As I was saying, it seems to me that there is no difference between the Government and the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire with respect to the intention of the Bill: those who are living to whom an injustice has been done should be pardoned, but the intention is not to pardon those who committed offences that would still be criminal offences today. The only disagreement is about the actual effect of the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman has suggested a specific mechanism for ensuring that people do not make improper use of a pardon: the onus of proof would be on them to show that they had not committed what would now still be an offence. In those circumstances, it seems entirely right and proper, especially given that the Government encouraged the hon. Gentleman in the first place to introduce his Bill after his success in the private Members’ Bill ballot, that the Bill is given a Second Reading today and proceeds to Committee, where these differences in legal effect could be properly ironed out.
I accept that, in bringing forward their proposals a very short time ago, the Government intend to do broadly the same thing in fulfilment of their manifesto commitment as the Bill seeks to do. However, I also understand why the hon. Gentleman feels that his Bill should receive a Second Reading and that there should be further discussion about the effects that his Bill proposes.
The Government originally encouraged the Bill but a couple of days before its debate on Second Reading have introduced their own alternative measures: I do not think that is generally a good way to proceed. If there has been some misunderstanding or breakdown in communication, I urge both sides to restore communication. The best and most proper thing would be for the discussions to take place in Committee, so that legitimate debate about the arcane provisions can be had.
I confirm that if the Government honour their original promise to me and support my Bill, I will be very happy to engage with any concerns they have in Committee.
I am sure that the Government will have heard that.
It would be a pity if hon. Members who do not share the majority view here today—that the Bill’s general provisions should proceed and that in general it is right that people should be pardoned—and who do not accept the Conservative party’s manifesto commitment to that effect were given an excuse to attempt not to allow the Bill to proceed, because of the disagreement over the Bill’s legal effect. There is, I repeat, no disagreement about the intention of the hon. Gentleman’s Bill; it is the same as the Government’s intention. There is, therefore, broad agreement that this is the right thing to do.
People will be listening to this debate. The signal that the House of Commons sends on these matters is immensely important. As I said before the urgent question, it is important in terms of the justice that should be done to those who are still living, when a great injustice was done before. It is important to many young people who are struggling and coming to terms with their sexuality and who want to ensure acceptance today. It is important that the message this country sends out to the rest of the world is that the legislation we passed and promoted in an age gone by was not only wrong then but is still capable of doing great injustice today. We should atone for that in a very clear manner, and we should not allow the message that we wish to send to all those groups of people to be distorted. The House of Commons should stand for justice and equality, and we should stand for the principle that, where an injustice was done in the past, we should recognise that clearly and unequivocally. That is why this Bill should be given a Second Reading.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson) on bringing this important and essential Bill to Parliament. There has been huge progress in allowing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex equality in recent years, with significant changes in laws and attitudes that have seen Scotland become the best country in Europe for LGBTI legal rights, with the rest of the UK close behind.
Despite those welcome steps forward, we must never forget the appalling way LGBTI people have been treated in the UK throughout history. The criminalisation of thousands of gay and bisexual men, who were cautioned, convicted, imprisoned and even castrated under homophobic laws that banned sex between consenting adult men is a complete wrong in our history. We must now take ownership and apologise for that.
The namesake of this Bill, Alan Turing, was a mathematician, code breaker and computing pioneer, whose work cracking the Enigma code is said to have shortened world war two by two to four years. He lost his job with the secret service after being convicted of gross indecency, and he was chemically castrated by means of a series of injections of female hormones. As a result, he took his own life just two years later, in 1954.
In 2013, Alan Turing was granted a posthumous royal pardon—61 years after he had been charged at a Manchester police station. Now, that is all good, but it is perverse and illogical that Turing is the only person so far to have been pardoned. I am sure no one in the House doubts that there needs to be wider action. The Government have a duty to pardon everybody who was convicted under the gross indecency law in these historical homophobic rulings.
It is thought that at least 49,000 other gay and bisexual men were convicted under similar outdated laws, until homosexuality was deemed not to be illegal in 1967. Each was just as unfairly persecuted, and many suffered similarly awful fates to Alan Turing. It is estimated that 16,000 of these men are still alive today. Many find themselves outed, interrogated and ostracised from society over their sexuality, and they have suffered long-lasting psychological damage.
From what I understand, there is currently a disregard process. Men can apply through the Home Office to have their record cleared, which removes any mention of an offence from criminal record checks. That is simply not good enough. Although those men would still have to apply to have their record expunged, the Bill would give a blanket pardon to all men who have lived their life with an unfair, unjust criminal conviction.
Stonewall, the leading LGBTI charity, has given its full support to the measures laid out in the Bill, on the basis that it makes a stronger statement on the seriousness of the Government’s commitment in this area of social life. If we are to take action, and to provide leadership, it is best that we do that wholeheartedly, with the full backing of the law. I would go further and call on the Prime Minister to make a full public apology to LGBTI individuals in the United Kingdom for the injustice they have suffered.
Nothing we do now can fully make amends for the cruel discrimination these men have suffered. However, I hope this Bill goes some way towards giving a sense of closure to these men and their families.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law). I hope you will not mind, Mr Deputy Speaker, if I mark the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster in a couple of sentences and pay tribute to those residents in Torquay— particularly in Chelston, in my constituency—who offered their homes up in hospitality, to give people not only somewhere to go but respite away from the scene where so many people had lost the lives. A plaque commemorates that to this day at Torre abbey.
I congratulate the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson) on bringing the Bill to the House. Whatever the outcome of today’s debate, we saw the major change announced by the Government yesterday, which will finally see people viewed as innocent, and show that they were not committing a criminal offence as we would know it today.
In his introduction, the hon. Gentleman talked about how, when he was born, these things were a criminal offence. However, even when I was born, it was still a criminal offence in Scotland and Northern Ireland to be who you are. It took until 1982, quite shamefully— 15 years after decriminalisation in England—for similar provisions finally to come into effect in Northern Ireland. Some territories that fly our flag—maybe not the SNP’s flag—still had laws of this nature as recently as the 1990s. It almost beggars belief that people still thought these things.
We could look back through history at a whole range of offences that, nowadays, we would say are not offences. For example, we do not believe that there is anyone in our constituencies today who is practising as a witch and trying to make someone ill. [Interruption.] Well, perhaps we might be getting a few spells cast here today. Let us be clear: such convictions were patent nonsense—people were sent to the gallows for something that was absolute nonsense and that was based on fear and hysteria. The difference with these offences is that people are gay or lesbian—that is who they are—but, in the past, that would have been a criminal offence. The laws we are referring to, under which people were still being convicted not that long ago—some of those people are still alive—were passed only 20 or so years after the death penalty had been removed in this country. That is why, for me, having such a pardon makes eminent sense.
I have felt a bit in today’s debate that we are dancing on the head of a pin, to be blunt. We have the argument that a pardon should be given, but that it will be replicated only on criminal records checks, which are the key part of this, on application, versus the argument that a pardon should be granted after removal from criminal record checks. I think we would all agree that criminal record checks have to be absolutely accurate—I say that having listened to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire. I have therefore found some of the argument on both sides rather interesting in terms of the actual nub of this issue.
Likewise, having heard both arguments, and having got a copy of the Bill, I think there is no suggestion from anyone that what is still a criminal offence today should not remain on someone’s record; the debate is how we get where we want. I very much welcome the fact that the Government’s amendment to the Bill that is already in the Lords and that is due to come back here in the not-too-distant future will probably be the quickest way of getting there.
We need to be clear that nobody is suggesting that someone should be able to go around claiming that they would have been innocent of an offence that would still be an offence to this day. That is particularly the case where we have more modern legislation in relation to those in positions of authority over those aged 16 or 17. Quite bizarrely, given all the hysteria around the impact on younger boys, there was not actually any legislation back in the 1950s that made it an offence for a teacher to be a predator towards a 16 or 17-year-old student of the opposite sex. To be fair to the then Labour Government, it made eminent sense that, when changing the age of consent, that anomaly was righted. It was equally as bad for a 30 or 40-year-old teacher to prey on a member of the opposite sex as on someone of their own sex. The issue was their using their position to abuse someone, not the type of relationship involved. It is also about looking back into the past. Some people would ask, “Why apply it to offences beyond 1967?”, but we all realise that there were offences before 1967.
My hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker), who sadly is not in his place, talked about the police’s reactions and behaviour. Peter Tatchell’s book, interestingly, says that in some cases there were more prosecutions after 1967 than there had been before, because some forces recognised that the pre-1967 legislation was from another era, and the enforcement of it was mixed and variable. In the mid-1940s, during world war two, there was almost a policy of discreetly ignoring things on the basis that it was seen as helpful, most famously in the case of Alan Turing, to use people’s skills in the fight for freedom. Then in the 1950s, there were moves to take that freedom away by prosecuting them for historical offences. It makes sense to look not just at those who were convicted on the law pre-1967 but those who were convicted up until very recently on the basis of different laws. It should also be remembered that there is still on the statute book a bar on gay men serving in the merchant navy. I believe there is a private Member’s Bill that we will discuss on a future Friday to remove that, but it is sad to note that there are still parts of our legislation that contain these types of historical provisions.
Where we have got to today reflects the changing attitudes of society. I openly admit that I had a major change of attitude when I went to university. At secondary school, like a lot of people, I fell for some of the prejudiced arguments and it was all about what the group thought. When I got to university, for the first time I was with people who were out, saying who they were and being proud of it. The president of Warwick University’s Pride society had a chat with me at the time when the debate was going on about section 28. He said, “I should be a Conservative.” I said, “Really?” He said, “Yeah, I believe in freedom of choice. You believe in freedom of choice, Kevin. Your party does, up until when I make the choice about who I want to love, and you argue against. I can choose whether I want a pension, I can choose what house I buy, what kind of life I have, and whether I have children, yet I can’t choose who I love.” That, for me, was quite a transformative moment. It was such a logical argument—I had that choice, so why should they not have it? Some people know that my partner is a little older than I am. I have the right to choose that—there has never been an offence in law against it—so why should it be an offence for anyone else to choose whom they love, provided that they are both of the age where they can make an informed and mutual choice and give consent?
Sometimes we hear the religious argument—I am a practising Christian; I sometimes help to administer the elements at my church—that was regularly used to justify the laws of the past. Yet there is a law in the ten commandments about adultery, which is described as a sin, but has never been a criminal offence.
There is also in Deuteronomy a ruling against mixed fabrics, but to the best of my knowledge we do not publicly stone people for mixing rayon and wool.
There is another part about the appropriate price for slaves that is found in another part of it. The hon. Gentleman may not be aware of the homophobes and prejudiced individuals in some parts of the United States who commonly like to have tattooed on their bodies a particular part of Leviticus about how certain things are an abomination, forgetting the bit in Leviticus that describes tattooing the skin as a sin. It is a delicious irony that they are so blinded by their prejudice that they have not even bothered to read the rest of that book of the Bible. They do not know the sheer irony of what they are doing and how they are showing their total and utter ignorance when they have a tattoo like that on their body. It has been hundreds of years since we had the idea that religious belief should be enforced by political power. Therefore the argument used in the past seems completely incoherent.
The Wolfenden committee concluded that offences in relation to homosexuality were victimless crimes. No one had complained, both sides were happy to take part, and nobody’s rights had been infringed—it was just that other people were so prejudiced about someone making that choice that they thought it should be a criminal offence, with truly ridiculous penalties given that nobody had gone to the police to say, “I’ve been harmed.” All too often, this became a way of blackmailing people—of threatening to go and dob someone in. Shamefully, even until the 1990s the military police were still dealing in that sort of behaviour. I remember when I was growing up, as a teenager, there was an episode of “A Touch of Frost” based on the idea that someone could be blackmailed for their whole career on the basis of whether they are gay. That was absolutely shameful. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire rightly mentioned what was said at that time, including by some members of my party who were in government. John Major did the right thing in terms of the foreign service, but we did the wrong thing in not admitting people to the armed forces. The arguments that were advanced were patently stuff and nonsense. It is pleasing that in the United States President Obama is finally abandoning “Don’t ask, don’t tell”, because it was a load of nonsense—the idea that people sharing a shower is fine as long as they do not tell anyone. That was a symbolic change and a move forward.
