My Lords, as with all criminal charges, successful prosecution depends on the evidence that is brought before the courts. Tackling sexual offending is a top priority for this Government. We are currently reviewing the sex offence laws and considering a range of proposed new offences in relation to sexual activity with children of both sexes under the age of 16. We intend to introduce modernised and strengthened legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows.
My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for that Answer. He will be aware of the recent case of a girl of 12 and a man of 22. Is he aware that the numbers of reported cases of intercourse with girls under the age of 16 in 1988 were some 2,552, and that that has fallen, 20 years later, to 1,133, and that the number of convictions has fallen from 339 in 1988 to 225 today? Does not that suggest that the law is not being enforced? Is not that a serious matter? Similar statistics apply in the case of girls under the age of 13, and I understand that in that case the offence qualifies as rape.
My Lords, first, I am aware of the case to which the noble Baroness referred. It would be wrong for me to comment on the details of that case. However, it is ultimately for the prosecuting authorities to decide whether or not a prosecution will be brought. That must be decided on an objective analysis of the evidence. It would not be in the interests of any child for a prosecution to be brought which the prosecuting authorities thought would fail. One should leave such decisions to the prosecuting authorities.
As regards the second point, I am aware of the figures to which the noble Baroness referred. It would not be useful for me to speculate on the reasons, but I do not think that they are just to do with the law not being enforced in the same way as it has been in the past. I think that it has quite a lot to do with a change in social attitudes. However, I reiterate that this Government take the view that protecting people under 16 is a vital aspect of the criminal law. We shall bring forward proposals in relation to that later.
My Lords, first, given that the sex offences review team published its recommendations for consultation nearly two years ago, can the Minister give the House a timetable for when new legislation will be brought before Parliament? Secondly, given the Government's commitment to joined-up government; the extremely high level of teenage pregnancy in this country, second only to the United States; and the increasing incidence of sexually transmitted diseases among young people, how will the noble and learned Lord's department liaise with the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Skills in order to approach this raft of inter-related issues in an integrated way?
My Lords, as regards timing, I cannot go beyond saying that we intend to introduce strengthened legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows. I cannot go further than that from where I stand at present. I agree with the proposition underlying the second part of the question asked by the noble Baroness. There must be very close liaison between the Home Office, the Department of Health and other departments, in particular the Department for Education and Skills, in relation to all the issues to which the noble Baroness referred. I also refer to the fact that there was a Social Exclusion Unit report in relation to teenage pregnancies. We strive to join up as much as we can in relation to those issues.
My Lords, does my noble and learned friend agree that there is no general principle of law which requires the victim to give evidence in a prosecution case? That is evidenced, clearly, by the fact that if there were, we would never secure a conviction for murder.
My Lords, I agree with the proposition advanced by my noble friend. It is not necessary as a matter of law for a victim to make a complaint before a prosecution can be brought. However, in a case which is not murder or manslaughter, the reality in many cases is that if the victim does not make a complaint, that may well give rise in practice to difficulty in obtaining a conviction.
My Lords, does not the noble and learned Lord agree that in the case of the 12 year-old girl, the police said that they were powerless to act? Are we accepting in that case that if they were powerless to act, the case of a child under the age of 12 who is abused cannot be investigated unless the child gives evidence? Does not the noble and learned Lord agree that the police have a duty to protect not only parents but children too?
My Lords, the police certainly have a duty to protect children and they would be the first to accept that. As regards their powers, as the Director of Public Prosecutions made clear subsequently, the need for the victim to complain or give evidence is not a legal requirement. However, the police and the prosecuting authorities must analyse the evidence objectively in such cases. They must decide in a particular case whether the absence of evidence from the complainant will lead to a reduced chance of conviction. If they come to that conclusion—that is a matter for them—they should not bring the prosecution because it would be damaging for everyone involved.
My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that while law is clearly important, individual personal values are far more so? If he accepts that kind of thinking, will the Government, with the whole of their power, encourage education on abstinence from sex before marriage?
My Lords, it is absolutely clear that individual values are vitally important in this area. The role of education in relation to instilling values that we all regard as acceptable is absolutely vital.
My Lords, this is a very serious issue. We must feel for the families involved. But does the noble and learned Lord agree that the law by itself cannot make us good and that the matter requires, as has already been indicated, not only education but a multi-pronged approach? Given the significance of the increase in sexually transmitted diseases and the possible problems of future infertility, can the Minister tell us whether education on values and information given to both children and parents will also be a priority for the Government?
My Lords, I could not agree more with the right reverend Prelate's preliminary remark; namely, that the law cannot make us good and that individual values, education and instilling in children and adults alike the right values are incredibly important. I also thoroughly endorse what he said about the importance of education. We have made it clear that education in relation to the issues that we are discussing is a priority for the Department for Education and Skills.
My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that as long ago as 1984 the Criminal Law Revision Committee, under the chairmanship of Lord Justice Lawton, published its recommendations on sexual offences? Chapter 5 of that report was concerned solely with intercourse with young girls. In paragraph 5.10 we recommended—I was a member of that committee—the abolition of the young man's defence. Perhaps the Minister will agree that it may be time for the Government to look again at the recommendations in that report.
My Lords, I was aware of that report. The noble and learned Lord will also be aware of the document published last year by the Home Office, entitled Setting the Boundaries, which takes up a number of ideas in the 1984 report. As I said, we hope to bring forward legislation at the earliest possible opportunity.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that the answer to the Question of my noble friend Lady Young is not a matter of changing the law but of evidence? Since it is an offence to have intercourse with a girl under 16, whether or not she consents, if there is other evidence that the man has had intercourse with her, a prosecution can take place whether or not the girl is willing to give evidence. To that extent, her willingness to give evidence is, to some degree, irrelevant.
My Lords, in the case to which the noble Baroness referred there was an issue about evidence. Plainly, there is an offence of unlawful sexual intercourse between a man and a woman under 16. The law already exists in relation to that. I accept the point made by the noble Lord, but I do not accept that the law is necessarily perfect in relation to that. Setting the Boundaries indicates the way in which the law can be changed in order to provide better protection. As I say, legislation will be brought forward at the first possible opportunity.
My Lords, I do not have that information to hand but I shall write to the noble Baroness.
My Lords, the Prime Minister has made clear that crime, transport, health and education are top priorities for the Government. The matter we are discussing concerns crime.
My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that an apology is owed to the parents of this girl? She supplied evidence to the police but they still said that without a complaint from the girl they were powerless to act.
My Lords, it would be totally inappropriate for me to get involved with the issues in that case.