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Wednesday, November 17, 1999 Published at 15:53 GMT

UK Politics

Gay age of consent bill returns

Gay rights campaigners have long sought the change

Legislation to reduce the homosexual age of consent to 16 is among the plans set out in the Queen's Speech for the forthcoming parliamentary session.

Gay rights campaigns scored a second victory with the government confirming its intention to scrap Clause 28, which forbids local authorities from promoting homosexuality.

Stonewall hailed the government's promises as "finally delivering on its promises" to homosexuals.

It said: "An unequal age of consent denied young gay men access to advice and information they need at a very vulnerable time of their life. It can never be argued that making them criminals protects them."

The Queen told Parliament: "The bill to equalise the age of consent and strengthen the protection of young people from abuse of trust will be reintroduced."

The Queen's Speech
Her remarks in the House of Lords alluded to a long battle between the European Commission and the majority of the House of Commons on one side and the bulk of peers who have for years opposed the change.

The reintroduction of a bill to make the law equal for gays and heterosexuals was promised after the House of Lords last year defeated the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill.

The European Commission in 1997 found the age disparity between homosexuals and heterosexual ages of consent to be a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The case would have proceeded to the European Court if the government had not promised to change the law.

[ image: Ministers are promising to force the bill through Parliament]
Ministers are promising to force the bill through Parliament
But the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill was rejected earlier this year by peers led by Baroness Young, who had previously marshalled opposition to Ann Keen's amendment to the 1998 Crime and Disorder Bill, which was the first attempt to make the change in the law.

This time ministers will force it through even if this requires invoking the Parliament Act. MPs in the House of Commons will receive a free vote on the change.

Alongside the consent age equalisation, the bill would change the law so that a person under the age of consent would no longer commit an offence if they engaged in homosexual acts with a person over the age of consent - in line with the law for heterosexuals.

Alongside these changes, measures to protect teenagers from sexual relationships based on an abuse of power are again be included in the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill.

A new offence of sex between and 16 or 17 year old and an adult in a position of trust, such as a teacher or care worker, would be created.

The National Association of Head Teachers immediately objected to the move, saying such relationships may be "extremely stupid but certainly not criminal" and were already treated as serious disciplinary matters by headteachers.

The repeal of Clause 28 will come under the Local Government Act. The executive director of Stonewall, Angela Mason, said it was a "big test as far as the lesbian and gay community are concerned".

"Section 28 was always based on a lie. Nobody has ever sought to promote homosexuality - it can't be done."

But Peter Tatchell of OutRage! said the government should go further.

"The bill repealing Section 28 must be amended to place a legal obligation on all schools to combat homophobic bullying, provide factual information about homophobic issues and ensure the welfare of gay students."

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