UK Peers Debate Age of Homosexual Consent

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

London ( - Britain's unelected upper house of parliament on Tuesday is debating for a third and probably final time plans by the Labor government to lower the age of consent for homosexual relations from 18 to 16.

Having twice before thrown out the move since 1997, the House of Lords is expected to do so again but faces a government determined to push through the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill regardless - even to the point of invoking a rarely-used law enabling it to override the peers.

The Parliament Act contains special powers enabling ministers to force through a law without the approval of the upper house. It has only been used a handful of times in the past 100 years and usually in matters considered to be of great public importance.

If the House of Lords again defeats the bill in Tuesday's vote, the government could get Royal Assent - the Queen's signature - and push through the law.

The bill applies to England and Wales, where homosexuals currently can only legally have sex at 18 while the age of 16 applies to heterosexual relations. As such, the law in force has been found to contravene the European Convention on Human Rights.

The government earlier tried to overcome opposition to the move by introducing a new category of offense which would make it an "abuse of trust" for an adult in a position of authority to have sex with someone in their care, even if the youngster was 16 or older.

But the upper chamber, with its Conservative Party majority, rejected the concession, saying the government was acting against public opinion.

Conservative lawmaker Baroness Blatch told the chamber the proposed "abuse of trust" safeguards were "very feeble and deeply flawed."

Speaking for the government, Attorney General Lord Williams said an unequal age of consent was a sign of an "intolerant society."

In an earlier debate, the former Conservative leader of the Lords, Baroness Young, called the measure "just one more nail in the coffin of family life."

Young said the issue had to do with abuse and not with rights.

The bill was "the thin end of the wedge," she warned. "If the age of consent is lowered to 16 it won't be long before someone is calling for it to be 14."

The House has also stymied Labor attempts to throw out "section 28," a provision prohibiting local councils from promoting homosexuality.

There are growing indications that the government may concede defeat over section 28 if the House of Lords, as expected, throws out the legislation again this summer.

The government's campaign to abolish section 28 prompted protests in England and Wales from representatives of all the main religions.

In Scotland, the Roman Catholic Church and a millionaire businessman are spearheading a "Keep the Clause" campaign to fight plans by the Labor-ruled devolved Scottish Executive to scrap the law north of the border.

Homosexual advocacy groups have long agitated to have the two laws changed, and the Labor Party promised in its 1997 election manifesto to do so.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow