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Mr. Gale: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Michael: Some areas of specific concern, such as residential schooling and care, will be considered with extreme care.

Mr. Gale: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Michael: The work will be wide-ranging; will not be limited to one sector--

Mr. Gale: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Michael: In a moment. I do hate giving way in the middle of a sentence.

The work will be wide-ranging; will not be limited to one sector and will examine existing safeguards in the public, private and voluntary sectors and the need for new measures as part of an integrated approach. To answer the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Southgate, let me say that we will consider the issues that he raised, such as the fairness of the law and its effectiveness.

Mr. Gale: The Minister has told the House that he intends to support a clause that many of us feel will weaken the protection available to young people. He has also said that yet another working party is considering the protection of young men and women in institutional care. He has given no indication whether he will support the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw(Mr. Ashton), which I most certainly support, and the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen) declined to give way on the subject when she opened the debate.

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Will the Minister tell us why he is prepared to support one measure without simultaneously putting the other in place, as is his ministerial responsibility?

Mr. Michael: I wish that the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) would listen to the debate instead of trying to interrupt in the middle of sentences. I have tried to make it clear that I believe that new clause 1 is right, and is not about the abuse of positions of trust. I am making it equally clear that serious issues were rightly raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw in his important speech. I am trying to respond to those points effectively.

If, instead of trying to score debating points, the hon. Member for North Thanet looked at the way in which we have dealt with the needs of victims and vulnerable witnesses, he would find that the outstanding piece of work that we published a fortnight ago addressed those issues comprehensively. He should take that as the example of how we wish to deal with the issues, and should realise that the Government deserve more respect from him, rather than his unhelpful interventions.

We expect the group about which I have spoken to make its final recommendations by the end of the year. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept my assurance that the Government consider the protection of the vulnerable an absolute priority. However, it is important to examine the whole area rather than proceed according to a piecemeal approach. There are human rights issues involved, and questions of definition and scope. We must look carefully before taking action. There are plenty of pieces of law that give the impression of tackling a problem but which fail to do so. There are draconian punishments for those whom we fail to catch; they are pointless in law. We need to do much more to protect and prevent.

I cannot accept my hon. Friend's amendments, because they would create a new set of difficulties and anomalies. I refer not to my hon. Friend's intentions or to the broad sweep of his amendments, but to the way in which those amendments would work in practice. First, his amendments to new clause 1 would ensure that, if the abuse of trust was part of a homosexual relationship, not only the abuser but the victim would be committing a criminal offence. That cannot be right: it would increase the power of the abuser and make the abuse much less likely to be reported. It takes us back to the arguments that make the reduction in the age of consent something that is in the interests of young people.

9.15 pm

Secondly, the amendments would not apply in cases where an older woman takes advantage of a younger boy--such things do happen, as I am sure my hon. Friend would concede. Thirdly, the drafting is imprecise and creates other difficulties, which I would be happy to go through with my hon. Friend at greater length than the House would wish me to do here. If we are concerned about those vulnerable to undue influence from those with authority over them, this concern applies potentially as much to marriage as to sexual intercourse.

The essence of the concern is that the consent is not wholly free of influence. For instance, should we make unlawful a marriage between a 16 or 17-year-old and a person in a position of authority, influence or trust? They are major issues, and we should not contemplate taking

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such steps at this late stage in the Bill's progress when there has been no opportunity fully to consider the implications. For instance, the amendments would make it unlawful for a 17-year-old girl to marry her boss. I am sure that that is not what is intended.

I hope that I have made it clear that there are too many problems with my hon. Friend's amendments as they stand, and as they are technically drafted, for them to be accepted tonight. However, I respect both his intentions and his attempt to draft amendments in order to give the House a chance to act.

Mr. Ashton: My hon. Friend is gabbling at breakneck speed, and I cannot keep up. I do not know why he is doing that. Why can he not take things much more slowly, so that we can understand what is happening?

The amendments were drawn up at my request by the Clerk of the Committee examining the Crime and Disorder Bill, who is an experienced lawyer. I do not claim that the amendments or proposed new clause 8 are perfect, but they do not have the wide-ranging implications that my hon. Friend claims.

The Minister--and the Secretary of State before him--said that the Crime and Disorder Bill would be back before the House by the end of July and would become law. The Minister now says that the working party will keep trundling along and may produce a report at the end of the year. Perhaps we will debate that and perhaps there will be another Bill.

I have been in the House a long time and have heard Governments say that they will act, only for things to remain in limbo. With respect, the Minister has not replied to my amendments regarding restraint on abuse--although he virtually said that the existing situation is not working. Can we have a date? Will there be a new Bill? When will it be presented? Can we have--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must not make a second speech.

Mr. Michael: I think I made it clear--if I did so too quickly, I apologise to my hon. Friend--that I accept the purposes behind his amendments. However, I hope that I have outlined also the damaging complications in this very complicated piece of interrelated legislation. I also made it clear that it is important to have legislation that works. For instance, the Bill deals with issues such as anti-social behaviour and sex offender orders. We spent much time on those issues in opposition so that we could bring before the House considered ways of dealing with them. It should be recognised that, as a result of our putting in that time, and moving quickly as soon as the opportunity arose, the Bill as a whole is a most reforming piece of criminal justice legislation, tackling youth justice and a variety of issues.

Similarly, we have dealt with the needs of victims and vulnerable witnesses. The House has debated that issue frequently over many years. We have got on with the job since coming to power.

Mr. Ashton: Cannot the Lords achieve the same aim in an amendment that could come back to this House?

Mr. Michael: No, I do not believe that there is time to do that properly without placing the whole Bill at risk, including the reform of youth justice, protection for

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people through dealing with anti-social behaviour and dealing with some aspects of predatory behaviour through the sex offenders order. I am sure that my hon. Friend does not want to slow down the process of getting those matters into law.

Mr. Bermingham: No one is trying to sabotage the Bill. We are merely seeking to protect a small group of people from a small group of predators. Is it beyond the wit of the Minister and the Home Office to take that on board?

Mr. Michael: No, of course it is not. That is why we are doing so much on the issue. That is why, for instance, we put sex offender orders in the legislation. That is an aspect of protecting children against the activities of predatory adults.

Sir Patrick Cormack: Surely this matter could be dealt with in the House of Lords, where there is enough legal expertise for a sensible amendment to emerge and come back to this place.

Mr. Michael: I understand why the hon. Gentleman would wish that. Once he has considered what I have said about the complex effect of the amendments--particularly the fact that they would introduce a new element of inequality to a new clause that seeks to end inequality--I hope that he will accept that they would not achieve what he wants to achieve.

Mr. Gerald Howarth rose--

Mr. Michael: These issues need to be thought through with great care before we embark on legislation.


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