I am in a slight quandary. It is welcome that we have a Government who are prepared to move on this, but I understand the hon. Gentleman’s arguments. I certainly will not oppose the Bill because that would be ridiculous. The Bill and the Government’s amendment both deal with the practical effects, which is the key concern. That said, amendment is almost certainly the quickest way to get this on to the statute book and finally give people a chance to—I will not say to clear their name, because they are not criminals; they are innocent. All they have done is to be who they are. I find the idea of clearing their name quite strange.
I broadly sympathise with the direction in which the hon. Gentleman is going, but I draw his attention to the fact that the Government’s measure does not do the same thing. The only way to achieve the same thing is to send the Bill into Committee.
Ultimately, though, we are debating the criminal records. The Bill refers to a blanket pardon, but it only takes effect in terms of someone getting their name off the criminal records, via an application, and the Government’s idea is that their name is got off the criminal records and then they get a formal pardon. That is the fundamental difference. I accept that this could be addressed in Committee. However, after a couple of hours’ debate we all agree with the sentiment and the principle; we are dancing around on a pin.
The key difference is that the Government want some safeguards around the pardon for the living. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) spoke about some people with great moral fibre, but the Government want to protect against the situation where, if there is a blanket pardon, someone who had not been pardoned could go around saying that they had. What does one say to the victims of that person if it was non-consensual sex in that case?
With respect to the Minister, anyone could go around making a claim that they had been pardoned for an offence; it is the position in the criminal records that makes the key difference.
I will take one more intervention but I am very conscious of time.
I have 12 more speakers and the Front Benchers to get in as well.
This is a seminal debate. Will the hon. Gentleman join me in urging the Minister to think again? Let us get the Bill to Committee, sort out the problems that the Minister thinks he has and get it on the statute book.
I hear what the shadow Minister is saying. To be fair to the Minister, he has gone further than anyone has in the last 50 years towards pardoning people, so I am loth to criticise him. As I have said, I will not oppose the Bill, because that would be the wrong step. I will, however, probably find myself abstaining, because I think that the Government are offering something that will make a difference. I say to the Minister that anyone can claim to have been pardoned, but the criminal record checks are the final determinant. I do not think that anyone on either side of the argument is contending that those decisions should be changed unless someone proves that they did not commit a criminal offence.
Ultimately, we are talking about people who never committed an offence; all that they did was to be who they were. It is unfortunate that we have ended up arguing so strongly over minor points.
Order. May I just say that we are in danger of talking the Bill out? I want to hear everybody, and Members are still waiting to speak. Can we try to help each other? With 12 speakers, if we try to keep it short, we can get there.
I would like to pay my respects to the people of Aberfan. We will not forget you.
I thank the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson) for introducing the Bill, and I thank the many Members, across parties, who support it. We have heard fantastic speeches today, especially from my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who is very honourable.
The Government’s announcement that they intend to amend the Policing and Crime Bill is, of course, welcome but it does not go far enough. The Bill we are debating concerns posthumous pardons and pardons for men who are still alive. It would pardon anyone who had been convicted of, or cautioned for, a specified offence and who had died before the legislation came into force, provided that the following two conditions are met: that the other person involved in the conduct constituting the offence consented to it and was aged 16 or over; and that such conduct would not be an offence under section 71 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which concerns sexual activity in a public lavatory.
The Bill also relates to pardons for men who are still living. It would pardon anyone who had been convicted of, or cautioned for, an offence listed in section 92(1) of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 and who was living at the time the clause came into force. Pardons for living men would not be automatic but would be tied to the disregard process set out in the 2012 Act. Anyone whose conviction or caution had already become disregarded under the 2012 Act at the time the clause came into force would be pardoned for that offence. Anyone whose conviction or caution becomes disregarded under the 2012 Act after the clause came into force would be pardoned for that offence at the time the disregard took effect. Living men would not receive a pardon unless they had also successfully applied to have their conviction or caution disregarded under the 2012 Act.
The press has been quick to term the proposal “Turing’s law”. For Alan Turing, a war hero without whom we might not have cracked the Enigma code and defeated fascism, his pardon came posthumously and too late. Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown rightly issued an official apology in 2009 after a public petition. In issuing the apology, Gordon Brown said of Mr Turing:
“In 1952, he was convicted of gross indecency—in effect, tried for being gay. His sentence—and he was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison—was chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones. He took his own life just two years later.
Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time, and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair, and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I am and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and so many thousands of other gay men who were convicted, as he was convicted, under homophobic laws, were treated terribly. Over the years, millions more lived in fear of conviction. I am proud that those days are gone and that in the past 12 years this Government has done so much to make life fairer and more equal for our LGBT community. This recognition of Alan’s status as one of Britain’s most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality, and long overdue.”
Opposition Members, and Labour supporters the length and breadth of the UK, are proud that it was a Labour Government and a Labour Prime Minister that started the process that has led us to this debate. The coalition Government initially refused to exercise a pardon in 2012, and it was right that, under the weight of public opinion, they changed their mind in 2013, so that the Queen could grant a pardon in 2014. As many have said today, there are so many more men who have not received a pardon, and they should receive one. It is right that we recognise the need to extend the pardon afforded to Alan Turing to others who were convicted of what was, much to history’s shame, a criminal offence, although most people today quite rightly find that hard to believe.
That is why Labour committed to Turing’s law in the 2015 general election. The law as it stands does not go far enough, as Rachel Barnes, a great niece of Alan Turing, recognised in 2015 when she handed in a petition to Downing Street. She said:
“I consider it to be fair and just that everybody who was convicted under the Gross Indecency Law is given a pardon. It is illogical that my great uncle has been the only one to be pardoned when so many were convicted of the same crime. I feel sure that Alan Turing would have also wanted justice for everybody.”
It is right that the Government have listened to those who have campaigned on the issue for many years. The private Member’s Bill before the House today would, of course, go further. Pardons would be given to all convicted of specified offences, save for those convicted of behaviour that would still amount to an offence today. It is difficult to see the Government’s objection to that in principle. The problems of perception that the Minister highlights could easily be avoided through appropriate publicity. It is often suggested that the disregard scheme should have more promotion. The Government should give serious thought to that, whatever the outcome of proceedings in the House today.
The proposed amendment to section 92 of the 2012 Act also looks like a logical progression. Section 32 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956—soliciting by men for immoral purposes—was not included in the list of convictions that should be disregarded in the 2012 Act. There are many examples that show that the offence in section 32 was used as recently as the 1990s to arrest and prosecute gay and bisexual men for suggesting sex between what they understood to be consenting adults, often in incidents involving plain-clothes police officers. At present men convicted under section 32 cannot have their conviction disregarded, even though it was repealed by the Sexual Offences Act 2003. The Bill will add those convictions to the list of those that can be disregarded, closing that loophole.
Labour recognises that the conviction and persecution of more than 50,000 men affected by these vicious and discriminatory laws has left a legacy of pain and hurt, not just to the men themselves but to their families and friends. This Bill is about our country sending those men a clear and unequivocal message that they did nothing wrong, and they should not have been criminalised. It is time to right a grievous historical wrong. That is why I and Labour Members will support the Bill. We encourage all other hon. Members to do the same.
It is a pleasure to be called to speak in this important debate. I begin by adding my congratulations to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson), first on securing the top spot in the private Members’ Bill ballot and then on deciding to use it to introduce this important Bill. I was pleased and honoured to be asked to be a sponsor of the Bill. My support for it remains undiluted, and, should we divide on it, I will be supporting the hon. Gentleman in the Lobby.
I identified with much of what the hon. Gentleman said in his opening speech about the experience of growing up as a closeted gay man in the west of Scotland. I went through a similar experience and upbringing, and it was not easy. It took me a long time to come to terms with who I was. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman and I went to the same school, although—and it might be ungallant of me to say this—not at the same time; I followed a few years later, but I can very much identify with his experiences. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) says from a sedentary position that he is proud to have that school in his constituency, and a very fine school it is. But it was not easy growing up in that atmosphere being gay, and having to hide that out of a sense of shame. I will come back to that point in a little while.
My other reason for being very passionate about this measure is a constituency one. I am very proud that in my constituency of Milton Keynes South is Bletchley Park, where Alan Turing did much of his celebrated work during the second world war; as many Members have mentioned, he did much to shorten that conflict and save thousands, if not millions, of lives. I am very proud that we got to the point where he was granted a pardon during the last Parliament. That was the culmination of a long campaign over many years by many people inside and outside the House.
I remember that during the debate about whether Alan Turing should be granted a pardon as opposed to an apology a number of objections were raised. On the one and only time I have been grilled on “Newsnight” by Jeremy Paxman, two particular arguments were made. The first was that it was wrong retrospectively to pardon for something that was a crime at the time but now, in more enlightened times, is thankfully no longer so, because if we were to start pardoning for that offence, where would we stop? What about witchcraft—would we grant a pardon and apology for that? Well, if people want to bring forward a Bill to pardon people for witchcraft, bring it forward. But this particular issue really matters to lots of people. It is a sign of a civilised society that we can collectively pardon. There is a precedent in the blanket pardon issued to soldiers executed in world war one for so-called cowardice. I was very happy at the time to support the pardon for Alan Turing on the basis that we can retrospectively pardon.
The second argument was, why just Alan Turing? Yes, he is a famous and celebrated person to whom we owe an enormous debt of gratitude, but, many Members have alluded to the fact that he was just one individual out of thousands who were caught under the same legislation. It was more difficult to argue against that. I was happy to champion a pardon for Alan Turing because as a country we owe him a huge debt of gratitude. The pardon was right for that reason. It was also right as a symbol of the fact that the country had moved on; by pardoning him, we were sending a very clear message that such so-called crimes were no longer a stain on our collective conscience.
It troubled me, however, that the pardon was just for that one person. As the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire and others have powerfully argued, this matter affected many thousands of other men. That is why I am very pleased that the Bill has been introduced. To be fair to the Government, they have made progress on this through the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 in the last Parliament. They have also indicated their support for Lord Sharkey’s amendment in the other place. That is very welcome progress and I will wholeheartedly support that if it is the vehicle through which change happens. But I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman and the many others from both sides of the House who have said that we can do better. We can move forward in a much more symbolic way that will make a real difference to many people in this country.
That is an important point of symbolism, which is at the heart of what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I would dearly have loved to speak in today’s debate, but my voice is failing me due to a cold. I did not come out to my family until just after I was elected. It was with the support of my SNP colleagues, my family and friends that I made a public statement earlier this year. I hope the next generation of young people and politicians will not have to make public statements and will not have to say that they are gay—because it will not matter: our colour, our race, our sexual identity will not make a difference; all will be equal. That is why it is so important to give this Bill its Second Reading so that it can go forward into Committee. We will have better scrutiny of this Bill in Committee than we will of an amendment as an afterthought to a Bill that is already going through Parliament.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady, and I congratulate her on finding her moment to make that announcement. I agree that it should not have to be made. All of us who are gay have a different journey, and we come to terms with it in different ways at different times—privately with our families and friends, and then publicly.
That brings me on neatly to my next point. Although we live in enlightened times in which we have passed the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013; section 28—or section 2A as it was in Scotland—has been consigned to the dustbin, and adoption and military procedures have changed, some people ask why we need a Bill such as this. They say, “Haven’t you already got all you’ve been asking for?”. However, it is important to note that even people such as me, who were born after homosexuality was decriminalised, can still sometimes carry with us perhaps a sense of shame or perhaps a sense that we are not entirely comfortable in our own skins.
That is a legacy of growing up in an age when there was prejudice. Different people coped with it in different ways. I struggled with it at times. I read a very good book, and I encourage other Members to read it, called “The Velvet Rage” by Dr Alan Downs. He gets to the heart of why some gay men, even in enlightened times and in countries where the law is as liberal as it could be, still feel that rage and shame. Addressing that problem does matter.
The Bill will not in itself clear all the hang-ups or depression or other feelings that people have, but it will be an important next step—in the same way as same sex marriage was and all the other changes we have made in recent years. I urge the Government to think seriously about supporting this Bill. They should at least grant it a Second Reading.
If I remember correctly from when I was studying politics at university, the point of a Second Reading is to provide a debate on the principle of the Bill in question. No one here today has expressed an objection to the principle of this Bill. There may be questions about the detail, the process, the capacity of the Ministry of Justice—these are perfectly valid concerns to raise. We are a Parliament; that is what we do. We look at the detail, tease out issues and look for unintended consequences and so forth. That can surely be done in Committee.
