NOISES OFF

The spectacle of men in frocks handing down judgements on what a minority choose to do with their reproductive bits is hardly edifying. It could be argued that what Anglican bishops do in the privacy of their spiritual world should be of no concern to anyone else. Unfortunately, that is not so.

The Lambeth conference decision to reaffirm the traditional biblical view that homosexual practice is sinful, and sex can only be permitted within marriage, has a significance which reaches far beyond the Christian faithful, gay or not. It is part of a pattern of events that tends to confirm public prejudice against gay men by making it respectable.

Another example is the Lords' decision to overturn the Commons vote to equalise the age of consent for gay men at 16 after a debate in which ignorance and fear held sway over reason. Some peers reiterated myths about links between homosexuality and paedophilia, but none was quite so offensive as the Bishop of Lahore in his defence of the traditional line at Lambeth.

He argued that it is not gay bashing to uphold the authority of scripture by refusing to recognise same-sex unions or allow the ordination of gay men. But he went on to forecast that the next Lambeth conference would be asked to bless unions with pet animals.

All of this helps create a climate in which it is difficult to address real issues rationally.

As the Public Health Laboratory Service has pointed out, for example, HIV - from which gay men are still at greatest risk - remains the most important communicable disease in the UK. With combination drug therapies prolonging life and postponing for many the onset of AIDS, we can expect a growing number of people with HIV surviving and needing long-term treatment.

That will mean greater costs to health and social services. The public health green paper scarcely mentioned the issues, but public health minister Tessa Jowell has promised a new national strategy on HIV/AIDS, with a conference due in September and a report before Christmas.

To help inform the process, the all-party parliamentary group on AIDS has taken the unusual step of holding a series of hearings to gather evidence from researchers, practitioners, people living and dying with AIDS, and statutory and voluntary agencies.

Group chair Neil Gerrard, Labour MP for Walthamstow, is convinced by the evidence that a national strategy is needed, with direction from the centre, and taking account of the variations of the regions of the UK.

Alison Gray, who is HIV-positive and used to run an AIDS line in Cardiff, explained why regional perspectives should be built in. She told the hearings that her own treatment in Cardiff had been excellent, but that it was much more patchy in the rest of Wales. For example, there were no people with HIV in Powys because there were no testing centres there and people were registered according to where they were tested.

Mr Gerrard promises trenchant comment in his report, due in October, on the potential damage from the Lords overturning the Commons on the age of consent in achieving the public consensus needed for such an approach. He believes the government will eventually move to restore the situation, as well as keeping its promise to repeal section 28 of the Local Government Act, which has affected the ability of schools to offer comprehensive sex education. He acknowledges that a national strategy on HIV/AIDS that ignores what is happening in sex education does not make sense.

The British Medical Association Foundation for Aids wants 'normalisation of public attitudes and respect for human rights' to form a central part of any national strategy on HIV/ AIDS. It is urging a lead from government by equalising the age of consent for gay men, repealing section 28 and extending anti- discrimination measures to people with HIV.

The Lords and bishops may have set back that course unless the government is prepared to take a lead.

We need honesty and rigour to tackle the issues, including the risk of HIV to gay men, why Africans are often diagnosed late and babies avoidably infected because antenatal testing is still resisted. Prejudice will not do Michael White is on holiday.