Police determined to lead FBI-style force

TORIES IN BLACKPOOL Laying down the law: John Major unveils his plans for more town centre surveillance schemes and the first national crime unit
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The Independent Online

Crime Correspondent

The police are expected to insist on taking charge of the country's first national crime unit, which will include officers from MI5, under plans outlined by the Prime Minister yesterday.

Mr Major announced that organised crime was a "threat to the state" and that the Government would introduce a Bill this autumn to change the law to allow MI5 to become involved in traditional crime fighting for the first time.

As predicted exclusively earlier this month in the Independent, he also announced that a national FBI-style crime force is to be established to tackle drug traffickers and organised criminals.

Although the Government and chief constables have yet to discuss the details of how the force would operate, it is understood that it will involve the expansion of the Home Office-run National Criminal Intelligence Service, which currently can only collect and process information. They will be given an operational wing drawn from the country's existing six regional crime squads, which deal with serious offences. This will enable the force to target specific criminals, carry out undercover operations and make arrests.

MI5, the security service, is expected to work alongside NCIS officers in carrying out surveillance and analysing complex data. At first only about 20 of the service's 2,000 staff are expected to take part.

The Government's promised crime Bill is expected to amend the 1989 Security Services Act, which restricts MI5 to operating only when national security or the economic well being of the country is threatened from abroad. The Bill will allow the security service to work against organised crime, which includes drug dealers.

During the forthcoming negotiations, chief constables will argue that NCIS must cut its links with the Home Office and operate as an independent outfit with a police chief in charge. A select unit from the country's 1,500 regional crime squad officers and additional specialist staff from the Metropolitan Police would be attached to NCIS. The current national co-ordinator of the regional crime squads would play a leading role.

Customs and Excise, MI6 and GCHQ would continue to provide information and intelligence on organised crime.

Jim Sharples, the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Chief Constable of Merseyside, yesterday welcomed the inclusion of MI5 in the fight against organised crime, but added: "We have always said that any agencies involved must have a proper legal framework and must be accountable and transparent.

"We are very pleased, therefore, that there is a commitment for legislation to put the security services on a proper legal footing."

He said the police did not object to MI5 agents continuing to give evidence during trials behind screens to protect their identity. Civil rights campaigners argued that this could lead to miscarriages of justice.

MI5's director general, Stella Rimington, has been lobbying for her organisation to be allowed to join the fight against organised crime ever since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the terrorist ceasefires in Northern Ireland.

A security source said yesterday: "It's adding support to law enforcement agencies. There is no question of primacy." Nevertheless, police chiefs are treating the MI5's new involvement very cautiously and will seek to ensure they retain control of traditional crime-fighting.