UPDATE - Prime Minister Helen Clark has come out strongly against new legislation that critics say will make it legal for children as young as 12 to have consenting sex.
"I certainly don't support decriminalising sex below the age of 16," she told NewstalkZB this morning.
"I happen to think 16 is quite young enough, and really too young to be entering into those sorts of relationships."
Her comments were further signs the Government is distancing itself from provisions in The Crimes Amendment Bill (No 2), now under consideration by a parliamentary select committee.
Justice Minister Phil Goff told National Radio this morning the clause had been deleted.
"The way it's been interpreted it won't find public support, that's why it's being removed, it's gone , okay, let's get that absolutely clear," he said.
Under existing law, people found guilty of sexual connection with a person under 16 face penalties of up to 10 years in jail.
The proposed bill provides for "a defence" if the age difference between two people under 16 who have sex is two years or less.
The Government says it is not lowering the age of consent from 16, despite National Party claims sexual conduct between 12- to 16-year-olds is being decriminalised under the legislation.
Mr Goff said that what the bill recommended was not any different from what was happening in practice now.
He would not "die in a ditch" for the proposal, as he did not consider it that important, he told National Radio today.
Police have discretion whether to prosecute consenting close-in-age couples under age of 16, and tend not to.
The Ministry of Justice had pointed to inconsistencies in the use of police discretion -- some police prosecuted while others did not.
Only "about" nine such cases involving people under 20 were prosecuted last year -- and they were 16 to 20 -- Helen Clark said.
"I understand the Ministry of Justice's thinking in advising Mr Goff was that perhaps there should be guidelines so you've got a more consistent application of the law," she said.
"It would be most surprising if this in the end was changed."
"I'm one of those who happens to think 16 is rather too young for sexual activity and the last thing I'll be doing is encouraging it at a younger age.
"I happen to think is really better to let kids be kids, adolescents to be adolescents and teenagers enjoy their teen years without that sort of pressure.
"The reality is of course a lot of sexual activity does occur below those ages, it should be discouraged.
"In good faith (Mr Goff) has put before Parliament some proposals which have come through the Ministry of Justice.
"If the public think no, they'd rather just leave it to the police discretion without guidelines that'll be the way it will stay.
"The Government doesn't want to go anywhere near encouraging under-16s to have sex.
"The Government is also aware as the police are, as everyone is, that it does happen under the age of 16.
"The only question before Parliament is should the police have some guidelines about what to do when it does happen, or should we leave it entirely to the police discretion," Helen Clark said.
National justice spokesman Tony Ryall told NZPA the Government was legalising sexual conduct between a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old.
The bill provides "for a defence if the age difference between two young people is two years or less".
Mr Goff said the age of consent was staying at 16 in recognition of the fact that while someone may be physically capable of having sex, they were not mentally mature enough.
"I have a horror at the thought of someone as young as 12 being involved in a sexual relationship but if... one is 12 and one is 13 or 14, then you're going to take quite different action from simply putting them in the dock and convicting them of the offence and looking at jail as a sanction."
Police would talk to the parents, seek counselling for the teenagers, contact the educationalists "and try and do something about the situation".
Mr Ryall said the legislation was providing "lawful permission" for sexual conduct between two people under 16 provided they were aged within two years or each other.
He said the changes would encourage young people to become sexually active earlier.
There had been no public call for these changes.
"Surely the Government can learn a lesson from lowering the drinking age and all the problems that has caused," he said.
The Ministry of Justice had advised the select committee the change "effectively decriminalised some sexual conduct between 12 to 16-year-olds", he said.
Hamilton's Fraser High School principal Martin Elliott said he was flabbergasted by the proposals.
There has been another change in the new bill.
It used to be a defence for someone up to the age of 21 to say they had a "reasonable belief" the person they had sex with was over 16.
Mr Goff said he had been advised that under the Bill of Rights Act, the age of 21 was arbitrary so the age limit had come out of the new bill.
Now, the person must have taken "reasonable steps" to ascertain the person was over 16 and have a "reasonable belief" they were over the age of consent.
Other measures in the bill include making it illegal for women to have sexual connection with underage boys.
It also removes the limitation on prosecutions for having sex with underage people -- which currently must be taken within 12 months.
Mr Goff said the bill was actually tougher, not softer.