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Northern Ireland Assembly Ad Hoc Committee minutes of evidence

AD HOC COMMITTEE

OFFICIAL REPORT
(Hansard)

Draft Sexual Offences (NI) Order 2007

14 January 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Dr Stephen Farry (Chairperson)
Mr Jim Wells (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Mickey Brady
Rev Dr Robert Coulter
Mr John McCallister
Ms Jennifer McCann
Mr Declan O’Loan
Ms Sue Ramsey
Mr Alastair Ross

Witnesses: 

Mr Callum Webster ) Christian Institute
Mr Matthew Jess )
Paul Goggins Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office
Gareth Johnston ) Northern Ireland Office
Amanda Patterson )

The Chairperson (Dr Farry):

I welcome Callum Webster, the Northern Ireland officer from the Christian Institute, and Matthew Jess, who is a research assistant. We will give you an opportunity to address the Committee, after which we will throw the floor open for questions. I ask that everyone check that their mobile phones are turned off lest they interfere with the recording equipment. We have received some written evidence from the Christian Institute. A note that was tabled this morning has been left on members’ desks.

Mr Callum Webster (Christian Institute):

Good morning, everyone. On behalf of the Christian Institute, I thank you for giving us the opportunity to make a presentation this morning.

The Christian Institute is a non-denominational charity; it was established for the promotion of the Christian faith in public life. It works across the United Kingdom. In Northern Ireland, it has approximately 3,500 registered supporters, including 388 churches and church leaders. The institute works to uphold traditional Christian beliefs about marriage and sexual ethics.

In 2006, the institute submitted a response to the Northern Ireland Office’s consultation document, ‘Reforming the Law on Sexual Offences in Northern Ireland’. The institute is encouraged by some of the changes that have resulted from that consultation. It is pleased to see that there are no longer any plans to legalise many brothels, and it is heartened to see that the offence of sexual offence in a public toilet has remained a sexual offence rather than becoming a public-nuisance offence. It is glad to see the withdrawal of proposals to allow sexual activity between 13-year-olds and teenagers up to three years older. We are encouraged to see new offences of kerb-crawling and of keeping a brothel.

However, one area of concern about the draft Order remains — the age of consent for sexual activity. It is the Christian Institute’s contention that the age of consent should remain at 17 and should not be reduced. The institute believes that that age should remain for a variety of reasons relating to child protection, child health and well-being, and the family unit. Let me deal with each in turn.

First, the age of consent should remain at 17 in order to protect young people from abuse. In law, a person remains a child until he or she turns 18. Northern Ireland’s age-of-consent law means that children are deemed incapable of giving legal consent to sexual activity below the age of 17. Consequently, at present, sexual activity with someone below that age is automatically a criminal offence. It is well known that rape trials hinge on the issue of consent. That often means that in order to best secure a conviction, the rape victim must give evidence and face cross-examination. However, with an age-of-consent offence, all that the prosecution has to prove is that the sexual activity took place. The child concerned is not required to testify that they did not consent, neither do they need to undergo cross-examination. It is much easier to secure a conviction for an age-of-consent offence than it is to prove rape. In many borderline cases, prosecutors may know that a rape prosecution would be unlikely to succeed and that giving evidence would involve severe trauma to the victim. For those reasons, prosecutors can use the option of prosecuting an age-of-consent offence.

On several occasions, the Soham murderer Ian Huntley was accused of having sex with underage girls. It emerged that north-east Lincolnshire social services received four complaints of underage sexual relations against Huntley in the late 1990s. Had the age of consent been properly enforced in those cases, he would not have been able to obtain a job in a school because of the convictions on his record. The age of consent exists to protect children, and the more that it is lowered, the more that young people are put at risk. The draft Order recognises that 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds are vulnerable and need protection. This is why they cannot be used in the production of pornography, as outlined in articles 38 to 42 of the draft Order. It is also the case that under-18s are prohibited from working in, or even entering, sex shops in Northern Ireland. Lowering the age of consent reduces the protection relating to sexual activity and exposes young people to greater danger.

There are professional predators in society: were this change in the law to go ahead, it would expose another 26,000 young people to the legal, but potentially predatory, advances of adults. The opposition of both Catholic and Protestant Churches to the lowering of the age of consent has been reported in the media. The Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre has also voiced concerns about plans to lower the age of consent. The Rape Crisis Centre is a long-established counselling, advice and advocacy service for the survivors of sexual violence and abuse. Eileen Calder, the director of the centre, said that:

“Our concern is to protect vulnerable young men and women from older sexual predators … What we are concerned about is men in their 20s, 30s, 40s and older preying on young people. And that applies to the gay community as well as the heterosexual community.”

She expressed those views in the context of opposition to proposals to lower the age of consent.

There is always a penumbra effect below the age of consent. Teenagers can manipulate other teenagers who are slightly below the age of consent into engaging in sexual activity. In those cases, prosecutions are less likely to take place. A 17-year-old, for example, who manipulates a 16-year-old into engaging in sexual activity may well not face prosecution because of factors such as the age of the victim and the level of manipulation. If the age of consent is dropped to 16, some 14- and 15-year-olds may be manipulated into sexual activity by older teenagers who may then escape prosecution. A lowering of the age of consent exposes even younger teenagers to the predatory advances of older, more manipulative teenagers.

Sex trafficking is reported to be on the rise in Northern Ireland. A recent joint initiative was established by the Human Rights Commissions on both sides of the border to investigate human trafficking. Paul Goggins, the Minister of State, has also expressed concern about the increase in sex trafficking in Northern Ireland. Lowering the age of consent in Northern Ireland will encourage the sex trade and attract adolescent and paedophile sex tourists from the South of Ireland, where the age of consent remains at 17.

Secondly, the age of consent must be kept at 17 in order to protect the health and well-being of children. Reducing the age of consent to 16 sends out a signal that sexual activity at a younger age is normal. However, sex is not an activity for children. Many activities are unlawful for people under the age of 18: they cannot gamble, buy knives, buy alcohol from bars, buy certain solvents or own imitation firearms. Young people do not have the physical, emotional or psychological maturity necessary to cope with the consequences of sexual activity.

Many young people who have engaged in teenage sexual activity have admitted regretting it later in life. An analysis of the 1994 national survey of sexual attitudes and lifestyles in Britain found that a staggering 58∙5% of girls whose first act of intercourse was below the age of consent later regretted that it had taken place too soon.

In 2001, that survey asked a statistical sample of 16- to 24-year-olds in Britain whether they had had sex before the age of 16. A Government study in Northern Ireland in the same year, the Northern Ireland health and social well-being survey, enables a comparison to be drawn between the regions. The findings reveal a stark contrast. The studies found that in Northern Ireland only 15% of young people had engaged in sexual activity below 16, whereas, in Britain, where the age of consent is lower, almost 28% of young people had done so — almost double the proportion, with all the associated problems of teenage pregnancy and sexually-transmitted infections.

