A game of tag

29th November 1996 at 00:00
A greenhouse effect seems to have prolonged the silly season. With barely 20 shoplifting days left to Christmas we are told that delinquents as young as 10 may soon be electronically tagged to ensure they attend school and stay away from football matches.

The Home Secretary and his advisers have come up with some unusual crime-fighting ideas in the past. Milkmen in Melton Mowbray were issued with mobile telephones last year in case they spotted early-morning burglars. Tagging young miscreants sounds even less practicable.

Highbury Grove School in north London has had some success with a radio-pager that alerts parents when their children abscond. But such systems can only work where the parents are supportive. Attaching electronic tags to young offenders would be even more problematic, partly because tagged criminals often ignore court-imposed restrictions but also because the technology is not perfect. Similar devices designed to prevent new-born babies being abducted from hospital have been rendered useless by passing vacuum cleaners.

But it is not the likelihood of technical glitches, or the expense of such schemes, that makes tagging so unsuitable for the 10-to-15 age group. The tag, which would be the size of a diver's watch, would be regarded as either a badge of honour or another stigma. And it is hard to see how either would improve children's behaviour in the long term, something which anyone with educational experience could have told the Home Office if there had been a sensible consultation before the idea was popped into the Crime Bill.

The Government is, however, right to be focusing on youth crime and truancy. Last week's Audit Commission report showed that delinquency is costing the country Pounds 1 billion a year. It also revealed that two-thirds of school-age offenders are not attending classes (42 per cent had been excluded and 23 per cent were persistent truants). But the Audit Commission made no mention of tagging or curfews. Instead it suggested that parents, teachers, social workers and councils should join forces to tackle truancy and behaviour problems, that support for families in deprived areas should begin at the pre-school stage, and that schools and LEAs should properly consider the special educational needs of excluded children.

Such proposals have little appeal to politicians who want to appear tough on crime. But experience suggests that they will have much more lasting value than a one-eyed surveillance system.

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