Draft Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008

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Paul Goggins: I have not given detailed consideration to that issue. However, I recall—as my hon. Friend does—that in the debates on the Sexual Offences Bill, there was a retrospective element in relation to those who had been criminalised but who would not be caught by the new legislation. I am prepared to look at the detail of that, and to write to my hon. Friend and other members of the Committee with my conclusions.
The focus of my speech has been the main order. The draft Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland Consequential Amendments) Order is by and large a short, technical piece that allows the main order and the Sexual Offences Act 2003 to work together in a UK context. It also amends the list of offences that attract the sex offender notification requirements of part 2 of the Sexual Offences Act, and adds the new offences to the Criminal Justice Act 2003 for the purposes of sentences for public protection.
In conclusion, I am pleased to bring before the Committee this fundamental reform of the criminal law on sexual offences in Northern Ireland. The new framework of sexual offences is about better protection for all against unacceptable sexual behaviour. It will improve protection for children, young people and other vulnerable groups against sexual abuse, and it will help to tackle prostitution and commercial sexual exploitation. I commend both orders to the Committee.
4.46 pm
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I welcome you to the Committee, Mr. Atkinson.
As we have said so many times on statutory instrument Committees, this is a rather cumbersome way of introducing legislation because there may be parts that one agrees with and parts that one disagrees with. That is very much the case today, in that even if I do not necessarily disagree with the most contentious part—the age of consent—it certainly seems that an awful lot of people in Northern Ireland do, while welcoming the general emphasis and scope of the order.
Very few people could disagree with what the Minister is trying to achieve. If the order adds protection to many vulnerable people, particularly younger people, we of course welcome it. However, the age of consent seems to be a contentious issue. While the Minister did his best to explain a different meaning of “age of consent” to us—I probably was aware of what it meant—and while I understand that he is looking at it not from the point of view of the young person, but from that of the person who would become a criminal if the other person were under the age of 16, feelings are strong in Northern Ireland. People have contacted me about that, and that puts me in difficulty with regard to the measure.
The Minister rightly makes a good case for uniformity across the United Kingdom on such an issue, but there are certain differences in legislation between Northern Ireland and England and Wales, and between Scotland and England and Wales. Scotland has a slightly different marriage law, for example. People can get married at 16 without parental consent in Scotland, at Gretna Green, whereas in England and Wales they cannot. We do not seem to have run into too many difficulties over that difference. However, I understand that the Minister desires that criminal law, in particular, should be uniform.
When I looked into the issue further, I discovered that with parental consent one can get married at 16 in Northern Ireland. It appeared that sexual consent could only be offered at 17, but in a marriage situation it can apparently be given at 16, so there is a complication. While initially I was persuaded that if one can get married at 16, the age of consent in Northern Ireland should be 16, looking more closely, I found that there is a complication. Therefore, that argument would not necessarily attract me to support the order.
Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that, where both individuals in a sexual relationship are aged 16 and there is an ensuing pregnancy, neither of those 16-year-olds, if they are unmarried, is likely to be able to take emotional, practical or financial responsibility for a child? If the age of consent is changed legally, it could encourage more sexual activity in very young people who are not in a position to take responsibility for the outcome.
Mr. Robertson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that powerful point. Most people would agree that 16 is very young. A 16-year-old has not even reached the age when he or she can vote. We must be careful about sending the wrong message to people. When the Government reduced the classification of cannabis, to use an analogy, not only did it make people more vulnerable, but it sent out the wrong message. We have to be careful about the message we send from this place. Parliament is about not just setting the rules and regulations, but sending messages. That concerns me, partly for the reasons that my hon. Friend described.
Having said all that, let me explain my biggest problem with the order. Before the Assembly was reinstated, we dealt with an awful lot of important issues in these Committees. We dealt with water rates, changing the number of councils in Northern Ireland, education and quite a few other matters. I frequently asked why, if the Government were, quite rightly, so determined to get the Assembly up and running again, and the prospects of that were so good, it was necessary to take through so many pieces of legislation in Committee. Surely it should have been left to the people of Northern Ireland to decide those issues.
