September 10, 2013 10:18 pm

UK data chief warns on ‘blag’ list

logo of the Serious Organised Crime Agency

MPs have been warned not to publish a secret list of City companies who hired rogue private detectives because this would impede attempts to bring criminals to justice.

The intervention from Christopher Graham, the information commissioner, raised the stakes in a row between parliament’s home affairs committee and law enforcement agencies over whether details of 102 clients of corrupt private eyes should be made public.

Last week the committee gave the Serious Organised Crime Agency a seven-day deadline to publish the dossier, but the police unit refused to do so because it would be “detrimental” to investigations. The MPs must now decide whether they themselves will reveal the names.

Appearing in front of the committee on Tuesday Mr Graham, who has just started his own investigation into the companies and individuals concerned, said that publishing the list would make his job “even more complicated”.

“If we get a great blaze of headlines and then everybody knows who [the clients] are, everybody can start trashing documents, comparing notes, and whatever,” the information commissioner said.

The clients include insurance companies, law firms, financial service companies and two celebrities. They are accused of hiring sleuths who illegally accessed private data, such as bank records and medical details, by “blagging” or obtaining information by deceit.

Although Soca has been collecting the names of those who used corrupt investigators for the past seven years, the information commissioner only received the 31 folders of evidence from the agency late last month. Scotland Yard is also investigating nine of the clients, and has asked the committee to wait.

Mr Graham told MPs that he hoped to use the evidence to bring both criminal cases and civil orders against the clients. But he made clear this would not be easy.

“The individuals concerned may not know anything about it and it’s going to make the job of running those who have done something wrong to justice infinitely more difficult,” he told MPs.

“If you insist on publishing, it will make it very difficult for me and my staff to get those convictions and to impose that regulatory action,” he added. “We are up against some very smart lawyers who will use every trick in the book to get their clients off.”

The MPs put up a strong defence of their intention to publish, saying that after seven years of inaction by Soca it was in the public interest to name the clients and avoid further delay. They also questioned whether the six staff deployed to the information commissioners’ investigation would be able to make sufficient progress.

But Mr Graham hit back accusing police, courts and MPs of not taking data protection breaches by private investigators seriously.

He urged the committee to push harder for an end to the “weedy penalties” currently imposed on those who obtain information by “blagging”.

“Rather than have a debate about whether or not we’re going to publish the list, couldn’t we see action on the floor of the House demanding that that legislation is commenced, so that we can take effective action against this unlawful trade?” the commissioner said.

The committee is due to meet tomorrow to discuss publication of the list, but it is expected they will delay until Mr Graham has completed a “scoping” exercise in early October.

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