The question is whether we would rather 28% or 15% of 16-year-olds engaged in sexual activity. The age of consent makes a crucial contribution to that difference. Young people in Northern Ireland are safer for longer than their counterparts in Britain.

The proposal in question is at odds with the direction of Government policy in other aspects of public health. In England and Wales, the legal age for buying cigarettes has been raised to 18, and although smoking cigarettes is unhealthy, and prolonged use can result in serious consequences, no one could ever argue that those consequences could follow a single act of smoking. However, a single act of sexual intercourse can result in a young person becoming pregnant or contracting a sexually transmitted infection, which, in some cases, can be fatal. Also, if the age of consent is lowered, there will inevitably be an increase in the number of young women travelling to Britain for abortions.

The age of consent proposals in the draft Order cover anal intercourse as well as vaginal sex. Anal sex carries particularly high health risks, which 16-year-olds will be exposed to if the age of consent is lowered. Professor Gordon Stewart, emeritus professor of public health at Glasgow University, has studied the comparative risk of HIV according to the type of sexual activity. He has calculated that, for men, the risk of acquiring HIV through anal intercourse is at least 2,700 times higher than the risk from vaginal intercourse. Anal sex carries such high medical risks that the UK blood transfusion service will not accept blood from any man who has ever had sex with another man, even if it is safe sex with the use of condoms.

In 2001, when the age of consent for homosexual activity in the UK was lowered to the same age as that for heterosexual activity, it was very strongly argued that this change was needed in order to encourage young people to feel less inhibited about obtaining sexual health advice and treatment. The assumption was that the rate of sexually transmitted infections would decline. However, as a matter of fact, since 2001, the number of HIV infections has continued to increase, according to the Health Protection Agency’s new HIV-diagnosis quarterly surveillance report of June 2007.

Thirdly, and finally, the age of consent must remain at 17 years in order to protect the family unit. The Government have publicly stated that marriage is:

“the surest foundation for raising children.”

The best outcomes for children are for those raised by married parents. That is true across a whole range of factors such as health, education and the likelihood of experiencing abuse or having a criminal record. Children are best protected when family life is strong. Sex is a powerful thing; that is illustrated by the fact that, throughout the world, there are laws that govern sexual activity. Lowering the age of consent makes it more likely that young people will engage in casual sex, which will lead to more teenage pregnancies and conceptions, and will promote the breakdown of the family.

Currently, marriage in Northern Ireland is considerably stronger than in the rest of the UK. The divorce rate in Northern Ireland is only a fraction of that in England and Wales — 57%, according to the most recent figures. There are fewer children born outside wedlock in Northern Ireland than in England and Wales, and the proportion of families headed by a cohabiting couple in Northern Ireland is half of that in the rest of the UK. All of those figures demonstrate the much greater strength of the family unit in Northern Ireland when compared with Britain. Legislators must carefully consider whether to put that at risk by lowering the age of consent.

Mr Matthew Jess (Christian Institute):

Some arguments are being advanced to pressure the Government into lowering the age of consent to 16. However well meaning, those arguments are ill-conceived. I will deal with each of them in turn.

First, some organisations argue that the age of consent must be dropped in order to bring parity with the rest of the UK, but no such need exists. Northern Ireland has its own legislative Assembly, with Members elected by the local population to govern the jurisdiction. There are distinct differences between Northern Ireland’s legal framework and that of the rest of the United Kingdom. For instance, the Abortion Act 1967 does not apply to Northern Ireland, and alcohol licensing legislation in the two areas is different. The current disparity in age of consent law dates back to 1950 when, as a child protection measure, the Stormont Government amended the age of consent in Northern Ireland to 17. The NIO must not have considered parity to be relevant when it consulted on proposals to legalise teenage sex at the age of 13 in instances where there were no more than three years’ age differential between the parties. There is no parallel law in any other part of the United Kingdom.

The Republic of Ireland is the only country to share a land border with Northern Ireland, and its age of consent is 17. Having a lower age of consent in the North will give paedophiles and adolescents who live in the Republic an incentive to come to the North to engage in sexual activity.

Secondly, some people claim that young people in Northern Ireland believe that the age of consent is 16. Even if that presumption is true — and we have yet to see any evidence of that fact — it does not justify a change in the law. If there were a common misconception about speed limits in Northern Ireland, I doubt if many would advocate lowering them for that reason. The Christian Institute questions whether that argument would be posited in relation to any other existing law.

A recent example of a safety law being downgraded to match a supposed public perception — with the full support of supposed experts — was the reclassification of cannabis. However, that move is now likely to be reversed, after heavy public criticism. We further question whether public opinion in Northern Ireland would support a lowering of the age of consent. The strong opposition of both Protestant and Catholic Churches has been reported in the media.

Thirdly, some groups argue that lowering the age of consent will help to combat the high teenage pregnancy rate and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, because young people will feel less inhibited about going for sexual health advice and treatment. As well as contradicting the previous claim that teenagers believe the age of consent here to be 16, that assertion is not borne out by the evidence. Having a lower age of consent will not reduce teenage pregnancy rates. If that were the case, the teenage pregnancy rate in other United Kingdom regions would not be so high. There are three times as many children born to, or aborted by, 15-year-old girls in England and Wales — where the age of consent is 16 — than in Northern Ireland. At the age of 16, the figure is still two-and-a-half times as many. The pregnancy rates of 15- and 16-year-olds are higher in England and Wales than in Northern Ireland, and the age of consent must be considered an important factor in that difference. The rate of sexually transmitted infections among under-16s is also two-and-a-half times higher in England and Wales than in Northern Ireland. The lower age of consent in England and Wales is a critical difference between the two areas.

Fourthly, it is alleged by some that having an age of consent of 17 is discriminatory against young people in the Province. Is it discriminatory to protect young people from dangerous activities? Are laws addressing the sale of alcohol, the possession of firearms, gambling and applying for driving licences discriminatory? To the contrary, as can be seen from the evidence just discussed, it is young people in Britain who suffer discrimination by having the age of consent at 16 rather than 17, exposing them to the risks of sexual activity at an earlier age. Some organisations assert that under the Sutherland vs UK ruling, having an unequal age of consent is discriminatory. However, Sutherland vs UK related to the inequality of the age of consent between heterosexual and homosexual activity, not between geographical regions. It is, therefore, erroneous to cite that case as if it compelled us to have the same age of consent in Northern Ireland as in Britain.

