Spring half-term and it's overcast and chilly. At the Hertfordshire Young Mariners Base, the kids are at the snack machine, extracting Nesquik cartons and packets of Hula Hoops. "I'm getting my lunch," says 12-year-old Anthony. He offers his Curly Wurly round the room and drains a second carton of chocolate milk. He looks more like eight than 12, apart from his big front teeth.
The seven children, all boys, are taking part in the Final Warning scheme, being run by Haringey council's youth offending team (YOT) at an outdoor activities centre just beyond the London borough's boundary in Hertfordshire. The cost of the scheme, pound;130 a day, is being met by an environmental charity, the Lower Lea Project.
The day begins with a classroom session - the stick before the adventure activities carrot. Today, Peter Manktelow from the victim mediation charity, Amends, is here to talk to the boys about reparation. "We're looking at the victim," he says, "but we're also looking at the person who committed the crime."
Martin, a barely articulate 13-year-old who has been arrested for stealing a "ped" - a moped - says that if anyone stole one from him he'd "like to torture them". Anthony, in trouble with the police for shoplifting, would "slap him hard", but then he comes up with a better idea. "I'd nick something off them."
Peter Manktelow, a retired police sergeant, shifts on his chair. "There are reasons sometimes why you do things," he tells them. Martin keeps his coat on, hands in pockets, tipping back his plastic chair. He is listening, but it's hard to tell what he thinks about Peter's ideas about reparation in the community. "It's different when you're with friends," he says. "They talk you into it." Anthony, whose dad is in prison for armed robbery, mainly just steals sweets. Sometimes he appears to be stealing to order, stashing tins of shoe polish into his pockets, for instance.
From this April, all local authorities will be required to have a YOT. The teams will offer schemes such as this one to young people who have been cautioned by the police, rather than set in motion a cycle of repeat cautioning, which is widely seen as ineffective. Schools will also be able to put forward names of children at risk of getting into crime.
"The concept is to bring them away and try to do something with them," says 34-year-old PC Andy Briers of the Haringey YOT, a former PE teacher. "You can only get their trust and their friendship by actually doing things with them."
Supported and monitored by the Youth Justice Board, YOTs represent a shift in the way youth crime is tackled, with a new emphasis on prevention and multi-agency working: education and health professionals, the police, probation and youth services will all be represented.
Today, seven lads are being kitted out in old firemen's jackets, knee pads and plastic helmets with headlamps for a session in the Young Mariners' man-made caves. Soon they're crawling around in the dark, wriggling on their stomachs through narrow tunnels, meeting in a central cave and listening to instructor Chris Gahan tell spooky stories about the skeletons of sacrificial victims that were found in a Derbyshire pot hole. "We try to put something challenging in front of them," he says. "It opens their minds up a bit."
It's a genuinely challenging two hours. The kids get soaking wet, have to wriggle in the pitch dark through impossibly small openings before climbing out up a wobbly caving ladder and coming down the climbing wall in a safety harness. There's a real sense of achievement as the last one comes down, calling "safe" as his feet touch the ground. Anthony, in his worn-out, unlaced trainers, is motivated by the promise of a Snickers chocolate bar. He remarks that his brother, who didn't turn up today, is "probably still in bed". After lunch - more snacks from the machine, although some have brought sandwiches - they go mountain bike riding by the river.
Many of the children have problems at home. Of this particular last chance group, one teenage boy is a refugee from Kosovo who arrived in Britain clinging to the side of a hovercraft; he saw other members of the group washed away. One is from Montserrat, the tiny Caribbean island that was devastated by a volcano in 1997. Two others, brothers, began playing truant and getting into trouble after their mother died of cancer. Aged between 12 and 17, they have all been in trouble with the police for stealing, fighting, vandalism or riding stolen motorbikes. None of them has been charged so far, although all have been cautioned at least once and risk being charged for the next offence. They come from schools all over Haringey.
Despite minor difficulties in the form of erratic attendance, lippiness and one boy trying to set fire to the lockers in the changing room, PC Briers and his colleagues strongly believe in this constructive approach. "It's about getting on with them," he says. "If at the end of the week they say they want to go canoeing with me, I've got them. You definitely can reach kids through activities." On the estate where the boys live, there's nothing to do, they say. "We just hang around. Play football. Play on the computer. That's it," says 14-year-old Damian. Some of these boys have never been out of Haringey.
The programme has a more modest aim of simply keeping the youngsters out of trouble over half-term, a point brought home when two of the boys turn up late; they are silent and subdued, having just been robbed at knifepoint on the train. "This boy sitting next to me pulled out a knife and said 'You're getting on my nerves, just give me the phone'," says one of the 14-year-olds. They took the train because they were up till 2am watching videos and missed the minibus. PC Briers is sympathetic but remarks that it is a good opportunity for them to learn what it is like to be the victims of crime. A lucky coincidence, as much of the week's classroom work is aimed at getting the teenagers to look at the consequences for themselves and others of their anti-social actions.
But can a few days of fun with responsible male role models make any difference to young people who have serious problems in their personal lives? Mark Perfect, chief executive of the Youth Justice Board and author of the influential Audit Commission report on youth crime, Misspent Youth, is optimistic. The preventive work mushrooming around the country, he says, is "tremendously promising, and worthwhile in its own right".
Although the number of teenagers in young offender institutions is still high - currently 11,000 under-21s - preventive measures from the Sure Start scheme for pre-schoolers to the new DfEE mentoring initiative to reduce truancy are aiming to keep young people out of trouble. If they fail, the YOTs will be ready and waiting.
The names of the boys have been changed.Further details on the Youth Justice Board on: www.youth-justice-board.gov.ukWatersports, caving and climbing activities are available to schools and groups at the Herts Young Mariners Base. Details from HYMB, Windmill Lane, Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, EN8 9AJ. Visit itswebsite for more details: www.hymb.com
From April 1 all local authorities with responsibilities for education and social services will be required to establish a youth offending team (YOT).
The main function of the teams will be to co-ordinate the provision of the youth justice service, while also providing key services to young people convicted of offences.
Apart from dealing with known young offenders, YOTs will undertake preventive work.
ON THE OFFENSIVE
The teams are a response to tne new requirement for police, probation, education, health and social services to work together.
At tne crudest level, tne role of scnools may oe to account for cnildren's whereabouts; teenagers who are in school can't be out on the streets committing offences. More positively, schools should be able to get help for the most disturbed and disturbing pupils from the YOTs.
The YOT in tne London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, one of a number of pilot teams, has been running since October 1998 'We're doing well," says team manager Larry Wright who has a social services background. "We've got in place everytning required by tne Crime and Disorder Act and are making good use of all tne new orders [see below).'
From June, all local authorities must have Final Warning schemes. These are intended to replace the repeat cautioning of teenagers, widely seen by irritated voters as ineffectual. The schemes will be backed by court orders which have been piloted around the country and will come into effect nation- ally in June. These are:
Reparation orders: to make offenders face up to tneir crimes and the consequences of their actions May involve apologising, or repairing damage.
Action plan order: a three-month programme of community-based intervention combining punishment, rehabilitation and reparation.
Parenting order: to help parents control tne benaviour of their children, through counselling and guidance sessions. May include requiring parents to ensure children attend school.
Child safety order: applicable to children under 10 considered at risk of becoming involved in crime. Can involve a curfew.