The Sexual Offences Act 1967 is an Act of Parliament in the United Kingdom (citation 1967 c. 60). It legalised homosexual acts in England and Wales, on the condition that they were consensual, in private and between two men who had attained the age of 21. The law was extended to Scotland by the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980 and to Northern Ireland by the Homosexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 1982.
|Long title||An Act to amend the law of England and Wales relating to homosexual acts.|
|Citation||1995 c. 60|
|Introduced by||Leo Abse (Commons)|
Lord Arran (Lords)
|Territorial extent||England & Wales|
|Royal assent||27 July 1967|
|Amended by||Sexual Offences Act 2003|
Status: Partially repealed
|Text of statute as originally enacted|
|Revised text of statute as amended|
Homosexual activity between men had been a criminal offence in England and Wales since the Middle Ages. Before the Reformation it was punished by ecclesiastical courts; the Buggery Act 1533 transferred the jurisdiction to the royal courts, with the penalties including death. With many revisions, this legislation remained in force until the enactment of the Offences Against the Person Act 1828, or "Lord Lansdowne's Act", which retained capital punishment as a possible sentence for the crime. There was never an explicit ban on homosexual activity between women.
In the 1950s, there was an increase of prosecutions against homosexual men and several well-known figures were 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 morality and immorality, which is, in brief and crude terms, not the law's business." However, the government of Harold Macmillan did not act upon its recommendations, due to fears of a public backlash.
On 29 June 1960, the House of Commons, by a majority of 114 (99 Ayes to 213 Noes), voted against a motion endorsing the Wolfenden Committee's recommendations.
Legislation and debate edit
After the 1964 United Kingdom general election, which narrowly elected a Labour government, members of both Houses of Parliament became increasingly sympathetic to changing the law. On 26 May 1965, Leo Abse introduced a Ten Minute Rule Bill to decriminalize consensual and private sex between men over the age of 21. The House of Commons voted down the proposal on first reading by 178 Noes to 159 Ayes. The small margin of only nineteen was seen as a significant change of opinion in the House of Commons.
On 28 October 1965, the House of Lords passed by a vote of 96 to 31 a Bill implementing the Wolfenden Report's recommendations; the draft law, which had been introduced by Conservative Peer Lord Arran, was supported, among others, by Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey and many high-ranking members of the Church of England. The Bill was subsequently introduced by Conservative MP Humphry Berkeley in the House of Commons, where it passed its second reading 164–107 on 11 February 1966. Berkeley had added a provision clarifying that the Bill would not extend to Scotland, convincing some socially conservative Scottish MPs not to vote against. The Bill's consideration was interrupted by the dissolution of Parliament for the 1966 general election, which resulted, among other things, in Berkeley losing his seat; nonetheless, Labour's decisive victory increased the number of MPs who were likely to support decriminalising homosexuality.
On 26 April 1966, Lord Arran introduced in the House of Lords the Sexual Offences Bill, which passed on 16 June 1966 by a vote of 78 to 60. Immediately thereafter, Leo Abse, again under the Ten Minute Rule, introduced in the House of Commons the Sexual Offences (No. 2) Bill, a slightly modified version of Lord Arran's Bill. After the Bill was granted a first reading by a vote of 244 to 100, the Government (which is charge of parliamentary business on all days other than Friday) decided to allot additional parliamentary time to the Bill, since it had become clear there was a majority in favour of it.
The decriminalisation of homosexuality was one of multiple liberal social reforms to be passed under Wilson's 1966–1970 government and the wider move towards a "permissive society". 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. These reforms arose due to several separate campaigns benefiting from growing public support and Labour's large majority, rather than from central government leadership. Wilson himself had no enthusiasm for moral legislation,[note 1] but there were Labour frontbenchers who supported the bill, including Roy Jenkins, the Home Secretary.
The Sexual Offences (No. 2) Bill ultimately passed in the House of Commons on 4 July[note 2] by a vote of 99 to 14 (a majority of 85) and in the House of Lords on 13 July by a vote of 111 to 48 (a majority of 63).[note 3] It received royal assent on 27 July, becoming the Sexual Offences Act 1967.
