Gay sex at 16 vote in Commons

THE HOUSE of Commons was set to vote overwhelmingly yesterday in favour of lowering the age of consent for gay sex from 18 to 16. The debate was seven hours long and, at times, was intensely personal, tackling such subjects as sex, relationships, young love and something called "lifestyle".

This is the second time in the past year that MPs have debated the measure. The last Bill, which was passed last summer with a majority of 207, was rejected by the Lords. Yesterday's Bill was the new, improved version aimed at staving off further revolt. The most significant change is a new offence for a "person of trust" who has sex with a young person in their care.

Last night there was a rumour the Lords would once again strike it down when it reaches the Upper House, probably after Easter. But the Commons was not deterred. One MP remarked that this was the House's chance to "act like an adult". On the whole this was achieved, and with eloquence. Men in suits spoke of what it can be like to be a teenager in the middle of an identity crisis. The Labour MP Ann Keen said:"Real love, real care, real concern means making sure young people are not criminalised for their sexuality."

The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, opened the debate by explaining the Bill was not about lifestyle or even sex. "Instead it is a question of equality before the law," he said. The current law had led to "huge human unhappiness".

Sir Norman Fowler was not so sure. He voted to lower the age of consent to 18 in 1994 but drew the line yesterday. The public, he said, was against it.

The new offence for "abuse of trust" has won over many Labour MPs, including Bassetlaw's Joe Ashton. He brought a sheaf of cuttings to show what the public thought about it all.

Occasionally you heard the voice of homophobia. "People do have the choice to maintain self-discipline," said a Tory, Desmond Swayne. Earlier, the Democratic Unionist Party leader, Dr Ian Paisley, had handed in a 18,000- name petition calling homosexuality an abomination that would lead to the judgement of God. But even Dr Paisley conceded the almighty has no control over Europe, which has decreed the UK must make the age of consent for homosexual and heterosexual sex the same.

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