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8.30 pm

Lord Browne of Belmont: My Lords, I welcome the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Morrow, and I am thankful for the opportunity to make the House aware of the strong opposition in Northern Ireland to one particular element of the draft sexual offences order. In part, the order has much to offer the people of Northern Ireland, particularly in the protection it affords to innocent victims of sexual predators who prey on the young and the vulnerable. To that extent, I take no issue with the main provisions of the order. It is both necessary and timely.

The basis of my personal opposition, and the catalyst for this debate today, is the proposed lowering of the age of consent from 17 to 16. I welcome the report published in February 2008 by the Northern Ireland Assembly in response to the proposed order. As someone who is proud to represent the constituency of East Belfast in that forum, I associate myself with the Assembly’s response; I hope noble Lords have had sight of it and have had the opportunity to take cognisance of it. Since the establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly, few issues have been as controversial and emotive as this. Nevertheless, when the report of the ad hoc committee was brought before the Assembly, it was passed without dissent. When a subsequent motion calling for the retention of the age of 17 for consent was tabled on 19 February this year, it was signed by over half of all the Members—Catholic and Protestant, unionist and nationalist.

That cross-community support in the Assembly is mirrored—indeed, surpassed—by the strength of opposition among the electorate in Northern Ireland itself. As a unionist I take no joy in highlighting differences between Northern Ireland and Great Britain,

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but differences there are, which do not solely arise from the conservatism of Northern Ireland society, its stronger religious affiliations or some illogical intransigence or refusal on the part of Ulster people to move forward. As we have heard, the percentage of teenagers in Northern Ireland who engage in sex before the age of 16 is less than half that in England and Wales. The incidence of sexually transmitted diseases and the numbers of pregnancies and abortions in Northern Ireland are also very much lower. We are dealing with different circumstances, different cultural norms and trends. For that reason alone, the maintenance of different legislative provision can be justified.

We ask the Government to take note of the opposition outlined and reconsider their order. At a time when there has been widespread condemnation of the subversion of democracy in Zimbabwe, it would be wholly inappropriate to ride roughshod over the expressed wishes of the people of Northern Ireland and their elected representatives.

Sexual offences and other criminal justice matters remain a reserved matter yet to be devolved. I hope, as do most unionists within the Northern Ireland Assembly, that they will be devolved as soon as practically possible. The Minister is well aware that greater community confidence and indeed further financial support are necessary before that can happen. The form that a policing and justice department would take and the competences it would have remain to be discussed and agreed.

Noble Lords will also be aware of the Sewel convention under which the Government do not legislate for matters that are devolved, or are likely to be devolved in the near future, to the Northern Ireland Assembly. I therefore urge this House to vote for the amendment that my noble friend Lord Morrow has tabled, thereby supporting the right of elected Northern Ireland representatives, with one mind and one voice, to legislate on this issue in good time.

Lord Monson: My Lords, the Government’s decision to press ahead with lowering the age of consent in Northern Ireland against the will of both the majority of the elected Members of the Assembly and a substantial majority of the people of the Province seems, if I may say so, frankly colonialist. In their Explanatory Memorandum on the draft order, the Government argue in paragraph 2.1 that the order,

This justification is repeated in paragraph 7.2, which uses slightly different wording. It refers to,

However, the game is given away by paragraph 7.1, which states that,

England, Wales and Northern Ireland, minus Scotland, do not constitute the United Kingdom. The Government know perfectly well that if a majority of MSPs in the Scottish Parliament voted to raise the age of consent in Scotland to 19 or lower it to 13, Westminster could

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do nothing about it. The argument of permanent harmonisation right across the United Kingdom simply will not wash, as my noble and learned friend Lord Lloyd of Berwick and the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, pointed out.

Incidentally, some noble Lords may be unaware when they talk of harmonisation that every American state is free to set its own age of consent. Students who cross state lines simply have to keep their wits about them and do their homework. The same could apply within the United Kingdom, I suggest.

The sudden call for integration and harmonisation is a bit rich when one considers that, about 35 years ago, soon after the beginning of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, a number of distinguished Conservative Members of Parliament, two of whom later paid for it with their lives, together with a majority—not all—of Ulster Unionist MPs, called for total integration of the Province with the rest of the United Kingdom, with the abolition of Stormont and the people of Northern Ireland having exactly the same rights as the people of England, Scotland and Wales. The proposal was fought against tooth and nail all through the 1970s and 1980s, and most of the 1990s, by most of the parliamentary Labour Party with a few honourable exceptions. They argued that Northern Ireland was totally different socially and culturally from the rest of the United Kingdom and should be treated quite differently, and that there should be no question of integration. There we have a certain paradox, do we not?

