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Wednesday, 19 June, 2002, 19:06 GMT 20:06 UK
Start early on youth crime, say Tories
Police speak to a teenager
Early intervention can cut youth crime, says Letwin
"Problem children" as young as four need to be targeted by new schemes to prevent them taking the first steps on a life of crime, say the Conservatives.

In a speech on Wednesday, shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin said "outsider" children too often turned into young criminals.

I take young criminals to be 'us', but gone wrong

Oliver Letwin
Shadow home secretary
Action was currently only taken once youngsters are caught committing crime, he argued, and there were almost no coherent strategies for tackling early signs of problem behaviour.

That criticism was rejected by Home Office Minister John Denham, who accused Mr Letwin of presenting as new thinking work already under way in three government schemes.

"Once again Oliver Letwin's speech is attempting to garner the plaudits for stating the obvious or for work that the government is already doing," said Mr Denham.

Reforming characters

With crime a major worry for the government, Mr Letwin stressed that young people now accounted for about a third of all criminal convictions.

His speech to the Centre for Policy Studies think-tank in London was designed to build on his calls for a more neighbourly society to break the cycle of criminality.

He insisted society must be able in many cases to change the character of potential criminals - and he dismissed those who brand such ideas as "left wing nonsense".

"I take young criminals to be 'us', but gone wrong," Mr Letwin said.

Oliver Letwin
Oliver Letwin: Calling for a more neighbourly society
"I cannot see there is much hope for society, or much hope for humanity, if we give up on the task of preventing them from going wrong."

The Conservatives' work on trying to produce possible solutions to the youth crime problem continues and the party is not ready to provide any detailed policy ideas.

But Mr Letwin outlined an approach which he said could have a major impact, together with more neighbourhood policing, better crime prevention and reforms to the courts system.

Breaking crime cycle

"This ambition is the establishment of effective programmes to lead the 'problem child' away from the conveyer belt to crime, from the age of four or five onwards," he said.

New ways of harnessing government resources with voluntary organisations were needed to intervene early and give support for parents and children, he said.

That could stop the "outsider child" becoming the "problem child" and then the "young offender".

Tony Blair delivering his speech on criminal justice on Monday
Tony Blair says the confidence of crime victims needs restoring

At the moment, those children might be taken into care if they were at physical risk but there was no sustained intervention if the problem is "moral and spiritual".

Mr Letwin held up Kids Company, a charity in Camberwell, London, which he visited again on Tuesday, as a good example of the kind of local scheme that was needed.

Nine out of 10 of the children involved with the charity had no father, he said, and many had suffered abuse or seen crime from an early stage.

"Kids Company provides two hot cooked meals a day, incentive points which can be exchanged for clothes, education psychiatric counselling, help with housing, drugs and benefits," Mr Letwin continued.

Courts overhaul

"It is in the business of picking up the pieces of discarded lives."

Mr Lewin spoke of the need to evoke the "spirit of the great Victorian social reformers" as his party tries to be win a more caring image.

The speech comes a day after Tony Blair said the English courts system needed to be dragged from the 19th century into the 21st century.

Amid reports of rising crime figures and criticism of money being wasted as criminals walk free, Mr Blair said the criminal justice system would be rebalanced in favour of crime victims.

The message is expected to be underlined by Home Secretary David Blunkett when he addresses the Modernising Criminal Justice conference on Wednesday.

See also:

18 Jun 02 | UK Politics
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