The transcripts of the official inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press. More…

  • MR DAVID PALMER (sworn).

  • Mr Palmer, make yourself comfortable, please, and then can you tell us your full name.

  • My full name is David Charles Palmer.

  • Are the contents of your witness statement true and correct to the best of your knowledge and belief?

  • You tell us that you are the Principal of the Institute of Professional Investigators, which I shall refer to as the IPI from now on. You are also a serving police officer, currently based at the financial crime unit, Fraud Squad, of the Heddlu Gwent Police, if I haven't done violence to the pronunciation. You've previously had six years in the Royal Air Force police and 26 years in the Gwent police in various roles, including being in the criminal investigation department in 2002 and the Fraud Squad in 2006.

    You joined the Institute in 1990 and you've been a fellow since 1995, and on the board since 1996. Principal, 2001 to 2003 and then again from 2010 to the present.

    It's important, you remind us, to recognise that you are submitting this statement and your evidence is given in your capacity as principal of the IPI and not in any way as a police officer.

  • You tell us then a little bit more about the IPI. It was formed in 1976, when it broke away from the ABI because of the wish to create an academic arm to the trade association. Can I be clear, please, is it right that you can be a member of both the ABI and the IPI?

  • And you are a more academic organisation than the ABI?

  • That would be accurate, yes.

  • Do you have any idea what the sort of membership overlap is?

  • We've recently sought to find that out and found that it was quite difficult to do quickly, but I think it was in the region of 50, but that would be a semi blind guess.

  • What is your current membership, please?

  • It's right, isn't it, although we needn't go into the details at all, that there is perhaps a possibility of a merger between the ABI --

  • It is under discussion, yes.

  • -- and the IPI?

    You then set out the objects of the Institute, which I won't read out, they will be available to the website, and then the Code of Ethics. The Code of Ethics requires a promise from a member:

    "To conduct myself with honesty, integrity and to uphold the highest moral principles and avoid conduct detrimental to my profession; to conduct all investigations within the bounds of legality, morality and professional ethics; to guard my own professional reputation and that of my professional associates; and to uphold the objects of the Institute and abide by the Memorandum and Articles of Association of the Institute of Professional Investigators."

    Can I ask you now, how many instances have you had of members being disciplined for failing to live up to those ethical standards?

  • My own experience was we conducted one, shall we say, appeal against a finding of culpability in respect of one member who had allegedly breached client confidentiality in that he'd used a film of a surveillance on the television, I think it was local television, and the client involved disputed the investigator's claim that the investigator had permission to use that film. That's the only occasion I know of where we've had a hearing, as such.

    Other complaints have been made, but they're usually about the size of an investigator's bill, which is purely a contractual matter between the client and the investigator, unsubstantiated, unclear allegations of an investigator's behaviour where a solicitor's made a representation on behalf of a client but refused to identify who the client was, so we applied the principles of fairness and said, "Without evidence, we can't really conduct an investigation", and that's pretty much the extent, my recollection, of any disciplinary issues with the Institute.

  • We've heard from the last witness that Mr Derek Webb, he understands, was a member of the IPI. That's obviously a fact which has recently been asserted. Would you be able to check the membership records and inform the Inquiry as to whether or not that is correct?

  • I have conducted a check today, having been made aware of it, and I conducted a check a while back when the name first came up. All I can tell you from our records, checks today, that he has not been a member for the fast three to four years, possibly five. Mr Imossi showed me the certificate, which was dated 2005, and it may well be he joined and then resigned or just failed to renew his subscriptions, but he's not currently a member.

  • I think he was encouraged to become a journalist. I think that was his evidence, wasn't it?

  • Yes, it was, and so his membership must have been historic on any view. Do your records extend far enough back for you to verify it or are you accepting from what you've seen this morning that he was at some stage a member of the IPI?

  • We are seeking to verify the extent of his membership.

  • Thank you. If you could let us know in due course what the outcome of your research is, we would be grateful.

    You tell us a little bit about the organisation. It has articles of association and by-laws, a board of governors supported by a secretariat, disciplinary procedures, which might, at the top of the scale, culminate in dismissal. And you tell us then that the membership requirements are to have NVQ level 4 in investigations or something equivalent. Does that set quite a high threshold for membership of the IPI?

  • Only on it was established that level 4 NVQs required a level of management qualification or experience and that was a decision made early on by the then board. Subsequently, NVQs fell into disuse. There were a few people that went through it, but it fell into disuse, so we couldn't really use it as our benchmark.

    What we have now is an assessment admissions committee, who look at the qualifications submitted by an applicant and decide on a level of participation based on those qualifications. What we try to do is keep them as high as possible, but we're also cogent of the fact that in the IPI, and this is where the term "private investigators" becomes a confusion, because a lot of our members aren't -- they are investigators and they work in the private sector, but they're not what a member of the public would understand a private investigator to be. For example, we have one forensic tax accountant, and we've had forensic accountants in the past.

