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The BBC's Tim Finch
"A long fight for equal rights for gays has been won"
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Conservative MP, Gerald Howarth
"It is utter contempt"
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The BBC's Elaine Lester
"The parliament act was invoked to bring an end to the stalemate between the two chambers"
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Thursday, 30 November, 2000, 20:32 GMT
Gay consent at 16 becomes law

The battle over the age of consent went on for years
A new law allowing the age of consent for homosexuals in Britain to be reduced from 18 to 16 has been forced through Parliament.

Home Secretary Jack Straw must now decide when the new law comes into force under the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act.

According to the Home Office, Mr Straw wants to do so "as soon as possible".

The House of Commons Speaker Michael Martin announced earlier that the government would use special powers to push the measure through Parliament.

The Speaker told MPs that the rarely used Parliament Act had been invoked to get the measure onto the statute book.

It is only the fourth time since World War One that the Parliament Act has been used.

On this occasion it is against the background of bitter opposition from the House of Lords and religious leaders.

For the first time the Act will see gay men and lesbians have the same age of consent as heterosexuals.

The age of consent in Northern Ireland will be 17.

Special powers

Ministers were entitled to use the special powers granted under the Parliament Act after the measure was approved twice in the Commons, but blocked in the Lords.

There are strong moral and health objections to what is proposed

Religious leaders

But Baroness Young, the former Tory minister who has led the Lords campaign against the Bill, said the government's decision was "a constitutional outrage".

"The Commons never had an opportunity to look at the compromises we put up.

"It has never been sent back to MPs. It is a classic example of by-passing parliament," she said.

Lady Young ruled out a legal challenge against the government's use of the Parliament Act, saying that she had been advised against it.

But she pointed to a poll in Tony Blair's Sedgefield constituency which said 70% of Labour supporters were against the government using the Parliament Bill on the issue.

Baroness Young
Baroness Young believes the government is out of step
"This is a piece of legislation driven by Metropolitan, London attitudes and is completely out of step with the rest of the country," she told a news conference.

Religious objections

Earlier, in a letter to The Daily Telegraph, religious leaders pleaded with the government to think again, to "protect young people of both sexes from the most dangerous of sexual practices".

Among the 17 signatories are Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, Cormac Murphy-O'Connor head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Yousof Bhailok, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Great Britain.

Moral objections

The letter says: "There are strong moral and health objections to what is proposed, which also goes against the beliefs of many religious people - Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs.

We do not believe that the dire predictions of the Archbishop and Baroness Young have any basis in reality

"The Bill has been subject to a free vote in both Houses, and should be a matter of conscience. We believe that the Parliament Acts should not be used on this Bill."

Gay rights campaign Stonewall said the religious leaders had "missed the point" about the proposed new law.

"This bill is about the principle of equality and principle of protecting young people," Stonewall spokesman Sebastian Sandys told BBC News Online.

"The Archbishop and his co-signatories cannot cherry-pick the law because they disagree with the House of Commons.

"It is a perfectly proper use of the Parliament Act.

"Most other civilised countries in the world have an equal age of consent and we do not believe that the dire predictions of the Archbishop and Baroness Young have any basis in reality."

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See also:

23 Nov 00 | UK Politics
Gay consent bill to become law
14 Nov 00 | UK Politics
Gay consent voted down by peers
09 Nov 00 | UK Politics
Gay age of consent 'will be lowered'
08 Oct 00 | UK Politics
Widdecombe: Gay lifestyle 'not equal'
25 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Ministers back down on gay ban
26 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Gay ban must go: Blair
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