I think that if we approve the Bill today, it would send out a powerful and important message to the country, to the thousands of men who still struggle with what happened in the past and to those growing up today who remain uncertain about whether and how they should come out. Please let us approve this today. Let us take it to Committee and tease out the issues there. That is the appropriate procedure for this Bill. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire once again on introducing the Bill. I will be proud to support him later in the Lobby if it comes to that.
It is a genuine pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), who delivered a powerful speech in favour of the Bill. I also want to thank particularly, in the warmest terms, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson) for introducing it. Unlike him, I was not born in the 1960s, although my parents were, and I reflect on how much our society has changed during their lifetimes and mine. In particular, I reflect on how much the law of the land has changed just in my own lifetime, and on the record of successive Governments. We have seen the abolition of section 28 in England and Wales and section 2A in Scotland, the legalisation of equal marriage, the introduction of protection in respect of goods and services, and the ability of LGBT people to serve in the armed forces. So many changes in the law of the land brought about by this place have led to a change in our country, and our country is a better place for it, which is why I strongly support the Bill.
I welcome the fact that we are having a debate with a Conservative Government about how we should make this change in the law, rather than whether we should make it. I shall return to that point later in my short speech, but I am pleased that the Government have already taken some steps in the House of Lords. I urge them to go further this afternoon, through the Bill and through proper scrutiny in the House of Commons.
Alan Turing has an important part to play in our country’s history, but he also has an important part to play in our country’s future. Through great initiatives like LGBT history month, and through the work of science and history teachers in schools up and down the country, young people growing up in Britain today learn of the extraordinary acts of bravery and intelligence that took place at Bletchley Park, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Milton Keynes South. It is very likely that, had it not been for Alan Turing, we would not have succeeded in turning back the tide of Nazism as it swept across Europe. We would not have been successful in defeating the Nazis in the sea and in the air. It was because of the Enigma code-breaking work that took place at Bletchley Park that the allies were able to secure such a powerful advantage over the Nazis when all seemed lost on the continent of Europe.
That story is powerful not just because of the extraordinary role that Alan Turing played in a decisive moment in British history, but because, only a few years later, this hero of our country was tried before our courts, was chemically castrated, and was forced to take his own life. Young people growing up in schools today do not only learn about the enormous heroism of Alan Turing; they also learn about the extraordinary treachery of the Government of the day and the courts that allowed it to happen. That lesson and that experience cause them to reflect on what it means to be a decent human being, to reflect with horror on Britain’s past, and to aspire to a better future. As a former head of education at Stonewall, I know how powerful the work of teachers and schools is, not just in enabling young people to learn about changes in the law, but in bringing about changes in hearts and minds.
LGBT young people growing up in Britain today face a very different pressure from the pressure faced by Alan Turing and his generation. Unlike Alan Turing’s generation, they are not threatened by the letter of the law. None the less, just like Alan Turing’s generation, they feel threatened by bigotry in the streets, in the workplace, in the classroom and in the home. That is why we need to think very carefully about the message that we will send through the law today.
The pressure that LGBT people continue to face to remain in the closet because of fear of discrimination or violence in this country today has led to an appalling situation. More than one in five gay men currently experience moderate to severe anxiety or depression, and a third of lesbian and bisexual women have thought of taking their own lives. Shockingly, according to research by Stonewall, more than 50% of LGBT young people in our schools have self-harmed, and about one in four have attempted suicide. Those are young people growing up in our country today. In any other context—in the context of the general population, for example—there would be outrage in the House and throughout the country over such figures relating to suicide and self-harm, yet these are real statistics affecting young people in our country today. They have reached epidemic proportions, and this is a national crisis. The Government need to look carefully at what they can do to tackle the mental health crisis that still affects LGBT people in Britain today.
The hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) spoke powerfully about symbols, and about the power of the Bill to be an important symbol for the kind of country we want to be. I urge the Minister to think carefully about the kind of symbol that the House would be presenting today if the Bill, with all the welcome publicity it has generated, were either talked out or defeated. It would send a message that there are still people in this House and across the country who are not content to see equality for LGBT people and who look back on the progress made by this Parliament not with pride and optimism for the future but with regret and pessimism about their ability to defeat what Martin Luther King called the arc of social progress that “bends towards justice”. The Minister clearly has some technical problems with the Bill as it has been presented, but that is exactly why he should urge his colleagues to vote in favour of its Second Reading, so that those issues can be ironed out in Committee. If the Bill is defeated today, people across the country will not hear the news that the Minister had some technical concerns with it; they will see the news that the Conservative Government conspired to defeat this important measure.
It is important to make it absolutely clear that the Government are not dragging their heels and are not hesitant on this important issue. We want to right this historic wrong as fairly and quickly as possible. That is why we have tabled an amendment to the Policing and Crime Bill.
I am absolutely delighted to hear that, and I will be happy to talk further with the Minister about how we can iron out the problems in the Bill as we march into the Aye Lobby together this afternoon.
We can look back with enormous pride at what has been achieved, but we must not assume that the progress we have made cannot be undone. I am sure that I am not the only person in the House this afternoon who is deeply concerned that in recent weeks and months we have seen a huge rise in hate crime across the United Kingdom, including homophobic hate crime. We are seeing the rise of far-right extremism across Europe, and the US presidential election has shown that being absolutely fine with sexual harassment is no bar to holding the highest office. People who strongly support liberal democracy have become complacent about defending it and ensuring its ongoing success. The Bill represents an important moment in that context, and it should be supported.
I want to end by quoting the words of Roger Lockyer, who is 88 years old and one of the men who had to endure a lifetime of experiences that someone of my age has thankfully not had to experience. Speaking about the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire’s Bill and about those members of his generation who were convicted, he said:
“They may have been legally convicted, but they were unjustly convicted.”
This pardon is not about forgiveness for something that people did wrong. It will send a powerful message that they should never have been convicted in the first place, that those laws should never have existed and that those people should never have been prosecuted when they had done absolutely nothing wrong. The Bill is about confronting our country’s past and facing the future with confidence. That is why I will be voting for it this afternoon.
It is a great privilege to follow the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting). I lived in Ilford as a young man, until I was drummed out of town when the locals discovered that I was a closet Tory. It is a great pleasure follow him and to have this opportunity to speak in the debate on this Bill, which is not only of great importance for justice in this country but of great emotional importance to my constituents and others who are either gay themselves or who have friends, family and colleagues who are gay and feel that they have been judged by a different standard over the years.
The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson) is my colleague on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, and I am incredibly grateful to him for using his coveted allocation of time to bring forward these proposals in a private Member’s Bill and for sharing his ideas with me over several bottles of rosé a few weeks ago. He has done valuable work to make this a truly cross-party initiative. I thank him for including me in this and I am proud to be on my feet today in support of what he wants to achieve through the Bill. We have heard some impressive contributions, and I particularly want to mention my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), and the hon. Members for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) and for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who made a moving speech.
Equality before the law must be not only our fundamental principle, but our fundamental practice. That means that not only must justice be done, but justice must be seen to be done. The Government’s previous disregard scheme was a step in the right direction towards justice in that it helped to ameliorate the repercussions of a criminal record for those convicted under what we now rightly consider outdated, unfair, discriminatory laws that treated sex between men differently. To truly rectify the injustice we must go further and, as the Bill proposes, grant pardons and admit that the convictions were immoral, which does not really happen under a disregard scheme. Justice will then be seen to be done and, importantly, the wrongfully criminalised and their families will feel that it has been done.
The Government’s official apology for the shameful treatment of Alan Turing was an important moment. I am pleased that the deep gratitude we now correctly feel toward Turing’s crucial contributions to Britain’s defence provided enough of a focal point that his famous cause could trigger that apology. No matter how famous or anonymous, however, no one citizen has a greater value nor a greater right to justice. That pardon was just for Alan Turing, but there is no tenable case for every other individual affected not having the same right. Like Turing, each individual is someone’s family, someone’s friend, and they deserve acknowledgement of their fundamental equality before the law.
I welcomed the comments of the Minister when he said yesterday that the Government will adopt some of the proposals in this Bill and use the Policing and Crime Bill to put right some of the injustices. However, I found the Government’s last-minute scrambling or dancing around handbags—not something I have done myself—a little slippery and disrespectful to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire and his Bill, but I look forward to the Minister’s further remarks.
Other colleagues and the Bill’s promoter have made eloquent moral and legal cases, so I will conclude my contribution on the subject there, but I want to finish by taking the opportunity to issue a mea culpa. During my first term in office, I voted against marriage equality for a whole host of reasons. I thought at the time that what I was doing was right, but having reflected and having seen how the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 has made such a positive difference for thousands of couples around the country, I deeply regret that decision—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]—and many in this House will know how difficult it is for a Yorkshireman to admit that he got something wrong. If I had the opportunity again, I would vote differently and I want to apologise. I apologise to friends, family members and constituents who identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual. I want them to know that I believe in their full equality. I am unable to change that previous vote, but I am pleased to have the chance today to stand in support of equality before the law, and I am more than happy to support my friend’s Bill.
We heard some fashion advice earlier from my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald), and, without realising it, I, too, am wearing a purple tie and a yellow lanyard. Today is the day when, after years of soul searching, I have to come out as being straight—I should point out that my wife, who has been good enough to put up with me for the past 32 years, has had her suspicions. But there is a serious point here, which was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell): I have never had to come out as being straight, so why should anyone have to come out as being gay, lesbian or anything else? I have never had to justify to anybody the codes of behaviour that guide me in my private life, partly through the faith I believe in and partly just because I am who I am. Why should somebody who follows a different path in life have to justify their right to do so? What gives me or anyone else the right to criminalise somebody simply because they are a wee bit different from how I am?
My first reason for supporting the Bill is therefore not because the various pieces of legislation that outlawed homosexual acts were wrong or mistaken, or because they have passed their sell-by date and it is time to catch up with changes in social values and so on, but because they were laws that no Parliament on earth has ever had any right to pass in the first place. Our predecessors stepped well beyond any legitimate authority they had when passing that legislation. I do not judge them, and I do not judge the police and courts that then had to enforce the legislation, but it is entirely proper that, as the successors of those who passed legislation that they had no right to pass, we should take full responsibility for doing what we can to put it right. That is also why this deserves a full Act of Parliament in its own right, as the injustice is great enough. It is appropriate that that Act should be born in the part of Parliament that is elected by the people and speaks for the people, rather than in a part that is appointed by and for the great and the good.
I was going to speak about the damage that has been done to so many lives, but I shall consider the interests of brevity, as the worst possible result we could have today would be for the Bill to be talked out. I cannot imagine anything worse than for this Parliament to send out a message that says that, almost 50 years after we decriminalised homosexual acts, we did not have time to decide whether finally to pardon and apologise to all those who were affected.
I can appreciate the concerns about creating a precedent. Apart from the example referred to earlier about young men who were executed for cowardice because they had a nervous or mental breakdown in the trenches, I am not aware of any other instance in our recent history when so many people have been subjected to such awful persecution as a result of an unjust Act of Parliament. If anyone can give me such an example and wants to introduce retrospective pardons for those affected by that legislation, I will support it, as I hope everyone else will.
My judgment on when Parliament should criminalise an act will never be based on whether it complies with the personal conduct that I impose on myself as a matter of my religious faith; it will always be based on whether that act is harmful to others. Robert Burns once said, in my favourite quote of his, even though it is not a piece of poetry, that “whatever injures society at large, or any individual in it, this is my measure of iniquity.”
That should be our measure of any proposed criminal legislation. If something does not hurt anybody else, it is nothing to do with the law of the land. Despite having had a number of sometimes difficult conversations with close friends and family at the times of the debates on section 28, gay marriage, gay adoption and many other things, I have never heard anyone present me with a single piece of evidence to suggest that two men having sex are any more of a danger to society or any less a member of it than a man and a woman having sex or two women having sex. Let us remember that it has never been a criminal offence for two women to have sex, so why on earth did anyone think that it was a good idea to criminalise it for men?
A further huge damage that has been done to our society as a result of this legislation, as we see in the good example here of my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson), who confessed that he had actually wanted to join the Government service but decided not to because he would not have been allowed to without telling lies. How many of our finest diplomats never joined the diplomatic service? How many of our best teachers never taught in front of a class of young people? How many of our best politicians never stood for any public office, not because they were not good enough, but because they were scared to do so as a result of the terror of what might then come out about their private lives?
