London: age of consent bill

 Christian and Moslem leaders in Britain made a last minute appeal to the government yesterday to re-think their decision to reduce the age of consent for homosexuals from 18 to 16. Among the 17 signatories of the letter to the Daily Telegraph were Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, Cormac Murphy-O'Connor head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Yousof Bhailok, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Great Britain. The letter said: "There are strong moral and health objections to what is proposed, which also goes against the beliefs of many religious people - Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs." But House of Commons Speaker Michael Martin, who is Catholic, announced that the government would be special powers to push the measure through Parliament. He told MPs that the rarely used Parliament Act had been invoked to get the measure onto the statute book. This means that the bill to equalise the age of consent for homosexuals could have completed its journey through Parliament by late on Thursday. For the first time the Bill will see gay men and lesbians have the same age of consent as heterosexuals. The age of consent for gay men had previously been 18. The age of consent in Northern Ireland will be 17. Ministers were entitled to use the special powers granted under the Parliament Act after the measure was approved twice in the Commons, but blocked in the Lords. Baroness Young, the former Tory minister who has led the Lords campaign against the Bill, said the government's decision was "a constitutional outrage. The Commons never had an opportunity to look at the compromises we put up. "It has never been sent back to MPs. It is a classic example of by-passing parliament," she said. Lady Young ruled out a legal challenge against the government's use of the Parliament Act, saying that she had been advised against it. But she pointed to a poll in Tony Blair's Sedgefield constituency which said 70 per cent of Labour supporters were against the government using the Parliament Bill on the issue. She said she believed the government was out of step with public feeling. "This is a piece of legislation driven by metropolitan London attitudes and is completely out of step with the rest of the country," she told a news conference. Gerald Howarth, Conservative MP for Aldershot, said he was seeking a meeting with the Speaker to urge him not to use the Parliament Act on legislation that has been rejected by the House of Lords and has not been debated by MPs.

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