No 10 rejects age of consent calls
Downing Street has rejected a call from a leading public health expert to consider lowering the age of consent for sex to 15.
Professor John Ashton, president of the Faculty of Public Health, has called for a national debate, saying that society sends "confused" signals about when sex is permitted.
But No 10 was swift to pour cold water on the idea. A spokesman said: "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."
Prof Ashton's intervention comes against a backdrop of official figures which suggest that up to a third of teenagers have sex before the present age of consent of 16.
He told the Sunday Times that lowering the age by a year could "draw a line in the sand" against sex at 14 or younger.
It would also make it easier for 15-year-olds who are in sexual relationships to obtain contraception or sexual health advice from the NHS.
"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.
"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.
"I would not personally argue for 14 but I think we 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 Faculty of Public Health, part of the Royal Colleges of Physicians, gives advice to ministers and civil servants although it is independent of government.
David Tucker, head of policy at the NSPCC, said he would be happy to have a debate on the issue but said he would want to see the evidence for Prof Ashton's claims.
"Has there really been a significant change in the amount of young people having sex over the past 20 or 30 years? If it has changed, then is reducing the age of consent the most sensible way to deal with it?" he told the Sunday Times.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said that Prof Ashton had been right to identify the problem but said that he did not believe that lowering the age of consent was the solution.
"We have far too high levels of teenage pregnancy. I'm worried, like everybody's worried, about the sexualisation of the culture and the information that so many young people are bombarded with at the moment. That's why I do want see action," he told BBC1's The Andrew Marr Show.
"I'm constantly urging (Education Secretary) Michael Gove and the Department for Education to update and modernise sex education in schools which hasn't kept up with the internet age. But do I think simply a blanket reduction in the age of consent is the answer to this difficult dilemma? No."
A lawyer representing 72 of the victims of Jimmy Savile also warned against any move to lower the age of consent.
Liz Dux, who heads a specialist child abuse team at Slater & Gordon, said: "I have real concerns about the prospect of the age of consent being lowered.
"Predatory adults would be given legitimacy to focus their attentions on even younger teenagers and there is a real risk that society would be sending out the message that sex between 14-15-year-olds is also acceptable.
"My work with victims of abuse results in me talking to many who felt pressurised into having sex at a young age but have gone on to live a lifetime of regret."
Shadow public health minister Luciana Berger said Labour opposed lowering the age of consent and called for mandatory sex and relationship education.
Ms Berger said the opposition had tried to get such changes enshrined in law but Tory MPs blocked the moves in Parliament.
She said: "Lowering the age of consent is not the way to tackle teenage pregnancy and we are against such a move.
"The teenage pregnancy rate fell substantially under the last Labour government. But sexual health clinics are now closing their doors and young people are struggling to get appointments.
"Labour has called for improved sex and relationship education, and tabled amendments to recent legislation for it to be made mandatory, not voluntary, in all schools. Regrettably, the change was voted down by Tory MPs."