Natasha Walter: Don't slap curfews on children who are lost in a world full of dangers

'This sounds more suitable to a blitzed city in wartime than a neighbourhood in summer holiday time'
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The Independent Online

It's August. So, let out of school for a brief break between one literacy test and another numeracy target, children can start to explore a different world. For some, it will be a great world – a world of hot beaches and gardens and laughter. For others, it won't be so great – it will be a world of dirty pavements and cars and danger. For more children than ever, it will be even worse – it will be just four walls and a television screen and boredom.

If you're a child whose parents aren't able to whisk you off, like the Blair kids, on one trip after another – for them, it's off to Mexico, then the West Country, then France – time might hang heavy on your hands over the summer. But God forbid that as the sun goes down on these summer evenings, your boredom should spill over on to the streets around your home. To prevent any such occurrence, the Government has introduced new powers to keep children cooped up this summer. Beverley Hughes, the keen new prefect under head boy David Blunkett, stepped out this week to defend new rules to keep children in line.

This new legislation, which came into force on Wednesday, enables police and magistrates to impose a curfew in an area where there have been signs of criminal activity. The curfews will apply to all children in the area under 16, between the hours of 9pm and 6am, for 90 days. It's true that these rules may, in fact, never be put into effect. The previous curfew orders that applied to children under 10 who strayed outside in the evenings were never used, but the Government hasn't allowed such a hiccup to interfere with its enthusiasm for the idea.

Does this government's longing for curfews sound to you more suitable to a blitzed city in wartime than a summer neighbourhood in holiday time? On the contrary, Beverley Hughes has defended the curfew orders as being wonderfully child-oriented. Because of the curfews, she said, "police and local authorities are better able to protect children from the risks of being unaccompanied on the streets at night, from adults such as drug dealers or pimps, or older peers encouraging them into criminal activities". So, what do you know, curfews will actually lead to a softer, more family-friendly world.

Undoubtedly, there are dangers haunting the streets for some children, just as some children can truly terrorise a neighbourhood. It's easy to fantasise about a glorious childhood of the past, when children could roam innocently around streets and lakes and railways. Did it ever exist beyond the pages of novels? We may all carry the images of the Swallows and Amazons in our hearts, camping out all alone for weeks without parental supervision, or the image of the children in the first chapters of Sons and Lovers, out in the streets in the winter nights, playing "wild intense games under the lamp posts surrounded by so much darkness".

The reality for some children has always been far harsher. And now, more than ever, some children can find themselves lost in a world whose dangers they can hardly grasp. I remember one boy I met last year when I visited Portland Young Offenders' Institution. He had started dealing drugs when he was 15 after being excluded from school. "That's when it all started going wrong for me," he said. "I was just hanging around the streets. I didn't have anything to do." His view of why he got into crime – and I guess it's as perceptive a viewpoint as those of well-meaning civil servants – is that crime just filled a black hole in his life. "We don't have anything to do at all," he tried to explain.

I also remember speaking to one girl in Middlesbrough last year, who had started working as a prostitute when she was 14, after she stopped going to school at the age of 13. "I was scared every day. But I went on with it. There wasn't anything else," she said. She described to me a life of resounding emptiness, in which the blandishments of older men and women had drawn her into activities that terrified her.

Both this boy and this girl, when I met them, told me they had left their old lives far behind – with the help of intriguing and well-run schemes, one run by Nacro, one by Barnardo's, that were devoted to empowering young people and helping them to build new lives through training and jobs. But the workers on these schemes told me the same old story: a lack of funds and resources that was preventing them from reaching out to anything like the numbers of children that they could see needed their support.

Why would this government rather slap curfews on such children than fund the schemes that might help to change their lives? Beverley Hughes has said that the curfews will help "the local community to feel empowered to look after their own children". But a neighbourhood that is blighted by deprivation may not want to lock their children up; rather, they might want to give them hope, in the shape of better education, a better environment, and better opportunities for work.

A curfew is a policy of despair. A policy of hope, when it came to children, would be a policy that ensured that they didn't just slip away from education and then find themselves with nothing at all to do, that built meeting places and parks and pools where children could play without fear. It would be a policy that tried to tackle inequality, on the basis that childhood shouldn't just the property of the lucky children with gardens and holidays abroad and trips around town.

Perhaps it's no surprise that New Labour would put forward such an illiberal measure. But isn't it surprising that most of the media should be so unconcerned about it? This new example of the Government's high-handed desire to take away people's liberties under the guise of protecting them is creating hardly a judder of dismay.

Earlier this week, when Beverley Hughes said she thought that Brass Eye was disgusting, she faced a barrage of insult and invective. But now that she has popped up again not to give an opinion or a suggestion, but to introduce a concrete policy that heralds a real restriction on people's freedoms, we have heard hardly a peep of protest. In such a climate, no wonder the Government feels free to pursue its schemes for curtailing our liberties.