Gay Life: Age of consent is certain to fall

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The Independent Online
The age of consent for homosexuals will almost certainly be reduced from 18 to 16 within two years. Patricia Wynn Davies, Legal Affairs Editor, looks at the historic agreement reached between the Government and the gay rights group Stonewall.

It is not a question of encouraging people to have sex but encouraging people to make informed decisions, said Euan Sutherland, one of the applicants in yesterday's test case ruling by the European Commission of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Following the commission's decision that differing ages of consent for heterosexuals and homosexuals could not be justified, the Government has agreed with Stonewall not to contest further the challenges brought by Mr Sutherland and Chris Morris, and to allow Parliament a free vote on equalisation.

Mr Sutherland, 20, from Dulwich, south London, who works in publishing, said: ``The law should treat everyone equally and it angers me that young gay men can still be treated as criminals.'' Mr Sutherland and Mr Morris, 18, from Ealing, west London, claimed the unequal age of consent violated the right to privacy guarantee in article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

Angela Mason, director of Stonewall, said: ``This is an historic step forward. A free vote in Parliament will be an opportunity to break with the centuries of discrimination and bigotry and begin the process of accepting gay men and lesbians as equal citizens in society.''

The influx of new Labour MPs at the last election is expected to ensure that the move to equalise the ages secures support in the House of Commons, giving gays the same right as heterosexuals since 1885. Many will support the change because of concerns that the risk of criminality hinders effective health education for gay men under 18.

The campaigning group Outrage! condemned the possible delay of two years before the reform passes into legislation. The issue is expected to be voted on as an amendment to the forthcoming Crime and Disorder Bill, but this would have to be followed up with specific legislation. Peter Tatchell, director of Outrage!, added: ``We urge the Home Secretary to announce an immediate moratorium on prosecutions relating to consensual gay sex involving young men of 16 and 17.'' When MPs last voted on the issue three years ago they reduced the gay age of consent from 21 to 18 but a move to cut it to 16 was defeated by 27 votes.

The agreement between the Government and Stonewall is the first instance of a UK administration making such a public commitment to settling a Strasbourg complaint. Without the deal Mr Sutherland's and Mr Morris's claims would have progressed to the European Court of Human Rights. Stephen Grosz, their solicitor, said: ``The human rights commission has decisively rejected the last Government's attempt to justify discrimination against homosexuals, and we would expect the court to do the same.''

Mr Sutherland's father, Norman, a 53-year-old educational administrator, supported his son's Strasbourg complaint. He told a Stonewall news conference yesterday that his son had come out when he was 16 and showed "great maturity" in the way he had handled the issue of his sexuality.