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5.15 pm

Mr. Boateng: I hear what the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) says. I appreciate the way in which he put his case. Amendment No. 4 would

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introduce further changes to the age limits for exception to the Sex Offenders Act 1997. Clause 1 is about the equalisation of the age of consent, and not about amending other legislation such as the Sex Offenders Act, unless that directly follows as a result of the change in the age of consent. The rationale behind registration under the Sex Offenders Act is based on the age of majority or adulthood, which is commonly accepted as 18 years of age. It is not based on the age of consent. Therefore, I do not find myself compelled by the hon. Gentleman's logic to accept his amendment.

The Committee will find under offences that attract age-limit exceptions to registration in schedule 1 to the 1997 Act, that offenders who are guilty of indecent assault on a woman and on a man do not have to register if the victim is 18 years old or over and the sentence is under 30 months. Offenders guilty of assault with intent to commit buggery must register only if the victim is under 18 years old. Such provisions relate to girls as well as boys, where the age of consent is already 16.

The hon. Member for Hallam will see that this matter is not about a form of discrimination between boys and girls, men and women, or their sexuality. It arises from the different bases of the register and of the age of consent. One is about majority and adulthood, the other about the age at which it is possible to consent to a sexual act. For that reason, I am unable to accept the amendment.

As the hon. Member readily recognises, the amendment is technically flawed. Although we could not accept it for that reason, we cannot accept it anyway due to the separate basis of the Sex Offenders Act. To amend the Act as he suggests would go beyond what is necessary for amending the age of consent, and open up wider issues concerning the Sex Offenders Act. We do not consider this Bill as a vehicle for piecemeal amendments to the Sex Offenders Act, which is already subject to review. To make the age of consent of the other party a determining factor for registration would mark a new departure in the Sex Offenders Act. Although I appreciate the spirit in which the hon. Gentleman moved the amendment, and give an undertaking to refer it in substance to the sex offenders review, I am not able to accept it for the reasons that I have given.

Mr. Allan: I am grateful for the Minister's final comments about considering the substance of the amendment in the sex offenders review. That is entirely appropriate.

I sometimes feel that we are talking about entirely different subjects. It is certainly my understanding that there is a distinction between the treatment of men who have had relations with girls aged 16 and 17, and those who have had consensual relations with men aged 16 and 17. To consider that within the sex offenders review may be the most sensible way to proceed, given that hon. Members wish to move on to the clause stand part debate. I want, however, to put on the record that I am not content that we have understood entirely the anomalies, and shall seek to pursue them further with the Minister in his review. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield): I shall be brief. I believe that this is the third or fourth time that I have

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spoken on this issue. Our debates on the subject are becoming rather like the open and closed-list debates that we had some weeks ago, and I have a shrewd idea that I shall be defeated in the Division Lobby again.

I pay tribute to the sincerity of the arguments that we have heard on the issue throughout the debate. I hope that although many of us may disagree with the Government's proposal, we shall not be regarded as antagonistic to the homosexual gay community, because that is not our intention.

Clause 1 obviously raises the fundamental question whether the age of consent should be reduced to 16. I repeat that Opposition Members will have an entirely free vote on that decision. I shall try to review some of the evidence, but, in doing so, I shall express my personal views.

In 1994, I voted for the age of consent to be reduced from 21 to 18. Eighteen is the age of majority, and it seemed to me sensible that young men should make up their own minds at that age. I did not go back on that judgment. There are some who think that even that went too far, but I agreed with the Bishop of York, who at the time said that it was a sensible step and allowed the evidence to be assessed. The question is whether, after less than five years, we should move to the next step of reducing the age from 18 to 16. My view is that we should not.

It is not altogether possible to separate the principle of reducing the age from the protection for young people set out later in the Bill. I say that because, for many of us--as I think my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere(Mr. Clappison) suggested earlier--the protection of 16 to 18-year-olds is the acid test. If the position of 16 to 18-year-olds is made worse, more precarious, we should recognise that and say so.

In other words, I do not find the argument on the standardisation of ages for heterosexual and homosexual sex to be remotely the end of the debate. The crucial argument, surely, is that the House must be convinced that, if it takes this action, a group of young people between the ages of 16 and 18 will not be put at more risk. That, it seems to me, is the acid test. That may be an inconvenient argument, and it may not fit in with people's views on standardisation. However, it seems to me that the protection of young people must remain a proper--I would argue, a paramount--concern of the House.

That is why, in June 1998, I said that I had a great deal of sympathy with the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton). Those concerned abuse by an older person who was in a position--in his terminology--of authority, influence or trust. That is why the Government have now been persuaded to introduce a new offence where a person aged 18 or over has sexual intercourse with a person under that age if the person aged 18 or over is in a position of trust.

The first question that is raised for someone like myself is whether that protection is adequate. In Committee upstairs, the Minister of State--I have read what he said--has sought to set down four principles on the way in which that protection will be offered. In effect, he has limited the group of young people who are entitled to protection and those who are not. In Committee, and again

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today, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere has demonstrated that we believe that there are some worrying gaps and that a worrying number of groups appear to be excluded, including members of youth organisations and members of Church and religious organisations.

However, a more specific point troubled me when I related the legislation to a case that I knew something about, and which I quoted in June--that of Roger Gleaves, the self-styled "Bishop of Medway", who was convicted in the 1970s of offences against young people. I drew attention to that case in the House of Commons. Then, in 1998, he was sentenced to 15 years for further offences against young people. In other words, he has been pursuing a career of abuse year after year after year. He is a prime example of the type of person that we are up against and need to recognise. However, it is by no means clear to me that the cover that he gave himself on the last occasion, in the period leading to his 1998 conviction--teaching young people first aid at a sports centre--would remotely have come into the definition of protection that has been provided in the Bill.

My next point is much more general. We all remember the words of Sir William Utting, the former head of the social services inspectorate at the Department of Health and Social Security. He served with me; he was an outstanding director. He said that persistent sexual abusers were a scourge of childhood. He said that their numbers were difficult to estimate, but that each one who adopted a lifetime career would amass hundreds of victims. However, his main argument was as follows:

In other words, seeking to obtain trust is the characteristic of their operations. That is what they try to do. That is the threat that they pose. It is very difficult to distinguish one group from another in the way that the legislation seeks to do.

Therefore, the issue that goes to the heart of the Bill is as follows. We know that some people will want to take advantage of a reduction in the age of consent. We also know something about the extent of the problem. In our last debate, on 25 January 1999--column 33 of Hansard--I referred to a study edited by Donald West of the Cambridge Institute of Criminology, which found that 12 per cent. of women and 8 per cent. of men reported that they had been sexually abused as children. We are therefore talking about a very large number indeed. My concern is that we risk making the position worse, not better.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): I am certain that it is no part of my right hon. Friend's case--or that of any hon. Member--to suggest that every homosexual is an abuser or anything like that, but underlying the statistics that he mentioned is another statistic, which is not often quoted in the House. Although the vast majority of abusers are male, extraordinarily, 40 per cent. of those abused in children's homes in this country are male.

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