What is the law?:
In the UK, the age of consent for heterosexual and homosexual men and women is now 16 in England, Wales and Scotland and 17 in Northern Ireland. This was finally changed recently meaning both heterosexual and homosexual men and women have an equal age. Before this, the age of consent for homosexual men was 18 and there was no statutory age of consent for lesbian sex.
The second change means that a person under theage of consent will not commit an offence if they have a homosexual relationship with someone over the age of consent.
The final change now in place is a new offence against adults “in positions of trust”.
Before Queen Victoria, gay sex was punishableby death. Although the threat of hanging was then removed, the law against homosexuality was strengthened. In 1967, homosexuality was legalised at the age of 21. Scotland and N.Ireland then came to be the same in 1980 and 1982 respectively. A recommendation was made by a Home Office Group in 1979 that it should be lowered to 18, but nothing happened.
Then, in 1994, MP Edwina Currie brought forward an amendment to a Bill to equalise the age of consent at 16. Though large numbers of Labour MPs supported this, the move failed but a compromise of 18 was accepted.
Then, in 1996, a case alleging that the different ages of consent breached human rights was started, and in 1997, the new Labour government said it would do everything possible to change the law.
An age of consent amendment was introduced to the Crime and Disorder Bill, this passed a free vote in the Commons but in July1998 was thrown out in the Lords. The government then dropped the amendment fearing it would lose the entire Bill.
It was then re-introduced as the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill in 1998/99. This was defeated again in April 1999. Former Conservative minister Baroness Young pledged to stop all attempts to amend the law.
It was again re-introduced in the 1999 parliamentary session, and the government threatened to enact the Bill regardless of the opinion of the Lords by using the Parliament Acts of 1922 and 1949, which restrict the House of Lords from blocking the will of the government. Again it was thrown out of the Lords in November 2000.
The Home Secretary then used the Parliament Act on 28th November.
The “abuse of trust” was also introduced with this act. This means that if someone is in a position of trust towards a person aged between 16 and 18, for instance a teacher, they are not allowed to have a sexual relationship with the younger party. Also, in line with other sex offences someone (over 20) convicted of such an offence will be placed on the national register, and could also be subject to a jail sentence.
The debate over “Section 28”, which is legislation that prevents local authorities from promoting homosexuality, continues. Though it has been defeated in the Lords, Labour has said that it is “unfinished business”.