HC Deb 30 April 1993 vol 223 cc1257-300 9.34 am
Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 6, leave out "(whether natural or unnatural)".

I congratulate the hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Hayes) on successfully steering the Bill through Second Reading and Committee. Indeed, it jumped the queue for private Members' Bills and, after today's debate, it may be considered in the other place. The Bill has not been considered as closely as it should have been; it has slipped through and there is scope for closer scrutiny of it.

The Bill's intention is correct. In law, children under 10 are incapable of committing a crime and, under common law, youngsters under 14 are incapable of sexual intercourse. In reality, that clearly is not true. Girls under 14 give birth and we heard recently about an assault by a 13-year-old on a teacher; more frequently we hear about children sexually assaulting other children. The Bill rightly recognises that such offences can occur and that the common law should apply to them.

The short title of the Bill is significant. It proposes to Abolish the presumption of criminal law that a boy under the age of 14 is incapable of sexual intercourse. That refers to sexual intercourse, yet clause I refers to The presumption of criminal law that a boy under the age of 14 is incapable of sexual intercourse (whether natural or unnatural)". The words "natural or unnatural" are the subject of my amendment and the hon. Member for Harlow owes the House an explanation. The words must be considered in the context of sexual intercourse—penetration. The assumption must be that heterosexual sex is natural, and gay sex—homosexual sex—is unnatural.

Mr. Jerry Hayes (Harlow)

indicated dissent.

Mr. Cohen

The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but he owes the House an explanation. The clause applies only to sexual intercourse. It is insulting to the millions of homosexuals who practise gay sex to have that practice described as "unnatural". Millions of people around the world will find it insulting because "natural" and "unnatural" are the wrong terms to use; they are much too wide. When I suggested that the hon. Gentleman was using the term "unnatural" to describe homosexual sex, he shook his head. Perhaps he can list what he means by the terms "natural" and "unnatural", especially "unnatural" if he does not mean it to be applied to gay sex. The House could then consider each of the hon. Gentleman's suggestions in turn. As the Bill stands, the term "unnatural" has too wide a scope.

I hesitate to say that it is a habit of the Conservatives, but it is part of their political approach that they tend to do it more—

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)

Do what?

Mr. Cohen

They regard things as "natural" or "unnatural". I am talking about the terms, not whether they practise gay sex more, although that is perhaps what the hon. Lady thought. It is part of their political approach to use the terms "natural" and "unnatural", but such use is inappropriate.

Such usage allows a generous leap to be made: from talking about unnatural practices, which presumably means unnatural intercourse, one is soon talking about their being practised by unnatural people. That involves only a short leap, and there is a danger that judges could interpret the Bill in that way.

Males could be considered the more aggressive gender, in an historical context and perhaps also today in view of current crimes. There is and has been a great deal of rape, but is it to be considered natural because men carry it out? That is a dangerous argument. We legislate against rape not because it is unnatural but because it is socially unacceptable behaviour and we want to protect women from it. The use of the terms "natural" and "unnatural" is wrong in this context because they could be used to argue that such aggressive behaviour is natural. The hon. Gentleman is confusing the terms with acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, and that is my main beef with him. He should remove from clause 1 the four words in brackets.

We should remember that the Bill is about children. As the House will know, experts believe that the great majority of children go through a phase of homosexual behaviour of one form or another. It is usually an experimental or mild form, and the children often grow up heterosexual.

Mr. Piers Merchant (Beckenham)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Cohen

I shall in a moment. However, it is wrong that children should be branded as practising unnatural behaviour.

Mr. Merchant

A number of things that the hon. Gentleman has said have puzzled me, and I am not sure that I have followed the drift of his argument. I cannot let him get away with his last assertion. Recent studies have shown that the proportion of men who have been involved in homosexual activity is very small. Some of the latest figures suggest that that applies to between only 1 and 5 per cent., so how on earth can the hon. Gentleman say that the majority of people have been involved in homosexual activity?

Mr. Cohen

Different experts have different views Studies have shown that children go through a homosexual phase, but I said that it was a mild form and part of experimenting with sexuality generally.

9.45 am
Lady Olga Maitland

Could the hon. Gentleman provide evidence that the majority of young people indulge in homosexual activity? What are the sources and cases that he can cite to support such a sweeping statement?

Mr. Cohen

I do not think that I said it was the majority, but I leave it to the experts to argue about that. The hon. Lady is coming close to saying that children do not experiment with sexuality, but they do. Any schoolteacher or anyone who works with children will tell her that children experiment with different forms of sexuality. One of my objections to the Bill is that they would be branded as unnatural if they did not conform to the hon. Gentleman's idea.

Lady Olga Maitland

Has the hon. Gentleman had any meetings or discussions with teachers on this issue?

Mr. Cohen

I have met teachers to discuss all sorts of issues. Many teachers have told me that they favour sex education in schools precisely because of children's experimentation. As I have said many time before, I am shocked that some Conservatives Members often block sex education for dogmatic reasons. If they had their way and if sex education in schools were stopped, there would be no information at all.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Has the hon. Gentleman seen the new draft circular on sex education issued by the Department for Education? If he had, he would not have made that statement.

Mr. Cohen

That circular was issued only after considerable pressure had been applied. Before the recess, I made a speech in the House, adding to that pressure. The circular was greeted with howls of protest, not from Labour Members but from the Conservative lobby opposed to sex education. The Conservatives' objections were quoted in the press, so the hon. Gentleman should be talking to his colleagues.

Lady Olga Maitland

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the advice being proferred by the Government became controversial only when a Minister was asked on "The World at One" whether the Government would consider making condoms available in schools? It had nothing to do with the advice in the circular.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. Before the debate continues, I must point out that we are debating an amendment, not a wider issue, which this threatens to become.

Mr. Cohen

I have no desire to make it a wider issue. As I am always helpful to Conservative Members, I have been trying to respond to their points.

Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)

I do not seek to challenge your advice, Madam Deputy Speaker—

Madam Deputy Speaker

I am glad to hear it.

Mr. Couchman

I am always obedient in these matters. I seek your advice, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Bill was given a Second Reading on the nod and there was only 20 minutes of debate in Committee. A number of us have considerable worries about the Bill. Is it your preferred option that we should reserve the expression of those worries for a lengthy Third Reading debate or will you be fairly tolerant with our casting our comments reasonably widely during our debate on the two groups of amendments?

Madam Deputy Speaker

I am concerned only with relevance. How long that may take is not for me to judge.

Mr. Cohen

I always try to abide by your rulings, Madam Deputy Speaker. I do not seek to prolong the debate and I am trying to keep to the amendment. The intervention by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) may have extended the debate a little, but my initial comments related purely to the amendment and to my wish to remove the words "whether natural or unnatural". Again, I call on the hon. Member for Harlow to say exactly what he means by those words. I believe that he has confused those terms with the concept of socially acceptable or socially unacceptable behaviour. That is what worries me most. I am worried about how judges or others will interpret the terms when dealing with children. Children may be branded as practising unnatural behaviour and I do not believe that that is right. I shall say more about the other implications when I speak to anmendment No. 2.

I am the promoter of a similar Bill, the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill, which is far more extensive than this Bill. It deals especially with the issue of rape. My Bill would make male rape a specific criminal offence for the first time. It would do that simply by changing the definition of the victim from "woman" to "person" and it would thus allow men to be considered in law to be the victims of rape.

In this Bill, we are talking about young boys, for example, practising what the hon. Member for Harlow calls "unnatural" acts. Despite his shaking his head earlier, my great suspicion is that he is really referring to homosexual acts. The Bill, as its short title shows, is about sexual intercourse. It will be interesting to hear him describe to what other unnatural acts the Bill refers. Boys, like men, may be involved in male rape. Perhaps that is one of the offences to which the hon. Gentleman is referring.

Male rape is not a specific crime at present and I believe that it should be. There is an assumption that only women can be raped, which simply is not true. Men and young boys could well become the victims of rape. The police record the number of offences of indecent assault against men, and those numbers have increased. In London, they have doubled over the past 10 years. It is a serious problem which should be addressed. The Metropolitan police to whom I have spoken believe that more than nine out of 10 cases are not reported because the victims fear that they may be criminalised, that they may be branded homosexual, or that the police will take no action because the offence of male rape does not exist. It is necessary to make male rape a crime. That gap in the law remains under this Bill.

This is the age of bringing legislation to bear on sexual offences, such as child abuse, so legislation on male rape should be introduced. The mere fact that the subject is brought out into the open—this is part of what the hon. Member for Harlow is attempting to do by recognising that such offences can be committed between the ages of 10 and 14—means that there will be more openness about reporting such offences and that action can then be taken. I shall ask the hon. Gentleman more questions on that when I speak to amendment No. 2. I hope that there will be more openness about male rape as well. I believe that the hon. Gentleman is wrong in using the words "natural or unnatural". I shall be most interested to hear what he has to say about that. I still believe that those words should be removed from the Bill.

Lady Olga Maitland

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Mr. Hayes) on having the imagination and alertness to recognise that there has been a serious anomaly on the issue. An attempt to put the anomalies right is long overdue. To date, it has been deemed physically impossible for a child under the age of 14 to commit an act of rape. Instead, the charge has been sexual assault.

The hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) seeks to withdraw the words "whether natural or unnatural". He seemed to say that some believe that only natural sexual intercourse—in other words, between a boy and a girl—is acceptable and that it is unfair to suggest that sexual intercourse between two boys or two men is unnatural. We are really saying that sexual activity by force by a young boy against another person, whether a boy or a girl, should be included in the Bill. The Bill is not an attempt to be positively unfair to people who have indulged in homosexual activity.

It is important to say that we are not going down the route of homosexual bashing. There is nothing like that whatever. It is extremely important to point out that we are not trying to put homosexuals into a separate category. However, we are well aware that clarification is needed in the Bill. It would be iniquitous to concentrate only on heterosexual sex by force, without taking into account homosexual sex or other practices that may later be elucidated.

Mr. Cohen

Is the hon. Lady saying that homosexual sex is unnatural in terms of the Bill?

Lady Olga Maitland

Yes, I am saying that homosexual activity is unnatural. My reason for saying that is simple. The vast majority of human beings on this earth are heterosexual with only a very small minority of people who are born with a natural instinct for homosexual activity. That does not make it the norm, and I am talking about the norm.

Mr. Cohen

So is the hon. Lady saying that hon. Members, including Conservative Members, who practise homosexual activities, are practising unnatural activities?

10 am

Lady Olga Maitland

Yes. As far as I am concerned, it does not matter who is or is not indulging in such activities; I think that they are unnatural. I do not want to go in for name calling or identifying of the individuals concerned. We are simply reflecting on the state of natural human beings today. It is important to clarify in the Bill exactly what we mean by rape and to make it clear that we are referring to all the different circumstances.

The unnatural element causes concern not least because, as a result of the tremendous amount of gay publicity on the television and in the press, young children are getting the idea that homosexuality is something with which they should experiment. I find that very worrying. It is worrying, too, that some teachers in some schools believe that they need to promote homosexual activity and heterosexual activity as being of equal value. Given that that belief seems to be on the increase, it is all the more important that we should clarify in the Bill the fact that unnatural sex is included.

The hon. Member for Leyton seems to be suggesting that we are being unfairly hostile to unnatural sex. Should not we consider for a moment the victims of sexual assault —particularly assault that involves unnatural sex? The victim could be an adult, but is more likely to be another child, who may be emotionally and physically crippled for life as a result of the experience. A case in my constituency comes back to me with appalling clarity. A thoroughly normal, decent family could not understand why their little boy aged five had been unable to control his bowels for a number of years. The mother eventually noticed physical marks on the child's body, particularly around his anus, and managed, through careful questioning and by seeking advice and counselling, to discover that that child had been repeatedly raped by another boy over a period of years.

It is tremendously important that the child who perpetrated that offence—a school kid of about 13—should be brought to court under the new law and made responsible for his behaviour. At the moment, that child is no doubt running wild in a playground; he may be catching other children, taking them into cars and doing them appalling damage. The mental and physical effects are felt not only by the child who is the victim but by the family which makes it all the more tragic. Therefore, it is essential that we make it absolutely clear that unnatural behaviour, by which we mean homosexual behaviour, is included in the Bill.

