Under the provisions of the Security Service Bill, which received its Commons second reading yesterday, MI5 will assist in combating organised crime such as drug trafficking. Until now it has been restricted by law to dealing with threats to national security, such as terrorism, subversion and espionage, and safeguarding the United Kingdom's economic wellbeing.
While there is no possibility of latter-day James Bonds patrolling high streets and stopping drunk drivers, the Security Service will be moving into territory hitherto jealously guarded by the police. Indeed, chief constables are so concerned to protect their primacy that they have privately made it clear to the Home Office that if the Government goes back on earlier assurances that the position of the police will not be undermined, they will make a damaging public protest.
The Bill will allow MI5 operatives to bug phones, tamper with mail and enter the houses of organised crime suspects. Most of their work is expected to be more traditional intelligence gathering, such as surveillance and data analyses. Crucially, the Bill states that MI5 should act "in support of the prevention and detection of serious crime".
There remain, however, a large number of unanswered questions about how an organisation steeped in a culture of secrecy will operate alongside a modern police service. There are also worries that MI5 officers, who specialise in covert intelligence gathering, will be unwilling to appear in open court in the future and thereby reveal their identity.
These concerns have already been highlighted by civil rights groups such as Liberty and, more significantly, by the influential all-party Commons Intelligence and Security Committee which oversees MI5 and MI6.
Tom King, chairman of the supervisory committee, said that in its new role the Security Service must not be allowed to operate "independently and unseen''.
The committee said in a report last month there were several areas that had to be resolved, including the manner in which MI5 officers would give evidence for the prosecution at trials and the procedure under which warrants would be issued.
Observers agree that the two aspects of the Bill that are likely to cause the most controversy are whether the police maintain control of all operations, and the accountability of MI5.
Liberty argues that previous trials in which MI5 officers have been involved have been marked by the appearance of anonymous witnesses, the use of Public Interest Immunity Certificates, and the complete sealing of courtrooms by screen, masking tape and brown paper.
The biggest example of this occurred during the trial of two IRA terrorists jailed last year for 20 and 25 years for plotting a bombing campaign. During the trial of Robert Fryers and Hugh Thomas, 13 members of MI5 gave evidence behind screens and used only initials after the judge accepted a public interest immunity certificate from the Home Secretary seeking anonymity for them.
Philip Leach, legal officer for Liberty, says: "There is a very real danger that the secrecy with which MI5 operates may deny the right of defendants in criminal trials to a fair and public hearing, and increase the risk of the wrongful convictions of innocent people."
The Government has strongly disputed allegations that MI5 will be unaccountable. David Maclean, Home Office minister, said yesterday there was a "binding agreement" that the police would continue to take the lead.
He pointed out that MI5's director-general, Stella Rimington, is directly accountable to the Home Secretary and that there is an independent commissioner who reviews the Home Secretary's decisions on the issuing of warrants.
The Government considers the Home Office's promotion of the Bill to be an important vote-winner. MI5's new role has provided a welcome boost to its anti-crime credentials, not to mention good headline-grabbing material. This has helped it regain ground lost to Labour in the law and order debate.
The chief constables are maintaining a "wait and see" approach. They fear MI5's new-found spirit of co-operation and conciliation is driven by a desire to empire-build.
Rimington has been involved in a successful campaign to persuade the Government and the police that the role of her 2,000 staff should be expanded. Since the IRA ceasefire and the end of the Cold War, the service has been casting its nets around for new work in an attempt to stave off job loses.
Chief constables acknowledge 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. But they are adamant that the police must run the show.
Many police chiefs are still suspicious of MI5's intentions. Privately they point to how Rimington skilfully wrestled the responsibility for countering Irish terrorism from the police in 1992.
Their concern that this may be the start of a long-running battle has been heightened with the knowledge that the Bill appears to offer little extra work for MI5. At first, only about 20 officers will be working against organised crime. They will operate within the National Criminal Intelligence Service.
The first possible cracks in the Bill, the product of months of backroom brokering, cajoling and secret manoeuvring, are beginning to emerge. The police are concerned that MI5 will continue to obtain warrants from the Home Secretary and by-pass chief constables, who currently authorise search warrants for each police force. The Bill appears to be vague about this and other issues.
In the light of these uncertainties and ambiguities, the present tensions between the police and MI5 could herald the beginning of a long-running civil war between the two organisations.
How the spooks and the coppers compare
One director general
Irish and domestic terrorism, such as animal rights (44% of resources), international terrorism, particularly from the Middle East (26%), counter espionage, particularly Russia (25%), and proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons (5%)
The Security Service was formed on 1 October, 1909 to consider the danger to British naval ports from German espionage
43 chief constables in England and Wales
To enforce the law and prevent crime
First uniformed policeman stepped out on duty on 29 September 1829Reuse content