Howard backs gay sex at 18: Tory MPs look set to follow Home Secretary's lead

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The Independent Online
THE Home Secretary will back reducing the age of consent for homosexuality to 18 in the House of Commons vote on the Criminal Justice Bill.

Michael Howard has told colleagues that he will not support a reduction in the age of consent to 16. If no amendment is tabled proposing 18, he will vote for the age of consent to remain unchanged at 21 years.

Gay campaigners, led by Sir Ian McKellen, the actor, have described support for a reduction to 18 but not 16 as unprincipled. They are urging MPs to vote in favour of general equality at 16.

However, many Tory MPs are prepared to take the lead given by the Home Secretary, although it is a 'free' vote on a matter of conscience, without MPs being forced to vote along party lines.

The Home Secretary's support for the compromise of 18 may undermine the campaigners' argument that teenagers are being criminalised by the law. Edwina Currie has proposed a reduction to 16 years, but no amendment for 18 has been tabled.

Home Office ministers believe that there is likely to be a narrow majority for 18, if an amendment is tabled, but that a vote on 16 will be defeated, in spite of support from John Smith, the Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, his predecessor, and most of the Labour Party. Around 20 Tory MPs may support the amendment, tabled by Mrs Currie, for the age of consent to be reduced to 16.

There is a split among Home Office ministers. David Maclean, a right-wing minister, has told colleagues he has not made up his mind, but has insisted on the measure being called the 'buggery amendment' and is expected to vote for the status quo.

Lord Ferrers, the spokesman on home affairs in the House of Lords, has told colleagues he would prefer the age of consent for homosexuality to be 75 years.

The Earl, the longest serving minister in the Government, who first became a minister in 1962 in the Macmillan government, will have the task of steering the Criminal Justice Bill through the Lords, if it is amended to reduce the age of consent for homosexuality.

He may find it difficult to conceal his abhorrence at a change in the law. The Lords may seek to reverse any change in the law, in spite of the spirited campaign by gay rights activists.

Ministers believe that the Lords will not be put off from voting on the issue by the constitutional proprieties of changing a vote in the Commons on a conscience issue. 'The Lords are entitled to a vote on their consciences too,' one leading Tory peer said.

Meanwhile, Lord Ferrers will have to avoid a defeat in the Lords on the controversial Police and Magistrates Courts Bill. He has warned the Home Secretary that, following a devastating attack by three former Home Secretaries and the Lord Chief Justice on the Second Reading, it would be defeated on the Third Reading if a compromise is not offered.

Letters, page 15

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