HC Deb 07 July 1997 vol 297 cc597-8
5. Mr. Fraser

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what action he intends to take to prevent children turning to crime; and if he will make a statement. [5510]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's interest in this issue. Tackling the crisis in the youth justice system is the Government's No. 1 priority in the field of law and order.

During the 10 years from 1984, youth crime rose by 36 per cent., while the number of young offenders dealt with fell by more than a third, and delays worsened. In November 1996, the Audit Commission condemned the previous Government's record when it said:

Less is now being done than a decade ago to address offending by young people. Against that background, we are determined to reform this inefficient system to ensure that young offenders are punished promptly and effectively and are diverted from drifting into a life of crime. One of our five key pledges is to halve the time that it takes to get persistent young offenders from arrest to sentence. I look forward to the hon. Gentleman's support for our proposals.

Mr. Fraser

In being more specific than that response, will the Secretary of State consider what further co-operative measures his Department will initiate, such as those arranged by Dorset's drug action team on alcohol and drug use among young people?

Mr. Straw

I should be delighted to consider those proposals. During the general election campaign, we published a detailed set of policy proposals for dealing both with drug-related crime, including drug treatment and testing orders, and with alcohol-related crime. Provisions in respect of both will feature in the crime and disorder Bill, to be published later this year. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's input into those measures.

Ms Keeble

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement—[Interruption.] When he looks at measures to deal with crime, will he consider the success of the diversion unit in Northamptonshire, which was praised by the Audit Commission report that he mentioned, and see whether lessons in dealing with youth crime can be learned from it?

Mr. Straw

I should be delighted to do so—despite the mocking laughter from the Opposition Benches, which is not surprising, given the Opposition's record. My predecessor was also interested in the very important and beneficial experience in Northamptonshire for many young offenders. We shall, of course, take it on board in developing our proposals.

Mr. Maginnis

Irrespective of the consideration and accommodation that the state may provide for family life in the 21st century, does the Home Secretary agree that there is no substitute for parental love, concern and responsibility? Will he therefore bear it in mind that, although the Government cannot be expected to act in loco parentis, they must impress on parents their primary responsibility for the activities of their children and find the means to ensure that parents are encouraged to fulfil that role?

Mr. Straw

I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman's comments. He will be interested to know that last year, in opposition, I published a detailed discussion document about parenting and the need to improve parenting education and support. Also, as part of our crime and disorder Bill, we will make specific provision for parental responsibility orders to deal with that small minority of parents who do not take their responsibilities as parents seriously enough.

Mrs. Brinton

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a proportion of crime is caused by young people roaming around on their own without their parents? Does he agree that it is essential that firm action is taken to ensure that parents take responsibility for their children? Is he aware that, in Peterborough, we have launched the Bretton Youth Trust, which enables young people to take a positive part in improving their community and, therefore, their lives?

Mr. Straw

I am aware of the Bretton Youth Trust and I paid a visit to that area of Peterborough before the election. I can tell my hon. Friend that another part of the crime and disorder Bill will be provision for child protection orders to ensure that parents are not able to allow young children to play outside or to commit crimes late at night while unsupervised.

Mr. Clappison

Will the Home Secretary explain why the Government have announced that, after all, they will build five secure training centres for persistent young offenders, when the Prime Minister has described such a policy as a sham?

Mr. Straw

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his elevation to the Front Bench.

The previous Government's record on the provision of secure accommodation for young offenders was appalling. Their rhetoric, as ever, was sharp, but their record was very different. They left us with an increasing need for secure accommodation, but, by the end of their period in office, fewer secure accommodation places were available to the courts and social services than 10 years before. That is why I have acted as I have, and I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman did not congratulate me on my prompt action. He should bear in mind the fact that the use of secure accommodation for young people has halved in the past 10 years, while youth crime has rocketed.