NI age of consent lowered to 16
The age of sexual consent in Northern Ireland is to be reduced to 16 to bring it in line with the rest of the United Kingdom, despite opposition from the Stormont Assembly, the British government has decided.
The reduction from 17 was contained in tough new sexual offences laws aimed at protecting children, young people and vulnerable adults introduced to the House of Commons today by Criminal Justice minister Paul Goggins.
The Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008 is expected to pass through the House of Commons by June and be on the statute books before the end of the year.
The new legislation means sexual activity involving a child under 13 will always be classed as rape, whether consensual or not, and punishable by a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
Sexual activity with anyone under 16 carries a sentence with a maximum of 14 years and rape and other serious sexual assaults also carry a maximum of life.
Members of the Stormont Assembly fought a rear guard action against the reduction of the age of consent, citing a reduction in moral standards and claiming it could encourage sexual predators from the Republic - where the age of consent remains 17 - to prey on vulnerable youngsters.
In February, members voted through a motion urging Mr Goggins to drop the plan and just yesterday a majority of MLAs signed a "no day motion" urging the retention of the current age.
But Mr Goggins was not persuaded by the arguments and pressed ahead with the legislation first muted last November and put out for public consultation.
None of the major organisations - such as the NSPCC or Barnardos - supported the MLAs’ stance and all agreed legislation should be brought in line with England and Wales.
He said: “We are certainly not encouraging 16-year-olds to engage in sexual activity. What this is about is defining the age at which a criminal offence takes place even when consent is given.
“Where there is evidence of abuse or exploitation, then the new law will deal with that much more stringently, with many offences designed to protect right up to the age of 18.”
The minister said the planned changes reflected Northern Ireland’s position as a mature and modern society and brought sexual offences’ legislation into line with that introduced in England and Wales a few years ago.
Mr Goggins said: “The proposed new law offers a radical overhaul of sexual offences as well as greater protection for children, young people and other vulnerable groups.
“The Order sets out the parameters of permittable sexual activity in the 21st Century and clearly states what the law will not tolerate.
“I am convinced that the changes will offer the people of Northern Ireland a modern legislative framework which will ensure maximum protection from unacceptable sexual activity. It puts Northern Ireland on a par with the rest of the UK.
“Those who break the law will find themselves in court facing very lengthy maximum sentences.”
The North has been out of step with the rest of the UK on the age of sexual consent since 1950 when a former Stormont government increased the age to 17.
Consideration to reducing the age to 16 is currently underway here.