Plans for criminals to report to a machine instead of a probation officer in a bid to cut costs defy belief and risk increasing offending, a union has warned.
The initiative, which is already being used in the United States, will reduce face-to-face contact between offenders and probation staff, with freed prisoners and those on community orders answering questions automatically posed by a machine.
The probation union Napo warned the scheme would damage public confidence in the supervision of offenders, but probation bosses said it could reduce bureaucracy and help staff make the best use of their time.
An internal policy document acknowledged the trial may have "some disadvantages", including the danger that a machine will be unable to spot early warning signs of offenders posing an increased risk.
The lack of personal contact on the so-called biometric reporting scheme may also reduce the support offered to offenders, staff have been told. The document added: "Removal of contact may remove the potential for an early warning of escalation of risk."
Harry Fletcher, Napo's assistant general secretary, said the proposal, initially dismissed by many staff as a hoax, was "extraordinary" and would damage public confidence in the probation service.
The pilot scheme, which will apply to all offenders including paedophiles, terrorists and killers, is expected to be trialled in the London boroughs of Bexley and Bromley later this year and may last up to six months, staff have been told.
Higher-risk offenders could be asked to use the machines, which are equipped with fingerprint readers, in addition to face-to-face interviews with probation officers.
According to the document, probation officers "will use their professional judgment to determine to what extent it forms part of an offender's reporting requirements". It added that every offender will continue to have "an appropriate level of face-to-face supervision".
The scheme will be designed to test whether the move would reduce the time spent by offenders waiting in probation offices and cut the need for staff cover during peak holiday periods and sickness. It will also test whether using the machines reduces the risk of offenders arranging for someone else to take their place and report to probation for them.