British Government Bill to Impose Lower Age of Consent in Northern Ireland

By Hilary White

  LONDON, May 1, 2008 ( - Paul Goggins, Minister of State for the UK’s Northern Ireland Office, has denied that the determination by the Labour government to lower the age of sexual consent in Northern Ireland will encourage sexual predators to target young victims in the province. The government tabled a bill yesterday, the Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008, that proposes to reduce the age of sexual consent in Northern Ireland from 17 to 16.

  Goggins told the BBC, "We are certainly not encouraging 16-year-olds to engage in sexual activity."

  He admitted, however, that the change is a result of the general lowering of sexual moral standards in recent years when he said that it would reflect the new sexual mores of modern society. Britain’s rates of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease have skyrocketed in recent years to be one of the highest in Europe. 

"The Order sets out the parameters of permittable sexual activity in the 21st Century and clearly states what the law will not tolerate."

"I am convinced that the changes will offer the people of Northern Ireland a modern legislative framework which will ensure maximum protection from unacceptable sexual activity. It puts Northern Ireland on a par with the rest of the UK."
  But the Members of Northern Ireland’s Legislative Assembly have accused the government of acting with "contempt for democracy" for pushing the measure through despite their opposition. Since the government proposed the change in November 2007 in its "consultation process", the MLAs have worked to stop it.

  The MLA’s  warned that the change would encourage sexual predators from the Republic of Ireland, where the age of consent remains at 17, to go north in search of younger victims. A recent public opinion poll showed that 73 per cent of the Northern Irish public did not want the age of consent lowered.

  Today Jim Wells, vice-chairman of the Stormont ad-hoc committee which reported on the matter, said the government’s determination to go ahead against the wishes of the majority of Northern Irish and the Assembly showed "contempt for democracy".

"What was the point of asking MLAs to take evidence on this for three months only to completely ignore our conclusions?" he asked.

"There was absolutely no public pressure for these changes, which have only been supported by a liberal elite. We are clearly weakening the protections we had to stop situations where a paedophile in his 40s could be trying to attract a 15-year-old child in heterosexual or homosexual activity."

  Currently, the National Assembly of Northern Ireland, the province’s devolved parliament, does not have jurisdiction over criminal matters.

  The proposed legislation will also fix at 13 the age at which sexual activity involving a child will be classed as statutory rape, regardless of consent and make the offence punishable by a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

  The bill also proposes to make sexual activity with anyone under 16 carry a maximum sentence of 14 years and rape and other serious sexual assaults also carry a maximum of life.

  In November, Belfast’s Rape Crisis Centre added their voice to objections saying the plan would make it more difficult to protect vulnerable girls from sexual predators.

  The bill is expected to pass through the House of Commons by June and come into effect by the end of the year. 

  Read related coverage:

  British Government to Lower Northern Ireland Age of Sexual Consent

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