Tories hurry to crack down on youth crime

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NEW powers to combat crime among children as young as five will be proposed by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, as part of another law and order crack-down.

The moves, designed to raise the profile of youth crime as an election battleground, are to be outlined later this month in a Green Paper and included in the Conservative party manifesto. However, the proposals are similar to plans outlined by the Labour Party last week in a pre-emptive strike against the Tories.

Under Mr Howard's proposals, youth courts would be able to impose parental control orders on the parents of those who misbehave. These orders would oblige parents to undertake conditions such as maintaining a curfew on their children, or ensuring they are taken to and from school each day.

If the parents failed to comply, they would be held responsible, and the court would be able to impose sanctions on them, including fines, community punishments or curfews.

Prison sentences will not be possible and the proposals are an alternative to lowering the age of criminal responsibility, which is currently 10. That has been rejected because of reservations about mounting cases against very young children.

Mr Howard hopes that parents of youngsters identified as difficult will take part in a voluntary scheme under which groups of teachers, social workers and local authority officials will give guidance to parents. This scheme aims to identify children as young as five who are playing truant or getting into trouble with the law. It will be overseen by senior policemen and social workers operating at a regional level.

Child offenders over the age of 10, who accept their guilt and are given a caution, may also be obliged to comply with court conditions such as curfews, under Mr Howard's plans. Breach of these would be an offence.

Youth courts would also be able to apply conditions to juveniles who pleaded not guilty but were convicted.

Determined not to be outdone, Labour already plans to halve the time from arrest to sentence for young offenders.

Last week Jack Straw, Shadow Home secretary, announced an enhanced package of measures including child protection area orders to deal with under- 10s out unsupervised at night, parental responsibility orders, and a new duty to make local authorities work in partnership with the police to combat crime.