Currie heckled as she urges MPs to back equality

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(First Edition)

REDUCING the age of consent for homosexuals is no longer a minority issue but one of human rights that 'touches us all', Edwina Currie declared last night during the free vote in the Commons.

As gays and lesbians stood six deep outside the House of Commons in a candle-light vigil, Mrs Currie, the former health minister was barracked heckled by backbench colleagues MPs supporting the status quo of 21.

She urged MPs of all parties to support her Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill amendment to equalise the age of consent at 16 for homosexuals and heterosexuals.

'There is no such thing as partial equality. People are either equal or they are not,' she said.

Mrs Currie was speaking after a day of frantic last-minute lobbying by campaigners among MPs who were undecided whether to vote for 16 or an alternative option of 18.

A number of Tories had already made up their minds to abstain on the 16 vote some anxious to be seen following the lead of John Major and Michael Howard, the Home Secretary (both 18 supportersing consent at 18), some anxious not to be seen openly wrecking its chances, and others seeking to remove all risk of constituency backlash.

A recent opinion poll showed that one in four people still believe homosexual relationships should never have been legalised in the first place. But Mrs Currie declared: 'In this House we all know at least one gay man, and possibly more. We are here to lead public opinion as well as to follow it.'

Attacking 'homophobic' laws, she said: 'We are all concerned about protecting youngsters, but a law which keeps them silent is not protecting them, it is a gag which leaves them more open to harassment, blackmail and extortion.'

Neil Kinnock, the former Labour leader and a co-sponsor of the amendment, said it was 'about encouraging respect for those who are different.'

The opportunity for MPs to grasp one deal with one of the most controversial nettles issues of social policy came as the Government grapples with faces a complaint by three British gay men under the European human rights convention. Only A handful of Council of Europe countries have unequal ages.

One of several speakers to invoke the 1957 Wolfenden report's finding that sexual orientation is fixed long before 16 while reminding MPs that safe sex education advice is officially denied to under-21s, Mr Kinnock said: 'We all know in our hearts that morality is not learned from the criminal law. No one is going to adopt a homosexual life just because they are free to do so at 16, rather than 21 or 18.

'Let us say from this House to young people that a heterosexual life, in the sense that it is what most of us live and want to live, is the norm, that it is and will remain the basic relationship opon upon which the family is founded.

'But let's also say to young people if they're homosexual, that we still have regard for them, we want them to live in a society which accepts their nature and will give them the same chance as others for personal happiness.'

As he urged the 18 compromise Mr Howard said: 'We should not criminalise private actions freely entered into by consenting mature adults. On the other hand, we need to protect young men from activities which their lack of maturity might cause them to regret.'

Great debate, page 3

(Photograph omitted)