Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Page 1, line 5, leave out ("18") and insert ("14").

The noble Lord said: Because of a long-standing prior commitment I could not take part in the Second Reading debate on the Bill. However, I was able to attend part of the discussion and, of course, I read thoroughly the entire debate the next day in Hansard.

I note that speaker after speaker referred to "children" and to "paedophilia". Indeed, it was clear that it was paedophiliac behaviour which almost all noble Lords saw as the proper target of the Bill. Indeed, at col. 895, my noble friend Lord Hylton stated:

I wholeheartedly agree with my noble friend and others that paedophiliac abuse of children is dreadful and disgraceful and ought to be combated as vigorously as possible. Unfortunately, by stipulating the designation of "child" to include young people up to the age of 18 the Bill casts the net far too wide and includes cases which could not possibly be described as having anything to do with slavery or torture.

I understand the technical reasons which led my noble friend to fix an upper age limit of 17. However, I suggest that the United Nations categorisation does not conform to present day realities. Whatever was the case 40 or 50 years ago, few people nowadays would describe a young person of 16 or 17 as a child. Certainly no 17 year-old football hooligan would ever be described as a child in the press or elsewhere. It was clear from the debate that few speakers had young people in their mid-teens in mind when supporting the general principles of the Bill. Apart from anything else, young people in their teens would be too old to interest paedophiliacs.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, spoke of the requirements for dual criminality. That is a worthwhile safeguard. However, it is one which has interesting and somewhat quixotic consequences. Even if consensual sexual relations with a 16 or 17 year-old girl took place,

3 Apr 1995 : Column 71

for example, in Moslem countries where the age of consent was 18, there could be no prosecution in this country because here the age of consent for girls is 16.

However, there is one interesting exception to the rule under the 1956 Act where the girl concerned is an heiress in expectation of inheriting a large fortune. Members of the Committee may remember a famous case 30 or so years ago involving a Bolivian tin mine heiress. No force was involved. I wonder whether the Bill is intended to cover such a case, as it would as it stands. I cannot believe that that is desirable.

In contrast, if the incident of relations with the young person involved a young man of 16 or 17, is it really intended that it would be an offence in this country but not in most other countries? I make no complaint about it; I was one who voted for the homosexual age of majority to be 18. I merely point it out as a possible anomaly.

What about non-consensual sex? One could argue that the upper limit of 18 ought to be retained to cover the rape of a girl of, let us say, 17¾. But if a 17¾ year-old is to be protected in this way—perhaps they should be so protected —so should an 18, 28, 58 or even 88 year-old. How many dreadful cases of the rape of elderly women have we not read about recently!

As drafted, the Bill covers indecent assault of even a relatively trivial kind. Is that intended? There is also the question of female sex tourism which was not mentioned at Second Reading. It is common knowledge that many thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of women from Western Europe and North America travel to the Caribbean, East and West Africa and elsewhere every year with the specific purpose of finding a virile young sexual partner. In the tropics people mature early and often look and act older than their age. Theoretically, British women could be prosecuted for having sexual relations with a 14 or 15 year-old in Gambia, the West Indies, or elsewhere. Is that really what Members of the Committee wish?

Another anomaly is this. Under the 1956 Act, a 23 year-old male can escape prosecution if he can demonstrate that he genuinely thought that a 14 or 15 year-old girl was 16 years or over. A 24 year-old male, or older, cannot successfully advance that defence.

Finally, in the United States, and perhaps in other federations, different states have different ages of consent, varying quite considerably by several years, down to the age of 12 in Mississippi. That certainly used to be the case. Therefore young British backpackers, when travelling from state to state, doing what young men have always done and will always do, could find themselves in real trouble. If caught by the authorities in the United States, that is entirely their own problem. But I do not see why Britain should become involved once those young people have arrived back on these shores.

3 Apr 1995 : Column 72

I hope that I have said enough to convince the Committee that a maximum age of 18 is too high in a Bill which very commendably (and I mean that) sets out to curb paedophile abuse. I beg to move.

Lord Hylton: I think that I understand some of the concerns that have moved my noble friend to put down his amendment. However, the age of 18 to which his amendment refers was chosen after consideration and for precise and practical reasons. It corresponds with the definition of a child—in this case "child" includes young person—as laid down in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. That is a worldwide convention for the protection of children and young people which this country ratified as recently as 1992. The convention places specific duties on states for preventing the exploitation of both children and young people through prostitution, as I mentioned at Second Reading.

