Tagged for trouble at the bouncy castle

Nick Cohen and Joe Cusack on an electronic punishment gone awry
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THE LAW'S heavy-handed involvement in a fight at a children's bouncy castle, and the damage to the fortunes of an exotic troupe of nightclub dancers which followed, should persuade the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, to abandon his faith in electronic tagging, claim the humiliated victims.

Manchester Crown Court last week ordered the three single mothers at the centre of the case to be detagged and said their punishment had been excessive.

The success of the women's appeal could not have come at a worse time for Mr Howard. Allegations that his attempt to import the American idea of electronically monitored house arrest was "an expensive flop" were already growing. But Mr Howard has rejected them and decided to extend the nine-month pilot project, which ended last week, for another year.

Dawn Erving, her sister Lorna and their friend Debbie Wimbleton were at a children's barbecue party in inner Manchester in August when a fight began on a bouncy castle. Ms Erving said it started because one child racially insulted another.

A police van was passing and officers moved in to break up the disturbance. The women claim they were not involved in the fighting and were shocked to be grabbed and thrown into the vehicle. The police, however, said they were threatened and assaulted by the three.

On 13 March, the women pleaded guilty on their solicitor's advice. No officer was injured, and they had no previous convictions, so they expected no more than a judicial slap on the wrists. Instead, the magistrate, Derrick Fairclough, ordered that they must agree to be tagged for four months or go to prison. Electronic monitoring was to confine them to their homes between 8pm and 1am.

"You all have young children and it is no real hardship to be in with them at night," he told them.

The women protested that the alleged assault had taken place at an afternoon party. Ms Erving, a black 24-year-old, added that it could threaten her only source of income - Hot Supreme, a three-woman dance group which performed in Manchester nightclubs.

"Our solicitor tried to explain that I was the leader of a dance troupe with regular work, and a big piece of plastic with flashing lights strapped to my ankle would not go down very well, but no one wanted to listen," she said.

When the private security firms that Mr Howard has hired to enforce tagging arrived, her anger grew.

"They barged into my home and dumped this huge telephone with two receivers on the floor," Ms Erving said. "They told me to sit down and put out my leg. I held my head high and refused to show them the hurt I was feeling.

"I do try to rise above racism but it is difficult sometimes. I felt like I was being shackled by a big bad white man."

Ms Erving took to borrowing long dresses so that people did not stare at her "manacle" when she went out of the house.

She was told that she must be at home in the evening or she would be arrested. But, she claims, the guards never made check calls.

Her allegation and the Crown Court's quashing of the three tagging orders fit a pattern which has embarrassed the Home Office since the nine-month tagging trials started, in Manchester, Norfolk and Reading, last July.

An earlier pilot project in 1989 had become a national joke. The courts had agreed to tag just 49 people and most of them had torn off their manacles, committed other offences or run off.

Civil servants passionately wanted to make the tough punishment work this time. But last week, as the pounds 1.3m trials came to an end, the probation workers' union, Napo, which monitors tagged offenders, showed that if anything the second trial had been a bigger failure than the first.

Only 43 people had been tagged at an annual cost of pounds 60,000 per defendant - more than twice the price of prison. The vast majority got into trouble again.

The first taggee in Norfolk broke his curfew 40 times. A defendant in Reading was beaten up when drinkers in a pub mistook him for a sex offender who had also been tagged. A Manchester taggee cut off his high-tech manacle and threw it into a pond, saying it made him "feel like a dog".

Harry Fletcher, spokesman for the probation officers union, said: "It's easy to laugh at Mr Howard and treat this as a joke, but these women were human guinea pigs in an expensive and humiliating experiment."

Home Office civil servants say that tagging must continue for another year because if it can be made to work it will ease the pressure on overcrowded jails.