This legislation had an appalling effect on the lives of many thousands of our fellow citizens. It has caused untold damage to the wellbeing of our whole society. As other Members have said, it was a gift to our friends in the KGB, because it is very difficult to blackmail somebody over their guilty secrets after we have said, “Your guilty secret isn’t guilty anymore and you don’t have to keep it secret anymore.” It was a blackmailer’s charter. We will never know how much damage was done in that regard. We do not know how many lives were blighted—I am talking about the lives of the boys and men who managed not to be convicted. We know how many men were convicted, but we will never know how many lived their entire lives under the sheer terror of being discovered. We know that a significant number of men took their own lives, because they simply could not reconcile the conflict between knowing who they were and being told every day of their lives that they were not allowed to live as the person that they believed themselves to be.
I can understand it if there are some concerns about the content of the Bill, although I have to say that it seems as though the Minister has changed his grounds for concern since the debate started. Earlier on, there was a claim that the Bill would grant a pardon to people who did not deserve to be pardoned. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) read out a provision in the Bill that makes it clear that that cannot happen. If somebody wants to read out a provision that allows that to happen, I would like to hear it. Once that argument was debunked, it was argued that the law would not actually allow just anybody to be pardoned, but that it might give someone the opportunity to pretend that they had been pardoned. That is not the kind of argument that we expect from a Minister of the Crown in speaking about any proposed legislation. It gives me an uncomfortable feeling that the Government’s concerns are not with the fine detail of the Bill or with its principles. Clearly, there is no objection to the principle of the Bill. I am left wondering whether the problem is to do with the identity of the person who has brought in the Bill. I hope for goodness’ sake that that is not an issue.
What does it do for the reputation of this place as a democratic legislature if this Government—not this individual Minister—who have encouraged my hon. Friend and others to put a huge amount of work and effort into proposing legislation that they said that they wanted, say at the very last minute, “Actually, you can take your hard-earned Bill, tear it up and throw it in the fire, because we have decided that we know a better way to do it.” If that were to happen today, the number of people on these islands who seriously doubt whether this place is fit as a legislature will grow. If the Bill falls for lack of time because somebody thought that it was clever to show how long they could talk for, knowing that the clear majority will of this House is for this Bill to go ahead, what should be one of the brightest days in the history of this place would soon become one of the darkest.
I appeal to Members to allow the Bill to pass, so that the thousands of men who continue to live with shame and guilt for something that they should never have felt ashamed or guilty of can live out their last days on earth knowing that they have been declared innocent of any wrongdoing and so that those for whom this decision has come too late will finally be allowed to rest eternally in peace.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant). May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) on his earlier comments, which I think the whole House found extremely touching and very sincere. I also congratulate the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson) on his success in the private Members’ Bill ballot and on introducing the Bill.
It would appear that we are tantalisingly close to getting a cross-party agreement that achieves the intent of so many stakeholders in this debate. I was honoured to be asked to support the Bill by the hon. Gentleman because it is entirely consistent not only with my values of a fair and tolerant Britain, but with a Conservative party manifesto commitment, in which we pledged to build on the posthumous pardon of Alan Turing with a broader measure to lift the blight of outdated convictions for homosexual acts and to introduce a new law that will pardon those—both alive and dead—who have suffered these wrongs. I note a “new law” and “pardon” in that phraseology, which is in the manifesto commitment on which I and others stood. Supporting the Bill was therefore not a difficult decision for me, because it is entirely consistent with the manifesto, yet we are now faced with not one but two Bills that aim to achieve that goal.
I was encouraged by the Government’s announcement yesterday that Lord Sharkey’s amendment to the Policing and Crime Bill will be adopted. This was no doubt spurred on by the hon. Gentleman’s Bill. Whichever of the Bills makes it on to the statute book, it will be an important and long-overdue step. It is extraordinary that there are men still alive today who live with the stigma of a criminal record for homosexual acts that are no longer illegal and in many cases have not been illegal since before I was born. It is 49 years since homosexuality was decriminalised in England, 36 years since it was decriminalised in Scotland, and 34 since it was decriminalised in Northern Ireland. We often pride ourselves in this place on leading public opinion, but in this matter we are woefully behind.
There are people who still find the idea of homosexuality uncomfortable, but I am sure that the vast majority of those who hold that view would still accept that there is a world of difference between being uncomfortable with the acts of others and believing such acts should be illegal. Personally, I do not believe that there is only so much love in the world that the Government need to step in and ration it, and dictate to consenting adults where it can and cannot occur.
Although homosexual acts are no longer illegal, the fact that the taint of criminal records for homosexuality still exists is completely out of kilter with modern, progressive and compassionate British society, and it is absolutely right that we take action to correct this.
Some people have expressed concern that such a Bill would lead to the pardoning of rapists and child molesters. That is obviously not the intent of anyone, and there are specific lines in the Bill stating that the pardoning must relate to consensual sex with over-16s only, and I assume that the Government’s Bill gives similar assurances.
I understand that there are also some concerns about the process of pardoning and whether a disregard process should be followed. I am confident that we can come to a reasonable consensus on all these points, and it seems that the only remaining issue is the process by which we avoid unintentionally pardoning those who should not be pardoned.
We have a golden opportunity for a cross-party Bill of huge actual and symbolic significance. I respectfully suggest therefore that Ministers and the hon. Gentleman work together on the details and final wording, so that we can pass a Bill that Members of both Houses and all parties can agree on, and do so as soon as possible.
I have the pleasure of serving alongside the hon. Gentleman on the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. He has been in this House for only 18 months —just as long as I have—yet in this short time he has already made a great impact, and if he and the Government can come to an agreement to make the Bill work, he will have played a key role in securing a great legacy both for himself and for all of us currently serving in this place. I support both Bills, as many in this House do. I do not know which vehicle is the best one to get what we want, but I just wish we can get to a resolution very soon.
It is a genuine privilege to take part in this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson) on taking this subject forward as the topic for his Bill and making a powerful opening speech.
Many Members have spoken eloquently and persuasively about pardons and apologies, making the case for why we should pass the Bill today, and I do not intend to reiterate them. I want to focus on the important amendments to the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 that are in clause 3, and to do so with reference to a constituent of mine who does want me to name him because, despite the anguish and pain that he has suffered over the years, he knows that he should not be ashamed for what he was cautioned for. His name is Timothy Churchill-Coleman.
In July 1995, Mr Churchill-Coleman was arrested on exiting a bar in Soho by several plainclothes policemen and was accused of soliciting and importuning under section 32 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956. He denied the accusation and was taken to a police cell and pressured to sign a caution. Leaving aside the fact that he did not understand what he was being asked to sign, he remains adamant, and he is right, that he did nothing wrong.
Mr Churchill-Coleman has tried every measure imaginable to try to clear his name, both in personal representations to several police forces and through my offices. He was quite staggered to find out only last year that the offence for which he was cautioned remains an offence. Adding that offence to the disregard provisions of the 2012 Act is a necessary and urgent step that the Government must take and it is not contained in the Sharkey amendment. Several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), have said that we are dancing on the head of a pin when it comes to the process. There are important measures in today’s Bill which, as I understand it, the Sharkey amendment does not even mention and they need to be legislated for.
Let us consider what the legislative intent of leaving in soliciting and importuning under section 32 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956 means. I wrote to Home Office Ministers just several months, and the reply I received was that it remains a criminal offence and that the Government have no intention of amending the scope of the legislation. Soliciting and importuning—which judges have interpreted as any form of communication, ranging from verbal propositions to merely smiling and winking at a person of the same sex—will remain a criminal offence. That is incoherent and iniquitous and it must be changed as a matter of urgency. Logically, it means that gay bars, contact ads, dating agencies, phone lines and night clubs are all illegal and liable to be shut down, should the police interpret the law in the strict manner in which it is set down. In a country where homosexuality has been decriminalised and civil partnership is now legal, for the act of attempting to communicate with someone of the same sex for the purpose of homosexual relations to remain an offence is absurd.
That is why we have to pass this Bill, notwithstanding the very good arguments about the need to offer an apology and a pardon, not least to give constituents such as mine some redress. This stain on his record has been a blight on his life. It has made it extremely difficult for him to apply for jobs. He is a very qualified and talented special educational needs teacher and, in job interview after job interview, has had to suffer the indignity of having to mention this caution and try to explain it away. It is for people like him, as well as Alan Turing and all those who deserve a pardon and an apology, that the Minister should think again.
The hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) was right that the Minister has come forward with a somewhat slippery argument. I do not think it holds up. We can deal with many of the safeguarding concerns in Committee. I would urge Conservative Members who intend to abstain or vote against the Bill to think again and join us in the Lobby. Let us make an important symbolic statement and improve the lives of people such as my constituent.
It is a great privilege to speak in this debate. May I pay tribute to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson) for his choice of Bill and the way he has led this debate? I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) for his tone and his contribution. I know he is a man of absolute integrity and his words today really touched me.
It was also a privilege to witness my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams), a true Yorkshireman, apologise to this Chamber. As a Welshman, I know how difficult that can be at times, but his words brought out the best of this House.
The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), whose constituency is just up the road from mine, brought the debate home to us in this House by mentioning the shields in the Chamber of Members of the Commons that we look at every day when we debate.
Let me say to the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) that it is a great tribute to our country and society that, for those of our generation, if he does not mind my saying so—we have had many jokes about age today, but I think I am okay in saying that—many of the things we are talking about are alien concepts. For those of our generation, it is absolutely abhorrent to think that we did this as a society and as a Parliament, so it is a privilege to be a Member of Parliament at this time and to be righting these alien concepts. I think of my children, who are aged four and younger. As they grow up they will not have to tackle any of those alien concepts and they will not come out as gay or straight. They will simply go to school as human beings and members of our society.
Although I teasingly pointed out that this is not an English Bill but an English and Welsh Bill, I welcome the words of the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire about the Scottish Government acting at pace. Would it be wrong of me to wish that he were a Member of the Scottish Government and brought the same vigour to the issue in Scotland as he has done here?
We have been talking about the matter for a while but with much agreement. There is a hint of sadness that we are almost there—we are at the final hurdle—and I wish we could come together and agree the remaining elements. I stood on the Conservative party manifesto, which was clear on the issue, and I want the changes introduced as quickly as possible. That is why I welcomed the moves yesterday. I am glad heads were nodded to the amendment in the Policing and Crime Bill that will deliver that at pace and more quickly than a private Member’s Bill would. That is at the heart of the debate.
I want to dwell for a moment on the disregard process. I hope that in his contribution the Minister will refer to public awareness of what is on offer. There is a good argument for making people aware that they can apply for the disregard.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support, but he must realise that the age demographic of the men concerned is such that they will not apply for that. They will not open themselves up to the shame and humiliation of applying. The disregard is cloud cuckoo land: there has to be a blanket pardon for them to get comfort.
That is the nub of the debate. We have to think of a way round because the Home Office has rejected several applications for the disregard process where the activity was non-consensual and others where the other party was under 16 at the time. The disregard process has offered a level of safety, but I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point. I ask the Minister to address directly how we reach the demographic that we are talking about and how we ensure that they rightfully get the pardon and, beyond that, the disregard process, which clearly and irrevocably wipes away—
I have just named an offence—soliciting and importuning—which is not covered by the disregard process. I hope the hon. Gentleman will agree that making that a criminal offence is now considered unjust by the House and by society. However, it is not covered by the scope of that process. Does he accept, therefore, that the disregard process has limitations that are addressed in this Bill?
I listened closely to the hon. Gentleman’s speech. I hope the Minister, too, was listening.
I see my hon. Friend is about to prove that he was indeed listening.
The hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook) made a passionate speech. On a point of clarification, section 32 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956, to which he referred and which made soliciting and importuning a crime, was repealed in 2004. However, soliciting still remains a crime.
I will leave that there.
The Liberal Democrat amendment that the Government accepted yesterday brings justice to the issue at pace, with checks and balances.
As Members we must recognise the importance of language. A Policing and Crime Bill is utterly inadequate for dealing with the issue. The language is fundamentally important. On the issue of the living as opposed to the dead, the Government’s position is intellectually and morally bankrupt.
I have been paying tribute to the tone of the debate, although things seem to be going downhill. What my constituents want is justice and real action, not just words. We can debate rhetoric and words all we want, but my constituents put me here to get justice, and quickly—and yesterday’s agreement to the amendment is the quickest way to achieve that.
