Major supports compromise on homosexuals: The Prime Minister backs lowering the age of consent to 18. Anthony Bevins reports

JOHN MAJOR has indicated that he would support lowering the age of consent for homosexuals from 21 to 18, if a backbench proposal was introduced in the Commons during the next session of Parliament.

The Prime Minister first volunteered a public interest in the issue of homosexual law reform when he invited Sir Ian McKellen, the actor, to meet him at No 10 in September 1991.

Sir Ian, a founder member of Stonewall, a homosexual pressure group, was asked to give Mr Major a briefing on issues of concern, and he responded with a request for a Conservative election manifesto commitment to equalise the age of consent for homosexuals and heterosexuals at 16.

Sir Ian said afterwards that the success of the meeting would be measured by the manifesto - which last year gave no such commitment.

However, the question of reform was put to Mr Major by a Conservative MP during a chance meeting in the Commons tea room last week, and one of those present said yesterday that the Prime Minister had indicated support for a compromise reduction in the age of consent - not to 16, but to 18.

That proposition could be delivered either by a Private Member's Bill, or by an amendment to the forthcoming Criminal Justice Bill. One of the supporters of legal equality said yesterday, however, that it was important that reform should attract all- party support on a free vote, and that they should win.

Edwina Currie, the former Conservative health minister and a member of the Tory Campaign for Homosexual Equality, said: 'If the latest research is true, and being gay is the same as being left-handed, then the case for discrimination is disappearing.'

Explaining Mr Major's apparent sympathy for the cause, she added: 'The Prime Minister is genuinely interested, and as a former London councillor, he will be well aware of the large number of people in the capital who suffer discrimination.'

If an all-party group did urge the Commons to resolve the problem, it is most likely that they would offer MPs two options - a reduction in the age of consent to 16, or 18, in that reverse order.

That would allow cautious reformers like Mr Major, to vote against 16, but in favour of 18. If both propositions were defeated, homosexual acts between men under 21 would remain illegal.

A reduction in the age to 18 would still present a number of difficulties: insofar as the discrimination remained between homosexuals and heterosexuals, it could contravene the European Convention on Human Rights, and could face eventual challenge in the European Court. The gay and lesbian rights lobby wants nothing less than equalisation at 16.