HC Deb 15 June 1989 vol 154 cc1109-11
4. Mr. Amess

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what representations he has received seeking steps to make parents responsible for the criminal activity of their children.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. John Patten)

The great majority of the 100 or so letters that we have received in the past few months support the idea. Many specific provisions already existing in law are, however, little used. For example, the power to impose a curfew on juvenile offenders was used by the courts on only eight occasions in 1986 and 1987.

Mr. Amess

Is my hon. Friend aware that his ideas for greater parental involvement in the consequences of children offending has received widespread acclaim throughout Britain? Is it not a tragedy, however, that the powers of curfew have been so seldom used? Will my hon. Friend comment on the suggestion that that is because some probation officers have refused to co-operate in the implementation of such orders?

Mr. Patten

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I greatly welcome the support in the majority of the correspondence that the Home Office has received for our radical and far-reaching new ideas to deal with offending by children. I am advised that there have been problems with some probation officers about co-operating with the courts. In 1985, the National Association of Probation Officers made it its policy not to co-operate with the courts in enforcing and supervising supervision orders. That is extraordinary because probation officers are officers of the court. If they will not fulfil their responsibilities, we may have to look for others who will.

Mr. Tony Banks

Is the Minister aware that attempting to make parents somehow responsible for the criminal activities of their children is entirely superficial and misses the point? Is he further aware that there has been a most alarming upsurge in crime by adolescents in the United States in recent years and that within five to 10 years a similar situation will develop here because Britain is following closely the social and economic policies pursued in the United States? Should not the Minister go for a far deeper study of the causes of crime by adolescents in Britain rather than grasping at the chimeras offered by Conservative Members?

Mr. Patten

During the past year the ministerial group on crime prevention—on which 13 different Government Departments are represented—has been conducting an in-depth study of the causes of crime among children and young people. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) is absolutely right that we must search for those causes. I do not believe, however, that the search would be aided by simply dismissing parental responsibility for the behaviour of children as something of no importance. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, the family is the first line of defence against crime by children.

I do not believe that on every occasion trends in the United States are followed 10 or 15 years later in this country. In the past 10 years we have seen a welcome, though slight, reduction in juvenile crime. What alarms my right hon. Friend and myself is that the peak age for offending remains at 15. We are determined to do something about that.

Mr. Patrick Thompson

Bearing in mind that many young children are drawn into crime as a result of addiction to amusement-with-prizes machines in arcades and that many parents, responsible and irresponsible, are involved in such distressing cases, will my hon. Friend seriously reconsider my Bill, which has support on both sides of the House and would give discretion to local authorities to ban under-16s from amusement arcades?

Mr. Patten

I know of my hon. Friend's longstanding interest in this important issue and of the way in which he has dealt with it in the proposals that he has put to Ministers and in his Bill. He is a model of how such a campaign should be conducted. We believe, however, that we should respond to the need for change in the criminal justice system when, to borrow my hon. Friend's phrase, there is clear evidence of a link between addiction and criminality. Independent research carried out by the Home Office's internationally renowned research and planning unit, which is independent in the way in which it conducts its business, supported by the Gaming Board for Great Britain, produced no evidence of such a link. If my hon. Friend and those who support him in his campaign can come forward with firm evidence we shall, of course, reconsider the issue.

Mr. Heffer

May I ask the Minister to take more seriously the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) about the reasons for child crime? Surely the suggestion that parents are responsible for all the criminal activity of their children is not a serious one, although it is a populist demand on the part of some Conservative Members. [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes"]. There are many Members of Parliament whose children have committed criminal activities. We all know of next-door neighbours and so on whose children have carried out criminal acts. Parents are in no way responsible.

Mr. Tony Banks

It is a superficial suggestion.

Mr. Heffer

Exactly. Of course there is a connection between parents and their children's criminal activity up to a point, but it is a minor one. We must consider this issue much more carefully. I ask the Minister to ignore totally the irresponsible and populist demands that have been made by Conservative Members.

Mr. Patten

I am extremely surprised that the hon. Gentleman, with his well-known upholding of Christian values about which he has told this House on many occasions since I have been here, should feel that parents have no responsibility for their children. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has said, it is critically important to appreciate that the first and best line of defence against offending not just by juveniles, but by children under 10 who commit some 6,000 offences each year, are the parents. I believe that the country appreciates that. I entirely accept that a thuggish, 16-year-old young man may be difficult for a single parent to control, but I do not accept that the parent of an eight, nine or 10-year-old should be exonerated from providing care and attention.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We are making extremely slow progress. I ask for brief questions and briefer answers to them.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett

My hon. Friend has already referred to the fact that the peak age for criminal activity is school age. Much of that criminal activity takes place during school hours. Will my hon. Friend have a word with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science to get schools to check that pupils are attending on a lesson basis rather than on a half-day basis and to ensure that education authorities speed up the process of taking parents to court when children are truanting? The court process should also be speeded up so that it no longer takes between 18 months and two years to bring a truanting child and his parents to court.

Mr. Patten

My hon. Friend makes three important points. Such discussions have taken place between my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Education and Science in recent months. In addition, we are delighted that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science has asked the National Curriculum Council to consider the inclusion of lessons on parenthood and responsibility in the national curriculum. That is an important suggestion.

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