Crime: Straw pledges end to excuse culture

The Government's plans to force juvenile offenders and their parents to take responsibility for their behaviour were unveiled yesterday. But Patricia Wynn Davies, Legal Affairs Editor, discovered that the Home Secretary believes they are only part of the battle against youth crime.
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Jack Straw pledged to break the "excuse culture" yesterday with his package of measures to be included in the promised Crime and Disorder Bill at the turn of the year.

Courts will have power to impose parenting orders requiring parents to exercise proper control of their child or risk a fine up to pounds 1,000. Councils will also have new powers, in consultation with police and residents, to set up curfews on children under 10.

Reparation orders will make young offenders face the consequences of their behaviour, and further action plans could require the offender to attend school or stipulate out-of-bounds areas. . Repeated police cautioning of youngsters will be replaced by a statutory final warning.

The Government will also scrap the medieval law of doli incapax which presumes 10- to 13-year-olds to be incapable of committing a crime.

Yesterday's paper, which applies to England and Wales, is only the first of three. A second will deal with the structure of youth justice services and the third, critical, document will tackle the strategy for delivering the Prime Minister's election pledge to halve the time it takes for young offenders to get from arrest to sentence.

It is this third paper that could to cause Mr Straw and his Cabinet colleague, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, most difficulty. There have been lengthy discussions - a turf war according to some - probably because while Mr Straw articulates law and order policy, it is the Lord Chancellor who is responsible for magistrates' and youth courts.

The Lord Chancellor has said that half the delays in the system occur before cases are listed in youth courts, which puts much of the responsibility firmly back with the police and the Home Office.

But Mr Straw made it clear yesterday he is prepared to think radically, disclosing that the Government was moving towards a more inquisitorial and less adversarial approach along similar lines to that used in Scotland.

"One of my major criticisms of the way the courts operate is that the offender, and their parents if they are there, are spectators," he said. Mr Straw likewise highlighted that tackling young offending was a Whitehall- wide issue. The rate of exclusions of unruly pupils by some schools, he suggested, diverged from the "overall public interest" because of the high risk of offending. Tackling the causes of crime, to quote the Government's rubric, remains, however, a big question.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: "There has been a three-fold increase in the number of children living in poverty in the last 20 years. Many reside in conditions which breed delinquency."