Gay vote could be scuppered by despondent MPs: Patricia Wynn Davies assesses the prospects of a move to lower the age of consent for homosexuals in the light of Tory turmoil on moral issues

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THE PROSPECTS of Parliament lowering the age of consent for homosexuals from 21 to 16 were fading yesterday as disheartened Tories returned to Westminster amid fresh turmoil over moral issues.

Next week's free vote is now likely to produce a small majority, at best, for a compromise option of reducing the age to 18, the outcome most likely to be favoured by the Prime Minister.

As some Tories doubted the wisdom of Edwina Currie, Tory MP for Derbyshire South, in pressing ahead with an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, Sir Marcus Fox, chairman of the 1922 Committee, said: 'I cannot believe it is going to go through in the current climate.'

Dame Jill Knight, a vice- chairman and member of the Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs, said that the events of the past week had no relevance to next week's debate. But despondency on the Government benches and a heightened awareness of constituency opinion is believed to have seriously undermined the appetite of some Tory MPs for helping to push through such a radical change.

A substantial number of Labour MPs will back equalising the age for homosexuals and heterosexuals at 16. But Jerry Hayes, Tory MP for Harlow and a supporter of equalisation, said that few Conservatives were now likely to back it. 'I can't see why. We should not be diverted.'

Robert Maclennan, a co- sponsor with Neil Kinnock, the former Labour leader, of Mrs Currie's amendment, said there were strong health and practical arguments for supporting the change. 'Research suggests young homosexual men often become sexually active in their mid- teens. But young, impressionable men are at greater risk of sexual exploitation by older men if the taint of criminality inhibits their openness about what has happened.'

Mr Maclennan went on: 'Such young men have also been physically attacked on account of their perceived sexuality. Since the current law treats them as criminal suspects, they are fearful of seeking police help.'

The compromise position, expected to emerge in a second amendment, is opposed by homosexual groups, who insist that the age of consent - even if it were higher than 16 - must be equal.

David Allison, of Outrage], the pressure group, urged wavering Tories to 'stick with their principles if they believe in equality. It won't do the Tory party any harm to do something out of principle, rather than expediency'.