I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
It is a great pleasure to welcome so many Members of the House to their places. When I was born in the 1960s—[Hon. Members: “No!”] It is hard to believe, I know. Members will notice that I did not say at which end of the 1960s I was born. At that time, two men who were in love could be sent to prison for what they chose to do in the privacy of their own homes. It is hard to fathom the mindset of those who defended such gross intrusion into the lives and rights of others. When we read the speeches made in this place at the time of the decriminalisation Act, the Sexual Offences Act 1967, we see that many Members presumed to tell their fellow citizens who they could and could not love, often couching their speeches in the most prurient and lascivious terms.
So it went on. Even after decriminalisation, numerous homophobic laws remained on the statute book—laws that existed only to enshrine inequality, ensuring that gay men could never enjoy the full fruits of equal citizenship. When I was a student at Glasgow University, the student union banned the university gay society from holding meetings and dances on its premises. The gay students could do absolutely nothing about that, because there was no equality protection under the law.
When I left university and applied for a job in the civil service and the diplomatic service, I was told that I had to sign an affidavit confirming that I was not gay. I would not do that, and therefore I could not qualify for the post. In the 1980s, the tabloids screamed abuse about gay men and AIDS, and it was routine to conflate homosexuality with paedophilia.
Small wonder that it was hard to come out as gay. I confess that I found it tough. I came from a modest Presbyterian background, I went to church every Sunday, I went to Sunday school and I went to the crusaders. I prayed not to be gay. At school, gay was the worst taunt possible. There were, hon. Members may remember, gay and straight ways of throwing a ball, and it was important to be very sure which was which. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) laughs in clear recognition.
We had few, if any, role models. The TV stars Larry Grayson and John Inman were staples of Saturday night television who fitted the gay stereotype: comic characters who were single and, as we know from their biographies, in denial about who they were. The future as a young gay boy did not look promising. Who would want to be gay in a country where gay people had to hide who they were, lie if they wanted certain jobs and even lie if they wanted to keep their jobs? It was, after all, legal for an employer to sack someone simply because they had discovered that that person was gay. Anyone could refuse to rent a house to a gay person. A gay couple could be arrested if they shared a hotel room, because the law did not recognise hotel rooms as private spaces. Perhaps most horrifyingly of all—here we come to the crux of today’s debate—a 21-year-old man who slept with his 20-year-old boyfriend could be arrested and tried, convicted and sentenced for under-age sex.
As a young journalist I made a film about how the law discriminated against gay men; in fact, I confess that it was I who took Edwina Currie to Amsterdam, at a time when she was not especially interested in this subject, as I wanted to confront her with the full horrors of gay law reform and equality. She came back a changed character—perhaps it was a couple of the clubs I took her to—determined to reform the law, because she had seen the way that gay law reform could work in practice.
In that film, I interviewed military personnel with exemplary records who had been followed home by the military police as they were determined to investigate a tip off that the soldier, Air Force man or naval officer concerned was living privately with a same-sex partner. When interviewed those personnel could be disciplined if they lied, but of course they could be and were sacked if they told the truth—damned whatever choice they made.
It was not until the 1990s that the European Court—yes, the great Satan itself—overturned the services ban in the teeth of military opposition. Military men hit the airwaves to predict the collapse of the British Navy, where such behaviour had previously never been known; Nelson, it seems, had never been kissed. Across the pond, Colin Powell was shamefully arguing the same tosh, in his case claiming that straight soldiers would never share a shower with gay soldiers if they knew their true nature. Much better to hide and share the shower, if we follow Mr Powell’s logic; I do not.
In my documentary I interviewed gay men who had been entrapped by so-called pretty policemen. I also interviewed Chief Constable Anderton of Greater Manchester, beloved of the tabloids as “God’s copper”, with a bushy black beard of biblical proportions. He sat at his desk and defended the practice of sending out attractive young male police officers who would give gay men the eye; if the gay man responded, he would be arrested and his life would be ruined. Since announcing the Bill, I have had letters from people who have told me of their exact experience of being entrapped by police officers and how it ruined their life. This entrapment was a police priority in one of the country’s biggest cities in the 1990s. It is hard to fathom, because it was a disgrace. Gay men were not free at home or at work. They were not protected by law. They were under sustained attack by the law.
I felt myself lucky. I had supportive friends, a loving family and a good job. I came out, and have never regretted doing so for a moment. And goodness knows, I am now a member of the gayest party in this place. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] Just look at them.
I think a heterosexual has just come out of the closet.
Our very gayness has made Westminster the gayest Parliament in the world. [Interruption.] I am just looking at the gentleman in the wig and wondering how he is reacting. [Interruption.] He’s left, in fact.
I will never forget the men in the documentary I presented for the BBC, and their ruined lives—lives scarred by a bitter sense of injustice. When I came top of the ballot, I saw a golden opportunity. Society has moved on. We are now horrified by the inequalities of the past. We cringe when we read the homophobic rantings of some of our predecessors in this place. We believe that gay service personnel should serve, that being gay should be no bar to a career in the diplomatic service or any other service, that gay couples should be able to share a bed in a hotel, that gay kids should not be harassed and bullied at school, that chief constables should not send out officers to flirt with and entrap citizens, and that the age of consent should be equal. Looking across the House, I know that there is consensus about that in this place just as there is in society.
We do not want any of these prejudices for our future. But what about those living with unfair convictions from our past—how do we address their grievances and the injustices that they suffered? I detailed some of the cases that I covered for my documentary, and I am sure that all of us, as diligent MPs, have had mail from people who have found themselves in these circumstances. What about the men of 21 who had a boyfriend of 20 and as a result found themselves arrested, tried and convicted for under-age sex—just think about what it means to have that on your record—with a man who was perhaps only a few months younger than they were? These are people who were in a consensual relationship with a contemporary. That contemporary was old enough to serve in the military, drive a car and have a child of four legally, but was regarded by the homophobic laws of the time as a 20-year-old child unable to give consent. Those 21-year-olds have then had to endure, perhaps for decades, an unfair criminal conviction for under-age sex that may have blighted their lives.
