Orders of the Day — Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill
Mr Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield, Conservative)
I would not so much change my mind as try to change the response of young people. If they were shown to be disinclined to seek such advice, that would be a problem which we should examine and try to resolve. However, whether that amounts to an argument for going as far as reducing the age of consent for everyone to 16 is another question.
I believe that, in respect of the Bill, many people will feel that many more children than those under supervision are in danger and at risk. Will reducing the age of consent make their position more perilous and increase the risk that they face? That is the question which the House must consider. In making that judgment, we must assess the size of the threat.
It is obviously extremely difficult to evaluate the risk of sexual abuse, but an indication of the scale of the problem can be found in the study edited by Donald West of the Cambridge Institute of Criminology. That study drew attention to one piece of research, in which it was found that 12 per cent. of women and 8 per cent. of men reported that they had been sexually abused as children. If accurate, that research means that we are talking about several million adults who have been sexually abused.
Even those who contest those figures would not deny that sexual abuse poses a massive threat. It is not surprising that many parents are worried about what is an inherent fear for them, nor that they feel that the problem could or would be made worse by lowering the age of consent. In that connection, it is worth recalling the words of Sir William Utting, who was quoted in our previous debate and whose advice lay behind the amendment
tabled then by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw. In his 1997 Department of Health report, Sir William said of sexual offenders:
Persistent sexual abusers are a scourge of childhood. Their numbers are difficult to estimate but each one who adopts a lifetime career will amass hundreds of victims. They inflict unspeakable psychological and physical harm. Some of their victims will become abusers. Their success depends on their ability to ingratiate themselves with adults and children … They establish themselves as trusted friends, colleagues or employees. Exposure may be a matter of chance, often after many years of abuse.