I hope that the Bill will be given a fair wind. In a wider context, it is important that children should be educated about sexual responsibility and behaviour. Teachers must not positively encourage homosexual behaviour as if it were the accepted norm; in fact only a very small minority of people engage in it. It worries me that chidlren are encouraged in this way against their natural instincts.

Our whole case rests on the fact that it is possible for rape to be committed by a boy on another boy. That must be made clear in the Bill. I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the Bill.

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)

The clause worries me considerably. It seems to me obvious that, if we pass the Bill, it makes little difference whether we include or omit the words "whether natural or unnatural". If they are left out, the clause will read: The presumption of the criminal law that a boy under the age of fourteen is incapable of sexual intercourse is hereby abolished. Presumably that will then mean all forms of sexual intercourse. The words "whether natural or unnatural" neither add anything to the Bill nor take anything away from it. Their excision would make no difference to the meaning of the Bill or to any other matter about which we need to be concerned this morning. I therefore support the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen). I do not see any need to mention what form of sexual intercourse is implied or intended and I do not think that we need discuss what is natural or unnatural sexual intercourse.

The Bill provides that boys under the age of 14 who commit sexual acts can be charged under the criminal law. I am not certain that that is wise. As the hon. Member for Leyton said, sexuality starts from birth. That is my experience and is the experience of all the professionals.

Sexuality is a gradually learnt matter about which we should be honest and straightforward and which should be discussed, especially at home. Incidentally, the form that sex education in schools takes needs to be examined carefully. Sex education should be treated very sensitively and ought to include teaching about the emotional content that should go with the whole experience of sexuality. The absence of any emotional content from such learning is a serious mistake.

It seems to me that we are not talking about rape. Most of the debate this morning has been about forced sexual intercourse, which is abhorrent at any age. In my view, however, the Bill would make it a criminal offence for any sexual intercourse to take place between children of whatever sex. I do not believe that the criminal law is the right way to treat such matters. I feel that we should adopt a much more sympathetic attitude to such activities among children—one which does not criminalise them and stigmatise them for life. We need counselling and thoughtful intervention and we need very carefully thought out procedures.

Mr. Jerry Hayes (Harlow)

Before my hon. Friend proceeds any further along that line, I remind him that the Bill is all about rape; it is about penetrative sex. It does not deal with consensual sex between teenagers of whatever gender or orientation, which must always be a matter for the sympathetic discretion of the prosecuting authorities. There is no way that, in reasonable consensual circumstances, the prosecuting authorities will prosecute young men under the age of 21 for homosexuality or any other similar offence. The Bill is specifically about rape.

Mr. Wells

I am grateful for that explanation, and I hope that it will be noted carefully if the Bill reaches the statute book and if any action is taken in a court of law. I do not believe that that is what the Bill says. It may be what my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Mr. Hayes) intends, but it is not what the Bill says.

Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way because I believe that there is an air of puzzlement about the debate. The Bill does not force on us all the interpretations and ramifications in respect of the law that have been suggested. It simply ends a nonsense; it removes a legal myth.

The common-sense interpretation is that which is being placed on the Bill by my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) and that is why he moved his simple amendment. There is a certain amount of common sense and sympathy in relation to the removal of those words. However, we must consider what that will do to the way in which the Bill is interpreted in relation to other Acts, which may be unsatisfactory but which are already on the statute book.

It would be sensible if the House tried to ensure that we did not frustrate the intention, upon which we are all united, of ending this nonsense. I hope that we will not simply apply common sense because the law does not always work in a common-sense way, as I am sure the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) would agree. We must be very careful to ensure that we do not do something that we do not intend to do in respect of the Bill.

Mr. Wells

I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. We must be very careful indeed about the ramifications. On the surface, this is a very sensible piece of proposed legislation. We all know that children are capable of penetrative sex, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) described. Therefore, we should, in common sense, change the position.

However, what are the ramifications? There is a law which forbids sexual intercourse below the age of 16. Many hon. Members and members of the public believe that that age of consent should be lowered. However, if we combine that with this Bill, if sexual intercourse is entered into freely—and is not rape—it becomes a criminal offence for which both parties could be taken to a court of law.

Mr. Hayes

I hesitate to interrupt my hon. Friend and I am grateful to him for giving way to me again. The Bill is about the presumption of capacity. In other words, it does not matter whether the act of penetrative sex has taken place; the child is presumed in law, if he is under the age of 14, to be incapable of that act. I believe that that is manifest nonsense, and that is the anomaly and absurdity which the Bill seeks to redress.

Mr. Wells

It is, of course, absurd in common sense and human experience. However, it seems to me that the law has the effect of protecting boys under the age of 14 from being accused of a criminal offence for taking part in consensual sex between the sexes.

Mr. Hayes

I disagree with my hon. Friend because the law allows for a prosecution of a lesser offence of indecent assault. As was said in Committee, and has been said elsewhere, it is ridiculous that a young man under the age of 14 who has committed a physical act of rape cannot be charged with the offence of rape. He can be charged only with indecent assault. That does not reflect the gravity of the offence.

Mr. Wells

I am not even certain of that. Although I find abhorrent the whole concept of rape and any kind of force involved in the sexual act between any partners, none the less, the act of rape in those circumstances, and at the ages about which we are concerned, is something which I am not certain we should criminalise. Would we put someone who has committed that act in prison or in a place of restraint? Is that the kind of law that we want imposed on the children of this country? I honestly do not think that we should do that.

Lady Olga Maitland


Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. Before the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) makes her intervention, may I point out that the debate is now broadening out once more. We must return to the amendment.

Lady Olga Maitland

It is important that I reply quickly to the point about whether the offence can be committed by these young people and whether it would be right and appropriate to lock them up. Children have committed rape. I visited a secure unit this week and saw a 14-year-old boy who had committed a rape, although he was obviously charged with sexual assault. He was in that secure unit because he needed psychological and psychiatric help. That was the best place for him to receive it.

10.15 am
Mr. Wells

I will return to the narrow point about the amendment after I have replied briefly to my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam.

Of course, boys under the age of 14 are capable of rape: I know that that is the case. However, I question whether such sexual intercourse, natural or unnatural, should become a criminal offence. Is that the right way to deal with it?

Sexual intercourse, whether natural or unnatural, should not be included. All sexual intercourse, particularly if it is narrowly defined in respect of rape, should be included in the Bill. However, I am not sure whether criminalising it is the right way to treat such cases. There should be psychiatric treatment, counselling and restraint. However, it should not be criminal.

Mr. Merchant

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Mr. Hayes) on introducing the Bill, which will correct an anomaly in the present law which has clearly been seen to be having a major effect on society, the legal system and the maintenance of law and order.

I agreed with the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) when he said that on some occasions we must be blind to common sense so far as the law is concerned. As he represents an Opposition party, I am tempted to say that he perhaps experiences being blind to common sense rather frequently. However, when we consider definitions in law, it is clear that at times the use of phrases appears somewhat contradictory, simply because legalistic matters are phrased in rather anachronistic language.

I have been goaded into intervening in the debate by some of the remarks of the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen). I fear that the amendment, which I accept is well intentioned, might frustrate the intention of the Bill. I should hate to see that happen and that is why I want to answer some of his points.

The purpose of the Bill is clear. So long as its drafting is in harmony with the law as it is drafted in other areas in respect of these matters, we should be content with that and aim to support the greater objective of ensuring the Bill a safe passage.

The Bill deals with matters that have changed over the years. In that respect, I refer to the age of maturity and the capacity to rape which is linked with that. There is little doubt that the age of maturity has changed over the years for many reasons, primarily because of the healthier way in which our children are brought up these days. As a consequence, a law that may have been perfectly satisfactory some time ago, has now ceased to be so. Apparent anomalies are occurring which result in young men—which is what they are—performing acts that the laws says that they are unable to perform. Adjusting the law to enable prosecutions to take place when they clearly should take place is an important tidying-up measure which must be welcomed. Therefore, in a sense, the Bill aims to abolish an archaic presumption and must be phrased in the way in which the existing law is phrased when dealing with these matters. The phrase "natural or unnatural" falls into that set of definitions.

I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Leyton. He always deploys his arguments in a unique way, and I enjoy listening to them. I know that he was speaking from the heart on this matter and feels strongly about it.

However, I still feel that he is missing the point. We must consider what the phrase "natural or unnatural" means.. As I see it, it does not simply refer to heterosexual or homosexual sex: it refers to sexual acts that the law has seen over the centuries as either natural or unnatural. That does not necessarily put a subjective judgment of what is right or wrong on the practices that the phrase seeks to describe; it is merely a legalistic phrase which is well accepted in the law and appears in all sorts of other laws dealing with this subject. It is a form of archaic prose, but it is well understood and well defined in legalistic terms. That is significant in a law such as this, because the law must be precise.

When a law is being defined and interpreted in a host of different cases, those who are intepreting it must know precisely what the words mean. The words in the Bill are well defined in terms of the law. They should not be read as a common man or a man in the street might read them: they should be read through the eyes of lawyers—and that applies a totally different analysis and definition.

Mr. Wells

I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that the law is a stranger to common sense. I wonder whether he could help the House by telling us where the phrase "natural or unnatural" occurs in other laws that deal with this subject.

Mr. Merchant

I cannot give my hon. Friend chapter and verse. All I can say is that the phrase "natural or unnatural" owes its origin in legalistic terms to the middle ages. It is present in a series of legal judgments and laws that were cast in the middle ages. Since then, the phrase has been well used in the law courts.

Mr. Hayes

The phrase comes from section 44 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956.

Mr. Merchant

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for filling in a gap in the knowledge of the law that has eluded me recently. I am sure that he will agree that the phrase does not exist solely in the Act. Nor was it invented solely in those terms.

I run the risk of moving too far away from my specific subject, which is that the phrase "natural or unnatural" should be interpreted from the legal point of view. The phrase is used in the courts and understood by lawyers, and it should not be interpreted—as my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) was doing persuasively, but inaccurately, in this context—through the eyes of the ordinary man in the street. In other words, it is not meant to condem people as unnatural people, which is what he said. Nor is it meant to be used in a scientific sense, literally meaning what nature intended. Instead, it is used to describe different forms of activity in a shorthand legalistic phrase and in a way which is understood by lawyers and the courts.

I conclude—because I do not want to detain the House —by saying that the hon. Member for Leyton has allowed himself to become overexcited by clause 1 and has perhaps created an unnecessary debate. To omit the words "natural or unnatural" would leave the Bill more or less intact. However, we would run the risk of allowing it to run into difficulty in practical application because of the technical language used. If the hon. Gentleman is prepared to compromise and accept that the words will not be emblazoned on buildings outside and upset people in the street or cause people to change their behaviour, but are technical words to ensure that the Bill achieves its objective —an objective with which I am sure he would not disagree —they should be welcomed, and we should not make too much over three words.

Mr. Hayes

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant) for his common-sense approach to the matter—I wholeheartedly agree with him. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) who gave us a sensitive rendition of some of the difficulties. I am not sure whether I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells), but he is a dear and personal friend. I am grateful to him, and he can buy me a large drink later.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen). He is a tireless campaigner for human rights in all sorts of areas. I agree with much of what he said. The purpose of the legislation is to clear up an anomaly, an absurdity. The law must be 100 per cent. clear. The word "unnatural" is an anachronism which goes back to section 44 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956. It is not a word which I especially welcome in legislation. However, if it is not in the Bill, it makes nonsense of the legislation.

My hon. Friend the Minister will listen most carefully to what has been said today. If he chooses at some stage in later legislation to have a careful look at section 44, I should be the first to welcome it. Hon. Members should not think for a moment that I am homophobic. I sit on the Committee chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler) which specifically examines discriminatory laws and suggests to the Government how such laws can be changed, so this is not an attack on the gay community, and should not be seen as such.

