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Backlash on behaviour Bill

Ministers have been forcibly reminded that they have a perfectly effective system for dealing with out-of-control teenagers as they prepare to extend antisocial behaviour orders to under-16s.

An inquiry by NCH Scotland, the children's charity, into the 30-year-old children's hearing system concludes that with more resources and commitment the country has an internationally recognised means for dealing with difficult young people.

"In spite of insufficient investment in the materials and resources needed for it to work to its full capacity, the fundamental concept has stood the test of time," according to the independent report, compiled by a team led by Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh.

The inquiry team warns the Scottish Executive not to emulate England by reacting to "short-term political responses to high-profile individual cases" which merely reinforce moral panic. South of the border, a punitive approach to young offenders has led to an 800 per cent increase over 10 years in the number of children aged 12-14 in custody.

In 1998, there were 3,200 children and young people "behind bars" in England and Wales, more than at any time since 1908.

Research carried out for the Home Office shows that this is largely attributable to the custodial sentences of the courts and the extended length of sentences.

But the NCH inquiry team cautions: "The more juvenile behaviour is officially identified and dealt with as criminal, the more likely it is that the young person will be confirmed in a criminal lifestyle.

Reoffending rates for children leaving custody in England and Wales stand at 72 per cent on average and as high as 90 per cent in some areas."

The inquiry argues that the current Scottish Executive focus on court-based action to combat antisocial behaviour may create more persistent offenders and draw them into a life of crime.

In the Antisocial Behaviour Bill, now before the Scottish Parliament, ministers state: "There remain a small number of persistently antisocial young people for whom no existing measures are effective. In these cases a court-imposed order may be necessary to make clear that persistent disorderly behaviour will not be tolerated."

For the first time, young people aged 12-15 are set to fall within the direction of the courts for antisocial acts. Any breach of an order would be a criminal offence. Solutions, however, could still lie with the children's hearing.

"The hearing may consider that electronic monitoring is required or that secure accommodation is the most appropriate dispersal if it believes that the young person is likely to injure or cause serious harm to themselves or others," the Executive states.

In a parliamentary debate last week, Euan Robson, Deputy Education Minister, pledged the Executive's commitment to the hearing system while promising reforms. The recent campaign to recruit more volunteers for hearings had paid off with 607 adults attracted against a target of 450.

Shortage of volunteers has recently undermined the system.

The NCH inquiry team meanwhile continues to argue for better and more community-based programmes, rather than custody or secure care. It argues that this is cheaper and more effective.

"We heard convincing evidence from those engaged in programmes with young people that success in reducing offending comes partly from reinforcing personal accountability and partly from ensuring alternative choices are available," the report states.

Figures also show that it is the breakdown of families and the need for care and protection of children that are the real reasons for the pressures on the hearings system, not increased offending.

Other strains come from a shortage of social workers who are needed to enforce supervision and administer the system. Between 300 and 500 children are not receiving the service prescribed by the hearings system.

* Connections between school exclusions and delinquency are strong, the inquiry says. It cites Renfrewshire where exclusion rates are "very significantly higher" than the national average. The local youth crime team found a corresponding increase in the number of offences by young people which were submitted to the children's reporter.

Nationally, 37,727 children, or 3.9 per cent of Scottish children, were referred to the reporter in 2002-03. Only 38 per cent of thesewere referred because they had committed offences.

Where's Kilbrandon Now? Report and recommendations from the inquiry. By NCH Scotland.

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