Stonewall, the extraordinary gay rights organisation that has led the national debate on gay law reform, had a solution: the Turing Bill, named after the wartime code-breaking hero Alan Turing. Mr Turing may have been hailed by Churchill, but that did not prevent him from being charged as a homosexual and being chemically castrated. He committed suicide as a result. In his honour, Stonewall wants all gay men living with convictions for crimes that are no longer on the statute book to be pardoned. I could not think of a more noble Bill to pilot through Parliament. With old friends from all parts of the House, I felt that the Bill would attract all-party support, which indeed it has; I thank those who have supported it.
When I was approached by the Tory Whips and asked whether I would take on the Bill I was delighted to do so. The Conservative Whips asked me for a meeting and promised that if I took up the Turing Bill there would be—and I quote them exactly—
“no tricks and no games from our side.”
I felt as if I was in an episode of “House of Cards”. The right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), a principled long-term campaigner for law reform, was the Justice Secretary at the time. He promised me the full support of the Justice Department.
I have worked closely with Stonewall on the Bill. Let me tell the House what the Bill does and does not do. It provides a blanket pardon for any gay man convicted of a crime that is no longer a crime. The meaning of that is patently obvious. If the crime for which someone was convicted is still a crime, by definition they are not pardoned. Let no one be confused about that.
The aim of this simple measure is, I hope, obvious. The pardon confers no immediate advantage except this: it will, I hope, bring closure to those men who have had to thole monstrous, unfair criminal convictions for decades. They may have had to hide their conviction from family or friends; it may have prevented them from applying for a job. With my Turing Bill they get a pardon and so belated justice and the knowledge that society has acknowledged that a great wrong was committed against them.
I believe that the vast majority of gay men with convictions will be satisfied with this anonymous, private triumph, but there may be some who want something more—who feel that they should not be offered a pardon for something that was never wrong in the first place. For those men I offer an additional option, should they choose it: they will be able to have their name expunged from the records. However—and this is important, as many Members have raised the point with me—the records are often imprecise. Often there were “catch-all” arrests where the police did not specify the detail. So where the records are imprecise and where it is unclear whether the under-age party was 20, 19, 18, 17, 16—or, crucially 15 or younger—the onus will be on the applicant to prove the age of his partner at the time of the arrest.
As a result, some men might not be able to have their records expunged because they are unable to provide the necessary proof, even though their then partner was over today’s age of consent—and I recognise that that will be deeply frustrating for them. However, this provision absolutely satisfies the concerns raised that we must be rigorous in ensuring that only those who have convictions for crimes not now on the statute book benefit from these measures. All the legal advice I have taken leaves me satisfied that this Bill absolutely addresses that concern and is as watertight as it is possible to be under the circumstances.
Stonewall believes that only small numbers of men will avail themselves of this provision—the second provision of my Bill. Many of the men affected are old, and these matters are far in their past and perhaps a secret. The requirements I am imposing would be time-consuming and perhaps distressing for them to satisfy. I believe and Stonewall believes that they will be satisfied with my automatic pardon. They will not seek to have the details expunged manually from their record.
If you will forgive me, Mr Speaker, I want to come back to the
“no tricks and no games”
promise. SNP Members may not be planning to stay in this House for very long, but other Members are passionate about Westminster and want Westminster to succeed, so surely nothing we do procedurally should bring this House into disrepute, when we know that certain words such as “filibuster” shock and horrify ordinary members of the public who think such things are appalling.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene so early in the debate, and I congratulate him on all he is doing to raise in public the profile of this very important issue. The real question that we need to answer today is how we can deliver justice in the quickest, fairest way to those who have suffered the humiliation of conviction under archaic laws. Yesterday, the Government announced that we would answer this question with a legislative vehicle that will provide a pardon for those people within a few months. This delivers on a manifesto commitment, but it also has cross-party support. The amendment will be brought forward by a Liberal Democrat peer, and the Labour leader, the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), yesterday called the move “a great victory” for all who have campaigned to right this wrong.
As well as honouring the dead, this would—[Interruption.] I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman heard me out. As well as honouring the dead, the hon. Gentleman seeks a pardon for the living. We have developed a way to do that without giving any perception that the pardon covers perpetrators of sex with a minor or non-consensual sex.
What I would like to do today is to make a full and open offer to the hon. Gentleman to work with officials in the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office and with Stonewall to give real effect to this pardon for the dead and the living as fairly and quickly as possible. I therefore ask him to withdraw the Bill and support the amendment that has cross-party support in this House and in the other place to resolve an injustice that has been left unchallenged for too long.
I thank the Minister for that, and I accepted the Government’s offer back in June. We have had plenty of time to chat about it. I have to say that standing up to propose an offer of co-operation on the very morning of my debate might be regarded as leaving it somewhat late for a further private chat. The Minister shakes his head to say that that was not his offer and that he did not know anything about it, but I can assure him that I have been talking to members of the Government on and off since June.
Yesterday, the Government—the Minister has just said it—accepted an amendment to the Policing and Crime Bill in the House of Lords and claimed that it was the Turing Bill. It is not, even though some rather obliging news outlets have trumpeted their claim after reading the press releases. I will leave it to Members to decide whether it is fair to attempt to hijack my Bill some 36 hours before its Second Reading in this place.
The private Member’s Bill process is, after all, intended to allow those of us not in government to seek to leave a legacy of legislation that we believe is good, kind and worth while. I believe that this Bill is kind. The amendment accepted by the Government would, if I understand it correctly, grant an automatic pardon to the deceased, yet the Minister says he is very concerned that the Bill’s provisions would be misused because some people who have behaved improperly would get under the radar and get pardons that they were not entitled to. If he thinks it is hard to enforce that for the living, imagine how much harder it is, by his own logic, to enforce it for the dead. There is an intellectual incoherence here. The Minister can shake his head, but there is an intellectual incoherence at the heart of what the Government are proposing, and I fear that they have not really thought it through.