Thank you for the opportunity to present this submission. The Christian Institute appreciates the valuable contribution that the Committee plays in presenting the views of the Northern Ireland electorate to those responsible for bringing forward the legislation.

The Chairperson:

Thank you for your presentation. We will now open the Floor for questions.

Mr Wells:

We have heard evidence from other statutory and non-statutory organisations, and one point that has been made is that the actual number of convictions under the present legislationis quite low. May I play devil’s advocate? I suggest that it will not have much impact if the legislation does change, because there will not be many prosecutions against those who are involved in sexual activity with 16-year-olds.

Mr Webster:

If thelegislation changes, it will send out a signal to people that more is acceptable, and boundaries will be pushed further. Whether that results in prosecutions is irrelevant. Look at what has happened in England and Wales, where the age of consent is a year lower and has been for a number of years. Their teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection (STI) rates are much higher.

Mr Wells:

There is also an argument that Northern Ireland has a lower rate of teenage pregnancy, abortion and underage sexual activity due to its strong moral values, adherence to faith-based institutions and stronger family structure than the rest of the United Kingdom, rather than due to the legislation. Is it right to claim that the legislation is the cause of that lower rate, rather than the fact that families educate their children on those issues?

Mr Webster:

I am sure that there are a number of contributing factors. As you rightly say, views held by families and churches here definitely play a role, but the law also plays a role. It sends out a signal, and that can be seen in many areas of life, such as in the speeding and gambling laws. If people know that something is illegal, they will be more wary of engaging in it generally.

Mr Wells:

Long before I realised that I was going to be a member of this Committee, you encouraged many of your members in Northern Ireland to write in on the initial consultation, and that was very successful. I must declare that I was one of those members, and I would have written in regardless of whether I was a member of the Committee. Do you have any comment on the way in which submissions about the Christian Institute were dealt with separately from those made by other individuals and organisations?

Mr Jess:

It became apparent early on that submissions from Christian Institute supporters were dealt with separately. That came as quite a surprise, because we could see no reason for it. They wrote in after they had gained information about the consultation from us, but we did not force the pens into their hands. They chose of their own free will to make those submissions, based on their concerns about the issue.

Mr Wells:

On a wider issue, you concentrated on the issue in the consultation about public lavatories and brothels, which you were concerned about. That proposal has been reined back. Does any other aspect of the proposed legislation cause the Christian Institute any concern?

Mr Webster:

The age of consent is our biggest concern, because of the reasons given in our presentation. We were concerned with the proposals in the consultation on sex in public toilets and brothels and the three-year age differential, but those issues have now been dealt with to our satisfaction. However, the age-of-consent issue remains.

Mr Wells:

If we could tie down that issue to your satisfaction, would you be happy with the rest of the legislation?

Mr Webster:

Yes.

Ms S Ramsey:

Thank you for your presentation. It is a very comprehensive document, and it answers some of my questions. However, the issue about Ian Huntley struck me, and I would like to tease it out. The document states that he was accused of having sex with underage girls on several occasions. It goes on to say that if the age of consent had been properly enforced in those cases, he would not have been able to obtain a job.

Mr Webster:

That is correct.

Ms S Ramsey:

Will you explain that?

Mr Webster:

If the age of consent had been enforced in those cases, he would have had to declare previous convictions when applying for a job, and he would have been banned from getting a job in a school.

Ms S Ramsey:

But the age of consent in England is 16.

Mr Webster:

That is correct. He was engaging in sexual activity with girls who were under the age of consent, but no prosecutions were pushed in those cases.

Ms S Ramsey:

I simply do not understand why that is included in your submission if, as you say, the age of consent in England is 16 — which is lower than the age of consent here. What is its relevance? In those particular cases, the law was not enforced — it had nothing to do with the age of consent.

Mr Jess:

It has to do with the so-called penumbra effect, which has already been mentioned by Callum. Where an offence has been committed, conviction tends to be less likely if the age of the victim is slightly below the age of consent. Obviously, the age of consent determines at what age the “penumbra effect” kicks in. Essentially, it was because of the “penumbra effect” that Ian Huntley was not convicted of an offence. Had the age of consent been higher, the girls with whom he engaged in sexual activity would have been viewed as being well below the age of consent. Therefore, a conviction would have been attained and he would have had a criminal record.

Mr O’Loan:

I thank Mr Jess for his presentation. I strongly support your serious interest in the matter. Sexual activity is an important social issue and the legislation on it can have significant social consequences. The matter well deserves the attention that you have given it. I refer to the issue of the law sending out a signal. In general terms, that is an important issue. Law has specific implications with regard to what it actually does and the court actions that are a result of legislation, and also has a broader, general message.

Sexual behaviour is a complicated social phenomenon. It is far from being determined merely by what is written into a statute. Different regions in different countries have different social climates. There are many factors that affect people’s behaviour — in particular, that of young people — with regard to sexual activity. Perhaps it is unwise to focus too much on the issue of age of consent as being a significant determinant of young people’s behaviour.

Mr Jess has presented some statistical information that argued for retaining the current age of consent, because he felt changing it would result in more sexual activity at a younger age. If it were to do that, I would share Mr Jess’s concern. However, there are many statistics on the issue. For example, the Committee has been presented with a statistic from the Netherlands, where the age of consent is 16, and where there is a low rate of teenage pregnancy. However, in Northern Ireland, where the age of consent is 17, there is a high rate of teenage pregnancy.

The issue is not a simple one, rather it is quite complex. At present, of all the things that contribute to sexuality at a young age — and I share Mr Jess’s concerns about those — I do not think that altering the age of consent would be a significant factor that would much alter the present conduct of young people.

Mr Jess:

It is quite true that rates of teenage pregnancy are much lower in Holland, even though the age of consent is lower. However, when that information is given, the status of welfare provision for teenage mothers in Holland and statistics on family stability are often not mentioned. In Holland, those factors could be viewed as severely restricting ones that would convince young people — despite the lower age of consent — that waiting to engage in sexual activity is something that they should do.

As regards to statistics on age of consent — and whether a change in the law is a deterrent, or otherwise, to young people’s engaging in sexual activity — the argument has been put forward that, if the age of consent were to be lowered, then the figure of 15% — for Northern Ireland — would become 0%, because all young people would not become sexually active before they had reached the age of consent.

That is one argument. However, based on the information and the statistics that exist on the topic, I would be loath to put any money on the scenario that if the age of consent were lowered, people would wait until that age to become sexually active. I base that on the information available and the comparison between the rates in Northern Ireland and those in the rest of the UK.

Mr O’Loan:

My point is related but there may be some difference. In general terms, the Committee is approving a lot of the proposed legislation. As the witnesses are aware, the term “age of consent” does not appear anywhere in the legislation; it is implicit in other parts of the legislation.

