Select Committee on Merits of Statutory Instruments Nineteenth Report

 
 

 
APPENDIX 1: DRAFT SEXUAL OFFENCES (NORTHERN IRELAND) ORDER 2008


Memorandum by the Christian Institute

Introduction

1.  The Christian Institute welcomes the opportunity afforded by the Merits Committee to comment on this draft legislation. We believe this is appropriate given our involvement in every other stage of scrutiny and consultation to date, namely:

  • Making a submission to the Northern Ireland Office's original consultative document in October 2006
  • Submitting, by request, oral and written evidence to the Northern Ireland Assembly Ad Hoc Committee which scrutinised the draft Order and subsequently compiled a report in January 2008
  • Submitting an extensive response to the public consultation on the draft Order which ended in February 2008.

2.  As far as The Christian Institute is concerned the draft Order contains many proposals which can be strongly welcomed. However, one key area of contention remains, namely the proposal to lower the age of consent for sexual activity in Northern Ireland from 17 to 16.

Widespread Opposition

3.  The age of consent in Northern Ireland has remained at 17 ever since the Stormont Parliament raised it from 16 with the Children and Young Persons Act 1950. In all that time there has been no concerted public lobby to see it reduced. Indeed the degree of support within the Province for the status quo is very clear. The Ad Hoc Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly set up to scrutinise the Order concluded its report by "strongly recommend[ing] that there be no change to the current age of consent of 17".[7] When this report came to be debated by the Assembly it was adopted unanimously; no division was required.[8] A no day named motion was subsequently tabled in the Assembly, calling on the Secretary of State to retain the age of consent at 17. This motion has since been signed by 56 MLAs from across the community divide.[9] This makes it the best-supported no day named motion of the present Assembly, and the only one to achieve an overall majority. This speaks volumes for the degree of cross-community opposition to any reduction in the age of consent. Clearly, were the draft Sexual Offences Order the responsibility of Northern Ireland's own locally-elected politicians, the age of consent proposal would have been comprehensively rejected.

4.  If anything, opposition in Stormont to a lower age of consent is actually exceeded within the public at large. By the NIO's own admission, of 369 responses received from the public consultation, only seven specifically supported the proposed change. 346 responses (i.e. 94 per cent, including 100 per cent of submissions from private individuals) opposed any reduction of the age of consent.[10] Confirmation of the depth of public feeling surrounding this issue was provided by a recent ComRes poll. As reported in the media, 73 per cent of respondents, including 80 per cent of Protestants and 72 per cent of Roman Catholics, expressed their opposition to the lowering of the age of consent. Almost half, some 47 per cent, specifically selected the answer "Strongly Oppose" when asked about the age of consent proposal. [11]

5.  Opposition to the proposal is not limited to private individuals. Bodies which have expressed their opposition publicly include both Roman Catholic and Protestant churches,[12] the Northern Ireland Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre,[13] the Boys' and Girls' Brigades (Northern Ireland's two largest youth organisations), Love For Life relationships and sexuality education organisation, and various experienced teachers and educators. Together these groups and individuals represent thousands of members (including teenagers) and a tremendous body of expertise in the field of young people's welfare.

6.  Opposition within Northern Ireland to the proposed lowering of the age of consent is not so much 'strong' as 'overwhelming'. The Christian Institute finds it extraordinary that the NIO can acknowledge this in its Explanatory Memorandum (albeit tacitly[14]) and yet choose to ignore it. We suggest that such a course of action is highly undemocratic and undermines the purpose of the entire consultation procedure. Summarising the consultation, the NIO states: "As a result of this consultation, there were a range of opinions on various matters, but a general welcome and support for the overall statutory framework being proposed."[15] Such a statement is a remarkable dismissal of the contrary view held by a majority of the Legislative Assembly and the public of Northern Ireland on a major element of the proposals.

Addressing proposals to lower the age of consent from 17 to 16

7.  The following is a summary of The Christian Institute's original response to the public consultation on the draft Sexual Offences Order 2007 which ended in February 2008. We highlight the dangers of lowering the age of consent by detailing three areas of protection provided by the current law which will be undermined by the change:

  • Protection from abuse
  • Protection of child health and wellbeing
  • Protection of the family.

8.  We conclude with a brief consideration of a landmark study recently published in the Republic of Ireland and an analysis of the main arguments put forward for lowering the age of consent.

