Police will be given tough new powers - including the right to arrest anyone committing an offence and to take fingerprints in the street - under proposals published yesterday by David Blunkett, the Home Secretary.
To free up officers for front-line duties, the rapidly expanding number of civilian wardens will also get extra authority to direct traffic, tackle beggars and search for weapons.
Civil rights groups said the plan to make every offence arrestable could lead to arrests for discarding litter and scrawling graffiti. But the Home Office said the moves were aimed at overhauling and modernising a complex network of outdated laws.
The proposals, in a consultation paper intended to be the basis for legislation, came days after Michael Howard, the Tory leader, promised a "zero-tolerance" approach to crime if the Conservatives came to power.
A police officer can only arrest someone suspected of an offence that could result in a prison sentence of at least five years. But Mr Blunkett's paper said that exceptions to that rule had created "often bewildering" situations that needed to be replaced with a "straightforward" system.
Giving officers a general power of arrest would for the first time allow officers to pick up people for such offences as impersonating a police officer, failing to stop a vehicle when ordered to and manufacturing or selling an offensive weapon.
A Home Office spokesman said it would not mean the public being detained for the most trivial offences. He said: "We don't expect this to result in many more people being arrested. We do not want that and the police do not want that."
The proposal to give more responsibilities to community support officers (CSOs), who can already issue on-the-spot fines, is likely to prove controversial with the police. It suggests they should be given extra powers to direct traffic, issue warnings to beggars, and search people for weapons. It also raises the possibility of CSOs getting the authority to deal with drunks and underage drinkers.
The Home Office also proposes widening the ability of the police to take fingerprints, which can currently only happen in police stations, at the roadside and other public places if an officer believes that a suspect is giving a false identity. A similar extension of police powers to photograph suspects is also planned.
Undercover police would also be allowed to take DNA and fingerprint samples covertly to identify suspects. The warrant system will be overhauled to allow officers to search any premises used by a suspect, and limits on the length of a warrant will be scrapped.
People suspected of some property crimes will be tested for class-A drugs when they are arrested, rather than when they are charged. And police will get the right to X-ray suspects without their consent to spot packets of drugs swallowed or concealed in body cavities.
Proposals on motoring include creating an offence of "keeping an incorrectly registered vehicle" to tackle the problem of the 1.2 million untaxed, unsafe or uninsured vehicles on the roads, and using cash from motoring fixed penalties to fund automatic number plate recognition systems.
Hazel Blears, the Police minister, said: "We need to maintain the crucial balance between the powers of the police and the rights of the individual ... these new powers will make a significant contribution to creating a modern and efficient service."
But David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "Today's announcements are just another headline-grabbing initiative from a gimmick-crazy Home Secretary. We agree with the efforts to make the definition of arrestable offences simpler, but will we now find ourselves in a crazy situation where a litter lout is arrested and a cannabis smoker is not?"
Shami Chakrabarti, director of the civil rights group Liberty, said of the arrest proposals: "When you create a broad, unnecessary power there is a danger of arbitrary and racially discriminatory use. This comes just a couple of weeks after statistics showed a 300 per cent rise in the number of Asian people being stopped and searched.''
Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "This proposal would blur the line between CSOs and the police, and could devalue the work of fully trained officers."
THE RECOMMENDATIONS AT A GLANCE
* Every offence to become arrestable
* Police gain powers to fingerprint and photograph suspects anywhere
* People suspected of some property crimes to be tested for class-A drugs upon arrest, not when they charged
* Warrant rules to be relaxed
* Police will be able to X-ray suspects without their consent to spot packets of drugs swallowed or concealed on body
* Community support officers (CSOs) to get more power to direct traffic, tackle beggars, search people for weapons
* Offence of "keeping an incorrectly registered vehicle" to be created
* Police to be permitted to take DNA and fingerprint samples covertlyReuse content