I know that because I have been told in the course of introducing the Bill that I would get Government support; then that I would not get it; then that I would get Government support again; and then that I might get it. I am afraid that the Conservative Government have been all over the place on this. I was very keen to avoid this becoming a party political issue. At no point have I gone to the press or given interviews in which I have referred to the Bill as an SNP measure. In fact, as the Minister knows, it is an English measure. For those who criticise the SNP and say that we are overly concerned with the constitution and Scottish issues, here is something that tackles an English injustice.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for the tone he is adopting today, but he said “English only”. Speaking as a Welsh MP, I point out that it is England and Wales. I would like to remind him of that country—tagged on, in his opinion, to England—and tease out from him what the situation is in Scotland with the Scottish Government.
My humble apologies for saying “England only”. No one finds that more annoying than the Scots, so I beg the hon. Gentleman’s pardon for that. He will know, of course, that the Scottish Government have been a long-term champion of gay rights. The country has become famous for the progress it has made on this issue. I remember a time when we were told by opponents of devolution that we should not have a Scottish Parliament because we relied on Westminster to keep us liberal. That was an old argument that I remember from the 1970s: we needed English and Welsh MPs to keep us on the right side of liberal law reform, otherwise we would be a religious puppet state —a sort of Presbyterian Iran. I like to think that the progress we have made since Holyrood came into being has rather shown that we have a good record on this issue.
To address the hon. Gentleman’s point, I have had discussions with Scottish Ministers. There is, of course, widespread welcome in Scotland for this legislation, and it is my belief that Holyrood would enact something very similar in due course.
No, I will not.
Let us focus exactly on what it is that the amendment that the Minister mentioned does. The amendment accepted by the Government would grant an automatic pardon to the deceased. Of course that is great, and my Bill makes the same provision, but I have to ask the House: should we not prioritise the living over the dead?
I wonder whether Members spotted an elderly gentleman who toured the TV and radio studios yesterday. He is a 93-year-old who feels immensely strongly—[Interruption.] No, no one on the Labour Benches. This was somebody different who toured the TV studios talking about the injustice that he feels about his criminal convictions. He hash-tagged himself “the oldest gay in the village” on Twitter. He is 93, and he says that he is determined to live to 100 to see justice served, because he has lived with a sense of injustice for all these years.
I am going to make progress.
How odd would it look for the elderly to be told that they must wait until they die for the automatic pardon that the Government now seem to be proposing? Let us finish the law reform that we have started by recognising that the victims of society’s prejudices are still hurting, and are still alive. They deserve the peace that the Bill would bring. [Applause]
Our history is littered with minority groups who have been caught up in illegal acts in the past, under laws that we consider today to be quite unbelievable, and also discriminatory. We cannot imagine such laws now, because morality and ethics have changed beyond all recognition since those bygone eras. There is a string of moral and ethical subjects that we cannot imagine criminalising, although in some parts of the United Kingdom they are still criminal offences.
As recently as April this year, a young woman in Northern Ireland could not afford the fare to England for an abortion and, in desperation, took abortion pills which she had bought online and performed a self-abortion. Under Northern Irish law, she was arrested, charged, sentenced to three months in jail suspended for two years, and finally criminalised. She was convicted in Belfast High Court under ancient laws that had come into force under Queen Victoria, but still sit on the statute book of Northern Ireland.
Prostitution is another moral subject in respect of which, historically and today, a great deal of ambiguity surrounds what is and is not illegal. Having moved away from one stereotype—that of the disreputable woman as a seller of sexual services—we now view the prostitute as a vulnerable, exploited victim. The laws relating to prostitution in England and Wales are far from straightforward. The act of prostitution is not in itself illegal, but a string of laws criminalises activities connected with it. It is an offence, for example, to cause or incite prostitution, or control it for personal gain. The Sexual Offences Act 1956 bans the running of a brothel. If more than one person—the law is gender-neutral—is available on premises for paid sex, those premises are a brothel.
May I correct the hon. Gentleman slightly? There is no definition of a brothel in law. Common law allows the courts to determine that a brothel is a place frequented by men to perform lewd homosexual practices including dancing, and the term has often been used in that sense. There is still plenty on the statute book that needs to be reformed.
The hon. Gentleman makes my point eloquently. The law relating to prostitution is so ambiguous that it is easy to see how people can be charged with offences that we consider ridiculous nowadays.
Whether or not one is morally opposed to some of these acts is not the issue. A progressive Government, in a modern-day democracy, will continue to consider all the issues and debate them openly. As a Conservative, I am proud that some progressive laws have been introduced under successive Conservative Governments. The decriminalisation of homosexuality is one example: it was Churchill’s Government who commissioned the Wolfenden report in the late l950s. That was by no means a turning point in history, but it was the start of a lengthy process to put right a great wrong.
It would be easy to argue—as I am sure many of my colleagues will—that a crime is a crime, and that that was the law of the land at the time. So why are we considering pardons for laws that our forefathers thought were apt for the time? Why should we feel guilty on behalf of past law-makers who, like us, made laws and passed legislation that fitted the mood and the times of that particular day? Why should there be a pardon for gay and bisexual men when there are so many other historical moral issues that could easily be subjected to the same argument?
For me, the answer has to be the police. We all know that, historically, we have seen our police forces operate in a way that has sometimes not been totally honest, open or above board. We need only recall what happened at Hillsborough, not to mention the cases of abuse that have been swept under the carpet. Even today, many Members still come across cases in respect of which we cannot help questioning the ethos of our local police forces, knowing full well what has gone on historically. When it comes to criminal convictions for homosexuality, it does not take too long to trawl the internet and see what was common practice on the part of local police forces in years gone by.
