DOZENS of council officers will patrol bars, restaurants and shops to police the smoking ban when it comes into force in July, it was revealed last night.

In Liverpool, there will be a core team of 20 to 25 staff, although around 200 staff will patrol the city's streets, bars and clubs in the first few days after the ban.

Councils have been granted £29.5m to pay for these staff, who will be able to issue on-the-spot £50 fines to people and take court action against premises if they flout the law.

But the action has been criticised by the region's smokers as "heavy-handed" and councils were accused of entrapment after it emerged that officers will be able to sit among drinkers undercover and covertly photograph and film people.

Staff covering Merseyside will now attend a Government-funded course to receive training.

Ian Gray, policy officer for the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) and chief trainer for the government course, said: "I expect most councils will take a softly, softly approach at first.

"But there will be some occasions where action has to be taken and I am sure the officers will not shy away from that. These officers do not have to identify themselves when they go into premises and they can even film and photograph people to gather evidence although this may not be appropriate in many cases."

Liverpool council official Andy Hull, who helped lead the Smoke Free Liverpool campaign, said businesses and individuals who ignored the new legislation could face stiff penalties.

He said: "We want to make our presence felt from the start, and while we will probably just issue warnings on the first day, we won't be afraid of making an example of people or businesses if they try to make a stand."

Phil Dickson, environmental health manager for Wirral Council said: "Wirral Council will be taking full advantage of enforcement officer training organised by CIEH and the Department of Health. This is planned for March."

But Simon Clark, director of smokers lobby group Forest, said the scheme would be a "complete waste of public money".

"The idea of getting public officials to snoop on people is distasteful and disproportionate," he said. "It is like taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut."

A spokesman for the British Beer and Pub Association said the plan was "heavy handed and elaborate."

Dr John Whittaker, Merseyside's UK Independence Party MEP, described the scheme as "a ridiculous waste of money".