Comment: The Lords take leave of reality

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THE HOUSE of Lords earlier this week rejected the Government's Bill to lower the homosexual age of consent to 16, in parity with the age of consent for heterosexuals. My first response on hearing this tragically predictable news was that they should all quite simply grow up a bit.

Not homosexuals, of course, who will do so anyway, but the members of House of Lords, whose arguments, on this occasion, displayed a degree of fatuity and ignorance of the real world unrivalled by any school debating society in the land. If the arguments advanced in the House of Lords had no consequences, one would merely be amused by their unworldliness; as it is, it is deplorable that people's lives can be damaged by unelected eccentrics taking their idiotic prejudices for one last outing.

What, exactly, is the problem with this step? The opponents of the Bill argue that it sends "a wrong message" to the country, that it suggests that homosexual and heterosexual orientation are of equal value. I expect it does, and it is difficult to see why this would be such a bad thing. Of course, if one's own sexual orientation were something that could be influenced by government legislation, a government might come to the view that it would prefer to encourage heterosexuality, as it might prefer to encourage, say, cycling in the inner cities. But sexual orientation is not something susceptible to influence of this sort; hardly anyone ever has to make a decision between one thing or the other, or to do more than come to terms with what is there.

The crucial point about a legislation that treats different orientations as equal in value is that it encourages people to think of homosexuality and heterosexuality as equally deserving of respect. Anyone who defends a law which enshrines their conviction that certain classes of people - not just ways of life, but people - are inferior in value to others ought to pause for a moment. They are on the same side as the Ku Klux Klan.

A great deal of guff was spoken about the protection of our children and the rights of parents. Only yesterday, The Daily Telegraph printed a letter that ran, in total: "We have grandsons aged 13, 12, 9 and 7. I thank God on my knees for the present House of Lords." Oh, right. I mean, as if, when you are 16, the preferences of your grandfather are of the slightest interest to you. What if one of those grandsons is by now homosexual? What does he deserve more - a rule of law that protects his grandfather's right to bigotry and hatred, or one that has no interest in passing judgement on a way of life he never had to choose?

The wishes of parents and grandparents are of no importance in the end, and, even if they were, the law could do nothing at all to reinforce them. It is right for the law to tell parents that, at some point, the lives of their children become their own, and that is exactly what the age of consent legislation ought to do.

Some of the arguments advanced by the awful gang led by Lady Young, the voice of every taxi-driver in the country, were almost amusing in their lack of contact with reality. The conviction that 16 was far too young an age for sexual experience was upheld by almost every one of them. Well, I know they're getting on a bit, but the idea that 16-year-old boys are innocent in any way is extraordinary. Have these people never seen a class of 16-year-olds? Do they really suppose that the law has the slightest power to prevent them from doing to each other exactly what they want to do?

And it's right, really, that they should be allowed to. If no one were permitted to have a sexual relationship until they were mature enough to do so, most people would have to wait a very long time. At some point, the law has to admit that people should have the freedom to behave as they want to. If it prefers to strike a pose - to say, as it did until a couple of years ago, that 20-year-old men must not have sex with each other - it will not achieve its aim; it will simply inculcate a wide-ranging contempt for the rule of law in a generation of people.

It is really difficult to think of anything more irresponsible than the behaviour of the Lords over this. Of course, they are doing it because they are demob-happy, and know that the Government is going to push the legislation through anyway. But, before evoking their power to throw out a Bill, they should have reflected that, in producing defences of bigotry and hatred, they gave some licence to the queer-bashers and bigots who, at present, see nothing wrong in homophobia.

The protection of the right to sexual expression is not a trivial issue. Behaving as if it were, the House of Lords has blithely damaged a few more lives when it had the chance to put an important measure of protection and caution in place.