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Mr. Clappison: My hon. Friend makes a perfectly fair point. In that case, the law should protect the under-16-year-old from himself. The person over16 should be aware of that and should face condign penalties for taking advantage of an under-16-year-old who was in that frame of mind.

I am concerned about the message that we might be sending. We must protect under-16-year-olds, not reduce the age of consent any further. As I said, I am concerned generally that we have reduced the age of consent too far and too fast. We have introduced one reduction in the age of consent hot on the heels of another. If the amendment is adopted, to avoid any possible misunderstanding, there has to be vigorous enforcement of that aspect of the law. An amendment like this has to go hand in hand with a vigorous approach and a strong and credible legal framework.

I am worried about the apparent change in the number of prosecutions brought against people over 21 for offences of buggery with males of under 16 years of age. There is at least a coincidence between a big reduction in the number of such prosecutions and the reduction in the age of consent. Figures from the House of Commons Library show that the numbers of prosecutions of over-21-year-olds for buggery with under-16s in 1993 and 1994--before the age of consent had been reduced--were 293 and 291 respectively. Since then, there has been a significant collapse in the number of such prosecutions. In 1995--the first year in which 18 was the age of consent--there were 151 such prosecutions; in 1996 there were 73; and in 1997 there 103.

Mr. Mike Hall (Weaver Vale): What has that to do with the amendment?

Mr. Clappison: It has everything to do with the amendment--

The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Michael Lord): Order. Sedentary interventions from Members on the Front Bench do not help the debate.

Mr. Clappison: If we are to make a change in such a sensitive area of the law, affecting the legal position of under-16-year-olds, we must make sure that it goes hand in hand with vigorous enforcement of the law against older people minded to have sexual relations with younger people. That is vital. The figures show that a big change happened between 1993-94, when the age of consent was 21, and the period 1995 to 1997, when the age of consent was 18. The number of people over 21 prosecuted for having sex with people under 16 fell from 291 in 1994 to 73 in 1996 and 103 in 1997.

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I want to ensure that any change such as is proposed in the amendment will not be accompanied by a change in the priority given to those prosecutions. If the amendment is accepted, the law must be enforced vigorously, because we should do all that we can to protect those under 16 from the attentions of those over 21.

Speaking purely personally, I hope that the law will be applied much more vigorously if the amendment is accepted. However, there is merit in exploring the extent to which the amendment would afford greater protection to people under 16. That is the criterion by which I judge it.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): There has been general, although not universal, approbation in this debate for the principle behind the amendment, which was expounded by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) and by my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow). Most hon. Members who have spoken have found it unacceptable that the person under 16 who engages in a homosexual act or in an act of buggery, in which the older party is 16 or older, should end up being criminalised, instead of being regarded as the victim.

I am glad to note that general view. I am also glad to have been informed that a number of children's charities are worried about the degree to which under-16-year-olds, if we leave the law as it is, will end up being considered to have committed a criminal offence, rather than being regarded as victims. I am told by my officials that the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Barnados and the Children's Society have all said--and have allowed me to say in public--that they would support the decriminalisation of the younger party in those circumstances.

Several other anomalies have been debated, both upstairs in Committee and on the Floor of the House. Although we are seeking equality in terms of the age of consent, the law starts from very different points for males and females. Also, some aspects of the European convention on human rights, and other factors, mean that we do not start from a position that is wholly symmetrical, and I doubt whether we will end at such a position. We consider that it is appropriate for most of the remaining anomalies to be examined in the review of sexual offences that my hon. Friend the Minister of State mentioned earlier.

However--to return to the amendment and the parallel proposals for Scotland and Northern Ireland--in the interests of protecting children, we think that it would be sensible to take action along the lines proposed, in the course of the Bill's passage through the House. We accept the principle behind the amendment. We also acknowledge the cautious point made by the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), who said that we must be careful and fully explore how the amendment would work.

Therefore, if it is acceptable to the Committee, I propose that we examine the principle behind the amendments between now and the time when the Bill comes back on Report. My hon. Friend the Minister of State will have discussions with the hon. Members who tabled the amendment, if they so wish, and those

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discussions may also include the hon. Member for Hertsmere or any other hon. Member who might wish to take part. The aim will be to produce wording that is acceptable and technically competent and meets what I think is the will of the Committee. Those amendments can then be tabled when the Bill comes back on Report. If the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon disagrees with them, he can table his own amendments, on which the House will have an opportunity to vote at that stage.

