Clause 65 - Sex with an adult relative: penetration

Sexual Offences Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am 4:16 pm ar 16 Medi 2003.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Ceidwadwyr, Woking 4:16, 16 Medi 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 153, in

clause 65, page 31, line 37, at end add

'uncle, aunt, nephew or niece'.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Ceidwadwyr, North Thanet

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 154, in

clause 66, page 32, line 17, at end add

'uncle, aunt, nephew or niece'.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Ceidwadwyr, Woking

Both amendments would add the same wording—

''uncle, aunt, nephew or niece''—

to two separate, successive clauses. Clause 65 deals with the ways in which A may be related to B—the amendment sets out some of the more obvious ones. It occurred to my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield and me that it would be appropriate to add uncle, aunt, nephew and niece. It would be helpful to know whether there was a particular reason why they have not been added.

The Solicitor-General has mentioned co-sanguinity—a principle with which we are all familiar. The question for the Government is why are aunts and uncles not deemed to be in the same position as half-brothers and half-sisters on the basis of co-sanguinity? That is an important question and I

would be grateful if the Solicitor-General let me know whether she thinks that we have hit upon an interesting point.

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

As ever, the hon. Members who have tabled those amendments have hit upon an interesting point. I shall like to explain why the Bill is drafted as it is; perhaps they will feel that the explanation is acceptable.

Amendments Nos. 133 and 154 would have the effect of including the relationships between uncles and aunts with their nephews and nieces within the scope of the sex with an adult relative offences in clauses 65 and 66. They would prohibit—in the same way that clauses 65 and 66 prohibit mother, father, sister, brother, half-sister and half-brother relationships—a relationship with not only the child in that relationship of aunt, uncle, nephew or niece, but a relationship with an adult. It is currently prohibited for an aunt or uncle to have a sexual relationship with their nephew or niece up until the age of 18; thereafter, when it becomes an adult offence, it is not prohibited.

As I understand the amendment, it is based on the fact that the degree of co-sanguinity—oh, it says consanguinity, perhaps I have been using the wrong term—between such relatives is the same. The hon. Gentleman said that the degree of consanguinity is 25 per cent., which is the same as that between half siblings who fall within the scope of the offences. I am also aware that aunts and uncles and nephews and nieces are prohibited from marriage for that reason. At the moment, an aunt and uncle can have sex with a nephew or niece, but they cannot marry. The original incest offences in the Sexual Offences Act 1956, on which the offences are based, were founded equally on fears of genetic abnormalities in children born of a close blood union and on the public distaste for sexual relationships between such close blood relatives.

Although consensual sexual activity between adult family members may not be harmful to society as a whole, an adult's right to exercise sexual autonomy in their private life is not absolute. We believe that, even in modern times, society has the right to impose certain standards on behaviour, where they are intended to protect people within the family from abuse. In the interests of not interfering unnecessarily in the rights of adults to engage in consensual activity, we have decided to continue to restrict the family members covered by those offences to those already covered by the existing incest offences. However, in line with the general approach that we have taken in the Bill, we have gender-neutralised the offences. Clearly, the arguments about genetic abnormalities in offspring do not apply in relation to same-sex relationships.

In light of the fact that we class all forms of penetration—not only penile penetration of the vagina and anus, but penile penetration of the mouth—as the most serious level of sexual activity throughout the Bill, we have widened the scope of the offences to cover all forms of sexual penetration, and we have not restricted them to intercourse.

Although the argument about genetic abnormalities is therefore still valid, it is not the sole justification for the offences, and we need to be certain that it is right to extend their scope. The fact that close family members may be groomed from a young age into agreeing to sexual activity with a family member once they are 18 is one justification for creating the offence, and I realise that such a situation could exist between aunts and uncles and their nephews and nieces. I also understand that some people might find sexual relationships between aunts and uncles and their nephews and nieces unpalatable and capable of undermining the family unit. Nevertheless, and bearing in mind that the responses to the consultation document, ''Setting the Boundaries'', did not indicate a public appetite for widening the scope of the offence, I am not convinced that it is right to criminalise any further relationships.

However, I have to confess that, prompted by the amendments, we have given further anxious consideration to the matter. At the very least, hon. Members have exposed an anomaly. The question is whether we want to add more people to those who are not allowed to engage in adult sexual relationships with each other. Someone who does not want to widen the criminal law so that it scoops more adults into an offence when they have sexual relationships would be opposed to this amendment. However, someone who wants consistency between those of the same levels of consanguinity would be in favour of it. This is another matter that was raised here rather than in another place, and that was not identified by outside organisations.

I ask the Committee to reject the amendment. We could sweep more people into such offences for the sake of consistency by constantly widening the Bill's ambit, but we do not want to widen it too much. However, we also do not want the Bill to have inconsistencies. Therefore, I argue for the clause to remain as it is, but I also offer a commitment to hold further discussions by Report.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Ceidwadwyr, Woking

When my family asks me later tonight what I have done today to serve my country, I shall be able to say that the Solicitor-General said that I exposed an anomaly. That is enough for anyone in one day. That the Minister said that she will take a further look at this is very satisfying. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 65 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 66 ordered to stand part of the Bill.