Historic Offences Go

The “Turing Pardon” has today been extended to thousands more bisexual and gay men. A clause added to the Policing and Crime Bill, which received Royal Assent today.

An estimated 49,000 people who died with convictions under homophobic laws are now automatically pardoned of those offences. It may be viewed for them as largely symbolic, and was acheived through first obtaining a pardon for one such person – through the shift in public attitudes to wartime mathematician Alan Turing’s conviction. “Human interest” in one person’s story is often cited as a way to change public attitudes through stories in the media, but it does not usually involve someone who died decades earlier.

Turing was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, before the partial decriminalisation of sex between men in 1967, and died in 1954 in suspicious circumstances.

The new law will also see statutory pardons granted to the living. However, this will only apply in cases where those unjustly prosecuted have successfully applied through the Home Office’s disregard process to have historic convictions removed.

A separate measure in Scotland includes automatic striking of convictions from the living as well as the dead, while in England and Wales individual applications for the pardon will have to be made.

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.

The change in the law has been acheived through a campaign running across the last Parliament and this one, started by the then-MP John Leech and Lord Sharkey and building cross-party momentum. The individual pardon for Alan Turing was acheived in 2013 and from that the case was now made for a wider pardon. Last year the campaign brought the issue to Westminster once again with an amendment to the Policing and Crime Bill in the House of Lords, tabled by Lord Sharkey (Lib Dem), Lord Cashman (Labour) and Lord Lexden (Conservative) with government support.

As well as posthumously pardoning gay and bisexual men, this law will provide pardons for the living in cases where convictions have been deleted through the disregard process. This will ensure that due diligence is carried out and prevent people from claiming to be cleared of offences that are still crimes – including sex with a minor and non-consensual sexual activity.

An applicant is only eligible for a ‘disregard’ if the Secretary of State decides that it appears that the other person involved in the conduct which constituted the offence consented to it and was aged 16 or over at the time, and that the conduct would not now constitute the offence of sexual activity in a public lavatory. In other words, the Secretary of State must be satisfied that the conduct is no longer criminal.

Like every law reform the change has its opponents, though this time from both sides. There are those who say that since the offences were a crime at the time they should stand regardless of how unjust or prejudiced the law was, and those who argue that what is needed is not a pardon but an apology that such discriminatory laws, with their accompanying policing and social attitudes, were in place at all.