Published on 6 Jul 2012 Sections

Private eyes to face tighter regulation

MPs demand tighter controls of private investigators in the wake of the Glenn Mulcaire hacking scandal. Channel 4 News looks inside a shadowy industry.

Recommendations made by the home affairs select committee are aimed at controlling an industry that has been mired in cases of hacking and payments to the police.

The main worry for the committee, led by Labour MP Keith Vaz, was that whilst there are 2,000 professionally registered private investigators (PIs) operating in the country, there are an unquantifiable number of unregistered PIs.

Unregistered investigators can be unqualified, but able to buy sophisticated surveillence equipment relatively cheaply on the internet.

Close links between PIs and police were also a concern. The committee reported that 65 per cent of private investigators are former police officers.

Recommendations for the industry

* Making the title “private investigator” protected in the same way as “social worker” is protected. This would mean nobody could use the term without being subjected to regulation.

* Police officers should have a “cooling off” period of a year after retirement before they are allowed to become private investigators.

* The home secretary strengthen penalties relating to illegal obtaining of data. The committee said the current typical fine, around £100, is not an effective deterrent.

* The government consider granting privileged access to certain data for licensed investigators.

The recommendations were cautiously welcomed by senior figures within the investigations industry today.

Gavin Robertson, who is responsible for regulation at the Association fo British Investigators and is also senior partner of investigations business Robertson & Co, said: “The ABI has been pushing for regulation since the 1960s. We are really delighted that something is now happening.

“However I don’t think there is enough details and I think they’ve missed the point.”

He said the laws were already in place to deal with illegal activity in the industry, and that the ABI’s own regulatory framework was stronger than that being proposed by the committee.

However, he did say protection of the “private investigator” title and the increased access to data were welcome.

Tommy Helsby, European chairman at Kroll, said the measures “seem responsible” but called the “cooling off period” unfair to police officers.

“If people are hiring from the police because of their connections then they are already intending to break the law,” he said. “The systems are in place to deal with that.

“He should be being hired because of his skills. If he is a good fraud investigator with the skills we want to recruit, to have to wait a year seems unfair on him.”

The private investigator business has been tarnished by the high-profile actions of Glenn Mulcaire and Steve Whittamore. So what are the two sides of the industry?

Convictions

Jeremy Young and Scott Gelsthorpe were former police officers who were jailed in 2007 for offences including conspiracy to defraud, conspiracy to cause unathorised modification of computer material and conspiracy to cause criminal damage to property. The pair had set up Active Investigation Services which offered computer hacking and phone bugging.

Jonathan Rees, who ran Southern Investigations, was jailed in 2000 for a plan to plant cocaine in his client’s wife’s car so that his client would get custody of his children. In April 2008 Rees was charged with conspiring to murder his former business partner Daniel Morgan. He was acquitted in March 2011.

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed in 2007 for intercepting telephone messages coming out of Clarence House. Steve Whittamore was convicted in 2005 of illegally accesses personal information. Among those alleged to be victims of the phone hacking are murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler and a host of celebrities.

Savings

The range of private investigation activities is wildly varied. Clients for the industry include governments, corporations and law firms.

Private investigators are also expected to fill a hole left by the 20 per cent cuts to the police force in the life of the current parliament, the committee said.

Mr Robertson points out that some of the work the industry does includes finding missing person and locating beneficiaries of wills.

“We have saved millions for insurance firms by investigating frauds,” he said. “That money goes back to the public in the form of corporation tax.

“The biggest area is probably business crime. The police aren’t interested in business crime unless it is a multi-million pound case. There is the fidelity kind of stuff but most investigators worth their salt don’t touch that kind of stuff.”

Evidence before the select committee also shows the amount of work private investigators do for local councils.

In a survey of 17 local authorities, Bristol City Council and Northumberland County Council both said they “frequently” used private investigators. Another ten councils said they occasionally used investigators.

The reasons for using investigators were most commonly for debt recovery and to investigate benefit fraud.

Mr Helsby’s firm has been engaged in a number of high profile cases including working for the receivers of Icelandic bank Glitnir, and with various government such as Ukraine and the Czech Republic.

Sherlock Holmes

What would this mean for our favourite detectives?

Sherlock Holmes:
Though there is no reference to money ever changing hands, the closeness of Holmes to Inspector Lestrade would have certainly raised some eyebrows at Keith Vaz’s select committee, especially considering the amount of case information Lestrade used to shared with Holmes.

Magnum PI: Because he works in the United States, Magnum PI is already subject to tighter private investigator regulations. That said, his propensity for violence and the information he gets from his buddies in the Navy could be a cause for concern. Regulation of his moustache could have been an issue.

Philip Marlowe:
Though he works in the grittier end of the private eye field, the honest private eye in a dishonest world would have been lauded by the committee for rejecting cases which do not reach up to his ethical standards.