The Age of Consent debate 16/18?: Gay rights supporters put case to MPs

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MORE THAN 2,000 supporters of gay and lesbian rights campaigning for a change in the legal age of consent lobbied parliament last night. With the free vote in the Commons expected within a fortnight, those MPs who have so far openly backed lowering consent for homosexuals to 16 forecast the vote would be 'finely balanced'.

The lobby queue was the largest since the Arts Council cuts protest last year. Although the lobby had been organised by Stonewall, the gay rights group, supporters from nearly all the UK's gay rights groups turned out in force.

Inside, the actor, Sir Ian McKellen, told a meeting that the last time the issue had been debated by the Commons was in 1967. 'Then, everything was engineered on our behalf. This time we have taken the initiative.'

The Commons vote is an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill proposed by the Conservative MP, Edwina Currie. Mrs Currie told the meeting, which was open to the public, that the issue had already 'broken a taboo'. She said that some of her parliamentary colleagues had told her they would have preferred 'not to have to debate this - and not right now'.

About 200 MPs have told Mrs Currie - who Sir Ian had said was 'rapidly becoming our heroine' - that they would support lowering the age of consent for homosexuals to 16. She added: 'This is no longer a minority issue. It affects the whole country.'

Outside, gay men said they were fed up 'being treated like second- rate, second-class citizens'. Many said the current law was 'insulting and unfair'.

Meurig Horton, who works for the World Health Organisation in Geneva, said that although Britain was a signatory to the Riga Declaration last year, which in spirit, he said, 'outlawed discrimination against homosexuals, our laws have yet to reflect that spirit'.

Many protesters brought copies of recent statements from the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Psychiatrists, expressing support for the age change, to show their MPs.

Mr Horton, taking part in one of many impromtu discussions in the queue, added: 'It was only last year that the International Classification of Diseases stopped referring to homosexuality as a disease or mental disorder.'

Sir Ian told those attending the meeting that he expected the highly influential medical journal, The Lancet, next week to join those organisations calling for a change in the law.

Robert McLennan, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said the current law left those homosexuals between 16 and 21 'vulnerable and unprotected - and made it more likely they will become victims'.

Labour MP Alistair Darling said that in Scotland the Lord Advocate had already informed police that he would not instigate prosecutions purely on age against homosexuals between 16 and 21. Mr Darling said: 'There is no point in having a law if it is not enforced.' If the law was not changed, he said, 'what message will then be sent to the police'.

(Photograph omitted)