Protection from abuse

9.  The age of consent is a legal protection for some of society's most vulnerable members. The Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008 seeks to increase legal protection of children in other areas of potential exploitation such as prostitution and pornography.[16] However, lowering the age of consent would expose 26,000 teenagers[17] to potentially predatory, yet legal, sexual advances and the health and welfare risks outlined below.

10.  Minister of State Paul Goggins and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission have expressed concern at a perceived rise in sex trafficking in Northern Ireland.[18] Lowering the age of consent would only encourage development of the sex trade and facilitate "sex tourism" to Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland.

Protection of child health and wellbeing

11.  The age of consent is intended to protect children from activities and consequences for which they lack the necessary physical, emotional and psychological maturity. Specific examples include the possibility of teenage pregnancy and contracting sexually transmitted diseases.

12.  In other areas of health the Government is seeking to raise the legal age at which children can be exposed to potentially dangerous and unhealthy practices. In England and Wales the legal age for buying cigarettes has been raised to 18. Whilst smoking cigarettes is unhealthy and prolonged use results in many serious and often fatal illnesses, no one would ever argue that such consequences could follow from a single act of smoking. However, a single act of sexual intercourse can result in a young person becoming pregnant or contracting a serious, even fatal, disease.

13.  It must be noted that the protection provided by a higher age of consent seems to be working in Northern Ireland: the rate of young people having sex before the age of 16 is much lower than in Great Britain.
 Percentage of 16-24 year olds engaging in sex before 16  
Great Britain[19]  27.9 
Northern Ireland[20]  15 

14.  Given that the Northern Ireland Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has spent the last five years trying to significantly reduce the health consequences of teenage promiscuity[21], it seems extraordinary that the Northern Ireland Office should now propose a measure which can only encourage teenagers to experiment with sex at younger ages.

Protection of the family

15.  Northern Ireland has distinct advantages over the rest of the UK in terms of the stability of the family unit. The divorce rate and the percentage of maternities outside marriage are much lower in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the UK.
 Divorce rate per 1000 married couples  Percentage of maternities outside marriage  
England and Wales[22],[23]  12.2 44  
Northern Ireland[24],[25]  38  

16.  In addition, the proportion of families headed by a cohabiting couple in Northern Ireland is half that of the rest of the UK. These facts demonstrate the much greater stability of the family unit in Northern Ireland when compared to other UK regions. Legislators must understand that lowering the age of consent will encourage Northern Ireland's teenagers to engage in behaviour that will undermine this culture of family stability. Recreational sex by teenagers will lead to more teenage pregnancies and increased family breakdown.

Addressing the main arguments for lowering the age of consent

17.  We consider that the Northern Ireland Office has failed to provide a satisfactory explanation for lowering the age of consent other than a perceived requirement for parity with the rest of the UK. We address this argument below, along with other key arguments put forward by those in favour of the proposal to lower the age of consent.

The need for parity with the rest of the UK

  • There is no need for the two jurisdictions to have identical laws. There are distinct differences in the legal frameworks of Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, including abortion law and alcohol licensing. The age of consent is a long-standing example, having been altered by the Northern Ireland Parliament in 1950. The NIO have not produced any examples of this difference being a problem.
  • A more appropriate comparison regarding parity would be the Republic of Ireland which also has 17 as its age of consent. A lower age in Northern Ireland would precipitate 'sex tourism' of both adolescents and paedophiles from Southern Ireland.

Young people in Northern Ireland believe that the age of consent is already 16

  • Where confusion exists about a certain law intended to promote public safety it is surely more sensible to advocate public awareness initiatives rather than to reduce the level of protection. We question if this argument would be used to advocate any comparable public safety law.
  • A recent example of a safety law being downgraded to match a supposed public perception was the re-classification of cannabis, a move now being reviewed after heavy criticism.
  • We question whether such confusion actually exists in Northern Ireland. The volume of public opposition to lowering the age of consent strongly suggests that it does not.

Lowering the age of consent will encourage young people to seek sexual health advice and treatment and thereby combat teenage pregnancy and STI rates

  • The rates of teenage pregnancy and STIs are far higher in the rest of the UK compared to Northern Ireland.

