Gays set for victory on equal rights

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GAY RIGHTS campaigners were celebrating last night as MPs looked set to vote to lower the age of consent for homosexuals to 16. The leaders of all three main political parties supported the measure, along with most of the Cabinet.

The expected reform will now face opposition in the House of Lords, where bishops and other Christian peers will argue that it should be dropped. But with a large majority of the Commons in favour of the move, it is only a matter of time before it becomes law.

Groups pressing for equal rights for gays and lesbians held a vigil outside Parliament as the vote took place.

However, moves to stop adults in charge of youngsters under 18 from having sex with them looked likely to be withdrawn. The Home Office minister Alun Michael was expected to tell MPs the Government sympathised with the demand from backbench MPs of all parties, but would bring forward its own proposals.

The House of Commons vote last night was a free one, with MPs allowed to follow their conscience. But early indications showed that the vast majority were in favour of the move, with 430 of the 660 members promising in advance to support the measure.

David Blunkett, now the Education and Employment Secretary, voted against lowering the age of consent to 16 in 1994, along with Ann Taylor, now Leader of the House. Mr Blunkett was considering whether to vote in favour or to abstain this time, while Mrs Taylor was expected to abstain. William Hague, the Tory leader, supported the measure but was unable to attend the vote because he had flu.

Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, said beforehand that the Government had no intention of trying to persuade anyone to vote for the change. "As it happens, I shall be voting to lower the age to 16 as I did four years ago. Other colleagues in the Government will be taking a different view and that is entirely a matter for them and their conscience," he said.

Church of England bishops continued to speak out against the change in the age of consent yesterday after a weekend statement opposing it. They also supported an amendment put by Joe Ashton, the Labour MP for Bassetlaw, to raise the age to 18 in care homes and schools. The head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cardinal Basil Hume, also voiced opposition to lowering the age of consent and indicated support for Mr Ashton.

"I would urge MPs to reflect on the signal they wish to send to the nation and support the concerns raised by the Church of England bishops.

"I would urge support for any amendment that would better protect young people from exploitative relationships. Whatever the legal age of consent, the Catholic Church's teaching remains that homosexual genital acts are morally wrong," he said in a statement.

Mr Michael was expected to say that the Ashton amendment would raise a number of legal complications, not least that it would allow a teacher to marry his pupil but not then to have sex with her.

Although an ongoing review resulting from a report by Sir William Utting on child abuse would consider how this problem might be surmounted, an alternative would be to make the change in employment law rather than in criminal law. Then employees in schools and children's homes could be told as a condition of their jobs that they would be sacked if they had a relationship with a young person in their care. The changes are likely to be announced later this year.

The amendment to lower the age of consent applies to homosexual relations between males. There is no age of consent for sexual relations between females.

The amendment would lower the age of consent to 16 in England, Wales and Scotland. In Northern Ireland it would reduce it to 17 - the same as the age of consent for heterosexuals in the Province.

Separate amendments to the Crime and Disorder Bill to stop prosecutions of gay men for group sex and to remove men convicted of sex with 16- or 17-year-olds from the sex offenders' register were considered likely to fail.