House of Lords Library

Sexual Offences Act 1967: 50th Anniversary

Published Wednesday, July 19, 2017

This briefing marks 50 years since the Sexual Offences Act 1967 came into force on the 27 July 1967, which brought in changes that would partially decriminalise sexual relationships between men. Beginning with historical offences that criminalised sexual relationships between men, the briefing goes on to discuss the Wolfenden Report, which recommended homosexual behaviour between consenting adults to no longer be an offence. It then sets out the legislative background to the 1967 Act. It discusses the incremental legislative changes decriminalising homosexual acts between men, from 1967 to 2017, including changes brought in to disregard and pardon historical offences.

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In the 1960s there were several attempts to change the law to give effect to the recommendations of the Wolfenden Committee. In the 1961–62 session, the first of these private member’s bills, the Sexual Offences Bill, was presented by Leo Abse (then Labour MP for Pontypool). It would have amended the Sexual Offences Act 1956 to address issues that had arisen in the previous debates and the Wolfenden report, namely witch-hunting of individuals, “over-zealous pursuit” of old offences, protection from blackmail, and the use of imprisonment as a sentence. For example, the Bill would have ensured that prosecution could only be initiated by the Director of Public Prosecutions and placing a limitation period of twelve months on offences for prosecution. However, the Bill did not complete its second reading, which was adjourned. 

In the 1964–65 session, a private member’s bill was introduced in the House of Lords by the Earl of Arran (Conservative), the Sexual Offences Bill [HL], which sought to make private homosexual relations lawful between consenting adults of the age of 21. The Earl of Arran stated that the Bill aimed to “concentrate in one simple clause the essence of the recommendations of the Wolfenden Committee for homosexual reform”. The then Labour Government’s position, set out by the Joint Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Home Department, Lord Stonham, was to remain neutral and allow members of the Government a free vote. Privacy was a heavily debated issue. An amendment was moved that required homosexual acts taking place in the presence of more than two people to be deemed not ‘in private’ to prevent premises being used for communal activities. Speaking against the amendment, the Earl of Arran quoted the Wolfenden Committee’s view that ‘in private’ was not designed to have a legal definition, and argued that the arguments put in support of the amendment were “based largely on prejudice and upon emotion”. However, the amendment was agreed to at division, although the provision was replaced at report stage with a reworded amendment moved by the Earl of Arran. The Bill received a third reading in the House of Lords but did not proceed any further in the House of Commons. 

A further attempt was made in the House of Commons in the 1965–66 session and twice in the House of Lords in the 1965–66 session and the 1966–67 session, but on each occasion the bills failed to proceed.

In the 1966–67 session, Leo Abse introduced the Sexual Offences Bill (No. 2) in the House of Commons that would make private homosexual relations lawful between consenting adults. Introducing the Bill, he argued that the law was “unjust and unenforceable”, in terms of both the consequences of individual consenting adults but also its application in that “it requires considerable invasion of privacy to enforce it and it is random in its application”. In particular, a consequence of the law being used to blackmail individuals led some MPs during its passage to dub the existing law a “blackmailers’ charter”. The then Labour Government’s position, set out by the then Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, was to allow time for the Bill to address the “unsatisfactory” state of the law and in doing so, allow members of the Government a free vote. 

During its progress, it was amended by a standing committee in the House of Commons to prevent the changes from applying to homosexual acts on merchant ships. Amendments moved to the Bill which did not make it into the final act, included amendments to criminalise the promotion of homosexuality; the inducement of consent for homosexual acts by payment of money or a gift; the use of threats of dismissal by employers for refusal by their employees to engage in homosexual acts; and for the minimum age of consent to be set at 25 years. 

The Bill eventually passed through both Houses and received royal assent as the Sexual Offences Act 1967. The 1967 Act partially decriminalised homosexual relations (described as ‘homosexual acts’ and defined as buggery or ‘gross indecency’) between two men over 21 years of age in private only—namely, that the ‘homosexual acts’ would not be treated as occurring ‘in private’ if more than two persons took part or were present, or if the acts took place in a public place. The changes applied to England and Wales only.

Lords Library notes LLN-2017-0045

Author: Amritpal Bachu

Topics: Civil law, Crime, Criminal law, Human rights

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