I have quietly trod around the issue of this being an England and Wales Bill and my wanting to see the same justice in Scotland. It is okay for SNP Members to question us on rhetoric and action, even though we agree with most of what is being proposed—we are actually changing something—but the Scottish Government need to go at pace as well. I am not going to sit here and take a lot of abuse on this issue when we are debating real action and the Scottish Government, I am afraid, are being quite slow.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that last year the ILGA—the international lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex association, an international human rights organisation—named Scotland as the best country in Europe in which to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender? Will he take from that an assurance that the Scottish Government have these matters very much at the forefront of their mind?
Of course I welcome that, and I hope that the United Kingdom as well as Scotland is seen in that vein around the world, and in respect of every community. I have pleasure in acknowledging Scotland’s achievement, but when you have been in government a while, as the SNP have in Scotland, you have to prove things with actions as well as words. You cannot just look to awards that you have been presented; you will be judged according to the legislation you put through and what has happened. [Interruption.] The fact that hon. Members are quoting political slogans—
Order. While the debate had a nicer tone, I allowed the “yous” to go unchecked. Will the hon. Gentleman remember that when he says “you”, he is referring to the Chair?
I apologise unreservedly, Madam Deputy Speaker; I am being stoked by my SNP colleagues while trying to agree with them on a lot of things.
It is worth putting on the record that we are having this debate as a result of a raffle, basically—the name of my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson) was drawn out of a hat. If a Member of the Scottish Parliament wants to take forward a private Bill, they do it by building consensus, having an open consultation and showing consensus at every stage in the process. That contrast is particularly worth noting in the context of how this debate came about today.
The hon. Gentleman makes my point for me. You have been in government; you did not need a raffle in Scotland—[Interruption.] Madam Deputy Speaker, you really have me on the ropes now with this “you”. I will get to my point: the hon. Gentleman has made my point for me. In Scotland, there was no need for a raffle, so you could have done it.
I will now sit down after going back to where I started. I pay absolute tribute to the vast majority of the Bill and to the Government for conceding the amendment yesterday and wanting to see justice. I say again that I am so delighted to be a Member of a Parliament in which we discuss these concepts as alien and seek justice as a result.
Before I start, I want to get the sartorial bit of the debate out of the way as quickly as possible. I am not wearing pink because we are discussing gay men’s relationships: today is “wear it pink” day for breast cancer. I would have liked to see hon. Members all in pink. I ask those who came to the event that I hosted—I noted the queue; over 200 MPs came, dressed somewhat flamboyantly in their “wear it pink” photographs—to remember to tweet their photos later.
There has been a lot of humour today, but the issue is serious. Alan Turing was probably the individual who made the single biggest difference to the second world war. It has been estimated that he shortened the war by two years and saved 14 million lives. There were many heroes who suffered, and many heroes who lost their lives, but there is no other person we can identify like that. Unfortunately for him, of course, what he did at Bletchley Park was secret: he was not a hero, and he was not welcomed with tickertape, given a medal or anything else.
Alan Turing was not charged for having sex with someone under age, having sex in public or behaving in a lewd way. Having been burgled, and having had to call on the public service of the police—when it, of course, became obvious that he lived with his partner—he and his partner were charged with gross indecency. His partner was let off, but Alan Turing ended up pleading guilty under legal advice. He was given the brutal choice of going to prison or facing medical castration. He was injected for a year with diethylstilbestrol, which causes the growth of breast tissue, impotence and depression. It is no little wonder that he took his life with cyanide two years later.
On top of that, one of the things that was probably very important to Alan Turing was that he lost his security clearance. He was allowed, technically, to stay in his job and to write academic papers, but as a cryptographer—as one of the leaders in developing computer technology—what he did was so much part of him that it was also his identity. Therefore, his identity at work and his identity in his person were removed.
The idea of sexual orientation change efforts has, sadly, not disappeared, and is still practised in many parts of the world. It is still advertised in America, and there are still people in this country—people with healthcare connections—who believe that homosexuality can be cured. Therefore, the idea that we are talking about a parallel to witchcraft from medieval times, and that the issue we are discussing is just technical, is not true. Many people were tortured. Aversion therapy included giving people nausea-inducing drugs while showing them pictures of male homosexual sex. Some people were electrocuted, some were burned and some had all sorts of horrible things done to them. We need to realise that these people were systematically tortured by the state and by health services. That was not that long ago. I was alive when the law changed—a few of us here were. This is not about medieval times. As Stonewall showed in its survey last year, there are still people associated with healthcare practice—perhaps on the edges—who believe these things. We need to be very clear about that.
We have seen the whole approach change. The hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) was so honest and so moving in talking about how he had changed. That is what we have seen. It is not just a matter of social change; what we do in this place drives social change. Equal marriage has helped to change society. However, the anomaly we are talking about is still here, and a small amendment to the Policing and Crime Bill will simply not do what this Bill does. I am not talking about process; process can be sorted in whatever way necessary in Committee. We should not be arguing on the head of a pin.
Voting this Bill through sends a message. As the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) said, it is not the case, as the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said earlier, that being gay is not an issue in schools. Actually, it still is. There are lots of young people hiding it, struggling with it and in pain with it. If we vote against the Bill today, or if we talk it out because of some piece of trickery, the message we send out will be appalling.
We also need to take on our responsibility—I do not talk about this much—for the Commonwealth. We hosted the Commonwealth Games two years ago in Glasgow. In the run-up to them, we had all the discussion about the countries where people are persecuted and imprisoned that are part of the United Kingdom Commonwealth. For the mother of Parliaments, which is heard all across those countries, to talk this Bill out, or to vote it down, sends an appalling message. We have seen how a vote to leave the European Union has empowered people who are in a tiny minority to feel somehow enabled to take actions of race hate or, indeed, homophobia. Our saying, “We don’t think we should do this”, would give exactly the same feeling of empowerment across the country.
I am sorry, but the two things are not equivalent. It is not just a matter of speed—of taking a few months. These men have waited five decades. We should do them the honour of trying to get it right and get the biggest impact. People have campaigned, and not just for Alan Turing. We have pardoned him, but it is our job to make sure that all the other silent heroes who have suffered in the past are pardoned as well. I call on Conservative Members not to use some technical thing to oppose this or feel uncomfortable about supporting it. Abstaining will not do it; voting against it will not do it. We as a House need to send this through with a massive majority so that our voice cannot be ignored in any part of the world.
It is a pleasure to follow the powerful speech by the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) and the speech by the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook). I spoke after the latter when we both made our maiden speeches. He made a thoughtful speech then and has done so today. Above all, I compliment the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson) on his excellent speech. He brought personal experience, passion and even humour to a very serious subject. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) said, he may go down in history in association with this Bill. In any event, he has gone down in the annals of this place as the person who transformed Edwina Currie—no mean feat.
Like the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire, I too was born in the ’60s, although clearly I am less well preserved. In preparing for this debate, I looked for the first time at the Wolfenden report, which was published some 11 years before I was born. The circumstances it describes makes it sound like a report produced in a previous century, as do the elaborate preparations necessitated by the laws of the time to allow gay men, in secret, using pseudonyms such as “Mr White” or “The Doctor”, to present evidence. The report is damning, but also so humane that it is a wonder that it took a further 10 years for English law to be amended in 1967. I find it incredible that it was not until 1980 that the law changed in Scotland, and still later in Northern Ireland.
It is a matter of regret that the law did not change in Scotland until 1981, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that for many years prior to that the Crown Office had a policy of not prosecuting these offences.
I was not aware, and I am grateful to be informed. It did seem extraordinary, and am pleased to hear that that was the case, although I know that the hon. and learned Lady will think that symbolism is also very important.
That it took so long is an indictment in itself, but the laws passed in here in ’67 started a long process that continued in 2015 with the Government’s welcome removal, in the Armed Forces Act 2016, of homosexuality as a ground for discharging a member of the armed forces. Changes in legislation, I hope and believe, have not only reflected a changing mood in the British people but, as the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire said, helped to reinforce and lead a change in mood—a profound change for the better.
By background, I am a historian, if a much less professional one than some of those who grace the Benches on both sides of this House. I would like to say that studying British history produces nothing other than a cosy Whiggite reassurance of the inevitable progress of a great nation, with improvements in economic, social and welfare provisions, a shift in sensibility, a growing liberal acceptance of our differences, and the humane adaption of the law—well, up to a point. However, no one can read social history and not be appalled by the attitudes of our forebears so often entrenched in laws passed by this House. Nowhere is historic injustice more apparent than in the attitude that in every aspect of life, the state had a role, and indeed an obligation, to legislate for personal morality—an attitude that Wolfenden had to fight to change. That had direct inhumane consequences, such as the offences under discussion this morning, as well as indirect victims, perhaps most poignantly those affected by the bastardy laws.
I was shocked by the speech of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). I was shocked not only by the fact that he was once a Conservative—that was a welcome revelation—but by what he said about Neville Chamberlain, whom I had always rather admired. Neville Chamberlain was the person who came to this House in 1920 with legislation, which was challenging at the time, to reform the Bastardy Acts. The fact that he took the inhumane step of attacking his own Back Benchers for being homosexual shocks me, and it was a case of double standards.
We can wonder what our predecessors were thinking, but it is perhaps more sobering to consider what our successors might think of us. The historical events that we are discussing lead to a genuine and difficult dilemma. It is the role of this House to overturn injustice, to condemn bad laws and to lead the way against prejudice, but my fear in the past has been that to attempt to address all the wrongs would be an all-encompassing and overwhelming burden for the House. Focusing too much on redressing the problems of the old might prevent us from being a forward-looking Chamber doing what is needful to build a modern country. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Hon. Members may be disappointed by what I say next. I had hoped that for those convicted of an historical offence, although it would not heal the pain of conviction or have a practical impact on the experience of having a criminal record, the knowledge that Parliament had abolished the offences would provide some succour. Two things have persuaded me that that is insufficient, however.
The first thing that has persuaded me is the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012. I recognise fully that no matter how antediluvian the legislation under which an individual was convicted, a proper process is required through which the historical record should be amended. The second thing is the royal pardon granted to Alan Turing in 2013 by Her Majesty the Queen. That royal pardon was said at the time to be an exceptional case for a truly exceptional man, and no one could disagree. Here was a man who could lay claim to being one of the founders of the modern technical age, and whose actions may well have shortened the war by two years, saving many lives—I had written tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of lives, but the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire has raised the stakes considerably and I have no reason to challenge the millions to which she referred. And yet the state that Mr Turing served so well confronted him with the choice of jail or chemical castration—a choice that, as the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) pointed out, may well have led to his tragic early death.
The royal pardon—a pardon I fully endorse—gives rise to an obvious dilemma. Many hundreds of exceptional men were convicted of similar offences, as were more men who were not exceptional; they were normal, average people going about their lives. How can one be pardoned and not the rest? It is one thing to say to anyone convicted of an offence that they have been subject to grievous historical injustice but they are not alone, for they are in honoured company, but as soon as we start removing the honoured company because they are somehow special, the argument falls. It was right and proper to recognise the injustice done to Alan Turing, so it must be right and proper to recognise the injustice done to others.
I was, therefore, pleased that the manifesto on which I stood—I was going to quote it, but my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire has already done so—made it clear that the Conservative party stood full square behind the principle of seeking reform in this area. I welcome the fact that that commitment is being made real in the other place with amendments tabled in Committee to the Policing and Crime Bill by the noble Lord Sharkey. The Government support those amendments, which substantially reproduce clauses 3(2)(c) and 3(3) of the Bill we are debating by amending the 2012 Act.
I am delighted that whether or not this Bill makes it on to the statute book, we will have the benefit of belt and braces. Some good will come of this debate. I again congratulate the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire on introducing the Bill. It is generous of him to use his slot to introduce legislation that would have an impact only on England and Wales, and which would therefore be less likely to have an impact on his constituents. That speaks volumes about his commitment to and passion for the subject.
I understand that, however well-intentioned the Bill, the Government believe it suffers from technical flaws and that in particular it may lead to pardons automatically being granted to individuals who committed acts that remain illegal. I appreciate that Bill’s proposer has attempted to address those concerns in clause 1 and clause 2(4)(c), which specifically state that offences will be excluded from the provisions of the Bill in the event that they remain an offence on the date that it becomes law. The Bill also makes clear the requirement for consent.