Mr. Wells

I wonder whether my hon. Friend could explain his arguments. He is saying that he needs the words "natural and unnatural" in the Bill to make it consonant or work with other legislation on this subject. If, as my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant) said, that is archaic and comes from the middle ages, or presumably from Shakespearean language, why should we continue to use these archaic legal jargons in shorthand? Why should we not be straightforward in our legislation and make it abundantly clear to the ordinary people in the street? We should not have wretched lawyers, who are paid immense fees, interpreting the law and therefore making it so much more expensive. Let us be straightforward. Let us not have "natural and unnatural" in the Bill.

Mr. Hayes

As usual, my hon. Friend is absolutely right: let us be straightforward. This is not the legislation in which we can change the anachronism. The difficulty is the interpretation by judges in other places. Judges will look at section 44 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956 for the definition of "penetrative sex". If my hon. Friend wants that straightforwardness, the 1956 Act should be changed, not the Bill. We need clarity in the law. I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Leyton when he said that this is not the time and the place to get the clarity that we want.

I did not want before lunch to get into other areas of unnatural sex, but the hon. Gentleman rightly wanted a further definition. Of course, the definition spreads much wider than anal intercourse: it also involves animals and bestiality. Perhaps there are all sorts of changes that my hon. Friend the Minister may wish to examine at another time—this is not the time and the place to discuss them—whereby there can be clear definitions of "anal intercourse", "vaginal intercourse" and "intercourse with an animal". I submit that this is not the time and the place.

I ask the hon. Member for Leyton to listen carefully to what has been said today. The House is not unsympathetic to the argument put by the hon. Gentleman, who talked a lot of common sense; perhaps it is time for a review. I ask him to remember that the Bill is designed to clear up an anomaly, an absurdity, in the law. We are talking about penetrative sex and, despite what my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford said, we are not talking about offences that would criminalise people, because those offences have been criminalised already. We are talking about an offence that properly reflects the gravity of the act. I ask the hon. Member for Leyton to withdraw his amendment.

10.30 am
Mr. Michael

It is clear that the amendment would improve the language of the Bill so that ordinary people could understand it better, but it would damage it by retaining the assumption of incapacity in relation to such things as bestiality and other forms of intercourse. The problem is that the Bill clears up one anomaly in the law —it disposes of one piece of nonsense—while leaving plenty of other anomalies and anachronisms to be tackled by the House at a later stage.

It is dangerous for the House to try to do too much, particularly under a private Member's Bill. To delete the three words "natural or unnatural" from the Bill would not do what my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton sensibly seeks to achieve. If a new definition replaced those words, it might meet my hon. Friend's aim, but that in itself would pose a danger, because new words are always open to interpretation by the courts. In any event, that alternative is not available to us. Perhaps that can be considered in another place at the appropriate time. If we introduced a new and wider definition, we might fail to achieve what the House intended.

For that reason, I encourage my hon. Friend, whose argument was taken seriously by hon. Members on both sides of the House, not to frustrate the intention of this simple piece of legislation by pressing his amendment.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Michael Jack)

I endorse the wise advice from the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) to the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen).

My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Mr. Hayes) gave a correct interpretation of the way in which the Bill is drafted when he referred to section 44 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956. All pieces of legislation borrow from previous legislation to ensure consistency. The Bill has done the same in order that the legal world is in no doubt, according to current definitions, as to its exact intent.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) spoke at length about the problem of definition. All of us who are not lawyers understand his argument about the need for clarity. The abolition of the presumption that young men under 14 are incapable of intercourse, however, was considered as part of the final report of the Criminal Law Revision Committee, which reported in 1984 on this matter.

Although that committee felt that the issue of presumption was a key part of its recommendations, the question of definition did not form part of its substantive decision to recommend that the abolition of presumption should be subject to a parallel change. My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow has followed the committee's recommendations carefully when drafting the Bill. As a result, I urge the hon. Member for Leyton to withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Wells

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his explanation of the curious wording in the Bill. Does he agree that accepting recommendations from the Criminal Law Revision Committee is a hazardous business, especially when we consider the effect of the amendments introduced under the Criminal Justice Act 1991 in magistrates courts and others? It is unwise simply to accept recommendations from such a committee. I urge my hon. Friend to reconsider his acceptance of its recommendations.

Mr. Jack

I shall not trespass into issues connected with the Criminal Justice Act 1991, much as many hon. Members may want me to do so. No one disagreed with the recommendations of that particular report, which were widely considered. That committee would be the first to admit that not all its recommendations meet with such approval. With that in mind, I urge the hon. Member for Leyton, as other hon. Members have done, to withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Cohen

I note what has been said, but I have great sympathy with the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) who said that we should legislate clearly and mean what we say and say what we mean. We should amend section 44 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956.

I note what my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) said about the possibility of this matter being considered in another place. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Cohen

I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 1, leave out lines 9 and 10 and insert— '(2) This Act shall come Into force on such date as the Secretary of State may by order made by statutory instrument appoint.'.

Madam Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 3 in page 1, clause 2, leave out lines 9 and 10.

No. 4, in page 1, clause 2, leave out line 11.

Mr. Cohen

The amendment would give the Home Office time to consider the implications of the Bill and whether any follow-up measures are necessary.

The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) was right to ask whether the criminal law was the right means to deal with this matter and spoke about the need for counselling. We should remember that we are dealing with children between the ages of 10 and 14 and that counselling is needed for the victim and the perpetrator. The Home Office should consider such implications rather than just let the Bill go through.

We must consider whether the Bill will tilt power more towards the police as opposed to youth agencies, social services and social workers. Is the Bill more about punishment than reform and help? Branding young people as criminals has a disproportionate effect on them, as we know from the high rate of suicide among young people in prison. Such a label will affect children in later life. There is a lot of hysteria about youth crime but we should not be caught up in it. We should consider the matter seriously.

The Bill will come into force two months after its enactment, but time should be given to consider its implications and definitions. We must consider whether other changes can sensibly be made to this part of the law.

Lady Olga Maitland

Once the Bill is enacted, it should come into force right away. I do not believe that there is any necessity to wait two months. The public will expect us to get on with it. Why should young offenders be allowed to get away with such awful crimes? They are awful and serious crimes. Why should the perpetrators be allowed to get away with them for another two months?

There is growing public awareness of the scale of the crimes among young people. Parliament would open itself to ridicule if it were not seen to deal with the problem straight away. If it were seen to hesitate, it could make the public wonder how serious Parliament was about the issue. A difficult position could arise. What would happen if there were a horrible attack within the two months period which received saturation press coverage—such as the tragic case of little James Bulger? Would not Parliament look stupid if it were crippled by its own Act and could not take action immediately?

There is much concern about tackling the issues in the public domain. There is a feeling that young people are too precocious and believe that they can get away with their actions because society has created a climate in which all forms of violent sex are permitted. The Bill is an excellent way for the Government to be seen to take direct action and respond immediately.

The Bill is not an attempt to be hostile; we are not trying to pick on naughty or mischievous children. There is no danger of such children being brought to court by mistake. We must ensure that the prosecution has to prove that the accused boy clearly understands that what he did was seriously wrong. There is no excuse for any sexual offence. Such offences are not caused by material deprivation; tragically, the perpetrators of such crimes seem to come from broken homes where there has been a moral breakdown rather than a material breakdown. Society would now support the idea of taking a stiffer approach.

Mr. Wells

Can my hon. Friend give any evidence to support her assertion that such activity is particularly prevalent among children who come from broken homes? I believe that it takes place at all levels of society and is carried out by those from all sorts of homes.

Lady Olga Maitland

Yes, the activity happens at all levels of society, but there is evidence—I cannot cite examples now as I do not have the sources to hand—to show that those from broken homes, where there are no benchmarks of social and sexual behaviour and a sort of "anything goes" attitude, display a prevalence for a violent approach to sex because the children do not receive parental guidance. Tragically, the perpetrators of violent sex are often young people who have themselves been sexually abused.

Mr. Merchant

I can assist my hon. Friend by assuring her that all the recent studies on sexual abuse of children have shown that it is much more prevalent when the parents have been abused. That fact cross feeds into sexual offences. There is a clear, identifiable current running through the cases. I am not denying that it happens elsewhere, but the majority of cases display those characteristics. I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that the Bill will help to identify those involved in the problem at an earlier age, which must be in the interests of all those concerned—victims and offenders.

Lady Olga Maitland


Madam Deputy Speaker

Before the hon. Lady continues, I should remind her that this is not a Third Reading debate. We are considering specific amendments, and the discussion must relate to them more closely.

10.45 am
Lady Olga Maitland

I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for that guidance. The comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant) are appropriate because we are trying to analyse why it is crucial to legislate now. My hon. Friend rightly said that it was important to analyse why the cases occur. I totally support his view that the children who have been abused often have parents who have been abused. I remember another tragic case that came before me in which the mother had been abused and her parents had been abused. It was a family of abuse in which a culture of violence had grown up which the children took on.

It is important that the Bill should be given a swift passage, not merely through its parliamentary procedure, but into law. The cases that have come to light are worrying. In 1989, 287 boys were cautioned for indecent assault on females—rape, which means penetrative sex. Proceedings went ahead in another 37 cases; 25 of the defendants were found guilty.

Earlier in the debate there was discussion about indecent assault on males—homosexual acts. The related figures are that in 1989 proceedings went ahead in three cases and all the defendants were found guilty. Some 29 males were cautioned. I agree with the school of thought that such offences are not on the same scale as those involving heterosexual sex, but they must be taken into account.

I am not straying wide of the mark, Madam Deputy Speaker, but trying to emphasise the urgency of the matter. The figures rose in 1990. There were 47 proceedings involving sexual assaults—which we should now call rape—on females, and 26 of the defendants were found guilty. However, a much higher number were cautioned: 245. There were four proceedings which went ahead involving males assaulting males, and two defendants were found guilty. It is important to note that there was a considerable increase in the number of those cautioned, which rose to 44.

The latest figures for 1991 show the urgency of the issue. In 1991, 46 young men faced proceedings for indecent assault on females—rape—of which 23 were found guilty; and, overall, 225 were cautioned. There were three proceedings which went ahead involving indecent assaults on males—male rape—and two defendants were found guilty. There were 43 cautions. Therefore, the figures are going up, not down. We cannot afford to allow any time to elapse.

When we consider some of the cases that have come to light, we realise how urgent the matter is. In 1990, Sir William Shelton, a former very respected Member of the House, introduced a private Member's Bill which included a clause to abolish the presumption, but the Bill was talked out at its Report stage because hon. Members opposed another clause referring to kerb crawling. That was a pity, because important issues were at stake.

In the Second Reading debate on the Bill, the then Home Office Minister, now the Secretary of State for Education, made some observations. He pointed out the importance of realising the serious nature of what is going on, citing the case of a four-year-old victim who was handicapped and epileptic—raped by a boy next door aged 13. Another case concerned a victim who was only five; and in another, the victim, aged 10, was gang raped while visiting friends. Some 13-year-old boys dragged her upstairs and raped her. Finally, there was the sickening case of a multiple attack on a married women in her late 20s, a mother of three, by schoolboy rapists, all of whom were under 14 years old. And let us not forget the recent case of the schoolteacher who was violently attacked by a schoolboy.

For all those reasons, I do not think that there is any time to waste.

Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest)

I hear what my hon. Friend says, but she tends to miss the point about what is missing from the Bill. If this Bill were passed, many of the 225 cases of indecent assault on females dealt with in 1991–92 would have been re-categorised in the courts as rape, and no additional penalties would have been available as a result. I would expect that none of the 46 people who were proceeded against in the courts as a result of those acts of rape would have been given a custodial sentence—and most people in Britain would find that horrendous.

Lady Olga Maitland

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. Unfortunately, the courts dealing with children in these cases often pass the responsibility for them back to the social services and local authorities. The latter can decide whether to put a child into a children's home or whether to recommend that the child goes to a secure unit. Local authorities should make far greater use of secure units, the more so since I know that they have enormous facilities in those units. That would help the child, who is clearly the victim of his own illness, and society, because people would then know that something was being done.

Mr. Nigel Evans

We are talking about rape, which is an horrendous act. Does my hon. Friend agree that, when the legislation covering juvenile offences comes before this Chamber, it should take account of children aged 14 and below who commit rape and who may therefore be properly punished? As has been pointed out, the law does not allow for that at present.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. We must be careful; we are going wide of the amendments, which relate mainly to the timing of the operation.

