Bob Cervi looks at the youth crime policies of the two main
political parties and asks what, if anything, will change if Labour
wins the next election.
Jack Straw, the shadow home secretary, does not mince his words
on crime. Tough on crime and tough on the perpetrators of crime.
Homeless people are ‘beggars’, alcohol misusers are ‘winos’, and
‘squeegee merchants’ are the pits. These are the types of city
centre dwellers which need to be swept away, according to the Straw
The side streets and housing estates have other social misfits –
noisy and threatening families whose young children roam the
streets, truanting from school by day and loitering menacingly late
at night. What these families need, says Straw, are curfew orders
This vision of Britain’s mean streets could have been lifted
from New York or any other crime-ridden city. Not surprisingly both
Straw and his opposite number, Home Secretary Michael Howard, have
been inspired by the tough tactics used by authorities in New York
to crack down on juvenile crime. In the war of words over law and
order, Straw has overshadowed the once indomitable Howard.
In the wake of this trail-blazing, Straw seems to have left
behind much of Labour’s caring attitude to young offenders. The
recent discussion paper from Straw, Tackling Youth Crime: Reforming
Youth Justice, is permeated with language straight out of the Home
Office.1 We are told there is often an imbalance between welfare
and punishment in the youth justice system. Is Labour seriously
suggesting the system, under Michael Howard, has been soft on
Straw’s tough talking goes back to Tony Blair’s famous dictum
when he was home affairs spokesperson: ‘Tough on crime, tough on
the causes of crime.’ This stark, cleverly vague, shifting of
Labour’s stance on crime helped propel Blair to the leadership.
Straw has carried the Blair torch less subtly. The Labour
leadership seems to be as sensitive about being seen as soft on
crime as it is about displaying tax-and-spend tendencies.
Some parts of the Labour movement will see Straw as being tough
on youth crime while avoiding tackling some of the complex causes.
In attempting to develop a populist agenda and respond to people’s
fears about persistent young offenders, Straw has also become
locked into a tug of war with Michael Howard, with each trying to
up the ante.
But while Howard and the Home Office have pursued a lock-’em-up
agenda against young offenders – increasing the powers of the
courts, reducing police cautions and promising tough new forms of
detention – Straw has sought to clamp down on the sort of
anti-social behaviour he no doubt often reads about in his
This targets social ‘nuisances’ who might once have provoked
more of a social welfare response from Labour. Troubled and
troublesome families living in poverty on sprawling run-down
council estates; young children excluded or expelled from school
and roaming the streets and estates; and young people trying to
scrape a living by begging or cleaning car windscreens.
As a result, Straw has proposed a range of punitive measures to
deal with these so-called misfits which, argue some social workers,
could easily backfire and exacerbate the causes of these social
Brian Littlechild is director of social work at the University
of Hertfordshire and a Labour district councillor. While welcoming
some aspects of Labour’s Tackling Youth Crime document, he says:
‘The general thrust of the document, and Jack Straw’s public
utterances, have saddened and angered many workers in the youth
‘What the government and Labour have come up with are policies
which would cast young people further adrift. There’s a difference
between anti-social behaviour and crime. A punitive approach to
families through orders and injunctions is not helpful, and most of
it isn’t workable. Professionals need to be able to work more with
Paul Cavadino, chairperson of the Penal Affairs Consortium, is
dismissive of Straw’s night-time curfew on young children: ‘I don’t
think there are huge numbers of under-tens roaming the streets.
Bringing sanctions against parents drags them into the criminal
justice system, but it’s more appropriate for the care system to
step in, and for parental training to be provided.’
While Labour’s document emphasises the importance of preventing
juvenile crime and avoiding prosecution – with the possible
adoption of some aspects of the more informal Scottish children’s
hearings system – it is not clear where the resources for
multi-agency work will come from, other than from potential savings
from reduced court actions.
Ruth Goatly, chairperson of the juvenile justice sub-committee
of the British Association of Social Workers, regards the document
as mimicking the language of the Home Office, with references to
prevention included more as an afterthought. Like many other
proposals in the document, the ‘final warning’ system to replace
police cautions is unclear, says Goatly.
She also believes Labour is ‘fudging’ how to use secure
facilities for youngsters. ‘There are some confusions in the
document born of trying to balance what’s thought to be a publicly
acceptable stance with a welfare approach.’
John Harding, chief probation officer for inner London, takes a
more optimistic view, arguing Straw’s megaphone soundbites will
give way to genuinely preventive measures in a Labour government,
with more resources put into diversion from custody. But for the
moment, it seems, Labour is content with being tough on crime
rather than its causes, even if this threatens to criminalise some
of the vulnerable and underprivileged thorns in the side of Middle
1Labour Party, Tackling Youth Crime:Reforming Youth Justice,
Labour Party, 1996CONSERVATIVE:
‘Zero tolerance': Michael Howard wants to crack down on
so-called anti-social youth activities such as vandalism, under-age
drinking and begging. He favours New York’s ‘zero tolerance’
strategy of getting minor offenders off the streets.
‘Families from hell': Howard says Labour’s plans to tackle
persistently anti-social families are ‘trailing feebly in our
wake’. He does not condemn Labour’s proposals to jail neighbours
who refuse to curb bad behaviour.
A new ‘community safety order’ would place legal curbs on
persistently anti-social families: adults could face up to seven
years’ jail for breaching the order, or be punished for offences by
children who are minors; children of ten-plus could be subject to
CSOs. New ‘parental responsibility orders’ could be brought in to
fine parents of disruptive children.
Cautioning young offenders: The practice by police of giving two
or more cautions has been stamped on by the Home Office, which
wants more prosecutions and fewer repeat cautions. As a result,
more young people are coming before the courts.
Cautioning young offenders: It proposes to do away with repeat
cautions and institute a single caution – the ‘final warning’.
Police officers would decide on when to give the warning, but it
would not automatically lead to prosecution; it could trigger
‘interventions’ from social work or probation authorities.
School truancy: Government has emphasised responsibility of
parents rather than tackling social causes of family problems
leading to truanting.
School truancy: Wants more emphasis on legal responsibility of
parents to ensure children attend school; possible new powers for
police and education authorities to deal with truants who are found
on the streets.