My Lords, the Government are committed to tackling the historic wrongs suffered by gay and bisexual men and are actively considering with partners possible extensions to the list of offences eligible for a disregard or pardon in line with commitments made during the passage of the Policing and Crime Act 2017.
My Lords, before responding, I congratulate the Government on flying the LGBT rainbow flag from government buildings on this, the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia. I cannot help but reflect that the country is a very different place from the one where, 30 years ago, Section 28 was introduced.
I know that the noble Baroness is deeply committed—and so, too, are officials—but I am extremely frustrated that, 17 months ago, this House passed provisions to enable the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 to be amended so as to extend the disregard scheme in England and Wales. These provisions have not been used and, as a consequence, gay and bisexual men continue to live with convictions and criminal records, which blight their lives and futures, and for which there is a human cost. Therefore, will the Government use the power that they have to end the misery still inflicted by old homophobic laws and set up a task force to address these provisions? Will the Minister commit to return to the House with a timetable to implement the provisions?
As the noble Lord knows, I totally share his frustration. I also note that he has spotted the flags flying on government buildings today for what is strangely known as IDAHOBIT day—the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia. I also share the anxiety that there are still people today who are being discriminated against and losing their job because of discrimination. As he knows, we abhor discrimination of any kind. He knows that I am pressing for a parliamentary timetable, and I want to continue to work with him in terms of looking at those laws—some of which are more complex than others—to try to disaggregate and deal with some of the outstanding matters.
Does my noble friend recall that she brought forward amendments to the legislation extending the availability of posthumous pardons to those who served in the Navy, and undertook that they would be extended for soldiers, too, but stated on 19 December 2016 that,
“we are continuing to research this issue”.—[Official Report, 19/12/16; col. 1477.]
Is she aware that the Ministry of Defence seems to have made little or no progress with the research? Finally, does she agree that the forthcoming introduction of posthumous pardons in Northern Ireland is to be warmly welcomed—even though, sadly, gay people in the Province still await the introduction of same-sex marriage?
On the issue of the MoD and some historic service offences, we are in discussions with the MoD as well as representatives of the Army, Navy and Air Force to define the criteria to allow these disregards where appropriate. But I share my noble friend’s frustration. It has not been a quick process. We are doing everything that we can to expedite this is quickly as possible and I am keen to work with noble Lords to this end.
The Minister is absolutely right: it has not been a quick process. In fact, decriminalisation has taken 50 years in this country. Therefore, will the Government put together some recommendations for other countries that are starting out on the process of decriminalisation that would help them bring about the change they want in much less time? In particular, following on from the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, will she engage the military and the police, which have been important actors in the whole process of decriminalisation?
Of course the noble Baroness is right to say that historically the military and the police have been seen as prejudiced organisations in terms of homosexuality. On other countries, I know that the Prime Minister and the previous Home Secretary were in talks with Commonwealth Heads of Government during the recent CHOGM to try to progress this issue in other countries. She talked about decriminalisation, which is now 50 years old. In fact, IDAHOBIT Day is recognised today because it is 28 years ago today that the WHO sought to remove homosexuality from the international classification of diseases. Some 28 years on, it is almost inconceivable that it could ever have been classified as a disease.
My Lords, your Lordships’ House has come a long way on this subject since some of the unedifying debates that led to the equalisation of the age of consent about 10 years ago. I sat over there as a young Home Office lawyer and blushed a lot. I am so grateful to the Minister for her frustration and I am sure that she will join me in paying tribute to Stonewall and my noble friend Lord Cashman for everything that he has done in this area. But what is the hold-up? Who or what is the impediment to the early commencement of these provisions?
I certainly join the noble Baroness in paying tribute to Stonewall and to the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, as well as to the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, and others who have helped in such a constructive way to try to make progress on this issue. The hold-up is in part the result of having to establish the framework for some of the more complex legislation in this area. While on the face of it the legislation does not look complex, some of the laws are complex. The other thing, in this Brexit world that we in Parliament live in, is actually securing parliamentary time—but there is no lack of will on my part and I am trying to progress this as quickly as possible.