Thursday, 27 July 2017

The Day We Stopped Being Criminals (Most Of Us)

Today is the actual 50th anniversary of the day when the Sexual Offences Act received Royal Assent and became law in England and Wales. Although Scotland and Northern Ireland had to wait until 1980 and 1982 respectively before similar acts applied to them, the Sexual Offences Act 1967 was the beginning of a long road to equality and acceptance that has not yet ended.

While it was a pivotal moment in the history of gay rights in the UK the Sexual Offences Act had its problems. It was not a blanket decriminalisation. It didn’t apply to members of the armed forces or merchant navy and the age of consent was 21 not 16 as it was with heterosexuals. To illustrate the long road it took to get to the Sexual Offences Act here is a timeline of the important events that led there.

1953 December
Conservative MP Sir RobertBoothby (1900-1986) and Labour MP Desmond Donnelly (1920-1974) call on the Conservative government to set up a Royal Commission to investigate the laws relating to homosexual offences.

Rather than appoint a Royal Commission the government decides to widen the scope to include prostitution. The Home Secretary, Rt. Hon. David Maxwell-Fyfe (1900-1967), sets up a Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution. The committee is to be chaired by John Wolfenden (1906-1985). The committee is commonly referred to as the Wolfenden Committee. The committee meets for the first time on 15th September. (You can read my article on John Wolfenden, his gay son Jeremy and their ancestry, here.)

1957 September 4th
The Wolfenden Committee publishes its report, commonly referred to as the Wolfenden Report. It recommends that homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence. The recommendations on prostitution formed the basis of the Street Offences Act 1959.

1958 May 12th
The Homosexual Law Reform Society was formed to lobby the government to implement the recommendations of the Wolfenden Report.

MPs in the House of Commons debate the Wolfenden Report for the first time. The Home Secretary, Rt. Hon R. A. Butler (1902-1982), rejects calls to implement its proposals.

1960 June 29th
Labour MP Kenneth Robinson (1911-1996) proposes a motion in the House of Commons to enact the Wolfenden recommendations. The motion is defeated. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the vote, in view of future events, is that those who voted in favour of the motion was Conservative MP Mrs. Margaret Thatcher. As Prime Minister she introduced Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 which banned the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools. Labour MP and future Prime Minister Harold Wilson (1916-1995) abstains.

MP Desmond Donnelly presents a Private Members Bill calling for the repeal of the Labouchère Amendment (I’ll write more about this Amendment on August 6th). The Bill is rejected.

1962 March
Labour MP Leo Abse (1917-2008) introduces the first Sexual Offences Bill in which he advocates more lenient sentences for homosexual offences. The House of Commons debates the Bill for less than an hour, after which parliamentary time ran out and no vote was taken. The Bill was abandoned.

1965 May
Conservative peer Arthur Gore, 8th earl of Arran (1910-1983), whose older brother, the 7th Earl (1903-1958), was gay, reintroduces the Sexual Offences Bill into the House of Lords. It is supported by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. The Bill is passed in October 1965 and awaits a similar result in the House of Commons.

1966 February
Conservative MP Humphry Berkeley (1926-1994) re-introduces the Sexual Offences Bill into the House of Commons. At its Second Reading on February 11th the Bill is passed by 164 votes to 107. Before the Bill reaches its Third Reading the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who again abstains in the vote, calls a General Election. Humphry Berkeley loses his seat in the election and, because the Bill has thus lost its sponsor, it is dropped.

1966 April
The Earl of Arran and MP Leo Abse re-introduce the Sexual Offences Bill into both Houses of Parliament. After accepting some compromise amendments, such as the exemption of merchant seamen and the increase in the age of consent to 21, the Bill manages to get to the final report stage and Third Reading.

1967 July 4
The Sexual Offences Bill passes its final report stage and Third Reading. It awaits Royal Assent before it becomes law.

1967 July 21
Royal Assent is given and the Sexual Offences Bill becomes the Sexual Offences Act 1967.

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