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Baroness Noakes: My Lords, I have added my name to the amendments standing in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Warmsley, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, because I continue to believe that the criminalisation of consensual sexual activity among teenagers is bad. Those noble Lords who have seen the birthday cards of young people attaining their 16th birthdays, with many references to "it" now being legal, will know that in that age group the so-called age of consent is something of a joke. The activity criminalised by the Bill goes way beyond sexual intercourse and includes heavy petting and looking at dirty magazines, for example. We are not simply talking about the age of consent for sexual intercourse.

I support the thrust behind the amendment, which uses consent as a determining feature. But I also accept that there may be cases where the issue of consent is not clear cut; for example, where a young person is pressured to consent in some way. Whether those hard cases, which are not numerous when compared with the numbers involved in perfectly normal and healthy sexual activity, should drive the form of the law is a moot point. I know where I would place the balance, but the Government have different ideas.

From discussions with the Minister's officials I understand that much work has been going on to establish how guidance can be given to those involved in enforcing the law at the various stages, including the final warning scheme, which I had not heard of until last week, but details of which the Minister's officials have kindly sent to me. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on the way in which guidance will be given so that normal teenage sexual activity is not pursued in the courts. I hope that the Minister will answer four areas of concern. What will the guidance contain? When will it be given and to whom? What consultation will be conducted before the guidance is given? Will the guidance be publicly available?

I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us on those points.

Lord Monson: My Lords, I fear I disagree with both noble Baronesses. Under Clause 10 someone of just over 18 who kisses or engages in what used to be called light petting with a boy or girl of, say, 15 and three-quarters, can be sentenced to 14 years' imprisonment, even though the activity is consensual—indeed, it may have been initiated by the younger person—and the

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age difference is only two and a quarter years. That worries me but not the Liberal Democrat Benches. If I am mistaken, I apologise.

The proposal is that someone just under 18 may not only kiss, but indulge in full sexual intercourse with another person of just over 13 without any penalty at all—although the age difference is as much as four and three-quarter years. That is inconsistent and anomalous. If something is wicked when committed by a person of 18 years and one month, it must be equally wicked when committed by someone of 17 years and 11 months. Equally, if the activity is harmless when committed by someone of just under 18 it must be harmless when committed by someone of just over 18. Clause 10 goes too far in many respects, but the amendment goes in the opposite direction of being excessively permissive.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Monson, referred to the inconsistency of what sentencing would be if the amendments were accepted. Talking about petting and normal teenage coming together and forming relationships trivialises the reason for having an age of consent at all. Let us make no mistake, the amendments sweep away and invalidate almost completely the notion of an age of consent.

It is no good either my party or the Government wringing their hands about promiscuity among young people, as they do, especially about young people from the age of 11 up to the age of consent at 16, wondering what we are going to do and throwing billions of pounds at all sorts of task forces, quangos and organisations to discourage that type of behaviour when we sit in Parliament and pass laws which state, "If you want to do that it is entirely natural. We shall produce guidelines about how you can do it but one thing we will not do is to take a view that it is wrong."

Parents will be in despair about what is being said today. Certainly, young people will be very confused about the messages. I suggest that they will be more confused as a result of the amendments rather than less confused. If the Government are minded to accept the amendments, young people will be told in effect that the Government take the view that, frankly, the age of consent is immaterial and does not really matter; therefore why bother with it.

One of my technical questions to the Minister is to ask what would be the status of the age of consent should the amendments be accepted. They would be contradictory on the statute book, so it would be important to know what they mean. The amendments will send the wrong messages. We should be very concerned about early sexual activity. There are ways of dealing with that. No one has brought an example to this House of the police taking action against two young people who are not having sexual intercourse but are engaging in what is called teenage petting, the phrase used by the noble Lord, Lord Monson, and taking that to court as an offence. That simply does not happen. However, there needs to be protection for young people.

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The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, referred to coercion. She did not exactly use the phrase, "a figment of the imagination", but there is such a thing as coercion among young people. Some girls feel very pressured about such things. Often, they do not want that pressure. Having the age of consent in place would be something they could sometimes use as one of the shots in their armoury to help them to say "no". I agree with the noble Baroness that we must help young people to make proper choices about whether or not they engage in sex. But it is better to err on the side of saying, "It is better not to engage in sex under the age of 18 than simply to go along with it". There is a whole issue of messages. This is a message I would not want to be a party to sending to young people and their parents.

4.30 p.m.

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I very much regret that I was not in my place for the start of the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. However, she and I discussed this issue and I am sure that I understand the points she wants to make. I have considerable sympathy for the amendments, for the reasons which she and the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, clearly made.

I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, would agree that at earlier stages of the Bill we agreed all round the House that on the whole we regretted the explosion of very early sexual activity among young teenagers. I hope that she would not characterise that as wringing our hands. At earlier stages of the Bill, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the predecessor to the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, referred to the fact that he thought—I would go a long way towards agreeing with him—that social welfare agencies and, indeed, guidance, were a more appropriate way to deal with many of the issues to which everyone who has spoken earlier in the debate has referred, and with whom I would agree.

I look forward very much to the reply by the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, and welcome her very much to this responsibility which I am sure she will deal with enormously sympathetically. However, as I said at Second Reading and in Committee, I continue to feel that it would be difficult for many of us who have been concerned with these issues for a very long time to accept that however strong the guidance and however appropriate the work of the social welfare agencies in dealing with the wider social and educational problems of very early teenage sex, we would be unhappy to see this whole issue residing anywhere in the criminal justice system.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, this is one of those very rare occasions on which I entirely agree with the remarks of the noble Baroness. It seems to me to be an example of one of the consequences of moving so far to make rape and other sexual offences so heavily punished and so widely drawn in dealing with ills with which we wish to deal in the adult population that we quail when we look at the consequences of the changes we have made in dealing with the young.

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We really cannot have our cake and eat it. If we are to move so far in these offences that we dare not prosecute a 17 year-old who is having sex with a 14 year-old, there is much argument in favour of the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, for saying that that should not be a crime. But then, as my noble friend Lady Blatch said, we would no longer have an age of consent. The alternative is to allow the question of whether or not someone should be prosecuted to be entirely an administrative decision, to have law not made by Parliament but just a blanket authority given by Parliament as to whether or not people should be prosecuted and for it to be recognised that this is entirely within the purview of the executive and its administrative parts. I believe that that is an extremely dangerous way to proceed.

Accepting that we are going where we are with the Bill, which I think in the long term will turn out to be a blind alley in terms of making sexual offences so heavily punished that it really becomes quite difficult to convict ordinary malefactors for them, if we want to spare our young from the consequences of moving in that direction I should like to see us making it explicit that there are lighter sentences and lighter conditions on the young if they trespass but not going as far as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, proposes and making such matters not crimes at all. If we do that we lose the age of consent. The concept of the age of 16 is a great defence to those under 16s who wish not to be involved in particular in full sexual activity. If we abandon that, as the amendment proposes, we will do our young a great disservice.

Those who wish to indulge in sexual activity under that age doubtless will continue to do so. Those who do not will feel a lot safer if the age of consent were to remain unbreached.

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