Unlicensed investigators face ban
Private investigators are to be regulated by a strict regime unveiled by the Home Secretary amid an unfolding scandal over so-called "blue-chip hacking".
Operating as an unlicensed private investigator will become a criminal offence, Theresa May said, with licences granted by the Security Industry Authority (SIA) following a series of vigorous checks.
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 hundreds 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. Private investigators currently operate without regulation, allowing anyone to take on the role, regardless of their skills, experience or criminal convictions.
From autumn next year, the SIA will issue licences only if an applicant has completed training and achieved a Government-recognised qualification, which includes understanding of relevant laws and standards.
Prospective PIs will also have to confirm their identity and undergo a thorough criminality check. The maximum penalty for working 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.
The Home Secretary 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."
Nick Clegg said he had "a lot of sympathy" with the Select Committee's instinct that the names of companies using rogue PIs should be revealed. He added: "I am very concerned about the role of rogue private investigators who work at the margins of what is acceptable and permissible.... I really don't think it is right to have PIs - guns for hire, if you like - acting entirely out of and beyond the normal rules that govern other parts of the security industry."