Private Investigators

Written evidence submitted by Association of British Investigators [PI03]

The ABI began life in 1913 to provide and maintain an organisation for Private Investigators. In 1970 it became incorporated; Limited by Guarantee. The finances of the ABI are carefully managed so as to ensure a comfortable surplus of funds over requirements.

Private Investigators were gathering evidence to put before the Courts in the U.K. long before the first police force was established in London in 1829. Notwithstanding the integrity and professionalism of true private investigators the industry continues to be viewed negatively.

A 2011 snapshot of the industry reveals a loose, un-quantified network of (unregulated), self-employed individuals. In addition, franchises, partnerships, investigation agencies, some incorporated, also exist. To deal with the volume and range of matters the industry is called upon to deal with, larger investigation agencies sub-contract case-work to the self-employed majority of honest, professional private investigators.

Unfortunately the terms "Private Investigator" and "Private Investigation" are collectives into which a miscellany of individuals and activities which, don’t fit comfortably with other labels are also placed. A topical example of this point are those individuals who have come to prominence in recent past over phone and computer hacking, telephone and electronic interception and unlawful bugging allegations. Their names and alleged criminal activities were unknown to the majority of honest practising private investigators. None has applied to become a member of the ABI. Few are known to practice as private investigators. Their activities principally fall under the heading of "Information Broking" and if the allegations against them are true, they could be described as white collar criminals who have seized an opportunity to make money through the invasion of individual and organisational privacy.

The exact number of practising, self-employed investigators in the UK is unknown. At a guess there could be between 2000 and 4000. Add to this in-house, employed investigative personnel, loss adjusters, bailiffs, debt collectors, investigative journalists etc. who also carry out ancillary investigative functions and the number would clearly increase.

Some of these investigators have questionable antecedents. It is possible for anyone even criminals, to advertise and operate as a private investigator. No background checks or competency tests exist. In consequence some lack integrity; many lack knowledge of the controlling legislation, training, an understanding of customer care or possess basic business acumen. This causes significant concern in that in many cases, evidence adduced by private investigators is submitted to the courts.

There is an ever-increasing demand for information and intelligence from all sections of society. Developments in communication and information technology mean that this information is now available from a multitude of sources – most lawful, some not and hitherto unheard of. These developments raise significant privacy issues recently evidenced by the actions of the press and those acting on their behalf.

Owing to finite resources, the investigation of business crime appears not to be a priority for the police service. Unless allegations are of robbery, burglary, very high value fraud, or a particular business sector (insurance & finance) is prepared to privately fund dedicated units, the police will not investigate. Victims are advised to instruct private investigators as they do in civil matters, to gather sufficient evidence to assist the police. Spending cuts will create a greater demand for the services of private investigators to assist corporate clients in their endeavours to pursue private prosecutions without the involvement of the police service.

The arrival of the Internet in the 1990’s revolutionised private investigation in the UK. As more private investigators and members of the public became familiar with e-mail and explored the World Wide Web, access to information on private investigation, investigators, investigative products, lawful and unlawful techniques, became available and inexpensive to advertise worldwide.

A number of private investigator related e-mail fora, free and open to all with an internet connection sprang up. Instead of posting sub-contracted instructions to a trusted fellow member, it was possible to outsource work instantly to a worldwide network of individuals purporting to be private investigators. A considerable number of these were and still are inexperienced, part-time amateurs, many of whom have a poor standard of literacy, with little or no technical or legal knowledge, who see this as easy money and are not afraid to bend the rules. A significant number are not notified under the Data Protection Act and have turned to hacking, blagging or bribery as a means of obtaining information unlawfully from public servants or the employees of financial institutions, utility and telecommunication companies.

In consequence, the attrition rate amongst those who carry out proper and lawful investigation and surveillance activities in the private sector has increased significantly.

The net effect of this technological development has been to add a further layer of difficulty in assessing the number of practising private investigators in this country as that number can change daily. Additionally, the use of global e-mail addresses (such as, make it almost impossible to determine where an "investigator" is actually based. By virtue of the increase of those wishing to experiment with private investigations the diminution of integrity, quality, financial probity and professionalism has increased over the past 15 - 20 years.

Private Investigators no longer need to belong to an association. The fact that membership of the ABI has not fallen and is growing is encouraging. Research has revealed that membership of the ABI is viewed internally and externally as evidence of personal achievement and an endorsement of their business. The overriding reason is that ABI membership is seen by the industry, the public and prospective clients as bestowing an integrity and professional standard upon its members.