Lady Olga Maitland

The timing of the operation is what my hon. Friend is talking about—hence the urgency of his remarks. He is quite right to say that much more attention should be given to the sentences that children serve.

I believe that it is urgent that we implement this measure. Society will support it; indeed, society believes that we have been too lax for too long. Now is the time to put that right.

Mr. Wells

The more I hear about the Bill, the less I like it. It is clear to me that we need time for reflection before it is put into effect. In particular, we need to think about the Bill's ramifications and its effect on other laws relating to juvenile sentencing of the children who, if the Bill is passed, will be accused of criminal acts and then "punished" for them. That is a serious thing to do to children.

The point that I have been trying to make has not yet been answered. In my layman's reading of the Bill, it seems to apply to all sexual offences, not just to rape. Lawyers may be able to interpret it as applying only to rape, but it says that it is about sexual offences: to a layman, that means all sexual offences. I am sure that lawyers, using medieval and arcane arguments, will be able to claim that the Bill covers only rape, even though that is not what it says. If they say that, I shall have to accept it. The fact remains, however, that none of the horrific cases or the increase in the number of such cases adduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) would have been affected by the enactment of the Bill. The only result will be the criminalisation of under-age sex, and there will be no proper provision for the children involved and no attempt to correct their behaviour so that they can grow into well-balanced adults who are unlikely to undertake such activities again. The Home Office will have to think these matters through carefully and sensitively.

In recent years, the Home Office has all too often taken precipitate action on recommendations made to it by the great and the good. We have not benefited from that, and at times the law has been made to look an ass.

Mr. Couchman

I share my hon. Friend's concern that we should not take precipitate action on the Bill or enact it without due care and attention. We have indeed passed some dreadful laws on the spur of the moment, such as those affecting dangerous dogs and football supporters, among others. I am, however, worried about my hon. Friend's thinking about whether it is right to punish people under 14 years of age. My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Mr. Hayes) has said time and again that the Bill is about the crime of rape—penetrative sex—not about minor experimentation. It is about serious crime., and serious crime must be seen to be punished.

One of the great weaknesses of the Bill—I hope to say more about this in a lengthy contribution on Third Reading—is that it provides no more deterrence or punishment than current law already provides for.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. Before the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) continues, I must caution the House that we are getting off the point again. This group of amendments concerns when the Act shall come into force, but the arguments that I hear are more about whether we should pass the Bill at all.

Mr. Wells

My argument is that we should be careful about implementing the Bill within two months of enactment. I agree with the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen), who wants some time to elapse in which Ministers can reflect and take advice before implementation, to make sure that the Bill has no unexpected side effects on other laws or other ways of treating people who will be considered to offend under the Act.

Mr Hayes

My hon. Friend has asked a question, and although I am a member of the Bar and have practised as such for many years, I will give him an answer in simple, laymen's terms. Crime is like baking a cake; before we can make a cake one has to have the necessary ingredients. The ingredients for the crime of rape are that there has to be sexual intercourse. The definition of sexual intercourse is full penetrative sex. The Bill therefore tidies up the anomaly surrounding one of the ingredients of the offence —sexual intercourse. Without the one, the other cannot exist.

Mr. Wells

All hon. Members are capable of reading clause 1 which states: The presumption of criminal law that a boy under the age of fourteen is incapable of sexual intercourse (whether natural or unnatural) is hereby abolished. Sexual intercourse is not rape; it is an enjoyable affair between two consenting people, usually male and female. If it were rape, we should be guilty of it every hour of the day and night. [Interruption.] That is what the Bill says and the lawyers who abound among us have not refuted that.

11 am

I am trying to speak exactly in line with the amendment which I commend to the House because it gives time for reflection. This is over-hasty legislation which we shall regret. My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman) spoke about punishment and the intent of the Bill. Punishment for sexual offences, especially those involving young people, deserves careful investigation and thought. If offenders are placed in social services homes, their predilection to engage in violent sex or sex of all kinds will be encouraged.

Criminalising such activities by the young would enhance and reinforce their attraction. The House must decide what to do with such people so that they will grow into well-balanced, non-violent people who will make a constructive contribution to the life of the country.

Mr. Michael

There was some disgraceful trivialisation in parts of the speech by the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells). The Bill is so simple and contains such common-sense improvements that I am surprised that we are taking so long over it. I am tempted to the unworthy thought that the sudden interest by Conservative Members in the minutiae of the likely effect of the Bill might have something to do with their opposition to the Medicines Information Bill, which seeks to protect ordinary people and end secrecy in the pharmaceutical industry about the development and sale of drugs. That Bill should be debated this morning.

Mr. Couchman

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the hon. Gentleman to impugn the integrity of Conservative Members who are interested in an important if brief Bill? It is the very brevity of the Bill which worries some of us.

Madam Deputy Speaker

It would be unduly sensitive to pay too much attention to such remarks. I hope that hon. Members will keep to the point.

Mr. Michael

I think that the hon. Gentleman doth protest too much. I have said all that needs to be said on the Bill and I note the embarrassment of Conservative Members.

The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) called for a sense of urgency. I agree, because it is wrong that the anomaly in the law was not put right by the Government years ago. Now that we have the opportunity to put it right, thanks to the hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Hayes), we should take it seriously and make sure that we get the legislation right.

We should not rush. I am opposed to retrospective legislation and have opposed it when it has been introduced by the Government. That bad practice is contained in one of the amendments in the group, and we should not go down that road. The issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) are important. There is a need for counselling and preventive work and we must recognise the serious problems and tackle the type of cases about which the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam spoke. However, the problems are not triggered by the Bill; nor is the need for counselling and prevention, because that exists now. The problem is that the task is given to voluntary organisations in the social work sector and statutory bodies which are stretched past sensible limits, bearing in mind the seriousness of the issues.

My hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), who is with me on the Front Bench this morning, and other colleagues in Labour's health and social services team are very concerned about these issues, which we take seriously. I hope that the Minister will acknowledge the nature of the problem that my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton has highlighted. I also hope that the Minister will undertake to speak to his right hon. Friends in the Health Department and in Departments dealing with social services and local government to try to ensure an improvement in the help and counselling that are available for victims and offenders, so that they may be prevented from further ruining their lives and creating more victims.

We should not try to do too much with the Bill and I hope that there is no suggestion of delaying its implementation until all the facilities are in place, because I suspect that we would have to wait rather longer than we would be happy about. I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton not to press his amendment because it would place in the hands of the Minister the power to delay the implementation of the legislation. That is what makes me uneasy about the amendment.

Mr. Nigel Evans

I have never been accused of being overly sensitive, but the accusation by the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) that hon. Members are debating this issue only because they wish to delay another Bill is scandalous. We are debating the Bill because we are deeply interested in it.

It has been said that the Bill is over-hasty, but that cannot be the case, because a similar Bill was introduced in 1990 and was talked out by the hon. Member for Brent East (Mr. Livingstone). I agree that the legislation is important and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) said, it should be introduced as soon as possible. If there needs to be a delay of two months to ensure that everything is in its place and that the legislation is properly enacted, so be it, but there should be as little delay as possible.

No doubt other Bills will need to follow this one. As soon as it is enacted, we should look carefully at the Bill on juvenile offences that has been mentioned by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. He has said that he wishes to introduce such a Bill as soon as parliamentary time allows. I hope that Opposition Members will ensure that time is made available so that that Bill can be debated as soon as possible.

Mr. Michael

The hon. Gentleman should not be so naive as to think that a statement by the Home Secretary that he wishes to bring Bills to the House quickly is as simple as meets the eye. There is a Criminal Justice Bill before the House this Session and there was one two years ago and they both missed all sorts of important matters that should have been considered by the House. A wish to present a Bill is not enough. The hon. Gentleman should not be so naive as to think that we have missed the fact that the Bill that we are considering took 20 minutes in Committee and so far has been debated here for one hour and 38 minutes.

Mr. Evans

I am neither naive nor sensitive. I look forward to the support of Opposition Members when a juvenile offences Bill comes before the House. It seems that we are considered guilty whatever we do. If we do not debate legislation, we are said to be over-hasty and failing to give it due consideration. If we do debate it, we are accused of being ponderous and attempting to talk the Bill out.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. There is a third point —the offence of being irrelevant.

Mr. Evans

I am not sure, Madam Deputy Speaker, who you are accusing of being irrelevant. If it is me, I stand before you guilty on that count.

As soon as the Bill can be enacted, the better—but I hope that there will be all-party support for ensuring that the right legislation is put on the statute book, so that those found guilty of rape—which is deemed an extremely serious offence in this country—are dealt with properly.

Mr. Hayes

I have known the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) far too long to be the slightest bit upset by him. As one of the few people—apart from you, Madam Deputy Speaker—who regularly sees the hon. Gentleman with hardly any clothes on, nothing surprises me. In case there is any misunderstanding, I shall explain that that happens in the gymnasium.

In case my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) has not decided to withdraw her amendment, perhaps I may persuade her to do so. It is a general principle that a statute—particularly one dealing with criminal offences—affects only factual situations arising during the period of its operation. My hon. Friend's amendment goes against that principle by allowing the statute to be retrospective.

The fact that the Bill would not be retrospective does not mean that young boys who commit sexual offences covered by it would not be brought before the courts—although it is true that most of the offences of which they could be convicted would be indecent assault. I am not persuaded that it would be in the best interests of justice to do as my hon. Friend suggests, and I ask her to withdraw her amendment at the appropriate time.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. An amendment that has not been moved cannot be withdrawn. Only one amendment is moved at a time.

Mr. Hayes

I sympathise with the amendments of my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam and of the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen). The hon. Gentleman is saying, "Hang on for a moment. We do not want to rush things. There are many other matters to be considered. Sentencing is not being dealt with at this stage and other legislation must be taken into account." My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam is saying, "This is a very serious offence and those guilty of it should be dealt with straight away." I understand both points of view, but the matter must be put into perspective.

The offences in question are most serious. Figures for the five years from 1987 to 1991 show that nearly 215 boys aged between 10 and 13 were prosecuted for indecent assault on a female, and 1,260 were cautioned. Over the same period, 21 offenders were proceeded against for an indecent assault on a male and 187 were cautioned. In some of those cases—one cannot say precisely how many —there will have been penetration, and a charge of indecent assault would have been viewed by the victims as something of a euphemism.

Mr. Wells

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Will you clarify which amendment is under consideration? My understanding is that we are debating only amendment No. 2, in the name of the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen), which states: This Act shall come into force on such date as the Secretary of State may by order made by statutory instrument appoint. Is that correct?

Madam Deputy Speaker

What the hon. Gentleman says is correct but not complete. Two other amendments which have a slightly different import are under consideration.

11.15 am
Mr. Hayes

I am dealing with all the amendments in the most even-handed way that I can. As you said, Madam Deputy Speaker, the three amendments are grouped.

My hon. Friends the Members for Sutton and Cheam and for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) argue that the offence must be placed on the statute book as quickly as possible because something must be done. Something is being done. It is not as though the young people who commit such offences cannot be dealt with by the police and the courts—they can. The argument behind the Bill is that those offenders are being dealt with in an absurd fashion —that the crime of which they are convicted does not reflect the gravity of the actual offence.

I ask my hon. Friends to remember also that the police and the courts are under a tremendous burden in dealing with the legislation that the House pumps out like a sausage machine with great regularity. As Opposition Members pointed out, some of it is not as good and accurate as we would like. It would be only right and proper to give the authorities two months to understand precisely the purpose of the legislation. That is not a great length of time—particularly as the young people concerned, although mercifully there will not be many of them, must be dealt with by the police.

I acknowledge also the point made by the hon. Member for Leyton, which was similar to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest. The Bill does not address sentencing because we must wait for my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary to bring other legislation before the House. It would be wrong to delay clear and simple legislation such as the Bill on account of the sentencing aspect, when we know that will be appropriately dealt with at the correct time.

Mr. Anthony Coombs

We hope so.

Mr. Hayes

We all hope that will be so, and it will be for hon. Members on both sides of the House to rectify many of the mistakes for which we must all share responsibility. After all, we voted for the legislation.

