Electronic tags for children

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Child criminals aged as young as ten will be placed under "house arrest" using electronic tags attached to their arms or legs, under controversial Government proposals to be announced later this month.

The measure, in which parents of juvenile offenders will also face fines if their children break their curfew orders, will be introduced as an amendment to the Crime Bill, The Independent has learnt.

Labour and probation officers last night condemned the move as policy by stealth and argued that it was side-stepping proper parliamentary debate.

John Major first unveiled the proposals, which are aimed at teenage tearaways who vandalise and terrorise communities, at the Tory party conference in October, but there was no mention of the scheme in the Queen's Speech.

The use of electronic tags has already caused a furore after an inconclusive, and at times failing, 17-month trial involving adults.

Under the amendment, it is understood that magistrates will be able to sentence juvenile offenders, aged from 10 to 16, to a curfew order enforced by an electronic monitoring device. Up to 50,000 young offenders could be eligible for the tags, although only a tiny proportion would expect to be fitted.

The new court order would be aimed at offences such as vandalising vehicles, spraying graffiti and smashing windows. Typically they would have to remain at home from 6pm to 6am.

Included in the order would be a "bind-over" condition on the child's parents or parent. If the young offender breached their curfew order or damaged their tag, the mother and or father would be liable for a fine, possibly up to pounds 1,000. The young offenders would be sent back to court for a new sentence.

Penal reformers argue that the type of teenager likely to receive the new punishment would already have an unstable family background and would be considered disruptive. They believe tags would worsen matters and youngsters will ignore the curfews.

Tagging works by attaching an electronic transmitter bracelet to the ankle or wrist of the offender. It is worn at all times and triggers a warning signal to a monitoring centre via a telephone line when an offender leaves home.

It is understood that Home Office officials are still drawing up the details of the amendment and that ministers will argue that the measures were not included in the Crime Bill because they were not completed at the time of the Queen's Speech.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the Association of Probation Officers, said: "For the last 60 years the focus of legislation has been on the liberty of the child. Tagging turns the clock back. This measure is about the best interests of the politicians - not young people.

"This is symptomatic of the whole approach to the Crime Bill. It's being rushed through Parliament with extra clauses added too late in the day to allow proper debate and discussion."

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, believes - like his opposite number, Jack Straw - that a strong clampdown on young offenders is a vote-winner.

He has already surprised MPs by announcing that proposals to "name and shame" young thugs, who at present remain anonymous in court cases, and to take away driving licences as a punishment for all kinds of offences will be added as amendments at the Crime Bill's committee stage.

In addition, a Private Member's Bill will seek to ban drinking in public by those under 18 years old. The Crime Bill already includes proposals to use electronic tags to monitor curfew orders placed on persistent petty offenders, such as fine defaulters, aged 16 and over.

Labour argues that tagging can only be part of the solution to deal with young offenders. Jack Straw said: "It can only be a limited response to the crisis in the youth justice system."

However Labour are unwilling to reveal whether they would back or oppose the amendment on juveniles, fearful of being labelled "soft on crime".