The Age of Consent debate: Gay groups consider extra changes to law: Further amendments to Criminal Justice Bill possible

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THE HOME OFFICE is considering what line to take if backbench MPs table further amendments designed to equalise the law between homosexual and heterosexual behaviour.

Gay pressure groups including Stonewall and Torch, the Tory Campaign for Homosexual Equality, acknowledge there is a wider agenda for reform.

But they are unlikely to decide whether to promote further amendments during the committee stage of the Criminal Justice Bill until after the debate on the age of consent later this month.

Among changes which reformers say they would ideally like to see follow a change to the age of consent are:

Effective decriminalisation of homosexual acts by ending the offence of gross indecency, which currently applies not only to homosexual acts between persons who are not both above the age of consent, but also to those which do not meet the stringent privacy criteria laid down by the 1967 Sexual Offences Act. (For example, a homosexual act carried out by consenting adults in a locked hotel room, or the bedroom of a private house in which other people are sleeping, is an offence. Although the law is rarely enforced, reformers argue it is open to exploitation by 'moral majority' chief constables.) The offence was lifted in Ireland - in accordance with recommendations by its Law Commission - when the age of consent was reduced to 16.

Decriminalising homosexual acts in the armed forces and the merchant navy. The Government is committed to a legal change on this and regulations are being redrawn accordingly, so that while such acts would still be subject to the penalty of discharge, they would not be subject to court martial. But the law has not yet been changed.

Creation of a new offence of homosexual rape. Although there is an offence of non-consensual buggery, there is no direct homosexual equivalent to the offence of rape.

Ending the offence of heterosexual buggery. Since homosexual buggery is not currently an offence between consenting adults in private, reformers argue that in the interests of equality, heterosexual buggery should also cease to be an offence.

Tony Hutt, of Torch, said yesterday that a decision on any further amendments would be taken partly in the light of the decision and the size of a majority in the vote on the age of consent. He said 'we believe very strongly that the state has no place in the bedroom' and added that non-violent consensual acts between individuals over the age of consent were a matter for those individuals.

But Mr Hutt added that while the Government had been co-operative in allowing a debate and free vote on the age of consent, it might be disinclined to adopt a similar attitude to further amendments added to an already wide-ranging and contentious Bill. If any further amendment was tabled it would not be before the Bill went into committee proper. The age of consent vote will be taken on the first day of the committee stage on the floor of the Commons.