My understanding is that the Government’s concern that offences that would automatically be pardoned under the Bill may not have passed the tests required under the 2012 disregard provisions. I appreciate that the Government have a difficult path to walk and would not wish to send the wrong message from this place; I am sure that they would not wish to impugn those seeking a pardon because of some isolated cases. I appreciate that the Sharkey amendment, which itself could be amended in this place, may be a less symbolic or glamourous way of securing the changes that I believe nearly all of us want to see, but it may be the most effective. Having said that, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire produced a possible route for addressing the Government’s concerns in Committee. I look forward to the Minister’s winding up speech.
I commend the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson) on bringing forward this Bill. May I give particular praise to a number of speeches we have heard in the Chamber today? It is unfair to single people out, but I am going to, because I think there have been some brilliant speeches. I will highlight four: those of the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire himself, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and my hon. Friends the Members for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) and for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams). They all made fantastic contributions to the debate in their own different ways.
I will say at the start that, despite what I would say is my rather unfair reputation, I have no intention of taking the clock down to 2.30 pm today. I am as keen to hear from the Minister as everyone else. But it is important that those of us who do not particularly support the Bill have an opportunity to express why. We have heard today that everyone agrees and shares the same sentiment—I will make this clear right from the word go—of the principles involved here as far as I see them; if we are asking whether the fact that someone is gay should ever have been a crime in any shape or form, the answer is quite clearly no, of course not. Should we think any less of anyone who was ever convicted of any of these crimes? No, of course we should not. I hope and believe that everyone in this House can take that as read.
The issue is whether we get involved in having a widespread and blanket pardon for these particular offences. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) said of the approach taken by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), this is not quite as easy as it looks.
The hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) has unfortunately just left the Chamber, but I want to put on the record my praise for her intervention. I thought in that brief intervention she made one of the most powerful contributions in this debate. She made two very good points that should weigh heavily on the House. Her first powerful point was about whether a gay person should ever have to come out. Of course they should not. People’s sexual orientation is absolutely irrelevant. The moment when this country gets to the stage when sexual orientation is an irrelevance cannot come soon enough in my opinion. Like the hon. Lady, I look forward to the day when no one ever has to come out as gay.
The hon. Lady’s second point, specifically in relation to the Bill, was very powerful and is something that the Government might wish to consider; I would not say that it has changed my mind about the Bill, but it has certainly weighed heavily with me. As she said, this Bill having its Second Reading, going into Committee, then coming back for Report and Third Reading would inevitably mean that these issues gain more scrutiny in the House than if an amendment were simply accepted in the House of Lords and came back to the Commons for a debate of an hour or two, maximum—perhaps not even that—and was in effect nodded through without any further scrutiny. There is some merit in that point. The Government might want to consider it. I had not given it much thought before, but I thought she made that point very well.
I must say that when I first heard about this Bill, my initial reaction was to think that it sounded as if it should be titled, “The Re-writing of History Bill”—a concept with which I am not generally comfortable. Plenty of ugly, evil and wrong things have happened in the past, but they are what they are. It is very easy for us in the House today to criticise people who were here in the past—I did it at the start of my speech when I said that these things should never have been a crime—but there will be things that we pass in this House with the best of intentions about which MPs will doubtless come along in 100 years’ time and say, “It is absolutely disgusting that they passed those laws and offences at that time, and they should have been ashamed of themselves for doing it”.
We should always be slightly wary of imposing our modern-day judgments on the past—it is easy to do, but not always fair to the people who made decisions on the basis of what they thought were in the best interests of the country at the time. We obviously think they were wrong, but they thought they were doing what was right at the time.
Does the hon. Gentleman not think that we should be a bit more concerned with people who are still alive and suffering, rather than our own vainglory in the future when we are dead?
I was coming on to that point. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire made a fair point in that respect, but if the hon. Lady will forgive me, I shall come on to deal with her point in a few moments.
I was saying that we should be wary of getting into the habit—it seems that we are already in it—of always being anxious to apologise for things that other people have done in the past. Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty, who is clearly a notable exception, we rarely apologise for the things that we have done. I suspect that the public are usually keener for us to apologise for the mistakes that we have made rather than taking the easy option of apologising for the mistakes that we think people made hundreds of years ago. Tony Blair is a prime example. He was very keen to apologise for slavery that somebody else had done hundreds of years previously, but he would not apologise for the mess he left in Iraq following the Iraq war. I suspect that most people would regard it as more worth while for him to apologise for the decisions that he took, rather than for the decisions that others took many years previously. I do not generally like that particular approach to politics, but I leave it there.
Although my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Craig Williams) was slightly chastised for it, I think he was absolutely right to pull up our friends from the Scottish National party for coming here and chastising the Minister for introducing something late in the day, going very slowly and all the rest of it. The Bill applies only to England and Wales, and the Minister is going virtually all the way that the SNP would like him to go—not fully, I appreciate, but he is going an awful long way to meet their requests. It is slightly churlish of SNP Members not to have given the Minister more credit for that.
Moreover, the Scottish Administration have not introduced this law, even though they have had plenty of opportunity to do so. It would be interesting to carry out a freedom of information request to see how many letters the Scottish Government have received from SNP MPs about introducing this particular law in the Scottish Parliament. SNP Members should be wary of criticising this Government, who have clearly gone a lot further than the SNP Administration have in Scotland. A bit of humility on that particular point would not have gone amiss.
On the substance, I said that the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire made a good point—it was a rhetorical flourish, but still a good point—when he said that we should be more concerned about the living than the dead. There is something in that. The problem is that once we start going down this route, it becomes difficult to stop the juggernaut in its process. It can become difficult if people try to draw distinctions. For example, once we have pardoned Dr Alan Turing—I have not heard anyone say that that should not have happened—it becomes an intellectual nonsense to deprive other people of the same pardon who were convicted of exactly the same offences but did not have such an exciting life and achieve as much in their jobs as he did. Dr Alan Turing’s sexuality is irrelevant to his achievements. It should not have been because of his achievements that he was pardoned; he was pardoned for something which, as far as I can see, was irrelevant to them, and if he is pardoned for that, it becomes very difficult not to pardon other people.
I think the point that the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire was rightly making is that once the Government have accepted that people who are deceased should be pardoned, it then becomes very difficult intellectually to ask why the same should not apply to people who are still alive. That is a fair point, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to it.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point about the juggernaut and the various stages that might ensue. However, as my hon. Friend made clear in his speech, this is essentially a victimless crime. What possible harm can it do—rather than good, of course—to pardon people who, in essence, committed no crime at all?
I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s sentiment, and I made that clear at the outset. My point is that the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire has selected a certain group of offences. My hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) made a very fair point, which people ought to consider. In the past, many other offences have been committed which I would term victimless crimes.
The metric martyrs are a prime example. Steve Thoburn sadly died with a criminal conviction for selling produce in imperial measures. That, I would argue, was a victimless crime. The customers were perfectly happy to buy the produce and Steve Thoburn was happy to sell it. There was no victim, but he died with a criminal conviction. He still has a criminal conviction. He has not been posthumously pardoned.
I am sorry, but I am struggling to make the connection with the metric martyrs, whom I do not recall being chemically castrated, arrested or tortured. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will remind me of that detail, which I have forgotten.
I was not aware that the hon. Gentleman’s Bill applied only to people who had been chemically castrated and tortured. Is he now saying that that is the case? The point that he is making is a complete nonsense, and he must know that. I was responding to an intervention from the hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie), who asked whether there were any examples of victimless crimes committed by people who had a criminal record and had not been pardoned, and I gave him a perfectly good example. Moreover, he was nodding in agreement when I gave him that example. [Interruption.] The Scottish National party has become so dominant in Scotland that SNP Members are not used to hearing alternative opinions. I am sorry that they are so intolerant of anyone who holds a different opinion from theirs. It does not reflect well on them.
My point is this. I think that the Bill would have been easier to justify if it had included all past offences and all past convictions for crimes which are no longer crimes, and which were victimless. That would have been a perfectly logical thing to do. I think it is very difficult to pick out only certain crimes to justify the Bill, rather than including all convictions for offences of that kind.
I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. At the beginning of his speech, he informed us that we might not be listening to one of his lengthy contributions, and said that he would sit down shortly in order to enable the Front Benchers to present their arguments. May I ask how long he thinks he might be? I ask simply because I want to put on record, very forcefully, the support of the Opposition Front Bench for the Bill, and I am worried that I shall not be able to get to my feet in order to do so.
We have an hour and five minutes left. About three hours have been taken up by people speaking in favour of the Bill. I have fielded four or five interventions during my brief comments so far. If people do not intervene on my speech, I will be able to get through it a bit quicker. It would be a sad state of affairs and a sad day for our democracy if the only speeches that were allowed to be heard in a debate were those in favour of the Bill. I am not sure if that is what the hon. Lady is arguing for. She has put on record her support for the Bill, and if she wants to say any more, she is very welcome to do so.
I am going to conclude my remarks, but it is important that the concerns that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe had while in government, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs described earlier, should be given a hearing. Legislation of this kind, and even the measure that the Government have agreed to in the Lords, will open up the probability of, and certainly the justification for, pardoning people who have been convicted of other crimes that are no longer criminal offences, and which we do not believe should be criminal offences, particularly those that were victimless crimes.
I hope that the Minister will address this point and tell us whether the Government intend to go further down this route, or whether they intend to finish here with these particular offences, in which case I would like to hear the logic behind that. For example, there are people who were found guilty of attempting to commit suicide when it was a criminal offence to do so. Are they not worthy of a pardon? I do not see why we should cherry-pick certain offences when there is a whole range of others that could be added to the list. People should be able to express these views.
I shall conclude my remarks, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I did promise you and the House that I would not speak for a great length of time. I think we all agree with the sentiment behind the Bill. Should these offences ever have been crimes? Obviously not. Should we think any less of the people who were convicted of them? No, we should not. But we cannot pass laws in this House that are simply based on worthy sentiment. Nor can we pass laws simply to send out a signal or some kind of message, despite the fact that we have heard this intention expressed in almost every speech so far today. If we want to send a message or a signal, that should be done by making a speech. Passing legislation is a very different thing.
The question should be whether this is the right kind of legislation. Should we go over these cases again? Will the Minister tell us how easy it will be to go through every single case in order to ascertain whether the activity that took place at the time still constitutes an offence today? For example, certain activities carried out in public still constitute an offence today. How will we know, when we look back over the records, whether a particular offence took place in public and would therefore still constitute an offence today? If that detail was not relevant to the prosecution at the time, it might never have been logged.
We should not underestimate the practical difficulties that will be involved, and I hope that the Minister will be able to explain how they will be dealt with. When we pass legislation, it should involve practical things that have to happen rather than worthy sentiments, and I hope that he will reflect on the detail involved. If the Bill goes into Committee and comes back here on Report, I hope that the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire will engage genuinely with the people who agree with his sentiments but have issues about the practical application of the legislation. I can see from the detail of his Bill that he has tried to address some of these points. I acknowledge that he has done that, and I hope that he—unlike some of those who have been making sedentary commentaries about my speech—will accept that while we genuinely appreciate the sentiment behind his Bill, we feel that it is important to get the detail right. I hope he accepts that we want to do this for the right reason, and not just to send a message or as a form of gesture politics that will make us all look good and feel good about ourselves. That is not the purpose of legislation in this House. We all share the same sentiment, but I hope he will engage constructively with people who hold a different opinion.
The hon. Member for Livingston is back in her place, so I want to tell her that her earlier intervention was fantastic and that I hope the Minister will address her point. Instead of just accepting a Lords amendment that will receive virtually no scrutiny in this House, we can perhaps consider the Bill in more detail if it goes through to Committee.
It is fair to say that we have had an extensive debate with many excellent speeches. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) picked out four of them and I agree with all those choices. I particularly enjoyed the entertaining, moving and informative speech of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). I am sure the whole House enjoyed it, too.
I genuinely congratulate the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson) on winning the private Members’ Bill ballot. Some Members who have been in the House for many more years than he has have entered many times without enjoying the same success. Without wanting to sour that genuine note of congratulation, it was noted that the Bill was published very late in the day.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way so early in his speech. A number of questions have been asked about a blanket pardon for the living, including, “Why don’t the Government just go ahead and do it?” I understand that there might be a closure motion, so I want to put it on the record that the crime was gross indecency and that many other crimes were prosecuted at a much higher level. Therefore, we could be granting a pardon to people who are ostensibly guilty of gross indecency, but some elements of that are still crimes today and go far beyond the scope of the Bill. That is why the Government propose a disregard process for the living followed by a statutory pardon.