In any consideration of the age of consent, it is important to consider an overview of the provisions, including the gradation of protections as a child gets older. There are precise statements about no consent being given for those under the age of 13. There is also a particular regime created for those aged 13 to 16. Furthermore, there is a further set of protections beyond that, particularly with reference to those in positions of trust.

In general terms, the sweep of the legislation is sound and it is the right approach to take. In that context, I do not get as concerned as you are about the age of consent. Do you think that the broad sweep of the legislation is sound?

Mr Webster:

I am not here to comment on the other aspects of the legislation. I am representing the Christian Institute’s views on the issues that I have outlined. It is not for us to comment on issues such as abuses of trust or the positions of 13-year-olds.

Our focus — because it is our concern — is the age-of-consent issue. The Committee will be aware from our presentation that we had wider concerns during the consultation with some proposals that were submitted regarding other issues. We are satisfied that those other issues have now been addressed. However, I am not prepared to comment on an issue that is outside our remit.

Mr O’Loan:

It is not meaningful to discuss the age-of-consent issue in isolation; it makes sense only in considering the overall context of the legislation.

The Chairperson:

Do you have any evidence that suggests that young people pay any attention to the age of consent when taking decisions as to whether to engage in sexual activity?

Mr Webster:

The comparison between what has happened in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is evidence of that. Fewer children in Northern Ireland who are under the age of 16 have engaged in sexual activity. I am sure that one of the reasons for that is because they realise it is illegal. That may not be the only reason, but it is a factor that is considered.

The Chairperson:

The converse of what you are saying is that, in the present circumstances, there would be a sudden outbreak of sexual activity at the age of 17 when those people who had been holding off out of respect for the law, suddenly decided that because it is legal, they would no longer hold off. Is there any evidence of an increase in sexual activity by 17-year-olds who had been waiting for it to become legal?

Mr Webster:

We have not particularly investigated what has happened after the age of consent.

The Chairperson:

It is easy to quote statistics and then produce one argument based on those statistics. However, other elements regarding the wider context often need to be considered. It is essentially the law of cause and effect.

Do you think that it is wise to implement a law that is never going to be enforced? The Committee heard evidence from the Northern Ireland Office that in practice, it would not be deemed to be in the public interest to prosecute teenagers of a similar age for engaging in sexual relations below the age of consent. Therefore, what is the point in having that law if it is not going to be enforced?

Mr Jess:

We are aware of the statistical evidence relating to convictions, which is why Mr Webster mentioned the penumbral effect. In reality, that means that an age-of-consent law is only actually enforced in circumstances of sexual activity at an age considerably below the age of consent. It is worth remembering that the whole point of age-of-consent legislation is to act as a child-protection measure. In effect, those enforcement and conviction-rate statistics reflect a reduction in the age of consent. One must then consider what protection the law provides.

The Chairperson:

The current law allows marriage at the age of 16. Are you happy with that, or do you think that that should be increased to age 17, in line with the age of consent?

Mr Webster:

I understand that the current law allows marriage with parental consent. We are not here to comment on the age of marriage, and we would have to return at a later date to give our opinion on that issue. However, that is not what is at stake in the draft Order.

Mr Jess:

The law at present makes a clear exemption from the age of consent for marriage and many provisions of the draft Order include exemptions when they relate to married couples — whatever their age, the legal age being 16. If nothing else, it is a signal within the law that activities that may be dangerous and open to abuse in other scenarios are in fact protected within the marriage situation. It is a special case because of the commitment inherent in it. The law signals what is safe, what is dangerous, and what circumstances permit something to be considered safer.

The Chairperson:

Is it potentially discriminatory to allow someone to carry out an activity when they are in the married state, but not to allow that to someone who is not married?

Mr Jess:

I suppose it really depends on how important one considers marriage to be. The clear statement within the provisions of the draft Order is that marriage is a special situation, and that therefore special circumstances and parameters apply.

The Chairperson:

You have made great play on the point of the importance of protecting young people and of discouraging them from engaging in sexual activity. If you accept, however, that sexual activity is a reality that must be managed and deterred effectively, do you recognise the need for young people to access the best advice on sexual health matters? Do you think that setting the law on the age of consent at the age of 17 would discourage people below the age of consent from seeking advice and avoiding, for instance, sexually transmitted diseases?

Mr Webster:

The evidence does not appear to bear that out. In England and Wales, where the age of consent is lower and people are not inhibited from seeking advice as it is legal for them to engage, the STI and teen conception rates are considerably higher than they are in Northern Ireland. The evidence we have presented to you demonstrates that. I do not accept the argument that the age of consent must be lowered so that people should feel less inhibited; that is not borne out by the facts.

The Chairperson:

We have also heard advice from organisations that work directly with children and lobby on behalf of their interests, such as the NSPCC and Barnardo’s. Both of those organisations suggest that the age of consent should be lowered to 16 on the balance of the argument. How would you comment on the positions taken by those organisations?

Mr Webster:

They are expressing their own view as we are expressing ours. We believe that our view does protect and safeguard children; it is up to them to present in regard to their own case.

The Chairperson:

On behalf of the Committee, I thank Callum and Matthew once again for presenting their evidence. No doubt the comments that they have made will be reflected in the final report that the Committee tables for debate in the Assembly. Thank you.

I now welcome Mr Paul Goggins, the Minister of State in the Northern Ireland Office. It is great to see you before the Committee, and we appreciate your coming in this morning to meet us. Timing is out of our control whenever flights and the weather are involved. The Committee has had a presentation from your officials, which was extremely useful and explored a whole range of issues. It has also had evidence sessions from several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and private discussions among members about the terms of the legislation.

The Minister of State (Mr Paul Goggins):

Thank you very much for your warm welcome. I apologise for being late. I arrived at the airport at the normal time this morning to find that there was a two-hour delay — which was beyond my control. I am grateful for the Committee’s generosity in reconvening at a later time which is inconvenient for you.

Thank you for your comments about my officials. Gareth Johnston and Amanda Patterson are with me this morning, and I know that they have given evidence to the Committee. They are vital in supporting me in this work, and I am glad that the Committee has also found them to be helpful. If the Committee requires further information after this meeting, they will be happy to provide that.

This is the first review of sexual offences in Northern Ireland, and we have been guided by the review that took place in England and Wales and the resulting legislation. These are very difficult issues that require considered and careful judgement. Our core aim throughout the review and in introducing the legislation has been to ensure that consensual sexual activity between adults is not caught by the criminal law, but that effective protection is given to people — particularly children and vulnerable adults. We have brought clarity to the law on rape by, for example, including oral penetration within the remit of the law; we have clarified the need for a reasonable belief in consent and also built in a presumption that, if violence is used or an overpowering drug administered, the activity is rape, rather than consensual.

