Children between 10 and 13 should be deemed "capable of evil", Jack Straw, the shadow Home Secretary declared yesterday in a bid to outflank the Government on law and order ahead of green paper on irresponsible parents.
As the pre-election battle over crime hotted up, Mr Straw faced fresh criticism from penal groups as he urged the scrapping of the presumption against the criminal responsibility of 10 to 13 year-olds.
The call for an end to the medieval doctrine of doli incapax, which assumes the youngsters do not know right from wrong unless the prosecution proves otherwise, was one of six key policy points for juvenile crime spotlighted by Mr Straw in a pre-election visit to Newark, Nottinghamshire.
Mr Straw claimed the doctrine defied common sense and made it "very difficult for youth courts to convict younger offenders and start the process of changing their offending behaviour.
"I propose to change the law so that the assumption will be that if 10- 13 year-old commits a crime it will be assumed that they knew it was wrong," he said. "It would be open to the defence in a particular case to argue that the child did not know the difference between rights and wrong, for example if the child had serious learning handicaps."
Outlining the other five points, Mr Straw renewed Labour's pledges to introduce parental responsibility orders, community safety injunctions backed by the threat of imprisonment, the replacement of repeated cautions with a single final warning, and to clarify the right of criminal courts to send a young offender to secure accommodation.
Mr Straw visited the village of Balderton, where villagers recently held a public meeting to demand action against three boys aged 10, 12 and 14 who had been terrorising residents.
Mr Straw appeared to have outdone Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, whose own green paper on youth crime is due today. The centrepiece of the paper will be a proposed new parental control order, which will be imposed on parents who fail to control their offspring when they have committed criminal offences or are showing signs that they are at risk of doing so.
Mr Howard dismissed Labour's plans to scrap the test for criminality, saying that youngsters could not use it to escape criminal responsibility altogether. "We've been looking at it, keeping it under review, listening to what the Crown Prosecution Service and the Association of Chief Police Officers have to say," he said.
Mr Howard highlighted yesterday's announcement of the signing of the contract for the first secure training centre, at Cookham Wood, Kent, with the Rebound/Tarmac consortium.
The secure training centre order is a new sentence for 12-14 year-old persistent offenders. "That was completely opposed by Labour when we took it through Parliament," Mr Howard said.
There was criticism from the Penal Affairs Consortium, an alliance of 33 penal organisations, of Labour's plans to scrap legal safeguards for child defendants.
Paul Cavadino, the chairman, said: "We welcome Labour's proposals to provide greater education and support for parents and to reduce delays in the youth justice system. However, legal safeguards for children aged 10-13 should not be eroded.
"The doli incapax rule should not be abolished unless this is accompanied by a raising of this country's unusually low age of criminal responsibility. This rule is fully consistent with our knowledge of child development, which tells us that children mature and learn over different time spans. It is absurd to say that the rule makes it 'very difficult' to convict young offenders; the evidence needed to overturn the presumption in an individual case is not great."
Leading article: page 11
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