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Leading Article : A time and a place for curfews on children

Labour's Home Affairs spokesman, Jack Straw, drives home from the House of Commons. But this time it is not the squeegee merchants who arrest his attention. He notices numbers of young boys and girls on the streets up way beyond what ought to be their bedtimes. His alarm is understandable but his solution - age-based curfew - may once again show Mr Straw reaching for the headline before working through the devilish detail of problem, policy and social circumstance.

Labour does not like the accusation that it is starting to advocate strong- arm solutions to social problems. (For one thing, its faith in government action in the social sphere contrasts oddly with its neo-liberal approach to what government can accomplish in melding and invigorating the economy.) So Mr Straw will say he was only engaging in what you might call policy throat-clearing. He was having a public gargle on a subject deemed to be of concern. There is indeed anecdotal evidence of young children spotted out late unchaperoned. But how many, and where, and how can you tell whether a child is loitering with intent or coming back late from a friend or even the video store? Most people would readily agree the sight of a small child aged under 10 on the streets after dark is unsettling - a good citizen ought to inquire or report. But how late is too late for a 13-year-old? Police and local authorities are already attentive to amusement arcades and other child hang-outs; the reach of the authorities is and will probably always be limited when it comes to the estates and housing schemes.

Mr Straw comes unstuck if he is advocating a national plan of action. They tend to fail for two reasons. One is that the incidence of any problem differs across the country. The contours of family, child numbers, schooling, policing, race are self-evidently different in Stockwell - near Mr Straw's home - from Sandwell, Sandbach or Stenhousemuir. The second is that central government has time and again proved itself bad at mounting the cross- disciplinary, trans-departmental effort that combating complex social problems demands. There is an emergent class of issue which can only really be addressed locally, by means of detailed programmes of co-operation between area agencies, local authorities, the police and business. Children on the streets after hours is one of them, along with truanting, school violence and drug abuse.

It is far better to begin locally. Many organisations, public and voluntary, already keep an eye on the street. Businesses, too, look to their security and look out. They know, in particular places, whether there is a problem with children after dark. It will be their joint action that will be needed to engage with it.

Mr Straw says he has in mind the experience of Coventry. With the co- operation of the Home Office (pre Michael Howard), Coventry enacted by- laws making its city centre "dry" as a way of coping with a rash of teen crime. (It has not been conspicuously successful.) Other areas, some with similar, some with divergent problems, can watch, compare and learn.

The principle of Mr Straw's prescription may be right. Forcing children off the streets late might serve to reduce crime or keep them out of moral danger (at least get them to bed earlier and so better able to get to school on time). Equally, the social facts of negligent or absent parents, headstrong children and tempting high streets may just be too solid. Forced off the streets does not mean forced home. What is needed is a process of trials, evidence of what works and what doesn't. We can all learn from experiments like that beginning in New Orleans - provided we give it time and stop hailing every weird and wonderful local effort in the United States as the universal answer.

Mr Straw - formerly Labour's Environment Spokesman - knows full well what that would require. Labour would have to be prepared to let councils off the leash, to free up the financial and legislative shackles on local action. How much easier is headline-grabbing than assaying local, incremental, unobserved real-world improvements to edgy, difficult social questions.