We had done a great deal to strengthen protection, building an absolute zone of protection for children under the age of 13. The legislation makes it absolutely clear that they are unable to consent to sexual activity. We have prohibited sexual activity between those aged under 18 and people in a position of trust with them, and there is extra protection for people with learning disabilities. That has all been underpinned with extra and stiffer penalties, which can be seen in the draft legislation.

A great deal of consideration is being given to the proposal to reduce the age of consent from 17 to 16, and I am sure that we will come to those issues. Throughout the review and in introducing the legislation, our aim has been to create consistency with the rest of the United Kingdom, unless there are compelling reasons why we should do something different. We have not as yet seen or heard any sufficiently compelling reasons. We have received evidence from others, and we look forward to the Committee’s deliberations.

Children’s organisations are concerned that the current situation is preventing young people from coming forward for advice when they are engage in sexual activity. I have thought long and hard about that, but I do not believe that the criminal law is the regulator for the growth or otherwise of teenage pregnancies. There are other strategies which relate to that. Indeed, in Northern Ireland, there is an increasingly effective strategy led by the Department of Health.

Consensual sexual activity between young people who are under 16 years of age is a difficult issue. In a previous life, I took the Sexual Offences Act 2003 through Parliament. My boss at the time was one Mr Blunkett. He promised me a jeroboam of champagne if there were a perfect solution to the issue. I did not get that champagne; I do not suppose that I ever will. I believe that we should hold firm to 16 years as the age of consent and deal with the practical consequences of that, case by case, through guidance that is issued to the Public Prosecution Service.

Finally, I am aware that section 5 of the Criminal Law Act ( Northern Ireland) 1967 is an issue that has seized people. I am sure that we will discuss that today. Again, there are no easy, straightforward answers. However, I hope that my responses will show clearly why the NIO has formed its present conclusions.

Mr Wells:

The Committee is generally supportive of most of what you are trying to do — consolidating, modernising and bringing together all of the legislation. However, you will hardly be surprised that there is quite a bit of concern in the Committee and elsewhere about the effect of lowering the age of consent to 16. The Committee has been told that there would be technical and legal difficulties if Northern Ireland were at variance with the rest of the United Kingdom on the issue. I cannot see what the problem is; the issue is where the offence is committed, and there is no doubt as to whether it has been committed in Northern Ireland or elsewhere in the UK. Are there any technical reasons why it would be difficult for the NIO if Northern Ireland were out of line with the rest of the UK and retained its age of consent at 17?

Mr Goggins:

I would not argue that there are technical and legal reasons why it would be difficult to have a different age of consent in Northern Ireland. However, it would be confusing, not least for young people. It is important to have consistency in that area, wherever possible, across the entire United Kingdom. In a sense, the burden of proof goes the other way — it must be proved that there is a compelling reason for having a different age of consent in Northern Ireland than elsewhere in the UK. I have not seen such a reason. I do not suggest that some obscure technical reason is a big argument for that.

Ms Amanda Patterson ( Northern Ireland Office):

Our policy position has been to follow the law in England and Wales, because the reform that was brought about by the Sexual Offences Act 2003 was informed by extensive and fundamental research. NIO has used that as the basis for its review in Northern Ireland. In that situation, it was right to follow the policy position of that fundamental research. It has nothing to do with technical or legal reasons. I do not think that the NIO has ever put forward that argument.

Mr Wells:

Thank you, that is helpful. Do you accept, however, that on other issues, which, I suppose, can loosely be called “moral issues”, Northern Ireland has different standards to the rest of the UK? The obvious example is the Abortion Act 1967, which does not apply here. Northern Ireland also has different legislation on alcohol consumption and, I believe, on prostitution. As that is the case, why should we not try to adopt what many people perceive to be higher standards in this part of the UK?

Where is the push, the lobby or the huge surge of opinion demanding a change to the age of consent in Northern Ireland? The Committee does not perceive that there is much demand for it out there, apart from the opinion of a few non-governmental organisations. Where is it coming from, apart from a slavish following of the 2003 Act?

Mr Goggins:

Let me start by saying that the NIO does not seek absolute uniformity in all areas. I would not argue for that either. However, we believe that it is important, not least for clarity in the minds of young people across the entire UK, that the age of consent should be the same everywhere unless there are compelling reasons why it should not. If the Committee were to unanimously argue such a compelling reason, I would have to consider it. However, to date, no such compelling reason has been put forward.

The NGOs have made the important point that they, not least with parents and others, are trying to provide appropriate advice and support for young people who may be becoming sexually active. They think that having the age of consent at 17, as it is at the moment, actually works against their being able to do that effectively.

It is important to emphasise that, although we are proposing to reduce the age of consent from 17 to 16, we are not suggesting for one minute that all 16-year-olds should immediately become sexually active — far from it. We know that parents and other organisations will offer advice. We are seeking to put into criminal law the age at which it is a criminal offence to have a sexual relationship with a child. That is rather different from seeking to encourage, or give formal cultural assent to, greater sexual activity among young people. It is about defining in law when sexual activity is a criminal offence. On balance, consistency with the rest of the UK is the overriding issue. However, we will listen to the Committee’s conclusions.

Mr Wells:

Finally, Minister, if the Assembly was to unanimously support the retention of 17 as the age of consent, what would be the Northern Ireland Office’s reaction to that decision?

Mr Goggins:

I would want to examine the Assembly’s reasoning. Your all holding the same policy position would be one thing; holding it with a coherent set of convincing arguments would be another. I would have to examine the arguments that the Assembly put forward.

Mr Wells:

We will give you those arguments. Are there no practical difficulties with Northern Ireland, as part of the UK, going down that route? Can it be done?

Mr Goggins:

There are a couple of points. First, we could opt to retain 17 as the age of consent. However, I am making it clear, and being honest with the Committee, that we do not intend to do that unless we hear a compelling argument, which would not — [Interruption.]

The Chairperson:

Is there a mobile phone switched on? Sorry, Minister.

Mr Goggins:

As I was saying, it is possible, and I will not for one minute pretend otherwise. We could reverse the current decision as it stands in the draft Order. However, I am making it clear honestly that, unless we hear a compelling argument to the contrary — and we have not heard it yet — we will not change our decision. If the Committee’s decision was unanimous, I would have to take it seriously. However, I would examine the arguments behind it.

Ms S Ramsey:

Thank you, Minister. Several weeks ago, we had a very good evidence session with your officials, and that answered some of our questions. I have my own opinion on the age of consent. What concerns me is that I do not want to go down the road of criminalising two young people. I do not want to do that; there are several issues there. However, I am genuinely concerned that an older person of 25 or 30 years of age — a serious, professional predator — could take advantage of young people. We must tease out ways in which we can protect young people from that type of person without criminalising two young people who might be having a relationship.