As I understand it, the objections in Northern Ireland to the lowering of the age of consent are based not only on religious and cultural considerations but on considerations both pragmatic and moral at the same time, in that the Province has vastly lower rates of unwanted teenage pregnancies, as the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, pointed out, and vastly lower rates of teenage venereal disease than in the rest of the United Kingdom. People are understandably anxious to keep it that way.

If the proposed change starts to destroy that great achievement—and it is a great achievement given the present Europe-wide moral climate—it will on balance diminish rather than enhance the sum of human happiness. For that reason, together with the considerations of democracy, I shall certainly support the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, in the Division Lobby.

Viscount Eccles: My Lords, I shall briefly make a wider point. Every time that Parliament confers a right, that right entails a duty. Rights demand recognition. Parents, guardians, teachers and all those in positions of trust and involvement with 16 year-olds will need to remember, if the right of consent is legally extended, that they, whatever their individual views, must respect it. Parliament needs to be careful about conferring additional rights by legislation regarding matters which are better left as they are to the people and to the courts. When we do not take that due care, we time after time damage our democracy. I support the amendment.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, in his opening speech made a good exposition of the order, and there are many good things in it. However,

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they wrap up the one controversial aspect, which is the point to which the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, has drawn attention.

When the Minister said that children and young people were at the centre of the proposals, I do not think that he could have been referring to this particular aspect of the proposals. We have heard that 55 per cent of Assembly Members voted against lowering the age of consent and that 70 per cent of the population do not want it lowered. I cannot understand why the Government want to go against what is universally considered the view of Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister only a short while ago said, “We are going to listen to the people”. Well, the people have spoken clearly over in Northern Ireland, and I cannot see why they cannot leave it as it is. They may want the United Kingdom harmonised, but then you get the disharmony between Northern Ireland and southern Ireland, which brings its own problems. I really would have thought that the Government should not have done this, unless they are just determined to push ahead—and I do not believe that that is right.

The Minister says that there is no reason not to pass this order, but I think that there is a jolly good reason not to pass it: I do not believe that it is the right thing to do. Mr Jeffrey Donaldson said:

I believe that the Government should not do that, which is why I will back the Motion.

Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, the Leader of the Opposition made a very good case for ensuring that the constitution of Northern Ireland should be observed by the Stormont Government. If we discount the substantive element of reducing the age from 17 to 16, why does he say—after making a very good argument—that he is not going to vote one way or the other?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I begin by thanking those who participated in the debate. I have not counted but there were probably 20 speeches. I am grateful for the noble Lords’ participation and will do my best to answer their points. They have concentrated on one aspect—the latter aspect that I came to—and certainly not the general thrust of the order, which I think has received widespread support. It is a bit more complicated than simply taking one bit of it out, as I shall seek to explain.

I quite agree that it will be much better when Northern Ireland is looking after itself in terms of policing and justice. I have made that quite clear. It will offer more suitable scrutiny than what this House or the other House gives, with Orders in Council. It will be much better. However, as I said earlier, given the number of years that this provision has been gestating, following the passage of the 2003 Act, we see no good reason to delay it. It is as simple as that.

A noble Lord: In due course.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I do not know whether it is going to be in due course. There is no time set for devolution—that is the whole point—and because of that we are carrying on the process that we are duty-bound to follow, following the consultation.

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There is obviously considerable interest in the issue relating to the age of consent.

Lord Trimble: My Lords, the Minister said that no time had been set for devolution, but he will know that there was a target time, which was just last month, and that the current First Minister made it very clear just the other day—yesterday, if not today—that he will seriously try to achieve that devolution within a short period. So the point comes back. The Minister knows that this devolution is going to occur, if not next month or the month after, probably this year, and that the Assembly will then proceed to reverse what he is now doing. Does he realise that, in reversing that, it might also reverse things that he would not like it to reverse, other than the point under discussion?

8.45 pm

Lord Rooker: My Lords, first, that is up to the Assembly. Secondly, as far as I am concerned, there is no justification whatsoever for claiming that devolution will occur within a specific period. Until the agreements are reached we do not know; that is the history of Northern Ireland. Until then we continue to govern, as was the case before the current devolution.

The Assembly can do what it likes when it has authority, provided that it follows the voting system laid down. It does not just require a simple majority to change things, but a far more complicated system of voting than we have in this House. The 55 per cent referred to would not carry a change. I am not going to make a big point about that, but it is not as simple as that. Frankly, we cannot go by people signing Early Day Motions. I spent so long in the other place signing EDMs that I was challenged to vote for, only to find that I could not for other reasons. It is an expression of an opinion, and I respect that; however, it is not the vote.

I will give more details of the support for the Government’s change. I will reiterate what was said in the other place when this order was before it on the reasons to make the change. The Government—particularly my honourable friend the Minister for Criminal Justice, who has much experience in dealing with the issues—have taken careful note of a range of advice and representations on the age of consent. Different organisations have recommended different things depending on their particular experience and 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 the starting position was for uniformity unless there were compelling reasons against it, and having received advice from a whole range of organisations that we should reduce the age of consent to 16, the balance of the argument ultimately seemed to point to that change.

