The age at which children can be held criminally responsible is to be raised to 12, justice secretary Kenny MacAskill confirmed today.

As first reported in The Herald earlier this year, the increase from the current age of eight will bring Scotland into line with most of Europe.

It comes after Lord Advocate Elish Angiolini, the country's chief prosecutor, said the current age is "extremely low" and that she would not normally prosecute children.

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Moves to raise the current age will be included in the forthcoming Criminal Justice and Licensing Bill, Mr MacAskill said today.

"There is no good reason for Scotland to continue to have the lowest age of criminal responsibility in Europe," he said.

"Most importantly the evidence shows that prosecution at an early age increases the chance of reoffending - so this change is about preventing crime."

But he insisted that eight to 11-year-olds will not be "let off" as a result of the changes.

"They will be held to account in a way that is appropriate for their stage of development and ensures that we balance their needs with the need to protect our communities," Mr MacAskill added.

Temporary assistant chief constable Gordon MacKenzie, of Central Scotland Police and chair of the ACPOS Youth Issues Group, backed the move to increase the age of prosecution.

"We agree that this strikes the right balance between the age a young person understands that their behaviour is harmful and their ability to understand court proceedings," he said.

The Lord Advocate voiced her concern about the age of responsibility when she appeared before Holyrood's justice committee last year.

"I have no wish as a chief prosecutor in this country to criminalise children unnecessarily," she said.

The proposed Bill will also see an end to "unruly certificates" which can allow 14- and 15-year-olds to be imprisoned.

"Prison is no place for children," Mr MacAskill added.

"By allowing more youngsters to be placed in secure care instead of locked up in a prison alongside hardened criminals, we will ensure that the estate can be used to benefit both vulnerable young people and the wider community."

Andrew McLellan, the chief inspector of prisons, voiced his support for the planned measure.

"I have said so often that prison is no place for a child," he said.

"I welcome with no hesitation this long-awaited move.

"I have no doubt that Young Offenders' Institutions do their best for children - but it can never be right."