HC Deb 23 June 1993 vol 227 cc326-8 4.58 pm
Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)

I beg to move, That leave be. given to bring in a Bill to permit the detention in secure units of young offenders below the age of 14 years; and for connected purposes.

The Bill would give juvenile magistrates the power to commit persistent young offenders below the age of 14 direct to a secure unit, without having to refer that decision back to social services.

The Bill is needed urgently. All too often, local authorities thwart public opinion and the police by refusing to take advantage of the law, whereby only they can apply to have young thugs sent to a secure unit, either while on remand or for sentence. Those local authorities, with their soft liberal attitude, prefer to send the offender back into the community; where, within hours, he reoffends. There is nothing that the law can do to stop them, but society has had enough. It is time to act against persistent offenders who do not respond to normal cautions. Juvenile crime today has reached spine-chilling levels. The crimes are nastier and on a greater scale than ever before, It is a nationwide crisis.

The Association of Chief Police Officers and the Police Superintendents Association of England and Wales estimate that the true rate of juvenile crime has leapt by 54 per cent. in the last decade. Not a week goes by without a report of grotesque misbehaviour by a young teenager, who then gets away with it.

Those thugs, who are aged between 10 and 14, must be kept off the streets. Magistrates are in despair over having to hand the offenders back to the social services; legally they cannot do otherwise. It is no use the Government planning more secure units or secure training establishments if it is not possible to send young offenders to them. My Bill seeks to redress that.

The inability to put a persistent offender into secure accommodation was highlighted in November by the tragedy in Stockton, when a stolen car, occupied by a number of runaways from children homes, collided with another car, killing one woman and injuring three others. The driver was typical of. the hard core of persistent offenders for whom magistrates were completely unable to insist on the provision of secure accommodation. Had that offender been put into a secure unit at the time, that woman would not have died.

My constituency of quiet, leafy and prosperous Sutton is not an area where one would expect to find a hard core of tough, young criminals. However, we have a gang of a dozen youngsters, who, with another dozen acolytes, have run up scores of offences of burglary—of both shops and residential premises—drug dealing, stealing cars, joyriding, ram-raiding and so on. The gang are all aged 14 or under. As they operate in pleasant suburbia, they are more money-oriented than their violent brothers in the inner cities, and can earn up to £2,000 a night with the help of adult Fagins.

Money and robbery becomes a drug to them. One young thug admitted to being addicted to stealing. The boys are arrogant and defiant, and know that they are above the law. They are skilled, fast and sophisticated in their work, and the scale of their crimes is disproportionate to their numbers.

The group to which I have referred call themselves the Sutton burglary posse. They are so confident that they stole a printing press and ran off calling cards, which they leave at the addresses that they rob. The cards say: "Sutton Burglary Posse was here—phone 999." In 18 months, those youngsters, all aged between 12 and 14, have stolen £1.5 million-worth of goods and caused hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of damage to property, for which long-suffering retailers and householders have to bear the entire cost in increased insurance premiums and repairs.

The Sutton burglary posse even has the nerve to telephone rakish minicabs, which, for a percentage of the profits, will collect the youngsters and their loot and cart them off home. If caught, the boys stand hands in pockets, boasting of their successes and telling the police. "There is nothing you can do to me." At present, they are right.

Moreover, they know their rights—telephoning solicitors before their parents, or, in other cases, calling social services in the middle of the night to get them out of the police cells. Once free, they escape back into crime.

They have no fear of the consequences, for there will be none. Instead, they laugh when arrested and joke with friends when they appear in court. When released, having been given yet another supervision order to cover perhaps scores of charges, they celebrate in an almost carnival atmosphere.

One ringleader in Sutton has been arrested more than 40 times, with 200 charges against him. He has admitted twice as many offences. On one occasion, he appeared in court to face 21 charges ranging from actual bodily harm to burglary, receiving, stealing cars, carrying an offensive weapon and so on. All that the frustrated magistrates could give him, accepting that social workers would not put him into a secure unit, was a one-year supervision order. Afterwards, he was congratulated by fellow posse members and his social worker on getting off so lightly.

His mother was furious. She had pleaded, "Lock him up for his own good." Not surprisingly, the local newspaper, the Sutton and Cheam Herald, ran the headline, Posse boy walks free—age saves chronic burglar from harsher sentence. Since then, he has committed another six offences. So much for socia) services' claim that he is a reformed lad. His solicitor pleaded for him by saying: He has not offended for three weeks now. His friends are no different. One has been arrested 31 times, with scores of charges. Do not be taken in by his small size and completely angelic looks. He can barely reach a car's pedals, but he has no compunction about stealing high-performance cars and purposely baiting the police into a car chase.

Another one was barely 13 when he was first arrested. Today, aged 14, among his many offences is a charge of blinding another boy with a pen. He carries a double-edged Stanley knife, which I am told is now highly fashionable among his group. It is good for heavy scarring.

Another boy, by his 15th birthday, had been arrested 60 times, and on each occasion only conditional discharges and supervision orders could be passed. There was absolutely nothing that the magistrates could do, and the local authority was not prepared to apply to commit him to a secure unit. Now he is at last in Feltham, but the damage to society has already been done.

There are such posses all over the country. Many are nastier, with hideous reports of bloody violence. Police are angered, and society is furious at the contemptuous way in which they swagger back to the streets.

We would not be facing such a serious crisis if social workers and their political masters were more responsive to society's needs. The fact is that they are ideologically against putting a persistent offender into secure accommodation. Their argument is that such units are universities for crime and that, in any case, it is cruel. These juveniles are already in highly select schools of crime by virtue of the company that they keep.

What seems to be forgotten by social workers is that society pays an intolerable price for these crimes that far outweighs the cost of re-educating juveniles. I have visited three such units—Orchard Lodge at Crystal Palace, Glen House near Southampton, and Middlesex Lodge at Hillingdon. They are small, with a high ratio of adults to youngsters; the maximum number that a unit takes is eight.

Their purpose is as much re-education as removing them from society. They teach youngsters how to lead structured, normal lives, and give regular schooling with plenty of one-to-one teaching. Years of truanting have left such youngsters largely illiterate. Evidence shows that, by keeping a young person for several months, or ideally for a year, much good work can be achieved.

The decision about whether social services should refer a child to a secure unit is a geographical lottery. Sutton local authority is resistant, but Newcastle upon Tyne made more than 160 referrals in 1986, whereas in nearby Gateshead, only one child was locked up for similar behaviour. In Sunderland, crime was halved when an 11-year-old who had committed more than 200 offences was put in a secure unit. Research in Northumbria has shown that one in three juveniles reoffend while on bail.

Time is against us. It is quite unacceptable for youngsters to continue to punish the community. Magistrates must have the power to send them to' secure units. The Bill will redress the balance.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)


Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Lady Olga Maitland, Sir John Wheeler, Sir David Mitchell, Mr. John Gorst, Mr. Nigel Forman, Mr. Michael Shersby, Mr. Patrick Cormack, Mr. Michael Stephen, Mr. David Lidington, Mrs. Cheryl Gillan, Dr. Robert Spink and Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown.