Sexual equality for gays rejected: Angry protests greet MP's backing for consent at 18

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ANGRY SCENES erupted outside the House of Commons late last night as thousands of gay men protested at MPs' failure to equalise the homosexual age of consent at 16.

At one point all entrances and exits to the Palace of Westminster were sealed off as gay rights campaigners vented their fury at the decision to lower the age of consent from 21 to 18, leaving consenting homosexual acts for those aged 16 and 17 still a criminal offence.

Leaders of the long and unprecedented lobby campaign, headed by the actor Sir Ian McKellen, warned that their fight would go on. MPs, in a free vote at the end of an impassioned three-hour debate, rejected the 16 option by 307 votes to 280, a majority of 27.

The subsequent decisive vote in favour of 18, by 427 to 162 - a majority of 265 - did nothing to pacify the campaigners' anger.

Peter Tatchell, leader of the militant gay rights group OutRage, warned of 'criminal' action by the campaigners. 'If Parliament treats us like criminals, which is what it has done tonight, we will act like criminals. I expect there will be very big and angry protests in the weeks ahead,' he said.

Promising more conventional action, a 'very disappointed' Sir Ian said: 'We will be back to the Lords. We will take it to the European Court in Strasbourg and we will win.' He added: 'There are going to be lots of 16-year-olds out there who will be breaking the law.'

Edwina Currie, the Tory MP who had proposed the 16 amendment and opened the debate, had warned of the European Court of Human Rights' challenge next month, which is expected to find against Britain in a case on sex equality brought by two homosexuals. The court could force Britain to equalise consent for men and women, overturning last night's vote.

Mrs Currie said: 'I am glad the age of consent has been changed by a majority of 265 but how colleagues can defend discrimination beats me.'

John Major led most of the Cabinet, including Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, in voting against 16 and supporting 18. They were supported by many other leading Tories. Four members of the Cabinet opposed any change: John Gummer, Michael Heseltine, John Redwood and John Patten.

A total of 42 Tories voted for 16. Many emerged from that vote blaming a hard core of Labour traditionalists for the defeat. Some Scots Labour MPs abstained, fearing retribution in their constituencies.

Anger convulsed the Parliamentary Labour Party with many MPs condemning David Blunkett and Ann Taylor, spokesmen for health and education, for voting against 16. 'David will have to consider his position given that it is such a serious health issue,' one Labour MP said.

Among the Tory MPs voting for 16 were two Cabinet ministers, William Waldegrave and Tony Newton, Leader of the House, and a number of ministers, including John Wheeler, the Northern Ireland minister in charge of security; Steve Norris, the transport minister; John Bowis, junior health minister; and William Hague, junior social security minister.

In a knife-edge vote, there was uproar when MPs were told that their first vote had to be abandoned because tellers had left their posts too soon. Amid huddles of angry Tories who opposed any change, there were predictions that there would be an attempt to block the move when the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill returned to the floor of the Commons for the Third Reading.

'It's absolutely deplorable that members of the Cabinet including the Leader of the House (Mr Newton) voted for 16,' Peter Fry, MP for Wellingborough, said.

Mrs Currie told MPs at the start of the debate that reducing the age of consent was no longer a minority issue, but one of human rights 'that touches us all. There is no such thing as partial equality. People are either equal or they are not'.

Neil Kinnock, the former Labour leader and a co-sponsor of the 16 amendment, said it was 'about encouraging respect for those who are different'.

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.'

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.'

The debate, page 3

(Photograph omitted)