Operating as a private investigator without a licence is to become a criminal offence, under plans announced by Theresa May to tackle rogue elements in the industry.
The Home Secretary announced that private investigators will need to be licensed by the Security Industry Authority (SIA) to operate legitimately. Such licences will be granted following a series of vigorous checks.
Investigative activities carried out for the purposes of publishing legitimate journalism will be excluded from regulation, she said.
It is vital we have proper regulation of private investigators to ensure rigorous standards in this sector and the respect of individuals’ rights to privacy. Theresa May
From autumn next year, the SIA will issue licences only if an applicant has completed training and achieved a government-recognised qualification, which includes understanding of relevant laws and standards.
Prospective private investigators will also have to confirm their identity and undergo a criminal checks.
Unlicensed investigators will face a maximum penalties of a £5,000 fine or six months in prison.
“It is vital we have proper regulation of private investigators to ensure rigorous standards in this sector and the respect of individuals’ rights to privacy,” Ms May said.
“That is why I am announcing today the government’s intention to regulate this industry, making it a criminal offence to operate as a private investigator without a licence.
“Anyone with a criminal conviction for data protection offences can expect to have their application for a licence refused. Journalists will be excluded from regulation to allow them to carry out legitimate investigations in the public interest.”
The government announcement came as a Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) list of 102 organisations and individuals revealed widespread use of rogue private investigators by a range of companies including law firms, insurance comapnies and the financial services
The list was given to the home affairs select committee as a part of its investigation into the use of private investigators.
Soca’s list is of clients of private investigators involved in Operation Millipede, the Soca investigation that led to the conviction of private detectives for fraud.
The select committee, chaired by Keith Vaz, has decided to release the categories of company featured on the list, but has not revealed names under strict confidentiality terms laid down by Soca.
Twenty-two law firms are named on the list, along with 10 names from the insurance sector and eight from financial services. Two celebrities and nine personal clients also feature on the list.
The committee remains concerned that it holds a list that Soca has classified as secret. Keith Vaz
But the list of names is wide-reaching, and also features companies involved in oil, rail services, security, pharamceuticals and debt collection. Five of the organisations are being investigated as a part of the Metropolitan Police’s Operation Tuleta, into computer hacking.
It reveals that the practice of using rogue “private eyes” went beyond the confines of the media industry, which has so far been a focus of investigations.
Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun reported how the development came as “Met Police confirmed for the first time that Operation Tuleta, the probe ito whether journalists breached data law, has been expanded to include firms and individuals”.
Former News of the World executive editor Neil Wallis said the police were not doing enough to pursue the companies involved.
“I have to say, I’ve never been particularly a fan of Keith Vaz, but he’s got this bit between his teeth here, and he is right and he is determined to get this out and I have every faith that his committee and Keith Vaz will make this public, and will bring this to a proper conclusion.”
He added: “Can I just say, this is not in any way an attempt to either excuse or mitigate any wrongdoing by the press, if they broke the law, then fine. They (private companies) should be treated equally, they should get as much attention, not as has happened here. They have buried it, because it’s not convenient.”
The select committee and Soca have been battling over the anonymity currently given to listed parties.
Mr Vaz said: “The committee remains concerned that it holds a list that Soca has classified as secret, even though it is evidence given as part of our inquiry.”
I really don’t think it is right to have PIs – guns for hire, if you like – acting entirely out of and beyond the normal rules that govern other parts of the security industry. Nick Clegg
However, the MP added: “This is an important step forward in establishing the facts.”
In correspondence between Soca chairman Sir Ian Andrews and Mr Vaz, Soca justifies the confidentiality by saying the publication of such names could predjudice further investigations.
However, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said on Wednesday that he has “a lot of sympathy” with the select committee’s position.
“I have a lot of sympathy with those who say, if there are big companies and organisations that are using private investigators to find information about individuals and organisations, they should be open about it,” he said.
“I believe in transparency and openness. There are many people in the press being subjected to a lot of scrutiny, quite rightly… I think we should apply the same standards to everyone.”
He added that the Home Office would publish new plans on Wednesday “to bring private investigators under the regulatory supervision of the organisation that supervises and regulates the rest of the security industry.”
He said: “I really don’t think it is right to have PIs – guns for hire, if you like – acting entirely out of and beyond the normal rules that govern other parts of the security industry.”