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A curfew too far

Glasgow community worker Stuart Waiton reports on the impact of New Labour's child curfew, one year on

I arrived in Whitehill at 9pm on a cold October night. The flash of camera bulbs greeted me as the first child was dragged home by sergeant McCallum. This was the start of the now infamous Hamilton curfew.

One year on and this Scottish experiment is set to be introduced in England and Wales; although down south it will affect children up to the age of 10, rather than 16 as in Glasgow. But what has the curfew meant to the young people it has already affected?

Officially called the Child Safety Initiative, the curfew was set up in three working class areas of Hamilton. Strathclyde police were to take any child under the age of 16 back to their home if they did not have a good reason to be out on the street 'after dark'. By April this year 229 young people had been dealt with by the police (63 per cent of them for loitering), the initiative was hailed as a success, and what was intended to be a six-month pilot initiative was extended and continues to date. The police report analysing the curfew came out in October.

The police and south Lanarkshire council, who were jointly responsible for this initiative, were adamant that this was not a curfew or an oppressive form of policing. It was a safety initiative to protect both adults who had been complaining about young people on the streets at night, and children and young people themselves. But after interviewing eight to 15-year olds in Hillhouse - the largest of the three targeted areas - I found nothing to suggest that these young people were in any great danger. Indeed, if anything, the greatest danger they face now is of being burdened with adult insecurities and missing out on their childhood.

Launching the Child Safety Initiative, chief constable John Orr cited examples of small children wandering the streets at night and said that parents needed to be reminded about the dangers their unsupervised children faced, such as paedophiles. But Joe Parfery, who chairs the community council and knows most of the concerns of local people, was unaware of any paedophile problem in Hillhouse. He rarely sees young children out late. 'I see a few out at about 10.30pm some nights', he told me, 'but really what's wrong with that anyway? I used to be out at that time when I was a kid but now it's a crime'.

Of the 32 primary school children I interviewed who lived in or around Hillhouse, none ever played out after 9pm and most were in the house by 7.30pm. Half of them had had their playtime reduced by an hour since the introduction of the curfew. 'I've got to be in before the football's finished now', James complained. None of them had been staying out late, but John Orr's warning had obviously made an impact: every child who now returns home earlier explained that their parents were concerned that they would come into contact with the police.

Rather than finding neglectful parents, I found that parental involvement in these children's activities is high - if anything, many parents are overprotective. Children tend to spend their spare time in organised clubs that their parents take them to. A third are also escorted by parents when visiting friends, and those who are allowed to walk to friends' houses alone are often closely watched. 'My mum phones Jackie's house first', explained Pauline. 'She watches me walk to the end of the street and Jackie's mum watches me from there.'

There is no indication that the safety initiative has given parents greater confidence to allow their children more freedom. Indeed, now parents have the extra worry that their children may be seen as bad kids if they are out after dark - and they could be labelled as bad parents.

Only two of the teenagers I spoke to had had their 'in time' changed since the introduction of the curfew. Again the time these young people stayed out was unexceptional, with only two 15-year old males ever being out after 10.30pm. The teenagers felt frustration about being moved on by the police and being reported to the police by adults - especially by more elderly members of the community.

'There's about 15 of us', Claire told me, 'and some of the pensioners think we're what they see on the TV, and think we're going to smash their windows or something. If they asked me to move I'd make sure we did, but they usually just phone the police'. Sixty-year old George, who lives in Hillhouse, told me he was happier now that the young ones who drank were no longer there. He'd never had any bother off them, but was always nervous when he walked passed.

An opinion poll in the local newspaper found that 95 per cent of those asked were in favour of the curfew - largely because they thought that young people were out of control in their area. However, when I find grown men and women too afraid to approach nine and 10-year olds about their behaviour, it becomes clear that it is not the activities of young people that have changed but the growing insecurities of adults.

This sense of insecurity, reflected in an inflated fear of crime, is not a Hamilton or south Lanarkshire phenomenon. Youth and community workers across the country face similar complaints about rowdy young people. Patrick, a community worker in Epping Forest in Essex, told me, 'I'm getting more and more adults complaining about kids hanging around their streets - and it's not like up your bit, there's virtually no unemployment down here, no graffiti, no nothing'.

The growing insecurities that many adults have about young people are now being institutionalised in the new policing practices in Strathclyde. Rather than intervening where a criminal act is actually being committed, the police are starting to move young people on simply because they may be causing fear among adults who don't know them. But more security does not necessarily mean these adults are becoming more secure. Joe Parfery raised his doubts about whether the safety initiatives work: 'We keep having these initiatives for new locks or new peepholes on your front door, but you just get people worrying even more about whether the new lock's strong enough.'

When the curfew was first introduced, civil liberties and children's rights groups warned that it would lead to a growing tension between young people and the police. But this underestimates the sense of insecurity and the amount of policing that young people are in favour of. While a slight majority of those from Hillhouse are against the curfew and are frustrated at being stopped or moved on by the police, almost all of them are keen to have some form of safety initiative in their area. The insecurity of these teenagers is not based on experience. They have not had any major problems while they are out at night. A few had been in fights, some had had some bother with the older drunken youths who hung about the shops, but generally their lives are like any other teenager growing up on a working class estate. Hillhouse is certainly no ghetto.

Surprisingly, well over a third of these teenagers - more than the number of primary school children - are driven or escorted to or from their friends' houses at night. Graham told me that he wasn't scared about going out himself but his parents would worry and he had got used to being driven about. Michael, who had been attacked by a group from outside Hillhouse one night last year, had decided he was never going to hang about the streets again - he is now driven everywhere by his mother. The curfew has not given Michael any more confidence to go out again; as he explained, 'the police can't be everywhere all the time'.

Michael is an extreme example, as in Hillhouse most young people do go out at night by themselves and they are certainly not in a permanent state of fear, especially when among friends. But safety has become an increasing concern for these young people, and something many now expect to be provided for them. The curfew has increased this expectation. At a time when young people should be developing greater independence and starting to enjoy their freedom they are being encouraged to 'think safety'. Being streetwise is out. It is now wise to stay off the streets, or at least be 'aware' of the 'potential' risks.

Today it appears that what used to be seen as part of growing up is now too dangerous for our young people to cope with. In the end this could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. As one semi-retired child researcher, Mayer Hillman, who described the curfew as 'monstrous', said to me: 'If there are dangers on the street, why not keep your children in the house for ever? In the short term taking away children and young people's freedom may minimise injury but in the end these teenagers will be less safe because they'll be less able to cope with life. If they don't learn to deal with people they will remain strangers for life.'

Stuart Waiton is spokesperson for Generation: Youth Issues, and author of the forthcoming report 'Generations apart: the Hamilton curfew'

Reproduced from LM issue 115, November 1998

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