In 1958, a public lavatory used for cottaging in Bolton—not a million miles from my constituency—was well known to police and magistrates, but there had not been a conviction for 30 years. However, there would be intermittent trawls through the address books of suspected homosexuals, with the result that up to 20 men at a time would appear in the dock, accused of being a “homosexual ring”, although many of them might never have met each other before. In one case, there had been no public sex, no under-age sex and no multiple sex, yet the men were all dragged to court, and a 21-year-old who was considered to be the ringleader was sentenced to 21 months in jail. Interestingly, an issue of the Bolton News contained five letters in support of the convicted men and none against them. The deputy editor was visited by the local police, who wanted to know whether he really believed that this was what the people of Bolton thought about the enforcement of the law.
In the mid-1950s, there was the atmosphere of a witch-hunt—probably not unrelated to what was happening in America with McCarthy—and there were consequent opportunities for blackmail. A chap called Leo Abse, who eventually piloted the Sexual Offences Act 1967 through this very Parliament, recalled that, when he was a lawyer in Cardiff, all his fees from criminals suddenly started coming from the account of one man. He investigated, and found that the man was “a poor vicar”. The criminals were bleeding him dry through blackmail.
Members of Parliament on both sides of the House began to demand action, and one or two newspapers ran leaders. Then there was another high-profile case, in which the police were called to deal with one matter and ended up prosecuting for another. Edward Montagu, later Lord Beaulieu, contacted the police over a stolen camera, and ended up in prison for a year for gross indecency. Two of his friends, Michael Pitt-Rivers and Peter Wildeblood, got 18 months. Their trial in 1954 probably influenced the decision of the then Home Secretary, David Maxwell-Fyfe, to establish the Wolfenden committee to consider whether a change in the law was necessary.
Should men like those be pardoned? Of course they should. The police and magistrates clearly abused their powers to instil fear and practise entrapment. The question for us today, however, is whether we should support the Bill or wait for the Government amendment to the Policing and Crime Bill. This Bill proposes a blanket pardon for the living without the need to go through what is known as the disregard process. The Government amendment is exactly the same, but would mean that the living would have to go through the disregard process.
We already prioritise the living, notwithstanding what was said by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson). They can go through the disregard process and be given a statutory pardon at the end of it. What is important is the safeguard that prevents someone who has had sex with a minor from receiving a blanket pardon and then, for example, going to work in a school.
I thank my hon. Friend for that clarification. He has taken two paragraphs out of my speech. One reason why I cannot support this private Member’s Bill is that, despite what the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson) claims, I do not believe that it is watertight. People could claim to have been cleared of certain offences when in fact those offences are still crimes. Such offences include having sex with a minor and non-consensual sexual activity.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman prepared for the debate today by reading the Bill. He will be aware that clause 1, which sets out the effect of the legislation, 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.”
What is unclear about that?
I hear clearly what the hon. and learned Lady says, but my big concern is: how do we physically put that through a due diligence process? The disregard process will do just that. I have already said there are a lot of men who clearly should be pardoned, and that there should be a process for doing that, but how do we physically check the process? The disregard process is there for that exact purpose.
Did the hon. Gentleman not listen to my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson) explaining this? Anyone wanting to go through this process will have to prove the age of the other party involved in the incident that led to the conviction. My hon. Friend conceded that that could be very difficult in some cases, and many people will find it impossible, given the state of the records. However, it is a safeguard against the very issue that the hon. Gentleman is talking about.
I do not agree that it is a safeguard. If we give a blanket pardon, where are the safeguards in that process? We already have a disregard process in the system, and it is important that we should have these safeguards in place. It is still an offence in this country to have underage sex, and given the issues around safeguarding children in our schools, it is vital that we have those safeguards in place. I have every sympathy with the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire’s Bill, but I will not be supporting it. I will, however, support the Government’s amendment to the Policing and Crime Bill, because it is incredibly important that we have safeguards in any process that we put in place. I believe that disregarding the disregard process would be the wrong thing to do.
I warmly congratulate the whole Scottish National party on turning up today to support the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson), who has put forward his argument extremely well. It is strange, living in this world today and looking around this country, to see how much has changed so very rapidly. Young people at school today are not ashamed of owning up to being gay, lesbian, bisexual or whatever. Every one of us who goes into a secondary school today will probably see kids who are happy to do that. When most of us went to school, there was probably nobody in that category at all.
Civil partnerships and same-sex marriage have made an enormous difference to the way in which the whole of society looks at homosexuality. Many children in primary school will know other kids who have gay parents. Either because they have been adopted or surrogated or in some other set of circumstances, they will have ended up having two dads or two mums. That is not an uncommon experience for many youngsters growing up today, and I hope that the future will be even warmer than that.
I do not think that any employer in Britain today would think it right to sack somebody just because of their sexuality. As the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire said, it is a delight that that now applies to our armed forces and to the police. I remember that Ministers were making complicated decisions only a short time ago about whether to allow members of the armed forces to march in gay pride marches in uniform. That debate seems bizarrely outdated nowadays. There is a phenomenal sense that we have made enormous achievements and great strides in this country.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that much of the progress in the change in attitudes towards gay and lesbian people in society has come from the media and how gay and lesbian people are portrayed in soap operas? I understand that the House is about to be joined by a former actress from “Coronation Street”, and I offer the gay vicar character from that soap opera as an example. This has all helped to change the way in which gay and lesbian people are portrayed.
I think that media portrayals have been a double-edged sword, to be honest. I am slightly sick of the fact that quite often the gay character in a crime drama will be the murderer, for example. Larry Grayson and John Inman have already been mentioned. John Inman always maintained that his character in “Are You Being Served?” was not gay, and it is true that the campest people I know are all heterosexual men. But, yes, it did matter when Michael Cashman’s character kissed another man in “EastEnders”. That was a change-making moment, and I think that British society might have moved on faster because of our broadcasters, partly through Mrs Thatcher’s creation of Channel 4, which was given the role of being edgy and different. Those factors made it possible for us to make great strides very fast. It does not always work like that, however. I am still mystified why Australia, which seems to be the campest nation on Earth—it is obsessed with Abba—still does not have any form of legalised gay relationships. I very much hope that that is going to change soon, and I shall say more about that in a moment.
