MPs reacted with incredulity as it emerged that investigators from the now-defunct Serious Organised Crime Agency may be involved in a new probe into the blue-chip hacking scandal – despite originally “sitting on” the evidence for years.
Giving evidence in Parliament, the Information Commissioner admitted trying to co-opt former Soca security officials into pursuing 19 clients of rogue private detectives who have escaped censure for up to seven years.
Christopher Graham said that he was in talks with Keith Bristow, the new head of the National Crime Agency – which replaced Soca last Monday – to assist with an investigation into law firms, financial organisations and insurance companies who hired corrupt PIs that unlawfully obtain personal information.
But MPs on the Home Affairs Select Committee reacted with amazement, as the ICO is examining evidence that was only forced out of Soca when The Independent revealed it had ignored the illustrious blue-chip clients for up to seven years.
Keith Vaz, the chairman of the committee, said: “Let me just get this straight. You are going back to the NCA to help with this investigation, when this whole thing started with Soca – which is now the National Crime Agency. I am baffled. Had this started by Soca earlier… you wouldn’t have to now be going back to the very people who gave you the files in the first place. It sounds like a bit of a merry-go-round.”
Later the former Labour minister added: “One of the concerns of this committee is that Soca sat on the files. We still don’t know why. And you’re giving it back to an agency that Soca is now a part of. So you are giving it back to the same people that were part of the original investigation.
“It doesn’t seem to me the best way to proceed with an independent investigation. The Committee is not done with Soca yet. No-one has given us a satisfactory answer… as to why it took them [so long] to give you the documents. We don’t want you to go back to the very people that sat on the evidence… I think it would compromise your independence, frankly.”
Investigators from the ICO have spent two weeks examining 31 files of invoices, notes and reports originally seized by Soca during an investigation that began in 2008. Some of the material dates back to a historic Scotland Yard inquiry from 2006. Both probes took no action against the clients of the private detectives, who were jailed in 2012.
Mark Reckless MP asked Mr Graham, who has powers to investigate criminal breaches of the data protection act, whether he was happy that Soca “sat on this information for seven years and did not pass it to you?”
Mr Graham replied: “The decisions that were taken in the past, those that were responsible for them are accountable.”
Later in the hearing, James Clappison MP questioned claims from the former Soca director-general Trevor Pearce, who previously told MPs that the clients of private investigators may not know that confidential information had been obtained unlawfully.
The senior Conservative MP said: “It would defy common sense that someone would say, ‘Here is my bank account, please take it.’” Mr Graham appeared to agree with him, replying: “Yes.”
The names of almost 100 blue-chip companies identified by Soca were handed to the Home Affairs Select Committee in July.
But the agency ruled that the information should be classified to protect the “financial viability of major organisations” rather than “tainting them with public association with criminality”.
The Home Affairs Select Committee voted unanimously to publish the secret list, but was persuaded to delay after the ICO launched its investigation.