Soca will check if directors have links to private investigators

MPs delay release of ‘blue-chip’ client list as agency’s new boss looks for conflicts of interest

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The Independent Online

The Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) has agreed to review whether its directors have any links to private investigators amid fears that the agency is too close to the controversial industry.

The new Soca chairman Stephen Rimmer, who was appointed in July after his predecessor resigned suddenly over a conflict of interest, will contact senior agency officials to check if any of them also works in the private security sector.

The inquiry was agreed with the Home Affairs Select Committee, which has been investigating the agency’s failure for a number of years to tackle the blue-chip clients of corrupt private investigators that fuel the unlawful trade in personal data.

The MPs are due to publish a secret list of 98 companies and individuals on which Soca had evidence suggesting they employed fraudsters convicted of blagging sensitive information.

The release of the list had been scheduled for later today, but the committee has come under intense pressure not to reveal some of the illustrious names, as police and the information watchdog claim it would hamper ongoing inquiries.

The MPs have delayed publication until after they discuss the matter face-to-face tomorrow. But some are furious that Soca did “absolutely nothing” to deal with the clients of the private investigators until June, when The Independent revealed that the agency had been sitting on the evidence since 2008. One source said: “Given what has happened in the past, I am not convinced the current inquiry, which has suddenly been set up in the last few weeks, will follow the evidence without fear and favour.”

Those on the classified list reportedly include the X-Factor mogul Simon Cowell, accountancy giant Deloitte, the banks Credit Suisse and Chase Manhattan, and the law firms Richards Butler (now Reed Smith), Herbert Smith Freehills and Clyde and Co. The crime agency has stressed that featuring on its list does not indicate wrongdoing as the firms and individuals may have been unaware of the commissioning of private detectives.

The Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, who has only recently taken possession of the evidence – some of which dates back as far as 2008 – has been called to give evidence tomorrow over his reasons for keeping the list secret.

When Mr Rimmer appeared before MPs last week, he repeatedly denied the sudden resignation of his predecessor, Sir Ian Andrews, had anything to do with the fact that his wife worked for a private investigations firm.

The former Ministry of Defence mandarin, who admitted classifying the list to protect the commercial interests of those on it, quit days after The Independent revealed that his wife Moira was the head lawyer at Good Governance Group. Sir Ian denied his resignation was related to his wife’s job, saying he left because he had failed to declare another interest.

Under hostile questioning last week, Mr Rimmer agreed to undertake a review of other senior Soca personnel to check for “conflicts of interest”.

Keith Vaz MP, the chairman of the committee, mentioned the Soca non-executive director Francis Plowden, a former partner at the accountancy firm PwC, who has “security interests” in Serco, according to the agency’s register of interests.

Mr Vaz also asked Mr Rimmer to ensure he was “absolutely satisfied” that the former Met police chief Peter Clarke, who was involved in the original phone-hacking investigation and who now sits on the Soca board, had no interests in the private detective industry.

The former Labour minister said: “It is in your interests to make sure that none of these board members has conflicts of interest. Because I would be very surprised if one of your directors – for example the one at Serco – I would be very surprised if they had not employed private investigators at some stage. You shouldn’t just assume everything is OK in the garden.”

Meanwhile Ian Hurst, a former Army intelligence officer and a key witness at the Leveson Inquiry, warned the agency two years ago that a private detective convicted of hacking into bank accounts and telephone records had “cultivated” contacts with Special Branch. He says his warnings in May 2011 were ignored.