The police service is undergoing the most radical reassessment of its r ole this century. If the Home Secretary has his way, the policeman of the futur e will be almost unrecognisable. Jason Bennetto reports
You are walking down the street - any street in any British town. A group of youths suddenly attack an old lady, beat her and run off with her bag. As a responsible citizen you immediately dial 112233 on your mobile phone and ask for the street's law enforcement agency. The regional crime franchise winner - in this case Rentokil - takes your details and informs the authorities. For your public spiritedness you will receive a cash reward and free entry into one of the four national lotteries.

The first group to be contacted by Rentokil is the local citizens' patrol. Each team of six patrollers is led by their supervising officer from Group 4 - the only person in the group licensed to carry a firearm. Everyone else has the standard calming stick - extendible to 16ft - deactivation spray, and bullet- and stab-proof vests, which are currently being sponsored by Nintendo. The group liaises with the local authority's law enforcement team - a sort of quasi police, with most of the powers of national officers, but on much lower salaries.

In addition, an alert is put out on the electronic paging service belonging to the Purposeful People's Street Patrols and the pensioners' "catch a crook" home-observation scheme. Within a couple of hours the offenders are cornered and arrested.

Following their arrest the patrol leader telephones the Away From the Scene of Crimes police desk, which sends over a civilian clerk in a police taxi to record the outcome under the Home Secretary Michael Howard's new Punishment Act 1998. The Pickford security vehicle is called and the arrested youths are escorted by private security guards to the police cells.

This vision of policing in the future is not as outlandish as it may sound - almost all of the schemes mentioned have already been seriously suggested, and a few are in operation: only the notion that Michael Howard will still be Home Secretary at the end of the century is verging on the fantastical.

These changes seem all the more likely at a time when the police service is undergoing one of its most radical shake-ups this century. The Home Office has just completed a review of its activities and will publish the results in the next few months.

The principal aim of the Review of Police Core and Ancillary Tasks has been to identify police functions that could be carried out instead by local authorities or private companies. When the review body began its work early in 1994, alarmed chief constables began a skilful lobbying campaign to protect the functions of the police from being pared away. They have in large part succeeded, but even the watered-down version of the report suggests there will be a fundamental shift in the way the police operate, and with this a greater role for the private security industry. The report is certain to fuel a passionate debate about how the country should be policed and where resources should be concentrated.

Present police duties that will move out of their control are expected to include accompanying heavy loads on dual carriageways and motorways; responsibility for stray dogs; transcribing taped interviews; involvement in enforcing the law against noise pollution; licensing the use of explosives, gaming and betting; reporting missing persons; and summoning defendants and witnesses.

These changes come hard on the heels of those contained in the 1994 Police and Magistrates Courts Act, which are to be implemented this year. Performance indicators for all of the country's forces - the time taken to respond to 999 calls, for example, the numbers of burglaries and detection rates along with other statistics that supposedly show "success" or "failure" in tackling crime - are to be published in early April. Inevitably this will lead to the publication of league tables comparing the records of forces in England and Wales. Critics believe the police will simply use creative recording techniques and massage the figures to meet the targets set. There are also fears that chief constables will be forced to deploy their resources in a way that is aimed simply at improving their standing in the league tables.

Also in April, chief constables will assume power over their own budgets, which will allow them to spend more money on targeting specific crimes, and in September performance-related pay for all officers will be introduced.

The overall thrust of these measures appears to be towards a more centralised service that concentrates more on catching offenders than keeping the peace. The police force is increasingly adopting a more proactive rather than reactive stance; in other words a more aggressive approach towards fighting crime in which officers target particular offences such as burglary and drug dealing, rather than waiting for criminals to strike. This will mean more operations that use surveillance, intelligence and raids to target crimes such as burglary, armed robbery and drug abuse. The Metropolitan Police's Operation Bumblebee, in which hundreds of suspected burglars received early-morning wake-up calls from groups of police officers armed with sledgehammers, is a forerunner of the new priority-led policing.

It is the threat to remove traditional duties from the police that alarms senior officers. Sir John Smith, Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, has argued that the Government appears to believe the only job of the police is to catch criminals.

"Police officers are regularly called upon to regulate community tensions and conflicts," he said. "The use of discretion in the peace-keeping, as opposed to law-enforcing role is central to the tradition of policing by consent. But this could be at riskof being diluted."

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, believes the review will remove unwanted and time-consuming functions from the police, freeing up officers who can get out from behind their desks and catch criminals. But the police fear a more sinister plot - the gradual privatisation and erosion of their job to help cut costs and boost Government coffers.

Earlier this month, Colin Jones, chairman of the Suffolk Police Authority, said: "Over 60 per cent of police activity is nothing to do with crime, and police officers are deeply worried that if they lose the service element, so will their relations with the public [go] and this could impact on the detection of crime.

"I do not want to be policed by partly trained, non-accountable security guards."

The increase in the numbers of private security guards and public patrols will be the most visible change in the way British streets are policed. Already, the private security industry employs an estimated 162,000 people in 8,000 companies - more than the uniformed police service.

Fears about the effects of replacing uniformed police officers by private security firms extend beyond the force itself. The concept of self-help security or paid-for protection has been boosted by the growth of voluntary anti-crime schemes such as the Neighbourhood Watch organisation and Special police constables. However, the police and Neighbourhood Watch organisers have criticised the Home Office's latest initiative, Street Watch, in which the public carry out street patrols, as irresponsible and potentially dangerous. They are also concerned that it might encourage vigilantes. Michael Howard's argument that Street Watch was not a patrol, but volunteers "walking with purpose" was greeted with ridicule.

Alene Branton, secretary to the steering committee of the National Neighbourhood Watch Association, which now has about 5 million members in 130,000 schemes, said: "We were set up to be the eyes and ears of the police. We were never expected to be the feet as well. This can be dangerous work, which we are not trained to deal with.

"We pay our rates for the police, so why should we have to pay for a security company to try to do their job? The private guards just drive past people's homes. They don't know any of the community and are only interested in profit.

"People want more policemen on the beat and better communication between the police and the communities. They also want to make sure that the punishments fit the crimes."

Home Office ministers will take the final decisions on the police review, which is being carried out by departmental civil servants. Their interim report, published in October, said that the sharp rise in reported crime, and rising demand for police services "makes it increasingly difficult for the police to deliver a high-quality service."

Professor Robert Reiner, professor of criminology at the London School and Economics and Political Science, and author of Politics of the Police, predicts a force that will have little place for the community-friendly police constable of old: "There's a business mentality being brought in by the Government which will destroy the service element of the police. You will end up with a highly centralised service which will be policing by numbers.

"The Government has decided that policing is mainly about catching criminals - the rest of their work is considered relatively unimportant."