Leading Article: An issue of equality, fairness and health

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The Independent Online
IT IS not often that the House of Commons takes a decision on an issue that directly affects the happiness and health of a large number of young people. On Monday, MPs vote on an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill that proposes a lowering of the age of homosexual consent from 21 to 16, bringing it into line with the age of consent for heterosexuals and with much continental legislation. A compromise amendment proposes a minimum age of 18. MPs are free to vote according to their consciences. It remains uncertain whether a majority will go for 16 or the compromise of 18, said to be favoured by much of the Cabinet.

The arguments for a full equalisation with the law for heterosexual relationships are overwhelming. On a purely legal basis, discrimination is contrary to Article 14 of the European Convention of Human Rights. If the two ages are not brought into line, the Government faces the likelihood of an adverse ruling from the European Court of Human Rights when it considers a complaint recently lodged by three British men. The present discrepancy is at odds with the spirit of the times and with this country's own anti-discriminatory legislation. As the Tory MP Jerry Hayes has put it: 'People are either equal or not.'

The most common argument for the compromise of 18 is that young men are less physically and emotionally mature than young women, and so more likely to be confused about their sexuality and more easily 'led astray'. If that is true, they should equally not be allowed to sleep with young women, whom they could easily impregnate.

It is illogical and unfair to demand that homosexual young men should bottle up their sexuality at an age when their heterosexual contemporaries are coming to terms with theirs on the nursery slopes of sexual experience.

An even stronger argument comes from professional and welfare bodies that deal with young people. With a remarkable level of unanimity, they believe that the criminalisation of homosexual activity up to the age of 21 has a damaging effect on the physical and mental health of young gay men. Even the Health Education Authority has said that fixing the age of consent at 16 is 'crucial to the health of the nation'. So do organisations as diverse as the British Medical Association, Barnardo's, the National Association of Probation Officers, and the British Psychological Society.

The reasons are simple. Young male homosexuals need sex education, help and advice as much, or more, than other young people. Yet they hesitate or fail to seek it because to do so might reveal that they are breaking the law. The same fear inhibits many organisations from helping them. Even journalistic agony aunts - 20 of whom petitioned Downing Street for a change to 16 - feel threatened. 'How can we give these young men the advice they need when we are dealing with a criminal offence?' they asked. Young homosexuals can even put themselves at risk of prosecution by reporting a homophobic assault on themselves. They also risk being the victims of blackmail and exploitation.

It is wrong that many gay teenagers should spend the first years of full sexual awareness knowing that society deeply disapproves of their sexuality, and that they risk two years in prison for expressing it. That knowledge can breed a sense of fear, shame and resentment leading even to suicide attempts, and liable to linger into later life.

Teenagers, whether male or female, must continue to be protected by the criminal law from predatory sexual advances, not least from adults responsible for their well-being. Equally, the public should continue to be protected from the spectacle of sexual acts in public places, whether hetero- or homosexual. Those rights are not in question. The issue MPs face on Monday is one of equality, justice and health. Whether MPs are swayed by logical arguments or the emotional backwash of an earlier, more homophobic era, will be a measure of their own maturity.