But the survey also suggests that the Commons may proceed cautiously and back a new age of consent of 18 - the option favoured by a majority of Cabinet ministers. Although it less popular than either 16 or 21, the survey suggests that it is likely to emerge as a compromise.
Although 16 - already the heterosexual age of consent - remains the most popular single option among the 344 MPs who responded to the survey, the findings suggest that it is unlikely to be carried when the vote takes place.
MPs will not hold a substantive vote on the amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill until the week beginning 7 February at the earliest. A procedural 'committal' motion laying down the way in which separate amendments will be taken may be debated next week.
So far, no amendment proposing a new age of consent had been put down, one from the Tory backbench ranks is widely expected. Although some backbenchers on the Tory right have been threatening to vote against the whole Criminal Justice Bill rather than see the age of consent lowered, supporters of change doubt that there would be enough to sabotage the Bill.
One prominent backbencher, Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith, vice-chairman of the 1922 committee, said yesterday that he preferred 18 to 16 for two reasons. 'One is that it is the age of majority and I think that it is logical and it is common sense. Secondly, as far as young men are concerned . . . young men, I think mature later in life than young women, phycially, mentally, emotionally and sexually.'
But Jerry Hayes, MP for Harlow, a supporter of the 16 option, said that some of his colleagues were being 'naive.' 'I hope they do not want on their conscience the young men who commit suicide because of what is happening at the moment.'
Yesterday's survey for BBC 1's On the Record programme suggests that MPs who would vote for 16 - and who did not indicate they would refuse 18 - and those who favoured 18 gave the 18 'lobby' a total of 213. There may not be enough Tories favouring 16 to counterbalance the Labour and others voting against it.
The findings: to 16, 153 (Tory 15, Labour 118, others 20); to 18, 71 (Tory 51, Labour 17, others 3); remain at 21, 79 (Tory 67, Labour 3, others 9); don't knows, 42 (Tory 32, Labour 9, others 0, 1 abstention); responses, 344 (Tory 165, Labour 147, others 32); refusals, 81 (Tory 60, Labour 19, others 2).
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