A voluntary youth curfew scheme in the South West has been hailed as a success, but was it a focus on parental responsibility that kept teenagers off the streets or the unseasonably wet weather this summer?
Curfews have been a feature in some areas of the UK for the past decade, prompting concerns about a growing array of police powers to drive young people indoors.
However, in recent years the courts have ruled that the police can only force a child to go home after curfew hours if they are at risk or are behaving antisocially.
While dispersal orders are still used by the police, particularly in inner cities where violent crime is a concern, many authorities have become more reluctant to use them.
Shouting and swearing
Last year, residents of Redruth in Cornwall complained of groups of young people being out late into the evenings, shouting, swearing, drinking alcohol and shinning up lamp-posts.
Initially, the police applied a six-month dispersal order, but when that expired and the problems returned, they tried a different approach – a voluntary curfew, with an emphasis on responsible parenting.
Operation Goodnight ran in the Close Hill area of Redruth over the school summer holiday (it ends on 7 September). Children under 16 were encouraged not to be out on the streets unsupervised after 9pm, and to be home by 8pm if under 10.
Breach of the voluntary curfew resulted, at most, in the child’s parents being phoned and encouraged to escort them home.
In addition, Cornwall’s children’s services department ran a twice-weekly drop-in service to give advice and support to parents.
Parents welcome call
“We have no big net – we are not going round in riot vans scooping them up,” says PC Marc Griffin, who co-ordinates Operation Goodnight. “We have no problem with a kid coming back from the cinema – as long as there is some purpose and constructiveness to what they are doing.
“But if a child is out at 10pm in a bus shelter in the rain, it’s not unreasonable for someone to make a phone call home. And without exception parents have been welcoming of our call. They can also be made aware of what enforcement measures we could take. If a young person continues to misbehave and cause upset they will be escalated, to the point of getting an interim or full antisocial behaviour order.”
From the adults’ point of view, at least, the scheme has been a success. Police report a reduction in antisocial behaviour and in the number of juvenile victims of crime in the area since the scheme began.
Ann Mitchell, chair of the Helping Hands Residents’ Association, which requested the curfew, believes that parental attitudes have changed as a result. “It’s like heaven in the evenings now,” she says. “You hear children playing in their gardens and see parents in the park with their children. I think some parents have woken up a bit.”
PC Griffin agrees: “There have been visible improvements in parental responsibility. Now we are seeing parents accompanying young people out to shops for a bag of crisps, and parents walking out collecting children from their friends’ houses.
“In many cases the parents didn’t realise that their child was on the streets – they thought they were staying at a friend’s house for a sleepover.”
However, 17-year-old David Callaghan, a member of the Youth Parliament for mid-Cornwall, doubts these claims.
“The police say it’s all about giving responsibility to parents, but you are not going to get every parent caring if their 15-year-old is out,” he says. “For a 16-year-old to have to be in by 9pm is ridiculous. It’s against the UN Convention on Human Rights.”
Petition against curfew
Callaghan, who lives near Redruth, says that any success claimed for the scheme should be partly attributed to the bad weather in Cornwall over the summer. “The weather has been appalling in Redruth, and that’s been a huge help to them.”
He adds that young people in the area were not consulted about the scheme. Also those further afield, were concerned that the scheme would be extended to them.
Other youth activists have posted a petition opposing Operation Goodnight on the prime minister’s Number 10 website, saying the curfew will actually increase inter-generational tensions and alienate young people.
Kathy Evans, policy director at The Children’s Society, argues that curfews tend to demonise young people in the eyes of adults. “This seems to be saying that there’s more to fear from young people than from the rest of the community. It’s a minority of adults who commit crime, but we don’t do the same thing to adults.”
Others point out that the police are being asked to perform a role that was once carried out by adults in communities – that of supervising and socialising children.
“The law is a very blunt instrument to use in what are social and moral issues,” says Stuart Waiton, director of the campaign group Generation Youth Issues. “There is a bigger problem of adult solidarity, but that’s never talked about by politicians. People are anxious about their roles as adults in relation to other people’s children. Personally I think it’s antisocial to back your kid up when they have done something wrong.”
Some local authorities are still choosing to use dispersal orders (see box) but the legal restrictions, and limited life of the orders, suggest that those with less serious public order problems may look to following Redruth’s lead with a voluntary scheme.
But the civil rights group Liberty, which brought a test case in 2005, says voluntary curfews are also problematic.
“Although police are no longer resorting to compulsory curfews, they are still operating on the assumption that young people out in the evening are at risk or being troublemakers,” says legal officer Anna Fairclough.
“Of course the police should intervene if there is a problem, but young people shouldn’t be challenged simply for being out of their homes.”
The Home Office granted 1,065 dispersal orders between January 2004 and March 2006 (the most recent figures available).
But the number of orders fell sharply during 2005. This fall coincided with a High Court ruling that the police in Richmond, London, had no right to remove young people from the streets against their will.
Upon appeal, a judge decided that a young person could only be taken home by police if they were themselves at risk or were involved in antisocial behaviour.
Moreover, Home Office research found that operating a dispersal zone just tended to displace problems into neighbouring areas.
Despite this, dispersal orders are still used in some situations – Camden Council has just introduced one due to concerns about gang fights involving weapons and street robberies.
Legislation aiding the creation of voluntary schemes could be in the pipeline in the Government’s policing green paper, which proposes giving police community support officers discretionary powers to:
● Disperse groups and remove under 16s to a place of residence, and
● Remove children contravening bans imposed by a curfew notice to a place of residence.
This article is published in the 28 August edition of Community Care under the headline Softly Softly on Dispersal