Tuesday, June 23, 1998 Published at 00:26 GMT 01:26 UK
Gay sex age cut welcomed
MPs packed into the House for the free vote
Gay rights campaigners are celebrating after MPs reduced the homosexual age of consent to 16.
A free vote on the amendment to the Crime and Disorder Bill, which cuts the age of consent from 18, was backed by 336 MPs, and opposed by 129, a majority of 207.
Their applause was echoed outside the House where campaigners had gathered. One man said: "We hope that now MPs will move forward, having established the principle of equality, to get rid of all other homophobic laws."
"We can't stop here, we can't get complacent," said a woman. "We've got section 28, a ban on gay marriage, problems with adoption and fostering, we've got to work hard, but this is very, very good news."
Peter Tatchell, from the gay campaigning group Outrage!, claimed the vote was the first step in an ongoing process. "This decision is an historic milestone in the struggle for lesbian and gay human rights."
"As it stands, the law does not protect young gay men against exploitation. It creates fear and secrecy, not openness and support.
"The higher age of consent for young gay men adds to their worries. The threat of criminal prosecution serves only to add to their sense of isolation and loneliness. How dare we rob young men of their teenage years, denying them years they should use to prepare for adulthood?" she said.
He said the protection of children should be MPs' most urgent consideration, but there would nothing wrong if a teacher and a younger partner were at different schools.
Home Office Minister Alun Michael said the government could not back the amendment on the basis that it was badly drafted and would prevent, for example, a 16 year old girl from having sex with a 24-year-old teacher she had married.
However he did promise that a working party would look urgently at the protection of young people in institutional care.
Strong opposition to lowering the age of consent came from many Tory MPs. Sir Patrick Cormack caused outrage in the Commons when he claimed a campaign for gay sex to be legalised at 16 could actually seek to "promote homosexuality."
Sir Patrick, a devout Christian, said homosexuals were "not only different" from heterosexuals but should not be regarded "as equal or equivalent."
He caused further anger and shouts from Labour backbenchers of "disgraceful", when he said: "Would anybody seriously suggest that every sailor who followed this way of life was actually born a homosexual? No."
On the question of whether peers would challenge the amendment in the Lords, he said: "I think it will be close in the Lords, but I think they would be crazy to try to overturn it."
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