LAST week's Independent on Sunday gave thoughtful coverage to the problem of juvenile crime. I was struck by how the feature revealed the polarisation which so often dogs such debates.

Victims of juvenile crime react with justifiable anger and fear to the violation of their property by young delinquents. They point out that a criminal is a criminal and that a mere caution is simply not enough for those who flagrantly flout the law. They are tired of persistent hooligans who steal and wreck cars and destroy property.

At the other end of the spectrum there are those who see only the causes of criminal behaviour, not the results. For them it is always someone else who is to blame. They hold society or the Government responsible. They seek to justify criminal acts with the fashionable belief that delinquents are the passive victims of circumstance.

When the Prime Minister recently said that we should 'understand a little less and condemn a little more' he was acknowledging that the pendulum of opinion had swung too far. We need to develop a better balanced approach to persistent juvenile offenders. We must stress and uphold the responsibilities of parents and families in controlling their children. We have to take a strong line with professionals, including teachers and social workers, who too often treat children who are clearly failing with indifference. The Children Act stresses the rights of the child. But communities have rights, too. Above all, we have to recognise the need for control as well as care.

As a psychiatric social worker in Brixton I saw first-hand that difficult children need love, stability and support to help them develop responsible attitudes. As head of the juvenile court in Lambeth in the early 1980s I saw also that patterns of law-breaking in youngsters had to be nipped in the bud to prevent a downward spiral of recidivism and despair.

Kenneth Clarke's statement in the House of Commons last week was the culmination of many months of work. The new secure training centres and the secure training order are a bold response to a problem characterised by too much debate and not enough action. But these measures do not represent a stand-alone policy. They are part of a concerted government approach to tackle juvenile delinquency.

Sadly, some social services departments have become identified as a weak link in the chain. It is frustrating to witness indifference among those whose job it is to address unacceptable juvenile behaviour. Local authority social services departments must fulfil their responsibility to their communities. They have to provide proper guidance and control of young offenders.

To help them, we will shortly be issuing guidance on measures of control in secure and other forms of children's residential accommodation. At times, staff have felt constrained when trying to control unruly youngsters. Some can even find themselves powerless to prevent children from running away, even when they know that they will be involved in further trouble. Carers must have sanctions if children misbehave. However, we must also avoid the horror stories which arose with 'pindown' in Staffordshire.

I shall also be reinforcing the Social Services Inspectorate's role in upholding rigorous standards, in the new secure training centres and in all forms of secure accommodation. As the range of organisations who can provide secure accommodation is extended to allow the voluntary and private sectors to bring their expertise to this area, this will be all the more important.

We must also recognise the role of parents in controlling children. The state cannot substitute for proper care and control within a family environment. Parents must understand their responsibility for their errant sons. Only parents can protect their children from excessively violent television or videos. Violent behaviour among young children is highly imitative. It is a fundamental parental duty to teach that certain forms of behaviour are anti-social and unacceptable.

The debate about whether the 1950s were a golden age is essentially sterile. Our job now is to take practical steps to respond to the needs of its citizens in the 1990s.

The writer is Secretary of State for Health

(Photograph omitted)