Mr. Wells

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene during the middle of his peroration. He has not yet answered my point as to why he claims that the Bill refers only to rape and not to any other form of sexual intercourse.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. It would not be appropriate to deal with that point under this set of amendments.

Mr. Hayes

I am guided by you in these matters, Madam Deputy Speaker. I should love to debate that point with my hon. Friend. Given the number of interventions he made, perhaps he owes me a very large lunch today, and we could discuss the matter then.

I ask the hon. Member for Leyton to consider withdrawing his amendment in the interests of speed.

Mr. Cohen

I intend to withdraw my amendment, but I shall briefly make a couple of points. The hon. Members for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) and for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) attacked my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) for talking out a Bill in the last Parliament, but that Bill addressed a completely different issue. It sought to deal with kerb-crawling and to create more offences of prostitution, which my hon. Friend opposed. It did not concern itself with children, as does the Bill now before us.

I share many of the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells), who made several genuine points. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam also made a good point when she said that children who abuse were often abused themselves, as were their parents. That makes the case for counselling and help, yet the hon. Lady did not argue that point. She spoke only of locking up young offenders in secure units. More attention should be given to providing counselling and other help.

Lady Olga Maitland

Of course children who come from families with a history of abuse and who themselves commit offences of abuse against others need counselling, but where children are accused of rape—we are trying to define that—they should receive the appropriate sentence. At that age, I hope that they will also receive counselling.

Mr. Cohen

I have made my point. The point has also been made that it will not be sufficient just to pass the Bill. Implications will automatically flow from it. The Minister cannot just wash his hands of it and say that after it is passed he will not have to worry about any of the implications. Having made my point, however, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Order for Third Reading read.

11.20 am
Mr. Hayes

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) suggested, from a sedentary position, that these proceedings are a filibuster. May I say both to him and to the hon. Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice), who has introduced some very important legislation which I sincerely hope will be considered by the House today, that when the Sexual Offences Bill came before the House on Second Reading it went through on the nod, simply because of lack of time. Therefore, it is important to have a full debate now. This is not a trivial piece of legislation. It deals with juvenile crime.

Mr. Giles Radice (Durham, North)

I do not, of course, accuse the hon. Gentleman of anything, but he appears to have something of a guilty conscience. As far as I know, he broadly supports my Bill—but perhaps he wants virtue, though not just yet. It is true that there was no Second Reading debate, but I understand that in Committee the proceedings were so controversial that they went through in 20 minutes.

Mr. Hayes

The difficulty is that those who serve on Committees are not always willing participants, whereas those who come along on Friday mornings—when many Members believe that they should be with their families or their constituents—feel strongly that they should have the right to be heard.

Mr. Michael

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hayes

Yes, but then I must press on.

Mr. Michael

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman wishes to press on, but I should like to clear him of any guilt relating to this matter. His contributions to the debate this morning have been very restrained, despite the fact that some of his hon. Friends have sought to widen the debate way beyond the limits of the Bill. However, the Second Reading went through' on the nod and the Committee stage took 20 minutes. The Bill has had its Report stage this morning, and all of a sudden, when we arrived at Third Reading, a large number of hon. Members wandered into the Chamber and jumped up, thus indicating that they wanted to speak. That looks to me like a filibuster and an attempt to talk out the Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice) has introduced in an effort to protect the British public. That is a disgrace.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I have made the point before to the hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Hayes) that we must stick to the point. If hon. Members want to speak on Third Reading, they are entitled to do so, but I suggest that that is exactly what they do.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I think that I am the only person who has come late to the debate. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Whether I am or not, I have strong reasons for being late. I am very interested in the Bill and wish to speak on Third Reading. It is not right for hon. Members to be pressurised in this way and to be denied their entitlement to speak on Third Reading. I am glad to note, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you are protecting us.

Mr. Hayes

I am grateful to you, Madam Speaker, for your ruling. I am delighted to say that the Bill has the full support of the Opposition Front Bench, as well as the support of the Liberal Democrats.

Ms Liz Lynne (Rochdale)

The hon. Gentleman says that the Bill has the full support of the official Opposition and the Liberal Democrats. I agree. Therefore, I cannot understand why it is taking so long.

Mr. Hayes

If the hon. Lady had been here longer, she might understand. She has been here for only about 10 minutes.

Ms Lynne

I understand that the Committee stage took 20 minutes and that there has been no opposition to the Bill whatsoever. Therefore, I reiterate my point: I do not understand why it is taking so long.

Mr. Hayes

Perhaps the prolonged absence of the hon. Lady and the fact that she had nothing to say was because she was convinced by the arguments.

It may help if I deal with the policy background. The Bill implements a recommendation of the Criminal Law Revision Committee in its 1984 report on sexual offences, that the presumption of incapacity in law of boys between the ages of 10 and 13 should be abolished. That recommendation was included in a private Member's Bill in 1990 on sexual offences which received all-round support.

The offences covered include all crimes that involve an offender's capacity to penetrate the vagina or anus, rape, buggery, or attempts to commit these offences, unlawful sexual intercourse with a girl under 13 or 16, unlawful sexual intercourse with a person suffering from a mental disorder or defect, or any other sexual offence involving penetration. May I point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) that we are not criminalising consensual sex between teenagers, whether it be homosexual sex or heterosexual sex, or sex with animals.

Earlier I gave the figures for the past five years. Between 1987 and 1991 they show that nearly 215 boys, aged between 10 and 13, were prosecuted for indecent assault on females and that 1,260 were cautioned. Over the same period, 21 were proceeded against for indecent assault on males, and 187 were cautioned. In some of those cases, though we cannot say precisely how many, there will have been penetration. A charge of indecent assault will have seemed to the victims to have been quite outrageous. These offences cause real distress to the victims. That distress may be compounded if they then find that their attackers cannot be convicted of the right offence. That adds insult to injury.

Some hon. Members may ask what is the point of being convicted of the right offence if those convicted are not then subjected to custody. That point was made properly by my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs).

Mr. Michael

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for briefing meetings for the filibuster to take place within the Chamber?

Madam Deputy Speaker

The Chair has no knowledge of those matters.

Mr. Hayes

Some people may ask what is the point of young people being convicted of the right offence if they are not then subjected to custody. My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest has made it clear, as have many of us on this side of the House, that we await with great interest what my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary presents to us on the Floor of the House at some future time.

Section 53 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933, which gives courts powers to order the long-term detention of juveniles convicted of grave crimes, applies, in the case of those under 14, to the offences of murder and manslaughter, something which I hope will interest the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) and my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland). Intensive community-based supervision has proved to be an effective way of responding to children of this age who commit serious offences. When removal from home is necessary, local authorities have powers under the Children Act 1989 to take care proceedings. When children in the care of local authorities need to be contained, a placement can be made in secure accommodation, provided that the criteria under the Children Act are met.

I understand that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary is working on proposals for a new sentence to provide education and training in a secure setting for juveniles who persistently offend. That will be welcomed not just in the House but throughout the country. I understand that my right hon. and learned Friend is also considering the adequacy of the scope of detention under section 53.

Some people may ask whether this legislation will penalise children unfairly. I believe that there is absolutely no risk of naughty or mischievous children being brought erroneously before the courts. The prosecution will have to prove that the accused understood that what he did was seriously wrong.

There is no need for the Bill to extend to Scotland since the common law has never recognised a presumption of incapacity, and Northern Ireland is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

The Bill is simple, straightforward, clear and absolutely necessary. It is necessary for the young women who have been raped, taunted and have gone to hell and back only to find their attackers facing the ridiculous charge of indecent assault when they know that a wicked offence of rape has taken place. I commend the Bill to the House.

11.30 am
Lady Olga Maitland

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Mr. Hayes) on introducing the Bill—it certainly is not before time.

It is insulting to be accused by the Opposition of filibustering because I have had a long-standing interest in the subject. I was not invited to be a member of the Standing Committee, but I wish that I had been. If I had, I would have made my speech then.

I am very concerned. I am a mother of three children and have brought them up to understand good sexual matters.

Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield)

I take what the hon. Lady is saying with a pinch of salt. She had a choice of being a member of the Standing Committee that considered the Medicines Information Bill or the one that considered the Sexual Offences Bill, in which she says she is interested. She chose to be a member of the Committee that considered the Medicines Information Bill, which she attempted unsuccessfully to filibuster. She has turned up this morning—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. That is not relevant to what we are debating.

Lady Olga Maitland

I trust that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his remarks about me. I will stick to the main point because I am concerned about this matter.

Children need to be taught sexual manners. The tragedy of today is that they have been polluted by television, the press and society's attitude of take it, grab it and have it at any price.

Mr. Harry Greenway

My hon. Friend is making an important point, but it must be placed in the context of education. I have dealt with these matters over many years, and I do not think that it is easy to teach children sexual manners. They should be taught that sex should take place in a loving relationship.

Lady Olga Maitland

I thank my hon. Friend. I was coming to that point.

I have consistently said for a long time that sexual manners are a moral responsibility. The Bill addresses an extremely serious offence and children who commit it should not think they can get away with it because they will be charged with the minor offence of sexual assault. Young people who forcefully commit penetrative sexual offences should understand that society will not tolerate it.

We should also be paying much greater attention to the victims. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow said, those victims have been through the personal agony of rape—that is what it is—and to have it dismissed as a seemingly more minor offence makes the agony worse. Victims are often young people—sometimes younger than their assailant. They and their families need a tremendous amount of counselling and support. Everyone should understand that rape is rape and that it cannot be described as another offence such as sexual assault.

11.34 am
Mr. Anthony Coombs

I do not want to detain the House long because, despite what Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen have said, I am interested in the Bill and have some sympathy with it, but there are important matters to be discussed.

My attitude is somewhat equivocal. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Mr. Hayes) on introducing the Bill, which is a sensible measure and should have been on the statute book long ago, but it is primarily, though not totally, a cosmetic measure and will not do anything to right the wrongs by ensuring adequate punishment and counselling for those who are guilty of heinous crimes.

As long ago as 1984, the Criminal Law Revision Committee said that a Bill was necessary. Sir William Shelton introduced a Bill, which, sadly, was talked out by an Opposition Member. Speaking on the Second Reading of that Bill, the then Home Office Minister, the present Secretary of State for Education, said: the law is adding to the injury of a vicious rape or a brutal act of sexual assault the insult that it did not happen."—[Official Report, 11 May 1990; Vol. 167, c. 608.] That is why the Bill is so important. If the Government feel that the penalty for rape should be life imprisonment —the penalty has increased under this Government—the Bill should reflect that, especially as much of the case law on the capacity of a young person to commit rape comes from the 19th century. The latest case that I have been able to find is 1921. With greater nutrition, the sexual activity of children under 14 has greatly increased; hence the need for the Bill.

I understand that if a woman is raped by somebody under 14, she does not benefit from the same anonymity as if it were categorised as rape. Women will now benefit from that anonymity, which must be a step forward. The Bill will remove the anomaly whereby somebody under 14 can be convicted of aiding and abetting rape, but cannot be guilty of the full offence.

I appreciate hon. Members' concern for young people who commit this kind of appalling crime, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) said, let us not forget the victims. Irrespective of whether a rapist is under 14 or not, the psychological trauma for women will be quite enormous and therefore the punishment should fit the crime.

Sadly, the Bill allows the conviction to fit the crime but says nothing about the punishment. I understand my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow wishing to await the Home Secretary's deliberations—possibly redeliberations—but the punishment regime for young offenders is inadequate. The Bill should have addressed that, but we may have an opportunity to discuss the matter in 10 days' time in an Adjournment debate on juvenile crime that I have been able to secure.

