|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
The age of consent renders sexual activity with a person below that age a criminal offence. A young person under the age of 17 in Northern Ireland has only to prove in a criminal trial that an incident of undesired sexual activity took place to establish a criminal act. They do not have to prove under cross-examination that they did not consent. That is crucial. We all recognise that young people can be vulnerable to manipulation in sexual matters and may well grant apparent consent to intercourse only to recognise the manipulation later and regret the act. Other elements of the draft order, such as Articles 38 to 42, acknowledge that by extending further legal practices to 17 year-olds, such as protections from sexual exploitation for the purposes of prostitution and pornography.
In its drive for legal uniformity, the Northern Ireland Office seems to have forgotten that Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom to share a land border with another state. The age of consent in the Republic of Ireland is 17. That is relevant to any debate about the age in the north. Let us not deceive ourselves. Sexual predators of whatever age living in the Republic would certainly perceive a lower age of consent across the border as a signal that 16 year-olds there are fair game.
Any law restricting the behaviour of young people is intended to protect them from the possible unintended consequences of their actions, whether that restriction relates to driving, smoking, bearing knives or having sex. Regardless of the Governments intention, lowering the age of consent will act as an encouragement to young people to engage in sexual activity at a younger age. If the driving age limit were lowered from 17 to 16, we can be sure that many more 16 year-olds would take to the roads. Just because some young people already engage in sex at ages younger than the age of consent does not mean that the law has no positive
30 Jun 2008 : Column 92
Comparing sexual behaviour in Northern Ireland with that in the rest of the United Kingdom clearly shows the value of Northern Irelands current age of consent. Only 15 per cent of young people in Northern Ireland engage in sex before 16, compared with 28 per cent in Great Britain. I do not suggest that Northern Irelands higher age of consent is solely responsible for the lower rates of teenage sex, but in terms of legislation affecting teenage sexual behaviour it is the single most obvious difference between the two areas.
By encouraging young people to delay engaging in sex until 17, Northern Irelands current age of consent benefits them. They are safer. The statistics bear that out. The rate of conception among 16 year-old girls in England and Wales is almost two and a half times higher than that in Northern Ireland. The rate of sexually transmitted infection among under-16s is also two and a half times higher in England and Wales than in Northern Ireland. The Government may be unable to see any correlation between the age of consent and the prevalence of sexual diseases among young people, but the people of Northern Ireland certainly do.
The proposal in the order to lower the age of consent in Northern Ireland is extremely unpopular. This is not isolated posturing from obscure and self-appointed guardians of public morals; this is comprehensive opposition from every field and strata of society and, most significantly, from across the political and religious divide. I beg to move.
Moved, as an amendment to the Motion, to leave out from that to the end and insert this House declines to approve the draft order laid before the House on 30 April because of opposition in Northern Ireland to lowering the age of consent.(Lord Morrow.)
Lord Waddington: My Lords, if indeed it be the case that the people of Northern Ireland do not wish the age of consent to be reduced from 17 to 16, it is a serious matter that we should be thrusting that change on them. I want to make one simple point. I took great cheer from what the Minister said. It is often saidI have heard it said in this placethat the age of consent laws are an awful nuisance for young people and it is not the business of the law to make life difficult for them. The Minister made it plain that that is complete nonsense and a complete misunderstanding of the purpose of age of consent laws. They are there simply to protect young people from adults who might be minded to prey on them. When the age of consent is reduced, that protection is diminished and the rights of potential predators are extended. Clearly, people in the Province do not want that protection for young people to be reduced; they do not want the right of potential predators to be extended. I think that we should pay great regard to their wishes.
Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I thank the Minister for bringing forward the statutory instrument tonight and I note the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Morrow. The major part of the statutory instrument is for the protection of children and young people. That is its most important role. A lesser but, for me, an equally important role is, as the Minister said, that it is
30 Jun 2008 : Column 93
I am not going to take part in the argument about the moral story advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, and others who think similarly. However, I wonder why Her Majestys Government have chosen this time to bring this provision in the statutory instrument into your Lordships House and into this Parliament. As the Minister said, we are all hoping that at some stage in the not-too-distant futurealthough it seems to be getting more distant at the momentthere will be devolution of criminal justice and policing to Northern Ireland. That is when such difficult matters, on which the people of Northern Ireland clearly have strong views that differ from the views of the population of this country, should be widely debated publicly in their Assembly. The Assembly should have been given that opportunity with the part of the instrument referred to in the motion of the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, although not the rest of the order.
It is a shame that the Government were arrogant enough, knowing the volume of concern, if not antagonism, in the Province, not to have just left it out for another day. If we are all lucky and it all goes as we would like it to go, that other day might not be very far away. However, because I am not happy about that issue and because I took part in the major debate on lowering the age of consent in Great Britain in your Lordships House a year or two ago, I do not intend to vote in this debate. I am very sorry that the Government have felt the need to put a serious Whip on this issue tonight.
Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, I understand what the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, is saying, although I cannot quite follow his logic. First, he says that it is going to be some time off before criminal justice is repatriated to Northern Ireland; then he says that it is important to have a common standard because of travel, particularly by students, between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. So, not for the first time, I did not quite follow his logic.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, on giving a comprehensive introduction to this order. As he remarked, it is the outcome of the first fundamental review of the law on sexual offences in Northern Ireland, which aims to modernise the law in Northern Ireland. We very much welcome the codifying in one order of all the sexual offences in Northern Ireland. We hope that this will make it easier for those who are involved in using sexual offences legislation to apply it in an effective way.
As I said, we support the order, so I will not go into detail about many of the provisions before us today. In particular, we welcome the new gender-neutral offences, which can be applied to males and females where this is possible, and the removal of consent as a defence for sexual activity with a child under the age of 13, which will now always be rape. As the Assembly ad hoc committee heard from a number of witnesses, that will be particularly important for child witnesses.
I also support lowering the age of consent in Northern Ireland to 16, thereby providing continuity with England and Wales. In many ways, there are misunderstandings about the way in which Northern Irelands current age of consent is set, which creates unlawful carnal knowledge offences for boys, but not for girls, in consensual relationships between teenagers.
Despite having a higher age of consent than other parts of the UK, Northern Ireland has one of the highest levels of teenage pregnancy in the UK and the current age of consent has largely been superseded by the Fraser guidelines on consent to contraceptive advice in the 1985 case of Gillick v West Norfolk. By bringing Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK, the order will ensure that young people have access to the same rights and protections. It is often the most vulnerable young people who will engage in early sexual activity. It is vital that they feel that they can access information and advice about their sexual health. It is important to emphasise that this provision sets 16 as the age at which it is no longer a criminal offence to engage in sexual activity. It does not encourage young people to engage in sexual activity. However, it is important that this is implemented in tandem with a strategic approach to the sexual health needs of young people. We will support this order and oppose the motion proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Morrow.
Lord Lloyd of Berwick: My Lords, the Minister made a great deal of the need for uniformity across the various parts of the United Kingdom. It was one of his main points. Putting aside for the moment the question of the age of consent, am I not right in thinking that the criminal law of Scotland differs greatly from the criminal law of England in many respects? If that is right, does that not largely undermine his argument that there should be uniformity in this case?
Baroness Blood: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for the opportunity to speak during this important debate on the draft Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008. It is a matter of most importance to the protection of children and adults in Northern Ireland. I want at the outset to declare an interest as the Northern Ireland chair of Barnardos. The Minister has outlined many of the positives in this legislation. It is a modernisation of the law on sexual offences in Northern Ireland, the first for 100 years, and a codification in one statute. It includes the abolition of consent as a defence for sex with a child under the age of 13; tougher sentences for those who exploit children under the ages of 13 and 15; new offences, such as sexual activity with children; laws that are gender neutral in their application; and a range of other protections, such as the abuse of trust provisions. It is most important that we realise that the vast majority of the provisions in this legislation are aimed at providing increased protection for children and are most welcome on that basis.
One issue has dominated the debate on this order in Westminster and at the Northern Ireland Assembly; that is, the age of consent. Part of the difficulty is that the concept is not fully understood, on which I shall
30 Jun 2008 : Column 95
In reality, the new provisions, by virtue of the offence of sexual activity in Articles 16 and 20, strengthennot weakenthe protection for children up to the age of 16. Despite having an age of consent of 17 in Northern Ireland, it has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the United Kingdom and I work with many of those young people on a daily basis. This highlights that it is other social welfare mechanisms, education and prevention, and not the law, that are important in encouraging young people to avoid early sexual activity. It would be very wrong, indeed a travesty, if an incorrect interpretation of current law should be allowed to overshadow all the child protection measures in this order.
I should like also to deal with a few other issues of policy underpinning the order and I have a number of detailed, specific questions for the Minister, to whom I have given some warning in the hope that he will be able to put his answer on the record in Hansard. This order is fairly complex and much of its outworking will be in the devolved areas of health and so on. Can the Minister confirm that the NIO will issue guidance on the legislation, and can he say something further on the interface between Article 20 sexual offences against children committed by children or young people and the existence of reporting requirements under Section 5 of the Criminal Law (Northern Ireland) Act 1967, which the Government have indicated will not immediately be disapplied by virtue of Article 79? Can he also confirm for the record that it is certainly not the intention to criminalise normal consenting activities between competent young people, and will the Public Prosecution Service issue guidance on this?
