The proposal would allow staff from firms like Group 4 and Securicor to arrest members of the public for failing to pay fines or breaching orders imposed by the courts. It is due to be announced today in the Queen's Speech setting out the Government's programme for the coming year.
The plan, designed to enable police officers to spend more time fighting crime, prompted fears last night that people would resist arrest by private security guards. Fred Broughton, chairman of the Police Federation, said: "Offenders who fall into these categories may be difficult and sometimes violent individuals. This is why powers of arrest should remain a role for the police. Untrained and unaccountable private security should not be used on these occasions."
The Association of Magisterial Officers warned that the private firms often had a high turnover of staff who were usually low paid. It said responsibility for enforcement of fines and other court orders should remain in the public sector.
Rosie Eagleson, the association's general secretary, said: "This is work which is only appropriate to public servants who are fully accountable for their actions."
The Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, is backing the policy change because police forces are increasingly unwilling to devote resources to these responsibilities. Around pounds 250m is at present owed to the Exchequer in uncollected fines.
Arrests could be made for non-payment of fines or for breaches of any one of a dozen "community orders" issued by the courts, including probation, curfews, drug testing, and attendance centre orders.Under the proposals, private firms could be responsible for up to 60,000 arrests each year.
The plans will be included in Lord Irvine's Access to Justice Bill, which will reform the legal aid system and cut its costs.
Tony Blair has told the Cabinet that the new parliamentary session will be "a year of challenge and a year of reform". In the Commons today, he will highlight four key measures:
Tackling crime, through a new youth sentencing system and protection of witnesses;
Modernising health, with better scrutiny of doctors and the ending of GP fundholding;
A welfare reform Bill bringing in changes on pensions; disability and widows' benefits;
A shake-up of local authorities, with ministers getting greater powers to intervene, and the scrapping of compulsory competitive tendering and council tax capping.
The aim is to show that the Government is concentrating on "bread-and- butter issues" and addressing the everyday priorities of the people. But William Hague, the Tory leader, will accuse Mr Blair of ignoring their needs by making reform of the House of Lords the centrepiece of the Queen's Speech. "He wants to create a House of Cronies," a Tory spokesman said yesterday.
Cabinet ministers revealed last night that the Bill to end the right of the 750 hereditary peers to speak and vote would be delayed in an attempt to prevent the Lords throwing the Government's entire programme into chaos. They said the measure might not be introduced in the Commons until next March and therefore might not start its passage through the Lords until May. The aim is to stop the Tory-dominated hereditary peers and their allies "clogging up" the legislative machine as they try to wreck the Bill.
Ministers will try to rush through other measures before peers are given the opportunity to discuss the Lords reform Bill. But the move may encourage "diehard" peers to block the measure until the parliamentary session ends next October, forcing the Government to bring it back the following year.
Details of the controversial measure on private security firms were circulated to courts staff last month. Harry Fletcher, of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: "Privatisation to low-paid staff is not the solution. The Government needs to fund the courts and the police to do the job properly ... There could be major problems when people from the likes of Group 4 or Securicor try to arrest members of the public."
Queen's Speech plans for welfare reform, page 8
Review, page 3