Lib Dems clash with Tory right over child justice

Nick Clegg's party wants to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14, angering Conservative traditionalists

Liberal Democrats are demanding an increase in the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14, setting them on a collision course with the Tory right who believe the coalition is already in danger of looking soft on crime.

Children under 14 would be kept out of the criminal courts and be dealt with instead by panels of experts, as part of a Lib Dem "key policy" to be officially adopted next month. It is certain to reopen the debate about serious cases such as the murder of toddler James Bulger and the case of two brothers from Edlington, aged 10 and 12, who were given indefinite sentences last year after torturing two young boys.

The policy was branded "retrograde and absolutely bizarre" by one Tory MP, Philip Davies. "We have seen some horrendous crimes by people under 14 who knew perfectly well what they were doing," he said.

It risks aggravating tensions over criminal policy, which have seen Kenneth Clarke, the Justice Secretary, dubbed the "sixth Lib Dem in the Cabinet" for his emphasis on rehabilitation over the "prison works" stance favoured by Tory traditionalists.

However, Lib Dem strategists are anxious that the party is able to demonstrate influence on the Government right up to the 2015 general election. They will use their spring conference in Sheffield to state their intention to fight the next election campaign "with no preference for potential future coalition partners". They will also lay public claim to coalition policies that are Lib Dem in origin, and point out where they have been forced through by Conservatives.

The new youth justice policy, backed by Lib Dem ministers, will be set out at the conference by Tom Brake, the party's home affairs spokesman. Before the election Nick Clegg criticised Labour's record for "criminalising a generation of our children". He highlighted figures that showed the number of 10- to 12-year-olds convicted rose by 87.2 per cent between 1997 and 2007. "We need to see innovative approaches that ensure children make amends to their victims and put things right, rather than immediately criminalising them," Mr Clegg said.

The Lib Dems argue that it is difficult to defend England and Wales being out of step with countries such as Italy, New Zealand and Spain, where the age of criminal responsibility is already 14. In Scotland, it will shortly rise from eight to 12. "We need to protect our children from making mistakes and should not expect vulnerable children to make judgements and decisions that many adults struggle with," the policy document, Taking Responsibility: Policies on Youth Justice, says.

Specially trained panels would assess why a child committed a crime and tackle the causes, including educational needs, mental health issues, abuse or neglect. "The policy proposals on youth justice look at the tackling of youth crime and reoffending in the round," a senior Lib Dem source said. "Our Conservative partners may not agree on all of this, but this policy paper puts us in a good position to build on where we agree and to convince them of the merits of our proposals where we do not yet agree."

Under Labour, the Ministry of Justice rejected calls for a change in the age level, but since then there has been renewed pressure from groups including the Law Society and Barnardo's.

Additional reporting by Kimberly Middleton

News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

News
There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law
news

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London