The age of consent
What is the age of consent?
From January 2001 the age of consent became equal for gay men, lesbians and heterosexuals. The age of consent for all is 16 in England, Wales and Scotland.
In June 2008, the House of Lords passed the Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008. This legislation lowered the age of consent in Northern Ireland from 17 to 16 and this change came into force on February 2 2009.
- In 1967, when gay sex was partially decriminalised, the age of consent for gay men was set at 21 compared to 16 for heterosexuals; there was no age of consent relating to lesbians. The unequal age of consent signaled society's disapproval of homosexuality. Gay sex was still seen as immoral, dangerous and to be discouraged.
- Stonewall began the first major campaign for an equal age of consent in 1993.We launched the first major legal challenge, Wilde v. UK, at the European Court of Human Rights. Three young men, Ralph Wilde, Will Parry and Hugo Greenhalgh, who were all 18, claimed that the unequal age of consent was a breach of their right to privacy.
- We held packed meetings and vigils at the House of Commons with celebrities, politicians and thousands of lesbians and gay men all making the case for equality.
- John Major, then the Prime Minister, agreed that there would be time for a free vote on the age of consent in the course of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill. Edwina Currie MP, a backbench Conservative MP, moved the amendment.
- We lost the vote for equality by 14 votes but the age of consent was reduced to 18 for gay men. So we launched our second challenge to the ECHR, Sutherland v. UK. Euan Sutherland was 16 and worked with Stonewall on the campaign. He led a delegation of 'agony aunts' to 10 Downing Street supporting equality.
- Euan’s case was heard by the Commission of the ECHR in May 1996 who held that the unequal age of consent was a breach of human rights. We had also launched another case concerning a 16-year-old gay man, Chris Morris. His case was never heard, but he helped publicise the campaign for equality.
- In 1997 a Labour government was elected. The new Home Secretary gave an undertaking to Stonewall to introduce legislation in Parliament and the final hearing of Euan and Chris’s cases were stayed while Parliament tried to resolve the issue.
- In 1998 Ann Keene MP moved an amendment to equalise the age of consent. It passed in the Commons but was defeated in the Lords by an alliance of hereditary peers led by Lady Young.
- In 1999 the Government introduced a Sexual Offences Bill equalising the age of consent. Again this was passed in the Commons, but was defeated in the Lords.
- The Government then decided to use the Parliament Act, which gives the Commons power to pass Bills that have been defeated in the Lords. In 2000 another Sexual Offences Bill was introduced and when it was again defeated in the Lords the Parliament Act was used and an equal age of consent became law in January 2001. In Scotland the Scottish Parliament voted for an equal age of consent and agreed that the Westminster Bill should extend to Scotland.