularly hard, coming only months after the Soho pub bombing aimed at the gay community.

The government reintroduced the legislation again in the 1999 session, threatening to enact the Bill regardless of the opinion of the Lords.

How can they do that?

If the Lords refuse to agree to a Bill that has already been approved by the Commons, the government can pass the Bill into law, after a delay of one year, using the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949. These restrict the power of the House of Lords to block the will of the government.

The no-lobby peers ignored threats to use the Parliament Act and threw out the legislation for a third and final time in November 200, claiming that they had public opinion on their side.

With legislative time running out, the Home Secretary used the Parliament Act on Wednesday 28 November.

Couldn't this have been settled less dramatically?

Apparently not. Baroness Young and her supporters regarded the issue as a battle for the defence of family values.

One of the key objections raised in 1998 was that lowering the age of consent would leave 16-year-olds prey to older men.

Campaigners attacked this as an attempt to equate homosexuality with paedophilia. The government sought to neuter this argument by introducing the "abuse of trust" element into the legislation.

How does this work?

If someone is in a position of trust towards a person aged between 16 and 18, for instance a teacher, they are not allowed to have a sexual relationship with the younger party.

In line with other sex offences someone (over 20) convicted of such an offence will be placed on the national register, and could also be subject to a jail sentence.

Are there other sexual equality issues on the political agenda?

Yes. The row over "Section 28", legislation preventing local authorities promoting homosexuality, continues. It's been defeated in the Lords but Labour says it's "unfinished business".

Campaigners also regard the Human Rights Act, incorporated into UK law in October, as a welcome opportunity to test alleged inequality cases before the domestic courts.

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