Nick Clegg has suggested that a secret list of firms and individuals that used corrupt private investigators should be published in the interests of “transparency”.
The Deputy Prime Minister said he sympathised with the “instinct” that information on more than 100 organisations and individuals, including 22 law firms, 10 insurance companies, banks and two celebrities, that hired criminal private investigators should be disclosed.
The classified list from the Serious Organised Crime Agency was passed to Keith Vaz, chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, after six weeks of damaging revelations in The Independent. The Liberal Democrat leader spoke out after Mr Vaz signalled his intention to reveal the names despite police concerns that doing so might damage potential inquiries.
Mr Vaz said: “I don’t think Parliament should be part of a ‘secret squirrel’ club where we are given a list that is important and should be in the public interest and [can’t] publish it.”
He said he wanted to reveal the names using parliamentary privilege, but had been told that the Information Commissioner and the Metropolitan Police might want to investigate the companies involved – 17 months after the initial criminal inquiries ended.
Mr Clegg said: “Transparency is always better than secrecy. Whilst there are legal reasons … why [Soca] don’t want to release the names, I have a lot of sympathy with the Select Committee’s instinct that it would be better to have this out in the open.”
He added: “Many people in the press are being subject to a lot of scrutiny, quite rightly, for allegations of improper appropriation of information in the past and I think we should apply the same standards to everyone.”
Meanwhile Theresa May, the Home Secretary, announced fresh legislation in an effort to crack down on criminal private investigators. She said that operating as an unlicensed private detective would be made illegal and that all private investigators would be made to undergo a training course and pass a criminal records check.
Mrs 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. Anyone with a criminal conviction for data protection offences can expect to have their application for a licence refused.”
Mrs May also revealed that journalists would be excluded from regulation so they could “carry out legitimate investigations in the public interest”.
The maximum penalty for failing to comply with the new rules would be six months in jail.