CHARLES GRAHAM - Age of consent fine as it is

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I HAVE usually had a lot of time for Prof Sir John Ashton, current president of the Faculty of Public Health and erstwhile North West director of public health.

But I have to part company with him this week over his call to lower the age of sexual consent to 15.

He argues that society has to accept that about a third of British boys and girls are already having sex at 14 and 15 and that it would be easier for 15-year-olds to get sexual health advice from the NHS and so reduce unwanted pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases.

Well-intentioned as the objectives are, I fear though that such a relaxation in the law will only lead to greater promiscuity at an earlier age.

It’s like putting up the speed limit on the motorway to 80mph. All that would mean would be more drivers who hitherto drove at 80 when the limit was 70mph will now drive at 90.

While children are “growing up” more rapidly than a couple of generations ago in physical terms, I am not convinced that their mental maturity has kept pace with it at all.

This country doesn’t think its young people are mature enough to vote until they are 18 so what, do we suppose, qualifies them to make potentially life-changing decisions about intercourse at an age three years younger than that? (I’m all for lowering the voting age to 16 by the way).

I know some countries have lower ages of consent than ours: some have higher ones, some don’t have any at all.

But 16 has been the benchmark for a good long time in the UK now and wasn’t chosen for arbitrary reasons. It tallies with the age that someone can legally leave school and so, theoretically, enjoy an independent, self-sufficient lifestyle that could involve having a job, carer responsibilities and (at a stretch) their own home.

The age of 16 is also a year further distant from those turbulent hormonal years of puberty. I’m not saying that you are a fully-formed adult at 16 and, indeed there could be people of 15 who are far better socially adjusted than others who are several years their senior. But we do have to draw an age-average line somewhere.

Imagine all the extra household rows involving defiant 15-year-olds telling exasperated parents that they now have the law on their side and there’s nothing mum and dad can do about it.

A downward change also smacks of perverse defeatism. It is like the folk who say that we should legalise drug-taking because the law hasn’t been particularly good at tackling such social ills.

But I ask: “Do we legalise burglaries because only 13 per cent of them end in someone being successfully prosecuted?” (see Tuesday’s Wigan Evening Post) Of course not. We just try our best under the current circumstances.

And let’s not forget what sort of signal such a move would be sending to paedophiles too.

It’s a tough world out there - tougher than it was when the current parents and grandparents were infants - and our children need protecting.

In a week when Google and Microsoft finally moved to outlaw searches to child porn sites, strange indeed would it be for us then to relax the laws on young people having sex.

Fortunately the Government says it has no intentions of adopting the policy.

Thank goodness for that.