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Abolished Offences

Volume 812: debated on Wednesday 9 June 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to enable more people convicted under abolished offences relating to homosexual conduct to apply to have their convictions disregarded.

My Lords, the Government are committed to enabling men with historical convictions for decriminalised homosexual conduct to apply to have their convictions disregarded. We are actively exploring whether further offences can be brought within the scope of the scheme to enable more people to benefit from it.

My Lords, have the Government noted that exactly 10 years have passed since the disregard scheme was announced to “right an historic wrong”, as it was described at the time, so that gay men convicted of or cautioned for offences that have been swept from the statute book—and indeed should never have been there in the first place—would no longer be stigmatised by having to declare such convictions and cautions? I thank my noble friend for her reply and pay tribute to all that she has done in connection with this issue, but is it not something of an affront to gay people that four and a half years have elapsed since she gave a commitment to extend the scheme—not least because the Home Office has long been in possession of draft regulations prepared by my friend Professor Paul Johnson at York University, who is the greatest expert in the country on the matter? Surely those regulations ought to have appealed strongly to a Government who resort so frequently to secondary legislation, particularly at a time when Scotland and Northern Ireland have wider disregard schemes than England and Wales.

My noble friend will know that I have noted what he said and that we remain committed to doing all we can to right this historic wrong. I pay tribute to my noble friend and others who have been so committed, and I pay particular tribute to Professor Paul Johnson for his expertise. It is important to note that any additional offences must meet the suitable legal criteria to be eligible to be disregarded.

My Lords, after the 1967 Act, remaining anti-gay laws were policed even more aggressively than before. In his research, Peter Tatchell estimated that 15,000-plus gay men were convicted in the decades that followed 1967. Lives were ruined for responding to the advances of an attractive policeman. Surely it is time for the Government to act. Why is the Home Office trailing behind Scotland and Northern Ireland, which have, as the noble Lord referenced, wider disregard schemes, leaving us behind? Why cannot we act now?

My Lords, I wish it were that simple. I want to acknowledge what the noble Lord has said: not only did men post-1967 face equal difficulties and persecutions for their sexuality but some of them have died—that is the tragic thing. This is complex work and we need to consider the challenging legal and practical issues in extending the scheme, but I do not want that to translate as our commitment being any less diminished.

My Lords, not only do the Government appear to be dragging their feet on this issue but there appears to have been a policy shift since Liz Truss became Minister for Women and Equalities. When the noble Baroness was Minister for Equalities, did she ever feel that the UK was focused too heavily on so-called fashionable issues of race, sexuality and gender? Could this explain the Government’s reluctance to take action on this important issue?

As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, our commitment to this has not diminished, despite the fact that it has taken time. When I was the Equalities Minister I was, and remain now, committed to equality, and the Government remain committed to equality. I am very proud of what the Conservative Government have brought forward to advance equality.

My Lords, I am glad that the Government have chosen to celebrate the life and work of Alan Turing, for which we must all be grateful. But I think he would be disappointed to find the somewhat hypocritical stance that he is being celebrated while other people are still suffering from the stigma of this legislation. On a second point, I would prefer to see the word “disregard” changed to “quashed”.

As a Mancunian, I have every praise and admiration for Alan Turing, who was one of many LGBT people to change the world. We do not want people being persecuted—that is precisely what we do not want—but we do not want unintended consequences from the laws that we make.

My Lords, it has been four and a half years and the work has been done, and we must move forward on these issues which blight the lives of women and men. Professor Paul Johnson has sent my Private Member’s Bill to the Home Office, which was not drawn in the ballot. It deals specifically and systematically with these pardons and disregards. I therefore urge the Minister, for whom I have the highest regard, to move on this issue and publish a timetable for the regulation. Otherwise, the Home Office could join the growing narrative from the Government which might be described as stoking a cultural war against the LGBT+ community, or, at best, a callous disregard for them.

I thank the noble Lord, for whom I also have the highest regard; we have worked very constructively over the years. I have his Bill in my pack and look forward to reading it. He is absolutely right to say that this is about women and men—it is equality before the law that is so important. On the timetable, I know that we are doing a review of the offence of soliciting and intend to publish the outcome during the summer. The noble Lord will also know that two Bills are coming up, and I am trying to gauge whether the timetable for those would be in line with the outcome of the review.

My Lords, the Minister has from the Dispatch Box used the words that we require “suitable legal criteria”, saying it is “complex” and not that “simple”—yet two parts of the United Kingdom have laws enacted on this issue on a wider disregard scheme, and in 2017, Professor Paul Johnson gave a full list of draft regulations, including legal definitions. Will the Minister please spell out in more detail what else the Home Office requires to get this Bill through, rather than, as it seems to many of us, dragging its feet?

My Lords, we are not dragging our feet. We are working with Paul Johnson and others to try to ensure that regulation provides for that equality before the law. We are going through offences which go back decades to see whether they are in line with the disregard and considering offences that people bring to us to see whether they are in scope as well.