Do you need a licence to become a private investigator?
This is probably the most frequently asked question we receive from customers enquiring about beginning a career in private investigation. And the simple answer is no, not yet. Anybody who wishes to become a private investigator can simply advertise a phone number and start, with no qualifications or prior experience.
Licensing Private Investigators in the UK – a history
It was first proposed that licensing private investigators should happen in 2001. Progressive members of our community (including ourselves) have long been advocates for this to occur. The Association of British Investigators (ABI) has been a voice for decades campaigning for licensing to regulate the sector. The path to licensing has been long and certainly winding and isn’t complete yet. The voices of government have often announced that it will be implemented, especially if there is a scandal that shocks the public!
Why do we want regulation?
Quite simply, working as a private detective is classed similarly to brothel workers and prostitutes! We are both unlicensed industries. We are not recognised as a professional industry and regulation can only be beneficial.
What are the current problems?
One of the most recent issues was highlighted by the telephone hacking scandals in the press and the subsequent recommendations made by the Leveson Inquiry. A few investigators and journalists took it upon themselves to breach a number of laws and infringe the privacy of several high profile celebrities and members of the Royal Family. The membership level of the ABI stands at approximately the 600 mark, yet, and although it’s hard to confirm an exact figure, it is believed that up to 10,000 people act or masquerade as PI’s in the UK. Licensing private investigators would require all of the remaining 90% plus to be regulated. This would help to clean up the sector and get rid of the cowboys and unprofessional “PI’s” who damage the reputation and good work of the majority. We hear several “take your money and run” from unscrupulous operators. Consequently if you are considering instructing a private investigator we always advise to check they are a member of the ABI. Members abide by a code of conduct and ethics and there is a complaint process if you ever need to use it.
How would regulation solve these problems?
Licensing private investigators and regulating the industry, would allow those unprofessional individuals and rogue companies to be removed from the sector. Don’t get us wrong, there will always be a rogue element, there is in all industries, but at least there would be a framework to deal with the problems. We envisage an industry where everybody is accountable for their actions and one that can punish those who fail to conform to the rules and regulations set in place. The governing body, at this stage most likely to be the SIA and/or the laws surrounding it.
It could allow for some dramatic changes. PI Agencies would perhaps be able to tender for government and local authority contracts to bring competition into the investigation and security sectors. This could help reduce government spending – especially in a time of major austerity measures. Police forces will soon have to look at outsourcing certain investigatory matters to the private sector, for example, perhaps some burglary matters. The home owner often does not really expect the police to investigate a crime of burglary and will not expect the culprit to be brought to justice. The police do not have the resources to treat each burglary with the addition it perhaps deserves. The current set up means that to claim an insurance payout for damages or loss of property requires a crime reference number, and hence the police attendance. This could easily be outsourced to regulated individuals. The insurance company don’t care and will usually pay up without any objection. Please note we are not attempting to trivialise the crime or victims of burglary, but this is the reality and whether they admit it or not the truth regarding the sentiments and actions of the majority of each of the parties involved!
Who would be the major players in regulation of private investigators?
In 2013/4 talks began again between the government, the ABI and the SIA (Security Industry Authority) and it was thought that licensing private investigators was getting closer. The only professional association currently recognised is the ABI (Association of British Investigators). It has two levels of membership, personal and corporate. The personal membership requires applicants to be vetted by completing a criminal record check, checking that the person is fit to act as a private investigator and has the requisite knowledge of laws such as the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) and the Data Protection Act (DPA). They make sure that private investigators hold the necessary professional insurances and their background and history means they are suitable people to act in the capacity of a private investigator.
How could licensing be implemented?
The latest proposals for the format of regulation are still sketchy. They are in debate between the SIA, the ABI, other bodies and the government. It is likely that regulation will involve an element of qualification. Probably an award such as the current EDI level 3 Award in Professional Investigation. Other qualifying factors will include levels of experience within the sector and background checks including financial and criminal record checks. These would mirror similar frameworks for other SIA regulated qualifications. Other rumoured conditions for qualification are being BSO certified as a company, i.e. having strict in house policies and procedures regarding how the business conducts itself internally. This needs much further thought as the majority of private investigators are individuals or sole traders and not companies. There will then more than likely be an element of CPD (Continued Professional Development).
Since the last election and the Conservative party being elected back into parliament there has been a further swing away from the likelihood of licensing private investigators. The last push came from the Labour government in 2013/4. With the Conservatives not having to appease the Liberal Democrats it seems that licensing is further away.
With this we have seen a decline in those taking and enquiring to take the EDI level 3 award in professional investigation – so much so, we are not currently offering this award. Many existing PI’s are waiting to see what will be required before getting qualifications. Many are concerned that the regulatory costs will be a barrier to entry or staying in the industry. We don’t share that view, because all you need to master is how to make money from being a private investigator!
The likelihood of regulation and the licensing private investigators is inevitable. However, only time will tell as it has been on the cards for over 14 years already. The sooner the better for those of us who realise that regulation is for the better.