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Age of consent lowered to 16

The Government has unveiled a raft of new sex crime legislation including the lowering of the age of sexual consent from 17 to 16.

Justice Minister Paul Goggins said he was reducing the age of consent in a bid to bring the law in Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK.

He added that he was doing so knowing that there is emphasis on good sex education in schools.

"I have sought to have consistency with legislation in the rest of the UK.

"I have had advice from a number of organisations that work with young people who have said they would have concerns if it stayed at 17," he said.

Under the new reform on sexual offences, due to be introduced in the spring, sentences are also set to be increased for serious sex crimes.

Anyone who commits a serious sexual assault could now face life in prison. Currently rape is the only sex crime that can carry a life sentence.

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Under the new legislation sentences will be increased from a maximum of 10 years to 14 years for a range of child sex abuse crimes.

However, the penalty for possessing indecent images of children will not be increased.

New offences of kerb-crawling and soliciting for purposes of prostitution are also set to be introduced, meaning that anyone caught kerb-crawling or soliciting could face a fine of up to £1,000.

Politicians in Belfast had recently raised concerns with the PSNI and the NIO about the nuisance being caused in an area of the city centre by the presence of prostitutes and their clients.

Residents had expressed concerns that the police appeared not to be able to tackle the problem of prostitutes soliciting for business and customers soliciting for services.

It is hoped the introduction of these new offences will help tackle the problem.

The Government had initially considered legalising brothels across Ulster so that up to three women could work together in the interest of safety.

During consultation there had been a lot of support for an amendment to the law to allow more than one person to work together in prostitution.

However Mr Goggins said it is now being decided to keep brothels illegal. This means that only one person may work as a prostitute. More than that and the premises are classed as a brothel and are therefore illegal.

Announcing the reforms today he said the proposed legislation will see a complete overhaul of the law on sexual offences in Northern Ireland and will provide the same level of protection as in England and Wales.

He added: "It will modernise offences, remove antiquated laws and has at its core protection of the public. The proposed legislation will strengthen protection for children and vulnerable groups against abuse and exploitation, and enable offenders, particularly abusive offenders, to be appropriately punished.

"These are very important issues and I look forward to hearing the views of all interested parities during the statutory consultation period."

The Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2007 was placed before parliament today for consultation and is expected to be implemented by May 2008.

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