Private Investigators - Home Affairs Committee Contents

1  The role of the private investigator

What do private investigators do?

5.  Private investigators in the UK are not subject to direct licensing or regulation. Powers to regulate under the Private Security Industry Act 2001 have not been commenced. According to the Institute of Professional Investigators, part of the reason that investigators were not regulated under the previous Government was the difficulty of defining what it is they do.[3] The Act defined private investigation as:

any surveillance, inquiries or investigations that are carried out for the purpose of—(a) obtaining information about a particular person or about the activities or whereabouts of a particular person; or (b) obtaining information about the circumstances in which or means by which property has been lost or damaged.[4]

6.  In the popular imagination, a private investigator is a lone operator, hired to solve a particular conundrum. This image remains accurate in some cases, but the solo sleuth is joined in the market by a range of small- and medium-sized enterprises and by a number of major corporations, which undertake large corporate contracts. The Data Protection Act 1998 required all private investigators (and others) processing personal information to register themselves as a data controller with the Information Commissioner's Office. As of January 2012, some 2,032 registered data controllers claimed they were operating a business as a private investigator. Threshold Security believed that there were between 3,000 and 10,000 investigators operating in the UK.[5]

7.  The tools of the trade are also far more varied than the popular image. Invasive field work, such as direct surveillance and face-to-face inquiry still play a prominent part in the work of many investigators. However, for many others the mainstay of the work is desk-based, conducted through the Internet. Investigators emphasised that they make extensive use of open-source data, such as the Land Registry, the Register of Births, Deaths and Marriages and the Electoral Roll. Often, private investigators are highly skilled in their trade, with a background in the police, customs, intelligence and security services, military security or intelligence, journalism, academia, accountancy, or the law.[6] For example, the Ravenstone Group told us that they primarily selected staff with experience in the police forces or Financial Services Authority to meet its clients' requirements.[7]


8.  Private investigators have often been involved in tracing witnesses or serving people with court documents, on behalf of lawyers. Law firms may also employ private investigators for surveillance or background checks, or to obtain evidence for use in court.[8] Dan Morrison, of Grosvenor Law LLP, told us that "most lawyers, particularly in litigation matters, would regularly instruct investigators".[9]

9.  Other investigators told us that their work was focused on helping others to fulfil their legal requirements, for example in relation to the Bribery Act 2010, the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 and anti-money laundering regulations. GPW said that its use of the term "investigation" primarily related to the due diligence investigations. The work required "collation and analysis of legal, commercial, media and other material both directly accessible from the public domain and also expressed as opinions of informed individuals whose independent views we seek on behalf of our clients".[10]

10.  We also conducted a survey of newspapers and local councils, which revealed that there was significant use of private investigators by media organisations and public authorities. In most cases, investigators were used to serve papers or to obtain basic information available in open-source records. However, investigators were also employed on more sensitive issues, such as detection and prevention of potential insurance fraud or child protection cases.[11]


11.  Private investigators may also have a place in the changing landscape of law enforcement. Some police forces are beginning an experiment in procuring services previously carried out by police officers from private companies (through the national procurement hub) and there is some overlap between the firms that run private investigation services and those that are expected to undertake a policing role, such as G4S.[12] Moreover, the police will be facing cuts of 20% during this Parliament and may not be able to continue to undertake the full range of investigations they do at the moment.

12.  We were told that private investigators had already helped to save billions of pounds for UK companies, taxpayers and the economy through their work in fraud detection.[13] For example, Cerberus is a major player in the defence of intellectual property rights.[14] Cerberus and other firms have used "trap purchase techniques" and undercover practices to assist in the recovery of stolen goods, working alongside local law enforcement agencies as well as the owners themselves.[15] According to the Surveillance Group, in 2011 the insurance industry suffered losses of over £2 billion through fraud, which could be reduced by surveillance evidence gathered by private investigators.[16]

13.  Several witnesses believed that as police cuts take effect, private investigators would step into the breach.[17] We heard that investigators often take up cases that are very important to the public, but too small or too complicated for the police to deal with. The Association of British Investigators said that finite police resources meant that "the investigation of business crime appears not to be a priority for the police service". The Association told us that victims of crime were even advised by the police to instruct private investigators, as they do in civil matters, to gather sufficient evidence to assist in a police investigation.[18] The Information Commissioner's Office agreed that official channels offered scant assistance in the recovery of some unpaid debts and other legitimate civil purposes, in which private investigators were a feasible option.[19] Dan Morrison suggested that, in London, the Metropolitan Police, the City of London Economic Crime Unit and the Serious Fraud Office may not investigate a commercial fraud unless "very significant sums of money" were involved, because of limited resources.[20]

14.  Steve Bishop told us that there had been suggestions that the security industry could become "part of the police family". He believed that evidence from professional investigators could be relied upon in court and that investigators could undertake investigations on behalf of the police and described his experience in murder investigations, with a mix of warranted and non-warranted officers, many of whom benefited from their knowledge as former police officers.[21] The Ravenstone Group said that its evidence was regularly presented in both civil and criminal courts without challenge.[22]

15.  The business of private investigators is essentially the gathering and reporting of information, with a premium paid for information that is more difficult to obtain, confidential or important to the buyer. They undertake tasks that are important to an individual and to a business and often fulfil and important social role. In future, it is possible that increasing numbers of investigations that are now undertaken by police will fall to private investigators, though whether this is desirable is a matter for further debate.

16.  In its response to this Report, we recommend the Government sets out its assessment of which policing roles could appropriately be undertaken by private investigators and which should not; how it believes cuts to police funding will affect the involvement of private investigators in law-enforcement; and what part private investigators will have in the new landscape of policing. In particular, given the evidence we received, it will be important that this assessment includes an analysis of the role of private investigators in fraud detection, recovery of stolen goods, maintenance of public order and major investigations, such as murder inquiries, with a statement of the risks associated with the involvement of private investigators in each of these areas.

3   Ev w9 [Institute of Professional Investigators] Back

4   Private Security Industry Act 2001 Schedule 2 Section 4 Back

5   Ev w6 [Threshold Security] Back

6   Ev w17 [Bishop International] Back

7   Ev w22 [Ravenstone Group] Back

8   Q 403 [Julian Pike]; Ev 64 [ABI] Back

9   Q 403 [Dan Morrison] Back

10   Ev w23 [GPW] Back

11   Ev 85-86 [survey results] Back

12   Home Affairs Committee, Work of the Permanent Secretary (April-December 2011), Second Report of Session 2012-13, HC 145, 29 May 2012 Back

13   Q 416 [Dan Morrison] Back

14   Ev w16 [Cerberus Investigations Ltd] Back

15   Ev w17 [Cerberus Investigations Ltd] Back

16   Ev w7 [The Surveillance Group Ltd] Back

17   Ev 64 [ABI] Back

18   Ev 65 [ABI] Back

19   Ev 70 [ICO] Back

20   Q 416 [Dan Morrison] Back

21   Ev w17 [Steve Bishop] Back

22   Ev w22 [Ravenstone Group] Back

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Prepared 6 July 2012