I do not think that intervention calls for a response from me. The Minister wanted to place that comment on the record and has done so.
To finish the remark I was making, I hope that, when the time comes, the House accepts, as the Government have, the Procedure Committee’s recommendation that
“the deadline for printing a Bill… be brought forward to the Wednesday of the week prior to the day of the second reading.”
The hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) reminded us of the irony that the first ever private Member’s Bill brought by a member of the Scottish National party extends only to England and Wales. That will not be lost on anyone. It is a smart move by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire because it sends a signal—the Bill is all about sending signals—that everything in his constituency is fantastic. There must be no problems in East Dunbartonshire that require a legislative solution. Thousands of people will be rushing to live there.
It is worth considering that the situation in Scotland is different from that in England and Wales. As we know, criminal law operates on a different basis there. Dr Jeffrey Meek, a lecturer in economic and social history at the University of Glasgow, published an article on 23 February last year on the “Queer Scotland” website, which specialises in articles on the history and culture of the lesbian and gay community in Scotland. The article was entitled “The 49,000: ‘Pardons & Homosexual Offences’, a Scottish Perspective”. The 49,000 figure is an estimate of the number of men prosecuted for gross indecency and other historical crimes. Dr Meek wrote:
“Unlike what occurred in England there were relatively few successful prosecutions for private consensual sex between adult males north of the border during the 20th century; indeed it was a policy of successive Lords Advocate in Scotland not to prosecute private, consensual sex between men.”
Does that mean that no men were prosecuted on account of their being gay? As Dr Meek pointed out in his article:
“The main focus of the law was upon men who engaged in sex in public spaces: in ‘cottages’, tenement closes, parks; and men who sold sex on the streets of Scotland’s urban centres. This was not the result of ‘liberal thinking’ but was chiefly the result of evidential requirements under Scots Law.”
claimed to move the closure (Standing Order No. 36).
Question put forthwith, That the Question be now put.
I am grateful that the House decided it wishes to hear some more from me this morning, but I will try to keep my remarks short nevertheless. I cannot understand why the House would want to end my speech.
I have one or two specific things to say about the Bill before we hear from the Minister, as I am sure the whole House wishes to do before very long. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley, my primary concern about the Bill is that it attempts to rewrite history. As we have heard a number of Members say, many things have happened in our history that we all wish had not happened, but we have to take history as we find it; we have to accept that the past was as it was and not how we perhaps would have it if we could rewrite that history today.
The Bill is unnecessary in many regards. We should not assume everybody who is gay thinks that it is a good idea. Mention was made earlier—by the Bill’s promoter, I think—of George Montague, the gay rights campaigner and author of the book “The Oldest Gay in the Village”. He has said:
“I will not accept a pardon. To accept a pardon means you accept that you were guilty. I was not guilty of anything. I was only guilty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. My name was on the ‘queer list’, which the police had in those days, and I will not accept a pardon. I think it was wrong to give Alan Turing, one of my heroes of my life…a pardon. What was he guilty of? He was guilty of the same as what they call me guilty of: being born only able to fall in love with another man.”
I am sure Mr Montague cannot be the only gay man who takes that view. There must be others. Are we going to force a pardon on someone who does not want to be pardoned?
There is also the crucial difference between a disregard and a pardon. The aim of a disregard is to treat the individual concerned, for all purposes in law, as if he had not committed the offence or been convicted of it. The latest information, as revealed in response to a parliamentary question, is that a total of 242 individuals made disregard applications in respect of some 317 cases —some applied in respect of more than one case— between October 2012 and April 2016. Of those 317 cases, 83 were accepted for a disregard, 233 were rejected and one was still pending resolution when the Government responded. In view of the definition of what happens when someone successfully applies for a disregard, that raises the question whether, if the Bill becomes law, the automatic pardon would apply to them. I am not being difficult or awkward—this is a genuine point—but those who support the Bill may wish to consider whether it is worth clarifying in the Bill whether the pardon would apply to those who had already been accepted for a statutory disregard.
The same point applies to the proposal that the Minister wants to be introduced in the other place. It was not clear when I read the press release whether those who apply for a disregard will be granted an automatic pardon or whether they will be given the option of ticking a box on the application form to say, “Yes, I also want a pardon.” There may be others like Mr Montague who say, “I want the disregard, but I don’t want the pardon because I don’t accept that I did anything wrong.”
Many more things could be said about the Bill, but I said that I would allow time to hear from the Front Benchers and I intend to do that. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
I had written a much longer and obviously well-crafted speech, full of pearls of wisdom and eloquence, but as I want to give the Minister an opportunity not only to be heard but, I hope, even at this late stage to accept this Bill or at the very least indicate that he will go from this House today and engage in genuine discussions about amendments to the Bill that will make it acceptable to the Government, I shall not speak for as long as I had intended. I and so many more people in the House and elsewhere will be disappointed if the Government do not show themselves to understand what is being spoken about today and make a genuine effort to meet those concerns.
Roughly 75,000 men were prosecuted for gross indecency between 1885 and the partial legalisation of homosexuality in 1967. Thousands more had to live their lives in secrecy and fear, and to hide who they were, for risk of prosecution. It was inhumane and unjust. The pain caused by these indecency laws can never be undone, and the relationships and lives that were lost can never be recovered, but this Bill does what we can do, which is to partly correct a grave injustice. The Bill grants a pardon to those convicted of sexual offences for acts that are no longer criminalised. It is our way of recognising that we made a mistake, that we caused trauma among innocents, and that we ruined lives. Inadequate though it may be, it is our only way of saying sorry.
We have heard many moving tributes today to Alan Turing and others whom the laws drove to their death, and it is rightly a source of national shame, but Alan Turing was just one wronged gay man among thousands. The British state owes an apology and a pardon to the ordinary men who were criminalised for being who they were, just as much as it owed an apology to Alan Turing. After all, we apologised to Turing not only because he is a national hero, though he clearly is, but because he patently did nothing wrong.
To be fair to the Government, in the past they have recognised that these convictions were wrong. They not only granted the pardon to Turing, but in 2012 they passed the Protection of Freedoms Act. That Act allowed those with convictions under these indecency laws to apply for their conviction to be disregarded and effectively expunged from the record, so long as their application is approved by the Secretary of State. The disregard scheme was a welcome development, particularly as it allowed those prosecuted under these uncivilised laws to apply for work without the blight of a criminal record, but it does not go far enough.
The disregard scheme relies upon the victims of injustice making an application themselves. Relatives of the deceased cannot make applications on behalf of their family member, nor, obviously, can the deceased apply for a disregard themselves. It is therefore of no use to the families of the approximately 50,000 men who were prosecuted for gross indecency and who are now deceased. The Minister must know of the pain that exists in families long after the event, and that families sometimes need the closure that this Bill would allow.
The disregard scheme puts the onus on those who are living to go out and apply for their conviction to be disregarded. I want to stress that, for many, going through the disregard process opens up so many old wounds, and reminds them of a time in their life that they may well wish to put behind them. I imagine that at this point in their life they do not wish to rake up all that old hurt, pain, humiliation and fear. It must be enormously stressful. The onus should be on the legislators to take action, because it is the law that was wrong.
The Bill before us deals with these problems. Clause 2 automatically grants a pardon to all those convicted of a list of sexual offences that have since been repealed. It is really important that the Minister grasps that point. Clause 3 will allow family members of the deceased to apply for a disregard. If the Bill is enacted, all those convicted under those laws would be pardoned whether they were living or deceased and all could go through the disregard process if a family member wished to pursue that.
On Wednesday, the Government signed an amendment to the Policing and Crime Bill in the Lords that would achieve most, but not all, those things. Lord Sharkey’s amendment would grant a pardon to all the deceased who had been charged under the relevant offences, but not—and this is crucial—to the living. The living would have to apply for a disregard and only then would they be granted a pardon. The onus would be placed right back on the victims of injustice, which, I worry, rather reduces the quality of the apology being offered.
The Minister explained the Government’s approach to the press. He said:
“A blanket pardon, without the detailed investigations carried out by the Home Office under the disregard process, could see people guilty of an offence which is still a crime today claiming to be pardoned. This would cause an extraordinary and unnecessary amount of distress to victims”.
None in this House would want there to be a pardon for anyone guilty of serious sexual offences, but I am a little confused by the Government’s reasoning. The private Member’s Bill, as drafted, relies on a list of sexual offences for which someone is granted a pardon, none of which is a crime any longer. It also contains a separate clause that clearly states:
“Nothing in this Act is to be interpreted as pardoning, disregarding or in any other way affecting cautions, convictions, sentences or any other consequences of convictions or cautions for conduct or behaviour that is unlawful on the date that the Act comes into force.”
Given those safeguards, it is not clear to me how the Bill would lead to pardons for those guilty of an offence that is still a crime today—unless the Minister merely means that people will be able falsely and deceptively to claim to have been pardoned when they have not been.
Something is not clear to me. If someone has previously been committed of having under-age sex, for example, how can we today determine whether such a previous conviction is still a crime? Anyone having sex with a minor today is committing a crime. However, that would not be clear from past criminal activity.
The Bill is really clear: if a past offence is an offence today, there will be no pardon. Having sex with somebody under-age is still an offence. Anybody who committed an offence that is still an offence today would clearly not be pardoned.
I will not give way again; I am coming to a conclusion and I genuinely think we should hear from the Minister. However, I say to the hon. Gentleman that the issue is not sufficient to warrant rejection of the Bill. We should be taking the Bill through Committee. If there are genuine problems of wording, it can be amended. If what the hon. Gentleman raises remains an issue, the Bill can be amended. That is what the Committee and Report stages are for—it is what we do here all the time.
If the Bill is imperfect, let us perfect it in Committee. That is where we do things such as this. Why is this Bill any different? None of us disagrees with the principles behind the Bill. The Minister is worried about unintended consequences. That can be dealt with. Let us take the Bill to Committee, change it and make it fit for purpose. I urge the Minister, even at this very last moment, to allow the Bill into Committee, where we can change it if necessary and bring it back for this House to pass.
I thank the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson) for bringing this important issue to the House. I also thank Stonewall and other groups that have campaigned vigorously on LGBT issues over the years, and to which we owe a lot of credit for the progress that has been made.
There have been some fantastic speeches today. I will not go through all of them, but I would like to single out the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams). As he said, it is not usual for Yorkshiremen to admit they have made mistakes, but it is even less usual for politicians to admit that. He very graciously came out of the closet in favour of same-sex marriage in his speech.
In saying those words, does the Minister not recognise that, in years to come, he may well reflect on the words he is about to say and that he is perhaps about to get it wrong?
I have done a number of these private Members’ Bills on Fridays, and it is very unusual to be doing one where the choice before the House is not the private Member’s Bill or no Bill at all, but the private Member’s Bill or a legislative vehicle—the Police and Crime Bill—that will help us achieve our aims much faster so that we can deliver justice. However, there is also an important point. It is not for nothing that they say, “You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose.” Intentions are not good enough when it comes to making law; we have to think through the unintended consequences of law, and that is what the Government’s approach tries to do.
Perhaps the Minister would also like to make the point that if 100 MPs out of 650 had turned up to support the Bill, it would have got its Second Reading without any trouble at all. The problem is that it does not have the support of 100 MPs.
We did not have 100 MPs go through the Division Lobby earlier. We have also had a substantial debate in which people in favour of the private Member’s Bill have spoken for well over three hours.
Because we have had so many contributions, time is short. The last time I was here for a private Member’s Bill with the Minister, he—entirely inadvertently, I am sure—talked it out. He still has over 20 minutes to address the issues. Can he commit to concluding his remarks so that we can have a vote on the Second Reading? Otherwise, it will not be his friends who are blamed for talking the Bill out. His words will ring hollow if he is the one who talks it out.
I can commit to setting out the Government’s case clearly and comprehensively. As I said, the choice before us is not this Bill or no action at all.
I was proud to announce yesterday the introduction of legislation posthumously to pardon thousands of gay and bisexual men convicted of now-abolished sexual offences. Not enough has been said of what was a big and momentous step by the Government yesterday. Many contributions today have glossed over that fact and tried to present the issue as one on which the Government have taken no action at all. This issue has been a big challenge for 50 years. Homosexuality was decriminalised in 1967. Yesterday’s announcement was one of the biggest steps that has been taken since then, and it has been taken by this Government.
