MPs have given the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) six days to publish a list of law firms, insurance companies and celebrities who hired rogue private investigators convicted of unlawfully accessing people’s personal data. The Home Affairs Select Committee told senior Soca officials they had until Monday to publish the names of the 102 blue-chip clients, warning that if they did not, Parliament would be forced to intervene.
If Soca failed to comply with the request MPs would publish the list instead, said Keith Vaz, the Labour chairman of the committee, which was given the classified information in July. Mr Vaz said such transparency would be in the public interest.
He also said Soca had done “absolutely nothing” to tackle the illustrious clients who had fuelled the trade in illegal data, until The Independent broke the story.
In June, it was revealed that Soca had known for years that some of Britain’s most respected companies routinely employed corrupt private investigators who hacked, blagged and stole personal information on business rivals and members of the public – yet it did almost nothing to disrupt the unlawful trade.
Evidence obtained during a long-running Soca inquiry into four criminal PIs – codenamed Operation Millipede – revealed 102 blue-chip clients, including accountancy firms, leading financial institutions and several pharmaceutical companies, who were never censured in any way for commissioning the investigators.
One of the celebrities who employed the rogue PIs is understood to be so famous “you would have to live down a rabbit hole in the Arctic not to have heard of them”.
During heated exchanges today, Mr Vaz told the Soca director-general Trevor Pearce: “I am still puzzled and the committee is baffled how you could have been sitting on this evidence for four years.” Later he added: “Had it not been for the revelations in The Independent, the public would never have known about this.”
When Mr Pearce tried to deny that Soca had “sat on” evidence of “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.”
Mr Vaz dismissed Mr Pearce’s argument that the material was passed last week to an official watchdog for further investigation. He said: “I have spoken to the Information Commissioner and he says he has been asking for this information for years.”
Ahead of Mr Pearce’s appearance in front of MPs, Mr Vaz said it seemed there was a “great flurry of activity last Friday and you rushed over [to the Information Commissioner’s Office] in a taxi”.
Soca passed the list of blue-chip clients to the committee in July but blocked its publication to protect the companies’ reputations.
However, Mr Vaz said: “The committee has taken a view that this list should be published, Mr Pearce. We give you until Monday to publish this list. If you don’t then we will publish it as we believe it is in the public interest to do so. We have taken legal advice.”