The ABI has always been in the vanguard of improving and raising standards in the industry and those who are willing to undergo a rigorous process to become and remain ABI members, together with other professional investigators who care for the future of this industry, their personal and business reputations do so because mandatory licensing has been deferred. Professional investigators fear further deterioration of standards, integrity and financial probity. There exists a feeling of certainty that the lack of regulation represents a potential harm to the general public, corporate clients, local and central government.

Private Investigators were added to the Private Security Industry Act 2001 (PSIA) at the eleventh hour. The ABI provided momentum and chairmanship of the Investigators’ Sector Group, during meetings and negotiations with the Home Office and later the SIA after the PSIA was introduced.

The success and effectiveness of the regulatory regime exercised by the ABI and the professionalism of its membership has been recognised by the Drivers and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) which alone accredits the ABI for access to the on-line vehicle keeper database in certain defined circumstances. Supported, for similar reasons, by the Information Commissioner’s Office and the DVLA, the ABI received the unique endorsement of The Law Society of England and Wales and exclusively included in The Law Society of Scotland scheme for the use of ABI members by their solicitor members for investigative assignments.

To take the professionalism, technical knowledge and ability of the industry to an even higher level, the ABI will shortly be launching the ABI Academy. The rationale is for the Academy to provide training and assessment, leading to a level 3 QCF nationally recognised qualification in Professional Investigation for its members and newcomers to the profession. The qualification is based on the National Operating Standards for Private Investigators. Following satisfactory assessment, the Security Industry Authority (SIA) endorsed the qualification. Level 3 QCF will be the entry level; a pathway leading to QCF Level 7 will be available. A regime of Continual Professional Development will follow, as will training leading to accredited qualifications in specialist subjects such as surveillance, money laundering, insurance fraud investigation etc.

Despite the best efforts of the ABI, the IPI and the determination of some dedicated, honest, professional, unaffiliated private investigators to raise the level of integrity, professionalism, technical knowledge and ability of the sector to protect the public, the fact remains that some have no wish to do so. The reasons for this attitude are speculative and are believed to reflect the cost and effort required, a desire to remain low profile, unaccountable and the fact that effective due diligence and vetting is likely to disqualify a number from consideration.

The activity of investigation in the private sector is well defined in the PSIA; however, the exemptions dilute its effectiveness. For example, had the PSIA been implemented for investigation it is unlikely to have prevented the issues that have surfaced in the "Phone Hacking" Inquiry.

The PSIA introduced the concept of mandatory licensing for private investigators but having suffered from an apparent lack of political will and the off/on abolition of the proposed regulatory authority – the SIA – it appears that it is time for an alternative, such as an enforceable form of self-regulation for all investigators in the private sector, to be considered.

Continual delays in implementing licensing and fear that the proposed statutory regulation would be an insufficient probe into the suitability for such a position of trust, which would be granted to licence holders, led the ABI to improve its own criteria. This has resulted in the current self regulation of its 500 plus members who adhere to the voluntary, strictly disciplined, regime set out in its Code of Ethics & Professional Standards and robustly enforced Bye-Laws.

The strategic objective of the ABI is to transform the industry into a properly recognised, respected, self regulating profession through the award of a Royal Charter. The ABI has invited other representative bodies, to meet to propose that they join the ABI in forming this wider, inclusive body. The self-regulation of private investigators in the private sector would be at no cost to the public purse, initially funded (in part) by the ABI whose objective of Chartered status, will become feasible when membership increases as this proposal finds favour and support.

The ABI’s current form of self-regulation is twofold. In the first instance it is performed in its membership criteria, all of which is stringently checked prior to granting membership. The criteria requirements are as follows:

i. A credit check to ensure any applicant and applicant’s business or businesses is clear of any monetary judgment or insolvency.

ii. Any applicant is obliged to produce a Criminal Conviction Certificate (Basic Disclosure) conforming to the ABI’s policy (based on the SIA’s criteria), which certificate throughout membership must be no older than three years.

iii. Any applicant or applicant’s business must be Notified as a Data Controller with the Information Commissioner’s Office.

iv. Any applicant must provide two professional referees from whom the ABI takes up references.

v. Any applicant is interviewed by an ABI selection panel and assessed as to membership suitability.

vi. Production of proof of identity and residence is mandatory at any interview.

vii. All applicants are required to sit an examination based on the ABI’s Best Practice Guide which deals with pertinent laws on investigative activities, principally the Data Protection Act 1998.

viii. Any applicant and (where applicable) the applicant’s business must hold a policy of Professional Indemnity Insurance at the minimum level of cover (currently £250,000)

ix. Applicant details are circulated among the membership to afford existing members the opportunity to advise the panel beforehand of any reason, supported by evidence, why any applicant may be considered unsuitable for membership. Any such representations received are fully investigated by the Membership Selection Committee.

