Clause 29 - Family relationships

Sexual Offences Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:45 pm on 16th September 2003.

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Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

With this it will be convenient to take Government amendment No. 110.

No. 152, in

clause 29, page 15, line 19, leave out subsection (b).

Government amendment No. 111.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Solicitor General (Law Officers), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I know that we are not allowed to use visual aids in Committee, but I have one because the matter is complicated. We are examining a matrix of who is or is not allowed to have sex with which family members at what age. We need to identify the changes that the Bill makes and compare the new position of the law with the old position.

I will explain the Government amendments and why we will resist amendment No. 152, tabled by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, in relation to cousins. The child familial sex offences are primarily designed to protect children up to the age of 18 within the family environment, where they are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation. Because of the balance of power within the family unit and the close and trusting relationships that exist within it, the family can create opportunities for exploitation and abuse. A great deal of thought was given to the scope of the offence and the familial relationships that should be covered. It is clear that the most important factors are the proximity of the relationship and the balance of power that exists between the abuser and his victim. Those attributes extend beyond a child's immediate blood relatives.

The definition of a family unit also needs to be drawn widely to reflect the fairly loose structure of the modern family and the sometimes transitory nature of familial relationships. Thus the definition of a familial relationship in clause 29 extends beyond the immediate blood relatives of the child covered in subsection (2) and falling within the scope of the offence simply by virtue of that relationship.

Subsection (3) deals with more distant family members who are or who have been part of the child's household, or who are or have at any time held a position of trust in relation to the child. The automatic inclusion within the sphere of criminality is contained in subsection (2), whereas in subsection (3) it is conditional not only on them being in one of the categories in paragraphs (a) to (d), but on them having lived in the same household or regularly been involved in caring for, training, or supervising—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Solicitor General (Law Officers), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee 4:16 pm, 16th September 2003

Thus, the definition of familial relationship in clause 29 extends beyond the immediate blood relatives of the child covered in subsection (2), who fall within the scope of the offence simply by virtue of that relationship. Subsection (3) covers more distant family members who are or have been part of the child's household, or who hold or have at any time held a position of trust in relation to the child.

Subsection (4) goes wider and covers those who live in the same household as the child and are regularly involved in caring for, training or supervising the child, or are in sole charge of the child. Such sexual relationships might be justifiable once adulthood is reached, but are within the scope of the offences in order to protect children from being manipulated or coerced into unsuitable sexual relationships before they become adult. Thus, a lodger who lives as part of a child's household and babysits for that child would be prohibited from engaging in any form of physical sexual activity with that child.

At present, persons who are or have been the step-parent of a child fall within the scope of subsection (2)

and are automatically prohibited from sexual activity with that child until he or she reaches the age of 18. We now believe that they should only fall within the scope of subsection (3), which refers not to absolute prohibition but conditional, only if they live or have lived in the same household as the child, or they are or have been regularly involved in caring for, training, supervising or being in sole charge of the child.

The reason for that proposed change is that anyone who is or has been the partner of a child's parent falls within the scope of subsection (3). The definition of a partner in the Bill—this is consistent with the definition used elsewhere in legislation—is someone who lives in an enduring family relationship with another person. A partner is in the same position in relation to his partner's child as a step-parent—that is, there is no co-sanguinity.

Step-parents and partners of parents may not necessarily live in the same household as their step-child, or have any role in their upbringing. For example, they might have no co-sanguinity and no role in their upbringing. For example, where a teenager acquires two step-parents after the remarriage of divorced parents, and the step-parent or partner-of-parent relationship results from marriage or partnership with one of the child's parents, the relationship with the parent is not, in the normal course of events, entered into to create a relationship with the child. On further consideration, we can see no reason to treat the two categories—step-parent and parent's partner—differently. Nor do we believe that those should be grouped in the same category as adults who have a blood, or adoptive or fostering, relationship with a child and have taken a positive step to create a parent-child relationship.

Amendments Nos. 109, 110 and 111 make it clear that a step-parent, whether by marriage or partnership, will only fall within the scope of the abuse of trust offences if he lives or has lived in the same household as the child, or is or has been regularly involved in caring for, training, supervising, or being in sole charge of the child.

Amendment No. 152, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, would remove cousins from subsection (3) and take them outside the scope of the offence. Cousins have always been included in the scope of such offences, although they are not currently included in the Bill. That was generally supported in another place. They are being moved from where they are at the moment to fall under the scope of the offence.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

The Solicitor-General is being helpful. I think that I am correct in saying—perhaps she will confirm this—that we are dealing principally with first cousins, rather than distant cousins.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Solicitor General (Law Officers), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

That is right. I think that the hon. Gentleman is referring to subsection (5)(b), which says:

'' 'cousin' means the child of an aunt or uncle.''

We are not talking about second or third cousins once removed, but about people who are the child of an aunt or uncle who have lived in the same household, or

are regularly involved in caring. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

We believe that it is right to include cousins in the scope of the offences if they live or have lived in the same household as the child, or if they are or have been regularly involved in caring for, training, or supervising the child. We are getting to the relationship between two people, as well as the question of co-sanguinity. Where one cousin is so closely involved in the life of another, there will clearly be the opportunity for exploitative behaviour to take place and for an unsuitable relationship to develop. It would be wrong to exclude them from the scope of the offences. For that reason we do not accept the amendment. I hope that hon. Members will support the Government amendments.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made:

No. 110, in

clause 29, page 15, line 18, leave out

'partner of the other's parent'

and insert 'other's stepparent'.

No. 111, in

clause 29, page 15, line 40, at beginning insert

' ''stepparent'' includes a parent's partner and'.—[The Solicitor-General.]

Clause 29, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 30 and 31 ordered to stand part of the Bill.