Two years ago the “Turing law” was passed to right a historic injustice by pardoning gay men convicted in the past because of their sexuality. But fewer than 200 living people have had their convictions wiped out so far. What’s going wrong?
Terry Stewart is 66 and the recipient of an award for his work advising the police on LGBT issues.
But as a young man in 1981 he was a target: spotted by a pair of police officers in a Charing Cross public toilet, he was arrested for “importuning” – an outdated offence which effectively criminalised gay men chatting each other up in public.
“They said I had approached several men in the toilets and told them I wanted to have sex. There was nobody there,” he says.
An outspoken campaigner for gay rights who had challenged police in the past, Mr Stewart feels the arrest was typical of a prevailing “hostile atmosphere” against gay people at the time.
“It just confirmed all my fears about so-called British justice,” he says. “The attitude was they were two upstanding police officers protecting society from people like me.”
Mr Stewart was convicted on a majority verdict and fined £20, but a criminal record meant he could not pursue his chosen career in social work.
He is now one of thousands of gay men unable to obtain the pardons offered by the government since 2017, which were intended for people unjustly convicted because of their sexuality.
For Mr Stewart and many like him, it is because the offence they were convicted of – importuning – is not one of those eligible for a pardon, despite the government acknowledging it was used in a discriminatory way.
Others are put off from even applying by an intimidating, bureaucratic system, say campaigners.
As many as 15,000 gay men were said to be eligible when the law was passed, inspired by the posthumous pardon of World War Two code-breaker Alan Turing, who killed himself after being convicted of gross indecency.
The law meant the convictions of about 50,000 gay men who had died were automatically deleted, while those still alive could apply for statutory pardons.
Applications for pardons were tacked on to an existing Home Office scheme, where gay men could apply for some offences under laws which are now repealed to be “disregarded” or deleted.
But to date, only 189 of these applications have been approved. As a result, few pardons have been issued.
The convictions eligible for disregard and pardon are gross indecency and buggery under the 1956 Sexual Offences Act, equivalent military offences and similar offences under earlier legislation.
Mr Stewart says the government should live up to its promises and pardon all gay men with convictions for their sexuality.
“What I would like people to know is that there was a whole period of our history, within our lifetimes, which was absolutely horrendous. Our own government should be able to put its hand up and say, ‘We treated these people appallingly,'” he says.
Katy Watts, a solicitor at the Public Law Project who has represented Mr Stewart, says the crime of importuning was repealed in 2003 and the Home Office has acknowledged it was used in a “discriminatory way”.
She says: “People have lost livelihoods and careers because of an offence that should never have been a crime in the first place.”
‘Branded and ashamed’
Thousands of gay men are living with this conviction but the home secretary has the power to “put this right” by extending the system to more offences, Ms Watts says.
Campaigners working with people to overturn their convictions also say the “incredibly low numbers” applying for pardons are “inevitable” because of flaws in the scheme.
Christopher Stacey, co-director of Unlock, a charity which works with people facing obstacles because of a criminal record, says forcing people to apply instead of proactively pardoning them is a “clear barrier to justice”.
“It causes people understandable anguish when faced with a Home Office form which forces them to show why their application should be granted for something that they might have felt branded and ashamed of for much of their life,” he says.
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When people do apply, they are often rejected for not meeting the requirements: 71% of the 663 applications made up to April this year were turned down.
Home Office figures show the reason most applications were rejected was that they related to offences not connected with sexuality – such as possession of drugs.
Many people were also turned down because they were convicted of sex in a public lavatory, which remains an offence.
A handful were rejected because their offence was deemed non-consensual or involved someone under 16.
A Home Office spokesman said: “We are proud of the government’s record on improving equality. We made it possible for men with eligible historical convictions for decriminalised behaviours to apply to have their convictions disregarded. Those who have their convictions disregarded are also automatically pardoned for the offence.”
He said there was “no scope” to disregard offences outside the official scheme.
When the issue of men convicted of importuning was raised in Parliament before the Turing law passed, former Home Office minister Sam Gyimah said they were not eligible.
The full offence in the 1956 Sexual Offences Act is “soliciting and importuning”, and soliciting remains a crime, he said. Today, it only applies to people seeking the services of sex workers on the street, however.
‘You feel guilty’
Some gay men say unfair criminal records still have the power to blight their lives, even in recent years. Richard – not his real name – was arrested in the mid-1990s for importuning, after a man briefly spoke to him as he left a West End gay club.
He unwittingly signed a caution thinking it was part of the paperwork needed to leave the police station.
“As a gay person you think you’re in the wrong anyway,” he said. “You have internal homophobia yourself and everything that goes with it – the shame, everything else. You feel guilty.”
Later, Richard worked in education for several years. But when he tried to change jobs in 2014, he fell foul of more stringent criminal records checks, which had been tightened after a series of controversies and tragedies.
He found himself rejected for multiple jobs and unable to work in his profession for a year because of a criminal record he had previously been unaware of.
“It broke me,” he said, plunging him into depression and isolation. It was “so twisted and painful” to find his pride in his professional life under attack because of his sexuality, he said.
Richard eventually persuaded the police force involved to expunge his caution, after it accepted it was unlawful. But he says it is “outrageous” that there is no clear way for many other gay men to achieve the same outcome.