Can the Minister confirm what steps officials from the NIO will take with the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in the development of child protection guidance for professionals in terms of the new law in dealing with children who seek contraceptive advice? Does he agree about the absolute need for professionals to be clear on the bounds of confidentiality and when children should be referred for their protection? Finally, both the NSPCC and Barnardos campaigned during the passage of the 2003 Act and the consultation on the order that there should be a statutory requirement on social services to lead a multi-agency assessment on children who sexually harm others? The Government decided not to do so, and I think that that was a mistake. Young people sexually harm others for a variety of reasons, and it is fundamentally important that they have access to adequate assessment, treatment and support. It is a
30 Jun 2008 : Column 96
Lord Tebbit: My Lords, I waded through the order and the Explanatory Memorandum and found it at times a slightly surreal experience as it entered into areas which I hope most of us have no experience of, and no wish to have it either. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, for his explanation and particularly for clarification of a point that had me slightly puzzled.
It seems that there is a general consensus that this is overwhelmingly sensible legislation, and I find myself in difficulty only over the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Morrow. Recently, the luck of the Irish appears to have been running out a little. No one takes any notice of a no vote south of the border, and the people are told, Go away, you silly little Irish people. You dont understand these things. They are much too complex for you. And now, north of the border, the Government are saying rather the same sort of thing. They acknowledge that the one part of this order which is contentious, the age of consent provision, is strongly opposed, and yet their attitude is to pooh-pooh it. Devolution is all right, but only if you do what we want you to do. We dont take your no seriously. Of course you will, it is hoped, have responsibility for these things in a year or two, but in the mean time we are going to take decisions against your will. That is an extraordinarily illogical position to take.
The idea that the criminal law has to be the same right across the United Kingdom is obviously absurd. It has been said that the criminal law is different in Scotland, and there are many differences in what the Government see as a proper and appropriate way to administer a country between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. The example that sticks in my mind is that the Government do not have convicted terrorists in ministerial office in Great Britain, but seem to think it perfectly all right if that is what the people of Northern Ireland would like. I think that that is an extraordinary position to take. Perhaps they could have a little consistency there as well.
The motion proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, is sensible, practical and offers no offence whatever to the rest of the Kingdom and its criminal law. I hope that the Government will think again about this.
Lord Maginnis of Drumglass: My Lords, I would have been keen to welcome the order, but the variation in the age of consent prevents me doing so. I come from 70 years of living in a sadly divided community that is struggling to find a way to live together. But
30 Jun 2008 : Column 97
At the same time, we are told that justice issues should be devolved. Others will address, and have addressed, the moral issuesthe judgment capacity of 16 year-olds, who are the targets of all kinds of sexual predators, and the health, both physical and psychological, of our young folkbut what is the benefit of government whipping on a moral and practical issue, a change that offends all of us who strive for community stability based on family values?
My record in this House and in the other place over the past 25 years on moral issues such as the death penalty and on principles such as 42-day detention has been consistent. I would never allow myself to be whipped to vote against community and family issues and the safety and health of young people. I appeal to all noble Lords, do not shame this House; do not abandon your care and concern for what is the will of my people in Northern Ireland. Please vote for the amendment.
Lord Clarke of Hampstead: My Lords, like many other Members of the House, I have received a considerable amount of correspondence on this order and the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Morrow. A significant point about all the letters is that not one of the writers has said they agree with the lowering of the age of consent. It is very significant to receive a volume of correspondence all saying one thing.
One of the letters I have received suggested that the inclusion in this order of the part concerning the age of consent is politically motivated. After referring to all the matters about which we have heardthe number of people in the polls and so onone correspondent from Strabane said:
I have no idea whether the writer is right or wrong and my question to my noble friend is very clear: have the Government been involved in such trading? It is a simple question and I hope that he will confirm that our Government have not had their name sullied by such activity.
It has been said already that a number of people of the two main religious groups are opposed to a lowering of the age of consent. I should like to reiterate the point about the 57 Members of the Assembly. If it is right and they are on record as having signed the Early Day Motion, that is clearly a majority of the people elected to represent the people of Northern Irelandyou
30 Jun 2008 : Column 98
In introducing the order this evening, my noble friendfor whom I have the highest regard and hold in the highest esteem; I am not saying this as a flowery speech because I have known the Minister for so long and respect his integritysaid that unless there was a good reason, the Government would pursue the lowering of the age of consent. I can think of no better reason than that of democracy and the voice of the people who say they do not want it.
Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, perhaps I may intervene for literally one minute or less. Twice this evening in this debate we have been told that teenage pregnancies in Northern Ireland are higher than they are in the mainland of Britain. I rushed out to get the statistics, which show:
That is according to the official statistical register, Northern Ireland: Maternities, 113, from Registrar Generals Annual Report 2006Section 3 Births. It is right that that should be put on the record.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|