The Government's battle with the House of Lords over the introduction of a lower age of consent was rekindled yesterday as peers renewed their opposition to equalising the age for both sexes at 16.
But in a surprise tactical move they did not throw out the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill at the second reading. Instead they decided to allow it to proceed to its committee stage for further debate. This was to head off a threat by ministers to implement the Parliament Act, under which a Bill is forced on to the statute book if peers insisted on throwing out the measure for the third time in less than two years.
Peers can now delay introduction of the legislation until summer by tabling wrecking amendments and forcing a so-called constitutional ping-pong with the Commons.
Opening the debate, the Attorney General, Lord Williams of Mostyn, said an unequal age of consent was a mark of an "intolerant society" and should be changed now "for action, equality and for justice". He offered a concession to opponents of the move, led by the former Tory leader in the Lords, Baroness Young, who have contended that the Bill is flawed and that there are insufficient safeguards to protect youngsters from those in a position of trust, such as youth workers, step-parents and baby-sitters.
He said he recognised and had "every sympathy with this", that many said the abuse- of-trust definition provisions did not go far enough. He said it had been pointed out it did not, for example, include Scout and Guide organisations. "I do accept we may need to look at this." And he said there were powers to extend the scope of the new powers "at a later date if there is later demonstrated evidence of need".
But Baroness Blatch, the Tory education spokeswoman, said: "What is this government's obsession with sex and sexuality?" Lady Blatch said those who argued against lowering the age of consent for homosexuals on moral and child- protection grounds were attacked as "prejudiced, bigoted and exclusive. I refute those criticisms most strongly. Buggery on girls of 16 is made lawful by this Bill - a practice which must be a nightmare for parents, not to mention the girls themselves".
The Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Rev David Bentley, said that by appearing to "legitimise" homosexual activity at an earlier age "we are giving unhelpful and muddled signals to many people who look to us to enunciate clear moral principles".
Lord Waddington, former Tory home secretary, condemned lowering the consent age as "not a mark of tolerance; it is an act of great irresponsibility". He urged "a halt to this madness", citing health risks from homosexual sex and said: "I would rather see the age of consent put up to 18 for all."
Lord Alli, the only openly gay peer, said he stood for those "unable to speak, for those who are probably too frightened to speak and those who dare not speak. This is not about whether 16 or 18 is the right age for sexual activity, it's about the abolition of discrimination, it's about supporting young people, young vulnerable men in our society." Those opposing the move were "voices of the past, the voices that 100 years ago would have told us a black man is not equal to a white man".Reuse content