No yob too small

The government wants to beef up measures to penalise “crime” by
children under 10. What crime, asks Mark Hunter.

Ask almost any adult what they got up to as a child, and they
will probably confess to behaviour which today would be loudly
decried as antisocial.

A very small survey of 40-something professionals revealed the
following childhood amusements: knocking on doors and running away,
“gate-swapping”, lighting fires, harassing courting couples,
stealing fruit, fare dodging, and throwing fireworks.

Today’s children who step out of line can expect to feel
David Blunkett’s hand on their collar. Indeed, buried beneath
the headline-grabbing proposals in the green paper, Every Child
, a single paragraph betrays the government’s
continuing pre-occupation with children under the age of criminal
responsibility being bad and getting away with it.

It proposes “more effective powers to intervene positively to
address the behaviour of children under ten who commit what would
be offences if they were over the age of criminal responsibility.
This includes revising the Child Safety Order, and revising the
breach provisions.”

How, exactly, the CSO will be revised is unclear. The Home
Office will say only that it will be made “more effective”.

Whatever they eventually turn out to be, the changes to the CSO
will constitute just the latest in a series of measures in which
the government appears to be targeting a lawless underclass of
under-age delinquents. It began with the Crime and Disorder Act in
1998, which originally brought in the CSO together with the local
child curfew scheme.

The new power allowed any local authorities in England and Wales
to place children under 10 in the supervision of a social worker or
a member of a youth offending team if they became involved in
antisocial activity. This was defined as committing an act that
would have constituted an offence if the child were older; behaving
in a way to suggest a risk of offending; behaving in a way to cause
disruption or harassment to local residents; or contravening a ban
imposed under a local child curfew notice.

More recently we have seen the piloting throughout England and
Wales of 10 youth inclusion and support panels. These aim to
identify children as young as eight considered to be at risk of
offending due to problems such as drug misuse, mental illness,
family troubles or antisocial behaviour. And in July home secretary
Blunkett announced he was considering setting up US-style community
justice centres that could deal with violent and antisocial
children under the age of 10.

“I am determined to ensure that children under the age of 10 do
not get away with running riot in our communities, causing havoc,
creating fear and getting away with it,” he told a London

So the government is determined to use the law to crack down on
young children, despite last year’s warning by the United
Nations that the UK’s age of criminal responsibility was
already too low. Are children under 10 really causing enough
trouble to justify these new powers?

If child crime was such a big issue, one might expect the
existing powers to have been used rather more often than they have.
But with CSOs being imposed at a rate of three a year and local
authorities yet to impose a single child curfew, it’s hardly
as if the current provisions are straining at the seams to

Reading between the lines, it appears that the Home Office has
lost patience with local authorities over their reluctance to use
CSOs. By reducing the severity of the penalties imposed for
breaching the orders it hopes to encourage their use.

“The present response to a breach can be a care order,” says a
Home Office spokesperson. “However, a care order is a major
intervention which serves as a barrier to CSOs being used in the
first place. Instead, what is needed is a tailored range of early
intervention options under the CSO, available to the court for the
order and if a breach is committed.”

But where is the evidence to support the notion of a substantial
undercurrent of pre-teen criminality? With children under the age
of criminal responsibility excluded from the crime figures by
definition, there is very little data at all on offences committed
by the under-10s. Nevertheless, extrapolating the data that is
available on slightly older offenders does offer some insight into
the extent of under-age criminal behaviour.

For instance, a recent survey of 11 to 16 year olds in England,
Scotland and Wales by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that,
while crime was disturbingly high among these young people, it was
strictly age-related with the lowest levels of crime being reported
by the youngest children. So unless nine-year old delinquents
suddenly stop offending on their 10th birthday, one can assume
their crime rates will be lower still.

“There’s no firm evidence base so we simply don’t
know how prevalent [antisocial behaviour] is in these very young
children,” says Lisa Payne, principal policy officer at the
National Children’s Bureau. “But if you talk to MPs they will
tell you that antisocial behaviour in general is the primary issue
that they deal with in their constituency surgeries, so it is a
real issue. But often it’s a matter of perception. People can
feel threatened even if the threat is relatively small.” The result
is “increasingly punitive and negative” measures to address a
problem that may be being built up out of all proportion.

“If you look at the language being used, there’s a lot of
moral posturing. And with the younger children it all comes down to
blaming the parents. But I don’t think anything is quite that
simple,” says Payne.

Rather than quick-fix punitive measures, Payne would rather see
the government concentrating on more constructive and long-term

He says: “Maybe I’m old fashioned, but whatever happened
to addressing the broader issues – the regeneration of communities,
tackling family problems and the behavioural issues. We need to
become better at identifying special educational needs, especially
for children with learning difficulties. We need to address the low
expectations, especially of young black boys. You can’t
expect quick solutions, but this approach has worked on some
estates with some really difficult problems.”

Adrian Thomas, a spokesperson for the crime reduction charity
Nacro, is also highly critical of the tendency to address young
children’s errant behaviour through the legal system rather
than through agencies that are “more sensitive to the welfare of
the child and more concerned with addressing the root causes of
their bad behaviour”.

Thomas believes that the CSO and measures like it are
unnecessary given the powers that already exist under the
Children’s Act. “These provide for a range of options
allowing authorities to work constructively with children and their
families to address the causes of any problem or nuisance
behaviour. CSOs are a draconian and counter-productive response,”
he says. “Serving court orders on eight year olds involved in minor
acts of vandalism does little to prevent future offending. Rather
it stigmatises very young children by marking them out as the
criminals of the future. This alienation makes it more – not less –
likely that they will continue to get into trouble.”

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