    So identifying a qualification that fits a generic membership level is difficult. We have to look at individual qualifications and decide if that fits our bill, as it were.

  • You explain that the high level of membership at fellowship level requires either a higher qualification, recognition of an acceptable 8,000 word thesis on an investigatory subject, and you can also have honorary fellowships.

    You go on to tell us that the IPI is highly vociferous in support of licensing for investigators and would have preferred that high competency levels and qualifications had been sought by the SIA in its deliberations. In fact, the position is that there isn't any statutory regulation of private investigators at all --

  • -- at the moment, is there, so your preference for a high level of regulation has to be contrasted with the grand truth, which is that there is none at all.

  • My statement was making reference, if you like, to what the SIA in one of their later consultation documents suggested would be the level of qualification, where somebody would be expected to have competencies in five areas that would require them to undergo 60 hours' training. That would be an exceptionally basic level of training if somebody could learn their trade in 60 hours.

    At the high end, you can imagine we could have taken I believe it's Spain's template, where you have to have a degree before you can become a private investigator. That in itself would have been unworkable in the UK, I suspect. So what we would like is something that equates to perhaps -- and we explored this some years ago -- a legal executive. Somebody who is not expected to have the entire legal knowledge expected to run a law practice, but have sufficient to be able to assist a law practice.

    An investigator should in our mind have something at that level of knowledge, experience, competency, as it were. But as things stood with the SIA and for reasons which we fully understand, they had to go to a basic level because, again because of the breadth of nature of investigative work, trying to get a one size fits all competency was exceptionally difficult.

  • You tell us that the industry provides a distance learning course for investigators and the very first module deals with ethics and standards. Is that because ethics and standards are regarded as so fundamental to the work of your members?

  • Is the distance learning available outside non-members?

  • It's Internet-based, so you pay your fee and you can take as long as you want to undertake it, and there is the logistically influenced possibility of an examination at the end, which if passed and subject to any other criteria set by the admissions committee, could result in an award of associate membership with the Institute, but not full membership.

  • Do you think that there is a general lack of training in the industry? Is that your impression?

  • The impression I've got over the years is that the majority of trained investigators have come from an investigative background where they've received training either could be through the forces, through the police, customs, HMRC, that way.

    The training for a private investigator outside those routes has tended to be, for example, provided by a distance learning course, from the Academy of Private Investigation, a BTech level 3. Those have come about pretty much since the suggestion that licensing will come into being. Prior to that, there was pretty much nothing except a couple of distance learning packages provided by -- I think there was one company called Meridian and another one called Streetwise. We looked at them and while we can't comment on the quality of the training packages, what we were conscious of was that they were put together by accountants and businessmen, not investigators.

  • I think your answer, informative as it is, is really talking as to what training is available. I think my question was more directed as to do you think there are significant numbers of people holding themselves out as private investigators who are untrained and subject to no requirement to be trained?

  • Can I explore what anecdotal evidence you might have come across in your position of Principal of the IPI about first of all phone hacking. Was the hacking scandal when it emerged a surprise to you or not?

  • Um ... difficult question. Because my role isn't private investigation, as such, I suppose I was fairly neutral as an individual. In terms of looking at it having become aware of the event, it's not altogether surprising that that sort of thing happened. My own experience in my other role regarded a local self-appointed private investigator who was even being investigated by the local news and they did one of those -- not fly on the wall, exposes, documentaries on him and he was offering to bug people's houses. So the fact that people are out there conducting unlawful activities in the name of private investigation isn't a surprise to me, no.

  • What about blagging? When the Information Commissioner published "What price privacy?", was that a shock to you or not?

  • No, I'm not surprised in the least. I've been aware that in the United States it's been considered a normal practice amongst investigators. Maybe not so much now, because the Americans are becoming more data protection conscious as time goes by, but years ago, phoning someone up and blagging information from them was considered arguably a legitimate investigative technique.

  • You seem to be describing a cultural problem so far as blagging is concerned. Do you think that the -- I think it was described as "shock and awe" by the last witness of the ICO's report, has that had an impact?

  • I've not had any conversation with IPI participants about this specific matter. It's not come up as a matter of conversation, so I am not really in a position to answer that question with any authority.

  • Does the IPI educate its members about the unlawfulness of blagging and intercepting communications?

  • As circumstances arise and events pass in time, we tend to address those problems with articles through our journal The Professional Investigator which is sent by email to all the members who are on email and posted to those who request it. If an issue arises, then we tend to put something in writing and circulate it. If it's more urgent than that, we'll circulate it directly by email, and when the opportunity arises, we'll have a seminar.