Minister, you mentioned some of the work of the NGOs. The NGOs also have concerns, which I, and other Committee members, raised at the meeting that we had with them, and I want to go over some of those with you. One issue is the way in which the NIO has developed the legislation in isolation from other Departments. Given that we are talking about providing information and advice for young people, it is important to ensure that Health Department officials are involved in discussions on the outworking of the proposed legislation and on providing clear guidance.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Barnardo’s have indicated that the legislation does not include special measures in relation to children who engage in sexually harmful behaviour. That is a specific issue.

I agree with the concerns that have been raised about sports coaches’ not being included in the legislation, considering that sporting organisations have a very strong cohort of voluntary coaches, who are involved in all aspects of sport on a weekly basis. It strikes me that that may be unique, and they should be included in the legislation.

I know that your officials are examining the inconsistency of the penalties for those who pay for sex with a child and those who control and organise such behaviour. People who pay to have sex with a child and people who control that activity are the same. It is inconsistent that someone who pays for sex with a child should receive a stiffer sentence than the person who facilitates it. I want to hear your views on that.

It is a pity that the age of consent is contentious, because there are many positive aspects to the legislation, and I commend you and your officials for introducing it. We will return to the issue of the age of consent next week.

Mr Goggins:

You have raised a great number of issues. The protection of children can be increased partly through legislation, such as the Order under discussion today, and partly through statutory and voluntary agencies taking a range of practical measures outwith the legislation. The Order clarifies the law on the abuse of trust and provides additional legal protection by making it clear that teachers, carers or social workers are prohibited from engaging in sexual activity with children in their care who are under the age of 18. However, further practical measures can be taken.

I take your point about the need to collaborate with all Departments, and that will become easier after the devolution of policing and justice powers. In the meantime, I will continue to strive to collaborate with the Departments. I have worked closely with Minister McGimpsey on several issues, such as the development of a strategy on sexual violence.

The Health Department’s teenage pregnancy and parenthood strategy has been running for about five years and has begun to show some real signs of success, with a reduction of about 25% in teenage pregnancies over that period. I contend that that is how to deal with the issue of teenage pregnancies, rather than through the law. It is interesting that the Netherlands, where the age of consent is 16, has the lowest rate of teenage pregnancies in Europe. That proves that it is strategies, rather than legislation, that provide the solution.

Children who engage in sexually harmful behaviour, where that behaviour is exploitative and related to bullying, are committing an offence, but prosecution may not be appropriate. Those who are abused certainly need protection, and the abusive children require effective interventions. Organisations that work with children are developing programmes to work with abused and abusive children.

When the activity is consensual, I recognise that the law, as it stands, introduces uncertainty into the system. Therefore, effective guidance must be provided to the Public Prosecution Service, and I want to ensure that we develop that guidance consultatively and bring into play the views and experience of voluntary organisations and statutory agencies.

You made a point about sports coaches. The positions of trust listed in section 28 of the Order, as currently drafted, tend to be statutory positions, such as teachers, carers and those who look after people in institutions of one kind or another. The position of sports coaches is more informal, and the review in England which led to the Sexual Offences Act 2003 examined that issue carefully and decided not to include sports coaches. If sports coaches were included, others, such as people who run youth or church groups, and so forth, would also have to be included, and it would become complicated. I am perfectly happy to consider the conclusions that you draw on that issue and to listen carefully to those who advocate the inclusion of sports coaches in the legislation.

As to the final point you made about paying for sexual activity and the control of that, I will have to reconsider some of those arguments with respect to appropriate penalties. Either we change our views on that, or we offer a coherent explanation for the differences.

Ms S Ramsey:

I take on board what you have said with respect to young people involved in sexual harm. You are considering the possibility of drawing up guidance. Do I understand that there may be a round-table discussion, pulling together those in the community and voluntary sector and your officials? Can we have that commitment today?

Mr Goggins:

Yes.

Ms S Ramsey:

We want to work with your officials, and I know that they want to work with us.

The issue of sports coaches is a major one. Our situation may be different to that in England. You mentioned Mr Wells’s point. This is not parity legislation. If we can make positive changes or take it one step further, we will. Our situation is unique. Thousands of people are involved in this on a weekly basis, some of whom do very good work. I do not mean to suggest that any of them are involved in this activity. We must look at that carefully.

It would be remiss of me not to take this opportunity to mention the issue of victims and survivors, although that does not lie within the remit of this Committee. I am concerned that our Committee is looking at this draft Order while another is considering a related Order. Where does it come together? We cannot look at victims and survivors in isolation.

Mr Goggins:

I can reassure the member and the Committee. The best way to take this forward is through collaboration, ensuring that everyone’s experience and understanding is brought into play. I want to make sure that voluntary organisations, statutory agencies and others continue to be involved in the development and outworking of the legislation. That is important.

Following the 2003 Act, England’s experience in the drawing up of guidelines for the Crown Prosecution Service in relation to the prosecution of children engaged in consensual sexual activity was that it did not turn out to be the problem that people predicted. That is because it was managed collaboratively and well, and everyone was involved in drawing up those guidelines.

Rev Dr Robert Coulter:

Thank you, Minister. That is helpful. However, there is one point that I would like you to amplify further, and that is the conflict of interest aspect. Sexual activity between children is criminalised, and a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment is imposed. There is a legal obligation on the part of those aware that the law has been broken to report an arrestable offence. The Bill is vague about that, and I wonder whether it could be clarified. It affects many people: teachers, parents, youth leaders, church ministers and so on.

Mr Goggins:

That is an important point. We saw this one coming; we made it clear in the document that accompanies the legislation that we could see that this was an issue. Section 5 of the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967, as you rightly point out, makes it an offence to withhold information about the commission of serious offences — offences punishable by a maximum of five years’ imprisonment or more. That includes all the offences that we are discussing.

I understand that organisations that work with children — and, indeed, parents — may be concerned that they will be caught up in the criminal law if they know that children are engaged in sexual activity and do not report it to the police. When such children turn to organisations and agencies for advice and support, those agencies may feel compromised.

In England and Wales, the equivalent legislation was repealed some years ago because it was not relevant to modern law. The 1967 Act was not repealed in Northern Ireland, for reasons connected with the conflict and terrorism. It made sure that no one could remain silent if they knew that offences of that sort were being carried out. If we were to propose the repeal of section 5 completely, some people might argue — and argue strongly — that that would be premature as regards those wider issues. Equally, if we offered to rescind section 5 as it relates to sexual offences, it might give an impression that sexual offences are not all that important when compared to other offences.

