Police and MI5 tussle for control of crime fighting

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A backroom battle is taking place between Chief Constables, MI5 and the Home Office over fears that the security service intends to snatch control of some police operations.

An old-fashioned turf war between police and Stella Rimington, the director- general of MI5, is threatening to erupt as both sides vigorously lobby the Government about the future of crime fighting.

Mrs Rimington has already persuaded the Home Office. that M15 should expand its role and help combat organised crime, such as drug trafficking.

The Security Service Bill currently going through Parliament will allow for the first time MI5 officers to become involved in cases involving organised crime. This includes allowing agents to bug phones and break into the homes of people who are believed to be involved in organised crime. Until now MI5 could only previously become involved when the nation's security or economic well-being was threatened from abroad.

Senior police officers are concerned that unless amendments are made to the Bill to close a potential loophole MI5 could run their own operations against traditional police targets.

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, has insisted that the police and customs will have control of all operations and that the security service will only provide a supporting role. However, police chiefs and Labour want this pledge written into the new Bill. They fear that once the security service has established itself it will try to extend its empire. It has already wrestled power from the police and taken charge of intelligence gathering of Irish terrorism. But the Home Office and Mrs Rimington have argued that amendments to the Bill are unnecessary and could provide criminals with a legal loophole by allowing them to challenge the legitimacy of information obtained by MI5.

Nevertheless Sir Paul Condon, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, and Jim Sharples, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers and Chief Constable of Merseyside Police, have said it was vital police primacy over MI5 was spelt out.

A police source added yesterday: "There are still distinct weaknesses in the Bill.

"It does not go far enough and safeguard the police position. We are pushing for more explicit changes.

Jack Straw, Labour's home affairs spokesman, is also unhappy with the Bill. "There is mounting concern about the current arrangements -- changes need to be made to ensure MI5 plays only a supporting role."

Mrs Rimington and her officials have been pushing for a "lighter" legislative touch and argue that a more explicit definition of their role could hamper operations.

However, the call for changes to the new Bill have been backed by the all party Intelligence and Security Committee that oversees MI5.