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Gay Age of Consent: Currie needed just 14 Labour supporters: 'Noes' from opposition parties that were natural supporters of equality amendment are focus of recriminations

IT WOULD have taken just 14 more Labour MPs supporting 16 as the age of homosexual consent for Edwina Currie's amendment to have won the day on Monday. Instead, the provision, which 42 Tories supported, was defeated by 27 votes.

Ire has since rained down on Labour MPs from within the Parliamentary party and elsewhere. It was the opposition parties, not the Tories, who were the age 16 lobby's natural supporters.

While many Tories who backed 18 were content to follow the lead of John Major and Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, some Labour MPs were staggered that frontbench Labour spokespeople on the key areas of health and education - David Blunkett and Ann Taylor - did likewise.

Mr Blunkett, the MP for Sheffield Brightside, said in his defence: 'I felt that the amendment as put didn't take account of the very different circumstances that exist in homosexual relationships, circumstances which are taken into account in France, Spain and Denmark.'

Those three countries were used by advocates of equality at 16, but they had sub-clauses dealing with residential schools and children's homes, and circumstances in which heterosexual activity would not be permitted, he said.

Mr Blunkett said he had voted as an individual 'with my own conscience and the knowledge that I am in fact going further at 18 than many of my constituents would wish me to go'.

But the recriminations, spelled out forcefully by the modernising Labour Co-ordinating Committee yesterday, could rumble on for some time. The shrewd Mr Blunkett might conceivably even have to consider his position, as critics have termed it, in the run- up to the elections for the National Executive Committee constituency section, which is due to lose one seat this year.

Some MPs went to the opposite extreme, voting against 18 because of their strong commitment to 16. These include Labour MPs John Heppell (Nottingham East), Keith Hill (Streatham), Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate), Ian McCartney (Makerfield), Michael Watson (Glasgow Central) and the Liberal Democrat Nick Harvey, MP for Devon North.

Constituency pressure undoubtedly played a prominent part in the decision of the 37 Labour members not to vote with most of their colleagues. Calum MacDonald, an instinctive liberal, represents the Western Isles. 'Constituency opinion was a primary factor,' he said. Contrary to some reports, however, opposition 'refuseniks' were not heavily represented in traditionally religious areas such as Scotland and Wales.

With the lion's share of Labour noes recorded among north of England MPs, there were signs of an English north- south divide. Derek Foster, Labour's chief whip, his deputy, Don Dixon, the left- winger Bob Cryer, Dale Campbell-Savours and all but two of the rest represent north of England seats. But given the great swath of northern MPs who did support 16, that analysis begins to break down.

Richard Caborn, the MP for Sheffield Central, who voted for 16, suggests an additional motivation for individual cases. 'It's all right for you, Dick,' some colleagues told him, 'your children are in their twenties.'

Other oddities revealed by Monday night's votes include a distinct under-representation of what might be termed the 'libertarian' wing of the Tory party among supporters of 16. Hanging, meanwhile, was characterised not only by its comprehensive rejection but also by the right-wing Peter Lilley joining the noes and the absence from the lobbies of Michael Portillo.

Leading article, page 15

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