Blue-chip hacking: Battle to hide the truth revealed as police remove key names from Soca list of firms that used rogue private investigators

Police remove key names from list of firms implicated in snooping scandal as MPs pressurised not to publish list of firms

Investigations Editor

Four blue-chip clients of criminal private detectives have been removed from a secret list due to be published imminently after a sudden intervention by Scotland Yard.

The Independent can reveal that the Metropolitan Police blocked MPs from revealing the names of some of the companies because they are linked to a live investigation into a corporate espionage scandal.

The development implies that the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca), which was forced by the Home Affairs Select Committee to compile the list based on evidence its investigators obtained as long ago as 2006, had intelligence on criminal suspects years ago but did not act on it.

The four names were recently removed from a list of 102 law firms, insurance companies and accountants that Soca knew hired rogue private investigators who hack, blag and steal personal information about members of the public. Yesterday, the embattled agency defied an ultimatum from the Home Affairs Select Committee to publish the list.

Simon Cowell was named last night in a newspaper as one of the names on the list of clients, along with Deloitte, Credit Suisse and Allianz. Neither Deloitte nor Credit Suisse would comment on the report in The Times but a spokesman for Allianz told the paper that its dealings complied with the law.

Max Clifford, Mr Cowell’s media spokesman, said he was surprised the X Factor host’s name was on the list. The allegations could not be confirmed last night.

The client list is due to be disclosed on Monday by the MPs, who are furious that the agency failed for years to tackle organisations which fuelled the unlawful trade in personal data. Despite coming under behind-the-scenes pressure over its insistence that the material be made public, the committee – led by the Labour MP Keith Vaz – won support yesterday from David Cameron.

Questioned over the scandal during the G20 summit in St Petersburg, the Prime Minister said: “We have in our country an open system of justice. That’s the way it should be. And that applies, as far as I’m concerned, unless there are specific exemptions. The open system of justice should be just that.”

Mr Vaz said: “The Prime Minister’s comments are most welcome. He is right to support an open system of justice.”

Four companies and individuals suddenly removed from the list in the last two weeks relate to two current police investigations, according to Scotland Yard. However, the Met – which had an earlier opportunity to remove the clients’ names before it went to the Home Affairs Select Committee – took the unusual step of refusing even to confirm what alleged crimes one inquiry was examining, or when it was established.

The other investigation relates to a complex corporate espionage scandal involving a private detective who allegedly bought the private phone records of a well-known business leader.

The list was originally drawn up from evidence gathered during a historic Soca probe – codenamed Operation Millipede – which led to the conviction of four private detectives for fraud last year. But no action was taken against their clients – which include 22 law firms, several insurance companies, financial services groups and two celebrities – until disclosures in The Independent in June.

Soca passed the list to the Home Affairs Select Committee in July but classified the details to protect the “financial viability of major organisations” for fear of “tainting them with public association with criminality”.

However, the committee members are angry that the blue-chip clients escaped censure for years and believe it is in the “public interest” to disclose their names in the interests of transparency.

On Tuesday, when the Soca director-general Trevor Pearce gave evidence to the committee and denied the agency had “sat on” evidence of blue-chip “dirty tricks”, Mr Vaz interrupted to say: “Nothing was happening about this. Absolutely nothing until the stuff in the newspapers. I know we all look young and green around this table Mr Pearce, but some of these people have been around a long time.”

He asked the law enforcement official to publish the list, saying: “We’ve taken legal advice and we believe it’s important that this should be done.”

However Mr Pearce refused to comply with the demand. And in a letter to Mr Vaz published yesterday, he reminded the MP of a commitment he had made to keep it confidential.

Mr Pearce added: “I remain firmly of the view that publishing the list of clients would affect ongoing investigations and inquires.”

Mr Cameron’s intervention was a welcome boost to Mr Vaz and the committee. Some members are angry at what they view as concerted attempts to prevent publication under parliamentary privilege and believe the decision to classify the list is a matter for Soca, not for them.

Before receiving the list, Mr Vaz had  agreed to keep it confidential. However, in a series of exchanges between the committee and Soca over the last three months, the agency has consistently recognised the ultimate decision rests with Parliament. In one letter from Mr Pearce to Mr Vaz on 22 July, Mr Pearce said: “The committee will of course make its own decisions regarding this matter [whether or not to keep the list secret].”

But it is understood that “heavy email traffic” has been targeted at the committee this week, with representations from Andrew Lansley, the Leader of the House, and several other senior MPs on other committees, all of whom have asked Mr Vaz and others not to make the list public.

James Arbuthnot, the chairman of the Defence Select Committee, has also written to Mr Vaz personally to express his concerns.

The former lawyer told The Independent: “I am in no position to tell the Home Affairs Select Committee what to do but I am concerned that if a committee is given information expressly in confidence, and agrees to hold it in confidence, and then later decides not to hold it in confidence, it will make it harder for my committee to obtain information in confidence. It really worries me.” One source close to the Home Affairs Select Committee said: “This is all very suspicious. Why are all these establishment figures suddenly getting involved?”

Soca secrets: Scandal timeline

22 June

The Independent reveals that Soca (Serious Organised Crime Agency) sat for years on evidence that some of Britain’s most respected industries, including law firms, hired rogue private investigators that hack, blag and steal sensitive information.

2 July

Trevor Pearce, Soca director-general, refuses to tell the Home Affairs Select Committee the suppressed names of the clients who employed the convicted criminals.

9 July

Metropolitan Police Commander Neil Basu directly contradicts Mr Pearce’s evidence to Parliament.

18 July

Former Soca chairman Sir Ian Andrews tells MPs the clients should not be named as it would damage the firms’ commercial interests and breach their human rights.

22 July

The Independent reveals that Sir Ian, who helped to block publication of the list, failed to declare to the committee that his wife worked for a private investigations firm.

24 July

Soca passes the list of 102 blue-chip companies to the Home Affairs Select Committee, but classifies the information in order not to undermine the “financial viability of major organisations by tainting them with public association with criminality”.

1 August

Sir Ian Andrews resigns; the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, backs publication of the Soca list.

31 August

Soca finally hands the historic evidence on 98 blue-chip clients to the Information Commissioner (ICO) for investigation days before Mr Pearce reappears before the Home Affairs Select Committee.

3 September

Angry MPs tell Mr Pearce to publish the list or they will do so under parliamentary privilege next Monday.

7 September

The Independent reveals how Soca removed four blue-chip clients from the ICO’s list after an intervention by Scotland Yard; David Cameron indicates his support for publication of the secret list.

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