Care homes will not be able to lock up children

TORY MPS demanding the return of tough approved school regimes for persistent offenders are likely to be disappointed by new guidelines to be issued to local authority children's homes by Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for Health.

The guidelines will make it clear that children cannot be locked up routinely in council residential homes, in spite of rising concern among Tory MPs over juveniles who leave the homes at night to commit offences.

A Whitehall source said: 'A lot of care centres are run by young people who may be faced with a hulking 6ft 2in youth who wants to go to the pub. If there is sensible guidance, all you can do is keep them under control by persuasion or bribery, such as saying, 'I will cook you dinner if you don't go out'. It is not going to stop children breaking out and stealing cars, if that is what the children want to do.'

The Children Act set out clearly that local authority staff cannot restrain young people and they cannot use corporal punishment. 'They can only use physical restraint if they are going to injure themselves or other people. You cannot lock them in their rooms,' the source said.

The Department of Health, which has responsibility for the operation of the Children Act, issued draft guidelines last autumn. They were criticised, but the revised guidance to be issued in the summer will not herald a tougher regime in council homes.

The 'pin-down' controversy has made ministers anxious to avoid giving those in charge of homes new powers to restrain young people, although they may seek restraining powers through court orders.

Mrs Bottomley has also privately questioned plans by Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, for creating a new generation of approved schools to deal with persistent offenders.

The Home Secretary is expected to announce his plans in a law and order package next week with the support of the majority of Tory MPs. Sir John Wheeler, the former chairman of the cross-party Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs, warned Mr Clarke that he would be 'repeating the mistakes of yesterday' with the new centres.

Sir John, a former assistant prison governor who commands wide respect on home affairs issues, said 26 per cent of all young people held in secure accommodation had been previously held in local authority care.

'We have got to become more sophisticated in identifying these juveniles at a very much earlier age in the problem families which the social workers can readily identify. That is when you need to be doing something about it, not when they are 12 and causing trouble. It is too late then. We are in danger of making the mistakes of yesterday without addressing the fundamental issues.'