Ann Keen MP
House of Commons
London SW1A OAA
QUEEN ANNE'S GATE
The House of Commons backed your amendment to equalise the age of consent at 16 by 336 votes to 129 votes. This was on a free vote. Your amendment had the support of all the main party leaders - William Hague, Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair. You will also be aware of my own long-standing support for your cause.
Last week, however, the House of Lords rejected your amendment by 290 votes to 122 votes.
I have since discussed what approach we should adopt to this impasse, and I am very grateful for the time and consideration which you and colleagues have devoted to this matter. This letter records our agreement from those discussions and the recommendation which I shall make (with your support) to the Commons on Tuesday when the matter comes back to the House for its consideration. However, before setting out this agreement, I think it useful to record why we as a Government accepted that your amendment could be accommodated within the Crime and Disorder Bill, and to describe the formal undertakings we have given.
Euan Sutherland and Christopher Morris, with the backing of Stonewall, took the UK, Government to the European Court of Human Rights, charging that the UK was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights in setting a differential age (18) for homosexual activity from that for heterosexual activity.
We learnt last summer that the European Commission on Human Rights would issue a preliminary finding in favour of Mr Sutherland. Our legal advice was that it was nigh-on certain that this finding would be confirmed by the full court in due course. Because such a court ruling would in practice have obliged the UK Government and Parliament to legislate for equal age of consent, and because on a free vote an overwhelming majority of the House of Commons who would favour the age of 16, we judged that to contest the preliminary ruling would serve no purpose whatever (and would waste much public money on legal costs).
We therefore sought an agreement with Mr Sutherland and Mr Morris and Stonewall to stay the proceedings, on the basis of undertakings. These undertakings, collectively agreed by the British Government, were contained in a document lodged with the European Court of Human Rights on 21 October 1997, on the public record, on this basis of which the stay was agreed.
The full text of the undertakings is attached. It has two principal components.
You, your colleagues and I have agreed:
I ought to mention that, and as you will be aware, the question has been raised about breach of trust. 1 have previously announced to the House that I have set up a review group within the Home Office to look at this issue. The review group's first meeting will be held on 30 July. This review will concern both young men and young women and in a non-discriminatory way. We will take decisions in the light of the conclusions of the review as to whether legislation will be necessary.
I fully understand that you will be disappointed, as am I, that we have not been able to secure the measure on equalisation on the age of consent in this Bill. I have no doubt that were 1 to invite the House to do so, it would send the provision back with a large majority to the Lords. But that would not serve any purpose. Now, as we all accept, is not the time to endanger the important provisions in the Crime and Disorder Bill.
On the basis of the undertakings I have given, I am glad that I shall have your support and that of colleagues in the division lobbies tomorrow.
The defeat in the House of Lords was deeply disappointing. It was clear that the vote would always be close and in the week before the vote sympathetic peers were reporting that Baroness Young was not confident of success. We believe the sudden shift in her favour was largely due to the very public support she received from the Archbishop of Canterbury and from the right wing media.
The crucial role of the Church could not be more clearly underlined, however, it was extremely important that three Bishops, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, the Bishop of Oxford and the Bishop of Lincoln did vote for equality. I believe that in the future Stonewall must develop a stronger alliance with our supporters in the churches.
Baroness Young made much of the constitutional position. As you know the Government were unable to use the Parliament Act because the Crime and Disorder Bill originated in the Lords. The Bill was due to go back to the Lords much earlier, but was delayed by the Northern Ireland legislation and eventually it went right up against the wire.
In this situation there was, as Jack Straw says, an impasse. The Government remained committed to honouring the settlement they agreed with Stonewall in the Euan Sutherland and Chris Morris cases, that is to bring forward legislation to implement the will of the House of Commons and for such legislation to be implemented by the end of the next Parliamentary session.
The question was how to do this. It was clear that the Lords would reject the Bill and would carry on doing so. Neither the Crime and Disorder Bill nor the age of consent amendment would become law.
Over this weekend and on Monday there were lengthy discussions with the Home Office and Jack Straw to find a way to ensure that both the Bill and the equalisation of the age of consent became law. Ann Keen and I both agreed that returning the Bill to the Lords without the backing of the Government and the Parliament Act would weaken our position and erode public support. We believed that what was needed was for the Government to take a strong line and make absolutely clear that the will of Parliament would prevail and that an equal age of consent would become law.
We were also very anxious, as far as possible, the Government's new Bill should deal only with the age of consent with no discriminatory amendments relating to the protection of young boys.
In any new Bill it is likely that Joe Ashton or others will put forward such amendments, but Jack Straw's letter gives a guarantee that the Government would only accept measures that dealt equally with young women and young men in a nondiscriminatory way. This means that any such measure would have to deal with the criminalisation of the younger gay men.