Truants' parents face weekend jail

PARENTS of truants could face weekends in jail under plans being considered by the Home Office.

The Government is expected to consult this autumn on mini-prison sentences, as used in Australia and Germany. The penalty, for non-violent offences, could be used for the parents of persistent truants. It would allow offenders to work and look after their families in the week, but imprison them at weekends.

It is the latest in a series of tough anti-truancy proposals to hit parents, including halting child benefit.

Prime Minister Tony Blair has taken personal charge of the fight against truancy and youth crime. He is chairing a committee which includes ministers and officials from the Home Office and the Department for Education and Skills.

Supporters say weekend imprisonment would be less harsh than the custodial sentences used against parents such as Oxfordshire mother Patricia Amos, jailed for 60 days for failing to ensure her two daughters attended school. The sentence was reduced on appeal.

Home Secretary David Blunkett supports weekend jails, calling them "a third way" between imprisonment and community sentences.

The Home Office is due to publish a White Paper on proposals for new punishments before the parliamentary summer recess next month.

The DFES said the Government was deeply concerned about truancy, and was examining "every possibility".

Education Secretary Estelle Morris supports custodial sentences: "We were criticised for being too harsh. (They are) delivering results and we are utterly unrepentant."

New South Wales introduced "periodic detention" in 1971. Professor Arie Freiberg, head of the criminology department at Melbourne University, said that the scheme had not yet been tried on truants' parents. "It sounds like a good idea from a distance," he said. "But there are lots and lots of problems associated with it."

However, weekend imprisonment was supported by Barry Sheerman, Labour chairman of the Commons education select committee. He said: "I believe that you have to use quite severe penalties with those who will not take their children into school."

Lord Warner, chairman of the Youth Justice Board, agreed that weekend jail terms could be the "short sharp shock" needed, but only if other measures failed.

The board published research this week which showed that the courses, attended by nearly 3,000 parents last year, had cut offences committed by their children by a third.

This week a father who admitted assaulting a headteacher was sentenced to a curfew for four months. Magistrates said Shawn Gladding, 36, would have been jailed if Leonard Holman of Angel Road middle, Norwich, had been injured.

The DFES confirmed this week that heads could be allowed to order that parents of persistent truants have their child benefit docked.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "I cannot think of one headteacher who wants to be making decisions about whether child benefit should be removed."

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