I remember the rows, during my time as an MP, when the House of Lords refused to vote for an equal age of consent or to get rid of section 28. We had to use the Parliament Acts to push that measure through. More recently, however, more Conservative Members of the House of Lords voted for same-sex marriage than did Conservative Members of this House. There has been a phenomenal change, and I delight in that fact.
I remember a row in this House about whether we should ban discrimination against gay couples in the provision of goods and services, including adoption services. I was struck by the Catholic Church’s argument at the time that it was fine for an individual gay person to adopt a child but not for a gay couple to do so. In the Church’s mind, a settled relationship was a more dangerous place for a child than being with a single gay person. I just did not understand that logic. The truth of the matter is that many of the most difficult-to-place kids are placed with gay and lesbian couples. I am glad that, in the end, this House and House of Lords wholeheartedly endorsed the idea that there should be no discrimination in the provision of goods and services.
Not everything is perfect, however. Bullying in many different forms is still a fundamental problem in schools, for example, and it is very difficult to eradicate. As the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire said, one aspect of that bullying is related to sexuality. The word “gay” is all too often used pejoratively, and schools sometimes have difficulty in dealing with these issues. My husband Jared is a trustee of a charity called Diversity Role Models, which goes into schools to help them to talk through these issues. It is a phenomenal shame that we still do not have proper sex and relationship education in every school in this land without any school being able to opt out. Such education can result in most kids delaying their first sexual experience, which helps to cut the level of teenage pregnancy. It is better for everyone all round when there is proper sex and relationship education.
I cannot remember whether I am slightly older or slightly younger than the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire—
I see that the hon. Gentleman is in his usual magnanimous mood. Being slightly older, then, I have even more experience and wisdom to impart to him.
I remember that one of my first experiences on coming to London was meeting a couple called Christopher and Illtyd, who had lived together in a one-bedroom flat since the 1950s. Just after I first met them, one of them was attacked on the way home, sustaining many injuries, some of which they worried would be permanent. The guy had insisted on coming into the house and had burgled them at knifepoint. What was striking about their story was that they could go neither to the hospital nor to the police because they were two men living in a one-bedroom flat and that was a criminal offence under the law of the land. They knew that they would not get justice despite what had happened to them. There are countless thousands of others to whom that situation applied.
I remember a case involving two of my friends at university. I was sort of straight at the time—[Interruption.] I am a practising homosexual now, and one day I will be quite good at it. Incidentally, I was also a sort of Conservative at the time, but we will not go into all that—many, many sins. My friends—two 19-year-old men—got into trouble with the university police because they had had sex and that was a criminal offence at the time because they were under 21. A college room was not a private place under the law and the two were sent down, receiving a criminal conviction and never finishing their degrees.
Until the Sexual Offences Act 2003, importuning was illegal in this country. Importuning is a strange word. It was used by the police for many convictions right up until 2003. If a man met somebody in a bar whom they did not know before and went home with them, that was importuning and he could be sent down for it. If the police could not secure a conviction for something else, they often relied on importuning to bring a charge.
Many people hid their sexuality for the simple reason that they were terrified of being sacked or not being promoted. I pay tribute to John Major, who I think was the first Foreign Secretary to say that people would not be sacked just for being gay in the Foreign Office. A number of people were subject to blackmail even in very ordinary jobs and in their local communities. They did not have to know state secrets; they just had to be frightened of being exposed as being a criminal and potentially sent to prison. The number of suicides has remained stubbornly high, and I will refer to one later on.
Historically, the UK since its foundation in 1801, Great Britain since 1707 and England before that have had the toughest laws in the world on homosexuality—much tougher than in France under the Napoleonic code, which made no reference to any of this. Some of our former colonies still have some of the worst laws, with capital punishment surviving in places.
We have made great strides towards equality, but we still live with the legacy of antiquated legislation. We need only to look at certain Commonwealth countries for examples. In some cases, the anti-gay laws are mirror copies of those that existed here. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if we are to start making reparations for this wrongdoing in addition to pardoning those who were convicted, we must seek to influence other members of the Commonwealth where gay men and women do not enjoy the freedom to be who they are?
Far too long. I tried to push forward some of these issues. The Foreign Office can play an important role around the world in tackling abuse in countries as diverse as Iran and Russia. I say to my Australian colleagues, “For heaven’s sake, just get your act together.” They should join the company of nations that have changed. If Argentina can have gay marriage, if Spain—so dominated, historically, by Catholicism—can have gay marriage, why on earth cannot Australia, the country of “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”?
We are debating today one of the worst periods in our history. In the 1870s and 1880s a series of scurrilous and horrible newspapers whipped up deliberate hysteria around homosexuality. It led to the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, a serious piece of legislation that tried to tackle the problem of under-age women being abused in the prostitution trade. Henry Labouchere introduced a clause that I want to read out so that people realise how pernicious the legislation was. It stated:
“Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or is a party to the commission of, or procures, or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with an other male person, shall be guilty of a misdemeanour, and being convicted thereof, shall be liable at the discretion of the Court to be imprisoned for any term not exceeding two years, with or without hard labour.”
It could not have been made more wide reaching:
“in public or private commits, or is a party to the commission of, or procures, or attempts to procure”.
Any court would be able to interpret the legislation as it felt fit. The final line about “hard labour” is, famously, partly what ended up killing Oscar Wilde. The legislation led to thousands of people being sent to prison and doing hard labour.
There was a campaign in the 1920s to try to rid the country of this “scourge”. A young lad from the Rhondda, a railway porter called Thomas, was caught by the police outside the Tivoli theatre, and they tried to do him for gross indecency. He was sent to prison for three months and did hard labour. The only evidence that they had to advance was that he had his mother’s powderpuff in his pocket, but he was sent to prison for three months. I am so proud that the MP for Rhondda West at the time, a miner called William John, gave evidence on behalf of the young man, but the court did not listen.
