Tory right-winger backs lower gay age of consent

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A Tory right-winger stunned the Commons yesterday when he dropped his opposition to lowering the age of consent for homosexuals to 16.

A Tory right-winger stunned the Commons yesterday when he dropped his opposition to lowering the age of consent for homosexuals to 16.

John Bercow, the MP for Buckingham, said he had been "wrong" when he previously voted against the measure because the status quo was a "recipe for confusion, for misery and for fear".

He was not "voting for progress" nor out of any sense of "political correctness", and "could not give a tinker's cuss" for the European Court of Human Rights and its judgment that British law must change. But he was now convinced by the range of expert opinion calling for a change in the law on the age of consent.

"It so happens that I am a heterosexual," he told MPs. But he had "a proportion" of homosexual constituents.

"They are human beings, they are civilised, they have rights and obligations and I am duty bound to take account of their interests," he said.

"There is no evidence that the present law reduces the incidence of homosexual activity, minimises the spread of infection, increases the protection available to young people - none of these things is achieved by the present law."

Earlier, opening second reading debate on the Sexual Offence (Amendment) Bill, Jack Straw, the Home Secretary. said the legislation was about creating a society "free of prejudice". The Bill ends the anomaly that heterosexuals and lesbians can consent to sex at 16, while homosexual commit a criminal offence if they are under 18.

Mr Straw said: "For me the issue raised in this Bill is one of equality, of seeking to create a society which is free from prejudice, of one where our relationships with others, including with strangers, are based upon respect and not upon fear.

The Bill will introduce a new criminal offence under which adults can be prosecuted for abuse of trust for having sex with a youth in their care.

The Government first offered a vote on the issue during the summer of 1998 after the European Commission on Human Rights ruled that an unequal age of consent was a violation of privacy laws and anti-discrimination clauses of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Christopher Gill, the Tory MP for Ludlow challenged Mr Straw: "you are totally committed to making it legal for buggery to take place for people of over the age of 16.

"I wonder whether, for the benefit of those of us who've led a sheltered life, you would describe the act of buggery so that the House and the public know exactly what we are talking about?" Mr Straw refused to be drawn.

Ann Widdecombe, the Shadow Home Secretary, warned the Bill was a "dangerous move," which sent out the wrong signals to teachers, parents and young people. She said: "I don't believe the issue of equality should override the imperative to protect young people.

Ann Keen, the Labour MP for Brentford and Isleworth, said she had received messages of "intolerance and prejudice" after last year's bombing of a gay pub in Soho. "I have a spineless coward that leaves messages asking me, would I like to come and collect some arms and legs," she said.

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