He told the annual conference of Neighbourhood Watch co-ordinators in London that he would draw up, with the Association of Chief Police Officers, a code of practice governing the activities of patrollers. He laid down three key conditions - the street patrols must be voluntary, members would not be required to take direct action if they saw a crime, and the patrols must be worked out and agreed with police.
Ministers believe that the patrols will increase the effectiveness of the 115,000 Neighbourhood Watch schemes, involving more than five million households. The schemes are a network of good neighbours linked into the police system.
The Home Secretary acknowledged that his department had hitherto opposed Neighbourhood Watch patrols but said that public support for the idea was now sizeable; a recent poll had shown that 46 per cent were in favour.
'I firmly believe that if Neighbourhood Watch schemes want to carry out patrols, and are prepared to do so in an organised way in consultation with the police, they should be given strong encouragement to take that action,' he said.
The prospect of tens of thousands of untrained citizens taking on criminals prompted unease among senior police officers and those on the beat, and deep alarm in civil liberties groups.
Lyn Williams, general secretary of the Police Federation, said: 'We view this idea with great concern. The police cannot be everywhere, and we need the public to be our eyes and ears. But really this is on the same road as vigilantism.
'What happens if these street patrols take the law into their own hands? They could get killed.'
John Smith, Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, said: 'We will have to ensure that people who go out patrolling - if that is what happens - are properly linked in to the police to ensure that they don't become a self-motivated set of vigilantes, which would be a serious concern to us.'
The Shadow Home Secretary, Tony Blair, said: 'The Government, especially when it is imposing a freeze on the numbers of police officers, should not try to substitute the public for the police.'
John Wadham, spokesman for the civil liberties group Liberty, said: 'It must be right that the community should be encouraged to assist the police to prevent and eradicate crime.
'But we would be very concerned that individuals who are not trained and do not understand the importance of human rights and civil liberties might feel that they are entitled to take the law into their own hands.'
The Opposition spokesman on police affairs, Alun Michael, said that the Conservatives had promised during the election to put another 1,000 police officers on the beat. In fact, numbers had fallen by 224 to about 126,000.
But Mr Howard, who has overridden past Home Office advice on the issue, insisted that his proposal for 'neighbourhood bobbies' would be an important step forward in the partnership of the community and police in preventing crime.
Asked what the Neighbourhood Watch patrollers should do if they saw a crime being committed, the Home Secretary said: 'They must not feel that they have to get involved if they see something happening. Very often, the right course will be to contact the police immediately and leave the action to them.'
Mr Howard's proposal follows a similar one by John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, who two weeks ago suggested that public-spirited citizens should mount a 'Truancy Watch' to clamp down on pupils who stay away from school.
Other schemes operating include Shop Watch, Business Watch, Farm Watch, Church Watch, Horse Watch, Country Watch and Airport Watch.
Mr Howard said: 'We will never make real progress in fighting crime if people think they can leave it all to the police.'
Probation clampdown, page 5
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