84 (+1 Teller)
11 (+1 Teller)
12 (+2 Tellers)
|Total||99 (+2 Tellers)||14 (+2 Tellers)||1|
Unknown party affiliation
The proposal legalised acts that met the conditions of being between two consenting adults in private. It did not apply to the Merchant Navy or the Armed Forces, nor to Scotland and Northern Ireland. In 1980, David Steel MP stated "I remember a conversation with the then sponsor of the Bill in 1965, Mr. Humphry Berkeley, in which I asked him why he proposed to cover only England and Wales. He was open about it. He said that the Bill was discussed on a Friday and that if he included Scotland in it most of the Scottish Members would stay to vote against it. Probably that was wise and sound judgment on his part". 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. It did not delete the offences of buggery and gross indecency. Men could still be prosecuted for these offences if their actions did not meet the strict requirements of the bill. For the first time, however, the maximum penalties were differentiated, depending upon why the relevant sexual act was still illegal: whether there was a lack of consent, the age requirement was not satisfied, or the act was not in private.
Attitudes towards decriminalisation edit
According to gay activist Peter Tatchell, dissent against the bill could be summed up by the Earl of Dudley's 16 June 1966 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." Even 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. Roy Jenkins 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). After its passage, Lord Arran said, "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".
Political parties edit
The Bill which would ultimately become the Sexual Offences Act 1967 had twelve sponsors, of which six belonged to the Labour Party (Leo Abse, Michael Foot, John Horner, Charles Pannell, George Strauss, Eric Varley), five to the Conservative Party (Hugh Fraser, Ian Gilmour, Peter Rawlinson, Norman St. John-Stevas and Richard Wood) and one to the Liberal Party (Jo Grimond).
On all of the Bill's stages, most of the votes in favour of it came from Labour and Liberal MPs, while most votes against it came from Conservative MPs; nonetheless, support for the Bill cut through party ranks, with prominent Conservatives Margaret Thatcher and Enoch Powell supporting the Bill during its first two readings. The coalition in favour of the bill was later described as "a combination of Gaitskellites and future Thatcherites".
Opinion polling edit
In 1965, an 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 it should, while 93% agreed that homosexual men were "in need of medical or psychiatric treatment".
In BBC History, Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite wrote "This was a hugely important moment in the history of homosexuality in Britain – but it wasn't a moment of sudden liberation for gay men – and nor was it intended to be." One particularly important consequence was the increased freedom of assembly for gay rights groups, leading to an increase in gay rights activism in the 1970s. Conversely, there was a clampdown on the homosexual activities that were not protected by the law. In the decade after its passage, prosecutions for gross indecency involving males trebled.
No subsequent reconsideration of the issue of male homosexuality in statutory law took place in England and Wales until the late 1970s. 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, which took effect on 1 February 1981. As a result of the 1981 European Court of Human Rights case Dudgeon v. United Kingdom, the law was extended to Northern Ireland in the Homosexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 1982.
In 2020, a Freedom of Information request by journalists at The Mail on Sunday found that the Royal Mint Advisory Committee had rejected plans to issue a commemorative coin to mark the 50th anniversary of the passing of the act in 2015, concluding that it would not be "commercially viable" due to a perceived "lack of appeal" for the coin amongst collectors.
- 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. This law also extended the definition of rape to include male rape; until then the latter had been prosecuted as buggery.
- In 2000, the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 were invoked to ensure the passage of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000, which equalised the age of consent to 16 for both homosexual and heterosexual behaviours throughout the UK.
- 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. These restrictions were held to be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights by the European Court of Human Rights in 2000. The UK Government brought the law in England and Wales into compliance with that ruling by the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which omitted the privacy requirements relating to same-sex male sexual activity. (Sexual activity in a public lavatory was made a separate offence.)
- The Sexual Offences Act 2003, though subject to some controversy, overhauled the way sexual offences were 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 were repealed from statutory law. As a result of the 2003 Act, the vast majority of the 1967 Act has been repealed.
See also edit
- Wilson's 790-page "The Labour Government 1964–70: a Personal Record" contains no index entry for abortion, or for David Steel who sponsored abortion law reform, no index entry for homosexuality or for Leo Abse who sponsored reform in this area, no entry for divorce, or for censorship. The exception to this pattern is the abolition of capital punishment, which Wilson had consistently supported, and which is discussed at some length in his book.
- Debate on the Bill had begun in 3 July, but went on past midnight.
- The vote and date mentioned make reference to the second reading of the Bill. Its third reading, which actually took place on 21 July, was purely pro forma, with opponents not taking part in the vote since they knew they lacked the numbers necessary to make the measure fail.