 Combined maternity and abortion figures per 1,000 girls  
 15 years of age  16 years of age 
England and Wales[26],[27]  11.6 27.7  
Northern Ireland[28],[29]  11.9  
 Sexually transmitted infections per 1,000 girls under 16[30]  
England and Wales 1.16  
Northern Ireland 0.45  

  • An obvious factor in the disparity between these figures is the lower age of consent in Great Britain. To suggest that lowering the age of consent will help to combat high teenage pregnancy and STI rates flies in the face of clear evidence. Young people in the Province are safer for longer than their counterparts in Great Britain and equalising the age of consent will threaten Northern Ireland's advantages in this respect.

An age of consent of 17 is discriminatory against young people

  • It is nonsensical to argue that protecting young people from dangerous activities is discriminatory. Laws covering the sale of alcohol, ownership of firearms, gambling and driving are not considered discriminatory but necessary for the protection of all concerned. The age of consent should be considered in the same light.
  • Rather than young people in Northern Ireland being discriminated against, the figures above demonstrate that young people in the rest of Great Britain suffer discrimination by being legally exposed to the risks of sexual activity at an earlier age.

The Irish Study of Sexual Health and Relationships

18.  It is a matter of some irony that the Northern Ireland Office has tabled the draft Sexual Offences Order a matter of days after the publication of Learning About Sex and First Sexual Experiences, the first Sub-Report of the Irish Study of Sexual Health and Relationships. Commissioned by the Irish Department of Health and Children, this is the largest nationally representative study of sexual knowledge, attitudes and behaviour ever undertaken in Ireland. It is particularly relevant to the issue of Northern Ireland's age of consent because it equates to the British National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, but covers a jurisdiction (the Republic of Ireland) with which Northern Ireland shares so much in common, including cultural values and a legal age of consent of 17. Its findings are illuminating:

  • Participants who first had sex before 17 were over two and a half times more likely to have had an STI than those whose first intercourse occurred at or after 17.[31]
  • Women who had been under 17 at first intercourse were over two and a half times more likely to report crisis pregnancy than those whose first intercourse occurred at or after 17.[32]
  • Women whose sexual initiation occurred before 17 were over four times more likely to have had an abortion than those who first had sex at or after 17.[33]
  • Of those respondents aged 18-29 reporting first intercourse at age 16, 18.8 per cent of men and 43.1 per cent of women said they "should have waited longer". For those reporting first intercourse below 16 these figures were 36.8 per cent and 59 per cent for men and women respectively.[34]

7 May 2008


7   Northern Ireland Assembly Ad Hoc Committee on Draft Sexual Offences (NI) Order 2007, First Report, 21 January 2008, para. 50, see http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/adhocs/2007mandate/sexual_offences/reports/report15_07_08R.htm Back

8   Northern Ireland Assembly Official Report (Hansard), 4 February 2008, see http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/record/reports2008/080204.htm#8 Back

9   Age of Sexual Consent, Northern Ireland Assembly List of Motions and Proposed Amendments: No Day Named, 19 February 2008, see http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/io/noday.htm Back

10   Statement containing a summary of representations on the draft Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2007, Northern Ireland Office, April 2008, para. 3.1 Back

11   ComRes poll Northern Ireland age consent, March 2008, see http://www.comres.co.uk/page16525316.aspx Back

12   The Observer, 25 November 2007 Back

13   The Observer, 25 November 2007 Back

14   Explanatory Memorandum to The Draft Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008, Northern Ireland Office, April 2008, paras 7.4 - 7.5 Back

15   Statement containing a summary of representations on the draft Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2007, Northern Ireland Office, April 2008, para. 3.8 Back

16   Draft Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008, Articles 37-42 Back

17   See http://www.nisra.gov.uk/archive/demography/population/midyear/NI_Home_Pop_sya(1961-2006).xls Back

18   The Belfast Telegraph, 23 June 2006; The Belfast Telegraph (online) 30 May 2007 Back

19   Erens B, McManus S, Prescott A et al, National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles II: Reference tables and summary report, page 27, table 1.1 and page 30, table 2.1 Back

20   Northern Ireland Health and Social Wellbeing Survey 2001, Sexual Health Results - First experience of sexual intercourse tables, page 1, see http://www.nisra.gov.uk/whatsnew/wellbeing/sexual_health/First%20experience%20of%20sexual%20intercourse.PDF Back

21   Teenage Pregnancy and Parenthood: Strategy and Action Plan 2002-2007, DHSSPS, November 2002, page 7 Back

22   Divorces fall by 7 per cent in 2006, ONS, see http://www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=170  Back