I fully accept that there is a different legal system in Scotland; I did not seek to make a point about that. It has always been a different system. Nevertheless, the age of consent is 16, and if they wish to change it, they can. The fact is that if Parliament now approves this order, the age of consent will be 16 throughout the UK.

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I remind noble Lords of the organisations and individuals who have encouraged us to believe that 16 is the right age. Leading childcare organisations such as the NSPCC and Barnardo’s, to which I pay tribute and which do tremendous work in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, have been absolutely clear with us. 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. All want to provide welfare support, encouragement and education. 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.

It is clear that the debate in Northern Ireland has been far from one-sided. We have paid particular attention to those organisations working with children and young people. We have had to take their advice seriously. It would be wrong to dismiss the views of organisations such as the NSPCC and Barnardo’s, but that is not to undermine or to criticise the authentic views of others, as we have heard tonight, which I respect.

I add my voice to the concerns we have heard about the message that this change may be sending to young people. It is important that we send the message that we want to avoid confusion in their minds. Having a different age of consent in different parts of the United Kingdom could—could—add to that confusion. We want to make clear that this change does not signal that sex at an earlier age is the right thing—far from it. I made that point in my opening speech. We want the message to go out that young people should seek advice from agencies and counselling organisations without fear of criminalisation. We do not want young people to be deterred from obtaining advice on these important health issues, but this desire in no way signals any intent that more young people should get involved in early sexual activity. As I said earlier, it is important to make a distinction between the ethos of the age of consent and the criminal law. The criminal law seeks only to criminalise the person who has sexual activity with someone under a particular age. It does not, and never did, criminalise the act of giving consent. The young person and their conduct is not the focus of the criminal law; it is the perpetrator. It is important that that point is emphasised.

I shall not go into teenage pregnancies in great detail, as they have been discussed. It is true that there are concerns about levels of teenage pregnancy, but there has been a marked 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. The number is coming down because of the advocacy, education, support and advice being provided by a range of organisations. I propose to noble Lords that the level of teenage pregnancies has nothing whatever to do with the age of consent. The Netherlands has 16

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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. Therefore, they do not need any lectures from us about marrying the two issues. Teenage pregnancy and the age of consent may come together in the public mind, but they are two entirely separate matters. The quality of the education, advice and support available are important in driving down rates of teenage pregnancies, and we all want to see that. It has not always been easy to give education, support and advice to young people in this country. People have been attacked for doing that.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, although I do not think it is particularly germane to the argument, when the noble Lord is talking about rates of pregnancy could he be absolutely clear whether he is talking about pregnancies or births?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I can separate the figures out. The figures I gave for Northern Ireland of 222 and 142 were absolute figures. They did not represent percentages of the population. I can provide more details. I also have figures for stillbirths resulting from those pregnancies. However, the point I am making concerns the dislocation between teenage pregnancy and the age of consent. Countries where the age of consent is lower than ours have fewer teenage pregnancies than we do.

In response to what I have heard this evening, I want to send out two messages. One is to those engaging in sexual activity with people aged 14 or 15. A whole lot of new powers and stronger sentences are available to the courts for dealing with them. If they abuse the position of young people below the age of consent, they can expect a heavier sentence than ever before. The second message relates to the comments 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.

I shall try to respond to individual questions as it is important to get my reply on the record. As regards who supports what, it is worth reading out the list. The responses to the consultation on the draft legislation regarding the age of consent have been published so there is no difficulty in that regard. Against the change were the Christian Institute, the Free Presbyterian Church, the DUP, the UUP and the SDLP. In favour of the change were the NSPCC, Barnardo’s, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Family Planning Association, Brook, the Children’s Law Centre, the national Commissioner for Children and Young People, the health and social care trusts, the Eastern Health and Social Services Board, the Southern Health and Social Services Board, Children in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein and the Alliance Party. That is the scale of the result of the consultation.

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I was asked by one noble Lord to leave out the changes to the age of consent. It is not quite like that. I do not think that any article in the order states that. The age of consent permeates the whole order. All offences against children are based on particular ages, as I have set out. There is no statutory age of consent as such. It is determined by the offences of sexual activity with a child under the age of 16. There is no age of consent article that one can simply strike out. I fully accept the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, that the law in Scotland is different, but the age of consent is 16.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blood, gave me the opportunity to deal with a couple of points that she made in her speech. I will put my response on the record now. On the reporting requirement under Section 5 of the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967, we have given considerable thought to the issue whereby it is incumbent on someone who knows that a serious offence has been carried out to report it to the police. The concern is that it could place health professionals, counselling staff and parents in very difficult situations, whereby they may be expected to report young people who they know are engaging in consensual sexual activity.

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