MI5 offers to spy for British firms

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MI5 has told some of Britain's biggest companies that it may be prepared to provide intelligence on their business partners and rivals abroad.

For the first time, the security service this week openly invited representatives from industry and finance to its headquarters in Millbank, London, for a seminar called Secret Work in an Open Society.

The Independent has learnt that in between coffee and a buffet lunch, those attending were given a talk by Sir Stephen Lander, MI5's director general, on "What is the security service for?", during which he said companies ought to ask for help more often.

Since the end of the Cold War, MI5 has been trying to evolve into a service more interested in catching criminals and terrorists than foreign spies. This week's move will be seen as another attempt to re-invent itself as a more user-friendly service.

Among the companies invited to attend were BT, Rolls-Royce, HSBC, Allied Domecq, Consignia, BP, Ernst & Young, Cadbury Schweppes and BAE Systems. Of the 64 executives invited, a high proportion were in market development, security or risk-assessment.

"Sir Stephen said he was sure that MI5 could help business more if only it were asked," said one delegate. "In situations where we are working abroad, he said MI5 might have information on companies or individuals it could help us with if it did not involve breaching legislation on data protection or human rights.

"He made the point that, increasingly, organised crime, drugs and money laundering are our common enemy. When getting into deals abroad – particularly Eastern Europe at the moment – you can get into bed with the wrong people if you don't have good risk- assessment information on them. Basically, he was anxious that MI5 shouldn't be thought of solely as a domestic organisation ... In return, he said there might be occasions when we can pass information back."

The list of delegates gives an insight into the sort of executive MI5 is trying to reach: Nigel Carpenter, BP's deputy head of group security in the eastern hemisphere; Mike McGinty, security director at BAE Systems; Mike Harris, information security manager for Consignia; Michael Weller, BT's head of government security; and John Smith, head of security for the Prudential Corporation.

The seminar was organised in conjunction with the Whitehall and Industry Group, a body that aims to bridge the gap between business and government. Its patrons include Lord Haskins, chairman of Northern Foods and the Better Regulation task force in the Cabinet Office; Sir Andrew Turnbull, permanent secretary to the Treasury; Sir George Mathewson, chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland Group; Sir Richard Wilson, Cabinet Secretary and head of the Home Civil Service; and Digby Jones, director general of the Confederation of British Industry.

The practice of using the country's intelligence service to benefit companies is one performed in the United States for a number of years. There is evidence that it has used a communications eavesdropping system called Echelon to gather sensitive information on rivals in the European Union that has been passed on to US business.

There is no suggestion that the British services intend to go that far, but this is thought to be the first time MI5 has brought in so many senior executives.

Even though they were not explicitly asked to keep the meeting secret, none of the delegates approached by The Independent yesterday returned calls. In spite of a number of approaches, MI5 failed to comment.