I feel a little bit the same today. We are assured that devolution of policing and criminal justice is, to paraphrase the Minister, just around the corner. The Secretary of State and the Minister are hopeful that it will not be too far away. The St Andrews deadline has already been passed. I know that the Government are anxious that these issues are devolved. Is it so necessary, therefore, to introduce this measure now, especially when it seems to go against what an awful lot of people in Northern Ireland, including politicians, think? I accept that that does not apply to all the order, but it applies to the important part. I have a bit of difficulty with that.
I can see the logic of the order. It contains many sensible things that everyone would agree with. It clarifies many things. It puts into statute what was previously common law. I do not have a huge difficulty with the age of consent being 16, if that ties in with England and Wales, but I am concerned about the signal that it sends. I am concerned about the fact that the Government went out to consultation, but appear to be ignoring the responses to part of that consultation exercise. For all those reasons I have a little bit of difficulty in supporting the order as it is. I look forward to hearing what other hon. Members have to say about it.
4.54 pm
David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Atkinson. I will not detain the Committee long as I know that many hon. Members wish to get away to another meeting. It will come as no surprise to the Minister that I oppose the order. Although it contains several welcome proposals, which he has outlined, the proposal to lower the age of consent for sexual activity in Northern Ireland from 17 to 16 is totally wrong-headed. It is dangerous and overwhelmingly opposed by the people of Northern Ireland and their elected representatives.
The procedure that the Government are using to legislate for lowering the age of consent is intended for non-controversial issues. We cannot amend the order and, strictly speaking, the procedure today is merely to consider the order. At the end of our proceedings, I will ask for a vote. The proposal to lower the age of consent is so controversial that the Committee should oppose the order, so that it can be removed and re-tabled.
The Minister mentioned consultation. Between July and October 2006, the Northern Ireland Office held its first public consultation on reforming the law on sexual offences in the Province. It proposed lowering the age of consent. Among the many responses, an overwhelming number—more than 4,000—opposed a number of proposals, including the plan to lower the age of consent. That is recorded in the Northern Ireland Office summary of responses to the consultation paper. That is an unprecedented number of responses to a public consultation in Northern Ireland. In contrast, only 24 respondents supported a reduction in the age of consent. The second Northern Ireland Office consultation on the draft order closed in February 2008. Of the 369 responses that the Minister referred to, more than 93 per cent. supported the retention of the current age of consent. Less than 2 per cent. advocated lowering the age of consent.
The opposition of the Northern Ireland people to lowering the age of consent was confirmed by a recent public opinion poll, which showed that 73 per cent. of adults in Northern Ireland oppose any reduction in the age of consent. That includes 80 per cent. of the Protestant community and 72 per cent. of the Catholic community.
As the Minister of State said, the Northern Ireland Assembly established an ad hoc Committee to consider the draft legislation and devise a formal response. It considered written and oral evidence from interested bodies, the Minister of State and representatives of the Northern Ireland Office. The Committee finalised its report and presented it to the Assembly for approval. The report included the following recommendation in paragraph 50:
“The Committee strongly recommends that there be no change to the current age of consent of 17.”
Assembly Members considered the Committee’s report and proposed that it be submitted to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland as the Assembly’s formal response to the consultation. The motion was carried unanimously and no division was required.
Following the endorsement of the report by the Northern Ireland Assembly and its submission to the Secretary of State, four Assembly Members—two nationalists and two Unionists—tabled a no day motion calling on the Secretary of State not to lower the age of consent, but to maintain it at 17 years. That motion has been signed by the majority of MLAs right across the political divide. It is currently the no day motion with the largest number of signatures on the Assembly website. It is the only motion signed by a majority of elected Members. Clearly, if this issue was to be decided by the Northern Ireland Assembly, the age of consent would not be reduced to 16.
Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman comment on why it is felt that 16-year-olds in Northern Ireland are less mature than those elsewhere in the UK? Should this matter be devolved, is it the intention of the Northern Ireland parties to reverse the change?
David Simpson: I will take the second question first. I believe that the Assembly would reverse the change. The feeling in the Northern Ireland Assembly is very strong and it has a major issue with this proposal. On the question of maturity, we have one of the largest problems with under-age pregnancies in the UK. The proposal to change the age of consent to 16 causes concern across the Province.