The second part of the self-regulation process is the enforcement, compliance and disciplinary procedures, which include:

i. Rolling audits to ensure members meet all the above on-going requirements.

ii. Random checks of members marketing material (principally their web sites), to ensure services offered are within the restraints of law, morally inoffensive, not misleading or displaying any unauthorised trade marks or suggestion of an affiliation with DVLA, The Law Societies, Information Commissioner’s Office or any other institution with whom the ABI enjoys endorsement or good relations.

iii. A disciplinary process to deal with non-compliance or breaches of the Bye-Laws.

iv. A disciplinary process to fully investigate any complaint received about a member.

There is no requirement in the UK for the registration or licensing of private investigators. Recent enquiry reveals there are currently 2,000 agencies notified with the Information Commissioner listing "Private Investigation" as a Purpose. This does not include in-house, employed investigative personnel, loss adjusters, bailiffs, debt collectors, investigative journalists etc. In its pursuit of Royal Charter Status the ABI will need to recruit into its self-regulated body, worthy private investigators currently in this unregulated and unquantified reservoir.

It is likely central funding, predicted to be in the low six figure bracket to assist set-up, may be required. A suggestion to consider would be a loan, repayable on agreed terms after a five year period. The ABI would underwrite 25% of any agreed initial funding.

Evidence of the success of the ABI’s steps to protect the general public is the fact that since compulsory CRB checks were introduced, not a single ABI member has been arrested, summoned or convicted of any criminal offence. It is a fact that the only effectively vetted, regulated and accountable private investigators in the UK today are the members of the ABI.

The ABI submits that currently there is an even greater need for a form of regulation of the private investigation industry in the UK. The system of self-regulation the ABI exercises over its individual members is more robust than that proposed in the PSIA and envisaged by the SIA. The ABI recommends its self-regulation model be adopted for the wider regulation of the industry.


i. The ABI has existed for 99 years.

ii. It is generally accepted that regulation is necessary. The principal strand of the ABI’s strategy is to bring about self-regulation of investigators in the private sector (including in-house) and for that self-regulation to eventually come under the aegis of the Chartered Institute of Investigators. The essence of the proposal is as follows:

a. Training, leading to:

b. Competency Assessment:

c. Entry Level Qualification: IQ (Industry Qualifications) QCF Level 3 in Professional Investigation. Pathway to Level 7.

d. Vetting: To include checking references, CRB and financial probity.

e. PII Insurance: Mandatory.

f. Acceptance into membership: Entry onto public register.

g. Regulation: Work to Codes of Ethics & Professional Standards and Bye-Laws. Under the supervision of an independent Disciplinary Chairman, continual periodic checks of financial probity, exposure to complaint investigation, disciplinary procedure and range of penalties from caution to expulsion. Annual membership renewal subject to current PII certificate, financial probity and CRB checks [at Standard level].

h. Continual Professional Development:

iii. The ABI cares about this with a passion as it seeks to improve sections in order to better protect society and further enhance Private Investigation to a wholly acknowledged profession. There are two significant hurdles to achieving this:

a. That the ABI can show it represents a significant number of those who should be regulated.

b. The ABI can not achieve this without the aforementioned number being known.

iv. There are in effect two types of what the ABI would refer to as private investigators. The differences between the two groups can be summarised as follows:

a. A group of ethical, private investigators who, wishing to evidence their ethical status, competence and desire for longevity in this industry, have chosen to subject themselves to the rigours of vetting, competency testing and a robust yet fair system of complaints and discipline, through membership of a respectable professional body, in order to satisfy the public that they are to be trusted.  It is believed that the total number of private investigators in this category number less than 1,000.

b. An unknown and constantly changing number of transient individuals who try their hand at investigation, surveillance and/or information broking, on a temporary basis on their journey through their working life. Added to this are those practicing, notwithstanding their criminal past, lack of financial probity and/or ethical practices.  Although, to their credit some of these individuals have succeeded, for reasons which remain speculative, they have been unwilling or unable to provide any tangible evidence of, ethics, competence, permanence, or in an endeavour to protect their customers, to be accountable to a respectable professional body for their actions.

v. Statutory regulation through the SIA is an option but the ABI submits that for a position of such trust the activity of professional investigators requires closer scrutiny and accountability in order to protect the public and commerce.

vi. The ABI recommendation is envisaged to be at no cost to the public purse.

January 2012

Prepared 13th March 2012