Labour leaders and penal reform groups said the institutions would become 'colleges of crime' and accused the Government of 'moral panic'. Tory MPs accused the Home Secretary of not going far enough.
He had announced that courts are to be given powers to impose a secure training order, for up to two years, on 12-to-15 year-olds convicted of three imprisonable offences. They will be housed in five 'secure training centres', offering a total of 200 places, run by private or voluntary operators.
Tony Blair, Labour's spokesman on home affairs, urged Mr Clarke to build on local authority secure accommodation. In a combative and competent response he said: 'What we need is schools of responsibility, not colleges of crime.' Stephen Shaw, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: 'Graduates from Mr Clarke's mini-prisons will be filling the adult jails for years to come.'
The Howard League condemned the secure units as 'penal prep-schools' and 'the most expensive con-trick of the century (which) will result in abused and abusive children'. They were attacked as a 'retrograde step . . . repeating the mistakes of the 1960s and 1970s,' by Vivien Stern, director of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders. The Children's Society said they were a 'knee-jerk reaction' to recent crimes.
Evidence published yesterday by the Home Office to a Commons select committee reinforced support for local authority homes, which, it said, provided better education and training than young offender institutions (YOIs), which the centres may resemble. The research showed offenders released from community homes were 'less likely to have been reconvicted than offenders released from YOIs and their offences to have been of a less serious kind'.
The police welcomed the secure units but were concerned that they would not be ready until 1995 - a view shared by many Tory MPs.
Education authorities are to be given a statutory duty to tackle truancy by providing education for truants. Schools will be told to do more to discourage criminal behaviour. 'There is no longer any place in our schools for the discredited philosophy of allowing children to develop in their own way, regardless of right or wrong,' Mr Clarke said.
Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, will issue new guidelines urging social workers in 30 local authority secure centres, accommodating 297 juveniles, to control those in their care.
But after the 'Pin-down' case - in which workers with a local authority subjected children in care to humiliating punishments - they will not be given any new powers to enforce restraint.
Tory backbench MPs welcomed the Home Secretary's package in the Commons, but privately criticised it as not tough enough. Michael Stephen, secretary of the Tory legal affairs committee, last night called on Mr Clarke to extend his net to 10-year-olds. Other senior Tories complained that Mr Clarke was being too liberal in allowing youths to commit three imprisonable offences before becoming liable to a secure order.
The Home Secetary said that, unlike 'short sharp shock' tactics, the atmosphere in the secure units would be 'school first of all - these are children who ought to be in school going through the national curriculum, with clear judgements about right and wrong and how to behave . . . .'
The Home Office report said that persistent offenders commonly fail to think about consequences; have difficulty identifying other courses of action and reaching relationships with others; are not good at moral reasoning; are egocentric; and are impulsive.
Mr Clarke said his package was balanced.
'We are bound to face criticism from both sides - from people saying we should be locking up thousands of juvenile offenders and throwing away the key and others throwing up their hands and saying 'shock, horror, dreadful', that they are like the old approved schools and will be universities of crime.'
Boy admits 200 burglaries, page 2
Colleges of crime, page 8
Letters, page 20