20 years on from the “Bolton Seven” case

On 12th January 1998 seven men from Bolton were convicted under sexual offences legislation that clearly discriminated between gay sex and heterosexual sex.

I phoned the office of Liberal Democrat MP, Dr Evan Harris, to alert him to the plight of these men and he agreed to help their cause. Evan tabled Early Day Motion 117 and questioned the Attorney General to raise the plight of these men in Parliament.

Early day motion 717
• Session: 1997-98
• Date tabled: 02.02.1998
• Primary sponsor: Harris, Evan
That this House notes with grave concern the case of the Bolton 7 who were convicted following private, consenting, victimless homosexual behaviour; notes that the prosecution was brought under the age of consent legislation found to be a breach of basic human rights by the European Commission of Human Rights and under the ban on homosexual relations involving the participation or presence of more than two persons (section 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 1967), which violates Article 8 of the ECHR – the right to privacy; notes that the 1956 and 1967 Sexual Offences Acts unfairly discriminate against homosexuals; calls for equalisation of treatment of homosexuals and heterosexuals under the criminal law; and, in the light of the Government’s decision to give the House a free vote on the age of consent and not to contest the ECHR ruling, calls for the police and Crown Prosecution Service to use their discretion and suspend prosecutions under the gay age of consent legislation until Parliament has reconsidered; and believes that custodial sentences in the case of the Bolton 7 and other such cases of consenting homosexual behaviour are not in the public interest nor in the interests of justice.

The Liberal Democrats were not alone in raising the plight of these men, Outrage ran a major national campaign and Amnesty International stated that were the men to be imprisoned they would be declared prisoners of conscience. These campaigns may well be the reason why the men did not receive custodial sentences, although three of them had their names added to the sexual offences register.

In 2000, six of the men appealed to the European Court of Human Rights arguing that the prosecutions against them had violated their rights under the European Convention on Human Rights by interfering with ‘the right to respect for a private family life’ enshrined in article 8 of the Convention. They were subsequently awarded compensation.

The Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000 equalised the age of consent for gay sex with that of the heterosexual age of consent which is now 16 for both. The Sexual Offences Act 2003 introduced an overhaul in the way sexual offences are dealt with by the police and courts, replacing provisions that dated as far back as the 1956 legislation. The offences of gross indecency and buggery have been repealed and sexual activity between more than two men is no longer a crime in the UK.

* Chair of Manchester Gorton Liberal Democrats, a member of the NW Regional Executive and the English Council and Vice President of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Thank you Ian for a powerful piece reminding us how much things have changed. I remember being at a rally in support of gay men persecuted in Chechyna and being very struck that a serving Police officer was speaking at the rally. And very struck that I had to explain to people half my age why this was such a significant thing and they should Google James Anderton to understand why!

    Though I was initially confused and thought this was about a different group of Bolton men (why always Bolton is a question I’ll leave to others!) from a few years before in the ‘Operation Spanner’ case. That still resonates today with its criminalisation of many forms of consensual BDSM through the resulting, and notorious, R v Brown ([1993] UKHL 19 for those who want the details).

    Like the legislation you referred to which is consigned to the history books that is another injustice starting in Bolton that should be changed. Unfortunately it involves a still-marginalised sexual minority with little traction or influence among those who matter.

  • Evan Harris 21st Feb '18 - 7:51am

    As I recall, I tabled an amendment to the age of consent bill then going through Parliament. The amendment was to decriminalise gross indecency (a gay-only offence). Jack Straw blocked it (as he did most Gay rights moves) but when faced with a rebellion at Report Stage agreed to the Sexual Offences Review which eventually led to the Sexual Offences Act 2003 which abolished the offence of gross indecency.

    The scandal was that New Labour’s 5 year delay resulted in the conviction or harassment/blackmail/persecution of hundreds if not thousands of consenting gay adults for a victimless crime.

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