Thousands of men convicted of offences that once criminalised homosexuality but are no longer on the statute book have been posthumously pardoned under a new law.
A clause in the policing and crime bill, which received royal assent on Tuesday, extends to those who are dead the existing process of purging past criminal records.
The general pardon is modelled on the 2013 royal pardon granted by the Queen to Alan Turing, the mathematician who broke the German Enigma codes during the second world war. He killed himself in 1954, at the age of 41, after his conviction for gross indecency.
Welcoming the legislation, the justice minister Sam Gyimah said: “This is a truly momentous day. We can never undo the hurt caused, but we have apologised and taken action to right these wrongs. I am immensely proud that ‘Turing’s law’ has become a reality under this government.”
There is already a procedure in place for the living to apply to the Home Office to have their past convictions, relating to same-sex relationships, expunged from their criminal records.
Under what is known as the disregard process, anyone previously found guilty of past sexual offences that are no longer criminal matters can ask to have them removed.
A disregard can be granted only if the past offence was a consensual relationship and both men were over 16. The conduct must also not constitute what remains an offence of sexual activity in a public lavatory.
Each disregard application is checked to prevent people from claiming to be cleared of offences that are still crimes. Those granted a disregard will also be pardoned.
No lists of past pardons will be published but the new law will allow future historians to point out that those imprisoned or fined for consensual gay relationships would not under modern legislation have committed a crime.
Rewriting history will not be easy. The complexity of the evidence, for example, that led to Oscar Wilde’s conviction in 1895 for gross indecency – including evidence of procuring male prostitutes – would make it difficult to assess.
The gay rights organisation Stonewall has suggested the playwright and author, who was sentenced to two years hard labour in Reading jail, should be entitled to a pardon.
The Ministry of Justice said there would be no historical limit in relation to past offences. It declined, however, to say whether Wilde would be among those deemed posthumously pardoned.
The amendments to the bill were tabled by Lord Sharkey, Lord Cashman and Lord Lexden with government support.
A private member’s bill with a similar aim and a blanket pardon, brought forward by the SNP MP John Nicolson, was not supported by the government. It would have backdated pardons only to 1919.
A Stonewall spokesperson said: “This is significant. And it’s as important to the whole lesbian, gay, bi and trans community, as it is for the gay and bi men affected.
“The more equality is enshrined into our law books, the stronger our equality becomes, and the stronger we as a community become.
“This month the government issued a clear and powerful apology to every gay and bi man who had been unjustly criminalised for being who they are. This is not just equality for gay and bi men; the passing of this law is justice.
“We’re working to ensure that this new process is brought quickly and correctly, and to ensure all gay and bi men unjustly persecuted and prosecuted can finally receive the justice they deserve.”
Welcoming the new law, the human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said: “This pardon is an important, valuable advance that will remedy the grave injustices suffered by many of the estimated 50,000 to 100,000 men who were convicted under discriminatory anti-gay laws between 1885 and 2003 – the latter being the year when all homophobic sexual offences legislation was finally repealed in England and Wales.
“A pardon has connotations of forgiveness for a wrong done. These men and the wider LGBT community believe they did no wrong.
“The legislation has a few omissions. It does not explicitly allow for the pardoning of men convicted of soliciting and procuring homosexual relations under the 1956 and 1967 Sexual Offences Acts. Nor does it pardon those people, including some lesbians, convicted for same-sex kissing and cuddling under laws such as the Public Order Act 1986, the common law offence of outraging public decency, the Town Police Clauses Act 1847, the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860 and the army, navy and air force acts and other diverse statutes.
“However, agreements secured by Lord Cashman mean that people convicted under these other laws can also apply for a pardon.”
The last men who were executed for homosexuality in England were James Pratt and John Smith who were hanged in 1835.
Sharkey, the Liberal Democrat peer who drafted the amendment to the bill, said: “This is a momentous day for thousands of families up and down the UK who have been campaigning on this issue for decades.
“It is a wonderful thing that we have been able to build on the pardon granted to Alan Turing and extend it to thousands of men unjustly convicted for sexual offences that would not be crimes today.”
Posthumous pardons law may see Oscar Wilde exonerated
Ministry of Justice announces initiative to wipe criminal records of gay and bisexual men convicted of sexual offences that are no longer illegal
Is Oscar Wilde about be posthumously pardoned? In a symbolic gesture announced by the government on Thursday, deceased gay and bisexual men convicted of sexual offences that are no longer illegal will have their criminal records wiped.
Announcing the initiative, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said that no individuals would be named or singled out – leaving the status of past scandals unresolved.
If the historical homosexual crime is no longer illegal and involved a consensual act with someone over the age of 16, then those convicted will be deemed to have received a posthumous pardon.
The complexity of the evidence that led to Wilde’s conviction in 1895 for gross indecency – including evidence of procuring male prostitutes – would make it difficult to assess. The gay rights organisation Stonewall suggested that the playwright and author, who was sentenced to two years hard labour in Reading jail, should now be entitled to a pardon.