The issue was brought home to me when my office received a phone call from a lady whose stepbrother was convicted under these archaic anti-gay laws. She was so delighted that their shared mother, who was close to 100, has lived to see her stepbrother pardoned. That is a momentous step. To those who are making out—they are tweeting at the moment—that, somehow, the Government are not being progressive in this area, I say that the truth is that the Government are not dragging their feet or being hesitant in taking action. The Government’s legislative vehicle will deliver what we all want, which is to right this historic wrong quicker than any other method. By using a Government vehicle, we protect these measures from filibustering and from the vagaries of parliamentary time, and ensure that they get on to the statute book.
Will the Minister give way?
If you want me to finish, you might as well allow me to get through my speech.
In 2012, we introduced changes to the law to clear anyone still living and previously convicted of these now-abolished offences under the Home Office disregard process. Disregarding is a powerful tool in changing lives, as it removes any mention of a criminal offence. However, our announcement means that we will go one step further and introduce a new statutory pardon for those who have successfully had offences deleted through the disregard process.
The number of convictions compared with the number of people who have taken up the offer of disregards is very low. Do the Government have any plans to publicise the disregard programme so that more people could take up that option?
My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point.
In the Government’s scheme, the living do not get a blanket pardon but apply for a disregard process. At the start of this debate, I offered to work with the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire, MOJ officials and the Home Office to make sure that the disregard process is as effective as it can be. In addressing this, we need to think not only about those who were unjustly convicted of a crime but potential victims. Not having a disregard process and offering a blanket pardon means that we do not take into account the needs of potential victims.
I do not quite understand the Minister’s point. It is possible that someone who is now deceased and gets an automatic pardon is in exactly the same position as someone who is still alive, and there could be a potential victim there, so why is he making this strange distinction between the two?
It is a very important point, and the answer is very simple. Someone who is living who received the blanket pardon could volunteer in a school where they committed something that is still an offence—for example, sex with a minor—so there is a bigger onus on us to get this right.
I will take your interventions in a moment, but may I first develop my argument?
Order. I remind the Minister that when he says “you”, he is referring to the Chair. In these sorts of heated debates, things can get quite direct. It is important to remember that rule, especially when it gets a bit heated.
That is very good advice, Madam Deputy Speaker. I would not want to drag you into this debate.
The Government will pardon those who tragically died before they ever saw this injustice tackled. In response to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who made a very passionate speech, it is a matter of deep regret that so many men went to their graves without the pardon they so rightly deserved. That is why we are so determined as a Government to deliver justice, as I have said, by the most swift and fair means possible. The Government will support Lord Sharkey’s amendment to the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 through the Policing and Crime Bill. Lord Sharkey is a Liberal Democrat peer. He is no stooge of the Government—the days of coalition are long over—and, like many Members here, including the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire, he has been campaigning for this measure for a very long time. I am pleased that he will be taking forward the Government’s measures on this.
I am also pleased that the measures have been widely welcomed. Nick Duffy, the editor of “PinkNews”, said:
“There is a whole discussion around semantics but the bigger issue, I think, is that men who are alive today now have the option to finally have it, on paper, that they didn’t do anything wrong, that these laws were a mistake and never should have been. It sends a message within our country that these laws were totally wrong, that we regret them, and that they should never have been on the books”.
David Isaac, the chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, has said of the Government’s approach:
“This is an important day for all those that have had criminal convictions through old unjust laws. Many people have campaigned for gay men to be pardoned after being prosecuted for being who they are and I applaud the government for fulfilling their commitment.”
Those are quotes from independent people who have been campaigning for these measures for a long time, and they recognise that the steps the Government are taking will deliver justice in a fast and fair way.
The Minister said earlier that his objection to the Bill was that it gave out a blanket pardon that might cover unlawful conduct. May I give him comfort by telling him that that is not the case? Clause 1 states:
“Nothing in this Act is to be interpreted as pardoning, disregarding or in any other way affecting cautions, convictions, sentences or any other consequences of convictions or cautions for conduct or behaviour that is unlawful on the date that the Act comes into force.”
How could it be clearer? In addition, clause 2(4) states that the conditions for a pardon are that the other person must have consented and that they must not have been under the age of 16. Those provisions answer the Minister’s concerns. Will he have the decency to admit that the Government are wrong about this, and that the Bill tackles the issues that he is raising?
The truth is that the offence of which these men were convicted was gross indecency, which covered a whole range of criminal offences. The blanket pardon will cover everyone who was convicted of gross indecency.
Will the Minister give way?
Let me develop my argument. How do we differentiate between those whom the Bill covers and those who fall outside its scope?
I want to pick up a point made by the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), who said that he was delighted to be debating with a Conservative Government the “how” and not the “what” of this issue. The Conservative party has a proud record of trying to redress the inequality that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people face. A Conservative Justice Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), paved the way with the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, and a Conservative-led Government delivered the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, which enabled couples to marry regardless of sex and gender. I voted for same-sex marriage. Around the time of the debate on that Bill, people wrote to me to say, “These couples are the same, but let us treat them differently when it comes to marriage,” but as someone from an ethnic minority, I knew that we could not say that people were equal but treat them differently. That is why I was delighted to vote for that piece of legislation.
The Conservative party has a proud record of more out MPs than all other parties put together. We know that there is more to do, and I reject the implication that by supporting Lord Sharkey’s amendment, we are somehow shirking the huge amount that there is to do. We are delivering on our manifesto commitment by backing that prominent amendment, which will right this historic injustice against gay and bisexual men. Many people have said in the debate that we need to send out a signal. When I looked at the newspapers and the other news yesterday, it was clear that the signal was sent by the Government’s support for the amendment. I am sure that the reverberations will continue for months to come, because the Government will not only have delivered on their commitment but gone as far as possible to right this historic injustice. I was delighted when the Leader of the Opposition described this as a great victory for all who have campaigned to right this wrong.
I know that for the SNP, answering the clarion call of “better together” is not something that comes naturally, but I hope that they will withdraw the Bill and support our amendment. We all want the same thing—to resolve an injustice that for too long has been left unchallenged. When the Lords amendment comes to this House the SNP will be able to contribute to the debate on it.
We are all here in part because of the world-famous story of the war-time hero and Enigma code breaker Alan Turing, which resulted in the Conservative manifesto pledge to introduce legislation to right these historical wrongs. Turing, who committed suicide following his conviction for gross indecency, was posthumously pardoned by Her Majesty the Queen in 2013.
The posthumous pardon of Alan Turing addresses his 1952 conviction for gross indecency, which resulted in him being chemically castrated. Turing was arrested following an affair with a 19-year-old from Manchester. His conviction, a sad indictment of the attitudes prevailing at the time, resulted in his losing his security clearance. As a result he was no longer able to continue the valuable code-breaking work that had he had begun at Bletchley Park during world war two and that had been vital to the allies. His pardon was granted under the royal prerogative of mercy after a request by my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell, who was then Justice Secretary, following a high-profile campaign supported by more than 37,000 people, including Stephen Hawking.
As has been said, we know that Alan Turing is just one of the estimated 49,000 people who were unjustly convicted under those laws. Those unjust convictions are a matter of the deepest regret. They were for criminal offences as the law stood at the time. I am delighted that we will be delivering on our manifesto commitment to pardon those men and right those wrongs. The legislation the Government have announced will do two things to address the historical injustices faced by gay and bisexual men. In the case of deceased persons, it will provide for a blanket posthumous pardon to be given to those individuals who were convicted of consensual gay sexual offences that would not be offences today; those are primarily offences under the Sexual Offences Act 1956. As Lord Sharkey has said,
“a pardon is probably the best way of acknowledging the real harm done by the unjust and cruel homophobic laws, which thankfully we’ve now repealed.”
In the case of those individuals who are still living, it will provide that all who are successful in obtaining a disregard—I will explain the disregard process in a little more detail in a moment—will be granted a pardon, so that they get both a disregard, to expunge their record, and a pardon. That will apply to previous and future disregards.
Under the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, individuals can apply to the Home Secretary to have their historical convictions for gay sex offences—primarily those under sections 12 and 13 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956—deleted. Officials check police national computer records and then local police and court records, to ascertain whether the offences were consensual, were with a person aged 16 or over and did not involve activity that is currently an offence. A successful applicant will be treated in all circumstances as though the offence had never occurred and need not disclose it for any purpose. Official records relating to the conviction that are held by prescribed organisations will be deleted or, where appropriate, annotated to that effect. The existence of those convictions or cautions may have prevented individuals from taking up certain opportunities in their lives or made them uneasy about going into certain professions or volunteering, because the information would have been revealed in a criminal records check.
Will the Minister give way?
I need to press on.
Although it is right that the state enables the vulnerable to be protected from those who pose a risk, it is not right that someone remains affected by a conviction for something that is no longer illegal. The process for the disregard, which has not been discussed in enough detail in this debate, is simple and not bureaucratic. Applicants complete a two-page form giving basic information such as their name and address and the details of the offence to be disregarded. The applicant also supplies photocopies of proof of address and identity. These can be sent by post or email.
Nothing else is required and the process is free of charge. The outcome of a disregard is a significant step for the individual, who may have had to live with that offence on their record for years.
Will the Minister give way?
I want to press on.
When a person is successful in obtaining a disregard for a conviction or a caution, that offence is to be treated for all purposes in law as if the person has not committed the offence, been convicted or sentenced or even cautioned. Perhaps this will be of most use to individuals when applying for work or when volunteering for roles that require a criminal records check from the Disclosure and Barring Service. This is incredibly important, because under the disregard process, the offences will quite simply no longer appear on the disclosure, and can have no effect on the person’s chances of obtaining work or the opportunity to volunteer. Any previous barriers will have been removed and the person is no longer affected by the disclosure.
To clarify a point, when the age of consent was much higher than today, as it was in 1967, how does the Minister envisage putting checks and balances in place on a blanket pardon where under-age sex has taken place under the age of 16, which is illegal today but is the same charge as when the age of consent was 21?
My hon. Friend continues to make a very persuasive case. Yes, we all want a pardon; yes, we all want to right the wrongs of the past, but we cannot do that without the safeguards being inappropriate in cases where people are still living and there are consequences today. To do that would, I believe, be irresponsible on the part of the Government.
In my earlier intervention, the Minister said that his concern was that someone getting a blanket pardon who was still alive could then get a job as a volunteer with children. However, the Bill specifically says that anyone who is still alive and wants the offence expunged from the record has to go through a second procedure. Surely anyone applying for such a job would have go through a criminal records check, which would show up what was still on the record. I do not see where the difference lies.
The hon. Gentleman makes my point about why a disregard step is essential in this process—[Interruption.] May I respond to the hon. Gentleman’s point? The disregard process means that there will not be a situation where someone has been ostensibly pardoned but the criminal record has not been expunged. The disregard process ensures that the criminal record is expunged and the person gets a statutory pardon. I am sure that Members will agree that such a process provides a meaningful avenue for individuals convicted or cautioned for sexual activity that is no longer regarded as an offence.
The hon. Lady has had her time. The process allows people to move on with their lives in a meaningful way.
A disregard is a much more powerful and useful remedy for someone living than just a pardon. We recognise the force of the symbol of being pardoned, which is why we propose to pardon all of those who are living and were convicted of relevant offences once they have received a disregard. I would urge any individuals who believe that they are eligible for the disregard process to apply through the Home Office to have their records properly assessed. I hope that today’s debate has helped to raise the profile of this process so that those who are not aware can take steps to secure the justice that they deserve.
Of course, I support the intentions behind the Bill; the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire and I share the same objectives. The proposed blanket pardon would not provide for robust checks to ensure that only those who clearly meet the criteria can claim to be pardoned. It could lead in some cases to people claiming to be cleared of offences that are still crimes—including sex with a minor and non-consensual sexual activity. Under the disregard process, for example, the Home Office has rejected several applications where the activity was non-consensual and others where the other party was under 16 years old. Those offences were captured under offences such as “gross indecency” at the time, but are still crimes today. It is important that a pardon for the living takes place only after due process to verify—[Interruption.]
Order. Enough. Let the Minister finish his speech.
Order. Debate to be resumed what day?
I suspect that there is little point, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I have been told to continue this farce. What I am meant to say is 16 December.
The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).
Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 16 December.
Registration of Marriage Bill
Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 18 November.