I hope that that is an acceptable way of proceeding in circumstances of general--not universal--approbation for what is proposed. We must however ensure that the wording is right and that the offences that we are eliminating deal only with this mischief and do not raise other mischief in their wake.

Dr. Harris: I give the Secretary of State a very warm welcome for those remarks, and thank him for his consideration of the broad principle. I am the first to accept that the drafting of the amendments is almost certainly incorrect. Indeed, we had such trouble drafting an amendment to pertain to Northern Ireland that it was not considered suitable to be selected for debate. So, of course we understand the need to return to the matter on Report. I am sure that the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow) will join me in recognising that the work on considering the anomaly and bringing forward suggestions was not really done by us, but by organisations outside the House. I thank them for their work, and in doing so, thank the Secretary of State once again for his words. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): I beg to move amendment No. 4, in page 1, line 15, at end insert--


'( ) In sub-paragraph (2)(b) (offences in England and Wales) of paragraph 1 of Schedule 1 of the Sex Offenders Act 1997 (sexual offences to which part I applies)--
(a) after the words "(a)(iv)" there shall be inserted the words "and (vii)"; and
(b) after the word "over;" there shall be inserted--
"(bb) paragraph (a)(v) and (vi) does not apply where the other party to the offence was 16 or over".'.

The Second Deputy Chairman: With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 5, in page 1, line 20, at end insert--

'( ) In sub-paragraph (2)(b) (offences in Scotland) of paragraph 2 of Schedule 1 of the Sex Offenders Act 1997 (sexual offences to which part I applies) for the word "18" there shall be substituted the word "16".'.

No. 7, in page 1, line 23, at end insert--

'( ) In sub-paragraph (2)(b) of paragraph 3 (offences in Northern Ireland) of Schedule 1 of the Sex Offenders Act 1997 (sexual offences to which part I applies)--
(a) for "(d)" there shall be substituted "(i) and (iii)"; and
(b) after the word "over;" there shall be inserted--
"(bb) paragraphs (b)(ii) and (d) do not apply where the other party to the offence was 17 or over.".'.

Mr. Allan: The Home Secretary gave a very pleasing and gracious response to the previous amendment, which

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I hope will set the tone for debate on another simplegroup of amendments, which would make changes consequential to the lowering of the age of consent from 18 to 16.

In preparation for considering this matter, I looked at the words of wisdom of the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael), who spoke for the then Opposition on the Sex Offenders Bill in 1997. He must look back on those debates in Committee as halcyon days compared with working with the internal machinations of the Welsh Labour party. In Committee and on Report on the 1997 Bill, the right hon. Gentleman moved similar amendments to the ones that we are considering in trying to deal with the issue of offences between homosexuals aged 16 and 17 and whether they should appear on the sex offenders register. The response from the then Conservative Minister, Timothy Kirkhope, implied that the amendments should be rejected, primarily because the age of consent had not at that point been lowered. He argued:

If clause 1 is agreed unamended, and the Bill subsequently enacted, the lawful age of homosexual consent will become 16. Therefore, individuals of 16 and 17 years old will no longer be minors for the purposes of buggery and indecency offences. I argue strongly that we run the risk of putting on the sex offenders register people who are committing consensual, non-criminal acts. That very much works against the register's principle, which is to be careful about who it targets. It is an active register which targets people who are likely to commit further criminal offences. It would make no sense to register people who have committed acts that are no longer illegal and who represent no danger to the public.

We hope that the Government will see the logic of the amendments and the risk that they may run if they are not prepared to accept them or similar ones. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), I am perfectly happy to concede that drafting errors may render the amendments unacceptable to the Minister at this stage. I hope that he will consider the principle of the issue: whether a sex offenders register, which I think everyone supports, and which is designed to be active and to enable the probation service, the police and other agencies to monitor people, should include those who have committed an act that is no longer a crime, particularly 16 or 17-year-olds whose acts will be legal subsequent to the passing of the Bill.

I hope that the Minister will respond positively and at least consider the anomaly, so that the sex offenders register hits the right targets. That was very much the spirit of the comments of the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth. The amendments would boost the sex offenders register and treat people fairly, ensuring specifically that those who should no longer be on the register are omitted from it.

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