Campaigners are calling for a general pardon for gay men with historical convictions for consensual sex after a Home Office scheme to delete criminal records resulted in just 40 out of a potential 50,000 cases being formally set aside.
Figures obtained by The Independent under the Freedom of Information Act show that officials approved less than 30 per cent of applications under a law brought in two years ago which Coalition ministers said would correct “one of the most unfair and unjust historical inequalities” of the modern era.
The Protection of Freedoms Act included a provision allowing gay men to apply to have convictions for offences such as gross indecency – often dating back 50 or 60 years – to be “disregarded” or deleted from criminal records where they involved private acts between consenting adults which have since been decriminalised.
The Government said the legislation was aimed at correcting an anomaly which had “for decades seen gay men unfairly stigmatised” as well as allowing homosexuals to volunteer or apply for work from which they had been effectively barred because of criminal-record checks that would disclose convictions.
Lynne Featherstone, the Liberal Democrat MP who steered the legislation through Parliament while she was the equalities minister, has previously said that up to 50,000 convictions for offences under various pieces of legislation – including the notorious gross indecency law used to convict Oscar Wilde – could be eligible for deletion. But figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that a tiny fraction of an estimated 50,000 historic convictions have now been quashed after just 146 applications for the deletion of offences were received by the Home Office, of which 40 were granted.
The remainder either fell outside the remit of the legislation or were related to acts which remain criminalised, such as so-called cottaging offences in public toilets.
Campaigners said the low rate of applications was the result of a lack of publicity about the provisions and a “burdensome” application process which deters many men who are reluctant to revisit convictions that would have been, in many cases, traumatic and a source of shame or embarrassment for decades.
Peter Tatchell, a leading gay-rights activist, called for the Government to instead extend the royal pardon granted last year to the mathematician and code-breaker Alan Turing, after he was convicted of gross indecency and underwent chemical castration, to all gay men given a criminal record for acts long since legalised. He said: “It would be much easier for the Government to simply extend the pardon to Turing to all those convicted of consenting same-sex sexual relations.”
James Taylor, head of policy at Stonewall, said: “This law can have a transformative effect, freeing people from worries when they apply for jobs or voluntary positions. However, it’s clear from these figures that there’s still more to do to promote this change.”
A Home Office spokeswoman said: “It is unacceptable that homosexual men have been living for decades with criminal records for consensual sex. We would encourage anyone affected to apply to have these records deleted or disregarded.”
Case Study: Removing a conviction
John Melville had forgotten about his conviction for gross indecency until he received a phone call from police, telling him he had to provide a DNA sample because he was a convicted sex offender.
Fined for gross indecency in 1996 after a police sting while having sex with a man in woodland, Melville was outraged to find himself placed in the same category as paedophiles and rapists.
In 2012, the airline worker began the process of having his offence deleted from his records under the Protection of Freedoms Act.
Melville, 51, said: “If I had been having sex with a woman in woodland two miles from the nearest house, the police would have laughed it off. No one would have been interested. But because we were men, both aged over 21 and consenting, it was a crime and police were waiting for us.”
The Home Office eventually granted his application for the removal of his conviction. But the experience has left a bitter taste.
Melville said: “I found myself thinking, ‘Am I still living in the UK?’ I am an openly gay man. But what if you are a married man who had a gay relationship and suddenly this episode from your past turns up. It is good you can have these convictions removed, but more needs to be done to tell people it’s possible.”