Chris Bryant: With respect, I suggest that the hon. Gentleman’s last comment gives away his whole argument. The number of teenage pregnancies in Northern Ireland is already very high, and the UK has the highest level in Europe by a considerable way. If youngsters are already having sex at 16 and 15, why criminalise their behaviour?
David Simpson: To criminalise it would perhaps be wrong, but I believe that 17 carries more maturity—that is the overwhelming opinion of the Northern Ireland Assembly and of organisations to which I shall refer in a moment—which is why the age of consent should remain at 17. If I can continue with my speech, I might be able to explain myself a little better for the hon. Gentleman.
Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): I would be interested to hear whether the Northern Ireland Assembly has tried to gauge the opinion of the 16-year-olds whom they are attempting to preclude from today’s measures.
David Simpson: I would have to ask whether this Committee has tried to ask that question through the Northern Ireland Office. As I said to the hon. Member for Rhondda, I shall explain in a moment that young people have been consulted through various organisations.
Clearly, if the proposal was to go to a vote in the Assembly, the age of consent would remain at 17. The concerns of the general public are echoed by what might be termed as the key stakeholder organisations—the Northern Ireland rape crisis and sexual abuse centre, Love for Life and leading young people’s organisations have all publicly stated their opposition to lowering the age of consent. Commenting on the age of consent proposal, Eileen Calder, the director of the rape crisis and sexual abuse centre, stated:
“Our concern is to protect vulnerable young men and women from older sexual predators...What we are concerned about is men in their 20s, 30s, 40s and older preying on young people. And that applies to the gay community as well as the heterosexual community”.
Love for Life is a charity providing relationships and sexuality education to young people in Northern Ireland. In relation to the consent issue and sexual education as a whole, it delivers programmes to and consults more than 20,000 young people every year. Its chief executive, Dr. Richard Barr, has publicly opposed the plan to lower the age of consent, stating that
“lowering the age of consent from 17 to 16 in Northern Ireland will send out the wrong message to young people”.
Northern Ireland’s largest young people’s organisations, which we all know about—the Boys’ Brigade, the Girls’ Brigade and the Girls Friendly Society—have voiced grave concerns about lowering the age of consent. Opposition in Northern Ireland to lowering the age of consent cuts right across traditional divisions. It is a travesty of democracy that the order continues to retain proposals to lower the age of consent when the findings of the public consultations and the cross-party opposition of locally elected representatives have been so clear.
What was the point in the Government holding public consultations on the issue if they had no intention of considering the views of the people, and why are we debating such a controversial measure in a small Committee that is powerless to do anything about it? Neither the Minister of State nor the Northern Ireland Office have provided any positive justification for lowering the age of consent in Northern Ireland, except for consistency across the United Kingdom. When addressing the ad hoc Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Minister of State was specifically asked if there were technical or legal reasons for lowering it. He replied:
“I would not argue that there are technical and legal reasons why it would be difficult to have a different age of consent in Northern Ireland.”
By his own admission, he has provided no technical or legal reasons for the proposed change.
It is worth remembering that the age of consent in Northern Ireland has been 17 since it was raised from 16 by a previous Stormont Parliament in 1950. Despite an almost 60-year period of what the Government call inconsistency, the NIO has not cited a single occasion when such inconsistency caused legal difficulty.
“sexual predators may be encouraged to take advantage. There are people out there who may well take advantage of that situation and that is a real fear that young people would like to have addressed...As it stands at the moment there will be a disparity”.
Mary Bradley, a Social Democratic and Labour party MLA, told The Irish News on 1 May 2008 that
“it is frustrating that despite opposition from many local assembly members this is still going through the House of Commons. Now we have the ridiculous situation that in border areas we have two different ages of consent and that could be open to abuse”.
Legal age limits are founded on the principle of protection. Young people under 18 are prevented by laws from engaging in activities such as gambling and buying certain solvents. Until recently they could buy knives, but that is also now illegal, again because the law deems that to be dangerous for young people until they attain a particular age—18 in this instance. The Government obviously felt that legality encouraged a certain type of behaviour, so they discouraged it by making it illegal. Therefore, they have to accept that legalising sex with 16-year-olds will encourage it.