- John Raithby, ed. The Statutes at Large, of England and Great Britain. Laws, etc. Vol. 3. (London: Eyre and Strahan, 1811), p. 145
- "Lord Lansdowne's Act", The Law Magazine, Vol. 1 (1830), Article XIII, p. 129
- "The 1967 Sexual Offences Act: a landmark moment in the history of British homosexuality". BBC History magazine. 14 July 2018. Retrieved 23 April 2020.
- Higgins, Patrick (1996). Heterosexual Dictatorship: Male Homosexuality in Postwar Britain. London: Fourth Estate. ISBN 978-1-85702-355-8.
- "There's nowt so queer as folk". The Daily Telegraph. 21 December 1996. Archived from the original on 25 January 2016. Retrieved 3 January 2020.
- Paul Johnson, Robert Vanderbeck, Law, Religion and Homosexuality (2014), p. 47
- Stephen M. Engel, The Unfinished Revolution: Social Movement Theory and the Gay and Lesbian Movement (Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 76
- "Sexual Offences Bill Hl (1965)". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Lords. 28 October 1965. col. 729. Retrieved 26 June 2023.
- "Sexual Offences Bill (1966)". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. 11 February 1966. col. 872. Retrieved 29 April 2020.
- "Sexual Offences Bill". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). 26 April 1966. Archived from the original on 20 June 2023. Retrieved 22 June 2023.
- 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.)
- 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.
- "Sexual Offences No 2 (1966)". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. 5 July 1966. Retrieved 21 June 2023.
- Patricia Brent and Leo Abse (20 December 1966). "Why should homosexuality be decriminalised?". BBC Archives. Archived from the original on 18 August 2011.
- Thorpe, Andrew (2001). A History Of The British Labour Party. Palgrave. ISBN 978-0-333-92908-7.
- Campbell, Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life, p. 297.
- "Clause 8 Restrictions on Prosecution (1967)". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. 3 July 1967. col. 1525. Retrieved 19 June 2023.
- "Sexual Offences No 2 Bill (1967)". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Lords. 13 July 1967. col. 1323. Retrieved 19 June 2023.
- "Sexual Offences No 2 Bill (1967)". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Lords. 21 July 1967. Retrieved 19 June 2023.
- David Steel (22 July 1980). "Homosexual Offences". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). United Kingdom: House of Commons. col. 290.
- "Sexual Offences Act 1967". legislation.gov.uk.
- Bedell, Geraldine (24 June 2007). "Coming out of the dark ages". The Guardian. Retrieved 27 January 2018.
- "Sexual Offences Bill Hl (1966)". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Lords. 16 June 1966. Retrieved 27 January 2018.
- Quoted during Royal Assent of the bill by The Times newspaper on 28 July 1967.
- "The passing of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act". The National Archives. 24 July 2017. Retrieved 3 June 2021.
- Tatchell, Peter (1992). Europe in The Pink.
- Higgins, Patrick (1996). Heterosexual Dictatorship.
- "Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). Written-Answers. 17 December 1980. Retrieved 4 September 2017.
- "Royal Mint rejected coin commemorating decriminalisation of homosexuality due to 'lack of appeal'". Attitude. 3 August 2020. Archived from the original on 20 January 2021. Retrieved 6 August 2020.
- "1995: First man jailed for male rape". BBC News. 9 June 1995.
- "A.D.T. v. United Kingdom (Application no. 35765/97)". European Court of Human Rights. 31 July 2000. Retrieved 18 November 2016.
- "Sexual Offences Act 2003: Section 71", legislation.gov.uk, The National Archives, 2003 c. 42 (s. 71)
- 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
- "Original text of the Sexual Offences Act 1967" (PDF). Office of Public Sector Information. Retrieved 27 March 2008.
- "Text of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 as amended and in force today". UK Statute Law Database. Retrieved 27 March 2008.
- In the House of Lords, the bill was discussed in 1965 on 12 May, 24 May, 21 June, in committee the same day, on 16 July, and 28 October, in 1966 on 10 May 1966, 23 May, and 16 June, and in 1967 on 13 July and 21 July.
- In the House of Commons, the bill was discussed in 1966 on 11 February, 6 July, 19 November, and in 1967 on 23 June and 3 July.
- 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act - UK Parliament - Living Heritage