Teachers face jail for sex with pupils

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The Independent Online
TEACHERS, social workers and children's home staff could be sent to jail if they have sexual relationships with teenagers in their care, under legislation to be introduced into the Commons this week.

Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, will tomorrow outline plans to create a new criminal offence which will make it illegal for those in a "position of trust" to have sex with 16 and 17-year-olds for whom they are responsible. The proposal for a new offence of "abuse of trust" is part of a government Bill seeking to lower the homosexual age of consent from 18 to 16. It is intended to reassure those who oppose equalising the age of consent for homosexuals and heterosexuals that young boys will not be left open to exploitation by older men.

However, it will be fiercely resisted by teaching unions, which argue that the attempt to criminalise consensual relationships between staff and pupils will make it more difficult for head teachers to impose discipline internally.

MPs are this week expected to give their overwhelming support to the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill which would bring the homosexual age of consent into line with that for heterosexuals.

Last year, the Commons voted by a majority of 207 on a free vote in favour of lowering the gay age of consent to 16. That vote was defeated in the House of Lords, where peers, including several of the bishops, voted against equalisation. However, many peers are likely to be won over this time by the Government concession designed to allay fears that young boys will be vulnerable.

Mr Straw will make the case that the Government has taken their concerns into account and is putting in place tough new legislation which will protect both boys and girls under the age of 18.

This week's passage of the Bill through Parliament will form part of a package of measures designed to improve the protection of children. A review of the law governing sexual offences - particularly those relating to children - is also to be launched by the Government. The Home Secretary believes that the law in this area is outdated and makes prosecution difficult. Many of the offences relating to the sexual exploitation of children are rarely used because they are complicated or difficult to prove; for example, penalties for procuring children are no worse than for pimping adults.

In addition, the Government will announce this week new measures to prevent unsuitable people from working with children. Private schools and charities - such as scout groups - will for the first time be given access to a central list of known and suspected paedophiles so that they can avoid employing them.

A report from an inter-departmental working group, to be published tomorrow, recommends that the Criminal Records Bureau should be put in charge of a single register of people who should not be trusted to work with children. The Bureau will compile a central list, using records currently held separately by the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Employment, which will be available to both public and private sector organisations.

Paul Boateng, the Home Office minister, will use a speech on the Human Rights Act to emphasise its role in protecting young people. "Rights for children under the law is vital," he will say.