The government has outlined plans for licensing private investigators after years of negative headlines that have rocked national confidence in the industry. So what does the future hold for private investigators?
Over recent months and years, revelations surrounding phone hacking, payments to police and revelations about corporate use of rogue investigators have hit national headlines and put a big question mark over how the entire industry operates.
The Home Office acknowledges it is now easier to access private data than ever before and there is a rogue element within the industry that has been out of control. In an attempt to remedy that, the Home Office aims to begin licensing private investigators in 2014.
The obvious truth is it has been far too simple for anyone to operate as a private investigator – with high-tech gadgets such as covert cameras, listening devices or trackers available to buy in high-street spy shops and over the internet. And no-one really knows how many private investigators are operating in the UK, functioning unregulated and unaccountable – until now.
Under the new regulations, licences will be granted by the Security Industry Authority and be awarded on the basis that wannabe private investigators confirm their identity, pass a criminality check and gain a government-recognised qualification – all aimed at ensuring they have a basic level of skill and know the rules.
By cleaning up the industry and shining a light on the dark corners of the private investigation industry it will root out the unprincipled element and improve the overall image associated with private investigators.
The moves have been welcomed, with the British Security Industry Association and Association of British Insurers, among others, throwing their weight behind the plans.
Licensing should help to eliminate unscrupulous activities such as hacking phones, stealing bank statements and obtaining confidential medical records. Unauthorised access of personal data is a criminal offence under the Data Protection Act, and even where personal information is obtained legally, it is questionable whether rogue elements would securely handle the information in their possession, for instance, ensuring it didn’t fall into the wrong hands and properly disposing of it when they were finished.
There are, of course, honest hard-working private investigators who perform valuable functions, including tracing debtors, investigating fraud and finding missing people, and they operate in compliance with the Data Protection Act to examine readily-available information. But they are being overshadowed by those dishonest elements that will employ shady practises to access private data and take illegal shortcuts to obtain information.
At a time where police forces across the UK are facing cuts, the private investigation industry can help plug the gap. Private investigators do offer valuable assistance at a local and national level, saving millions of pounds through fraud investigations and helping local councils with debt recovery and benefit fraud investigation.
However, they will be unable to do that until public confidence is restored. Licensing should go some way to remove the black cloud that rogue elements are placing over the industry as a whole.