Whitehall study wanted age of consent lowered to 14 and sentences for sex cut
- The Guardian, Tuesday 8 July 2014
The authors of the study from the Home Office research unit suggested the overall age of consent be lowered so that “sexual behaviour with a girl over the age of 13 (the average age of puberty) is not criminal, provided that she was clearly as aware of what she was doing and its implication as might be expected of a girl of 16”.
They also said the maximum life sentences could be reduced to no more than two years in cases of underage sex with 13-year-olds where “consent” could be shown. In cases of “younger offenders” greater leniency would apply when the “consenting” victim was 12 – below the average age of puberty. Today sex with a 12-year-old can attract a life sentence.
Roy Walmsley and Karen White, the authors of the Home Office booklet, entitled Sexual Offences, Consent and Sentencing, argued that many girls reach puberty before their 10th birthday and may not only want sex but initiate it themselves. They conceded that “the younger the partner, the more problematical the use of the words ‘consent’ or ‘willingness'”. It was commissioned after the then home secretary, Roy Jenkins, ordered a review of sexual offence laws.
The report, kept at the University of London library and read by the Guardian, casts fresh light on liberal attitudes circling at the time in the Home Office about the age of consent. Prominent paedophiles, such as the former head of the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE), Tom O’Carroll, have suggested the report was evidence that their views were gaining some traction in government. But the report is a long way from PIE’s proposal of the complete abolition of any age of consent.
Speaking in the Commons on Monday, the Labour MP Ann Coffey said that in the past a confusion between sexual liberation and sexual exploitation had been used as a cover by paedophiles.
In their most radical proposal, the report’s authors state: “There is scope for amending the law to coincide with sentencing practice … The higher penalties … could be available when victims/partners are under 13 (perhaps limiting them in the case of younger offenders to when girls involved are under 12.”
They said: “Paradoxical though it might seem to argue that [the point at which tougher sentences are applied] should be lower than the average age of puberty it is not unreasonable. The average age is 13, but it is not unusual for a girl to reach puberty before her 10th birthday or after her 16th. Thus a large number of 12-year-old girls have already attained puberty and may not only be willing to take part in sexual activity but may actually initiate it.”
They conceded that “consent embraces various degrees of willingness, from what might be called ‘full-hearted’ consent to what might be called ‘grudging’ consent”.
The current sentencing guidelines on sex with children state that “the younger the child, the more vulnerable he or she is likely to be, although older children may also suffer serious and long-term psychological damage as a result of sexual abuse” and require the judge takes account of the age gap between child and offender, and the youth and immaturity of the offender.
The Home Office has recently become mired in allegations that it may have inappropriately destroyed a dossier of child sex abuse allegations dating to the mid-80s. On Monday the home secretary, Theresa May, announced a wide-ranging inquiry into public bodies’ and institutions’ handling of historical child abuse allegations.
The Home Office has already carried out a review into how it handled thousands of documents about child abuse stretching back to 1979.
Earlier on Monday it emerged that the former leader of PIE, Steven Adrian Smith, worked at the Home Office and stored PIE files in locked cabinets there, “where no police raid would ever have found them”. He had clearance to work as an electrical contractor at the Westminster building in the late 1970s and early 1980s and the PIE members’ hotline rang in his office.
PIE had been campaigning for the removal of any age of consent, arguing that a child of four should be able to communicate verbally and that at 10 the majority of children can communicate their consent or otherwise to a sexual act.