If the Bill is enacted, the court will have to be convinced that anyone who is convicted, first, committed the act, secondly, knew that what they were doing was wrong and, thirdly, had the mental maturity to realise the consequences of their action. We are not talking only about people who may have been too immature to appreciate the consequences of such an appalling crime but about people who should be punished because they knew perfectly well, as an adult would, what the consequences would be.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) who said in Committee: For too long, the idea that containment is a necessary part of a custodial sentence has been put to one side."—[Official Report, Standing Committee F, 17 February 1993; c. 4.] We have talked too often about rehabilitation and talked too little about retribution and the deterrence of potential offenders. I understand what my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Mr. Hayes) said about section 53 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 and the Children Act 1989 in terms of the custodial sentence available for those under 14 years of age who commit the appalling crimes that we are now discussing, but I believe that, in the main, the regime of punishment for the under-14s is feeble.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam mentioned the figures for such crimes. In England and Wales, of 757 instances of indecent assault on a female by males under the age of 14—admittedly not all of which were cases of rape—only five offenders were restrained in custody, although some may have received supervision orders. Despite the psychological damage that they had caused, only five offenders were restrained to prevent them from repeating their offence and in order to protect women.

The problem has been significantly exacerbated by the Criminal Justice Act 1991 which effectively abolished detention in youth offender institutions for people under 15. That was a massively retrograde step and one which I hope the Home Secretary will very soon put right. I shall not delay the House by outlining what I saw when I recently visited my local youth attendance centre, which was used in five cases in 1991 to deal with people who had indecently assaulted females, but I believe that the menu of punishments available for juveniles is not good enough in terms of counselling or rigorous enough in terms of punishment, deterrence or society's retribution for the appalling crimes of which many of these youngsters are found guilty.

It is small wonder that, in relation to the same Criminal Justice Act, the Home Affairs Select Committee recently said: The age limitations by the Criminal Justice Act 1991 on the use of secure accommodation should be the subject of research to determine the risks borne by the public by the apparent inability to control the activities of the hard-core persistent juvenile offenders under the age of 15. I hope that when the Home Secretary publishes his proposals for secure accommodation for young offenders, he will not confine them to persistent offenders but will also deal with young people who may not have persistently offended but who have nevertheless been found guilty of crimes such as rape which most of us deplore.

It is crucial that we deal with the type of situation reported in The Guardian on 3 January last year. An Old Bailey judge ordered a 14-year-old boy who had raped a girl of the same age to be detained for 34 months. The judge said that the case draws attention to the fact that legislation currently not only fetters but sometimes prevents juvenile courts from depriving young people of their liberty in cases involving such heinous crime.

I know that I am talking about what is not in the Bill rather than what is in the Bill, but if we did not deal with these issues we should be talking about only a part of what is a difficult problem. I give a cautious half welcome to this half measure and look forward with great interest to the proposals to be made by the Home Secretary and his colleagues, which I hope will be better in terms of juvenile punishment.

11.44 pm
Mr. Couchman

I am glad to have caught your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, during the Third Reading debate. I am slightly affronted by some of the comments made by members of Labour's Front Bench—

Mr. McCartney

He is paid by Pfizer.

Mr. Couchman

It is unusual for an hon. Member who is on his feet to raise a point of order, but I wish to draw attention to the insinuation of the hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney). It is quite deplorable and does not help us to make progress to the very important Bill on which I wish to speak at length after we have debated this Bill.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I did not hear what I gather must have been a sedentary observation, but hon. Members know my views on sedentary observations. They will also know my views on matters which are not germane to the matter under discussion. I want to hear no more of it from anyone.

Mr. McCartney


Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. Sit down. I said that I wanted to hear no more.

Mr. Couchman

I do indeed wish to speak on the Medicines Information Bill which follows and I have tabled several important amendments to it. I have taken an interest in that Bill right from the word go, and I regret that it does not command a complete morning's debate for its Report and Third Reading because it deserves that. I am affronted by the insinuation that has been made.

It has been pointed out that the Sexual Offences Bill received its Second Reading on the nod—I think that was the description. I feel obliged to say that that is no doubt because it was second, third or even fourth on the Order Paper on that day. If it had not received a Second Reading on the nod, it would not have received a Second Reading at all because time would have run out and there would have been no opportunity to discuss it. That is regrettable, because I acknowledge that the speech that I am about to make is a Second Reading speech. I would have opposed the Bill on Second Reading had I had the opportunity to do so.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. Unfortunately, time has moved on, and the hon. Gentleman must make a Third Reading speech.

Mr. Couchman

I take your point, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I have contained myself during the wide-ranging discussion on the two groups of amendments.

As has been said exhaustively, the purpose of the Bill is to abolish the presumption in the current criminal law that a boy under 14 is incapable of sexual intercourse defined as penetration, whether natural or unnatural. It is presumed in common law that a boy aged between 10 and 13 is physically incapable of an offence that involves penetration and cannot therefore be charged with rape, but only with the less serious crime of indecent assault.

The Bill would amend the law to allow a boy between the ages of 10 and 13 to be charged with the appropriate offence if he commits any unlawful sexual act involving penetration. It seeks only to change the definition of the offence under which a 10 to 13-year-old juvenile male can be charged. It does not seek to make any provision for punishment of the new offence, and that is one of its great weaknesses. Although it may be seen as providing greater equity and justice in law for the victims—we have heard a great deal about that from my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) and others—it does not provide any greater deterrents. I am especially worried by some of the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells). He seemed to underestimate the seriousness of the offences that we have to consider.

There will be no distinction in the punishment available between the existing crime of indecent assault and the new crime of rape by juveniles. There was no debate on Second Reading and only 20 minutes' discussion in Committee. No amendments were moved in Committee and there were only three speakers, including the Minister. I regret that the Bill has had rather less discussion and consideration than it merits. It is a major step in terms of seeking to criminalise, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford put it, certain offences committed by 10 to 13-year-olds.

I am especially concerned that the Bill is deficient in two major respects. It does not seek to define the exact nature of the new crime in terms that can be proven in court. It fails to provide new punitive measures for the crime that would deter potential offenders and treat adequately those convicted.

Definition is at the heart of the Bill. Numerous examples are available to show that sexual offences are very difficult to prove, as has been mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) and for Sutton and Cheam. "Rape: from recording to conviction", the Home Office research and planning unit paper No. 71, gave the results of a three-month study in 1985 which concluded that cases of rape or attempted rape recorded by the police have only a one in four chance of resulting in a conviction. According to the study, only between one tenth and one quarter of women suffering rape report the crime to the police.

The university of North London has conducted more recent research which suggests that the conviction rate has fallen below the 1985 average, despite changes in the criminal justice system. Of 114 cases of rape or attempted rape reported to north London police stations, only 15 reached the Crown court and only four resulted in prison terms. A further 11 cases were sent to court as indecent assault charges. As one of the researchers concluded: corroboration is very often difficult in rape cases. It is worth mentioning again the timely example of the recent case of a Southwark school teacher who was allegedly raped by a 13-year-old while a 14-year-old held her down. The teaching unions were reported as saying that they believed that this was the first reported case of a suspected rape by a pupil on a teacher in a British school. It now appears highly likely that the case will not be pursued because there is insufficient forensic evidence to support the claim by the victim.

Mr. Harry Greenway

I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the fact that the Bill may assist in dealing with this problem: many young lady teachers are intimidated, sexually and in other ways, by boys under the age of 14. It is vital that those teachers are given better support and a better defence, and the Bill will begin to do that. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Mr. Couchman

I agree entirely. I am certainly not against the principle of the Bill. I am concerned that the Bill does not provide the right answer to the problem that my hon. Friend highlights. The Southwark example shows just how difficult it would be to prove a case against 10 to 13-year-olds who have previously been deemed incapable in law of rape or similar offences. It also calls into question the claim that simply changing the definition of such offences would comfort or compensate the victim by providing greater equity under the law.

My second reservation concerns penalties, treatment and deterrents.

Mr. Barry Porter (Wirral, South)

I have been trying hard to follow my hon. Friend's argument. As I understand it, he is saying that a new crime has been invented. That is not the case under the Bill. The crime —rape—remains the same. If the presumption about boys of 10 to 14 is abolished, people who could not otherwise be charged can be charged. No new crime is involved.

The reason I came into the Chamber today is an unusual one for a Member of Parliament. I came to listen to the arguments being deployed by my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Mr. Hayes), who has now left the Chamber. It would help if people were not accused of using Friday mornings to get rid of later Bills—

Mr. McCartney

The hon. Gentleman does it regularly.

Mr. Porter

I seek your protection, Madam Deputy Speaker, from such sedentary interventions. I—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I have made it plain that I deplore seated interventions. However, if the hon. Gentleman had followed my other precept, that interventions should be short, he would already have sat down.

Mr. Porter

I take the point, Madam Deputy Speaker. I shall act in accord with your wishes, although what is short is a matter of subjectivity.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. It is a matter for me.

Mr. Couchman

That was such a long intervention that I am not entirely sure what the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter) was. I suspect that it was to do with whether we have invented a new crime. My hon. Friend said that he came into the Chamber to listen. If he had been here from the beginning of the debate, as I have been, he would have heard a great deal of argument about the definition of rape and about the definition of sexual offences covered by the Bill. I shall try to make progress more swiftly. I hope that the matter will become clear to him.

Mr. Barry Porter

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Couchman

I must resist on this occasion.

The Bill makes no provision for the treatment and punishment of offenders under the proposed new category of offence. It will not deter juveniles from committing such offences simply by changing the definition. Under existing legislation, indecent assault is the strongest charge that can be brought against a juvenile under 14, yet even that is not recognised as a grave crime for punitive purposes. The promoter of the Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Mr. Hayes), acknowledged as much in Committee. He said: Section 53 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 gives the courts the power to order the long-term detention of juveniles convicted of grave crimes."—[Official Report, Standing CommitteeF, 17 February 1993; c. 4.] My hon. Friend has confirmed that point only this morning. The same problem applies to those under 14 who are charged with murder or with manslaughter, and no one doubts the severity or gravity of those crimes. Hon. Members do not underestimate the gravity of the crime of rape. That is what we are talking about and that is what the Bill is about.

We should look to the judiciary for comment. In an article in The Times on 9 March, Justice Cohen, a designated rape judge, said in reference to the Bill: It is to be hoped that it will soon become law because a change is long overdue and that consideration will be given to review the powers of the courts to deal adequately with young offenders charged with this offence. The treatment is inadequate and no remedies are set out in the Bill. It seeks merely to abolish the presumption that a 10 to 13-year-old is incapable of the offence.

Judge Cohen then said: The new government proposals to set up service training centres for young offenders between the ages of 12–15 will not apply to young rapists unless they are persistent offenders. If a young 13-year-old commits one rape, he is unlikely to come into the category in which the Government's proposals will hold sway. What will happen to youngsters between the ages of 10 and 12? They will not be covered by the proposed service training centres.

The judge concluded: There is still no adequate way of dealing with young rapists, especially those under 15. It may be that the time has arrived to rethink our policy of dealing with young sex offenders in order both to help and to punish the offender himself and to deter him and others from offending in this way. No one disagrees that a change in the law is overdue and should be made soon. However, it would be extremely premature to create a new category of juvenile offences before we have even found adequate ways in which to treat existing categories of offenders.

Furthermore, a definitional change without the necessary provisions for treatment and punishment could undermine the whole purpose of the Bill and provide yet more evidence for the cynics who regard the law as an ass. It would also place judges in an impossible position in sentencing such juvenile offenders.

The whole purpose of the sentencing to which I have referred would be to deter. By itself, the name given to an offence is not a deterrent to those who might commit it. The fear of detection, coupled with the severity of the punishment, is much more likely to deter. The gravity of the charge of rape, for example, does not appear to have acted as any deterrent against adults committing such a crime. There is, however, abundant evidence of the deterrent effect on the victim and the police of the disparity between the crime and the punishment.

In a recent celebrated case, a 15-year-old boy—I accept that he would not be covered by the Bill—raped a fellow pupil for not giving him a birthday kiss. The judge decided that the boy should be placed under a three-year supervision order and should pay £500 to his—

Mr. Michael

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. As has been said several times, we are on Third Reading, but we seem to be hearing about issues that have nothing to do with the Bill and are even now hearing about a case involving someone outside the age range dealt with in the Bill. We have been told several times that Conservative Members are not filibustering, but there is a temptation to think that that is what is happening.

Madam Deputy Speaker

I have been listening with attention and I agree that the debate is becoming rather wide, even for a Third Reading debate. I hope that the hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman) will bear that in mind in his further remarks.

