Ministers under fire over plans for tagging children

18th July 2003 at 01:00
TAGGING under-16s as part of the Scottish Executive's drive on anti-social behaviour could jeopardise the safety of young offenders and others and can never be an alternative to secure accommodation, it is claimed.

A prominent academic and a leading children's agency are both stepping up their opposition to proposals to crack down on unruly community behaviour.

Bill Whyte, director of the criminal justice social work development centre at Edinburgh Uni-versity, said: "Politicians are telling us that tags should be used as an alternative to secure accommodation. But if these children pose such a severe risk to themselves or to other people, then that is where they should be.

"Secure accommodation is there for young people who are in need of care and support, as well as to curtail their offending behaviour. Tagging is a mechanical solution. What can it contribute in terms of security and safety?"

Mr Whyte's stance is backed by Romy Langeland, chief executive of the Aberlour Childcare Trust, who was formerly a senior social work manager in Glasgow.

Ms Langeland told The TES Scotland: "In all my experience of recommending secure accommodation for children, I cannot recall a situation when tagging would have been a safe option or alternative. The current legislation is clear. Children are only put in secure accommodation if they are a risk to themselves or to other people. The key is supervision. Tagging in itself would not provide a solution."

A Home Office study found that when magistrates in Greater Manchester and Norfolk were given the power to tag, on a pilot basis, they were reluctant to use it. Over a two-year period, only 3-5 per cent of young offenders were tagged. Magistrates preferred to put persistent offenders into custody and used tags primarily on children who had offended once or twice.

Of 155 tagging orders, only 6 per cent were for criminal damage, one of the key focuses of the Executive's strategy. Most offences involved house breaking, theft and violence.

Tagging in effect places a curfew on offenders, tying them to their homes for up to 12 hours at a time. The study found that magistrates seldom ordered any support and supervision from professionals.

Many young people at home "did not develop new socially acceptable activities. Instead, they watched more television, listened to more music and slept more. Some stopped taking part in sports activities," the study concludes.

Mr Whyte said: "I am still to be convinced of the circumstances in which tags can be used which will contribute constructively to safety and to the positive learning of young offenders."

He added: "Politicians need to be seen to be tough, so they are bringing a raft of measures for the under-16s to show they mean business. We already have enough powers. What we need now are the resources to deal effectively with these kids.

In Scotland, it can cost pound;2,500 a week to keep a child in a residential setting. David Strang, spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland, said: "What the community wants is for young offenders to be off the streets and not committing crimes. If tagging achieves this, it is clearly better than putting them in expensive secure accommodation."

Scottish ministers have not ruled out tagging for children as young as 10.

Courts in England and Wales have the powers to tag but not for under-12s and usually as a condition of bail or remand for children accused of serious offences.

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