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Baroness Howarth of Breckland: I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, for allowing me for the third time in this debate to say that this Bill is not sensitive enough to deal with these issues. I am not dealing with the issue of consensual sex with young people. We have to keep that clearly separate—

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recognising that young people will engage in sex. There is a debate about the age of consent, which, I agree with the right reverend Prelate, we should not be mixing with this present debate. That is because the issues of non-consensual sex and dealing with the range of abuse are so important. I shall not repeat all of the speech given by my noble friend Lord Listowel who put the issues so well. I want to raise one or two other matters.

There is a body of research about these children, over what works in their treatment, and what needs to be provided. I repeat that if, having gone through all of that research, yet another committee is to examine this, we will simply delay the possibility of providing services. I know the issue is about resources. This is not cheap. Another issue is that in providing for abusers, one also has to make sure that there is provision for victims. That is what the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, was trying to make us face up to. If we give good provision for those who have committed the offences, but fail to remember the victims, that causes us great difficulty.

The sensitivity of assessment is crucial. That will tell us the range of services that someone will need. It will also tell us the likely problems that will be faced over reoffending. I am vice-chair of the Faithfull Foundation, which treats adult offenders with clear behavioural problems. We know that behaviour can be changed, even in adult serial abusers, if the right steps are taken. As I have said, some men cannot be changed and I hope that one day they receive longer sentences, because it is the only way to give protection.

If the services could be developed, that would be good child protection. Whatever we say, these abusers are going to go back into the community. I should like to disabuse the Committee of the myth that all such people are contained. Large numbers of such children are in ordinary children's homes where the people in charge are going quite mad over how to prevent those youngsters harming other youngsters in their care. This has been going on for 10 years, and we still do not have proper provision or advice for those carers in institutions who are still struggling to deal with such youngsters. They give those difficult youngsters a great deal of care. Some of them are extraordinarily difficult to like. They are painfully difficult to get through to; they do not listen and—as one carer recently said to me—they would sell their grandmothers. Yet one has to care for them and turn their behaviour around. It takes skill, understanding and endurance.

My only other point is about getting the right kind of orders for those children. I have picked up the point in the wider debate made by the right reverend Prelate about the court system. It is not equipped to listen to the issues, to make assessments and to take the planning through. An adversarial system will not get to the truth. That is because, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said, many young women will not go to court and tell of their experiences. I know of dozens of young women, who have been hurt in sexual ways, who will not go to court—frankly because the court process is more painful than what they endured in the sexual offence.

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If we are really serious about making a difference, we must do so at the structural end, at the court end—and I recognise how long term that may be. We have to look also at the resource end to ensure that there is good treatment, and at the societal end also by making sure that there is good education. Public health education programmes aimed at understanding child sexual abuse—like the "Stop It Now!" programme—need to be extended throughout the country.

6.30 p.m.

Baroness Walmsley: Perhaps I may make one or two more points before the Minister replies. Those of us who have been pressing for changes to be made in the Bill as regards young people are not arguing for any kind of drift in the age of consent. That is not what we are about. Nor are we suggesting that many of the offences to which we are referring should be ignored.

Despite its complexity, the Bill does two things. It outlines the offences and the consequences: five years; seven years; 14 years; life; custodial sentence; and so forth. It is right that society draws a line in the sand and says, "This is not acceptable. We don't want you to do it". There is a consequence. But as regards young people, there is potential for intervening in a way that will stop them ruining the rest of their lives and protects society. That is what we are trying to do. That was the name of the White Paper.

We must have appropriate consequences, and they are not seven years, 14 years, life imprisonment, or lock them up and throw away the key because that is not a positive way of dealing with the offences. It is a negative way and it will not stop re-offending, as the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, rightly said, when young people return to society.

Some of us have been struggling with the Bill, trying to amend it to include provisions appropriate to young people and to achieve the positive outcomes that we all want. But the Bill does not allow us to do that. Can the Minister indicate that the law can be drawn in a way that will allow young people to have the appropriate treatment, thereby preventing the abuse of potential victims? That will take a programme of many years because it takes time to train people in that work. We need a national strategy for that.

