HL Deb 22 June 1993 vol 547 cc295-8

7.35 p.m.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This is a short but worthwhile Bill that enjoyed support on all sides in another place. Its sole purpose is to remove the common law presumption that a boy under the age of 14 is incapable of sexual intercourse. The Bill is freestanding and was skilfully piloted through another place by my honourable friend Mr. Jerry Hayes. It had a smooth passage there, and I hope that noble Lords will feel similarly kindly disposed towards it.

The Bill implements a recommendation of the Criminal Law Revision Committee in its 1984 report on sexual offences. The committee could see no justification for retaining the presumption and all who commented on the issue supported its abolition. The measure was first included in an unsuccessful Private Member's Bill, the Sexual Offences Bill 1990, which again received all-round support but fell through a filibuster in another place by Mr. Ken Livingstone, who objected to some aspects of the Bill's provisions concerning kerb crawling.

The ancient presumption that a boy under the age of 14 is incapable of sexual intercourse is not in accord with the facts and perhaps it never was. It clearly raised Lord Chief Justice Hale's eyebrows over 300 years ago. It belongs to the family of legal fictions that exist to protect the young, but developments in recent years in criminal law and in sentencing policy have removed any need for it and, in abolishing it, we would do some good and no harm.

The principal practical effect of the Bill would be to allow some of the 25 or so boys under 14 who are convicted each year of indecent assault to be convicted of rape if that, rather than indecent assault, is what they have done. That is surely desirable. It will allow justice to be done to the victim of the crime to whom the lesser charge is a grave insult. Rape causes terrible distress. That distress is compounded if victims find that their assailants cannot be charged or convicted of the offence which they have actually committed. Victims' confidence that the law properly recognises their ordeal will be improved and their recovery may be assisted.

The Bill will not affect the sentences to which the perpetrator may be liable as indecent assault already attracts the maximum allowed for boys under the age of 14. This Bill is not the place to consider sentencing. It is limited in scope, and sentencing is, in any event, a matter for the Government. However, I understand that the Government are working on proposals for a new sentence to provide education and training in a secure setting for juveniles who persistently offend. More importantly in this particular context, they are also considering the adequacy of the scope of detention under Section 53 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933. At present, as far as 10 to 14 year-olds are concerned, such detention is available only for offences of murder and manslaughter.

The Bill will also apply to a number of other serious sexual offences which are, thankfully, relatively rare and where only a lesser charge is available at present.

The Bill extends to England and Wales only. In Scotland, there has never been the presumption of incapacity and the question of similar arrangements in Northern Ireland is for my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who will no doubt wish to consider it in due course. I commend this modest but valuable Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time. —(Lord Lucas.)

7.40 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am pleased to extend from this Dispatch Box our welcome to the Bill, which has been ably moved, and which was, as the noble Lord said, ably piloted through another place by Mr. Jerry Hayes. It is limited in scope, as the noble Lord will admit. It clears up one anomaly in the definition of the ages at which certain offences can be committed, but it leaves untouched a number of related anomalies. For example, there was considerable debate in another place about the phrase in the Bill, "whether natural or unnatural". If we had the choice, most of us would wish to see the phrase removed from the Bill, but we are conscious that this is a Private Member's Bill and that there would be a risk to it being carried if amendments were accepted in this House unless the Government were able to promise the measure further time.

There could be a case for the Government to make such a promise, because the Minister responding on the Bill in another place acknowledged that this was a measure which should have been, and could have been, a Government Bill, thereby providing more space for other Private Member's Bills which could not be government Bills. If the Minister were to be good enough to indicate that time would be allowed for an amended Bill to be considered in another place, we might consider amending and improving it.

The noble Lord referred to the failure of a previous Bill because of the opposition of Mr. Ken Livingstone on one particular point. I had not intended to raise the matter until the noble Lord mentioned it, but I have to say that the Bill's progress in another place on 30th April was considerably extended by a long debate, of which I have read every word, much of it unrelated to the Bill. Without seeking to offend the principle of comity between the two Houses, I say only, without expressing an opinion, that the view was expressed that a number of honourable Members contributing to the debate on the Bill, especially on Third Reading, spoke much more widely than had been envisaged in the framing of the Bill in order to delay and inhibit the passage of the following Medicines Information Bill. They succeeded in that purpose. It is a shame, however, that that should have happened to such a nice Bill as the one before us.

7.43 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I, too, welcome the Bill without reservation. It creates no problems for us. It is highly desirable that it should speed on its way to the statute book. I would say only one thing in relation to what the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said, about our attitude to Private Member's Bills. I approach with the utmost caution any suggestion that Bills are not amendable in this House because of timetable problems in another place. Once we accept that argument, we are saying that Private Member's Bills can be scrutinised in the other place only and not in this House.

Given the fact that we are a revising Chamber, it would be an extraordinary departure from our constitutional robe were we to accept any such view. Having said that, perhaps I may repeat that I welcome the Bill. It is an admirable measure. I hope that it will soon be on the statute book.

7.44 p.m.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Lucas on introducing the Bill. Its enactment would mean a fairly modest reform, but it would remove a provision which at the moment seems absurd. It brings the law up to date and provides victims with reassurance that the law recognises the seriousness of the offence which has been committed against them.

Sexual offences are peculiarly nasty and distressing and it is important that the law serves victims properly. Victims of the offences which the Bill covers are already protected from the full glare of publicity following implementation of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992 which gives statutory anonymity to victims of specified sexual assaults. That Act resulted from successful Private Member's legislation and the Government are grateful that this measure is being taken forward in a similar way.

I am consequently glad to be able to assure your Lordships of the Government's support for my noble friend's Bill. It comes to us from another place where it received wide support. I hope that it will receive similar broad support in your Lordships' House. My noble friend Lord Lucas has admirably described what the Bill aims to do, and I do not propose to elaborate upon that, except to say that some young boys are undoubtedly capable of committing rape. I cannot believe that anyone would oppose that unfortunate, but simple, fact being acknowledged in the law.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, and the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, will realise that I cannot speak for another place regarding its timetable. Equally, I would never advise your Lordships that your Lordships could not look at any Bill in a way that your Lordships see fit. However, I remind your Lordships of the time of year and of the limited amount of time left in the parliamentary timetable.

7.43 p.m.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord McIntosh and Lord Harris, and my noble friend Lord Astor, for their contributions. It is clear that there is support on all sides of the House for the measure. I therefore ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.