The justice minister, Sam Gyimah, said that a clause would be introduced into the policing and crime bill. “It is hugely important that we pardon people convicted of historical sexual offences who would be innocent of any crime today,” he said. “Through pardons and the existing disregard process we will meet our manifesto commitment to put right these wrongs.”
The disregard process is already open to those who are alive and wish to remove from their criminal record any past sexual offences that are no longer illegal. They will be entitled to a statutory pardon under the new legislation.
In 2013 Alan Turing, the gay mathematician who broke the German Enigma codes, was posthumously pardoned by the Queen. He killed himself by taking cyanide in 1954, at the age of 41, following his conviction for gross indecency.
The MoJ said it would partially follow Lord Sharkey’s amendment to the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 although it would grant a blanket pardon for those who have died and not investigate individual historical cases.
Sharkey said: “This is a momentous day for thousands of families up and down the UK who have been campaigning on this issue for decades. I am very grateful for the government’s support and the support of many of my colleagues in parliament.”
The government has declined to support a private members’ bill on the subject, brought forward by an SNP MP, John Nicolson, which is due to be debated in parliament later this week.
Ministers said they fear that bill would allow some people to claim they have been cleared of offences that are still crimes – including sex with a minor and non-consensual sexual activity.
Gyimah said: “I understand and support the intentions behind Mr Nicolson’s bill, however I worry that he has not fully thought through the consequences. A blanket pardon, without the detailed investigations carried out by the Home Office under the disregard process, could see people guilty of an offence which is still a crime today claiming to be pardoned.”
The MoJ said there would be no historical limit in relation to past offences. It declined to say whether Wilde would be among those deemed posthumously pardoned.
Nicolson, the former BBC newsreader and front bench SNP culture spokesman, told the Guardian that the former justice secretary Michael Gove had promised him government support for his private member’s bill. His would only backdate pardons to 1919. “I hope that the government will sit and read my bill carefully,” he said. “Mine would also be a blanket pardon. A lot of those people [who are alive] are very old and would not want their names listed.”
Paul Twocock, director of campaigns at Stonewall, said: “We welcome the government announcement to issue a posthumous pardon to all gay and bi men unjustly prosecuted for being who they are, but we don’t think it goes far enough. John Nicolson MP’s proposed bill closes a loophole that means some gay and bi men who are still alive and living with those convictions still can’t have them deleted, despite them being unjust and not illegal today. We urge the government to look at bringing this into their proposal.
“We also don’t agree with the government’s interpretation of John Nicolson MP’s bill – it explicitly excludes pardoning anyone convicted of offences that would still be illegal today, including non-consensual sex and sex with someone under 16.”
Family of Alan Turing to demand government pardon 49,000 other men
Campaigners to bring petition to Downing Street, demanding all men convicted under gross indecency law for their homosexuality are pardoned
The family of the codebreaker Alan Turing will visit Downing Street on Monday to demand the government pardons 49,000 other men persecuted like him for their homosexuality.
Turing, whose work cracking the German military codes was vital to the British war effort against Nazi Germany, was convicted in 1952 of gross indecency with a 19-year-old man, was chemically castrated, and two years later died from cyanide poisoning in an apparent suicide.
He was given a posthumous royal pardon in 2013 and campaigners want the government to pardon all the men convicted under the outdated law.
Turing’s great-nephew, Nevil Hunt, his great-niece, Rachel Barnes, and her son, Thomas, will hand over the petition, which attracted almost 500,000 signatures, to 10 Downing Street.
Ms Barnes said: “I consider it to be fair and just that everybody who was convicted under the Gross Indecency law is given a pardon. It is illogical that my great uncle has been the only one to be pardoned when so many were convicted of the same crime. I feel sure that Alan Turing would have also wanted justice for everybody.”
Matthew Todd, the editor of Attitude Magazine, who will also visit Downing Street, said: “Generations of gay and bisexual men were forced to live their lives in a state of terror.
“Men convicted of gross indecency were often considered to have brought huge shame on their families and many took their own lives. We still live with the legacy of this period today and it’s about time the country addressed this appalling part of our history.”
Benedict Cumberbatch’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of Turing has brought the pioneering scientist’s story to a wider audience. The film follows him from his days as a second world war code breaker at Bletchley Park to his work at Manchester University, which saw him hailed as the father of modern computing, and his tragic death.
Turing led a team decoding messages at Bletchley Park, whose work remained secret until many years after the end of the war, and also designed the Bombe machine which decrypted German messages. Their work helped shorten the conflict and saved many thousands of lives.
- UK issues posthumous pardons for thousands of gay men, The Guardian, 1 February 2017, by Owen Bowcott https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jan/31/uk-issues-posthumous-pardons-thousands-gay-men-alan-turing-law
- Posthumous pardons law may see Oscar Wilde exonerated, The Guardian, 20 October 2016, by Owen Bowcott https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2016/oct/20/posthumous-pardons-law-may-see-oscar-wilde-exonerated
- Family of Alan Turing to demand government pardon 49,000 other men, The Guardian, 23 February 2015, by Press Association https://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/feb/22/family-alan-turing-government-petition-pardons-gross-indecency-homosexuality