What a ludicrous situation when politicians legislate on
a knee jerk, law drafters are left with an impossible situation. They then
suggest that a recovery policy is to write a bad law and then ask us to
trust the discretion of the prosecutors to refrain from using the law
inappropriately. We desperately need some sort of constitutional court to
protect us from our incompetent law makers.
Teenagers who kiss and cuddle behind the bike
sheds would be breaking the law under new legislation planned to crack down
on paedophiles. A bill proposed by David Blunkett, the home secretary, fails
to distinguish between innocent teenage fumbling and adult paedophiles when
it outlaws “sexual touching” of under-16s.
If the bill becomes law it could theoreticially see teenagers facing up
to five years in jail and land their parents with 14-year jail terms if they
knowingly allow their underage sons and daughters to cavort with friends.
Blunkett had hoped MPs would approve the new Sexual Offences Bill but now
faces a rebellion over its poor drafting when it is discussed this week. He
insists he has no intention of outlawing teenage necking, but his officials
accept that, technically at least, his bill could have that effect.
The offending text, clauses 10 to 14 of the draft bill, says that a
teenager commits an offence if he intentionally touches another person
(and) the touching is sexual.
Parts of the bill are designed to address the widespread public disquiet
that followed the murder of Sarah Payne, the eight-year-old abducted from a
field in Sussex three years ago and murdered. In response, Blunkett
had the bill drafted so that it would impose much longer sentences on
convicted paedophiles. The bill also brings under one act a host of
But critics say that no matter how well intentioned the bill, Blunkett
has gone too far. In trying to protect children from the attentions of
predatory adults, it will criminalise them for innocent behaviour of their
own. Barry Hugill, a spokesman for the civil rights group Liberty, said:
I’m sure that the overwhelming majority of people in the country will
believe this is silly. Most of them know the difference between abuse and
The bill has been roundly condemned by the Family Planning Association (FPA)
because it fails to distinguish between abusive relationships and consensual
sexual activity between under-16s. Rachel Hodgkin, a senior adviser at the
FPA, said: “There is a maximum of five years for snogging or sexually
touching someone. You could get the trauma of your perfectly normal sexual
life as an adolescent being investigated as a major criminal offence. The
net has been tremendously widened so that it includes French kissing and
touching through clothes. Hodgkin said parents who supervised teenage
parties at which under-16s kissed could find themselves at the mercy of the
A Home Office spokesman defended the bill as currently drafted:
do not have a monopoly on sexual abuse, and it is extremely difficult to
come up with a formulation in law that will protect children from abusive
sexual activity by children of a similar age while allowing for consensual
sexual activity to take place. We believe that the law has to be crystal
clear about the age of sexual consent, and any sexual activity below that
age is not lawful.”
The spokesman added that guidelines would be issued to the Crown
Prosecution Service, instructing it not to prosecute under-16s engaged in
genuinely consensual sexual activity.
Blunkett had hoped the bill would face little opposition, but MPs on the
standing committee examining the proposals will be told this week that it
criminalises the sort of legitimate — if awkward — encounters enjoyed by
millions of teenagers as part of growing up.
The bill has already been delayed by resistance in the Lords, where a
majority of peers objected to its failure to outlaw sex in public
Peter Tatchell, the gay rights campaigner, is seeking an amendment to
decriminalise sex involving under-16s where both partners consent and where
there is no more than three years’ difference in their ages.