Minister calls for report on offender's crime holiday: Inquiry launched into chalet burglary spree by boy sent on therapy break

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The Independent Online
A GOVERNMENT minister has called for an urgent report into decisions by social workers to send a young offender to a luxury holiday village as part of a 'therapeutic programme'. The 14-year-old boy then burgled nine chalets after running away from his two supervisors within an hour of arriving.

Last night John Bowis, the social services minister, said local authorities had to be conscious that any treatment of young offenders 'should not be seen as a reward for misbehaviour'.

An inquiry had earlier been announced by Essex County Council's social services department, which was responsible for the youth and had sent him to an outside organisation, the Heartsdene Trust at Stevenage, Hertfordshire, for specialist care. The inquiry will also look at allegations by the holiday centre that the reservation was made 'under false pretences' as a family booking.

While at the Center Parcs complex in Elveden near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, the youth, who had a previous conviction for burglary, went on a two-day crime spree, stealing cash, jewellery and other valuables from holidaymakers. He was caught on the third day of his pounds 403-a-week break when security guards spotted him entering a chalet. Police were called and the teenager was accused of burglary and ordered off the site.

The teenager admitted burglary after he was arrested in March and was given a one-year supervision order by the youth panel at Bury St Edmunds in June.

Essex county councillors, who have just learnt of the case, demanded an inquiry into why the youth - who is now in a secure accommodation unit - was sent on the break. The Labour-controlled council confirmed that an investigation would be conducted.

The case is the latest in a series of controversies over therapeutic holidays for young offenders. Gloucestershire social services was criticised for paying for a 17-year- old offender to go on a pounds 7,000 character-building safari in Africa.

Mr Bowis said: 'Authorities need to be conscious of the need to send the right messages and that any treatment of young offenders should not be seen as a reward for misbehaviour.'

Essex county council said Heartsdene made the arrangements for him to attend Center Parcs as part of the therapeutic programme: 'It was our understanding that there would be 24- hour supervision of the youth because of our concerns about him absconding.'

Peter Moore, managing director of Center Parcs, said the company was considering taking legal action or seeking compensation. 'We were certainly misled. The booking was made under false pretences as they claimed it was a family booking. If we had known he was a young offender he would not have been allowed in,' he said.

Christopher Tasker, chief executive of the Heartsdene Trust, said the company was preparing a considered response and it would be unprofessional to comment yet.