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Wednesday, July 22, 1998 Published at 22:47 GMT 23:47 UK

UK Politics

Peers attack 'immoral' age of consent

Seeing pink: Gay rights groups protested outside parliament

Peers crammed into the House of Lords to hear opponents of the move to lower the age of consent attack the legislation as "immoral" and a threat to young vulnerable people.

Jeremy Vine in Lewes - home of one of the UK's largest gay communities
Police mounted extra security precautions as peers arrived for the crucial debate, with fears that those opposed to the legislation, passed overwhelmingly by MPs, would be attacked by gay rights protesters.

[ image: Vote: Overturned MPs majority]
Vote: Overturned MPs majority
Officers removed some protesters from outside parliament who had chained themselves to railings.

Opening the debate, former Conservative minister Lady Young said that she had "overwhelming support" in the country to oppose lowering the age of consent for homosexual relationships to 16.

She said that MPs had been "seriously flawed" to attempt to change the law.

"It is clearly not wanted by the public at large, many of whom are quite fearful about what is happening to society," said Lady Young.

"Homosexual practises carry great health risks to young people.

[ image: Baroness Young:
Baroness Young: "letters of support"
She said that the Government had admitted the legislation posed dangers to children in remand homes or under supervision of older adults.

But Labour's Baroness Mallalieu said equalising the age of consent would protect young men who are currently driven into secrecy and isolation.

"The lowering of the age of consent will encourage young men between 16 and 18 to come back to seek advice and guidance about health," said Baroness Mallalieu.

"The present law effectively puts a section of the community, young gay men, beyond the law.

Peers vote against lowering the age of consent
"And far from protecting them, it denies them the protection which the rest of us enjoy."

She said that rather than preventing homosexuality, leaving the law unchanged would leave gay men criminalised.

And she stressed: "A new generation today has a very different attitude towards homosexuality from ours.

[ image: Baoness Mallilieu:
Baoness Mallilieu: "Peers will criminalise the young"
"It is no longer seen as a matter of choice any more than being right or left-handed is a matter of choice.

"A cold shower, a good beating or a spot of hard labour will no longer be seen as the answer."

The Bishop of Winchester, the Rt. Rev Michael Scott-Joynt said lowering the age of consent would undermine marriage and encourage people to indulge in a "sexual supermarket".

He said: "Christian faith teaches that sex is a gift from God for the enriching of our lives within the context of marriage.

"It ought not be treated casually and outside a strong framework of moral values."

Protesters vent fury

Baroness Young needed a police escort from the House of Lords after the result, a 168 majority against the legislation, as gay rights campaigners tried to approach her.

[ image: Protesters: Some chained themselves to railings]
Protesters: Some chained themselves to railings
But speaking on BBC Two's Newsnight, she said that she would push for increasing the age of consent for all relationships if she had the opportunity.

She said: "I am not against anybody, but I am for young people.

"If it perfectly possible that when the age of consent is reduced that it sends a sign that this sort of behaviour is perfectly normal."

Reacting to the decision, gay rights protesters shouted "shame" as the peers left the House of Lords.

Peter Tatchell of Outrage! described the result as a "disgrace" while Baroness Mallilieu said she was "disappointed but not surprised".

Actor and gay rights campaigner Michael Cashman said: "It's quite clear that we won the argument but they won the debate.

"It's very sad when the rights of any minority are neglected in a democracy - it devalues that democracy."

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