There are some genuine difficulties here. If we do not repeal any aspect of section 5 — either in general or as it relates to these particular sets of offences — my aim will be to find a common-sense way through this matter. We do not want parents or agencies to feel in any way constrained. We want them to give advice and support to young people — that must be an absolute priority. Again, we will look at what the Committee has to say about this issue. In fact, I will pay particular attention to what the Committee has to say about this issue before coming to any conclusions or making any changes. We do not hide from the fact that it is a tricky area, and I will be interested to hear what the Committee thinks.

Mr Ross:

In general, the legislation contains a lot of positive measures. I want to highlight a couple of issues. I agree with Ms Ramsey about sports coaches. There have been incidents in the media fairly recently involving tennis coaches and so on. That is a serious issue and needs to be considered. I question the figures that you quoted from the Netherlands, because I think that, equally, one could find higher rates of teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in other parts of the world where there are lower ages of consent. I do not buy the argument that lowering the age of consent will lower the number of teenage pregnancies or STIs, or encourage more young people to go to clinics.

We are in the rather bizarre situation whereby, across the UK, tobacco laws are being strengthened. Before Christmas, the Assembly debated bringing Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK and limiting the purchase of tobacco to over-18s. Now, on the mainland, consideration is being given to reclassifying cannabis. Those two specific measures are all about sending out a strong message that cannabis and tobacco are harmful and that taking them might be detrimental to your health. However, you are proposing to lower the age of consent, which will be a big issue for the Northern Ireland public. It looks like we are liberalising that. Why are we being strong on tobacco and cannabis laws, yet looking weak on the age of consent? Are you not concerned about the message that that will send out to young people and to general society in Northern Ireland?

Mr Goggins:

It is very important that we all send out a very strong message about this legislation. We are not saying that young people should be engaged in sexual activity at any particular age. Clearly, that is a matter of great concern and a big issue for young people as they grow up. They need to take advice. My personal view is that sexual activity should be within the context of a relationship that actually means something. Those are the kinds of messages that we should be putting across.

What we are doing here is seeking to clarify when it is a criminal offence to have sexual activity with a young person. That is the key. I do not want to continue to repeat myself, but that is the clear issue. I absolutely agree that we should send out very strong messages, not least because young people can be easily swayed by peers — people in their class, youth groups and so on. It is very important that we give backup to parents and to others in the support that they provide to young people in that context. However, the key issue is that this legislation is about defining when sexual activity is a criminal offence; it is not about saying when it is right or wrong as a part of their development or when young people should be engaging in sexual activity.

Ms Patterson:

The Minister has confirmed that a round-table discussion will be held on issues relating to implementation of this legislation. This is exactly one of the issues that that group should look at, and we should be very careful when dealing with it, because it is about messages and the law. We must ensure that the right messages are sent out, and it should be a joint departmental effort involving Departments such as Health and Education as well as the Northern Ireland Office. It is about the messages that are sent out.

Mr Brady:

In Britain, there is consistency between England and Wales with the age of consent at 16. I represent a border constituency, and the age of consent in the South is 17. If that were to remain so, and the age of consent here were to be lowered, then there would be a real fear that sexual predators might be encouraged to take advantage of the situation.

I do not expect that young people will flock across the border to engage in sexual activity, but there are people who may take advantage of the situation, and I believe that that is a real fear which people would like to have addressed. It is possible that the age of consent in the South may also be changed — we do not know at this point in time, but as it stands there will be a disparity. Obviously the same issue does not affect Britain because there is a consensus there that 16 is the age of consent.

Mr Goggins:

I understand your point. I understand that there has been some debate in the Republic about the same issue, although they do not currently have a firm proposal to change the age of consent. The important point is that if sexual predators — in other words, people who would exploit and abuse people — are attracted to come across the border because the age of consent is lower here, in a sense it is immaterial what the age of consent is.

If someone is going to abuse, take advantage, and force sexual activity on someone who is unwilling and does not give their consent, that is already covered by the law and is a matter of great concern. I hope one of the things that will come out of the legislation is a strengthening of awareness across Northern Ireland that you must consent to sexual activity, and that if you do not consent that is a least a serious sexual assault and could be rape.

I hope there is a very strong message here – that people do not have to put up with that kind of abusive behaviour, even from persons from their own household. It is not acceptable and the law reflects that, and there are strong penalties for those who seek to abuse people in that way.

Mr Brady:

I certainly take your point, however if there is a change in the age of consent and the change is publicised, I believe it will send out a message to sexual predators. I am not saying such sexual assaults do not happen at the moment — or will probably continue to happen — but if there is a change then that may act as a focal point, and therein lies the difficulty.

Mr Goggins:

Of course, the Republic may decide to make changes of their own, but that is entirely their decision.

Mr Brady:

I accept that, but as you say, no firm proposal has currently been made.

The Chairperson:

In relation to enforcement of the law — presently, when sexual relations occur between people below the age of consent, prosecutions are extremely rare as it is judged not to be in the public interest to pursue prosecutions. In the event that the new legislation is adopted, do you envisage stronger guidelines being established in order to facilitate prosecutions and enforcement of the law? Furthermore, if the age of consent is set at 16 rather than 17, can we assume that this will automatically entail a strong system of enforcement, as opposed to the current loose, confusing situation in which action is not taken?

Mr Goggins:

I agree that you can have all the legislation in the world, but unless it is effectively enforced it does not make a scrap of difference, and I take that point very strongly. This is an area of the law which is notoriously difficult to sustain in relation to successful prosecution, because it is often one person’s word against another’s, and having a jury decide that a case is proved beyond reasonable doubt is notoriously difficult.

We are all concerned about the low level of prosecution for rape and sexual assault, and we must work hard to make sure that wherever possible those prosecutions are brought and convictions are gained. The development of the sexual violence strategy, which is a joint endeavour between the Northern Ireland Office and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, is very important.

It is important that we work collaboratively with a range of community organisations, women’s organisations, and victim’s organisations in the development of that approach. Initiatives like the development of Northern Ireland’s first sexual assault referral centre are also very important. I have seen the effective way that these organisations can work in the wider health and policing system, by providing effective support to victims but also by gathering the forensic evidence that can sustain a successful prosecution.

I was delighted when, before Christmas, Minister McGimpsey made an announcement as to the possible location of the sexual assault referral centre. I want to work closely with him on that. It is through that kind of endeavour, working effectively, that we can make sure that the law is known, understood and pursued. That is important. There is merit in what you say: perhaps changing the age of consent will provide a renewed focus for a more limited age-range that may help in this regard.

