Labour targets 10-year-olds in crime initiative

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Children aged 10 could face court action under tough measures unveiled by Labour yesterday to combat crime by young people and seize the initiative on law and order from the Tories.

Jack Straw, Labour's home affairs spokesman, said children aged between 10 and 13 were "plainly capable of differentiating between right and wrong".

Labour will abolish the rules under which young people under 14 are protected by the rule of doli incapax - "incapable of evil".

The system of repeated police cautions would be replaced with a final caution with the threat of court action, if conditions were breached. Courts would be given the option of naming offenders aged 16 or over.

Police leaders last night welcomed the measures. "This is a feature of the criminal justice system that has caused untold misery for years. Both the police and public have been frustrated at society's inability to prevent 'bad' behaviour by youngsters,' said Brian MacKenzie, the president of the Police Superintendents' Association of England and Wales.

"This lack of discipline is recognised by youngsters, who are not slow to take advantage of the system.

"I think Jack Straw's paper represents a realistic attempt to tackle the blight of juvenile crime and unacceptable behaviour by youngsters.

"Teachers, police officers and others in authority should be empowered to deal with juvenile anti-social behaviour quickly, in the knowledge that they have the full support of the community and the criminal justice system. A return to such standards and values is to be welcomed and is in the best interests of everyone."

Ann Widdecombe, Minister of State at the Home Office, dismissed Labour's proposals. "It is not even reinventing the wheel, it is simply redescribing it. It is taking a series of measures we have already introduced. It is calling each one of them by another name and saying 'Here's a package to tackle youth crime'."

The overall thrust of the policy paper, Tackling Youth Crime, Reforming Youth Justice, was privately seen by senior Tory Party sources as a successful attempt to outflank Michael Howard, the Home Secretary. "It is getting hard to keep up with their shifts of policy. They are getting more authoritarian than we are," one Tory source said.