Operating as an unlicensed private investigator will become a criminal offence, the Home Secretary has announced.
Private investigators will now be regulated under a strict regime and will need to obtain licences granted by the Security Industry Authority (SIA) following a series of vigorous checks. The measures were unveiled on Wednesday by Theresa May, amid an unfolding scandal over so-called “blue-chip hacking”.
All investigative activities that are carried out for the purposes of publishing legitimate journalistic material will be excluded from regulation, she said.
The reforms were announced as pressure mounts on the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) and MPs to release the names of companies and individuals linked to rogue private investigators.
A total of 22 law firms feature on the 102-strong list, alongside several insurance companies, financial services groups and two celebrities, among others.
The Independent had revealed that banks, pharmaceutical, law, insurance and financial services companies had for years used private investigators to obtain private data, for example through mobile phone records and bank statements. The list of their clients also included wealthy individuals.
Private investigators currently operate without regulation, allowing anyone to pursue the role regardless of their skills, experience or if they hold any criminal convictions.
From autumn 2013, the SIA will only grant licences to applicants who have completed training and achieved a Government-recognised qualification, which includes demonstrating understanding of the relevant laws and standards.
Prospective private investigators will also have to confirm their identity and undergo a thorough criminality check.
The maximum penalty for practicing as an unlicensed private investigator or supplying unlicensed investigators will be a fine of up to £5,000 and up to six months in prison.
Ms May said: “It is vital we have proper regulation of private investigators to ensure rigorous standards in this sector and the respect of individuals' rights to privacy.
“That is why I am announcing today the Government's intention to regulate this industry, making it a criminal offence to operate as a private investigator without a licence.
“Anyone with a criminal conviction for data protection offences can expect to have their application for a licence refused. Journalists will be excluded from regulation to allow them to carry out legitimate investigations in the public interest.”