I do not pretend for a minute that there are any easy answers in this area. We must all work together: health services, police, and the different statutory and voluntary agencies. Victims must know that they can come forward and report these things. So much sexual crime goes unreported, because the crime is carried out by people the victims know; or the victims feel ashamed; or they do not know who to turn to. That culture has to change, so that victims can come forward and report crime so that prosecutions can be made. Perpetrators should get a strong message that they cannot behave like that; if they do, they will be in trouble.

The Chairperson:

With respect to predators, an argument put to the Committee regarding the age of consent poses a situation where it may be difficult to prove whether consent has been given. Consent is not always a black-and-white issue: it can be fluid. Inducements or pressure can be brought to bear on a victim. If there is an age of consent, whether it is 17 or 16, consent becomes less of an issue; in that, if a partner is below the age of consent, the action is illegal by definition. How do you respond to that argument? I think Mickey Brady has already touched upon this.

Mr Goggins:

We acknowledge that anyone under 13 cannot, by law, consent to sexual activity. We say that those over 16 can, in law, give such consent.

There are, then, two issues. Young people between 13 and 16 may give their consent: it is illegal and against the law. Those who engage in that kind of activity with them are guilty of a criminal offence. Then there those able to consent in law, but who do not consent: they may be victims of assault and so on.

I acknowledge that there are different stages in the development of maturity. Questions about whether an individual has the capacity to consent are difficult to prove and understand. That is why we want absolute clarity for the youngest children, to ensure that it is clear in law that they cannot consent, and that therefore no one can have any defence in relation to sexual activity with a child under 13. For the rest, it will be a judgement about individual maturity, development and so on.

This is one of the reasons why I have concluded that one cannot legislate on the face of an Order like this, to try to define circumstances in which consensual sexual activity between under-16s could escape the criminal law. There could be a relationship between an immature 14 year old and a mature 15 year old. Those two may be very far apart in development. On the face of it, it may look like a consensual relationship: but in fact it may not be. There may be a lot of pressure exerted by the more mature on the less mature. These are all difficult judgements: in the end it is for a jury to decide whether consent has been given in a particular case.

The Chairperson:

Let us discuss sexual health. The Minister has mentioned that access for young people to advice on sexual health is one of the primary motives for revision of the law. However, the Committee has heard arguments from others that a lowering of the age of consent sends signals that would lead to an increase in sexual activity among young people and a higher risk of an increase in sexually transmitted diseases.

Please elaborate on how you see the arguments about sexual health. Perhaps you would reflect on the arguments put to you by different organisations during the consultation.

Mr Goggins:

It is important that we have effective sexual health strategies. I pay tribute to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, which has developed this teenage pregnancy and parenthood strategy. It is seeing a reduction in the number of teenage pregnancies. That kind of effective educational work is important.

I pay particular regard to those who have said that young people who are sexually active and aged 16 are breaking the law, or would be perceived as breaking the law if they actually came out and sought advice, and are currently being prevented or discouraged from doing so by the current state of the legislation. That is one of the reasons why I was swayed to reduce the age of consent to 16, because we should be doing what we can, within reason, to make sure that we encourage young people to come forward. In the end, we can have all the strategies and education we like, but unless we are actually engaging with young people and giving that information, we are not being effective.

The Chairperson:

Declan O’Loan, from the SDLP, unfortunately had to go to a funeral; he gives his apologies for missing this part of the session. He wanted to ask you to elaborate on what new offences were being created to protect children in the home from abusive behaviour.

Mr Goggins:

In terms of this particular Order, one of the things that we are doing is clarifying family relationships in respect of sexual offending, to make it absolutely clear who cannot engage in a sexual activity in relation to members of one’s own family, and some of it gets quite technical. It is important that we have that on the face of the Order. The reason for this is that the majority of sexual abuse and sexual assaults that take place actually take place between people who already know each other, very often members of the same family. It is important that we have absolute clarity in the law here, and I would suggest a close look at that part of the Order that defines those relationships, so that we can say that we have taken that seriously.

Ms Patterson:

It is important to note that all the familial child sex offences relate to children under the age of 18, and the relationships involved in the offences have been widened to allow for all the circumstances that the Minister has just mentioned, where it is very often someone known to the child; if not an immediate blood relation it is somebody who has a second or third relationship. All of those are now included in the offence.

Mr Wells:

This is based on a bitter experience of something that happened 25 years ago — you quite rightly dropped, as a result of the public consultation, issues like the offences in public conveniences. You made that a criminal offence rather than simply something that —

Ms Patterson:

It always was a criminal offence.

Mr Wells:

There was a proposal to make it a public disorder issue rather than a criminal issue.

Mr Goggins:

I can give some clarity on this for you, because it came up when I was in the Home Office taking the Bill through. There was a proposition to get rid of the offence of sexual activity in a public lavatory, on the basis that other public order offences would take care of this offence. In the end, we did decide to change our minds on that and to leave the offence of sexual activity in a public lavatory as an offence, even though that may not be the offence that is actually prosecuted; it may be a public order offence that is.

Mr Wells:

Many people welcomed that decision, and also the changes in the proposals on prostitution. Can I take it that there is absolutely no suggestion that those could be brought back at any future stage in this legislation; that they are dead forever?

Mr Goggins:

There is no proposition here to change the law in relation to sexual activity in a public lavatory. There are some proposals to change the law in relation to prostitution, but these are measures that have been called for, not least by Members of the Assembly, that will actually toughen-up the law in that area.

Mr Wells:

Will there be any change to the issue of prostitution in this particular Order?

Mr Goggins:

No, there is no intention of doing that.

Mr Wells:

We had a consultation here in 1985, where a nasty piece of legislation was withdrawn, consultation then took place — but nobody commented on it because they thought it was dead, and then it was brought back after the consultation period was closed. Is that going to happen this time?

Mr Goggins:

I think it is an important point to make that we operate in good faith here. Having listened to advice and recommendations from you and others, it may be that we change some aspects of that Order. What we will not do is introduce a whole new element into the Order. We could do that in theory, but we would not do that in practice — it would be disingenuous to do that when we had not had a proper consultation about it.

The Chairperson:

What we have before us is the limit of what is going to be considered in the Order.

Mr Goggins:

There will be no new measure brought in that we have not consulted on, within the Order.

The Chairperson:

Minister, on behalf of the Committee I thank you once again for coming before us today with your officials and clarifying those issues. It has been very helpful. I gather that you are now an expert on this legislation in your various ministerial roles in terms of taking this forward, so we wish you well for the future. We will be debating this in the Assembly within the next couple of weeks, and then forwarding our comments to your officials.

Mr Goggins:

I am very grateful for the time that you are taking to do this. It is very important work. Thank you.

The Chairperson:

Thank you, Minister.

 

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