You will have noticed the ‘Turing Bill’ headlines over the past few days and no doubt many of you will probably be confused; one day there was jubilation and declarations of the government’s proposal Bill being a “momentous” moment – the next day, there was an outcry of ‘shameful!’ in Parliament and the finger being pointed at the very government that had been praised the day before. So, let me try and explain…
The Government has within the last few days unveiled that it will grant a ‘statutory pardon’ automatically to the deceased convicted of abolished, historic sexual offences between men, and that the same pardon will be granted to the living subject to (and this is the important bit) the applicants having successfully applied to the Home Office for their conviction to be “disregarded”. The government have confirmed that the Bill that will be passed within a few months and I’ll refer to it going forward as the “Government’s Proposed Bill”.
Following the unveiling of the Government’s Proposed Bill, the next day, (last Friday), the SNP used a Private Members Bill (so, a separate Bill to the Government’s Proposed Bill) entitled “Sexual Offences (Pardons Etc) Bill” which has been dubbed the, “Turing Bill”, to try to enact a piece of legislation that would provide a blanket pardon to the living (as well as the dead) rather than the living having to apply to the Home Office to obtain the “pardon” *. This proposal was presented by SNP MP John Nicolson however, it was “talked out” during its proposal in Parliament which meant the Turing Bill never went to a vote – hence the cries of, “shame!” … I would have been there shouting the same thing.
So, beneath the headlines, the point of dispute is: The Government want convictions for the living to be quashed only after scrutiny under the “disregard process” but there is a demand by other members of Parliament that the legislation is debated as to exactly how the ‘pardon system’ should work: should the pardon be automatic for the dead and the living, or only the dead? Whatever the conclusion, the point surely is that the question needs to go to a full and proper debate.
It is important to note that ‘homosexuality’ has never been a criminal offence; in fact, the partial decriminalisation of ‘homosexuality’ in 1967 (under the Sexual Offences Act) actually brought about its creation. Before (and indeed, after) its creation, thousands of men around the country were being arrested, beaten, charged and convicted for having consensual sex, or false accusations of sex, or expressions of interest in sex between men. In 2010, the Home Office estimated that there were records of 50,000 convictions for homosexual offences on the Police National Computer (around 15,000 thought to be still alive). I say ‘partial decriminalisation’ as many men continued to be charged, cautioned, and convicted for offences after the milestone year of 1967. The offences these members of society were charged with were vast, generic, humiliating, prejudicial and discriminative. I pause to present an array of them to you and ask that you try and absorb the suppression and oppression that was forced on to the gay community by them: “buggery”, “gross indecency”, “disorderly house”, “importuning”, “indecency”, “obscenity”, “sexual offences”, “sodomy”, “soliciting”, “street offences”, “unnatural offences” and “unnatural act” … the list goes on. Again, the ‘acts’ being ‘perpetrated’ were for having consensual sex, or false accusations of sex, or expressions of interest in sex between men – acts that the heterosexual community were at complete liberty to engage in.
There is no easy way to try and relate to what the gay community went through, and still go through, as a result of these laws and ultimately, the convictions they led to. But ensuring those burdened with the label of being a ‘criminal’ are unburdened as easily as possible should be at the forefront of the government’s mind. It is imperative that this Bill acknowledges the effect historic law and historic false-labelling has had on thousands of lives since: the scrutiny, job losses, humiliation and deaths and the effect these labels of being a criminal are continuing to have on those still living – because they are still very much impacting thousands of lives and that is no small thing. Indeed, the fact that thousands of gay and bisexual men convicted under outdated laws are to be posthumously pardoned is a “momentous” victory, but should the living not be afforded the same respect?
Further, it seems that the “disregard” process the Government’s Proposed Bill proposes, in reality, (when you look to statistics) is not the simple process the government is suggesting. For of the (approximate) 50,000 on record, some 15,000 would now be eligible to apply for a disregard and this is because it is only for some historical homosexual offences that someone may apply to the Home Office to have them disregarded. Between October 2012 and April 2016, a mere 242 individuals applied for disregards for 317 cases. In that time, only 83 had their convictions and cautions disregarded. This means that as of April 2016 only 83 living men would be eligible for a pardon. Is this as “momentous” as the Government suggests? It doesn’t sound like it. And again, I repeat, the weight of the impact on the thousands of lives should render a full and proper debate in Parliament to ensure this Bill is as momentous as it should be.
Gay people have for centuries struggled to be accepted as equal and treated humanely, fairly and with dignity. They have been oppressed and persecuted due to prejudice, intolerance and indifference. And unfortunately, I can come to no other conclusion at this point but to say, I stand here in in 2016, a member of the LGBTQ community, watching this prejudice be continued by our current government. A full and considered debate needs to happen but unfortunately with the current attitude we are seeing from Government this is unlikely to happen; alas, we shall see on 16 December 2016 when the debate is technically set to continue.
If, after a debate, the ‘disregard process’ is shown to be the best way forward, then so be it. But the debate needs to happen. And until then, I am not persuaded. The government owe it to the thousands of men who have been subject to the prejudice of previous governments to give it the dialogue it absolutely deserves. Until then I have no movement but to disregard the suggested disregard process.
Blog by Lui Asquith, Specialist LGBTQ Family Solicitor