Leading for Labour at a meeting of Stonewall, the gay rights pressure group, in the House of Commons, Mr Straw committed a Blair government to repealing section 28 of the Local Government Act banning schools from presenting homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle in sex education classes; and to incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into British law to help protect gay rights.
His remarks will be welcomed by many gay voters, but they were criticised by OutRage, the militant gay campaign group, for not going far enough.
Mr Straw carefully avoided committing Labour to putting changes to the age of consent high on its own agenda. But he said Tony Blair, as a former shadow home secretary, supported a reduction in the age of consent to 16, not 18, the limit reached when the Commons last had a free vote on the issue.
"This is an issue where, rightly, there is no party line, only personal views," he said. "I believe very strongly that there are no grounds for making a distinction in law for differing ages of consent; and many grounds for having the same age.
"There will be a number of Bills on criminal justice in the next parliament. I have no doubt that on one at least it will be possible to move amendments to lower the age to 16. When that happens we shall have a free vote and I shall vote for 16."
On section 28, introduced under Margaret Thatcher in 1988 in the face of fierce opposition by the gay lobby, Mr Straw said: "It is our long- standing policy that we would repeal it." And he added: "There should and can be no proselytisation of particular lifestyles in schools. But other more sensible provisions of the law ensure that. And head teachers, parents and governors are well able to check that this occurs."
The incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights was "one of the most important steps" a Labour government would take, he said. The convention guaranteed rights of respect for each citizen's private and family life, without discrimination on any ground. "Incorporation of the convention should not be a party political matter."
Peter Tatchell, the leader of OutRage, said the free vote on the age of consent was a cop out. "Labour would never allow a free vote on discrimination against women or the black community and human rights are not a matter of MPs' consciences. Labour's pledge to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights will do little to help the gay community and little to eradicate homophobic discrimination.
"At the time of the 1992 general election, Labour had a manifesto commitment to introduce legislation to outlaw discrimination based on sexuality. That commitment now appears to have been dropped."Reuse content