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‘Confused’ messages: an emotive debate reignites about the UK’s age of consent

There is no international consensus on what’s right, but any move to change the law here would be politically impossible

Unmarried couples in Tunisia have to wait until 20 before they can have sex legally, while in Yemen intercourse with children as young as nine is allowed – so long as there are signs of the “onset of puberty”.

Although 16 remains the global average age of consent, international differences over the acceptable age to have sex are dramatic.

Even in Europe there is not as much consensus as might be assumed. In Austria, Italy and Germany the age of consent is 14; in Sweden, France and Denmark it is 15 – and Spain recently raised its age of consent from 13 to 16. Meanwhile in Turkey and Malta, teenagers have to wait until they are 18 for sex to be legal.

The debate over which age is the right one has now reignited in Britain, after a leading public health expert argued the UK’s age of consent should be lowered to 15. With the latest figures suggesting that up to a third of teenagers in Britain have sex before their sixteenth birthday, Professor John Ashton, president of the Faculty of Public Health, said a national debate was needed because the current law was sending “confused” messages about the age at which it is OK to have sex.

“Because we are so confused about this and we have kept the age of consent at 16, the 15-year-olds don’t have clear routes to getting some support,” he said in an interview with The Sunday Times. “My own view is there is an argument for reducing it to 15 but you cannot do it without the public supporting the idea, and we need to get a sense of public opinion about this.”

He said Britain should “seriously be looking at 15 so that we can draw a line in the sand and really, as a society, actively discourage sexual involvement under 15. By doing that, you would be able legitimately to organise services to meet the need.”

The strength of the reactions from politicians, lawyers and sexual health experts yesterday gave an early indication of how politically impossible such a move would be. All three parties scotched the idea, with Number 10 the first to denounce it.

A spokesman for the Prime Minister said in a statement: “We reject the call to lower the age of consent. The current age is in place to protect children and there are no plans to change it.”

Labour also opposed a change. Shadow Public Health minister Luciana Berger said: “Lowering the age of consent is not the way to tackle teenage pregnancy and we are against such a move.” She used the opportunity to campaign for compulsory sex education in schools.

While Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said that while Professor Ashton had been right to identify the problem, he did not go as far as agreeing that lowering the age could be a solution. “I’m constantly urging Michael Gove and the Department for Education to update and modernise sex education in schools which hasn’t kept up with the internet age.” he told the BBC. “But do I think simply a blanket reduction in the age of consent is the answer to this difficult dilemma? No.”

Despite the prevalence of underage sex, responses to proposals of reducing the legal age have long been emotive. When a senior Scottish police chief suggested in 2006 that the age should be lowered to prevent young teenagers from being criminalised for acting on “youthful natural instinct”, his ideas were branded a “paedophile’s charter” by campaigners.

This time round, the response came with no less emotional baggage – with Liz Dux, a lawyer representing 72 of the victims of Jimmy Savile for Slater & Gordon, saying it would give legitimacy for predatory adults “to focus their attentions on even younger teenagers”.

One leading argument for lowering the legal age would be to protect younger teenagers in relationships from prosecution. But Simon Blake, chief executive of the young people’s sexual health charity, Brook, told The Independent that such prosecutions are “very, very rare”. Lawyers have to prove a case is in the public interest, which is almost impossible in the case of consenting under-16s.

For a more nuanced law, Canada provides an intriguing model. It raised the age of consent from 14 to 16 five years ago, but their legislation is constructed to criminalise older predators while avoiding the prosecution of younger teenagers in normal relationships. This means children as young as 12 can legally have sex, as long as neither partner is more than two years older than the other. To further protect against abuse, the age of consent raises to 18 if one partner is in a position of power.

Another rationale for keeping the law the same is to help teenagers feel less pressure to have sex at a younger age. Mr Blake said: “Having the age at 16 can be helpful for young people who don’t want to have sex yet. That can be the case especially for young women, who can say it’s illegal and use that as a negotiation tool.”