Young people in these situations need an entitlement to treatment but we cannot provide that tomorrow. We need a national strategy to produce the people with proper professional training to deal with these serious offences. This is a growing problem, it is not diminishing, because society is becoming more overtly sexualised. Any child who has been suffering the neglect and abuse to which we have referred in this mini debate, and who tends towards harmful sexual behaviour, will be encouraged in that behaviour by everything that he sees around him.

It is a growing problem and we must grasp this nettle. We must have a long-term national strategy to produce the professionals who can undertake the work. We must give young people, for their own sake and for the protection of the rest of society, an entitlement to that treatment. It is possible and it works. The noble

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Baroness, Lady Howarth, referred to plenty of research—good quality, peer-reviewed research and we must get hold of it. I hope that the Minister will help us in that respect.

Lord Northbourne: I want to intervene only briefly. The noble Baroness and many other noble Lords have spoken about the therapeutic treatment of these problems shortly before, at the time of or after the offence. The reality is—and it is a matter to which research should be devoted—that at a fraction of the cost one could prevent many children ever reaching the state of impoverished relationship ability, lack of self-esteem and an inability to relate to others which make them assert themselves through sexual activity.

I believe that the Government's strategy ought to be to ensure that 50 or 70 per cent of children who commit these crimes never do so through support for their parents and improving the environment in which they live. Another 50 or 70 per cent of the balance should be treated as the noble Baroness recommends. The noble Lord will be amazed how the cost of putting children in prison will drop. I suspect that it will probably finance the whole operation.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: This has been an interesting debate which raises two separate issues. The first is raised by the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes. In effect, it states that many people under 16 are committing various acts of sexual activity which no one would remotely regard as criminal. Therefore, the noble Baroness proposes that even though this might be sexual activity between two 12 year-olds, if it were truly consensual it would not be an offence under the child sex activity offences. It might be an offence under Clause 1, but it would not be criminalised by the child's sex activity. She is saying that we should abandon the age of consent except where the sexual act is committed by an adult with a child.

Baroness Noakes: My amendment certainly implies that, subject to the offences at the beginning of the Bill. I modified that when I introduced it and would prefer to see it restricted to the age of 13.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I understand why the noble Baroness is saying that. What is the right way to approach it? Assuming that one raises the age to 13, the amendment provides that the age of consent does not apply to activity between minors. It is a difficult issue but one of the underlying principles of our reforms is better protection for all children and the vulnerable.

Research estimates that adolescents commit about one-third of all sex offences and it is likely that many of the victims of those sex offences—I use that word advisedly and I mean offences which people would regard as serious offences—committed by adolescents will be other adolescents and children. In framing the Bill, we must have regard not only to the needs of those who commit the offences but also the victims.

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It would be misguided to provide coherent sanctions to protect children from sexual abuse by adults but not provide adequate sanctions for protection from abuse by other children or young people. To be effective in this respect, the law has to be clear about the age of consent and that sexual activity below this age is not lawful. If it is not achieved, as everyone will agree, we are damaging a fundamental plank in our raft of child protection measures.

Any lack of clarity in this area will bring uncertainty and open the way to further change. For example, if we decide that sexual activity is lawful in some circumstances—say, between consenting children—what about young adults? We will be losing the ability as far as the law is concerned to draw the line in a firm and justified place. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said that it is important to have a line somewhere.

However, we must recognise that this unlawful activity will include a wide variety of circumstances. Where the sexual activity is mutually agreed between two people below the age of consent and it is genuinely consensual, it is extraordinarily unlikely that the CPS will decide that prosecution is in the public interest and there is no problem about this issue at the moment. The number of children in 2001 aged below 16 who were prosecuted is as follows: 368 children were cautioned for sex offences; 593 were prosecuted, of whom 273 were found guilty; of those 273, 42 were sentenced to custody; and 193 were given community sentences.

I fully accept that the law must be relevant, but as regards the idea that there is a problem or an issue in the way the current law operates which makes unlawful sex below the age of consent, I am not hearing people saying that there are wrongful prosecutions.

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