FORMER criminals working undercover for police officers across Somerset are being paid tens of thousands of pounds to help trace the most-wanted offenders.

Police informants have netted nearly £350,000 from Avon and Somerset Constabulary over the last five years in return for intelligence used to land criminals at large.

Figures released under the Freedom of Information Act last week revealed the force made regular yearly payments to the informers ranging from £53,000 to £81,000.

On average, it means police officers handed over about £190 every day and, despite the force having to save £15 million over the next two years, which is putting 200 jobs at risk, last year’s bill was the highest since 2008/09 at £76,711.

This figure represents an increase of £6,505 on the outlay to informers, known to police as covert human intelligence sources, over the previous 12 months.

The revelation of these rewards shines a light on an area of modern policing that remains shrouded in secrecy.

Avon and Somerset police said it could not release further information relating to their informants because of its sensitive nature.

The force insisted that doing so could place these “vital” individuals in danger and “jeopardise” their covert operations.

A spokesperson from Avon and Somerset Police said: “If a relationship between the force and members of the public/CHIS were impeded, the gathering of information to enable the force to perform its public service functions would become more difficult than it already is.

“The use of informants takes place in an environment of absolute trust and confidence.

“Any disclosure relating to sensitive informant information such as statistics of informants, would jeopardise those important roles.”

Informants, often criminals themselves, help bring offenders to justice in cases ranging from serious organised crime to burglary and information they gather can be used as evidence in court.

Police forces are audited on their use of informants and are inspected annually by the Office of Surveillance Commissioners to ensure they are not breaking the law.

Avon and Somerset Constabulary was not one of the top ten highest spenders in England in Wales.

Metropolitan police spent around £9 million over the last five years and neighbouring Devon and Cornwall Police was at number ten with a pay-out of around £564,000 over the same period.