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The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, I, too, support the intention of the amendment. I welcome the Minister's remarks in Committee regarding those young children who commit serious offences who may be covered by Clause 14 or possibly earlier clauses. I appreciate his wholehearted agreement that we should identify and intervene at an early stage with children at risk of becoming sexual abusers; and his acknowledgement that in the past such children have not received the focus and attention they should have done. The noble and learned Lord has kindly written to me and to others, alerting us to the interdepartmental working group. I believe that it is due to report in the autumn. Will the Minister keep us informed of the progress of the working group? Perhaps he will let us know should there be any change in the group's timetable.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I think that I am again on my own in fighting this issue. I object to any provision which erodes what I consider to be the very low age of consent. We continually erode it through some of the amendments put forward.

I was pleased to hear my noble friend Lady Noakes give qualified support for the amendment: she did not wish to see a blanket exemption. Removing Clause 14 represents a blanket exemption. All noble Lords have

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talked about what they consider to be innocent, normal sexual activity between healthy teenagers. However, in the real world we know that there is aggressive and abusive sexual behaviour by teenage boys in particular against very young girls. It is possible for 13 year-olds or even younger girls to be terrorised by such aggressive, abusive sexual behaviour. By leaving out Clause 14, those teenage boys would not commit offences. There needs to be protection of those children.

I find it almost impossible to conceive of the police prosecuting the kinds of examples cited. We need a provision in the Bill which enables the police to prosecute and then to put in place the treatment, counselling and behavioural programmes that those young people require. As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said, many of those young people have been abused themselves. They have all kinds of personality defects. That issue needs also to be addressed. But to remove Clause 14 from the Bill would be detrimental. I hope that the noble and learned Lord will not accept the amendment.

The Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, will be pleased to know that she is not alone on this matter. I share the desire to avoid criminalising young people unless it is necessary. The legal framework in our country affects the moral climate. The two are not separate. To remove Clause 14 gives the wrong signal. I speak as someone with teenage children. My daughter is 17. She brings her friends to my house, we mix freely, and I learn something of the culture of young people. It is a bit of a jungle, with threats, stresses and strains. The law has a part to play in providing safeguards and anchors in particular when dealing with boys aged 15, 16 and 17.

As drafted, Clause 14 is somewhat stark. Clearly one wants counselling, support, advice and education to be pre-eminent. There is a place for the law. Clause 14 has got it about right. At present, I resist the amendment.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, it is a difficult area but we resist the amendment. It is important to identify its effect: ostensibly, that consensual sexual activity between persons aged between 13 and 17 inclusive would never be unlawful. In effect, it restricts the age of consent only to situations where a person under 16 engages in sexual activity with a person who is 18 or over. The way in which the criminal law deals with under-age consensual sexual activity is a matter we debated at some length in Committee. We have considered very carefully our position in the light of all the concerns raised. However, we remain firmly of the opinion that the age of consent should apply across the board, whether a child is having sex with another child or an adult.

I know that it is widely held that a sexual relationship is far more likely to be abusive if the age gap between the parties is significant—for example, between a 15 year-old child and a 40 year-old adult. But the truth is that adults do not have a monopoly on child abuse. We cannot assume that sexual

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relationships between young people will be fully consensual just because they are of a similar age. We know that children are often abused by other children. Although we earnestly hope that steps would be taken to intervene as early and as quickly as possible to try to help the child who is abusing, the law must be able to protect such children in the appropriate case.

The amendment would leave in place the non-consensual cases and the under-13 cases, save in the respect identified by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, but would provide no protection where it is said, possibly by the victim, that there was consent. In that case, the child sex activity charge would not apply to those cases where the defendant is under 18 years of age.

We believe that the law must make provision for children to face charges relating, ostensibly, to consensual activity where there is evidence to suggest that it is exploitative or coercive, as there may not be enough evidence to support a charge for a non-consensual offence. As was said in Committee, many children are vulnerable to peer pressure and can be persuaded to engage in sexual activity when they would prefer not to do so. In such circumstances, sexual activity cannot be said to be non-consensual, but it can be exploitative. In such cases, we want to leave open the possibility of the CPS bringing charges under one of the child sex offences where prosecution is in the public interest.

The testimony of many children is that they welcome the protection that is offered by the age of consent, because it enables them to withstand peer pressure to engage in sexual activity before they are ready to do so. I am not sure that we would be right to remove that protection. I simply do not accept the proposition that we should leave children without any legal grounds to help them resist coercive sex. Legalising sexual activity between minors would send the message that sexual activity below the age of consent is acceptable and normal. In my opinion, that would encourage more children to engage in sexual activity before they are emotionally and physically ready to cope with the consequences.

Our view is that we have a duty to protect children from engaging in sexual activity at too early an age. Existing legislation, which contains offences of unlawful sexual intercourse and indecent assault, already makes it clear that it is unlawful to engage in any sexual activity with a person below the age of 16. We are content that our new legislation should make a clear statement that this continues to be the case.

I have already made it clear—I do so again—that we do not want or expect under-age sexual activity between young people to be prosecuted unless there is clear evidence of exploitation and prosecution is in the public interest. We suspect that it would be unwise to remove all of that protection, as proposed by the amendment, and that it would also be a matter of getting the balance wrong. Despite the law that I described, there is no evidence at present to show that that happens. As we are not making any substantive change in that respect, we do not believe that it will happen in the future.

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I recognise that this is a difficult issue, but we are clearly of the view that the amendment is unacceptable. I am not talking about the technicalities involved; I am talking about the principle. To say that the child sex activity offences should not apply to a person under the age of 18 is wrong in principle. I respectfully ask the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his response, and to those noble Lords who expressed support for the sentiments behind the amendment. It is possible that the wording of the amendment is not quite right, but I respectfully suggest that that also applies to Clause 14. Perhaps I need to draft a new Clause 14 and table it for consideration on Third Reading. I shall certainly consider that option. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

7.15 p.m.

Baroness Walmsley moved Amendment No. 57:

    After Clause 14, insert the following new clause—

Where a young person under the age of 18 has been convicted of an offence under this Part, the Court or Youth Offending Panel shall review the sentence when the young person reaches the age of 18."

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this amendment relates to reviewing the case of a young sex offender when he reaches the age of 18. When I tabled a similar amendment in Committee, the noble and learned Lord responded that young people's cases are regularly reviewed in any event, so why should we bother to review such cases again when such youngsters reach the age of 18? In response, I should point out that at the age of 18 young people move into the adult penal system, which is a very significant change in their circumstances. That is why I believe it to be essential for such cases to be reviewed.

There is a great difference between a young offenders' institution and an adult prison. It is quite appropriate, therefore, even if a review took place only a month or so prior to the young person's 18th birthday, for such cases to be reviewed. We are talking about a significant point in the lives of young sex offenders when they move into the adult justice system. I beg to move.

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