Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, yesterday announced that he wants an army of young people to combat crime by joining the ranks of Neighbourhood Watch schemes.
"I want to encourage the Neighbourhood Watch movement as a whole to embark on an active recruitment drive aimed at youngsters," he said.
Speaking at the National Neighbourhood Watch Scheme conference in London, he said: "I know that many young people are already actively involved. But the scope for more is enormous. One of the great challenges over the next few years will be to broaden the appeal to young people."
The idea of "Howard Youth" walking the streets "with some purpose" was greeted with incredulity by youth experts.
Mike Thomas, chairman of the National Association for Youth Justice, said: "I cannot see young people getting involved in Neighbourhood Watch schemes. It would be seen as 'grassing up' your mates.
"It is much more important to involve youngsters in the community. This idea of Michael Howard's could be interpreted as snooping on your friends and schoolmates. It gives totally the wrong impression." In any event, he pointed out, most Neighbourhood Watch schemes were in middle-class residential areas where crime was low.
Ken Honeybun, who works with young people including offenders in Leicester, said: "I think they will be completely untouched by it. It is against the perceived youth culture. They are not 'joiners'.
"I think any young person worth his or her salt is likely to do this anyway. I don't think it needs an organisation to do that. It would be much better if effort was put into making it possible for young people to engage in positive activity. The best way to prevent crime is to give people something to do."
Because of cuts in youth services over the past 10 years, the opportunities for young people to get involved had been reduced "dramatically", he added. "If more effort was put into that area, we might have a much better pay- off."
The Home Secretary told the Neighbourhood Watch representatives that the Government was fighting youth crime by setting up a Ministerial Group on Juveniles to look at ways of identifying likely offenders.
He coupled his appeal for child crimestoppers with a warning that young offenders will be dealt with severely: "I am a firm believer in the idea that when young people offend, the penalty imposed, whether it is a community or custodial sentence, should be tough and demanding.
"It should also be constructive and instructive. For there to be long- term change, there will need to be a concerted effort to influence attitudes and behaviour."
The Home Secretary said that parents, teachers, social workers and youth leaders should all help to prevent youngsters from becoming offenders. "There is much more that could be done - not only by parents, but also by those whose jobs place them in a position where they can have a direct influence on preventing young people from drifting into crime."
Mr Howard paid tribute to the 143,000 Neighbourhood Watch schemes, which cover 6 million homes in England and Wales.