23   Birth Statistics: Review of the Registrar General on Births and Patterns of Family Building in England and Wales, 2006, ONS, The Stationery Office, 2007, Table 3.2, page 10 [289,266/662,915=0.44] Back

24   Married, re-married or separated couples, figures from Registrar General Annual Report 2006, NISRA, Section 8, Divorces, table 8.9 Back

25  Registrar General's Annual Report 2006 - Section 3 Births, NISRA, 2007, Table 3.10 [8,772/23,044=0.38] Back

26   Taking 2006 figures of maternities (1,012, from Birth Statistics: Review of the Registrar General on Births and Patterns of Family Building in England and Wales, 2006, ONS, The Stationery Office, 2007, Table 3.2, page 10) plus abortions (2,948, from Statistical Bulletin - Abortion Statistics, England and Wales: 2006, Department of Health, ONS, 2007, Table 4a) divided by estimated 15 year old female population in thousands (342.5, from England and Wales; estimated resident population by single year of age and sex; Mid-2006 Population Estimates, ONS, StatBase, August 2007, Table 3); 1,012+2,948=3,960. 3,960/342.5=11.6 Back

27   Maternities, 3,537 (from Birth Statistics: Review of the Registrar General on Births and Patterns of Family Building in England and Wales, 2006, ONS, The Stationery Office, 2007, Table 3.2, page 10); Abortions, 5,859 (from Statistical Bulletin - Abortion Statistics, England and Wales: 2006, Department of Health, ONS, 2007, Table 4a); Population, 339.7 (from England and Wales; estimated resident population by single year of age and sex; Mid-2006 Population Estimates, ONS, StatBase, August 2007, Table 3); 3,537+5,859=9,396; 9,396/339.7=27.7 Back

28   Taking 2006 figures of maternities (29, from Registrar General's Annual Report 2006 - Section 3 Births, NISRA, 2007, Table 3.10) plus abortions (23, taken from Statistical Bulletin - Abortion Statistics, England and Wales: 2006, Department of Health, ONS, 2007, Table 12c) divided by estimated 15 year old population in thousands (12.8, from Registrar General's Annual Report 2006 - Section 2 Population, NISRA, 2007, Table 2.1); 29+23=52; 52/12.8=4.1 Back

29   Maternities, 113 (from Registrar General's Annual Report 2006 - Section 3 Births, NISRA, 2007, Table 3.10); Abortions, approximately 39 (half 16-17 figure of 78 from Statistical Bulletin - Abortion Statistics, England and Wales: 2006, Department of Health, ONS, 2007, Table 12c); Population, 12.8 (from Registrar General's Annual Report 2006 - Section 2 Population, NISRA, 2007, Table 2.1); 113+39=152; 152/12.8=11.9 Back

30  Totalled figures of Chlamydia, Gonorrhoea, Syphilis, Herpes and Warts in under- 16s seen at GUM clinics in 2006 (from Diagnoses and Rates of Selected STIs as seen at GUM Clinics: 2002-2006, Health Protection Agency, table 2a (England=2293), table 3a (Wales=109) and table 5a (Northern Ireland=35)) divided by population figures in thousands for 13-15 year olds (NI=77.3 from Registrar Generals Annual Report 2006 - Section 2 Population, NISRA, 2007, Table 2.1; E&W=2071.8 from from England and Wales; estimated resident population by single year of age and sex; Mid-2006 Population Estimates, ONS, StatBase, August 2007, Table 3). 35/77.3=0.45 per 1,000 in Northern Ireland; 2402/2071.8=1.16 per 1,000 in England and Wales Back

31   Rundle, K, Layte, R and McGee, H, The Irish Study of Sexual Health and Relationships, Sub-Report 1: Learning About Sex and First Sexual Experiences, 2008, page 117 Back

32   Rundle, K, Layte, R and McGee, H, The Irish Study of Sexual Health and Relationships, Sub-Report 1: Learning About Sex and First Sexual Experiences, 2008, page 118 Back

33   Rundle, K, Layte, R and McGee, H, The Irish Study of Sexual Health and Relationships, Sub-Report 1: Learning About Sex and First Sexual Experiences, 2008, page 118 Back

34   Rundle, K, Layte, R and McGee, H, The Irish Study of Sexual Health and Relationships, Sub-Report 1: Learning About Sex and First Sexual Experiences, 2008, Table 5.6, page 114 Back


 

 
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