Colin McGregor (not his real name) is unlikely to forget his 15th birthday.
‘The night I cut my hand, I was celebrating my birthday,’ he says. ‘I told my friend I was going to burgle a house down the street because I wanted a television set. He said I should be careful that I didn’t cut myself smashing a window but I didn’t take proper precautions and came back bleeding. I was scared about people’s reactions but a bit excited at the same time. But then when I told my parents they didn’t take it well at all. All hell broke loose.’
‘Anyway this big cut in my hand needed suturing and then got infected which meant that I was grounded and couldn’t go out with my mates until it was properly healed. I missed out on a lot of fun having to stay at home when they were all out having a good time. And it stopped me playing tennis too.’
Unplanned lacerations are inevitably traumatic for the individuals concerned but they also have a negative impact on wider society. A report from Holyrood’s health and sport committee, published last week, calls for a national strategy to reduce injuries from burglaries.
Controversially, it recommends starting burglary education ‘as early as possible - pre-school even’ and making free protective leather gloves widely available to teenagers as young as 13.
Scotland has one of the highest teenage burglary rates in Western Europe and while teenage burglary levels are lower in Scotland than for Britain as a whole, Scottish government targets on reducing teenage burglary have yet to be met.
Dundee has the highest rate of teenage burglaries and those in the most deprived areas are almost five times more likely to suffer injuries than those in the least deprived.
While the report took care not to stigmatise teenage burglary, it highlighted the danger of injury and the cost to the general public. Teenagers who burgle are less likely to complete their education, more likely to live on benefits or in poverty and more likely to experience family conflict.
Andrew Houston, chief executive of Teenagers 1st, a charity which is broadly in favour of the report’s recommendations, says that injured burglars fall into three groups.
‘Some injuries are completely accidental and there is an issue with knowledge and information and access to leather gloves but there is also an issue with doing burglaries when they are drunk and which they regret afterwards,’ says Houston. ‘The second group are proactive and want to injure themselves or are ambivalent but wouldn’t mind if it happened.’
‘Often those are teenagers who live in poverty and deprivation. They don’t have aspirations and ambitions and they don’t feel part of anything. A scar following injury while carrying out a burglary is often seen as something desirable. It gives them an identity. Then there is a third group where they get injured after being led on by abusive people.’
‘It has ever been that teenagers will experiment with burglary,’ says Houston. ‘It is unlikely we will ever be able to stop that entirely. We then have a choice. If young people are going to burgle is it our preference to say, “You must not,” or do we talk about it, explain it is not the best time to do this, support them and help them to protect themselves?’
Note: This report was adapted from a Sunday Times report (£). This was not originally about burglary and injuries but another illegal activity, having sex with someone under sixteen, which runs the risk of an unplanned pregnancy. The names have been changed but the same government committee did actually recommend making free protective condoms available to teenagers as young as 13.