Draft Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008

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Paul Goggins: I thank all members of the Committee who participated in the debate. I shall first respond to the comments of the hon. Member for Tewkesbury. I was grateful for his broad welcome for the order as a whole. I agree with him and other hon. Members that, after the devolution of policing and justice powers, a piece of legislation as large scale as this will have proper line-by-line scrutiny in the Assembly, which will be able to amend what will then be a Bill in their terms in more specific ways. I would welcome that. I am on record as saying that I am trying to do myself out of a job. I want that scrutiny done and the accountability to be held locally. We will do everything that we can to move to that position.
I was pleased that the hon. Gentleman underlined a number of important points. First, in relation to the age of consent, the criminal law does not criminalise the young person but the other person. That cannot be said often enough in this Committee or more broadly. It is important that that point is firmly understood. He spoke about his personal sympathy with the argument for uniformity across the United Kingdom. He pointed out that it is possible to get married at 16 in Northern Ireland with parental consent, so there is something of an anomaly there. He then asked, as others have done, particularly the hon. Member for Upper Bann, why we have not taken advice from those who made strong representations about the age of consent.
We have taken careful note of the whole range of advice and representations that we have received about the age of consent. Different people and different organisations have recommended different things depending on their particular experience and their engagement with young people. The Government have had to reflect on the balance of that advice to see where we ought to move the legislation and whether we should change it. Given that we started from the position that there should be uniformity unless there are compelling reasons why not, and having received advice from a whole range of organisations that we should reduce the age of consent to 16, in the end the balance of the argument seemed to point absolutely to the reduction to 16.
Let me mention some of the organisations and individuals who have encouraged us to believe that 16 is the right age. Leading child care organisations such as the NSPCC and Barnardo’s, which do tremendous work in Northern Ireland as in the rest of the United Kingdom, have been absolutely clear with us. Why? Because they work with young people who need to come to them for advice and the organisations fear that keeping the age of consent at 17 will deter young people from seeking that necessary advice because they feel that they will be criminalised in some way. It is important that we heed that advice. They want to provide the kind of welfare support, encouragement and education that we all want to see. We are all concerned for vulnerable young people. Those organisations think that keeping 17 as the age of consent is a barrier. We have to take that advice seriously.
We take the advice of the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People. We take the advice of the health and social services boards and eight of the 10 trusts in Northern Ireland. These are the social services organisations working with children and their families day in and day out. They tell us absolutely clearly that they believe that 16 is the right age. The police recommend it. I will not repeat the quotation from Dr. Farry, who chaired the ad hoc Committee that looked at the order in considerable detail, but he was clear and unequivocal in his view.
Indeed, there have been other comments. On the television programme, “Let’s Talk” in January, Sir Reg Empey, the leader of the Ulster Unionist party, said:
“I think there is a case for having things put on an even footing across the country... It should not become a political football.”
The hon. Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Doherty) who speaks for Sinn Fein said:
“I think it might be sensible legally to bring it to 16.”
David Ford, the leader of the Alliance party said:
“I find, on balance, that the arguments put forward by organisations such as the NSPCC and Barnardo’s have the right approach.”
We have listened to all those voices as well as the others who have criticised our approach. It is not as though it is all one-way advice. We have had considerable advice suggesting that 16 is right and we have heeded that advice.
Mr. Robertson: I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation and for quoting all the organisations that he has spoken to. It seems that there is a rift between what those organisations are saying and what an awful lot of other people—perhaps as individuals or politicians in Northern Ireland—are saying. Can he explain why that might be?
Paul Goggins: Clearly, people’s different values or beliefs persuade them to advance the opinions that they advance. I have paid particular attention to those organisations working with children and young people day in, day out—credible organisations that do tremendous work. I have had to take their advice seriously. It would be ludicrous if a Minister simply dismissed the views of organisations such as the NSPCC and Barnardo’s, but that is not to undermine or to criticise the authentic views that others have. It is critical to focus on the fact that the young person and their conduct is not the focus of the criminal law, it is the perpetrator—the other person. We have to get that message across. I will return to that point later on.
