Children aged 10 to 13 who are convicted of a crime will be treated the same as adults under legislation which proposes tough new sanctions to combat juvenile crime.
The Crime and Disorder Bill will halve the time from arrest to sentencing of young offenders and streamline the youth court system. It will replace cautions with a single, final police warning.
The Bill will also move the burden of proof on criminal responsibility for a defendant aged 10 to 13 from the prosecution to the defence. This, according to the Penal Affairs Consortium, will remove an important safeguard for children which allows time to establish whether they are fully aware of the seriousness of their actions.
Paul Cavadino, the consortium's chair, said: "The law at present recognises children in this age group develop reasoning at different ages."
He said the United Kingdom's age of criminal responsibility was much lower than most of Europe, where 14 to 16 was more common and where child defendants are usually dealt with by family courts.
But Liz Paver, the incoming president of the National Association of Head Teachers, said children aged 10 should know the difference between right and wrong and be responsible for their actions. She said: "Children at this age are expected to understand school rules and be punished if they break them. They must also take the consequences of doing wrong in their leisure time."
Mrs Paver said she broadly welcomed the Bill, particularly the establishment of child protection orders which will give police the power to pick up children aged 10 and under who are on the streets at night and take them home or to local authority accommodation.
She said: "Younger children are increasingly becoming involved in crime. It often starts when they start hanging around with older friends. This would be one way of protecting vulnerable children and preventing them from sliding into lawlessness though peer pressure."
The Bill will also impose parental responsibility orders, which will require those found guilty of neglecting their children to attend counselling and parenting classes.
Local authorities will have a statutory duty to ensure community safety. They will have to provide youth justice services in partnership with the police and probation services. Local Youth Offender Teams will plan and supervise the new revised community sentences aimed at changing young offenders' behaviour.
Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, also welcomed the tone of the Bill. He said: "Children have literally been getting away with murder in recent years and this has to be reversed. I support the Bill in principle but will be interested to see how it is implemented in practice."
A number of highly-publicised cases of children committing large numbers of crimes and then putting up two fingers (usually on camera) to the criminal justice system had Mr Straw and his predecessor at the Home Office, Michael Howard, trying to out-tough each other.
The Government's manifesto said its aim was to ensure more young offenders, responsible for seven million crimes a year, end up in court.
"Youth crime and disorder have risen sharply, but very few young offenders end up in court, and when they do half are let off with another warning. . . Far too often young criminals offend again and again while waiting months for a court hearing."
Leader, page 22