Sexual Offences Act 1967

The Sexual Offences Act 1967 is an Act of Parliament in the United Kingdom (citation 1967 c. 60). It decriminalised homosexual acts in private between two men, both of whom had to have attained the age of 21. The Act applied only to England and Wales and did not cover the Merchant Navy or the Armed Forces. Homosexual acts were decriminalised in Scotland by the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980, which took effect on 1 February 1981,[1] and in Northern Ireland by the Homosexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 1982.

Sexual Offences Act, 1967
Long titleAn Act to amend the law of England and Wales relating to homosexual acts.
Citation1967 c. 60
Introduced byLeo Abse and Lord Arran
Territorial extentEngland & Wales
Royal assent27 July 1967 (1967-07-27)
Other legislation
Amended bySexual Offences Act 2003
Relates to
Status: Amended
Text of statute as originally enacted
Revised text of statute as amended


Homosexual activity between men had been illegal for centuries. There was never an explicit ban on homosexual activity between women. In the 1950s, there was an increase of prosecutions against homosexual men[2] and several well-known figures had been convicted. The government set up a committee led by John Wolfenden to consider the laws on homosexuality. In 1957, the committee published the Wolfenden report, which recommended the decriminalisation of homosexual activity between men above the age of 21. The position was summarised by the committee as follows: "unless a deliberate attempt be made by society through the agency of the law to equate the sphere of crime with that of sin, there must remain a realm of private that is in brief, not the law's business." However, the government of the day did not act upon its recommendations, due to fears of public backlash.[3]

In the 1960s, a Labour MP, Leo Abse, and a Conservative peer, Lord Arran, put forward proposals to change the way in which criminal law treated homosexual men by means of the Sexual Offences Bill. In his 1965 Sexual Offences Bill, Lord Arran drew heavily upon the findings of the Wolfenden report. By that year, public opinion had shifted in favour. A 1965 opinion poll commissioned by the Daily Mail found that 63% of respondents did not believe that homosexuality should be a crime while only 36% agreed, even though 93% agreed that homosexual men were "in need of medical or psychiatric treatment."[4]

Legislation and debateEdit

After the 1966 general election, a majority of MPs in the House of Commons were sympathetic to changing the law.[3] By 1967, the government of Harold Wilson was showing support for Lord Arran's mode of liberal thought. The decriminalisation of homosexuality was one of multiple liberal social reforms to happen under Harold Wilson's 1966-70 government and the wider move towards a "permissive society".[5] Other reforms of the era included the legalisation of abortion the same year, the relaxation of divorce laws and the abolition of theatre censorship and capital punishment.[6]

The legal consequence of the legislation is often described as partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality as the act introduced a strict exemption from prosecution (distinct from a full decriminalisation), the implication of this being that outside this exemption, technically speaking, homosexual acts continued to be a punishable offence in and of themselves.[citation needed] As with the Wolfenden report's proposal, the bill set the age of consent for homosexual activity to 21, five years higher than for heterosexual activity.

At the time, most proponents of the bill did not condone homosexuality, but instead argued that it was not within the responsibility of the criminal law to penalise homosexual men, who were already the object of ridicule and derision. The comments of Roy Jenkins, Home Secretary at the time, captured the government's attitude: "those who suffer from this disability carry a great weight of shame all their lives" (quoted during parliamentary debate by The Times on 4 July 1967). Jenkins himself had had homosexual relationships.

Both the major parties permitted a conscience vote. Labour and Liberal members were mostly in favour, while Conservative members were mostly opposed. The divide cut through party ranks, with Margaret Thatcher and Enoch Powell among the Conservative members voting in favour. The coalition in favour of the bill was later described as "a combination of Gaitskellites and future Thatcherites."[3] The bill was also supported by the senior leaders of the Church of England, including Michael Ramsey, the Archbishop of Canterbury.[7][5]

According to gay activist Peter Tatchell, dissent against the bill could be summed up by the Earl of Dudley's 16 June 1966[8] statement that "[homosexuals] are the most disgusting people in the world... Prison is much too good a place for them; in fact, that is a place where many of them like to go—for obvious reasons."[9]

The Bill received royal assent on 27 July 1967 after an intense late night debate in the House of Commons.

