Orderly face of 'crime town': Sutton's MP wants stonger action against young offenders. Will Bennett reports

SUTTON in the sunshine yesterday did not look like the breeding ground for a juvenile crime wave. Shrubs in neat wooden boxes brought a hint of suburban greenery to its tidy High Street.

But outside the police station, Lady Olga Maitland, Conservative MP for Sutton and Cheam, painted a different picture. She said: 'The level of crime has been absolutely spectacular. One child has 200 offences against his name.'

The police agree and say that over the past 18 months a gang of youngsters styling itself the Sutton High Street Burglary Posse has stolen goods worth more than pounds 1.5m in the south London suburb.

They have made up to pounds 2,000 a night from selling clothes, electrical goods and other stolen property. Such has been their arrogance that they have even left Sutton High Street Burglary Posse calling cards advising victims to telephone 999 .

Yet most of the 10 hard core members of the posse are between 12- and 14-years-old and the law has struggled to control them. As the traders have counted the cost of their crimes, the offenders have often been released only to reoffend. Lady Olga believes that the law must be amended to make it easier for the courts to remand youngsters in custody and to hand out custodial sentences. On Wednesday she introduced a Parliamentary Bill to this effect.

While this has no chance of becoming law, she has just been appointed to the House of Commons committee examining the Criminal Justice Bill.

She plans amendments to toughen the legislation on sentencing juveniles. 'Magistrates should be given power to commit these very persistent young offenders to a secure unit without having to refer them back to social services,' she said.

Police and court officials in Sutton tell how the youngsters laugh in court and say that there has been a carnival atmosphere when they have been freed.

Ian Hedges, the manager of the Sutton branch of Marks & Spencer, and on the committee of the High Street Retailers' Association, said that shops and the local council were to share the pounds 75,000 cost of a closed-circuit television system for the entire street. His own store now has a camera outside and has taken other security measures to stop the thefts, many of them daytime snatches.

But Annie Shepperd, assistant director of social services for the Liberal Democrat-controlled Sutton council, said yesterday that six of the posse were now in custody or secure accommodation, three were out on bail, while one had been taken into care at a non-secure unit. She continued: 'We refute that we are not doing enough.'

The youngsters come from a variety of backgrounds, but social workers say that in almost every case they have a bad relationship with their parents. The gang met in children's homes and courts.

Some of them are about to reach the age of 15 when the courts have more freedom to impose custodial sentences. So far, there is no evidence that a younger generation of criminals in Sutton is about to follow in their footsteps.

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