By Sarah Sturdey
Criminals are expected to perform tasks such as cleaning graffiti
A pilot scheme aimed at getting unemployed offenders to complete their community sentence is failing and increasing crime, the BBC has learned.
The National Association of Probation Officers (Napo) says the seven-year-old scheme was "flawed".
Sanctions were implemented if offenders failed to comply with a community sentence order on two occasions.
Justice Minister David Hansen said he would be re-evaluating the scheme.
Under the scheme, offenders could lose benefits through non-compliance with an order, as well as being fined and potentially jailed.
"It was flawed from the start. It's a double whammy," the assistant secretary of Napo, Harry Fletcher, said.
Napo is arguing that the scheme is also a waste of public money.
The organisation's general secretary Judy Knight accuses the government of ignoring evidence that it actually contributes to re-offending, in an attempt live up to Tony Blair's promise to be "tough on the causes of crime".
In October 2001 the pilot scheme was set up in four trial areas, Derbyshire, Teesside, Hertfordshire and West Midlands. Some offenders have admitted that, without any benefits to live on, they reoffended.
Derby-based lawyer Andrew Cash said: "One client committed a technical breach by failing to provide proof of welfare benefits in time.
"He told me when his unemployment benefit was withdrawn he was forced into committing theft to live."
A former Probation Service Minister, Beverley Hughes, in a letter to Napo, said offenders "have responsibilities and should behave accordingly".
She added that the scheme "is legitimate".
But one Napo member wrote in a letter to the union newspaper: "Most of the people I work with don't know what day it is, their lives are so disordered."
The scheme has also been accused of being overly bureaucratic, with complex procedures between the Probation Service and the Benefits Agency and Employment Service to implement the penalty.
A parliamentary answer in January 2003 revealed it was costing the state £5.60 for every £1 in benefit recovered. The penalty involves thousands of recipients.
Andrew Cash said there was "utter confusion" in Derby: "Magistrates are totally frustrated. They get no response from the Ministry of Justice."
In 2004, an evaluation carried out by the University of Oxford concluded that the threat of losing benefits made little difference to compliance with community sentences.
But the government continued with the scheme.
In 2006, the National Probation Directorate (NPD), advised the Home Office that it was urgent the project should cease.
Baroness Scotland, a Home Officer minister at the time, sent a letter to Tony Blair, the Prime Minister. In it, she described how the pilot was falling into disrepute and it should stop.
"There have been reports of probation staff being verbally abused and assaulted as a result of applying the sanction," she added. She also revealed that the pilot had effectively been overtaken by events, due to probation performance improvements.
Recent statistics show the number of people given community sentences who re-offend has fallen sharply by 13%.
Last year, 55,771 "community payback" sentences were completed across England and Wales.
Offenders are ordered to carry out work such as picking up litter, renovating community centres and clearing undergrowth and graffiti for local communities.
In September, the government said criminals sentenced to community service may have to work full-time.
Justice Minister David Hansen told the BBC in a statement that he would be evaluating the pilot scheme and making a decision in the next few weeks.
He said the key objective was to make sure offenders complied with their sentences.
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: "We remain absolutely committed to the principle that people who break the terms of their community sentence should be dealt with rigorously.
"A thorough approach for breach of a community order is already in force. If an offender fails to comply with a court order, probation staff will have no hesitation in returning them to court to be resentenced or given additional punishment."
He added: "We are constantly looking to make community sentences tougher, more visible to the public and more intensive."