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Lowering the bar is not the answer

29 November 2013

Trevor Barnes ponders the wisdom of changing laws because people break them

IT COULD all have been very different, so the legend tells us, if the spider had just thrown in the towel instead of laboriously weaving its web across a cold, damp Irish cave 700 years ago, or if Robert the Bruce had simply tired of watching it try repeatedly.

But the lesson that Scotland's national hero is said to have drawn from the spider's persistence seems these days to have lost its allure for many prominent public figures who are responsible for influencing the direction of our national life.

This month, under-age sex became the latest ideological battleground on which to see principle vying with expediency. Earlier this year, it was illegal drug use. And each time, despite the speaker's best intentions, the same shaky argument (that there is no point trying to right a wrong when the wrong has become established) was adduced to defend what in any other area of civic life would be indefensible.

If a 30mph speed limit is repeatedly being broken along a suburban road full of schools and hospitals, for example, something clearly needs to be done. The sensible thing would be to enforce the law, and penalise those breaking it.

For most of us, a third option - to increase the legal limit to 40mph (thereby significantly reducing the statistical incidence of lawlessness) - is plainly ridiculous. But it is not ridiculous enough to prevent Chief Constable Michael Barton, of Durham Police, and most recently the President of the Faculty of Public Health, Professor John Ashton, from thinking along those dangerous lines. They embraced such Looking Glass reasoning when proposing the legalisation of hard drugs and the reduction of the age of consent respectively.

Mr Barton, for instance, declares the war on drug-gangs lost, and suggests that "offering an alternative route of supply to users [he helpfully proposes the NHS] cuts off the gangs' income stream." What a brilliant wheeze: legalise criminality, in preference to the admittedly rather more difficult option of prosecuting criminals. If at first we don't succeed, he implies, let's stop trying.

Professor Ashton inhabits a similar Wonderland world when he suggests that lowering the age of consent to 15 would reduce the incidence of under-age sex. Well, of course it would - for now - because it would not be under-age sex any more.

What the proposal would not do, contrary to the Professor's assertion, is "draw a line in the sand" to prevent future sexual activity at 14, or even younger. Having seen that those in authority draw lines in the sand entirely dependent on the incoming tide, young people (and more sinisterly, older people with predatory intentions) will be inclined to see no boundaries as fixed.

Professor Ashton exhorts us to accept "the facts": that about a third of boys and girls have sex at 14 or 15. A fact that he has failed to declare, however (presumably ignoring the Savile and Rochdale scandals), is that those taking part in sexual activity are not always close in age.

While one would not seek automatically to prosecute a 16-year-old boy for having sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend, one would certainly feel less inclined to offer the same immunity to a 30-year-old man, or a gang of 16-year-olds, who are preying on a vulnerable girl who is desperate to be loved. It is hard to see how reducing her protection in law makes her safer on the street - or even, these days, in her home.

In a world of danger at every turn, we may not be able to protect our children from all the snares that lie in wait for them. But we surely owe it to them to try.

Trevor Barnes reports for the Sunday programme and other BBC Religion and Ethics broadcasts.

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