Lord Arran, in an attempt to minimise criticisms that the legislation would lead to further public debate and visibility of issues relating to homosexual civil rights made the following qualification to this "historic" milestone: "I ask those [homosexuals] to show their thanks by comporting themselves quietly and with dignity… any form of ostentatious behaviour now or in the future or any form of public flaunting would be utterly distasteful… [And] make the sponsors of this bill regret that they had done what they had done"[10]


No subsequent reconsideration of the issue of male homosexuality in statutory law took place in England and Wales until the late 1970s.

Peter Tatchell in his 1992 book Europe in The Pink claims that the legislation led to an increase in prosecutions against homosexual men under other laws. Patrick Higgins similarly argues that there was an increase in police harassment against homosexual men in the 1970s in his 1996 book Heterosexual Dictatorship, though a review in The Daily Telegraph criticised the book for not substantiating this claim.[3]

In 1979, the Home Office Policy Advisory Committee's Working Party report Age of Consent in relation to Sexual Offences recommended that the age of consent for homosexual acts should be 18. This was rejected at the time, in part due to fears that further decriminalisation would serve only to encourage younger men to experiment sexually with other men, a choice that some at the time claimed would place such an individual outside of wider society.

The law was extended to Scotland in the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980 and to Northern Ireland in the Homosexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 1982.

The privacy restrictions of the law meant that while two men could have sex, a third person could not participate in the sex or even be present, as well as that the two men could not have sex in a hotel. These restrictions were overturned in the European Court of Human Rights in 2000.[11]


  • The age of consent of 21 for homosexual males set by the 1967 Act was reduced to 18 by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 after an attempt to equalise the age of consent with that of the heterosexual age of consent of 16 introduced as an amendment by the then Conservative MP Edwina Currie narrowly failed.
  • In 2000, the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 were invoked to ensure the passage of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000 which equalised that age of consent at 16 for both homosexual and heterosexual behaviours throughout the UK.
  • The Sexual Offences Act 2003, though subject to some controversy, overhauled the way sexual offences are dealt with by the police and courts, replacing provisions in the Sexual Offences Act 1956 as well as the 1967 Act. The offences of gross indecency and buggery have been repealed from statutory law, and sexual activity between more than two men is no longer a crime in the entirety of the United Kingdom. As a result of the 2003 Act, the vast majority of the 1967 Act has been repealed.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980". Hansard. 17 December 1980. Retrieved 2017-09-04 – via
  2. ^ Higgins, Patrick (1996). Heterosexual Dictatorship: Male Homosexuality in Postwar Britain. London: Fourth Estate. ISBN 978-1-85702-355-8.
  3. ^ a b c d "There's nowt so queer as folk". The Daily Telegraph. 21 December 1996. Retrieved 3 January 2020.
  4. ^ "The passing of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act". The National Archives. 24 July 2017. Missing or empty |url= (help)
  5. ^ a b Laura Monica Ramsay (January 2018). "The Church of England, Homosexual Law Reform, and the Shaping of the Permissive Society, 1957–1979". Journal of British Studies. 57 (1): 108–137. doi:10.1017/jbr.2017.180.
  6. ^ Thorpe, Andrew (2001). A History Of The British Labour Party. Palgrave. ISBN 978-0-333-92908-7.
  7. ^ Wilkinson, Alan. "Ramsey, (Arthur) Michael, Baron Ramsey of Canterbury (1904–1988)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/40002. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  8. ^ Earl of Dudley. "SEXUAL OFFENCES BILL [H.L.] (Hansard, 16 June 1966)". Retrieved 27 January 2018.
  9. ^ Bedell, Geraldine (24 June 2007). "Coming out of the dark ages". the Guardian. Retrieved 27 January 2018.
  10. ^ (quoted during Royal Assent of the bill by The Times newspaper on 28 July 1967).
  11. ^ "HUDOC - European Court of Human Rights". Retrieved 2016-11-18.


  • Tatchell, P Europe in the Pink London: Gay Men's Press, 1995
  • The Times in Microfilm Facsimile Periodical Publications, London The Times 1967 (available in digital form via JISC)
  • Wolfenden, J (chair) The Report of the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution (cmnd 247) HMSO, 1958
  • Coming out of the dark ages, Geraldine Bedell, The Observer, 24 June 2007
  • Grey, Antony Quest for Justice, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1992

External linksEdit