HC Deb 20 March 1997 vol 292 cc1061-3
4. Mr. Harry Greenway

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what plans his Department has to take action to discourage children from taking part in criminal activities; and if he will make a statement. [19785]

Mr. Howard

The Government believe that it is important to identify as early as possible children who may be at risk of offending and to take action to help them stay clear of crime. We have just published a Green Paper, "Preventing Children Offending", which sets out proposals for action to help children before they become offenders and reinforces parents' responsibility for their children's behaviour.

Mr. Greenway

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is totally in the interests of society, and children in particular, that they should be taught the difference between right and wrong from an early age, and that therefore Christian or moral education in schools is absolutely crucial, although it is seriously neglected by Labour-controlled authorities right across the land? Is not it totally wrong for vicars, or clergymen of any kind, not to mention the Leader of the Opposition, to condone shoplifting, for example?

Mr. Howard

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The remarks to which he has referred, both by the clergyman concerned and the Leader of the Opposition, were quite disgraceful. The Leader of the Opposition sought to excuse certain kinds of pickpocketing and shoplifting in a most disgraceful remark in a speech that he made a short while ago. We all have a duty to inculcate a sense of right and wrong in our children, and it is particularly regrettable when those in positions of authority fail to contribute to that objective.

Mr. Alex Carlile

Will the Home Secretary explain to the House why it has taken 18 years for the Government to produce a Green Paper on dealing with youth crime, and why he did not even act upon the recommendation of his own Home Office research study 161 which revealed some months ago that even a relatively expensive early intervention against youth crime can save an awful lot of money later because young offenders' institutions are so expensive and ineffective?

Mr. Howard

A great deal has been done during the past 18 years to deal with youth crime in various ways. The Green Paper draws together best practice to try to encourage that best practice across the country and to make new proposals for parental control orders which will encourage parents to exert greater control over their offspring.

Mr. Tredinnick

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that crime among youngsters is one of the main worries of the Burbage safe neighbourhood action group in my constituency? How will the child crime teams envisaged in his Green Paper work when the Government are re-elected after 1 May?

Mr. Howard

I hope that child crime teams will be able to bring all the relevant agencies and voluntary bodies, including, for example, Home Start, to bear on those children who experience difficulties and are likely to become career criminals. I hope that everything that can be done will be done to turn them away from a career of crime, and at an early stage. That will be the objective of the child crime teams.

Mr. Straw

I endorse the Home Secretary's welcome to the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling). We are pleased to see him back.

Does the Home Secretary recognise that nowhere has the Government's failure during the past 18 years been greater than in respect of the youth justice system, with an increase in just the past 10 years of 35 per cent. in the number of youth crimes but a drop of an equivalent amount—35 per cent.—in the number of young criminals being brought to court? Is the Home Secretary particularly aware of the large number of 10 to 13-year-olds who are not taught the difference between right and wrong under the current system and who presently escape any punishment at all for those serious offences? In view of that, why have the Government failed so far to bring forward any proposals to reform the law on doli incapax?

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman totally misrepresents the current position. It is perfectly possible for 10 to 13-year-olds to be brought to court, to be accused of their crime and to be convicted if it can be shown, as it usually can in those circumstances, that they knew the difference between right and wrong. The Crown Prosecution Service says that there is no evidence of a real problem arising out of the rule to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The Government are keeping the operation of that rule under review. If there is any evidence that it is causing a problem, we will act to deal with it.

Mr. John Greenway

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that more than 85 per cent. of young people who get into trouble do not reoffend because of the measures taken by the police and the courts? The number before the courts has reduced, because of the effect of cautioning. Is not the real problem the 15 per cent. who are not deterred from crime by a caution or by getting into trouble once? That is where the growth in juvenile crime lies, and where tough measures are needed. It is no use the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) nodding his head. We need the secure training units that his party refused to support.

Mr. Howard

My hon. Friend is entirely right. I know that he will be particularly pleased to learn that the first contract for a secure training unit was signed on 3 March this year. We can now implement that policy, which, as my hon. Friend rightly said, was opposed root and branch by the Opposition parties. The unit will provide secure accommodation to deal with persistent young offenders in the way that is most appropriate.

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