Under private investigation

An increasing number of local authorities are turning to detective agencies to acquire evidence that can lead to unruly and antisocial tenants being evicted from council estates, says Anna Moore
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The Independent Culture
The pin-hole camera picks up the man knocking on the door of a council flat. The fuzzy edge of the circular image lends a covert feel to the scene, which is being taped for use as evidence. The on-screen time stamp ticks over as the bearded man bends to call through the letter- box. A moment later a man opens the door and ushers in the visitor. Is this a buyer visiting his drug dealer? Or just one friend calling on another?

"We don't know if it's drugs or not," says Phil McLoughlin, a private investigator. He is standing inside a cupboard in an empty flat, a few floors up in a council tower block in Salford, Manchester. The spy camera is focused through a hole Phil drilled through the wall and into a door frame on the landing a few weeks ago.

The time-lapse video monitors the flat 24 hours a day. A neighbour has complained of slamming doors at all times of the day and night. The council has to check the allegation and gather evidence to use in court, if necessary. The complainant is too scared to testify against the tenants, so the council is using private detectives to search for information.

Phil works for Burgess PDQ, a detective agency that his father, Steve, runs from a three-room office suite near Manchester's main shopping area. The agency's first taste of council work came 18 months ago when Salford wanted to gather information on a nuisance case. Since then the agency has investigated cases involving drugs, noise, harassment and car crime.

Not all the work is done with video. Some jobs require stake-outs, which can be dangerous. Phil says his car has been rammed after his cover slipped. "I've been smacked a few times," he says.

So far Salford has had 12 courtroom successes. To stop antisocial behaviour quickly, the council usually seeks injunctions, which take only a few days to a fortnight to obtain, while evictions can take up to a year.

Sunderland council's housing committee pioneered the use of private detectives to act as "professional witnesses" in the Hylton Castle part of the city in 1993. The area has its problems - car theft, domestic disputes, general disorder and unemployment. On the estate's Cockermouth Road, three households were alleged to be causing a nuisance - rowdiness, abuse, threatening behaviour. Nothing serious, but enough to make the lives of some tenants a misery.

The council moved investigators into the street and used their testimony to win an eviction order on 13 September 1993 against Claire Mendonca, then 19, her then four-year-old daughter, and her boyfriend, Gavin Raine, also 19. A month later, they became the first tenants in England to be turfed out by a council on the evidence of private detectives.

Gavin Raine claims the private investigator lied or gave incorrect evidence in court, although he says some of the allegations were true. He says the court had just the word of the private detective against his and that of Claire Mendonca. "They didn't know if the detective was lying or we were," he says. But the court believed the detective, reinforcing the belief that a "professional witness" is an impartial witness.

An increasing number of local authorities are using private investigators as professional witnesses. So far five have followed Sunderland - Salford, Manchester, Southwark, Lewisham and Stoke. Blyth Valley ran a pilot in April last year, and Bury, Leeds and Coventry have just given the go-ahead, but have yet to allocate their first cases.

Newcastle under Lyme is inviting tenders and Wirral is talking to investigation agencies. Knowsley and Merton are considering the idea. John Craggs, assistant director of housing at Sunderland, says more than 100 councils have shown an interest.

The problems facing private investigators vary with the territory. Manchester has used detectives on a case involving drugs, violence and firearms. Bullying and noise are common problems in Bury, but there is little in the way of drugs. Leeds had drugs and violence in mind, while Lewisham has a racial harassment problem. Everywhere there are noise and nuisance complaints. But a simple noise complaint may be rooted in something more serious. For instance, a busy drug dealer may be the cause of a slamming door. "We were dealing with issues that were beyond our scope," says Alan Poulton, Salford council's principal housing officer. Of the 1,000 complaints he gets a year, only a couple of dozen need the skills of private detectives. "The reason that we are using investigators is that we cannot get reliable evidence from the ground," he says. Mr Poulton adds that complaints are often based on hearsay.

A spokesman for Bury council says: "There's always a hard core of tenants who won't see reason and we've had problems getting evidence against them. Usually we find the neighbours are intimidated."

Funding varies widely. Sunderland started with a budget of £19,992, but is now spending £30,000 a year. Wirral has allocated a nominal £5,000. Salford, on the other hand, seems to be really going for it. Mr Poulton says the council is spending £10,000 on the professional witness scheme this financial year - but the council won regeneration grant money from the Government recently which will enlarge the project to £250,000 over five years.

But using private investigators to spy on alleged nuisances and criminals raises issues beyond how seriously councils take their tenants' charters. The civil rights lobby group Liberty sees two problems with using private detectives. One is that Britain has no right to privacy enshrined in law, so the agencies can point their cameras anywhere. The other is that the agencies are private businesses, and so are unregulated and unaccountable.

John Wadham, director of law and policy at Liberty, says: "In the absence of a bill of rights there should be a right to privacy, so private investigators should be regulated, or else there is a considerable risk of abuse."

So would that spell the end of the private eye as professional witness? "I'm not saying this should be banned completely," Mr Wadham says. The private side needs regulating, and helping frightened or harassed tenants is "something most people may find acceptable".

Mr Poulton at Salford council says regulating private eyes would mean not having to expend so much effort vetting those who apply for work. And a spokesman for the Association of British Investigators says it has "argued for at least 30 years that we should be regulated, licensed and controlled in the public interest".

The police seem at ease with the use of private investigators as professional witnesses. "As long as private investigators operate within the confines of the law, it's the council's prerogative to employ them," says a spokesman for Northumbria Police, which covers Sunderland. He even admits that "it could be the case in some instances" that private eyes can gather evidence that the police cannot.

Greater Manchester Police, which covers Salford, is also happy: "It's all done in co-operation with the local council," says a spokeswoman. "It's improving service and community relations between the police, the council and the tenants." But she says: "All they do is observe - they do not do the police's job." She says the Salford division is unaware that Burgess PDQ is using video cameras to gather evidence.

Mr Poulton says: "Burgesshas never told me anything that was exaggerated. They have actually talked themselves out of business in some situations." He believes video offers the best impartial observation. "One of the benefits of cameras is that it's there for everyone to see." One drawback is that sound is not usually possible on 24-hour time-lapse videos.

For Steve McLoughlin, the end always justifies the surveillance. "If they are innocent, they've nothing to worry about. If they're guilty, they shouldn't be doing it in the first place."

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