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Last Updated: Friday, 27 August, 2004, 12:40 GMT 13:40 UK
Lib Dems could change crime age
By Hannah Goff
BBC News Online politics staff

Plans to decriminalise child offenders under the age of 14 are being considered by the Liberal Democrats.

A conference motion calls for "all under-14s who commit crime" to be dealt with by education and social services.

Young teenager
The Liberal Democrats want to raise the age of criminal responsibility
It also calls for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised from 10 to 12 years old.

Most young offenders are dealt with by the Youth Courts, but the most serious cases are heard in the adult courts.

Bulger killers

The idea will be debated at the party's annual conference in Bournemouth next month.

The motion on Punishment and Rehabilitation of Offenders reads: "Children below the age of criminal responsibility should not be dealt with through the adult criminal justice system, and that the age of criminal responsibility is set too low."

It also suggests phasing out the use of Prison Service accommodation for prisoners aged 15 to 17 and supporting the work of the Youth Justice Board in developing alternative community sentences.

Lib Dem Home Affairs spokesman Mark Oaten said: "The government's track record on dealing with juvenile re-offending is woeful.

"We believe it is better for offenders under 14 to be dealt with by social services, with the most serious offenders being detained in secure accommodation, rather than being placed in a young offenders' institution, which are too often colleges of crime."

The Lib Dems say the move would bring Britain more in line with its European counterparts and believe that at the age of 10, 11 or 12, some young people don't necessarily know the difference between right and wrong.

They also point out that very young offenders may not understand the longer term consequences of their actions.

The changes would mean that the youngsters who killed Liverpool toddler Jamie Bulger would not have faced a court trial.

'Soft option'

Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were only 10 when they abducted two-year-old James from a Liverpool shopping centre before torturing and killing him.

But a party spokesman insisted decriminalisation was not a "soft option".

"If a 10 or 11-year-old were to murder a child they could be put in secure accommodation run by local authority social services," he said.

"Putting young people in a young offenders institute is going to lead to more crime and self harming."

The plans comes after the number of youngsters being held in detention centres and prisons were highlighted by the death of 14-year-old Adam Rickwood.

Adam became the youngest person in British penal history to die in custody when he was found hanged in his cell in Hassockfield secure training centre, County Durham.

A committee of MPs, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, is to look in to the circumstances around his death.

Other proposals in the Lib Dem motion include:

  • Requiring non-violent offenders to "pay back" victims and communities by carrying out work chosen by local people

  • Bringing offenders and victims face to face "to facilitate direct reparation either in cash or kind"

  • Expanding the use of reparation orders for juveniles and to pilot their use for adults

  • To make basic literacy numeracy and communications skills available to all prisoners and compulsory in some cases.


    The Lib Dems will also debate a motion calling for asylum seekers to be allowed to work and have access to the employment services two months after they apply for asylum.

    Currently they can only apply for a right to work in Britain after six months.

    It is part of a package of proposals aimed at speeding up the asylum system and ensuring Britain meets in international humanitarian obligations.

    Other measures include supporting a common EU asylum policy and establishing an Independent Asylum Agency to consider claims "lawfully, competently and impartially from political interference".

    Mr Oaten said: "Mismanagement by successive has confused the two separate issues of asylum and immigration, causing an atmosphere of widespread public mistrust.

    "Legal migrants make up only 8% of the UK's population, but generate 10% of GDP. Many of them have skills that the UK simply cannot economically afford to do without."

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