HL Deb 24 May 1999 vol 601 cc634-6

2.52 p.m.

Baroness Seccombe asked Her Majesty's Government:

What representations the Minister for Women has received about the potential consequence of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill on the reduction in the age of consent for an act of buggery committed on a woman, and whether it remains government policy to reduce the level of protection for young women against this form of indecent assault.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, we do not have a breakdown of the thousands of letters received. However, officials estimate that only a very small number referred to buggery involving a female. We remain committed to the measures in the Bill. These would have provided for greater protection for young people by removing the criminal liability of those under the age of consent for buggery with someone over that age.

Baroness Seccombe

My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving his usual courteous and clear Answer, but I must admit that I am extremely disappointed and astonished that the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, the Lord Privy Seal and the Minister for Women, is not answering the Question, as it is essentially a women's issue. I searched her glossy publication, Better for Women, Better for All, and can find no mention of this issue; nor can I find a reference to it in the fact sheet, Teenage Girls, accompanying the publication. If it is such good news, as the Government say, why is it not included?

Recognising that detailed consultation is essential in such a sensitive matter, can the Minister assure the House that all the major women's organisations were consulted? Can he also give the House the view of the Women's National Commission?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, it was felt that it would be more helpful if I replied, because the Home Office is the lead department dealing with these issues. Furthermore, as a matter of background, any letter on this issue sent to my noble friend the Leader of the House would automatically be transferred to my department rather than be dealt with by hers.

It may well be that there is no such reference in the documents referred to by the noble Baroness because such incidents are relatively low in number. In 1997, there was one caution and two prosecutions, resulting in no convictions of males aged 16 or over for buggery with a female aged 16 or 17, so the numbers disclosed by prosecutions are low.

I have made the Government's position plain: we believe that the Bill which was introduced was properly introduced. We remain of that view.

Earl Russell

My Lords, further to the Minister's remark about lack of convictions, might that have some connection with the difficulty of gathering evidence about consensual acts?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, that is undoubtedly a feature. A further feature is that if those who might otherwise have complained are in danger of being criminalised following their complaints, that reluctance might well point to the low level of prosecutions and convictions.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, is it not the case that, irrespective of the law, girls must have the protection of sound advice on sexual health? Therefore, does the Minister deplore the fact that the Health Education Authority, which has recently issued this jazzily colourful pamphlet, repeatedly presents girls with anal and vaginal sex as equally commendable alternatives, with not the slightest hint that one of these alternatives carries many thousand times greater risk of damage; for example, of anal lesion?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, of course young girls and young boys of this age and above require protection. That was the whole point of a significant part of the Bill, which was cast aside by your Lordships despite my suggestion that we ought to improve the protection specifically in respect of the abuse of young people by those in positions of trust. That is not the only publication; the Sex Education in Schools circular, No. 594, following the Education Act 1993, deals with the appropriateness of sex education in schools at a point appropriate to the age and maturity of the pupils. It stresses that education about HIV, AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases is extremely important.

Baroness Young

My Lords, can the Minister help the House by answering the question put by my noble friend Lady Seccombe as to which organisations were consulted about this major change in the law? Does he agree that although it is desirable in law to have some protection against abuse, had the Government not considered changing the law, protection in this particular case would not have been necessary?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I do not. We put out the document for consultation, and on many occasions I have read out a list of those organisations which responded. With respect, I do not agree with the noble Baroness. I believe that the Bill was a very notable step forward in the protection of those who are particularly vulnerable and who now will remain so, I am sorry to say, perhaps for a considerable period of time because they are subject to abuse from those who are in positions of trust in respect of them.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that this matter has been devolved to the Scottish Parliament and Ministers, so the new Bill in the next Session will not include Scotland?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, we are examining that issue and do not believe that it should present a problem. In fact, it may be of help to point out to your Lordships that Scotland does not have an offence of buggery with a woman, so females there would not be affected by changes in the Bill.

Baroness Seccombe

My Lords, it seems that the Minister is unable to answer the question about organisations which were consulted and the view of the Women's National Commission. Therefore, will he write to me about that?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, of course. I should have made that plain because the noble Baroness's question was perfectly courteous and to the point, as always. I shall answer her question more widely than the particular focus of it, dependent on the answers which I receive to the research. As always, I shall place a copy in the Library.