Page last updated at 12:15 GMT, Sunday, 2 September 2007 13:15 UK

Thousands of crimes by under-10s

Children committed 66 sex offences last year, figures suggest

Almost 3,000 crimes were reported last year where the suspect was too young to be prosecuted, the BBC has learned.

Figures show about 1,300 incidents of criminal damage and arson, and more than 60 sex offences where suspects were under-10s in England and Wales.

If a child is nine or under, he or she cannot be charged with an offence but there are calls for the age of criminal responsibility to be lowered.

The figures are based on data from 32 of the 43 forces in England and Wales.

Harassment offences

Of the 2,840 crimes where the suspect was under 10, about half were cases of arson or criminal damage.

If you go along to any estate and see the age of kids marauding around like a pack of wolves, you'd see that reducing the age of criminal responsibility to eight or nine would be vital
Lawrence Lee,

There were also 66 sexual offences, including a number of sexual assaults on children under 13.

The figures, obtained by BBC Radio Five Live through requests under the Freedom of Information Act, also show children too young to face charges were suspected of harassment, wounding and burglary.

As a proportion of total crime the numbers are small.

Home Office figures show there were 5.5 million incidents reported to the police during the same period.

Crimes recorded

Bob Ashford from the Youth Justice Board, which advises central and local government on how to deal with young offenders, said authorities were already "on the way to tackle this issue".

Although a child under 10 cannot be charged with an offence in England and Wales, the crime is recorded by the police.

US (some states): 6
Scotland: 8
England, Wales and Northern Ireland: 10
Canada, Netherlands: 12
France: 13
Germany, Austria, Italy, Japan, Russia: 14
Scandinavian nations: 15
Spain, Portugal: 16
Brazil, Peru: 18

Those under 10 suspected of committing an act constituting an offence can also be made the subject of a child safety order and placed under the supervision of social workers or a local multi-agency team.

Lawrence Lee, who was solicitor for Jon Venables, one of two 10-year-olds who murdered two-year-old James Bulger in 1993, said lowering the age of criminal responsibility would send an important message to child offenders.

He added: "As a defence lawyer I would say no, it wouldn't be a good thing.

"But if I wear my citizen's hat, I would say if you go along to any estate and see the age of kids marauding around like a pack of wolves, you'd see that reducing the age of criminal responsibility to eight or nine would be vital."

However, Bob Reitemeier of the Children's Society told the BBC his charity wanted the age of criminal responsibility raised to 14.

Yes, lower the age. They should know better at the age of nine. It's just that they know they can get away with things that they make people's lives a misery.

He added: "I mean if you look at how children are treated by government and legislation you have to be 18 to be able to vote, 16 to have sex and yet 10 to be held accountable for committing a crime."

Paul Cavadino, Chief Executive of Nacro, the crime reduction charity, said lowering the age of criminal responsibility would not reduce crimes committed by young children.

He added: "The best approach to serious child offenders is to deal with them as children who need effective care measures."

Training orders

The formal age of criminal responsibility varies across the world but in many countries youths who commit offences before they reach the minimum age find themselves subject to proceedings in family or special juvenile courts.

In Scotland, eight-year-olds can face prosecution. But except for serious crimes, the majority are dealt with by children's panels until the age of 16.

The age of criminal responsibility is 10 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland; 12 in Canada and the Netherlands; 13 in France; 14 in Germany, Austria, Italy, Japan and Russia, and 16 in Spain and Portugal.

In the US, it ranges from six in some states but is 10 for federal criminal court prosecutions. In Brazil and Peru it is 18.

In May, a study from the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King's College London, recommended the age of responsibility in England and Wales should be raised to 14, 16 or even 18.

The report - a collection of essays from academics and campaigners - said grave crimes by children should be punished by a "residential training order" of up to five years.

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