In a bid to curb rising juvenile crime, the British government is working on a plan to force parents of unruly youngsters to wear electronic tags.
The idea, backed by Home Secretary Michael Howard, would require parents to stay at home with their delinquent children where they can keep an eye on them. But civil liberties and child-welfare groups have denounced the proposed measures.
The idea is expected to be part of an upcoming government anticrime plan that also will propose taking away the right to trial by jury from a range of suspected criminals, including burglars and sexual offenders.
Mr. Howard is preparing to unveil his parent-tagging plan just weeks before a general election in which opinion polls suggest the ruling Conservative Party will sustain a heavy defeat.
The opposition Labour Party, not wanting to be left behind in the quest for the votes of middle-class people concerned about crime, is putting forward its own tough law-and-order program. Labour is supporting a crime bill now before the House of Commons that would mirror American trends by requiring mandatory minimum sentences for rapists and other violent criminals.
Police say about 8 million crimes are committed in Britain each year by youngsters under 18. Howard is already renowned for his harsh attitude toward crime, but his ideas on electronic tagging of parents appear to break new ground.
Under the plan, denounced in advance by a leading civil rights group, Liberty, as a "gross infringement on personal freedom," courts could impose a curfew on an entire family. A Home Office source says parents of notoriously ill-disciplined youths could be fitted with electronic ankle tags to enable police to keep track of them. If the parents broke the curfew by leaving their children alone at home, it would show up on an electronic police monitor.
The tagging of adult detainees has already been tested by the Home Office as a possible way of easing pressure on Britain's overcrowded prisons. Howard's plan takes the concept further by making parents legally responsible for their children's conduct.
Officials in Howard's office say that after a 16-month review of possible ways to curb juvenile crime, the home secretary decided against changing the law to allow children under 10 to be charged with a crime. Instead, it will put the onus squarely on parents. The review recommends fining adults up to 1,000 ($1,600) for breaking a curfew and requiring them to pay for damage done by their children.
Liberty says the tagging measure would infringe on the rights of children, who would effectively be punished without having been prosecuted. Leading family-support groups have come out strongly against the Howard approach. Margaret Harrison, director of Homestart, a national group that offers help for troubled families, says she is "appalled" by the concept of electronic tagging. "The key to cutting juvenile crime is to strengthen family bonds and provide secure home environments," she says.
BUT with a general election expected May 1, there is heavy pressure on all political parties to come up with new crime-fighting ideas. Prime Minister John Major, aware of polls suggesting that he will probably lose the election, strongly backs Howard. A Sunday Times National Opinion Poll Feb. 16 put Labour 18 points ahead of the Conservatives.
Conservative Party strategists say they are determined to counter the Labour Party's promise to be "tough on crime and the causes of crime."
Opinion surveys over the past several years show that prospective voters put law and order, along with education and health, high on their list of concerns.
Labour officials have indicated privately that their party may not support the parent-tagging proposal. They will instead promote a plan for the appointment of "mentors," who would act as role models for young delinquents.
Jack Straw, a member of Parliament and a Labour Party spokesman, says the idea would be to help young people in trouble "reorganize every aspect of their lives" and assist them with schoolwork. "It is all about bringing structure into the lives of young offenders," he says.
Youth crime has a high profile in Britain following two savage murders in recent years, which are still making headlines. In one, a group of youths killed a schoolteacher who came to the aid of a pupil. In another, five white youths knifed a black student at a bus stop. In the current highly charged political climate, the rivalry between Howard and Mr. Straw looks like it will continue right up to election day.