Mon, May 16, 2005 - Page 6 News List

UK outlines new 'visible' plan to punish teenagers

THE OBSERVER , LONDON

British teenage yobs are to be forced to wear bright uniforms as they carry out community service punishments under plans for a new high-visibility crackdown on public disorder.

The move, echoing US chain gangs whose members wear orange jackets to shame them publicly, will be highly controversial and could risk reprisals.

But Home Office (interior ministry) minister Hazel Blears argues justice must be seen to be done in the battle against what the government calls a "culture of disrespect," ranging from swearing and neglectful parenting to petty crime and violence.

In her first interview as the new minister for antisocial behavior, Blears also suggested parents should enforce sensible bedtimes for children and restore "structure" to family life, such as eating meals together. They should also be alert to what children wear following debate over teenagers wearing "hoodies" to avoid identification on closed circuit television (CCTV).

"People feel very strongly that they don't often see justice being done," she said.

"[When] people get fixed penalty notices I would like to see a very quick connection to community punishment, that people see being done. I want them to be identified," she said.

She did not want offenders "breaking rocks" in chain gangs -- one successful scheme in her Salford constituency involved youths forced to make floral hanging baskets -- but visibly doing something useful.

Other plans include residential parenting courses for the most dysfunctional families, and cheap leisure activities to occupy teenagers -- with troublemakers expected to "earn" the right to join in.

The crusade against yobbish behavior, from the classroom to the street corner, reflects reports from the election campaign trail of concern about a breakdown in public order. Last week Tony Blair demanded more "respect" in society after a shopping center banned hooded tops because some youths use them to shield their faces from CCTV.

This week's Queen's Speech -- the government's legislative program -- will highlight the theme, with a welfare bill emphasizing the dignity and purpose of work, and crackdowns on guns and knives.

But critics argue the campaign smacks of intrusion into private life.

Blears said it was "very hard" to generalize about why parents were failing to control children.

"It's a combination of factors -- partly it's time," she said. "We have all got less of it. It's also a less structured life."

The crusade for "decency" meant practising tolerance and valuing other people.

"But the practical part is you don't spit at them, you don't swear at them, you don't huddle together in a group and intimidate people who are weaker," she said.

Such behavior had spread beyond sink estates to prosperous areas, she said, citing an incident where a gang had smashed concrete bollards through a Woolworths' store roof as terrified staff cowered inside.

"That's not about poverty, that's not about deprivation," she said. "That was just terror."

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