The hon. Member for Upper Bann told the Committee that the ad hoc Committee passed a resolution that stated that
“the Committee strongly recommends that there be no change to the current age of consent of 17.”
The wording of the resolution was “strongly recommends”, but that resolution was carried by five to three so it is not as though the ad hoc Committee had a uniform view—five to three is a divided view. The chairman of the ad hoc Committee sided with the Government’s point of view.
The hon. Member for Tewkesbury asked what kind of message this sends out. I think it important that we send the message that we want to avoid confusion in the minds of young people. Having a different age of consent in different parts of the United Kingdom could add to that confusion. In my view it does add to that confusion. We want the message to go out that young people should seek advice from advice agencies and social services organisations and from the increasing amount of counselling and advice services available through schools in Northern Ireland. We do not want young people to be deterred.
The hon. Members for Upper Bann and for Upminster, and my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe, all alluded in different ways to concerns about the welfare of young people. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda and others expressed concern about levels of teenage pregnancy. That is an issue of concern, but the good news is that there has been improvement in Northern Ireland since 2000, through the teenage pregnancy and parenthood strategy. In 2000, there were 222 pregnancies to under-17s, but in 2007 that figure had fallen to 142. Obviously, there is still considerable concern for those 142 young girls who became pregnant, but the number is coming down because of the advocacy, education, support and advice being provided by a range of organisations.
The level of teenage pregnancies has nothing whatsoever to do with the age of consent. Why do I say that? Because the Netherlands has 16 as the age of consent and has the lowest rate of teenage pregnancies in Europe. Denmark has the second lowest rate of teenage pregnancies in Europe and the age of consent is 15. While teenage pregnancy and the age of consent may often come together in the public mind, they are two separate matters. The quality of the education, advice and support available are the key factors in driving down rates of teenage pregnancies, and, of course, we all want to see that.
The hon. Member for Tewkesbury ended his remarks by coming back to devolution and hinting that it might be sensible to leave the matter for the Assembly to determine. The process that has led us to this Committee goes back nearly eight years, starting with the review initiated by the Home Office and involving the Sexual Offences Act 2003, the subsequent review in Northern Ireland, the considerable consultation in 2006 and the draft order after that. The order is the culmination of a process.
Having worked out what we think is the right thing to do on the balance of all the advice and evidence that we have received, we would be remiss in our responsibilities if we just dropped out the age of consent. It would be wholly inconsistent. We have argued throughout that the basis of reform in Northern Ireland should be consistency with England and Wales unless there is a compelling reason why not to do so. We have not found that compelling reason, so we want to sustain the policy. It would be wrong for us to govern by proxy or play some second-guessing game about what the Assembly might do. We must do what we think is right while we have responsibility. I do not deny that, some day, when the Assembly has control of such issues, it might hold its own review and come to a different conclusion, but I must tell the Committee today what I think is the right thing to do, not give an opinion based on second-guessing.
I have considerable respect for the hon. Member for Upper Bann on a range of issues, particularly young people and sexual crimes. He has followed the issue assiduously in parliamentary questions and debates, and nobody should be under the illusion that he just hit on the issue today. He has followed it consistently. I do not agree with his conclusions, as he knows and said in his remarks. I repeat gently the point I made: we received evidence from a range of organisations, and we must take it seriously. It is not just the number of letters and cards that we receive. We must weigh the substance of the evidence in the balance.
The hon. Gentleman asked what kind of message we want to send out. There are two messages that I particularly want to send out today. One is to those engaging in sexual activity with people aged 14 or 15: there are a whole lot of new powers and stronger sentences available to the courts for dealing with them. If they abuse the position of a young person below the age of consent, they can expect a heftier penalty than ever before. The second message relates to the comments that he reported about the possibility that sexual predators in the Republic of Ireland and elsewhere will see the order as some kind of green light to go to Northern Ireland to abuse children. That is absolutely not the case. The message of the legislation could not be clearer. Abusers and sexual predators who go to Northern Ireland will be hit with sentences that have not been available there before.
