Condon says MI5 can play a part in fight against crime

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The Independent Online

Home Affairs Correspondent

The security services should play a part in the fight against organised crime, Sir Paul Condon, Britain's most senior police officer, said yesterday.

The admission by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner that current piecemeal policing practice was inadequate to deal with sophisticated international drug traffickers and criminals places the establishment of an FBI-style national crime unit - combining the talents of different agencies - firmly on the agenda.

A growing number of senior police have called for a national tier to combat organised crime. This year the influential cross-party Home Affairs Select Committee concluded that a national strategy was needed. However, it voiced concern about any involvement by MI5 while the security service's operations remained secretive and unaccountable.

Yesterday, Sir Paul said he believed difficulties over accountability, funding and command could be overcome. MI5 officials, anxious for other responsibilities now that their main task - countering Irish terrorism - has diminished, are known to have had talks with senior police officers on the issue.

In May, Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, indicated he would be prepared to consider proposals for an enhanced crime-fighting role for the security services, although he had no plans to amend the law under which they operate. The 1989 Security Service Act allows MI5 to act only in areas that affect national security, such as terrorism and espionage.

Concern is mounting 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.

Yesterday, Sir Paul said the current emphasis within the police service on local control and autonomy suited local crime problems, but was no longer appropriate in tackling organised crime. Giving the Police Foundation Lecture in London , he said there was great strength in exploiting the talents of all agencies, including MI5. The challenge was assembling an effective structure.