Eye witness: Nice cap, Brian. But why are you here?

London's new 'Red Cap' patrol seems ineffective ? except against children

Brian is a Red Cap. He's not a policeman or a soldier, although his team has chosen the same nickname as the military police. He's not a traffic warden, a security guard, or even a member of the Salvation Army, although he looks like any one of those in his uniform: shiny black shoes, black trousers, a tailored black jacket with epaulettes, and the inevitable peaked cap.

We're walking down Oxford Street, where Brian and 24 former soldiers, guards, and bouncers are the new "street wardens" – the latest recruits to the growing regiment of uniformed operatives hired by companies and councils across Britain to provide the sense of security formerly offered by bobbies on the beat.

The one thing all these not-really-policemen have in common is the peaked cap, as worn by proper authority figures in the armed forces and law enforcement. It fits snugly over cropped hair and casts a shadow over the eyes, making the most placid of ticket collectors seem like a bit of a fascist, frankly. A mini-Hitler, if you prefer.

"Some people think we're the lowest of the low," says Brian, a 45-year-old Scot who has heard all the names before. "They don't realise we're there for their own good." But as we walk slowly through crowds of shoppers and office workers, I wonder exactly what Brian is here for. People don't recognise the uniform, they can't quite work out why its red flashes are emblazoned with – yes, you did see it right, madam, in dark glasses with heavy John Lewis bag – a large white flower.

The Red Caps are employed by Chubb Security on behalf of the New West End Company, a consortium of property owners and retailers. They promise to "identify potential crime, deter anti-social behaviour, monitor the appearance of the street environment and act as ambassadors for the area".

The last two amount to telling street cleaners where the rubbish is and pointing tourists on their way to Marble Arch, which is why Red Caps wear flowers and are ordered to smile. But what good can their "strong visual presence" do against lawbreakers in a city where street crime is up by a third?

Not much, seems the answer, as I patrol two paces behind Brian and Hannah, a 25-year-old former bouncer.

An Asian man offering to twist silvered wire into names has been asked to move on eight times already, but keeps coming back, brandishing a piece of paper that he mistakenly believes gives him the right to trade on the pavement. It's from the West Midlands police.

"That's one of the grey areas, whether we can really move people like him on," admits Brian.

The Red Caps have no power to disturb the beggar sat with his head slumped. "That's one for the council." The blind fiddler applying resin to his bow outside Debenhams is also ignored, because he has to be playing before they can ask him not to. They do not wait for him to start. The police have been told about the man throwing little sticky people on to the window of Selfridges, who has threatened to stab a Red Cap.

"Here's one," shouts Hannah, ducking into a telephone box to clear away prostitutes' cards. This, at last, is something they can do to make the streets more pleasant, if only for a short while. "Our boss filled a bag with cards this morning. Ten minutes later, they were back again."

Back in the radio room in Regent Street we hear Red Caps rushing to a protest outside Marks & Spencer. "Whisky Six on way to deal with the aggravation," says a voice. "Keep your distance," warns Charlie, the controller. The Red Caps want to provide "eyes and ears" for the police, but have been told to do no more than watch.

"Demonstration is not violent," reports the mustard-keen Whisky Six in clipped language familiar from The Bill. "Middle-aged people decrying Israel, over."

"Expert on diplomacy, too, are you?" mutters Charlie.

Brian can't get through to Marylebone police station on the telephone. The Red Caps have no hotline, so use the public number. Senior police officers were at their launch, but reaction to them in the ranks is mixed. The security manager in Marks asks some of the Red Caps themselves to move along, but a few stand about with their hats off – "it looks less aggressive" – and seem put out when a police constable arrives to say he can do nothing.

The Red Caps have the same rights as anyone else to make a citizen's arrest if they see a crime being committed, and just as the end of the day's work approaches they do manage to apprehend three pickpockets, outside Benetton. Within moments, eight uniformed men and women are on the scene, surrounding the thieves.

These turn out to be young boys, aged no more than seven. Again, the police take half an hour to arrive, during which time the children cry so loudly that shoppers harangue the patrol. The Red Caps look embarrassed to be standing around with boys no taller than their waists. Forbidden from restraining them, they can only hope their presence is intimidating enough to stop the children running off.

A telephone stolen in McDonald's rings inside one of the boys' underpants. "I'm not touching it," says Darren, one of the younger Red Caps, glad to see the police.

"At least we got them for something," says Brian. "This can work, see? Mind you, they'll be back again tomorrow."