Civilian patrol officers will be able to use "reasonable force" to detain suspects for up to half an hour until the arrival of a police officer, the Home Secretary revealed yesterday.
David Blunkett published his Police Reform Bill, which will lead to thousands of uniformed "community support officers" patrolling the streets with powers to issue on-the-spot fines, seize vehicles and detain suspects.
Civil rights groups voiced concerns at the new tier of policing. Mark Littlewood, campaigns director of Liberty, said: "Police powers have to come with adequate training and accountability: that simply means these powers should remain with the police. If more people are needed to implement them, that should mean more police officers, not poorly trained and less accountable civilian substitutes."
Fred Broughton, chairman of the Police Federation, which represents 126,000 frontline officers, also expressed opposition. He said: "Modernisation cannot be an excuse for policing on the cheap. The federation believes that employing lesser-trained and lesser-paid civilians to perform police duties will undermine policing by consent and could create more problems than it solves."
The proposal about the detention of suspects raised questions over whether police in rural areas would be able to reach patrol officers within half an hour. Forces try to respond to rural calls within 20 minutes, but the Audit Commission has found that the deadline is missed in up to a quarter of cases.
The patrol officers will wear uniforms distinct from those of police officers, with a new cap badge. They are not expected to use handcuffs although they may be issued with them. Pay will be about £16,000 a year – two-thirds the salary of police.
Some of the patrol officers will be recruited from among neighbourhood wardens and private security guards who patrol parks, housing estates and shopping centres.
They will be able to use "reasonable force" to detain people suspected of theft, injury or criminal damage. Additional powers will enable them to confiscate alcohol drunk in public in contravention of by-laws and to seize tobacco and drink from children. They will also be able to issue fixed penalties to cyclists riding on the pavement, to people who drop litter and for dog fouling.
John Denham, a Home Office minister, said the civilian patrol programme was being largely driven by the demands of the Metropolitan Police. He conceded that other forces might not follow suit.
The Bill also includes powers for the Home Secretary to sack under-performing chief constables, prompting claims by opposition politicians that Mr Blunkett was undermining the independence of the police.
Oliver Letwin, the shadow Home Secretary, said he was very worried by the "extent to which the Home Secretary may be able to interfere with the operational independence of chief constables". Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said the development was a "dangerous step". But the Association of Chief Police Officers backed the reforms. Sir David Phillips, its president, said: "We have consistently supported the case for the modernisation of the police service and many of the measures contained in the Bill are the product of several months of discussion between ourselves and ministers."
Mr Blunkett, who is drawing up a code of practice for chief officers, wants to tackle wide variations in police performance. Some forces solve 60 per cent of crime and others just 16 per cent.
The Bill also outlined the role of a new Independent Police Complaints Commission. Liberty warned, however, that there were no guarantees that investigations would be independent of police.
In an extra measure, police will have powers to test the blood of unconscious motorists involved in serious accidents.