Labour will repeal oppressive gay laws

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A PACKAGE of new equality measures for gays - far beyond the reduction of the age of consent to 16 - is being considered after a top-level meeting between ministers and homosexual rights campaigners, writes Stephen Castle.

The Government is looking at a raft of changes, including the repeal of offences such as buggery and gross indecency. The news emerged following a private meeting between Home Office minister Alun Michael and Angela Mason of Stonewall within the past 10 days.

Ministers hope the initiative could head off plans to amend the Crime and Disorder Bill, which comes to the Commons in May. That could reduce the age of consent for all to 16, but ministers fear the amendment might be overturned by the House of Lords - a delay that could threaten the entire Bill.

Some campaigners feel the issue would be better dealt with in a separate Bill. Stonewall is anxious to achieve a much broader range of reforms aside from the reduction of the age of consent. It wants to sweep away all inequalities in the way that gay sex offences are policed and sentenced. Although the age of consent is a big symbolic issue, relatively few 16- to 18-year-old men are prosecuted for breach of this law.

Behind the scenes lies a debate as to whether changes in the law should be dealt with in one piece of specific legislation, or piecemeal with amendments to Bills covering home office, education and housing issues.

Negotiations between campaigners and ministers are at a delicate stage. Stonewall has yet to make a concrete promise not to prompt an amendment to the Crime and Disorder Bill. Also, the Home Office has not been able to guarantee that time will be found for a Bill in the legislative programme next year.