Leading article: Give homosexuals full rights, not just equality

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
MPS ARE certain to vote next week to equalise the age of consent at 16 for homosexual men. In the debate there are only two arguments against this measure that should be given any house room. The first is that the age of consent for everyone, gay men, heterosexuals and lesbians, should be equalised at 18. A minority of young people start having sex too early, which can be damaging, especially to girls. But it would be pointless and unjust to try to change social attitudes using such a blunt instrument. And it would be wrong to criminalise those 16-year-olds who are responsible simply in order to "send a signal" to those who are not.

The second argument for voting No next week which MPs should consider is that of the slippery slope. It is not, in the end, a persuasive argument, but it is worth examining because if the principle of equality is conceded in one area then it follows that it should be recognised in all areas. It was this argument which, to the Government's shame, Baroness Blackstone deployed in the House of Lords earlier this month when she explained why ministers could not accept a Private Member's Bill to outlaw all discrimination against homosexuals. She said the Government supported the intentions of the Bill, but ... "We recognise the central value of the family and marriage." In rejecting the Bill, she had to "tread a careful path between taking account of social reality and at the same time ensuring that we do not undermine the family". The institution of the family is under threat, apparently, because "it might be said that but for their sexual orientation a gay or lesbian couple would have the right to marry". She went on: "This raises serious and important issues." As if their very seriousness and importance should prohibit further discussion. But when she listed what they were, the objections to the measure seemed less rather than more substantial.

On pensions, she said that extending survivor's benefits to unmarried couples might be expensive. "In the Civil Service alone the Government estimate that this would cost some pounds 20m a year." Is that all? Meanwhile in the private sector, ending pensions discrimination against homosexuals would involve changing the terms of occupational schemes, and so would apply only to future contributions.

On adoption, she said the present ban on non-married couples jointly adopting a child is "not to be dispensed with lightly". But why? She did not say.

On tenancies she said that the Government "have undertaken to consider" how the law might be amended, "but this must be done carefully". As if the principle of equal treatment were reckless!

Once the teeth-sucking muttering about "unintended consequences" and, even worse, "serious implications" is taken head on, MPs will find that there is nothing to be afraid of in the small print.

As for the ultimate bugaboo of "gay marriage", the Government should, for once, ignore the more excitable sections of the press. The institution of marriage has proved to be a rather crumbly foundation of social cohesion in the hands of heterosexuals, two-fifths of whom decide that it is not after all an "indication of permanence and commitment" - in Lady Blackstone's phrase, explaining why it was so essential that adopters should have tied the knot first.

Fears about the lack of male or female role models for children brought up by same-sex couples are overdone and, besides, are no business of the legislators. There is no reason in principle why same-sex couples should not be loving and responsible parents, and any presumption against them in adoption, fostering and what used to be called custody cases should be removed from the law.

It is time Britain grew up as a nation and shook off the idea that people should be stigmatised for private consensual sexual behaviour. The Government should be praised for changing the immigration rules to allow same-sex partners to live together, but there are still far too many fields in which gay people are legally disadvantaged despite Labour's manifesto pledge to "seek to end unjustifiable discrimination wherever it exists". It is still lawful to sack someone simply for being gay, and unlawful for homosexuals to serve in the armed forces.

MPs should vote to equalise the age of consent, but in the knowledge that it places them under an obligation to ensure that all our citizens enjoy equal rights in everything.