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Crimes Of Violence (Young Persons)

Volume 955: debated on Thursday 3 August 1978

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asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he is satisfied with current trends in crimes of violence and vandalism among young people and, in particular, those involving elderly victims.

No one can be satisfied with the present level of offences committed by young people. I am glad to say, however, that the figures for both violence against the person and criminal damage by offenders under 21 have increased at a much slower rate during the past four years than in the preceding four years. The information which is collected centrally does not distinguish details of the victims of offences and I cannot, therefore, say how elderly victims have been affected by this trend.

I am grateful to the Minister for his reply, but is he aware that it is not simply a cliche but a cruel fact of life today that many elderly people are reluctant to leave their homes, not only during the night but during the day, for fear of being mugged? When will he take steps, such as putting more police on the beat, tougher sentences and tougher detention centres, to make our streets safe for all our citizens at all times?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will one day get away from the coin-operated solutions which in half a sentence seem to incorporate the whole cure for crime. He will find when he studies these matters rather more closely that harsher sentences of themselves have never worked as a prevention of crime. It is a much more complex matter than that.

As for elderly people being afraid to walk the streets, certainly there are some but I do not devalue the police and do not have such a low opinion of the police as Opposition Members as to say that that is a universal trait in Britain

Does my hon. Friend agree that this is an extremely complex matter? Is he aware that I have asked my chief constable and the local police to put on more patrols? They have done so. They have stepped up the campaign against vandalism. However, I have had petitions and complaints from residents in the areas concerned claiming that their children are being harassed by the police. Therefore, the problem is much more complicated and much more difficult than Opposition Members think. Sometimes we think that we are doing the best for our local constituents, only to discover that we have antagonised some who think that in no circumstances would their children be involved in any such thing as vandalism.

The real key—if there is a single important factor—is to involve the public with the police in combating vandalism at a local level. Every district experiences local variations in vandalism. The local community must co-operate with the police to tackle the problem.

Does the Minister agree, in the light of all the evidence, that the Children and Young Persons Act 1969 has failed to stem the alarming growth in this kind of persistent juvenile crime? Does he agree that that is the view of most magistrates who sit in juvenile courts? Will he consider, as a matter of urgency, giving magistrates in juvenile courts the powers that they so desperately need to deal effectively with juvenile crime?

The hon. and learned Gentleman does not appear to have kept abreast of the developments in the working party of local authorities and the Magistrates' Association which my right hon. Friend mentioned during the television debate last Saturday. A copy of the working party's report was placed in the Library yesterday. The local authorities and the Magistrates' Association agree that for the vast majority of juveniles the Children and Young Persons Act is a suitable provision.

We are talking about a tiny minority of persistent offenders. Certainly there is a difference of opinion between the local authorities and the magistrates about that. But they have agreed on a code of practice which I hope will help in future.

Is the Minister aware that some of us do not accept that the elderly ladies of Bournemouth, East are frightened to step outside their doors because they will be mugged and that there is no correlation between the advent of a free enterprise Government and an increase in violent crime? Does he agree that the issues that the Opposition seek to ferment as being party political are completely irrelevant to the problem? Does he agree that under the Children and Young Persons Act the number of people who are occupying places of residence in what are now community homes is more than the number who were in the former remand homes or attendance centres?

My hon. Friend's last point is correct. Opposition Members do not seem to realise that the measure which preceded the Children and Young Persons Act failed miserably. Ever more custodial sentences did not point a way forward. I accept that the present Act is by no means perfect. But we are increasing the number of secure places. The magistrates and the local authorities have agreed that the Children and Young Persons Act is the best method of dealing with the majority of young offenders.

The last question, with its casual and uncomprehending attitude, will send fear through many people about this important issue. I return to the question of the report from the Magistrates' Association and the local authorities. Is the Minister right to say that the question of restoring power to magistrates to make residential care orders has been put aside? If he reads the report, he will see that it has not been. Does he agree that the magistrates have asked yet again for powers to make residential care orders and to direct local authorities to keep youngsters in secure care until the time of trial?

Are these not important recommendations? Is the Minister aware that they come after many magistrates have pleaded for these changes? When will the Home Office act in response to these urgent pressures?

That shows that distance does not provide intelligent appreciation. If the hon. Member had listened, he would have mastered a simple issue. I said that there was disagreement on that matters between the magistrates and the local authorities. I did not say that the issue had been put aside.

If the official Opposition say that restoring to magistrates a power to commit a handful of juveniles to secure accommodation will solve the juvenile crime problem, they grossly mislead the people for party political ends.