HC Deb 30 April 1969 vol 782 cc1443-6
Mr. Tony Gardner (Rushcliffe)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the registration and control of private detectives, investigators and certain other persons engaged in obtaining information about private citizens; and for purposes connected with the matters aforesaid. During recent years there has been a great increase in the amount of spying and prying into our personal secrets. Government Departments require a great deal of information to carry out the economic and social legislation which this House has enacted. But so do private agencies—credit agencies, prospective employers, and many other people. The range of these inquiries is increasing all the time.

I have in my hand a brochure issued by one of the larger firms of private investigators in London. Among the areas which are inquired into are the following: divorce, status inquiries, tracings, repossessions, fraud, internal thefts, embezzlement, industrial espionage, blackmail cases, insurance claims, contested wills, patent infringements and lost relatives.

The point which disturbs me and those who support the Bill is that new methods are now being used. The revolution which has taken place in the electronics industry following the introduction of the transistor has made it possible for the investigator into our private lives no longer to have to hide under the bed, in the wardrobe, or in a very damp shrubbery. By using modern electronic devices, he can investigate and record what we are doing, often from some distance away. During recent weeks I have seen electronic devices for this purpose that would make hon. Members' hair stand on end.

The Englishman's home used to be his castle, but increasingly his home is now open to both public and private gaze. It may be that some of the public and private collecting of information is really necessary—we do not live in a perfect world—but, clearly, a comprehensive new law about the right to individual privacy is now needed.

Hon. Members of both Houses of Parliament have been trying for some time to get such legislation. In 1961, Lord Mancroft, introduced a Right to Privacy Bill in the other place. Unfortunately, that Bill got no further than Second Reading. In February, 1967, my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon) was given leave to introduce a similar Bill in this House. Later that same year the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) initiated a debate on the subject of the rights and liberties of the individual—again with no effect.

Those of us who are associated with the campaign being conducted by the National Council for Civil Liberties for the right to privacy hope very much that the Government will take the initiative and will introduce in the near future comprehensive legislation in what is admittedly a very difficult sphere.

In the meantime, the Bill which I seek leave to introduce today seeks to deal with the particular problem of the private investigator. When a policeman or any public servant investigating a personal matter breaks the rules or behaves in a manner which this House would find objectionable, we can ultimately question his conduct here or perhaps in some other place. But there is no one available to keep an eye on the "private eye".

Therefore, the Bill will require, first, that anyone acting as an inquiry agent on any matter passing through the courts must be authorised to do so by a written certificate issued by a county court judge who will have to satisfy himself that the applicant is a fit and proper person to hold such a certificate. The applicant, furthermore, will be required to take out a bond in the sum of £1,000.

The device which I have adopted puts the private investigator in a similar position to the well-recognised position of the bailiff who is regarded, in effect, as an officer of the court in matters with which the court is concerned.

Secondly, the Bill will provide that, in the event of misconduct, the court will be able to withdraw the certificate and require the surrender of all or part of the bond. That will mean not merely that the judge to whom the application is made would have to make inquiries about the person applying, but that the insurance company issuing the bond would have to be certain about his financial responsibility before issuing such a bond.

Thirdly, the Bill will require the Lord Chancellor to maintain a central list of all the certificates which have been issued by county courts and also a list of those to whom certificates had been refused for one reason or another. He would be further authorised to make any rules which might be necessary to carry out the objects of registration.

No one likes more rules and regulations. The trouble is that, unlike medicine and the law, the sphere of private investigation has no single professional body which can regulate the activities of private detectives. During the last few months I have had many discussions with people operating in this area. It has been very difficult to get firm evidence and views from anyone because there are so many associations and one is never sure who belongs to which.

As matters stand, there is nothing to stop a man coming out of prison tomorrow—he may have been convicted of blackmail—putting an advertisement in one of the London evening newspapers, setting up in business as a private detective, and thereby getting hold of information which might not merely be embarrassing to the individual, but could be personally very damaging.

Although some activities—forcible entry, telephone tapping and the use of radio transmitters—are illegal, it is well-nigh impossible to control their use because a private detective, by definition, must operate in private. At least we ought to ensure that those who seek this kind of information are honourable men and women. Most people in the profession are honourable. All I seek to do is to ensure that this honour is maintained in a profession doing a difficult job.

The House has always regarded the rights of the individual as extremely important, and privacy is an important part of those rights. For this reason, I hope that the House will give me leave to introduce the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Gardner, Mr. Lubbock, Dame Joan Vickers, Mrs. Joyce Butler, Mr. Fisher, Sir G. de Freitas, and Mr. Raymond Fletcher.