What’s in an age?

Sara Collier, Policy Officer, Children in Scotland

Sara Collier, Policy Officer for Children in Scotland

Sara Collier, Policy Officer for Children in Scotland

What age do you think you stop being a child and start being an adult? It might seem like a silly question, and of course everyone matures at different rates, but in the eyes of the law there are big differences in the age you are regarded as old enough to take control of and responsibility for your own choices and behaviours.

Age 16 is an obvious place to start – you can get married, leave home and leave school. You can buy lottery tickets, get a fulltime job (including joining the armed forces) and start to pay national insurance on your earnings. 16 is also the age you can consent to legal sexual intercourse – but you can’t yet buy an 18 certificate film…

One year later, at 17, you can get your car driving licence (or private pilots licence if you like!) and give blood. Then when you’re 18 you’re legally able to do other things like buy alcohol, vote for and stand in most elections, serve on a jury, get a tattoo, buy fireworks, apply for a credit card, and buy cigarettes.

So at 18 you are a fully fledged adult right? Wrong. You have to be 21 before you are paid the highest rate of the national minimum wage, adopt a child, and you can’t supervise a learner driver until you are this age (and have held a licence for at least 3 years yourself).

So it’s far from a simple question – you can legally be treated like an adult at different ages depending on the circumstances. 16 and 17 year olds will be able to vote in the independence referendum next year, but not in other elections (yet). Different countries also have very different laws about restrictions on ‘adult’ activity. For example in the USA some states allow you start learning to drive at age 14, but the legal age to purchase alcohol is 21. The minimum age of consent in Mexico is 12 and it is 21 in Bahrain.

So why does this matter?

Having lots of different ages can make things confusing and raise lots of questions like “why am I old enough to join the army but not old enough to vote ?” or “why am I old enough to get married but not buy a pint?” It can be a drain on finances too – when there is no universal age at which you stop being a child and become and adult, companies may interpret ‘adult’ in different ways, when to be charged full ticket prices for shows and the cinema for example.

Some of these questions are put down to oddities in the letter of the law, but sometimes they can have more serious consequences. For one, when young people are caught in between ‘child’ and ‘adult’ service they can often receive poorer treatment – for example in hospital or from other services like mental health – because they don’t fit well into either category.

Children in Scotland and other children’s organisations recently raised the issue of the age of criminal responsibility with the Scottish Government. At the moment the age at which you can be held criminally responsible for your actions in Scotland is 8, an age at which few people would regard you an ‘adult’. Scotland has one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility in the world, lower than Belgium (18), Brazil (18), France (16), Russia (16), Sweden (15), England (12) and Iraq (9). In most EU countries the minimum age is at least 12 and Scotland has been criticised for our low age by the UN committee set up to monitor compliance with children’s rights.

The age of criminal prosecution is age 12 – and of course younger people who commit offences are usually referred to the Children’s Hearing System, rather than to a court. However, this very young age of responsibility and labelling children as young as 8 as criminals is concerning – as is a recent newspaper story about children aged between 12 and 15 being held in police cells overnight.

One final example – the age at which you can buy cigarettes in Scotland was raised from 16 to 18 in 2007. A Liberal Democrat MSP is currently consulting on plans for a Bill in the Scottish Parliament to protect children and young people by banning smoking in cars carrying a person under the age of 16. Explaining his decision for setting the age at 16, Jim Hume said “a 16 year old is considered to be of an age to make an informed choice and that is why I believe it represents a natural age from which to stop considering a person a child for the purposes of my proposals”.

What do you think? Do the ages set for adulthood make sense or would you like to see changes?

Jim Hume’s consultation, including the issue of age, is open until 30 August and can be found on the Scottish Parliament website, under the Members Bill section – http://www.scottish.parliament.uk

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