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.
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.)
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Sexual Offences Bill
passes its final report stage and Third Reading. It awaits Royal Assent before
it becomes law.
Royal Assent is given and
the Sexual Offences Bill becomes the Sexual Offences Act 1967.