But the proposals caused outrage among civil libertarian groups, which said they would lead to the "intrusive and unnecessary harassment" of innocent people, particularly black people, who suffer disproportionate levels of police "stop and searches" .
Mr Straw also proposed that DNA samples taken from innocent people during a police investigation should be preserved on a database so they could be matched against future crime scenes. Currently such samples are destroyed at the end of the investigation and police, keen to develop an extensive national DNA database, believe they are losing a valuable resource.
The only prototype of the electronic hand-held device is being tested by the FBI and is not expected to be operational in Britain for "several years".
The Home Office minister Paul Boateng said he hoped yesterday's publication of a consultation paper would spark a debate on the use of technology and, in particular, DNA by the police.
He said the plans for on-the-street fingerprinting were not "in any sense an encroachment on civil liberties". He said: "It's not only an effective tool for the police in saving them time and effort, it's also saving the general public a great deal of inconvenience by not having to go down to the station to have their fingerprints taken."
The consultation paper said: "[The] technology will enable officers on patrol, who suspect the involvement of an individual in an offence, to verify that person's identity on the spot." It said officers would also be able to check whether the person had a history of violence or was known to have a contagious disease.
But officials later conceded ministers had not even seen the new hand- held device.
John Wadham, director of the civil rights group Liberty, said there had been a gradual erosion of the rights of suspects, with no corresponding drop in crime. "The proposals to allow police officers to take fingerprints on the streets will lead to more innocent people being subject to unnecessary and intrusive harassment."
The announcement was welcomed by the Police Superintendents' Association of England and Wales. The president, Chief Superintendent Peter Gammon, said it had long campaigned for the law to keep pace with technology and for DNA samples to be retained.Reuse content