The Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) has performed a U-turn and passed evidence on 98 law firms, accountants and celebrities who commissioned criminal private investigators to the information watchdog.
Soca bowed to public pressure and handed the Information Commissioner details of “blue-chip hacking”. The agency was forced to act following months of revelations in The Independent. Today, its director-general Trevor Pearce is expected to face hostile questioning from a committee of MPs.
Twenty files of evidence from a Soca investigation into a gang of rogue private investigators – codenamed Operation Millipede – will now be probed by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to determine whether any of the PIs’ blue-chip clients should face censure.
The material includes receipts for payment and correspondence between the companies, organisations and individuals who hired the private detectives that engaged in the unlawful trade in personal data. The ICO could prosecute the blue-chip firms for criminal offences, but any convictions would only result in fines of up to £500,000 as law enforcement agencies have decided not to pursue them for more serious offences.
Mr Pearce initially claimed the agency would only pass the evidence to the ICO once Scotland Yard had completed Operaton Tuleta, a long-running investigation into evidence gathered years ago by Soca that was never acted upon. However, 24 hours before its embattled director-general was due to face the Home Affairs Select Committee, it emerged that Soca had relented and had started to co-operate with the ICO.
Keith Vaz, chairman of the Committee, said: “We need an explanation as to why it has taken Soca so long to pass the information to the Information Commissioner. It is deeply concerning that these files were only passed to him 24 hours before Mr Pearce’s appearance before the Committee. It is particularly puzzling given that Mr Pearce told the Committee he would be passing on the files to the ICO once Operation Tuleta, scheduled to continue until at least April 2015, was finalised.”
Mr Vaz also raised fears the ICO would be unable to deal with the scale of the case as it only employs a handful of investigators to probe data protection offences across the country.
He said: “The Commissioner has in the past said the ICO simply does not have the resources to investigate all the cases they receive and I will be writing to the Ministry of Justice asking them to ensure such an important investigation has adequate funding.”
The Independent revealed in June Soca had knowledge for years that law firms, insurance companies and other sectors employed criminal private investigators to hack, blag and steal personal information, yet faced no censure. Mr Pearce is also expected to be asked to explain contradictory statements he made to Parliament regarding the extent of Soca’s co-operation with Operation Tuleta.
The former police chief admitted last month that the agency handed the Met key computers seized from rogue private investigators in October 2011 – five months after he originally claimed in oral evidence to MPs.
Soca appeared to blame Scotland Yard for the delay in handing the ICO the evidence to investigate the blue-chip clients last night. A spokesman said: “Crossovers with the Met’s Operation Tuleta required the material be made available to them in the first instance, and no further referral could take place without the agreement of the Met, which has now been received.”
A Scotland Yard spokesperson said: “Due to the length of time that Operation Tuleta is likely to carry on the Met has agreed to a data-sharing arrangement with the ICO that does not prejudice our current operations.”