|Long title||An Act to amend the law of England and Wales relating to homosexual acts.|
|Citation||1967 c. 60|
|Introduced by||Leo Abse and Lord Arran|
|Territorial extent||England & Wales|
|Royal assent||27 July 1967|
|Amended by||Sexual Offences Act 2003|
|Text of statute as originally enacted|
|Revised text of statute as amended|
|Part of a series on|
|LGBT rights |
in the United Kingdom
The Sexual Offences Act 1967 is an Act of Parliament in the United Kingdom (citation 1967 c. 60). It legalized 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.
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 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 Harold Macmillan did not act upon its recommendations, due to fears of public backlash.
In 1965, several politicians sponsored a Sexual Offences Bill, a private member's bill which drew heavily upon the findings of the Wolfenden report. The key sponsors were Humphry Berkeley, a Conservative MP, Leo Abse, a Labour MP, and Lord Arran, a Conservative peer. 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 it should, even though 93% agreed that homosexual men were "in need of medical or psychiatric treatment."
By 1965, a majority of MPs in the House of Commons were also sympathetic to changing the law. Berkeley's bill passed a second reading 164–107 in February 1966. Its passage was interrupted by the dissolution of Parliament for the 1966 general election. Berkeley lost his seat, but Labour's decisive victory increased the number of MPs who were likely to support the bill. Abse became the bill's main sponsor and he re-introduced the bill.
By 1967, the government of Harold Wilson was showing support for the bill. The decriminalisation of homosexuality was one of multiple liberal social reforms to be passed under Wilson's 1966-70 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 benefitting 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 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. 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.
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. 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).
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." The bill was also supported by the senior leaders of the Church of England, including Michael Ramsey, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
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."
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:[original research?] "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"
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.