Prescott joins fashion police with support for 'hoodie' ban

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He is the ultimate political pugilist and rarely known to pull a punch; be it a left hook aimed at the egg-wielding protester in the 2001 election or an order to "bugger off and get back on your bus, you amateur" ­ fired at a journalist a few weeks ago.

But John Prescott revealed an unexpectedly vulnerable side yesterday when he described an encounter with a gang of young people carrying "a kind of movie camera" in a motorway service station.

The Deputy Prime Minister met his match in a 10-strong gang who, in his own words, wore "these covers with hoods on".

The incident started when "a kid said something to me and I said 'what did you say, lad?'," Mr Prescott told BBC Radio4'sToday programme, while expounding on the culture of "disrespect" that his much-reduced department has been asked to tackle by the Prime Minister. "He went off and came back with about 10 people. Not only did they come back with these kind of uniforms but they came at me with a kind of movie camera to take a film of such an incident. The fact that they go around with these hats and these covers, it is in a uniform sense. It is intimidating."

Mr Prescott seemed to be saying that the youths were wearing hooded tops, since his revelation was presented in defence of the decision of the Bluewater shopping centre, in Kent, to ban all young people from wearing "hoodies". This has followed complaints from customers.

Mr Prescott seems to have been targeted by one of the new breed of so-called "happy-slapping" gang, who use mobile phones or digital cameras to film each other attacking victims. But his provision of some "personal experience" of yob culture did not stretch to elaborating on the facts, following the radio interview.

This meant that Mr Prescott was unable to clear up some confusion about precisely when the incident happened. (It was "about a couple of week... on the motorway about a couple of week, um, about a couple... a year ago," he told Today.)

No witness to the encounter could be found among Prescott aides, who would not say where it occurred ­ though one source said a police officer had "written a report" on it.

The sketchiness of Mr Prescott's story did little to counteract children's groups who accused Mr Blair of demonising young people and acting like fashion police after he, too, backed the ban on hoodies as part of his crackdown on yobbish behaviour.

The Prime Minister said he had "total sympathy" with Bluewater and "totally" agreed with its move.

The director of the Crime and Society Foundation, Richard Garside, said: "The Prime Minister's comments are more in keeping with an episode ofWhat Not To Wear, rather than a Downing Street press conference... I look forward to hearing of the appointment of Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine as Mr Blair's special advisers on crime and fashion."

Amanda Allard, of the children's charity NCH, said: "People wear hooded tops to be cool, not to be intimidating. If you demonise hooded tops then you feed on people's fears about young people."

The Children's Society said it was important "not to confuse fashion with behaviour".

Mr Blair promised a "bold" programme of reform of the public services in his third term, which would include measures to tackle disorder and "respect on our streets".

A "very small minority" made the majority "afraid and angry", he said.

"It's good that people are free to express their views, lead their lives in the way they want to, and are less hidebound by old thinking, but some things should endure and one is respect to other people."