New law on private detectives to be rolled out in 2014

Magnifying glass

Trading as a private detective without a licence is to be made illegal, the home secretary Theresa May announced today.

The government will bring in legislation requiring all private investigators to obtain a licence from the Security Industry Authority, making it a criminal offence to operate without one.

The move comes after the Home Affairs Select Committee revealed that 10 insurance companies, 22 law firms and eight financial services firms were among 102 clients of private investigators who engaged in illegal practices.

The private investigation industry is currently completely unregulated and anyone can operate as a private detective. The Home Office says this poses a high risk of “rogue investigators” infringing people’s privacy.

May said: “It is vital that we have proper regulation of private investigators to ensure rigorous standards in this sector and the respect of individuals’ right 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 the regulation to allow them to carry out legitimate investigations in the public interest.”

In order to obtain a licence from the Security Industry Authority, private investigators will have to:

  • Complete training and achieve a government-recognised qualification, which includes understanding of relevant laws and standards and the skills needed to conduct activities ethically
  • Confirm their identity
  • Undergo a thorough criminality check.

Under the new laws, which are due to be rolled out next year, the maximum penalty for working as an unlicensed private investigator or supplying unlicensed investigators will be a £5,000 fine or up to six months in prison.

Subcontractors working for private investigators will also be required to have a licence.

The list of private investigators’ clients was provided to the parliamentary watchdog by the Serious and Organised Crime Agency (Soca), which classified it as secret because it could disrupt an ongoing police inquiry.

Soca also submitted to the committee a report that gives evidence of unlawful activity by investigators spanning illegal acquisition and supply of personal data, interference with electronic media, corruption and perverting the course of justice.