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Mr. Rowe: My concern is the Government's attitude to truancy as expressed in the Bill and in some educational measures. Inspectors' report after inspectors' report has demonstrated that truancy falls to a very low level if young people feel that what they are being taught is worth while, and if it is taught in a good way. Measures are being introduced in the Bill and elsewhere that will force children back into schools from which they are absenting themselves because they think that what they are getting is not worth having.

For too long, we have treated the education system as the cheapest form of child minding. We may find that there is a serious morale problem among teachers who no longer wish to take on for the rest of us the role of forcing authority on young people, many of whom are tall, large and threatening, and who can completely disrupt a class. I strongly believe that the policy of forcing young people back to school--which we all applaud in theory--is misconceived. We must reconsider how we deal with truants, and how we treat teachers who have asked, openly and by implication, to be relieved of the burden of trying to deal with people with whom increasingly they have huge difficulty.

I have suggested that the time may have come for another look at whether education should be compulsory under the law, which enshrines our 19th-century belief that the authority of school is the cheapest way for our society to deal with youngsters who are increasingly unsuited to the kind of schooling they are getting, who know that they are wasting their time in schools and who need somewhere else to go.

Mr. Michael: There have been three strands of debate. Let me first reassure the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) that our proposals are sensible. I want to persuade him not to press his amendment, and to suggest that he is wrong to oppose our carefully constructed proposals, which will effectively hand authority back to parents rather than increase the power of the state.

Amendment No. 75 would require local authorities and police forces that are carrying out crime and disorder reviews to take account of the behaviour of those under the age of criminal responsibility. That is entirely sensible, but the amendment is not necessary. In drawing up crime and disorder strategies, local authorities, the police and their partners should base them on crime and disorder audits. The audits should reflect the causes of problems in a local community, including the behaviour

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of those under the age of criminal responsibility. If there are problems, they should be dealt with, and they should appear in the strategy. If there are no problems, clearly there is nothing to be dealt with.

We have deliberately left the question of what issues and aspects of crime and disorder need to be addressed in the strategies to those who are experienced in the local area. There is nothing between the Government and the right hon. Gentleman on that point, and it is clear from draft guidance now available on the website that those under the age of criminal responsibility should be taken into account. I am happy to look again at the guidance, and to make more transparent anything that is not clear. The right hon. Gentleman's point is a good one, but it does not need to be in the Bill.

Mr. Beith: Can a crime audit include what is being done by those under the age of criminal responsibility?

Mr. Michael: If the right hon. Gentleman reads the guidance, he will see that it is widely drawn. Audits of crime and disorder go wider than just criminal activity, and they include minor and petty disorders, which often cause even more distress to local communities than crimes that are regarded as more serious. Our target in the audits and strategies is to reduce the level of crime and disorder, and that covers the right hon. Gentleman's point. However, I am happy both to reconsider the guidance to make sure that it is clear, and to accept any comments that the right hon. Gentleman may wish to make on it.

An amendment identical to amendment No. 76 was tabled in Committee, and I thought that we had dealt with it. I was surprised to see the amendment tabled again, but it allows me to explain the position to the whole House, just as I did in Committee.

Some neighbourhoods are troubled by the criminal and anti-social activities of unsupervised young children. Gathering in public places at night, they can cause alarm and misery to the rest of the community and encourage each other into anti-social and criminal habits. If it is a question of one or two individuals, the Bill's child safety orders can deal with it. If it is a question of a group of youngsters, and the hours that youngsters are allowed out at night have become a problem in a street, it is often difficult for parents to take the responsibility of setting a new standard. It is difficult enough for parents to buck trends, but if there is a settled trend in the community, it becomes all the more difficult.

I should explain the steps necessary for a curfew order to be used; I think that they will reassure the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed. First, the local authority must consult the police--and more widely--on the terms of a scheme. They have to be put to the Home Secretary, who will consider them carefully to see how they suit local arrangements. Consultation with the local community and other agencies will take place before an order is invoked under the scheme. To place an order in a community or street, the local authority would have to consult the police. It must be a joint endeavour involving the police and the local authority. They would then have to consult the local community along the lines agreed by the Home Secretary in respect of the scheme. I can think of one case in my constituency where parents asked me to meet them to discuss problems in one community. Halfway through, they admitted that part of the problem

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was children, including the children of people at the meeting, and that there was a need collectively to draw a line to set a standard for behaviour. Local child curfew schemes create the opportunity to do that.

6.30 pm

Local child curfews form part of a wider community safety strategy and will be applied at the instigation of the local authority concerned because it believes that there is no other way in which to deal with unsupervised young children. This is not a magic wand that will deal with the whole problem. Often, other approaches will deal with the sort of problems that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed recognised needed tackling. This provision should be used in appropriate circumstances, in accordance with a scheme approved by the Home Secretary.

Mr. Rowe: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Michael: I am trying to move quickly because I understand that that is what Conservative Members want.

Mr. Rowe: Given his background, does the Minister agree, that in many instances, the importation of a youth and community worker would defuse the situation? Has he done any costings to find out whether the cost of policing a curfew, which is likely to fall on the police authority, would be greater than that of the local authority providing someone to give the kids a lead?

Mr. Michael: I regret to say that the hon. Gentleman is muddled, as he often is. My experience in 15 or 16 years of youth and community work, and as a councillor and Member of Parliament, is that we need a variety of mechanisms to deal with specific circumstances. I have made clear the specific circumstances with which this mechanism would help to deal. It may well be that the involvement of a local authority youth and community worker would help, but such workers are not a magic wand; nor are police officers. We need legislation appropriate to cover a variety of different situations and mischiefs that cause problems in local communities. I believe that this mechanism will prove its worth.

I do not think that the lack of information to which the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed has referred proves that there is a lack of evidence of need. We can all demonstrate anecdotally that youngsters are out on the street late at night in a way that destroys their future as well as damaging the local community. That shows that no one has been willing to tackle the problem. We will monitor the way in which the provision is used, along with the other measures that we have put forward as part of a comprehensive package. In due course, I am sure that we shall debate how it has worked in practice.

Amendment No. 12 was tabled by the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway); I understand what he is trying to do. It is bad enough when children truant, but it is even more vexing when they engage in money-making ventures when they should be at school. The answer is to get them back to school. We added clause 16, which allows the police to act in partnership with local education authorities and schools to tackle truancy. It is practical because it ensures joint responsibility for dealing with

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truancy. While truancy is an issue for the person who truants and for parents, who should take their responsibility, this measure allows police and education representatives to work together. There have been voluntary examples of that which have not had the authority of the law for the actions of police officers. This provision enables partnership to deal with the vexed problem of truancy.

It is not necessary or desirable to extend the provision to confiscating property, especially when no criminal offence is involved in its use. I hope that the hon. Member for Croydon, South will acknowledge the valuable contribution of clause 16 in seeking to tackle truancy by proper partnership--at Government level between the Home Office and the Department for Education and Employment, and locally by enabling partnership.


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