Security service agents will be able to assist the police in carrying out surveillance, analysis of complex data and some undercover operations. Chief constables are understood to have agreed the move but are determined to restrict MI5's involvement to a supporting role.
Lawyers and civil rights campaigners are concerned about extending MI5 involvement into traditional police work because of the lack of public accountability and the culture of secrecy. The question of whether agents, wishing to remain anonymous, could give evidence in court has yet to be resolved.
But the move marks a radical departure for MI5 and will be seen as a victory for Stella Rimington, the MI5 director-general. Since the IRA ceasefire was established, Mrs Rimington, who retires at Easter, has been negotiating with the Government and chief constables to allow them to deploy some officers previously used on anti-terrorist work. MI5 has about 2,000 full-time staff and an annual budget of pounds 150m.
The Government's decision to allow in principle the expansion of the service's role reflects the growing concern about the threat from organised criminals and gangsters, such as the Yardies and international drug traffickers. The Tory leadership will also see it as a popular law-and-order initiative in the run-up to the general election.
Under the 1989 Security Service Act, MI5 is only allowed to operate in areas that affect national security, such as terrorism, subversion and espionage. Legislation may be needed to redefine its statutory remit, although international drug dealers and organised criminals could be defined as threats to national security.
The details of how the service will be used have yet to be decided. Negotiations and discussions between the Home Office, Customs, MI5, and the police are still taking place. It is believed in Whitehall that the role of MI5 will be an intelligence-gathering one and not involve the taking of powers - such as those of arrest - currently held by the police.
However, the police, while wary of the service's expansionist tendencies, concede that MI5 has expert knowledge in the use of surveillance and computer technology for sifting large amounts of data to uncover money laundering and trafficking.
Bill Taylor, chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers' crime committee and Commissioner of the City of London police, said: "I'm entirely sure that within the existing law prime responsibility should always rest with the police who are openly accountable in a way that the security services cannot be."
The Government will hope the move will help it recover ground lost to Labour in the battle as the party of law and order. John Major has made it clear that he considers law and order a top priority.
Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, is said to have been actively involved in the discussions on the new initiative. He has irritated Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, by calling senior Home Office officials to the Cabinet Office without consulting Mr Howard to discuss the fight against drugs shortly after his appointment.
Mr Howard was said to be angry at suggestions from Mr Heseltine that he had announced the new policy before fully consulting chief constables.
But the threat of a full-scale Cabinet battle is said to have been averted and differences between the two ministers resolved. Mr Howard has been concerned to ensure that the change can be made in a way that has police support. The most probable timing of the announcement is his speech to the party conference in Blackpool in October, although the final decision as to timing has yet to be taken. Extra time will be set aside for the contribution by Mr Howard to the debate on law and order at the conference.Reuse content