'Community payback' vests spark rebellion by probation officers

Jack Straw meets resistance to novel means of punishment
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Indy Politics

The Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, faces a rebellion over new rules forcing offenders to wear high-visibility vests bearing the words "community payback" when they carry out community sentences.

A survey by probation officers, to be published tomorrow, finds that three-quarters of community groups and charities hosting placements for offenders on community service are refusing to hand out the vests, which became compulsory at the end of last month.

The fluorescent vests were promoted by Mr Straw and the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, as a way of increasing public confidence in community punishments. As recently as Sunday, Mr Straw used an article in The News of the World to insist that community punishments were "tough and visible". The Government has bought 10,000 vests for criminals doing community service in England and Wales.

But yesterday the National Association of Probation Officers called for the policy to be reviewed, saying it did nothing to cut crime. It said that there had been two cases where offenders on community service had been attacked with shotguns as rival gang members used vests to help identify targets for revenge. Other offenders had faced onlookers swearing and throwing bottles.

The probation officers' union said 39 out of 52 charity and community groups hosting placements were refusing to hand out the orange bibs. In one probation area in the Midlands, 28 out of 32 placements were not using the vests while in the North-east, 11 out of 22 placements were not using the vests.

One charity shop volunteer said: "I do not feel this would be suitable in the shop environment." Another charity shop manager added: "These high-visibility vests will definitely put my customers off coming into the shop, therefore losing me charity money."

Harry Fletcher, the Napo assistant general secretary, said charities and church groups were refusing to hand out vests because of fears of reprisals and concerns that they would humiliate offenders.

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman replied: "There are hundreds of projects across the country complying with the requirement to wear these jackets. It is disappointing that this Napo survey appears to be based on a tiny and selective number of cases."