In the Media

Parents face fines for bad behaviour of their children while thieves and drunks escape

PUBLISHED November 15, 2006

Shoplifters and other criminals are to escape without any punishment if they say sorry for their crimes - but parents of young children who drop litter face ?50 fines under Government plans.

They are the shock winners and losers in proposals to dramatically change the way so-called minor crimes are punished.

Critics said it was yet more proof the Government had got its priorities utterly wrong.

John Reid is considering a dramatic downgrading of 25 crimes currently punishable by at least an on-the-spot fine - including theft, criminal damage, wasting police time and hoax calls to the fire service.

Offenders who are prepared to apologise and repair the damage they caused would instead be let-off without even so much as an informal warning.

Police, who would supervise the apology, could then class the crime as being solved. It raises the bizarre prospect of a shoplifter being allowed to walk free if they return stolen goods - valued at up to ?200 - to the store and say sorry.

Yobs who get drunk and kick down a pensioner's fence would simply have to mend the damage. But, in stark contrast, parents would be hammered by a separate set of changes proposed by the Home Secretary.

These would make them instantly liable, for the first time, for fines given to 10-15 year-olds who drop litter, allow a family pet to foul the pavement or daub graffiti on walls.

The youngster would be fined ?50, for example, for dropping a sweet wrapper and their mum or dad would have no option but to pay.

Mr Reid's officials justify the move on the grounds it will teach parents responsibility for their children. If they have to pay, they will warn them not to leave sweet wrappers in the street.

The Strengthening Powers to Tackle Anti-Social Behaviour consultation document declared: 'Shifting the liability of payment to the parent would...send out a clear message that we expect parents to be responsible for their children's behaviour.'

The idea of crime being settled by a simple apology is part of a drive for more 'summary justice' - Government-speak for keeping offenders out of the courts wherever possible.

Ministers claim being forced to repair the damage caused is better use of resources than taking a person to court, where they are likely to be let-off with a fine anyway, or giving them a fixed-penalty notice which takes up more than an hour of police time.

But the plans provoked fury last night. The British Retail Consortium said there was evidence the fines currently handed out for shop theft were not being used properly.

They are being handed out for valuable items, or without the storekeeper's consent, a spokesman said. He added: 'The idea of extending this while even the system of fines is not being used properly is a great concern.'

Shadow Home Secretary David Davis said: 'Once again we see that beneath the tough rhetoric lies more chaos and confusion. The public expect offenders to be properly prosecuted and punished, not some fudge. The public deserve better than this.'

Norman Brennan, director of the Victims of Crime Trust, said: 'With barmy ideas such as this that the Government keep churning out is it hardly surprising that shop lifting has increased?

'Yet again the Government is far off the target and have lost their way and lost the confidence of the public. If it is possible they are becoming even more unpopular as far as law and order is concerned.'

Critics point out the Government is increasingly desperate to keep low-level criminals out of the courts - where they face the prospect of being sent to already overcrowded jails.

Last week, ministers said offenders hooked on drink or drugs who are currently sent to jail should be treated in the community instead.

And more than 1,000 offences currently punished by a community penalty - such as driving without insurance, or hurling coins at a football match - should receive a fine only.

Separate plans, unveiled in the summer, allow juvenile offenders to be let-off a formal warning if they say sorry for offences such as criminal damage.