FECL 38 (October 1995):


On 13 October, British Prime Minister John Major presented plans for the country's first national crime unit with operational powers. The unit will include officers from Britain's internal intelligence service, MI5, but police are expected to lead the FBI-style force.


Commenting on the plans, Mr Major said that organised crime was a "threat to the state" and that the Government would introduce a bill this autumn allowing MI5 to become involved in traditional crime-fighting for the first time. The Prime Minister announced that the planned FBI-style crime force will tackle drug traffickers and "organised criminals".

Although the details of how the force would operate have yet to be agreed, it is believed that it will involve the expansion of the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS), which currently can only collect and process information. Under the Government's plans, the NCIS will be given an operational wing. This will enable it to target specific criminals, carry out undercover operations and make arrests.

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

For the time being, NCIS is under the Home Office (Interior Ministry), but police chiefs want these links to be cut and demand that the new force 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 special staff from the metropolitan Police would be attached to the NCIS.

Customs authorities, MI6 (the foreign intelligence service) and GCHQ (the Government Communication Headquarters: another intelligence agency theoretically accountable to the Foreign Minister) would continue to provide information and intelligence on organised crime.

The President of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), Jim Sharples, has welcomed the inclusion of MI5 in the fight against organised crime, but demanded that any agencies involved must have "a proper legal framework and must be accountable and transparent". For the time being, this is not the case with MI5. According to a report published by the parliamentary ombudsman on 19 October, the Home Office is refusing to disclose even the number of records held on individuals by MI5 on the grounds of "the security of the state". The ombudsman has accepted the Home Office's refusal, but his response is likely to be seized on by critics of the Government's decision to allow the MI5 to extend its role to combating serious crime on the grounds that it is unaccountable. MI5's records on individuals are believed to range from 500,000 to a million. They are held indefinitely on microfiche or computer.

The ACPO does not object to MI5 agents continuing to give evidence during trials behind screens to protect their identity. Civil rights organisations fear that this practice could lead to miscarriages of justice.

MI5's director, Ms Stella Rimington, has been lobbying for involvement of the secret service in the fight against crime ever since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and later the cease-fire in Northern Ireland. However, the police are treating MI5's new involvement very cautiously and will seek to ensure their control of traditional crime-fighting.


Source: The Independent, 14.10.95; The Guardian, 19.10.95; On British security and police forces, see: "Statewatching the new Europe", ed. Tony Bunyan. Available at: Statewatch, PO Box 1516, London N16 OEW.




The British Government's plans to entrust an intelligence service with a role in the fight against crime are another illustration of a general European trend towards blurring the lines between the traditionally distinct tasks of the state's three formerly distinct security structures, i.e. the police, the intelligence services, and the military. As reported earlier in this publication, Germany too introduced legislation in late 1994 providing for a role of its foreign secret service, BND, in the fight against crime (see FECL No. 21: "THE LONG MARCH TOWARDS THE IMPLEMENTATION OF THE SCHENGEN AGREEMENT", No.36: "Constitutional Court partly invalidates anti-crime law"). In France, the military's role in combating terrorist crime is currently being highlighted by the army's involvement in the "Vigipirate" operation.

All these developments tend to confirm that the striking ambiguity of both the Europol Convention and the Schengen Agreement on the role of national secret services in European police cooperation mirror a very deliberate policy of European governments aiming to discreetly open the way for a gradual amalgamation of formerly distinct police and secret service tasks by the member states.