We find the same things all over again in the 1950s. David Maxwell Fyfe, the then Home Secretary, was wonderful as one of the inquisitors at Nuremberg and in helping to draft the European convention on human rights, but he was shockingly homophobic and forced the Home Office and the police to run a campaign to rid this country of the “scourge”, as he put it, of homosexuality. One of the terrible ironies for him was that two of the first people trapped were Conservative Members of Parliament.
I listened to what the Minister said, but there is a real problem about trying to force people to go through another process. For someone now in their 70s or 80s, the conviction might have been like a brand on them for their entire life. It might have caused terrible problems in their family life. It might have meant that they were never able to do the job that they wanted to do, such as a teacher not being able to go back to teaching. Friends and relatives might have shunned them. It might have made them feel terribly ashamed. Why on earth would they want to write to the Home Secretary, asking, “Please may I be pardoned?” Why on earth would they want to go through that process all over again? Why on earth would they want someone to analyse whether they were guilty of something way back when?
The Minister made a good argument about our working together, but the way to work together is to agree to the Bill. We can then go into Committee and if things need to be put right, let us put them right. The hon. Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) said that this Bill is not watertight. I say to him: let us make it watertight. The place to do that is in Committee, rather than by turning our back today.
Several hon. Members referred to the fact this might be called the Turing Bill, but I do not want to call it that; I want to call it the Cartland, Macnamara, Muirhead, Bernays, Cazalet Bill. At the start of the 1930s, many MPs and politicians in this country, most of them Conservative—there were not many Labour MPs in the early 1930s—were convinced that Germany was a good country, because it had very liberal attitudes towards homosexuality. Berlin in the early 1930s was one of the best places for a gay man to live—we can think of Christopher Isherwood, “Cabaret” and all the rest of it. One of those MPs was Jack Macnamara, who was elected for Chelmsford in 1935; another was Robert Bernays, a Liberal who had been elected in 1931; and a third was Ronald Cartland, who was elected for Birmingham King’s Norton. They changed their minds when they saw what was happening to homosexuals in 1930s Germany. Originally, they had thought that the Versailles treaty was unfair to Germany and it should be overturned, and that Germany should be able to remilitarise the Rhineland and to change its future. In 1936 Jack Macnamara visited the Rhineland, expressly to support its remilitarisation. When he was there he “accidentally”—that was his word—visited a concentration camp: Dachau, which was the only one that existed at the time. The people who were in Dachau were the politically unwanted—a lot of Jews and some homosexuals. He saw the violence that was being perpetrated against them, and when he came back to this country he and others became the most vociferous campaigners against appeasement in this House.
Robert Bernays, Jack Macnamara, Anthony Muirhead, a junior Minister, Victor Cazalet, Philip Sassoon, Harold Nicolson and Ronald Tree were gay or bisexual, and they campaigned vociferously in this Chamber and around. They campaigned against Jew-baiting. Jack Macnamara made a speech in here about Jew-baiting and was spat at that evening when he went to the Carlton club—he never went back. Ronald Cartland, the younger brother of Barbara Cartland, was probably the most courageous in the Munich debates, saying that it was terrible that we should capitulate and appease Hitler.
What did the then Government do? What did Neville Chamberlain’s cronies do? They called these men the “glamour boys”. They got newspapers to ring them up and ask why they were still not married and why they were bachelors. They had these men’s telephones tapped and had them followed, and when these MPs made speeches, they threatened them with deselection—and yet they persisted. It is my very strong belief that had it not been for those gay and bisexual men, we would never have faced down Hitler and we would not enjoy today the freedoms that we do.
I mention some of those names because of their shields up here in the Chamber. Jack Macnamara desperately wanted to fight in the second world war, because he said, “I’ve argued for this war, I should fight.” Although Macnamara he had been in the Army before he came into the House, Churchill wanted him to serve in some capacity on the home front, and not overseas. Jack Macnamara got his mother to write to Churchill, month after month after month, until eventually he was given a posting in the Adriatic and he saw service. He was killed when the Germans bombarded him and his troops in Italy.
Ronald Cartland was disabled and failed his first medical test, but he managed to persuade somebody to perform another one and he was drafted. He was sent to France in early 1940. He and his troops were holding the fort at Cassel, in the triangle between Calais and Dunkirk, and he was one of the last people out of the fort. They kept on for four more days than they should have done for their own protection, so that thousands more British troops could escape from Dunkirk and Calais. As they left Cassel, it was one of the very few times when the commanding officer in the British armed forces actually said, “Every man for himself.” He was killed on the route back to Dunkirk.
Anthony Muirhead, whose shield is just above us, committed suicide just after the war had started. It is often said that he did so because he was not able to fight, but I suspect it was actually because the newspapers were pursing him about his private life.
Robert Bernays, the Liberal MP for Bristol North, was killed in a plane crash over the Adriatic, again in military service.
Victor Cazalet, the MP for Chippenham, died in an air crash. He had become a close friend of the free Poles and died in the air crash along with General Sikorski.
We, as a country, owe not only those people, but so many other men, since the Labouchere amendment, something that feels like an apology—something that really says, “I am sorry we got this wrong. You were brave, courageous men. We got it wrong. You were right. We owe you a debt of gratitude.” [Applause.]
