Abuse of trust legislation in Northern Ireland is to be strengthened to protect vulnerable children.
Justice Minister Naomi Long said she plans to make the changes through an amendment to the Justice (Miscellaneous) Provisions Bill later this year.
It comes following a Close the Loophole campaign by the NSPCC to extend the legal protection for 16 and 17-year-olds to prevent them being targeted by adults with power and influence over them.
Ms Long said she is “very aware” of calls to change the law, and is “fully committed” to ensuring it is robust in safeguarding young people.
“I agree that the law needs tightening. I am very conscious that people working in the non-statutory sector can have a significant level of influence and power over impressionable young people in their care, and some can abuse their positions of responsibility,” she said.
“I propose to strengthen the law in Northern Ireland, widening the scope of the existing position of trust legislation to afford our young people greater protection across a broader range of environments.
“I am pleased to announce my intention to widen the scope of the current position of trust legislation, through an amendment to the Justice (Miscellaneous) Provisions Bill during the course of its passage in the Assembly later this year.”
Ms Long said the work is at an early stage and will be developed in partnership with key stakeholders, including the NSPCC.
“It will also take account of the experiences of neighbouring jurisdictions to ensure that an informed and workable definition of abuse of trust can be developed,” she said.
The Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008 currently applies to positions of trust within statutory settings such as education and health care.
The proposed changes would widen the scope of the offence to include non-statutory settings.
The NSPCC has welcomed the signalled intention from the minister, describing it as a “landmark step” in child protection.
The charity’s chief executive Peter Wanless said today’s statement sends a “clear message that children and young people in Northern Ireland can return to the extracurricular activities they love without being at risk of grooming by the very adults they should look to for support and guidance”.
“Thank you to everyone who stood up for children and threw their weight behind our campaign. With children set to return to activities in spring and summer, we will be looking at the details behind this announcement very closely,” he said.