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All too often in Ulster, mum's the word at 16

Northern Ireland has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancies in Europe. For many years the issue of the province's shockingly high number of teenage mothers has been a matter of major concern for the local health and education authorities.

Now that the Government has announced it intends to lower the age of sexual consent from 17 to 16 questions are sure to arise over whether this could lead to an even greater proliferation of young mothers.

The move to decrease the age of consent will bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK. The province has been out of step with the rest of the UK on the age of sexual consent since 1950 when a former Stormont Government increased the age to 17.

Justice Minister Paul Goggins said yesterday that there was no compelling reason for the age to be different in Northern Ireland than elsewhere.

"Government is not saying 16 is the right age all young people should engage in sexual activity - but it is defining the age below which it is illegal."

He said advice from a number of organisations working with children and young people was that they would be concerned if it stayed at 17.

"Many 16-year-olds who need help and advice would be reluctant to come forward because they would, by definition, be seen to have broken the law," said Mr Goggins.

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However, critics of the proposal, which is currently before Parliament and expected to be introduced in the spring, may believe it is sending out the wrong message to teenagers and will lead to a more casual approach to sex.

But, in modern society, is the lowering of the age of consent by 12 months really going to have much relevance?

As teenage pregnancy statistics show, a large number of young people were ignoring, or were unaware of, the law anyway.

Perhaps the emphasis should be placed on educating young people about the consequences of engaging in a sexual relationship.

Another issue which the Government is planning to address in its reform on sexual offences laws is the criminalisation of kerb crawling and soliciting.

Last year, Belfast city centre residents said that kerb crawling and street prostitution was making their lives hell.

They raised their concerns with the PSNI and the Northern Ireland Office about the nuisance being caused in the area by the presence of prostitutes and their clients.

Currently the hands of police are tied when it comes to tackling kerb crawlers and there had been speculation about issuing Anti-Social Behaviour Orders to persistent offenders but until now no long term solution has been found to the problem.

The Government believes the introduction of kerb crawling and soliciting offences, which could result in a hefty fine, is a practical way to cleaning up the streets.

Also, under the planned new laws, the Government intends to increase sentences for serious sex crimes. Anyone who commits a sexual assault could face life in prison.

Sentences for a range of child sex abuse crimes will also be increased from a maximum of 10 years to 14 years.

For a long time there has been public outcry over the perceived leniency of sentencing policies.

The lengthening of sentences, along with the recently announced introduction of indeterminate and extended sentences for serious sex offenders and violent criminals, will hopefully appropriately punish dangerous offenders and protect the public.

From May it will be up to the judiciary to take full advantage of the powers available to them.

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