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At last, the stigma of 50 years is removed

Gay men convicted for something no longer an offence win right for criminal records to be expunged

It is more than 50 years since a teenage John Crawford was hauled before Winchester Crown Court, accused of having consensual, but illegal, sex with another man. But it is only in the last decade that he realised exactly what a terrible effect it has had on his life and career.

But now, Mr Crawford and a group of men criminalised by a law that was repealed more than four decades ago are to be freed from a stigma that has blighted many lives.

When the former butler applied to do voluntary work with vulnerable prisoners at Wormwood Scrubs Prison, a routine check with the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) revealed that his conviction – the result of a "confession", he says, that was beaten out of him by police a half-century before – remained on his record. A lifetime of unexplained, last-hurdle failures to secure jobs – including one in charge of US newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst's former home – began to make sense.

The crude, damning details – "1959. Charged on two counts of buggery" – were next to Mr Crawford's name on the Police National Computer and had to be disclosed every time he applied for a job. He was told they would remain on his record until he was 100 years old.

"I've lost so many jobs without knowing why, because I have this criminal record that I didn't know about," Mr Crawford, 71, said. "I've now given up voluntary work because I don't want to explain why I have this record every time I apply."

Next month, the coalition government's "Freedom Bill" will enable men convicted for offences of consensual gay sex with partners aged over 16 to have their offences expunged from the record. The Home Office estimates that it will wipe out more than 12,000 convictions for offences related to buggery or gross indecency imposed in the last half-century.

The move, part of Nick Clegg's push to remove troublesome legislation from the statute book, will also honour a pledge made by David Cameron on the eve of the general election last May. But pressure groups last night insisted that it would be more than an empty gesture designed to right old wrongs and to placate interest groups.

"These are mainly older men who have been left with a criminal record even though their sexual offence is no longer a crime," said Deborah Gold of the gay rights group Galop, which has supported Mr Crawford's legal fight to wipe his record clean. "By the letter of the law, it is never 'spent', so they have to reveal it every time they apply for a job. One man we know ended up leaving the country because he just couldn't get his record cleared."

The gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said that between 50,000 and 100,000 men were convicted of same-sex offences in the period from 1885 to 2003. Sex between consenting males over the age of 21 was decriminalised in England in 1967, with Scotland and Northern Ireland following later. But the minimum age was reduced in stages until it was brought down to 16, in line with the heterosexual age of consent, in 2000.

The equalities minister Lynne Featherstone said the Freedom Bill would include provisions "so that those who were prosecuted for consensual gay sex at a time when this was illegal may apply to have their conviction record deleted from police records and will no longer be required to disclose their conviction in any circumstances".

She told MPs: "It is totally unfair and unjust that men who have a conviction for something that has long not been illegal should have to fear being exposed – and exposed to partners they live with, who may not know."

Mr Crawford added: "I have realised I have lost so many jobs because I have a criminal record. One job was at the Hearst estate in San Simeon in America – I was asked to go and run it and they said they'd send plane tickets over, but I didn't hear from them again.

"I was born gay and I'm going to die gay. But I wasn't born with a criminal record and I want to leave this world without one."