Britain's Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) has refused to name the blue-chip companies it knows commissioned corrupt private investigators to break the law – but was immediately ordered to do so within 14 days by a committee of MPs.
Trevor Pearce, the agency’s director-general, sparked incredulity when he told the Home Affairs Select Committee that he had not come armed with information on the companies which had hired criminal private investigators – despite 10 days of revelations in The Independent newspaper.
During heated exchanges, the head of “Britain’s FBI” admitted there were “some details” of other industries besides newspapers involved in hacking that were known to the agency, but he had not brought them with him.
Keith Vaz, the Labour MP and committee chairman, ordered Mr Pearce to provide the details to the committee within a fortnight.
He said: “In 14 days this committee would like the list of names. We would like to know from you anyone who has not been pursued by the relevant agencies and who these relevant agencies are.” Mr Pearce and Sir Ian Andrews, the chairman of Soca, were ordered to make an unscheduled appearance before the committee after The Independent revealed last month that the agency had evidence that some of Britain’s most respected industries routinely employ criminals to hack, blag and steal personal information on business rivals and members of the public.
A leaked report showed the agency knew six years ago that law firms, telecoms giants and insurance companies were hiring private investigators to break the law and further their commercial interests, yet Soca did next to nothing to disrupt the unlawful trade.
Following the disclosures, Mr Vaz said that he felt the committee had been “misled on a number of issues” during its initial inquiry into the murky world of private investigators last year.
When asked if Soca’s investigation had uncovered evidence that companies had employed criminal private investigators, Mr Pearce replied: “There may well be some details.” Later he added: “As to there being a definitive list, I don’t know. I can go away and look.”
Mr Pearce, a former senior police officer and head of the National Crime Squad, kept referring the committee to the Metropolitan Police, which conducted many of the investigations later reviewed by Soca.
Mr Vaz pointed out the agency had conducted three investigations of its own into private investigators, and warned: “Just passing the buck on to the Met is not going to get anywhere. You must have these names. I find it extraordinary, given that all that has been reported in the newspapers, that you don’t have them.”
Mr Vaz said he would be raising the matter with Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Scotland Yard Commissioner, during an evidence session next week.
Mr Vaz also raised the fact that John Yates, a former Assistant Commissioner at the Met, had told the committee that phone-hacking was confined to “one rogue reporter” in 2009 – at the very same time other Scotland Yard inquiries were uncovering related criminality on an industrial scale.
Mr Vaz said: “Someone in the Met must have known about it.” Mr Pearce replied: “I can’t comment on that… This report went to [the Met] in February 2008.”
Steve McCabe, a Labour MP, later accused Soca of “sitting on a pile of information” relating to “serious organised crime” and he found it “astonishing that we are not seeing greater activity”.
Mr Pearce replied: “Information gets passed to the appropriate agencies… I think we are doing as much as we can.”
Mr Vaz also raised fears that the evidence held by Soca would “disappear into a great, black hole in the sky” once the agency is abolished later this year.
Mr Pearce replied: “The characterisation that we have been holding anything back is frankly wrong.”
After the hearing, Mr Vaz was clear that Soca would be forced to comply with the committee’s request. He said: “They will be called back before the committee to explain their actions to Parliament. I would be very surprised if they did not comply.”