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Monday, 29 April, 2002, 16:44 GMT 17:44 UK
Blair defends truancy crackdown
Tony Blair is refusing to back down over a proposal to cut benefit payments to parents of out-of-control children - and backed separate plans to station police officers in schools.

The prime minister was said to be "unapologetic" about the idea which has been attacked as an unworkable "gimmick" by some Labour MPs and other political parties.

There are some schools in very difficult areas where we need to reassert the strength of the majority

Tony Blair
Welfare campaigners claim it would fly in the face of Labour's commitment to ending child poverty.

With youth crime seen as a key issue in this week's local elections, ministers have also announced that police officers are to be stationed in schools in England that have discipline problems.

Cycle of crime

Officers will also conduct "sweeps" of local shopping centres to round up truants as part of the drive against rising street crime.

Education Secretary Estelle Morris said the link between truancy and crime was "too great to ignore".

Official figures showed 40% of street crime, 25% of burglaries, 20% of criminal damage and a third of car thefts were carried out by 10-16-year-olds who should have been in school, she said.

Diane Abbott, Labour MP
Abbott - Scheme will 'only make the poor poorer'
The plan would see up to 100 officers posted in about 70 schools in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool.

Mr Blair said a police presence in some schools would act as a "substantial deterrent" to crime.

"There are some schools in very difficult areas where we need to reassert the strength of the majority."

The Secondary Headteachers Association has welcomed the move, saying truancy is condoned by too many parents.

But the idea of docking child benefit from the parents of persistent truants has attracted widespread criticism.

'Rights and duties'

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have branded the proposal as a pre-election stunt.

The prime minister instead believes it should be seriously considered, although he says no decisions have yet been taken.

He told BBC News: "We are examining the issue of when people are paid substantial amounts of benefits by the state and their children are persistently truanting, committing offences.

Share of crimes committed by truants
Street crime: 40%
Burglaries: 25%
Criminal damage: 20%
Car theft: 33%
"Is it really fair that they owe no sense of responsibility in return?"

Mr Blair is said to have been shocked to discover that 80% of school children stopped by police in daytime truancy sweeps were accompanied by an adult.

Cutting benefits would be used to strengthen existing court orders forcing parents to be stricter with children who play truant or commit crimes.


>But some cabinet ministers, such as Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and Work and Pensions Secretary Alistair Darling, have sounded lukewarm about the idea.

And there has been open criticism from among Labour backbenchers.

Damian Green, shadow education secretary
Damian Green says the plan is, at best, half-baked
Labour MP Hilton Dawson, who chairs the all-party children's group, said: "It seems to me that it works directly against the government's major policies to end child poverty in this country and it is not terribly practical."

He said it would make "family relationships" more difficult and undermine social work with families.

Labour MP Diane Abbott called the idea "nothing more than a gimmick which will look good on the front pages".


There was criticism too from shadow education secretary Damian Green, who described the ideas as "at best, half-baked".

One of the many problems was that the proposal would penalise the siblings of unruly children, said Mr Green.

"This can be consigned to the dustbin that includes the idea of frogmarching yobs up to put their credit cards into ATMs so they can take their fine out straight away," he told Today.

And Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy predicted the proposal would "die a death".

His party believes incentives rather than penalties are the best action against truancy.

Many families, especially those on low incomes, depend on child benefit - 15.75 a week for the first child, and 10.55 for each additional child.

It rises to 17.55 a week for a lone parent with one child.

A spokesman for the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders warned the idea, if implemented, was more likely to increase youth offending.

The BBC's Andrew Marr
"A leaked proposal caught Labour ministers off guard and has been laughed at by the press"
Prime Minister Tony Blair
"Parents also have a responsibility"
Minister for Young People and Learning Ivan Lewis
"It's entirely appropriate we ask parents to take their full responsibilities"

Parents of unruly teenagers could have their child benefit taken away - what do you think of the idea?Benefit threat
Is youth crime idea workable?
See also:

29 Apr 02 | UK Politics
Truant plan sparks split
24 Apr 02 | UK Politics
Blair sets street crime deadline
16 Apr 02 | UK Politics
Blunkett targets young criminals
28 Apr 02 | UK Politics
Q&A: Child benefit
29 Apr 02 | Education
Playing truant wrecks life chances
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