Inside Parliament: Commons gets early debate on hanging: - Labour defeated on crime Bill amendment - Capital punishment an 'issue of conscience' - Currie mocks 'illogical' homosexuality law

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The Independent Online
The Government is to allow its MPs free votes on the restoration of capital punishment and on lowering the age of consent for homosexuals.

Winding up the Second Reading of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill last night, David Maclean, Minister of State at the Home Office, said both were issues of individual conscience. Debates on hanging and lowering the age of consent from 21 are expected to take place early in the Bill's committee stage.

Edwina Currie, Conservative MP for Derbyshire South, said young people felt able to make up their own minds at 16, the current heterosexual age of consent. 'Here is an outmoded law which touches, at the most conservative estimate, a million of our fellow citizens who are gay,' Mrs Currie said. 'Such men pay their taxes and hold down jobs. Their ranks have included distinguished actors, composers, writers and artists . . . Yet on this one topic their personal judgement is regarded as irrelevant and dangerous and the state decides who they can and cannot love.'

Labour is to tread a delicate path of selective opposition to the controversial Bill to deflect Tory attacks on the party for being 'soft' on crime. The party's intention not to mount all-out opposition, which might even see it supporting the measure after it has passed through intermediate parliamentary stages, is a noteworthy manifestation of its 'law and order' commitment.

Last night's decision to abstain officially on the Bill's Second Reading, rather than vote against it, was the first sign of the policy in action. Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, was caught unawares by the change, but quickly diverted from his prepared text for the debate - drafted on the assumption of opposition - to accuse Labour of 'retreating into indecision'.

In the past, Labour has generally voted against criminal justice measures at their Second and Third Readings.

Yesterday's 'reasoned' Labour amendment, highlighting specific concerns rather than seeking to strike down the Bill, is the first of a series of planned attempts to make key changes to the legislation. High among these is the need for an independent review authority for miscarriages of justice, measures to combat racial harassment and drug abuse, and action on crime prevention. The amendment was defeated by 319 votes to 275 and the Bill then given a Second Reading without a vote.

John Smith, the party leader, and Tony Blair, the spokesman on home affairs, are acutely aware of the political capital that would be made by the Government were it to appear opposed to provisions cracking down on child pornography or abolishing judges' warnings in rape trials over women's truthfulness.

The tactics reflect those employed during the passage of the Bill to ratify the Maastricht treaty, on which Labour officially abstained at the Second Reading because it did not implement the Social Chapter, but eventually supported it on Third Reading.

Mr Howard, although one of the leading moral crusaders at the Conservative Party conference, eschewed any 'back to basics' language as he opened the debate. The Bill deals with 18 of the 27 points contained in his Blackpool plan for fighting crime, mainly through tougher powers for the courts and police.

'It will provide this country with the most effective system of criminal justice that it is possible for a government to provide,' Mr Howard said. But he repeatedly dodged challenges to say whether he believed it would actually cut crime. Labour's reasoned amendment was 'truly feeble', he scoffed. The Bill included a massive expansion of DNA testing, allowing juries to take into account a defendant's silence, and secure centres to get juvenile criminals off the streets. The police and the public wanted all these things, yet the Labour Party could not make up their minds.

Mr Blair said the significance of the Bill was that the Government now admitted there was no confidence in the criminal justice system.

He was primed for an attack on the moralisers by a Conservative backbencher, Michael Stephen, MP for Shoreham, who said in an intervention that the country was repeating the consequences of a breakdown in respect that started in the 1960s. 'Successive governments have listened far too much to left-wing socialist reformers.'

What made people angry, Mr Blair replied, was that, after almost 15 years in power, Conservatives tried to blame the 1960s and a 'trendy liberal establishment' for the rise in crime. 'They will preach to everybody about taking personal responsibility, but they have not the guts to take any responsibility themselves for a situation they have created.'

Ann Winterton, MP for Congleton and a Tory right- wing traditionalist, accused the Government of failing to back marriage strongly enough.

'If Back to Basics means anything other than a snappy sound-bite, it means first and foremost a return to the acceptance of, and reflection in policies of, those Judeo-Christian moral standards that for so many years bound society together, and which have proved so practical, as well as so spiritually preferable,' she said.