Police Community Support Officers are to become the "first line of contact" for members of the public and rebranded as local beat officers, under proposals being considered today by South Yorkshire Police Authority.

Regular officers will be grouped into "taskable teams" available for dealing with serious incidents while all grassroots work on the street will be carried out by the PCSOs.

The civilian staff were mocked as "plastic policemen" when they were introduced by Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett ten years ago as a cheaper alternative to warranted officers, though supporters said they provided a reassuring uniformed presence.

However Mr Blunkett, whose Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough constituency will be affected by the new plans to boost their role, criticised the move and said they were never intended to replace police.

He said: "Community support officers are intended to be part of neighbourhood beat teams and not a replacement for them.

"It would be deeply regrettable if we reverted to the Z-Cars era of flying squads and concentration on reaction rather than prevention. We learnt the lessons from that, which is why from the mid-1990s to the present time we have seen such a dramatic drop in crime.

"I certainly would not be against PCSOs being given additional powers, but as part of neighbourhood policing, where warranted officers will always be required to conduct arrests, develop good scientific forensic investigations and build the kind of community policing which engages those living there rather than seeing the police as a crisis force only."

Mr Blunkett said the force's new Chief Constable was being forced into "drastic measures" as a result of "horrendous cuts imposed by the colaition government".

Keith Vaz, chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "This is a serious departure from traditional policing where warranted officers have been out on the front line."

He said when members of the public called on the police they were entitled to expect a regular officer, able to carry out arrests and investigations, and that they would not be "fooled" if the "bobbie on the beat" were replaced by a "PCSO on the beat".

Mr Vaz said the move "flies in the face" of the Government's desire to give police less paperwork so that they could engage with the community.

He also suggested the plans would not be an effective way of saving money as if PCSOs were unable to deal with a situation they would still need to call on a warranted officer.

"The danger is that the whole nature of policing changes, because there is a belief that we have to save police officers from doing the most important bit of their work - which is to engage with the public, to arrest people when there is crime and to make thorough investigations when crimes have been committed."

Neil Bowles, chairman of the South Yorkshire Police Federation, representing regular officers, said the move amounted to "the removal of police officers from the streets".

He told the Yorkshire Post: "We would oppose the proliferation of powers to PCSOs and would have concerns over accountability if further powers are given to them."

David Crompton, the South Yorkshire Chief Constable, sought to play down the move, saying that regular officers would still be seen on foot in areas such as trouble spots near pubs, and that it was a sensible way to address a reduction in resources.

He told Today that the changes had already taken place and that the impact on crime levels over the last "month or two" had been encouraging although they would still require more long-term evaluation.

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