It is of course a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). As a former sort of straight Conservative, we at least appear to have been on half a journey together. No one can doubt the wider case he made for the Bill. On the narrow point he made about the Bill, I entirely agree with him and want to come back to it in the course of my remarks. The emotion with which he presented his case was also more than exemplified by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson), whose speech was characteristic of his usual brilliant self, as one would expect of a world debating champion; I first came across him when I was president of the Durham union society, a horribly long time ago, and his words were both powerful and emotional. He, like the hon. Member for Rhondda, introduced the wider case and the wider background to the Bill, and why this issue matters so much, particularly to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Let me turn to the narrow issue of the Bill, as I wish to confine my remarks to that. The royal pardon given to Dr Alan Turing in December 2013 was widely welcomed as helping to put right the injustice he suffered by being convicted of “gross indecency” in 1952 and the subsequent physical and emotional damage he endured through chemical castration, which led to his suicide. It is true that that posthumous pardon changed the precedent for the exercise of the royal prerogative of mercy. As the Government of the day stated:
“A pardon is only normally granted when the person is innocent of the offence and where a request has been made by someone with a vested interest such as a family member. Uniquely on this occasion a pardon has been issued without either requirement being met, reflecting the exceptional nature of Alan Turing’s achievements”.
Towering though Alan Turing’s achievements were—and we should all continue to pay tribute to them—the wrongs done to thousands of gay men, which we recognise today as human rights abuses, are no less in need of being corrected. The hurt, pain and injustice is no different for all these people. The exceptionality of Alan Turing’s pardon cannot hold. Indeed, as a Justice Minister, holding the same responsibilities five years ago as this Minister does today, I held the Government line against granting a pardon to Alan Turing in a Westminster Hall debate, and I made the wider point. Of course, by that time the Government believed they had dealt with the practical issues through the disregard provisions of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012. On the pardon point, I said:
“To grant him a pardon under the royal prerogative would change the basis on which such pardons are normally given.
If Alan Turing were pardoned, there would be tens of thousands of other people in respect of whom demands for like treatment could be made. Those persons could include about 16,000 living individuals with convictions for homosexuality, and many times that number of deceased victims.”—[Official Report, 27 June 2012; Vol. 547, c. 127WH.]
This Bill would simply fulfil the logic of the arguments I presented in 2012, and, in doing so, make the same gesture on the part of today’s society through an Act of Parliament to the thousands of men deserving of it.
Yesterday, the Government announced that they would support Lord Sharkey’s amendment to the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 through an amendment to the Policing and Crime Bill. This would extend the pardon
“for the living in cases where offences have been successfully deleted through the disregard process.”
Although a welcome step, that approach ties the pardon to the process of disregarding convictions from criminal records that already exists and would be extended by clause 3. There need not be such a link. The Government can be more generous. They can make a distinction between the powerful symbolic effect of the general pardon to men—some alive, many dead—and the mechanism by which individuals can benefit from the practical effects of a pardon through the disregard process. This, therefore, ensures that criminal offences that remain criminal offences today are not included in any practical consequences of the pardon. I know that the Minister will present a marginally different view and different concerns, but that discussion should be had at the Committee stage of this Bill. If the Government are not satisfied with the discussion in Committee then this Bill will not make progress towards becoming an Act.
I assume that the sponsors of the Bill are pleased that the Government have at least moved some of the way in their proposal. Even if they were not to move further I would argue that this Bill is a better vehicle for the Sharkey amendment than a rather anonymous amendment within the latest Policing and Crime Bill, which roll off the statute book year after year and would not have the symbolic effects that this Act of Parliament would have. Of course that is the point. This Bill and our debate is at least as much about symbolic restitution and a righting of historic wrongs as of process. The measures adopted, whether the narrower version currently favoured by the Government or the broader approach in this Bill as it is today, would stand much better as a symbol in a stand-alone Act. I hope that a way can be found to use the Bill of the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire as the vehicle by which we can make this clear statement of today’s values of today’s Parliament.
It is always a pleasure to star in another episode of “Carry on up the Commons”, which is what it has been like in here this morning.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson). I do not call him my honourable friend just to obey the conventions of the House. I say it because he is both honourable and a true friend. What a piece of legislation he has brought to the House. It is the first ever SNP private Member’s Bill—an historic moment no less—although he does not wish to present it as such, and I agree with that.
In his remarks, my hon. Friend referred to his time with Edwina Currie in Amsterdam. I urge all Members when they get the chance—perhaps outside the Chamber—to ask him about the stilettos disappearing up the stairs. I seem to remember him saying “from a room with very few lights.” I will leave it to him to develop that further.
When my hon. Friend was called to introduce a Bill, he was top of the ballot. I confess to feeling just a tiny bit of seething jealousy on that morning as I opened my Twitter account on my iPad to see him No. 1 on the ballot. Had it been me, this is exactly the Bill that I would have wished to introduce. We had several conversations about different ideas that he had, and this was the one that he chose to bring to the House, and he is to be enormously congratulated on that.
What a forensic speech from the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). It was an historical speech, and referred to the shields of previous hon. Members in this House, and he is to be thanked because we are better informed as a result of his remarks.
I want to share one or two stories from constituents of mine, whom I shall not name. One of them is quite well known in left-wing circles in Scottish politics. This took place at a time when there were no LGBT centres, no gay bars, and no places where the gay community could go to socialise. It often meant that they had to socialise at home—having parties in friends’ houses and such. He told me about one particular party in Rutherglen. It was held in a flat that had become the place to which they would go. My hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) claims from a sedentary position, that she was not there. This was in the 1960s. The neighbours at the time had cottoned on to the fact that there were these devious homosexual men and women having a party—I should break it to some people that when we homosexuals have a party, it is just like any other party only much more fun. At the party, there would have been music, laughter, gossip, dancing, singing and perhaps even a wee drink or two. When the neighbours cottoned on to the fact that the flat was full of homosexuals, they would call the police. The police would then visit the flat—no crime having been committed and no antisocial behaviour having taken place—and take the names and addresses of every person there, asking why they were there and intimidating them.
When my constituent saw the police coming up the stairs, he decided that he was not going to stay in the room. As he could not exactly leave by the front door, he decided to hang out of the window—from the second storey of a Glasgow tenement—putting himself in clear danger of not just injuring himself, but perhaps even losing his life. When his arms could take it no further, he crawled in through the window, and had to give a statement to the police.