Mr. Coachman

I have nearly finished, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is worth mentioning that, although the case of the 15-year-old is outside the scope of the Bill, that boy was only a little older than the children that we are considering criminalising under the Bill. I am talking about deterrence, and it is beyond peradventure that the deterrent effect of the sentence passed on that 15-year-old was insufficient. I am glad to say that the case has been reviewed and that a more severe sentence has been imposed. The lack of adequate penalties for such crimes will certainly not assist in deterring potential criminals, but it will certainly deter victims from plucking up the courage to report such crimes and will also deter the police from encouraging the victims to prosecute.

If it is true that young people are more impressionable and can be influenced at an early age, the deterrent factor becomes critical. In dealing with juvenile crime, which the Bill seeks to do, there can be no benefit in altering the legal terminology—which distinction even the courts have difficulty in understanding, let alone a 10-year-old—yet making absolutely no distinction in terms of the severity of the sentence.

No one doubts that the purpose of the Bill should be supported. However, it is both premature and defective in several major respects. First, it seeks to redefine the category of sexual offences which can be committed by boys under 14 without providing measures to deal with these new offences. Secondly, the practical definition of such offences is even more difficult to apply with 10 to 13-year-olds than in dealing with current categories of juvenile offenders. Thirdly, the Bill does not provide any measures to deter or treat those who commit the new category of offences.

The Bill is premature and could be damaging in its present form, providing theory without substance. En my estimation, the Bill has had inadequate time for debate both on Second Reading and in Committee. If it achieves its Third Reading in a few minutes' time, it will go to the other place, where perhaps a judicial mind will be brought to bear on it. It may return to the House for the final day on private Members' Bills on 2 July in a rather better form than the form in which it will leave this place today.

12.4 pm

Mr. Nigel Evans

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on Third Reading and to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Mr. Hayes) on introducing the Bill. The profile of law and order has certainly been raised recently. Only last week I attended a public meeting on the subject in one of the smaller villages in my constituency which was attended by more than 120 people. I was presented with a petition carrying more than 1,000 signatures—a great number for a local petition. Public awareness has been heightened and I know that many members of the public will wish the House to do something about the anomaly that we have been discussing.

The Bill is important to the morale of the public, the police, those who work in the courts and the victims, whose interests it is extremely important to remember. I do not believe that the victims of rape care how old the perpetrator is. Why should they? We need to talk a little more and care a little more about the victims of crime such as rape, and that is what we are doing today. Their lives have been destroyed at the hands of vicious and callous individuals.

In many cases, those who commit the sickest of crimes know exactly what they are doing and must be held entirely responsible for their actions. There can be no mitigating factors. That is why I welcome the Bill, which will rectify the anomaly in the legal system whereby those under the age of 14 are considered incapable of intercourse and therefore incapable of rape. The hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) called it a legal myth, and that is exactly what it is. Young people under the age of 14 are very capable of achieving intercourse. The BMA's figures suggest that 2.5 per cent. of youngsters aged 12 or even younger have had a sexual encounter. It is important to remember that.

We cannot draw a line in the sand and state specifically when a person is old enough to achieve penetration. It varies widely from individual to individual. Therefore, in cases of rape, the crime should be judged on the facts: did it happen or did it not happen—was the victim raped or was the victim not raped? The age of the assailant should have no bearing on the issue. How can we tell the victim of rape that those responsible for the crime cannot be tried for the crime that they committed, only for a lesser offence? Have the victims not suffered enough already? Are we to deny them even more of their dignity?

On Second Reading of the Sexual Offences Bill in 1990, the then Minister of State, Home Office, said: Any hon. Member who has received, as we have received in the Home Office, letters from the parents of a violated child who has gone through the most awful physical pain and, as hon. Members have said, who may suffer persistent mental trauma for many years, will know the pain and the consternation that they feel".—[Official Report, 16 February 1990; Vol. 167, c. 608.] We must pay regard to that.

What kind of message are we sending to those who believe that the law lacks common sense by denying that a 12 or 13-year-old can commit rape? Not acknowledging the seriousness of the crime is tantamount to condoning it. Those responsible may be free to live their lives never understanding the true ramifications of their ghastly crime. Society can no longer afford to set that example. Rape is rape. It is not sexual assault but the most vicious form of degradation known to mankind.

I contacted the Lancashire constabulary to find out how many cases had occurred in my area. The constabulary's figures showed that, in 1992, there were 25 cases of sexual offences committed by males ages 14 or under, two at the age of nine, two at the age of 11, five at the age of 12 and four at the age of 13. Those statistics are extremely important. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) has already said, the national figures in relation to the sexual offences about which we are concerned today and which we are trying to correct are quite ghastly.

I have several reflections on how we can give the crime the full recognition in the eyes of the law that it deserves. As my hon. Friends the Members for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs), for Sutton and Cheam and for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman) have said, we are simply considering the conviction and not the punishment that must follow the conviction. I hope that hon. Members will regard the Bill as a paving measure along the road to something which must follow—punishment for those convicted of rape.

Under our current legal system, someone under the age of 14 convicted of any crime other than murder cannot be dealt with effectively by the courts. When the Bill reaches the statute book, as I sincerely hope it will, it will still not enable the courts to award harsher punishments than are available now for the lesser offence of sexual assault.

I was comforted by the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow about counselling and how the social services can take some offenders into care and secure accommodation. That must be right. However, I look forward to the day when we have legislation to allow the courts to punish properly those who are convicted of rape, irrespective of age. That must be absolutely right.

At the moment, section 53 does not allow the courts to do that and that must be changed as soon as possible. I am aware that the House is clogged with legislation at the moment, but time must be found soon to allow the House to discuss that important legislation which needs to come before the House.

There are wider issues involved in the debate. There is no doubt that the youth of today are maturing faster than at any time in the past. That has been brought about by social pressures and expectations which perhaps did not exist 40 or 50 years ago. Therefore, the Bill must not be seen in splendid isolation.

There must be far more parental guidance in future. I have great reservations about the break-up of the moral fabric of many households. I am concerned about the fact that there are far more family break-ups and more single parents today. However, that does not absolve parents from their responsibility to their children. They should give them as much guidance as possible in all manner of things.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam, I recognise the impact of television in the home. Television is all pervasive. When we switch it on, we can see all manner of things at all times, particularly now that we have satellite television. I am delighted that the Government have acted against Red Hot Television and that they have been successful so far.

We must also bear in mind that videos are available in the home. They also have an impact on people of all ages. Part of the problem is that, in houses where there is no moral guidance for youngsters of 10, 11 or 12 years of age, they can switch on a television set and can see shocking pictures. If moral guidance from parents is lacking, what is a 10, 11 or 12-year-old to make of what he or she sees on the television? Action must be taken quickly to ensure that we clean up many of the programmes which are transmitted.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is pushing his luck. May we now return to the substance of the Bill?

Mr. Evans

We are saying that people under the age of 14 are capable of rape, and I have been referring to the moral guidance that such people require. I have dealt with the home and I am extremely grateful for the latitude that you have shown, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I believe that it is important that those who are capable of committing the act of rape should receive guidance in the form of sex education in schools. I was therefore delighted to learn that the new draft circular has been published and sent to schools pointing out that sex education should be taught with a moral framework in relation to family guidance. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) made that point.

I believe that schools have a role to play to ensure that we do not send our youngsters on to the streets where they lack moral guidance from their families—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. The same strictures apply now as applied a moment ago. If we are talking about the education system, surely the capacity to deal with the subject in hand is an important mark of educational attainment.

Mr. Evans

I am obviously guided by you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

In supporting the Bill, I welcome the fact that it will receive its Third Reading and will, I hope, reach the statute book very soon. My constituents are concerned about all forms of crime, whether it be crime to property or to persons. They want the courts to be given the power properly to convict someone between the ages of 10 and 14 who has committed rape for the crime that person has committed and not for a lesser offence. In the not-too-distant future, legislation will, I hope, be introduced to allow the courts to punish properly people who have been convicted of that terrible crime.

12.16 pm
Mr. Harry Greenway

I will be brief—

Mr. Michael

I should think so.

Mr. Greenway

I do not think that that kind of remark is called for. It does not help the House to address an extremely serious matter. I wonder whether the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) really cares about the issue at all. He seems to want to dismiss any discussion of the subject for whatever reason.

Mr. Michael

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Greenway

No, I will not. I do not believe that sedentary interventions of that kind are called for. However, you have given a ruling on that, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I will not pursue the matter.

I have been present in the Chamber throughout the Third Reading debate—

Mr. McCartney

The hon. Gentleman was not here earlier.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I do not wish to reprimand the hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) unduly. However, I have already said that I deplore seated interventions. I do not expect to have any more, particularly from the Front Benches.

Mr. Greenway

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I explained why I was not present earlier. I will be speedy as I recognise the importance of the next Bill to come before the House. However, the Bill that we are considering now could not be more important at a time when there is serious violence, some of which is sexual, among young people.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Mr. Hayes) on introducing the Bill. It is good that we have been able to discuss it this morning. It sets before the nation a very important issue.

I have a reservation which I want to mention, but on which I will not dwell. I believe that there is a chance that the Bill could lead to a lower age of consent than 16. If my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow considers that, he might understand how I reach that conclusion. If he does not, I could discuss it with him some time.

I believe that lowering the age of consent would be regrettable. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will bear that in mind as he considers the ramifications of the Bill when it becomes an Act. The criminal law for rape will be applied to those under 14 as a result of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow rightly said that, to be convicted, a boy will need to have understood that what he did was seriously wrong. It is sad that there are boys who do not understand that the sexual offence of rape is rape when they commit it. Of course, that is another matter. Any court or body that deals with such an individual will take careful account of the mental development of the child. That important matter is covered in the Bill.

The Bill will have a serious impact on schools, and that must be welcomed. That aspect has been mentioned and I will develop it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) said, a large number of children of all ages, including young children, watch explicit sex on television and, as a result, feel moved to try it. Children are under peer pressure at school and feel that they need to succeed, and that may lead to boys being forceful with girls, or even young female teachers. There have been sexual assaults and worse on young teachers. Young children are driven to that by what they see on television and peer group pressure. We need to take careful account of that in law, because children below the age of 14 are affected.

Family doctors or doctors dealing with schools know that children are maturing much earlier. I heard only this week of an 11-year-old boy who is pronounced to have the physical maturity of a fully grown man, although he lacks the mental maturity of a man. He was described as having strong sexual impulses and urges. He has had to be disciplined at school for pulling up girls' skirts and attacking them physically in some way. There has been a danger of his doing more than simply pulling up dresses —he was seen to pull down a girl's pants. That is seriously bad behaviour. In the school involved, it was certainly thought that the boy was likely to be worked up to the point of wanting to have sexual intercourse with the girl involved, because it had happened on a number of occasions with the same girl. That girl will be more protected as a result of the Bill and its provisions, and that is extremely important.

It is more serious to say that boys aged 14 and under can have sexual passions for teachers, rather than simply for other girls. They can attack female teachers in the same way as the boy whom I described attacked a girl of his own age. The matter is becoming more serious in some schools in which discipline has declined. To the Government's credit, they are tackling that sort of indiscipline. The matter needs to be addressed, and my hon. Friend's Bill will help greatly.

The age of puberty is unquestionably coming down all the time—happily, in one sense, because children are better fed and have better welfare. They grow more quickly and they grow bigger and stronger. However, the mental maturity of children is not keeping pace with the more rapid physical maturity that I have described. That is a problem, because children under the age of 14 rarely have the maturity to control the strong sexual urges that I have described. They need to control those urges. That applies to children not only in schools but in youth clubs and elsewhere.

Children under the age of 14—I was about to use the word extraordinary, but it is not—have a big sense of adventure. I hope that hon. Members will not think that I am reducing a serious matter to banality when I use that term. For boys who talk together and get together, it can be a great adventure to seek to have sex with girls of the same age, or girls who are older or younger. In some circumstances, boys can aid and abet each other. That sense of adventure needs to be taken into account, because it is, by definition, an irresponsible attitude on the part of the boys involved.

