Britain is to get an FBI-style national crime unit, whose staff will include MI5 agents, under proposals being examined by chief constables. The Independent has learnt that police chiefs and the Home Office are close to agreeing to the radical measure for a task force whose first targets will be organised crime and major drug traffickers.
It is also understood that staff from the security services are to join forces with the Home Office's National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) as part of a new role in policing for MI5. The move is likely to be announced next week at the Conservative Party conference.
But in a more far-reaching development, the Home Office has given its support to proposals under debate by chief constables to expand the role and powers of NCIS to include an operational arm in the fight against organised crime.
Details of a new task force at NCIS, which currently has 500 staff and can only carry out limited surveillance and information gathering, will be discussed next week at the Association of Chief Police Officers' (Acpo) autumn conference. It is hoped that eventually the unit will be able to mount operations against international criminals.
The Independent also understands that about 20 officers from MI5 are to help NCIS with surveillance and analysis of data. The moves follow calls from a growing number of senior police officers for a new national tier of detectives.
Earlier this year the cross- party Home Affairs Select Committee concluded that a national strategy was needed to combat organised crime. Concern is growing that organised criminals are expanding their business in drugs, the sale of firearms, counterfeit currency, money laundering, illegal gambling, prostitution, extortion, fraud, and credit card crime.
Last month, Sir Paul Condon, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, gave his support to the formation of a national force on the lines of the American FBI. He said the existing structure of regionally autonomous police forces was inadequate to deal with sophisticated international drug traffickers and criminals.
Most police chiefs now believe an expansion of NCIS is the answer. Any new unit is expected to be given greater powers to carry out operations and mobile surveillance. NCIS officers may also have arrest powers conferred upon them.
Among the other issues under discussion are whether NCIS should be separated from the Home Office and given the status of a new police force, which could include its own chief constable and possibly a form of policing authority to which it would be accountable.
As part of an expansion of NCIS, the Government has agreed to extend the role of MI5 and allow it to use some officers in traditional policing. At first only about two dozen members of the security service, which employs 2,000, are expected to join. The police fear that Stella Rimington, the MI5 director general, will try to use this as the first step towards a far greater role for her organisation.
Jim Sharples, Chief Constable of Merseyside and the incoming Acpo president, refused to comment directly on any plans being considered, but said: "We [Acpo] believe that if the security services are to become involved they have to work in a supportive role within NCIS." He added that anyone involved in criminal justice must be accountable.
Rimington lecture, page 2