Mr Howard told the annual conference of Neighbourhood Watch co-ordinators in London on Saturday that he wanted volunteers to join the police in preventing crime. The first pilot scheme will be set up after discussions with police forces and police commissioners.
Mr Howard said he would draw up a code of practice, involving the police, and three conditions would be necessary: street patrols must be voluntary; members would not be required to take direct action if they saw a crime; and the patrols would have to be agreed with the police.
A Home Office spokesman yesterday stressed the need for careful preparations before the patrols start. 'The point is that organisations must act absolutely in concert with the local police force. We do not want people to be put at risk. If they know about criminal activity, they should let the police deal with the job of arresting people.'
Privately, police officers are making it clear that they do not wish their job of policing the streets to be left to 'well-wisher' citizens. The Police Federation said last night that the policy amounted to 'policing on the cheap'.
'We fear the end result might be tragedy,' a spokeswoman said. 'If a member of the public takes on a burglar, and it is now more likely that a criminal will use arms or a knife, then that individual might be severely injured.
'We hope we will be party to any discussions but there is no substitute for a police officer. We want more officers on the beat, rather than a freeze.'
The decision by Mr Howard was prompted in part, it is understood, by a Gallup poll published in August which showed that the vast majority of the public supports taking the law into its own hands. Three- quarters of those questioned said vigilante action could sometimes be justified; nearly half expressed little or no confidence in the police.
Mr Howard has made public partnership with the police a key objective since he became Home Secretary in July. At the time of the Gallup poll he said: 'We don't want vigilantes, but we do want vigilance. We want citizens who are prepared to take it on themselves to help the police . . . within the law.'
Almost two out of three people think the Home Secretary is right to advocate tougher sentences as the best way to combat burglary, according to a Mori survey out yesterday. Fear of being burgled ranked highest among people's worries when returning home - more than being mugged, having their car stolen or their property vandalised.
Of those who have been burgled, the most popular means of protection is fitting stronger locks; 17 per cent of Midlanders have obtained a weapon for self-defence, compared with 9 per cent in London and 6 per cent in the South-west.
Leading article, page 13