THE Government was last night embroiled in a row over secret plans to convert existing bail hostels into centres for paedophiles.

Home Office and probation officials denied reports that ten city centre hostels across the country - including one in Newcastle - were to form a network to house sex offenders.

But Harry Fletcher, general secretary of the probation officers union Napo, told The Northern Echo that it was definitely an option being studied.

Mr Fletcher said that more than a third of bail hostel places in the North-East were already occupied by sex offenders who had been released from jail.

Bail hostels - which allow residents to freely come and go during the day with a curfew at night - were originally only intended to house people awaiting trial after being released on remand by a court.

But increasingly limited places are being taken up by convicted sex offenders who dare not return to their own homes for fear of being targeted by vigilantes.

Mr Fletcher said: "The Home Office is definitely looking at this but I cannot see it getting off the ground."

The Home Office has instigated a review of how best to provide residential treatment programmes for sex offenders amid growing concern over how they should be cared for in the community.

A spokesman said: "We already have in place multi-agency protection arrangements to identify any risks to the public."

Sue Pearson, communications manager with the North-East Probation Service, said: "There are absolutely no plans of this sort that have been discussed."

A spokeswoman for Newcastle City Council said: "We are not aware of this, but then our involvement would be more from a planning aspect."