We will not tolerate sexual exploitation and abuse, but that has nothing to do with the age of consent. It has to do with how we deal with people who behave in that wholly unacceptable way. The hon. Gentleman gently chided me for not having given a reason why the age should be reduced to 16. I think that I have: uniformity, clarity in the minds of young people and overwhelming evidence. I quoted from MLAs and other leading figures in Northern Ireland politics to sustain my view.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute always asks tough questions. I am genuinely grateful for his support for the whole order, including the measures on the age of consent. In relation to sections 37 to 40, he asked about the distinction between causing or inciting and paying for the sexual services of a child, arguing, as others have, that there should be equal treatment in terms of penalties. It is worth pointing out that both carry substantial penalties. Causing or inciting carries a maximum of 14 years, and paying for sexual services has the potential for life. They are both substantial.
We have taken the view that we must have consistency and proportionality. In the end, the person who directly sexually abuses a child should, in my view, always be open to the greater penalty. Of course, if it is penetrative sex and the child is under 13, the person who does the inciting can still be caught by a life sentence. In the worst case scenario, whereby somebody had incited somebody else to sexually abuse a very young child, they could still be caught with a life sentence. I hope that offers some consolation to the hon. Gentleman.
On the definition of “persistent”, if the hon. Gentleman looks at section 58, he will find the same definition as that which he shared with the Committee: two or more occasions in a period of three months. We think that that is appropriate. We have consulted extensively, and the Police Service of Northern Ireland supports us, so we feel that it is an appropriate measure with which to proceed. We have not received any suggestion that it is not.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned section 5, and again, as I said in my opening remarks, we have given considerable thought to the issue whereby it is incumbent on somebody who knows that a serious offence is being carried out to report it to the police. The concern is that it could place other young people in very difficult situations, whereby they may be expected to report other young people whom they know are engaging in sexual offences. We cannot simply do away with section 5 lock, stock and barrel. Owing to the ongoing threat from dissident republicans, we in Northern Ireland still must have the full force of the law available to ensure that if people know about such terrorist activity, they report it to the police. However, I accept that it is really not appropriate in relation to children and young people.
We have discussed the issue at length with the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in Northern Ireland, and indicated that we have a provision in the order to take away that requirement. However, we will do so only when the safeguarding legislation is in place. We expect it to be in place next year, and my officials will continue to work closely with Northern Ireland health Department officials to move to that point and remove the anxiety of the hon. Gentleman and of others. I acknowledge that those anxieties are shared by some of the organisations that I have been happy to pray in aid in other arguments this afternoon.
On the final question, about why we have not taken up the NSPCC’s mandatory guidance recommendation, I can tell the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute that there will be with key stakeholders and others further consultation on guidance, which will be issued prior to the enactment of the legislation. Although that may not be mandatory in the way that he suggested, it will be done in a serious and inclusive way, because we very much need the advice and minds of such organisations to help us frame the guidance so that it is practical and useful.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for supporting the order as a whole and hope that my answers have, to some extent, allayed some of the fears that other Members have expressed. I wholeheartedly ask Members to support the orders.
Question put:
The Committee divided: Ayes 11, Noes 1.
Division No. 1]
Abbott, Ms Diane
Blackman, Liz
Bryant, Chris
Cryer, Mrs. Ann
Goggins, Paul
Mallaber, Judy
Palmer, Dr. Nick
Reid, Mr. Alan
Skinner, Mr. Dennis
Stuart, Ms Gisela
Whitehead, Dr. Alan
Simpson, David
Question accordingly agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008.


That the Committee has considered the draft Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland Consequential Amendments) Order 2008.—[Paul Goggins.]
Committee rose at twenty-six minutes to Six o’clock.
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