Age of Consent to be lowered, despite Assembly opposition

“You want the Union, you’ve got the Union even for sex – at least until you can agree to decide these matters for yourselves”

That was the message the House of Lords and Westminster as a whole is sending back to Stormont on the vexed question of lowering the age of sexual consent in Northern Ireland from 17 to 16 to bring it into line with England and Wales. In the Lords debate on the NI Sexual Offences Order, to the bewildered of GB peers innocent of our little ways and for whom unionism, like it or not is a fairly straightforward idea, Unionists of both parties hotly opposed the move to bring us into line with England, also partly because the age of consent in the Republic remains at 17. What kind of unionism is that, those peers asked in the very polite way Lords do. Our own specially virtuous kind, much more moral than your lot, DUP and UUs peers replied in terms.

Wouldn’t you know it. Most peers who were tightly whipped for the debate, didn’t buy the argument. And so on sex at 16, Ulster boys and girls will just have to behave as sexual unionists – of the British not the traditional Ulster variety.

The debate was a classic – maybe the last of its kind. In a wrangle over the Union versus Our Wee Ulster, we all know there’s no contest. Ulster First every time. Hansard extracts tell the story… Lord Rooker for the government

“We have not seen any compelling evidence to suggest that the criminal law in Northern Ireland should continue to be at variance with the rest of the United Kingdom on this issue.

We are supported in the view we have taken by all the major children’s organisations: the NSPCC, Barnardo’s, the Children’s Law Centre and the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, by numerous representatives of social care trusts and by MLAs, including the chairman of the Assembly’s ad hoc committee that considered the order in detail. I fully accept that the committee was not unanimous, but that is not the point.”

Lord Morrow DUP moving an amendment to keep 17 as the age of consent

“MLAs tabled a no day named motion calling on the Secretary of State to retain the age of consent at 17. To date, it has been signed by 57 MLAs from across the political spectrum, unionists and nationalists alike. That makes it the best supported no day named motion of the current Assembly and the only one to achieve an overall majority of Members. It is clear that the Assembly would never have passed legislation lowering the age of consent.

Stormont’s position reflects that of the Northern Ireland populace. A ComRes poll in March found that 73 per cent of Northern Ireland’s citizens, including 80 per cent of Protestants and 72 per cent of Roman Catholics, opposed any reduction in the age of consent. Such widespread opposition was reflected in public comments from church representatives, the Northern Ireland rape crisis centre, the Province’s biggest youth organisations, the Boys’ Brigade and the Girls’ Brigade, and Love for Life, a relationship and sexual education project that delivers programmes to more than 20,000 young people annually.

Comparing sexual behaviour in Northern Ireland with that in the rest of the United Kingdom clearly shows the value of Northern Ireland’s current age of consent. Only 15 per cent of young people in Northern Ireland engage in sex before 16, compared with 28 per cent in Great Britain.

(How do they know? -Ed)

Lord Smith of Clifton NI spokesman, Lib Dems

In many ways, there are misunderstandings about the way in which Northern Ireland’s current age of consent is set, which creates unlawful carnal knowledge offences for boys, but not for girls, in consensual relationships between teenagers.

Despite having a higher age of consent than other parts of the UK, Northern Ireland has one of the highest levels of teenage pregnancy in the UK and the current age of consent has largely been superseded by the Fraser guidelines on consent to contraceptive advice in the 1985 case of Gillick v West Norfolk. By bringing Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK, the order will ensure that young people have access to the same rights and protections.

Baroness May Blood

The new provisions, by virtue of the offence of sexual activity in Articles 16 and 20, strengthen—not weaken—the protection for children up to the age of 16. Despite having an age of consent of 17 in Northern Ireland, it has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the United Kingdom and I work with many of those young people on a daily basis.

Baroness O’Cathain Conservative

Twice this evening in this debate we have been told that teenage pregnancies in Northern Ireland are higher than they are in the mainland of Britain. I rushed out to get the statistics, which show:

“The conception rates among 16 year olds in Northern Ireland is less than half that among 16 year olds in England and Wales”.

That is according to the official statistical register, “Northern Ireland: Maternities, 113”, from Registrar General’s Annual Report 2006—Section 3 Births. It is right that that should be put on the record.

Lord Trimble Conservative now ( remember?)

The Minister knows that this devolution ( of justice and home affairs) 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?

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass UU

More than 70 per cent of all the communities in Northern Ireland—whom the Government tell us they wish to accept shared responsibility for their future—do not wish to have the age of consent lowered. That is a fact. Why then would the Government whip their Members in this House—where, as I have always understood it, we are sent because of our experience, expertise and judgment—to frustrate the will of a huge cross-community majority of people within Northern Ireland?

Lord Rooker, rejecting Morrow’s amendment

The level of teenage pregnancies has nothing whatever to do with the age of consent. The Netherlands has 16

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.

It was left to May Blood to summarise the uncontroversially good things the Order will achieve..

It is a modernisation of the law on sexual offences in Northern Ireland, the first for 100 years, and a codification in one statute. It includes the abolition of consent as a defence for sex with a child under the age of 13; tougher sentences for those who exploit children under the ages of 13 and 15; new offences, such as sexual activity with children; laws that are gender neutral in their application; and a range of other protections, such as the abuse of trust provisions. It is most important that we realise that the vast majority of the provisions in this legislation are aimed at providing increased protection for children and are most welcome on that basis.

Is David Trimble right, that the Assembly will reverse Westminster’s decision when MLAs acquire the powers to do so? Such evidence as we have suggests they might leave well alone, and live with a social reform that will not reproduce Sodom and Gomorrah

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London