MI5 denies it wants to move in on police work now that the task of countering Irish terrorism has diminished, but the Independent has learned that the Security Services are holding talks with chief constables.
Discussions are unlikely to come to fruition before Stella Rimington, the MI5 director-general, retires, however. The Home Office confirmed yesterday that she is to retire at the end of next year.
Lawyers and civil rights campaigners are concerned because of MI5's lack of public accountability and its culture of secrecy. Chief constables are also keen to restrict MI5 expansion to one of supporting law-enforcement agencies rather than taking over their work.
John Hoddinott, the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Chief Constable of Hampshire police force, said: "Any involvement would depend on the Security Services finding a useful way of supporting the police in countering serious crime while staying within their statutory functions. There are a lot of 'if's involved."
A security source said: "A review will look at whether there are areas of serious crime it might be appropriate for the service to become involved in. This is an important step and any proposals will not happen overnight."
Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, has said he may consider proposals for MI5 officers to mount intelligence operations to counter serious crime.
Under the 1989 Security Service Act, MI5 is allowed to operate only in areas that affect national security, such as terrorism, subversion, espionage. In a written Parliamentary answer in May, the Home Secretary said the Government had no plans to amend that, but that if the service could play a "useful role" in supporting the police, he would examine proposals.
He said: "If resources were available to the Security Service and if, within their statutory functions, a useful role were identified for them in support of the police ... I would be ready to consider such proposals."
Security sources argue that crime by groups such as the Mafia, the Colombian drug barons and the Triads could pose a potential threat to national security. Stella Rimington is expected to fight to maintain MI5's 2,000 full time staff and annual budget of pounds 150m.
Chris Mullin, a Labour member of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee of MPs, said he was concerned about MI5 taking on new responsibilities. He said: "The intelligence fraternity is use to much lower standards of evidence than a court requires. They are also not properly accountable for their actions in the same limited extent as the police.
"If they are looking for something to do and are interested in policing, then they should join the police force."
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