The home secretary, Theresa May, has quietly taken powers to strip Scotland Yard of its national counter-terrorism role in the aftermath of the Olympics.
The move, which could lead to counter-terrorism policing being assigned to the new national crime agency (NCA) after it is set up next April, is contained in an enabling clause in the crime and courts bill, which is to be given a second reading in the House of Lords on Monday 28 May.
The 2,000-strong counter-terrorism command of the Metropolitan police was created in 2006 but has its roots in the early 1970s when the anti-terrorist branch and the “bomb squad” was set up to counter the threat from anarchist groups, such as the Angry Brigade, as well take part in the campaign against the IRA.
The home secretary has publicly said that no wholesale review of the future of the Met’s anti-terrorism role will be undertaken until after the Olympics but there is growing belief within Scotland Yard that a firm view already exists within the Home Office.
The national crime agency will include separate commands covering organised crime, border policing, economic crime and child exploitation. It will also include the national cybercrime unit and will for the first time have a national police intelligence role with the authority to “task” other police forces and law enforcement agencies.
Clause two of the crime and courts bill gives the home secretary the power to transfer counter-terrorism functions to the NCA by making an order. The enabling clause specifically rules out any NCA officers conducting operations in Northern Ireland without the express agreement of the chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
A decision to remove such a key national function from the Met is likely to fundamentally change the nature of the force. Cressida Dick, the assistant commissioner in charge of the Met’s specialist operations, which includes the counter-terrorism command, holds a higher rank than Keith Bristow, the Warwickshire chief constable, who is due to become the head of the national crime agency when it is set up next April.
A Home Office spokesman said: “The government has been clear that decisions on the future of counter-terrorism policing will not be taken until after the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games and the NCA is fully established.”
The possibility that the home secretary would seek parliamentary approval for the power to strip Scotland Yard of this role was first set out in the Home Office’s plan for the national crime agency that it published last year. Home Office sources said that it simply negates the need for primary legislation should a decision be taken in future.
John Graham, director of the Police Foundation, an independent criminal justice thinktank, said counter-terrorism work was one of the things that the Met did extremely well. But he said that it took up a large share of resources and if the force were no longer responsible it might lead to an improved performance in its other roles.
Graham added that those setting up the NCA were already “running to catch up” and had a lot of work to do to prepare it for the functions already assigned to it.
Some senior Scotland Yard sources are concerned at the possible disruption to the existing working relationships between the Met and MI5, the regional special branch network, and other police forces. But it is understood that the Met police commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, is relaxed about whether the move goes ahead or not.