Blue-chip hacking: Ministers plan crackdown on rogue private investigators

PIs will need a licence and will be banned if found guilty of blagging personal information

A crackdown on rogue private investigators who break the law will be announced by Home Office ministers this week as pressure grows for publication of a secret list of more than 100 of their clients.

In future, private investigators will have to obtain a licence under a government drive to put cowboy operators out of business.

The Independent has revealed that banks and pharmaceutical, law, insurance and financial services companies have used private investigators for years to get private data, for example through mobile phone records and bank statements. Under the planned crackdown, investigators found guilty of hacking or impersonation to obtain private information will be banned from holding a licence. Anyone seeking a licence will have to go on a training course and prove they understand laws on privacy, bribery and data protection and will be vetted to see if they have a criminal record. An exemption is expected for journalists and private investigators working for them on legitimate projects.

A Home Office source said: “At present anyone can undertake private investigative activity regardless of skills, experience or criminal convictions. The new regime will begin next year.” The Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) has sent a list of 101 clients of corrupt investigators to the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, but is insisting the clients’ names must remain classified.

Yesterday Graham Freeman, one of four private detectives jailed last year for stealing confidential information on behalf of big business clients, said  publication of the list would shake the City and lead to high-profile prosecutions. He told The Mail on Sunday: “Soca doesn’t want to give up the [Operation] Millipede names because if it did, it would be forced to investigate them and charge them for conspiracy to defraud as they did us. On that list are the names of law firms, banks and insurance companies which all used private detectives.”

Freeman, who now lives in Spain, was jailed for six months last year for conspiring to defraud by “blagging”– or stealing – personal information through phone calls to banks and companies.

Amid reports that more than 300 firms and individuals may have employed rogue detectives, the Conservative MP Rob Wilson accused the police of “double standards” at a time when 159 officers are investigating phone hacking by journalists at an estimated eventual cost of £40m. “The bigger scandal increasingly looks like something Soca simply did not want to pursue. The investigation into computer hacking has just 15 officers working on it and has yet to produce any arrests,” he said. He called for an independent inquiry.

One law firm which has paid investigators is Mischon de Reya. One of its partners is Charlotte Harris, who has represented many of the victims of phone hacking by journalists and is on the board of the Hacked Off campaign for tougher press regulation. There is no suggestion that she hired investigators. In 2006, Sharon and Stephen Anderson, who ran an investigative agency, pleaded guilty to more than 50 charges of obtaining information, in breach of the Data Protection Act. They were working for a detective agency called Carratu, which had in turn been hired by Mishcon de Reya. An undisclosed company which had extended a loan to the businessman David Hughes had instructed Mishcon to discover his assets.

Mishcon de Reya said it cut ties with Carratu after it emerged the Andersons were acting unlawfully. “Mishcon de Reya uses private investigators that act within the law where it benefits clients,” it said.