At the same time, boys under 14 are vulnerable to the sort of peer group pressures that I have described. In all schools, they must be told about the implications of the Bill. The knowledge that they will be liable under criminal law—as they will be—will certainly be a counter-pressure to the adventures and a support to those who are vulnerable to giving way to pressure to behave irresponsibly. Children under 14 need to be protected from themselves. The Bill will assist in that process, and it must be welcomed.

12.26 pm
Mr. Wells

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) when he described rape as the most vicious form of degradation known to mankind. It is second only to murder in the hierarchy of crimes of which mankind is capable. What is more, it leaves a damaged person—a girl or woman who must live with an appalling and vicious attack. Psychologically, it is difficult for them to recover from such attacks and enjoy normal sexual relations, as they are entitled to do.

Rape is an abhorrent crime about which we are all concerned. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Mr. Hayes) on sharing my concern about that appalling crime, even though it is committed by boys under the age of 14. For that reason, I congratulate him on introducing the Bill.

I sympathise with my hon. Friends the Members for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman) and for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs), in particular, and also with my hon. Friends the Members for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland), for Ribble Valley and for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) who said that the Bill will do nothing to address the increasing incidence of this crime. If my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow will forgive me, I believe that this is a case of fools rushing in where angels fear to tread.

The Bill deals with a crime with which it is difficult to come to terms socially and difficult to deal with in a court of law. It is also difficult to deal with in terms of the punishment given. How does one change such behaviour? Does one simply send a young boy to a detention centre, where he will learn about other forms of vicious crime and, in some cases, how to commit rape even more viciously?

My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham referred to the celebrated case in Wales involving a 15 year-old boy, who was brought before the courts. The sentence he was given was thought to be inadequate and, on appeal, it was increased. What has been the effect on the victim and the boy of having that matter brought before the court in the first place, blazoning it acrosss the national press and then increasing the punishment meted out to that boy? It certainly increased the humiliation and degradation experienced by the girl.

We are totally incompetent in our attempts to deal with this matter either through the law or social services. That incompetence is even revealed in our understanding of how to stop such behaviour and the provision of proper treatment for it. That is why the Bill should not have been introduced separately from a proper review of the way in which society, the law and the corrective services deal with the offence.

My hon. Friends who are lawyers and my hon. Friend the Minister, who is advised by lawyers, tell me that the Bill deals only with the issue of rape. It gets over a hurdle, because, under current criminal law, we cannot accuse a 14-year-old boy or a younger one of rape, as he is considered incapable of sexual intercourse. That may be the narrow legal interpretation, but a problem arises because it is a criminal offence to have sexual intercourse below the age of 16. Under the current law as I understand it, one cannot bring a criminal charge against a boy below the age of 14 for having unlawful sex below the age of 16, because he is deemed incapable of having sexual intercourse. As a result of the Bill, that will no longer be so. A boy under the age of 14 could be brought before the courts for having unlawful sex below the age of 16 and even below the age of 14. That is my understanding of the Bill, but its other effects are probably hidden from the House as we rush it onto the statute book.

Mr. Hayes

It is currently against the law for people under the age of 16 to have sex. Until the Bill is passed, it is not presumed that a person under the age of 16 has the capacity for intercourse, full penetration. In the highly unlikely event of a prosecution being brought under the current law, a person under the age of 14, who has had full penetrative sex, being presumed incapable of that act under existing law, would be charged with indecent assault. I accept that such a situation is highly unlikely, but, in theory, that person would still be charged with a criminal offence. The Bill, therefore, does not criminalise anyone; it deals with the charge, nothing more.

Mr. Wells

As a layman, I am grateful for that explanation from my hon. Friend, who is learned because he is a lawyer. I am not sure whether that is the effect of the law, however, although I must accept his advice and that of the Minister that that is the case. I hope that it is; if it is not, it will result in many youngsters who participate in sexual activities being brought before the courts of this country. That is not the right way to deal with such matters, as I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow agrees—[Interruption.]

I shall bring my remarks to a close as I can hear sedentary interruptions from the Opposition spokesmen and I do not wish to delay the House. The Bill should have been produced in the context of the problem of under-age rape and sexual offences, and provided for the sensible treatment of those who commit them to enable them to grow up as responsible humans who respect others and are capable of proper and enjoyable sex in a loving and affectionate relationship.

12.37 pm
Mr. Jack

We have had an interesting and extensive debate on many of the issues covered by the Bill. I am pleased that the Bill has reached Third Reading in an unamended form, for which we should pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Mr. Hayes). I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the Bill and steering it through its various stages through the House. Nothing in the House is ever easy or straightforward, as today's debate has clearly illustrated.

The Government fully support the Bill, which corrects a long-standing absurdity in the law. On a note of apology, I wish that the Government had had time in their legislative timetable to introduce the Bill, but, sadly, they were unable to do so. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow used his time as a private Member to introduce the legislation. Although there have been some interesting criticisms of the Bill, the general thrust of today's debate has been in support of the measure.

It is worth recording how the Bill came to be introduced, and to address one or two of the issues raised in the debate. When the subject was raised in the context of a previous private Member's Bill, it was debated thoroughly, in the round, with a number of other issues relating to sexual offences. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall), who led for the Opposition, said: Such a scandalous situation should not exist in modern law."—[Official Report, 16 February 1990; Vol. 167, c. 599.] Those were wise and correct words, and have clearly influenced the proposition of my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow.

Both those views were supported by the Home Office Criminal Law Revision Committee, which considered the matter in considerable depth. It stated clearly: Under the present law … a boy under 14 cannot be convicted of … rape or any other offence of vaginal or anal intercourse because he is conclusively presumed at common law incapable of sexual intercourse. In paragraph 27 of our working paper we discussed the common law presumption and provisionally concluded that it should be abolished. All who commented on the issue agreed with us. Accordingly we now recommend that presumption be abolished. That was a clear, unequivocal and ringing endorsement for the measures that lie at the centre of the unamended Bill.

If hon. Members have any doubt that the issue was not considered in considerable depth, they should look at paragraph 27 of the report, which states: If that recommendation"— to which I referred— was accepted, the prosecution would, of course, have to prove as in all cases involving defendants under 14 that the boy knew that he was doing wrong. My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman) mentioned that issue. He was talking about differentials of proof in terms of adult crime where, at present, the alternative might be indecent assault. Clearly, with all criminal charges different levels of proof have to be achieved. Those levels are to protect those accused of crime who may have evidence to offer to the contrary. Now, the same different sorts of proof are introduced by this proposal.

Several hon. Members supporting the Bill talked about punishment and how these sexual crimes are dealt with. I repeat what I said in the Standing Committee: we understand these concerns. My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) spoke with passion about the seriousness and nastiness of rape—he was right to use such language. Equally, however, we have taken up the point made by other hon. Members and we are looking in the round at the scope and coverage of section 53 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933. We understand the anxieties about the restrictions that it imposes on the courts, particularly as to the uses of custody. These matters take time to consider, but we are looking carefully at them.

What are the alternatives? My hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) came near to teasing out some of the important issues that lie behind this subject. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) pertinently commented on the backgrounds from which young men accused of this nasty crime may come. She mentioned that they may themselves have been sexually or physically abused.

I should like to offer the House a reassurance. The fact that the Bill will enable a person to be charged with what he has actually done—raping someone—must mean a great deal to the victim of the offence. Under current law, the courts will be able to award a sentence of supervision, which is not an easy option. It goes to the very heart of offending behaviour. It matters not whether a person is dealt with in the community or by means of custody--the problem remains: we need to get to the reasons why he committed the act of rape, with which this measure deals. Supervision, day in day out--it can be as frequent as necessary—goes, as I say, to the heart of sexual behaviour. I have seen work in the probation service that shows what can be done to turn people away from offending behaviour.

Mr. Harry Greenway

Is my hon. Friend saying that the very fact that the boy concerned may be found guilty of an offence will have a dramatic effect on the behaviour of other boys? They must be educated to know that they can be brought to book if they commit sexual offences of the kind that the Bill would prohibit.

Mr. Jack

My hon. Friend underlines my point. A proper charge can now be brought for what someone has done, and it is a serious charge. The measure will also focus the minds of those who will be responsible for the punishment of the offender and, and even under existing law, that means that the right punishment can be devised for the crime. At least the victim, who must never be forgotten, will know that a person has been convicted of an offence. Indecent assault is a lesser charge—not the right charge for a crime as serious as rape.

Mr. Cohen

I hear what the Minister says about the Government supporting the Bill. Many hon. Members support it, too, but he must acknowledge that it deals with only one aspect of the law governing rape. That law needs reform right across the board, as the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) has said. Have the Government any plans to examine all the laws covering rape, including the victim compensation aspects?

Mr. Jack

I do not want to trespass beyond the boundaries of what we are discussing today. The hon. Gentleman will know of my personal commitment to, and interest in, matters connected with domestic violence, which can include rape. There is much good work to be done on that. He will also know of recent Court of Appeal judgments that deal with rape in the context of marriage. Doubtless there is more work to be done, and I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's point.

Before I was interrupted, I was about to pick up a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs). He spoke about psychological damage to victims. The word "psychological" was appropriate and fits the point that I made about the nature of the supervision order and what can be done about offending behaviour. My hon. Friend was right to mention that and I look forward to his wider comments on juvenile crime in his Adjournment debate.

I covered the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham about differential evidence. What he said emphasises the importance of this narrow Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley takes a special interest in these matters and I thank him for his contribution.

The Bill is narrowly drawn, but it is important. It deals with a serious crime and enables the proper charge to be brought. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam said, the offence is not imaginary but real. People are presently committing rape and, if they are below the age of 14, they can be charged only with indecent assault. The Bill deals with that matter and I whole-heartedly endorse it.

12.45 pm
Mr. Michael

I congratulate the hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Hayes) on doing what the Government should have done. In view of the wide nature of the debate, we should remind ourselves that the Bill simply abolishes the nonsensical presumption of the criminal law that a boy under the age of 14 cannot be capable of sexual intercourse. That is the simple issue and it is surprising that there has been such a wide-ranging debate.

The Minister was generous enough to acknowledge that the Government should have undertaken this measure. There was an opportunity to do that in this year's Criminal Justice Bill. Many issues contained in current private Member's Bills could have been dealt with in that Bill, thus saving the time of the House. The Bill is important and useful and it is no fault of its promoter, the hon. Member for Harlow, that in some ways the debate has been widened and misused. It must have been frustrating for the hon. Gentleman to have to reduce his contribution because, undoubtedly, he would have liked to expand on knowledge of the subject.

I say to the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway), or I would if he were still in the Chamber, that it may be in order but it harms the reputation of the House for hon. Members to wander in halfway through the morning and expect to be able to speak at length. Conservative Members widened the debate into all sorts of matters which, although important, are not germane to the Bill. I especially noted those hon. Members who sought to widen it into juvenile justice generally by using the typical Conservative approach, which is to talk tough, shout loudly and do nothing.

Crime figures published this week show that the Government have presided over an increase in crime of well over 120 per cent. In view of that, I am surprised at the cheek of Conservative Members in trying to widen the debate. However, there will be all-party support if they are serious and if next week they support such measures as the Bail (Amendment) Bill and the Criminal Justice (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Warwickshire, North (Mr. O'Brien).

If Conservative Members are serious, they will press the Government for a speed-up in the criminal justice system, especially in relation to young people, and for an increase in the resources for prevention and earlier intervention. We are paying a sort of crime tax for the Government's failure in those respects. I mention them because they have been raised in the debate, although they seem to fall outside the scope of the Bill. The debate contained about 30 minutes of illumination from each side, but otherwise swallowed time that the House could have used to debate the Medicines Information Bill. Hon. Members who have spoken at length will have to answer to their consciences and to the British people for perpetuating secrecy in the pharmaceutical industry. They know what they have done in denying protection to the British public in respect of drugs and medicines. They have done that with the collusion, if not the encouragement, of the Government Whips.

The Bill does not create perfection in law, but Labour has supported the Bill from the beginning because it puts right one specific anomaly in the law. We have not let it pass without thought, but have given the Bill the consideration that its serious subject matter deserves—although we have not sought to waste the time of the House, having recognised that the Bill encapsulates simple common sense, which I commend to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.

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