Such is the ingenuity of good Glaswegians, they thought to themselves, “Should this ever happen again, we need to have a plan.” They decided to borrow—not to steal—the choir books from the Rutherglen parish church, so that if the police were to come back, the music could be switched off, the drinks could be put away and all they would be confronted with is the Rutherglen parish church choir singing “Kumbayah”.
I should say that God is always surprised to see me when I attend prayers in this House.
Although we laugh, that is what people were going through, and much, much worse has been adumbrated to the House by other Members. Things have moved on remarkably, but even through the 1980s, friends of mine talk about going to pride parades in London where the streets would be lined with police looking as though they were expecting some kind of violent protest. In a magnificent act of defiance, a friend of mine tied a pink balloon to the strap of his bag, so that it would bounce off the noses of the police officers as he marched down the street.
Look at us now—out and proud. There is not a Member here—certainly not on the SNP Benches—who is not desperate to be associated with the progress in gay rights. It is now very popular to be in favour of equality, but it did not used to be. What this Bill seeks to do is right the wrong. I should just say that the Government and the House are not doing us a favour by doing this: equal marriage was not a favour and equality of adoption rights was not a favour. It is about correcting our mistakes of the past.
Imagine you are a young person thinking of coming out, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is 6 o’clock and you turn on your computer or iPad and across your Twitter timeline comes the story of how today’s vote goes. Imagine if the House declined the opportunity to pass this Bill; how would that make you feel? What kind of signal does it send to young people across this country and around the world if we decline to pass this Bill today?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I should also clarify that I am the gay man here; I would never have that clash of a yellow lanyard with a purple tie—and I have seen him in worse as well.
The 16,000 people the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) mentioned, and many others, are the giants on whose shoulders we stand. Today we have an opportunity to do the right thing. Symbolism is important in this; rather than have some anonymous technical amendment in that place along the corridor—which is even more camp than this place—a Bill is important. Where there are concerns, genuine or otherwise, the Committee is the place to strengthen the Bill, otherwise what is this place for—a question I find myself asking quite a lot, actually?
What I think we all want today is for young people to read about and watch this debate, and see this Bill pass. That would send a strong and positive message that it is indeed okay to be gay.
I understand that an urgent question has been tabled for 11 o’clock so I will endeavour to be brief so my remarks do not become truncated.
First, I want to congratulate the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson) on introducing this measure and on his excellent speech in support of his Bill. I welcome what he has sought to do.
There is general agreement in this House that great injustice was done to gay men in the past by laws that have since been repealed. There is a great deal of regret for that injustice and a recognition that there are people who are still alive who have suffered as a consequence of it. Further to that, there is broad, although perhaps not unanimous, agreement that it is right that not only should that legislation have been repealed, in many cases some time ago, but that this House and the Government should go further and extend a pardon to those convicted of offences we now believe should not have been criminal offences, because of the enormous injustice done to them. It seems to me that there is no disagreement between the Government and Members on the Opposition and Government Benches who believe it is right in principle for such a pardon to be extended.
I recall being a Minister in the Ministry of Justice along with my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) at the time when we were discussing the initial proposal that a specific pardon should be granted to Alan Turing. We had those discussions with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), who was then the Justice Secretary. One can hardly imagine a more humane or liberal Member of Parliament than my right hon. and learned Friend, but he had concerns about the possible implications of the further application of the principle we were embarking on. I think those were legitimate concerns, and I think there is a legitimate debate to be had about the extent to which it is possible to embark on a process of revisionism such that we find ourselves extending a general apology or pardon for all sorts of crimes that may have been committed a while ago and for legislation that was enacted before our time.
Members on both sides of the House have spoken with passion about why we should offer a signal or expression of regret. It is clearly important for the living that the state recognises the injustice that was done, but it is also important to a broader community. The hon. Members for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) spoke powerfully about that. That is important because, in spite of the near completion of the legislative agenda, in this country at least, to ensure full equality for gay people, there is still discrimination in our society, and particularly in our schools, where there are young people who face prejudice and are worried that they may not be accepted in our society. Therefore, the signals this House and the Government send are immensely important.
There is also the question of the signal we send more widely to the rest of the world. I am honoured to be the elected chairman of the all-party group on global lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights, and the hon. Member for Glasgow South is also an officer of that group. We focus on the appalling breaches of human rights increasingly being perpetrated in other countries around the world where human rights are going backwards, not forwards; gay people are living and working in fear in, for instance, countries in sub-Saharan Africa and in Russia and other countries in eastern Europe. In those countries, progress needs to be made to secure equality and a respect for human rights. We are often told—as are those who are victimised in those countries—that their laws historically owe their origin to this place, to laws fashioned and promoted by this Parliament as part of our Empire.
The hon. Lady anticipates what I am about to say. I was explaining that I believe it is important that this House sends the right signal with a general pardon because of the effect on the living, because of those to whom an injustice has been done, because of the way in which young people in particular may anticipate how they will be treated, and because of the signal we might therefore send globally about the importance of standing up for human rights.
The amendment that will be tabled by Lord Sharkey is not just a few lines in a Bill. Lord Sharkey is one of the most prominent campaigners on this issue: he has been campaigning for a long time, and yesterday’s announcement has already garnered global headlines and will continue to do so when the amendment is passed.
I had said I hoped to complete my remarks by 11 o’clock, but I can now see that that is not going to be possible, because what I want to say about the position of the Government and my hon. Friend the Minister is important, and it is important that we get a resolution to this matter. Whatever the history of the last few days, it seems to me—this was the point I was trying to make at the beginning of my speech—that there is broad agreement on the necessity of this measure, the value of it and the importance of proceeding. Indeed, there is a Conservative manifesto commitment to do so. After I resume my speech—as I hope I will be able to, Mr Deputy Speaker—I would like to explain why I therefore believe the Bill should be allowed a Second Reading.
Proceedings interrupted (Standing Order No. 11(4)).