Regulating the private investigation industry

Earlier this year, the Parliamentary Home Affairs Select Committee report published a report making a number of recommendations about the future of the investigation industry and regulations within it. The report came about following the Parliamentary Home affairs Select Committee Inquiry, headed by Keith Vaz MP in a high profile government examination into standards, ethics and culture of the UK press in the wake of the News International phone hacking scandal.

As has been well publicised in recent months, some private investigators, while employed by the likes of News International, are alleged to have hacked into the voicemails of certain high profile individuals.

The most serious allegation is that the voicemail of 13-year-old Milly Dowler, who was murdered in 2002, was hacked into by private investigators working for the News of the World, while police were still searching for her. The implications of these actions were so serious that they led directly to the closure of the News of the World, a 167-year-old newspaper, in July last year.

Since then, we have seen the like of Rupert Murdoch being called before MPs to explain the actions of those working for some of his newspapers, and the arrests of former editors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson. Clearly, the fall-out from the phone hacking scandal has been incredibly far reaching, and is still on-going. Lord Leveson is currently in the process of writing his report following the inquiry, and the world’s media waits to discover his findings.

But what does it all mean for private investigators? As with the press, the actions of a few unscrupulous and callous individuals has tainted the good work done by so many. That is why the Association of British Investigators (ABI) has welcomed the findings of the Home Affairs Select Committee. Their report, which was published in July, makes a number of key recommendations in regards to future regulation of the industry. These include: The term ‘private investigator’ being protected for use by those regulated; An introduction of a two tier system of licensing of private investigators companies and registration of others undertaking investigative work; The government to consider granting privileged access to certain data for licensed investigators; A training regime for investigators based on the knowledge of the legal constraints that govern the industry, and; The introduction of a 12 month ‘cooling off’ period before a police officer can obtain a licence.

Statutory Control

The ABI has long spoken of its vision for statutory control of the investigation industry in the UK, and so when the committee made its recommendations, the ABI was fully behind it. The group makes sure to regulate investigators very carefully before allowing them to become part of the association, and believes that statutory control of the industry would help to weed out the unscrupulous and unprofessional investigators who came to public attention during the phone hacking scandal.

Tony Imossi, the president of the ABI, has spoken out on the issue several times. On the group’s website, he says: “With the absence of any statutory control of the investigation industry in the UK the association recognised the need for self-regulation many years ago and set very high standards to meet the criteria for membership opting for quality rather than quantity.

“Members are admitted only after stringent vetting. Members must conduct their business in a professional manner and by complying with a strict code of ethics with disciplinary procedures in place to monitor any transgressors.

“As long ago as 1952 the association sent a delegation to the Houses of Parliament to lobby the then British Government for recognition and regulation of the Private Investigation Industry. However successive Governments have refused to deal with this issue and that has remained the case until recent years.

“The Association is proud of the part it has played over many years in encouraging the regulation of our industry.”

Once investigators have become members of the ABI, the benefits for them are immediately obvious. They become part of an organisation known across the UK as the most influential and respected industry body, and can say that they have been selected for membership of a group which only gives accreditation to the most professional and scrupulous of investigators.

ABI members also have electronic access to DVLA keeper records, making the ABI the only industry body to have been granted access to these files. The Association has recently introduced the Lawyers’ Registration Service – a scheme allowing legal practitioners to register with the ABI to show their clients that they have exercised due diligence in their selection of investigator or process server. It is also endorsed by the Law Society of England and Wales and is an approved service provider to the Law Society of Scotland. No other body representing professional investigators in private practice carries such endorsements. All of these benefits and many more are offered only to those investigators deemed to be acceptable for membership of the group.

To this end, the ABI has devised its own self-regulation system and members can only join the ABI once they meet the necessary requirements. Members must have an approved credit check, and they must produce a Criminal Conviction Certificate every three years. They also have to provide two references and need to be interviewed by the ABI panel before membership is granted.

Furthermore all members have to pass an examination set by the ABI which focuses on best practice and understanding of the Data Protection Act. The group also carries out random checks on their members to ensure that the services they offer are within the restraints of the law, that they are not using any unauthorised trade-marks and that their websites are not misleading in any way. There are disciplinary hearings in place for members in breach of by-laws so that the member has an opportunity to defend themselves.

Once investigators have been approved for membership of the ABI, they are able to display the ABI logo on their websites and literature to show prospective clients that they are part of the group, and that they will go about business in an ethical and professional manner.

Members of the ABI are expected to adhere to a strict code of ethics (see panel on right) laid out by the group to ensure that their work is always completed in the most scrupulous way. It is this code of ethics which ensures that the ABI has been such a trusted and respected organisation.

ABI Roots
The group can trace its roots back to 1913 and in that time it has cemented its place as the hallmark of quality for the investigation industry and has also led the way for decades in trying to ensure that the statutory investigation is put in place for investigators.

The ABI also works closely with local authorities around the UK. Local authorities regularly instruct professional investigators to investigate anti-social behaviour cases, support social services in proceedings, to investigate workforce issues and a variety of miscellaneous situations including fraud. Many investigators are former police officers, military investigators, customs and excise staff and similar highly trained detectives that examine cases of embezzlement, false accounting, misappropriation, false claims and a wide array of dishonest practices that occasionally occur within local government departments.

Due Diligence
It is vital that local government departments exercise due diligence in their choice of investigator, from an unregulated sector, to ensure their integrity. Undoubtedly, lessons should be learned from the Leveson Inquiry, and the phone hacking inquiry which tainted the investigation industry as well as the media.

The way that journalists go about their jobs will change, and this should be the case for the investigation industry as well. Foremost among the changes which should come into play is official regulation of industry.  The report from the Home Affairs Select Committee makes sensible recommendations, and now it is time for the government to implement some of these changes. It is only then that people living in the UK can be sure that any private investigator they hire is as professional, scrupulous and ethical as the ABI’s members currently are. It will mean a safer and more honest industry, and will hopefully lead to the phone hacking scandal and the disgraceful revelations associated with it becoming a thing of the past.

Further information
Formed in 1913, The Association of British Investigators (ABI) has been upholding professional standards for almost a century. For further information on its work, visit