I believe that the Committee will be just as concerned about the abuse of people aged 14, 15, 16 and 17 as they undoubtedly are about similar offences against an even younger age group. The dangers of contracting HIV, AIDS, cervical cancer, and possibly an unwanted pregnancy, do not suddenly stop at the age of 14. I suggest that the forced prostitution of young people who should be either in training for lawful work or else in education is a matter of deep concern to Parliament, as is shown by the strong support which the Bill has received not only from Britain but also from overseas countries.

The amendment may well also be unnecessary. I say that because Clause 1(1) (a) and (b) require the offence to be such under the laws of both the country where the act was committed and of the United Kingdom. Therefore, if it is lawful to have sexual relations with a person over 14 in the third country, a person cannot be prosecuted in Britain for such relations, however indecent, brutal or vicious they may have been. I therefore hope that my noble friend will be satisfied with my reply and that, on reflection, he will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

7 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: As the noble Lord, Lord Monson, explained, the amendment would lower the age of children covered under the Bill from 18 to 14 years. The Government would not support the amendment.

If we were to adopt the kind of extra-territorial jurisdiction over sexual offences that the Bill proposes, it would seem sensible for it to apply to all children, not just those aged under 14. We would not wish to have a situation where a 15 year-old child had been sexually abused by a British tourist and the abuse clearly constitutes an offence both under UK law and that of the country where it occurred, but the extra-territorial extent of the Bill would not apply simply because the child was over 14.

As the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, previously explained, a child is defined under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as any person under the age of 18. I agree that that sets a reasonable basis for the

3 Apr 1995 : Column 73

age below which the provisions of the Bill should apply, although I recognise that a case could be made for restricting the Bill to children under the age of 16.

The definition of a child for the purposes of the criminal law obviously varies between different countries, but the Bill already provides that dual criminality would have to exist before an offence would be caught. That is the point which was made by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. For certain sexual offences under UK legislation, the victim would have to be under the age of 16. That would apply in the case of such offences committed by a British tourist abroad, since the Bill would only cover acts which are offences under our law.

To lower the age to 14 would also create additional problems in terms of practical enforcement. For example, many child prostitutes in South East Asia are in their mid-teens, but it would be difficult to establish a precise age for many of them, since birth records are scarce. A court would, nevertheless, have to establish the age of a victim before being able to determine whether an offence had been committed. An offender should not be able to rely on the defence that he believed the child to be over 14. If the child is 15 or 16, the offender should still be prosecuted. It would be easier for a court to ascertain whether a child was under the age of 18 and more likely, therefore, that offenders could be successfully prosecuted.

For those reasons, I am not in favour of the amendment and the Government cannot support it; although in line with the convention which exists in your Lordships' House, I shall not vote against it.

Lord Monson: I am grateful to both my noble friend and the noble Baroness for their comments on the amendment. My noble friend is right and I agree with him that HIV and pregnancy are no respecters of age when we are talking about the teens. That is a perfectly valid point. Where I not so much disagree with him but return to the points I made in my opening remarks is that we are not only talking about exploitation via organised prostitution but also about illicit relationships with young people who may be slightly below the age of consent. It may not involve any payment, or if it does it may be on a freelance basis. It does not involve the abuse to which the noble Baroness referred: I agree that if we are talking about abuse, it is a different matter. However, as I tried to demonstrate, it covers all kinds of things which do not fall into that category.

Retaining the age of 18 would be less worrying if some filter could be introduced which would weed out prosecutions for minor offences of such a nature which do not involve abuse or exploitation—for example, if the consent of the Attorney-General had to be obtained before any prosecution could be brought.

However, I do not intend to press the matter any further, given the opposition of the Government and the lack of support from any other quarter in this sparsely attended Committee. Nevertheless, the debate has been valuable. It will give Members of another place the opportunity to examine what has been said and possibly they may arrive at a conclusion along the lines

3 Apr 1995 : Column 74

suggested by the noble Baroness. The age of 16, for example, might be a reasonable compromise. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 agreed to.

Remaining clause agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page