For the reasons given, I ask the Minister to withdraw the order and encourage members of the Committee to register their protest by voting with me on this.
5.8 pm
Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I welcome you to the chair, Mr. Atkinson. I hope that the Minister’s confidence is justified and that policing and justice will soon be devolved to the Assembly so that decisions on important issues such as this can be taken in Northern Ireland. I hope that this is the last time we discuss a thick and detailed order in such a Committee. However, until the political parties in Northern Ireland agree on the devolution of policing and justice, such legislation has to be approved through the House of Commons, and we have to exercise our own judgment if we are members of the Committee involved.
I certainly welcome and support the order, which is the outcome of a fundamental review of the legislation on sexual offences in Northern Ireland and aims to modernise the law. I welcome the codifying of all the sexual offences in Northern Ireland into one statutory order and hope that will make it easier for those involved in the use of sexual offences legislation to use it effectively. I support the order’s provisions, so I will not go through them in detail, but I want to raise a few points with the Minister and hope that he will be able to provide the Committee with some clarification.
My first point relates to articles 37 to 40 and picks up on a concern that was raised by the Assembly’s ad hoc Committee. The Committee stated that it was
“persuaded by arguments in favour of equalising the penalties for causing or inciting abuse of a child through prostitution and paying for the sexual services of a child”.
The Committee points out an apparent anomaly—that the perpetrator of the latter offence could receive a sentence of life imprisonment, whereas the person who controls the child could receive a maximum sentence of 14 years. In their evidence to the Committee, the NSPCC and Barnardo’s argued that the tariff for both offences should be the same, and that it should be the higher tariff of life imprisonment. I agree with those submissions, because it seems illogical that a person who controls a child and exploits them again and again could attract a shorter sentence than a person who pays once for sex with that child. Will the Minister explain that apparent anomaly in the order?
Will the Minister clarify the definition of “persistent” in article 61, which relates to persistent soliciting? The Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, which received Royal Assent a few weeks ago, contained three clauses relating to prostitution that were removed in the Lords. One clause had provided a statutory definition of soliciting that is “persistently” carried out. It defined “persistent soliciting” as behaviour that takes place
“on two or more occasions in any period of three months”.
That definition would have broadened the offence beyond the previous interpretation of persistence, which was
“soliciting on two or more occasions in the same evening”.
Concerns were raised that broadening the offence in that way would increase the vulnerability of sex workers. As a result, the clauses were removed from the legislation. However, the word “persistent” is in the order, so I would like the Minister to clarify how the term will be interpreted in Northern Ireland.
Another concern raised by the ad hoc Committee of the Assembly, and also by organisations that gave evidence to that Committee, was how section 5 of the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967 will operate in relation to the provisions of the order. Section 5 requires the reporting of an arrestable offence to the police. In its evidence to the Committee, the NSPCC said that its research into the operation of section 5 showed that there was little evidence to suggest that it better protected children and young people, and that it might be counter-productive in terms of young people’s access to services. Will the Minister explain why the Government have not taken the opportunity presented by the order to repeal or amend section 5 of the 1967 Act? That is particularly relevant, as parallel legislation in England and Wales has been repealed.
I want to raise the issue of children who engage in sexually harmful behaviour. Approximately one third of adult sex offenders start offending when they are under 18, and research has shown the success of early intervention and treatment. Children who sexually harm must have access to treatment programmes in the context of multi-professional assessment. Will the Minister explain why the opportunity was not taken in this legislation to address that matter? Can he also explain why the order was not amended to take up the NSPCC’s recommendation to make provision for a requirement on the Secretary of State to issue mandatory guidance in the form of a prosecution protocol that would set out processes and considerations for making informed prosecution decisions, and the use of discretionary youth conference arrangements, which are available under part 4 of the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2002?
I support lowering the age of consent in Northern Ireland to 16. It is important to emphasise that the order 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. It is often the most vulnerable young people who engage in early sexual activity, so it is vital that they feel that they can access information and advice about their sexual health. It is important that the change in the law is implemented in tandem with a strategic approach to the sexual health needs of young people. I thank the Minister for introducing the order and look forward to his responses to the issues I raised.
5.15 pm
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