    For example, relevant to this particular Inquiry, I think it would have been 2008 or 2009 we had two investigators from the ICO come to our annual general meeting and give a three quarter of an hour presentation on data protection legislation and what was Operation Motorman, the results and their findings and their opinions as to the way forward and what was going on in the private investigation -- information brokers' industry, shall we call it, because we -- as a sector, private investigators like to distance themselves, understandably, from those people who call themselves private investigators. Basically they're information brokers. They go out blagging, obtaining information unethically, shall we say, and passing it on to whoever's willing to pay for that information.

  • Can you help us now with your impression of the size of the market for unlawfully obtained data? To what extent are you able to help us as to the number of people who are out there trying to buy these services?

  • I really can't help on that.

  • Can you help at all with either the importance of the media sector to the industry as a client in general or as to the sorts of services that they're seeking?

  • I'm afraid I can't. I've no -- had no conversation with members where they've discussed the extent of their contact with the media, if any.

  • The ABI have explained in their evidence really quite a detailed screening process for membership. The process you've described is rather different. It's based on an academic threshold. What character checks does the IPI make?

  • We ask for two referees, which are then -- who are contacted and the bona fides of the references checked. We've recently introduced CRB requirements. Obviously that wasn't available to us some years ago, but we've been a bit slower than the ABI in that regard, but it is now a requirement. Bankruptcy checks, CCJ checks and years ago there was very much an everybody knew everybody element to the industry. So our then secretary general was a practising private investigator and he knew someone who'd know somebody who'd know somebody, so there was an undercurrent of "I know that what I'm being told is true because I've investigated it". Our secretariat now is not from the industry, so we rely more on documentary evidence provided by applicants.

  • Proof of identity?

  • Proof of identity and we've also introduced an interview, where appropriate, where a local member would be asked to go and interview the applicant to see whether, for example, you know, if they say they're a professional investigator, are they in fact working from a bedsit or do they have a proper office premises. We suddenly became aware that without these checks we could be letting in the traditional wannabe, somebody who just wants the title of private investigator.

  • Mr Palmer, the real problem is not those who want to get involved in a professional operation; it's the people who don't want to be involved in a professional operation, who are perfectly content to misuse ways of collecting information for their own purposes. Isn't it?

  • Yes, but we would be concerned that they want to use our -- the membership of our Institute --

  • -- as a way of enhancing their ability to do just that.

  • Can I take it that what you would like to see is formal regulation, which means that those who are licensed are thoroughly checked out before they are licensed?

  • Yes. Our preference at the moment would be for licensing by a regulatory authority like the SIA. Alternatively, I was at a conference yesterday where the SIA briefed that another alternative might be self-regulation but with a statutory backing similar to that of the GMC. That too would be acceptable to the IPI. Self-regulation without any statutory backing, I think, would be ineffective.

  • Thank you. Finally can I ask you about your views on a custodial penalty for breach of Section 55 of the Data Protection Act? Where does IPI stand on that issue?

  • We're not averse to the concept of there being a suitably robust punishment for these offences, but at the same time as we're letting rapists and robbers off with relatively light sentences, whether the practicality of a custodial sentence or the threat of a custodial sentence would justify its imposition --

  • Yes, you make it all clear on your website, which is our page 2734, that the comparison of issuing cautions for --

  • -- burglaries or car thefts as opposed to those who sell data, but just to put the thing into context, Mr Graham explained that if the penalty is limited to a financial one, and as you know, courts are always required to have regard to means to pay, those who commit possibly quite serious breaches of the data protection legislation may end up with penalties that are little more than fixed penalties that one might get for extremely trivial regulatory offending, whereas those who are in the business of industrial misuse of data for gain would not be capable of pursuit or sentence at an appropriate level.

  • Yes, I'm reminded of what you said earlier, my Lord, and I thought at the time -- I attended the WAPI conference a while back and a solicitor made the observation and I looked into it and it might be worth considering, if this information is being obtained by fraud, whether the sections 1 and 2 of the Fraud Act 2006 would apply which has a ten-year sentence away.

  • Yes. The interesting problem is the ability to steal information, and if you're working in this area, you will know the problems of that area of the criminal law.

  • I want to stress I'm not averse to the concept of there being a strict punishment. I was only questioning the practicality.

  • Well, I understand that. Nobody is suggesting that loss of liberty would be anything other than for the most egregious, repetitive and deliberately exploitative behaviour.

  • Sir, thank you, that was all that I had for this witness.

  • Thank you very much indeed. Thank you, Mr Palmer.

  • Sir, the next witness is Mr Smith, but before he's called, I've not yet had an opportunity to introduce myself to him. Might I ask for five minutes to do so?

  • Yes. Let me rise for just a few minutes.

  • (A short break)

  • Thank you, sir. Mr Smith is the next witness.