Sitting in a locked cupboard in the middle of the Parliamentary Estate is a document that contains 102 names which so far has been seen by less than a dozen people. The resignation this week of the Chairman of The Serious and Organisation Crime Agency (SOCA) has ended an extraordinary 14 days for a body that is charged with the critical task of disrupting, investigating and bringing to justice some of the most dangerous people in the UK. Sir Ian Andrews’s decision, which he said was a matter of integrity, also provides SOCA with an opportunity to put into the public domain information that is in the public interest to disclose.
The Home Affairs Select Committee concluded its first report into Private Investigators exactly one year ago. It followed public anger at the activities of some private investigators who had broken the law in order to provide services to their clients in the newspaper industry. At that stage it was perceived to be a media problem, although it now has become apparent that the problem was much more widespread. The use of PIs who have been engaging in criminality with impunity was shockingly rife as confirmed by the categories of individuals, organisations and firms in the SOCA list.
Our report made several recommendations, principally the adoption of a regulatory system. It is normal practice that Governments respond to Select Committee Reports within 3 months but there has been a surprising dragging of feet and a strange silence from Ministers. The only one who said anything about SOCA’s report was the then Security Minster Lynne Featherstone who told the Committee she hadn’t even read it. We told her to go away and do just that. This week I was pleased to see the Home Secretary at last announce her intention to bring in the regulation of PIs.
In his Inquiry into media and ethics Lord Leveson was asked to focus solely on the press. All major political parties have accepted the conclusions of his Inquiry. The Prime Minister has re-confirmed his wish to extend the Inquiry into a second part, primarily looking at the police. This cannot go ahead until criminal proceedings have concluded. The time taken by Lord Leveson’s first inquiry, its limited scope and the delayed response fuels the need for an all encompassing second inquiry. The focus should also be on all those that have used PIs not just on the press and the police. It is remarkable that organisations and individuals, who operate in industries which can affect your freedom, review companies’ accounts, or even appear in the pages of celebrity magazines, have been employing private investigators who have been convicted of criminal activity. The clients involved are so diverse that this latest controversy has the potential to become even more serious than the examples shown in the first Leveson Inquiry.
The existence of the SOCA list wouldn’t have been known had the Home Affairs Select Committee not posed a cursory question when Sir Ian and his Director General Trevor Pearce appeared before it last month. Following a formal request SOCA provided us with the two lists, the first of 8 clients used in the Millipede Operation, and the second of 94 which were judged not relevant to Millipede. In sending us this information SOCA decided to classify it. This prevented its publication which is standard practice for all evidence submitted to Parliament. Receiving the information in this way placed the Committee in a difficult position. We were asked to be part of a secret club. If we cannot publish the list it will remain locked up gathering dust, limiting democracy, transparency and accountability. In the meantime we will have the drip, drip, drip of admission rather than the flood of truth needed. Publishing the categories of organisations and individuals involved was an important step forward towards full disclosure.
The reasons for the demand for secrecy remain obscure. SOCA’s insistence is due to the fact that some time in the future the police may want to investigate these organisations and individuals or that the Information Commissioner may want to prosecute. SOCA also said that the Committee “will of course make its own decisions regarding this matter”. This raises questions on who’s authority and for what reason SOCA classified the list as confidential. Despite me directly asking them this in a letter on 25th July, the Committee is yet to receive a satisfactory answer to this question.
The only way to test the reasoning behind keeping the list confidential is by establishing the likelihood and timescale of any new investigations. I was therefore very surprised to have received in the last 24 hours a letter from Commander Neil Bassu, who is doing an excellent job heading the Met’s investigation, informing me that SOCA gave the list to the Met only 96 hours ago. In other words SOCA had not even handed the lists to the Met until after we announced the publication of the categories on the list on Wednesday of this week. They have not acted with the urgency that this matter deserves. They were attempting to rely on a future event as a reason for keeping the list secret. This is even more puzzling considering the joint statement released on 12th July 2013 by SOCA and the Met which stated that ‘the MPS has been given full access to all material held by SOCA’. Clearly this was not the case. It is amazing that these lists were held by SOCA without the Police being told.
SOCA appears to have had the information on this list for years and not acted upon it. Both SOCA and the police will be giving further evidence to us on 3rd September. However, given the events of the last week SOCA should now review the classification on these documents and reconsider their objection to publication. In just 9 weeks time SOCA will be abolished, this is an excellent opportunity to clear it’s in tray. More than this, we need to get on and start the process for Leveson part 2 with an extended scope that goes beyond what the Prime Minister announced. Without action now there is a danger that matters will drag on for years, or worse still, be buried for good. That would be an affront to our democracy.