Lord Sharkey: Why I fought to get a pardon for convicted gay and bi men
On 6 August 1885, late at night in the Commons debate on the Criminal Law Amendment Act, Henry Labouchère suddenly produced an amendment to the Bill before the House. This amendment criminalised homosexual acts. The only discussion was over the penalty to be imposed. Labouchère had proposed a maximum of one year. Sir Henry James suggested two years and Labouchère agreed. The whole debate had four speakers, including Labouchère. It lasted four minutes and consisted of a total of 440 words, but 75,000 men were convicted under this amendment, and Alan Turing was one of those.
Thousands of those men are still alive, and under the terms of the Protection of Freedoms Act, they can all now apply to have their convictions disregarded. This will provide real comfort for them, their families, their relatives and their loved ones and will help to put right a little a serious historical injustice. As the Protection of Freedoms Bill went through the House of Lords, I tried to amend it to extend this disregard posthumously to the 49,000 men similarly convicted but now dead. I felt strongly that we should provide the same comfort and partial rehabilitation to the families, friends and loved ones of those convicted but now dead as we have to those convicted but still alive.
The Government did not agree with us. They argued that, among other things, it would not always be possible in very old cases to know when sexual activity was non-consensual or under age. The Government were wrong then. I thought that it would be simple to grant a posthumous disregard only when the applicants can provide compelling evidence that there was consensual, age-of-consent sexual activity involved, but the Government were firm.
I then turned to the issue of a pardon for Alan Turing. It seemed to me that if we could persuade the Government that this was the right thing to do, it would be a symbolic first step towards a disregard for the 49,000 others convicted and now dead, and perhaps a step forward towards successfully amending the Protection of Freedoms Act to that effect when the opportunity arises. I knew about Turing. Turing only ever had one doctoral student. This was a man called Robin Gandy, who was Turing’s closest friend and the executor of his will. Robin Gandy taught me mathematics when I was an undergraduate at Manchester University in the 1960s, and I was familiar with the Turing story from an early age.
Turing led the way in cracking the Enigma code. This alone probably turned the Battle of the Atlantic. Respected commentators estimate that this shortened the war by two years, saving many, many thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands of lives. This was Turing’s work. Turing is also one of the fathers, if not the father, of computer science. Every time anyone, anywhere, uses a computer for any purpose there is a kind of debt to Turing. And Turing was treated with terrible cruelty, as were all convicted under the Labouchère amendment.
People recognise that Turing was a hero and a very great man. As long ago as 1999, Time magazine named Turing as one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century. In 2002, Turing was ranked 21st in the BBC’s poll of the 100 greatest Britons. On the centenary of Turing’s birth, there were a very large number of events all over the world celebrating Turing’s life and his achievements. More than 40 countries were involved in those celebrations. He was convicted in 1952 of gross indecency and sentenced to chemical castration. He died by suicide two years later.
The Government know that Turing was a hero and a very great man. They acknowledge that he was cruelly treated. They must have seen the esteem in which he is held here and around the world.
It is some justice that Turing was pardoned but it was only the start. The Liberal Democrats led a battle in the Lords to get the Government to change the law to pardon all those gay men convicted under the dreadful Labouchère amendment and similar Acts. When the Policing and Crime Bill came before the Lords we sought to fix things, we put down an amendment that would pardon the thousands on the wrong side of an unjust justice system. Knowing they had lost the argument, the Government accepted the amendment. Now, after well over a century of a law that should never have been made, the Queen has put her stamp of approval on a change that brings a little bit more justice to the world.