IN HIS 38 years as an investigator, Frank Battes has lost count of how many people he has put under surveillance. Now he is watching his fellow detectives - as a national vocational qualifications assessor.
As a course tutor for Nationwide Investigations Group, the detective agency, he is busy getting the company's 60 operatives qualified. The firm is the first investigation agency in the UK to train up its agents to NVQ level 3 and 4.
The move is prompted by impending government legislation which will require all members of the security industry to be licensed. Battes also wants training in the private investigation business to become statutory.
"There are a lot of cowboys in this industry," he says. "Lots of cowboys. This is a means of weeding them out, isn't it? The Government is going to licence us. But the only proposals they have put forward are that we shouldn't have a criminal record and we should be financially sound. We are saying that's all very admirable, but how does that show the potential client that we are competent to handle their problems?" Frank Battes is a gravel-voiced, cigar-smoking former CID officer from the East End of London. He is acknowledged by colleagues as having an encyclopaedic knowledge of the business.
He laughs hoarsely as he describes how television has portrayed his profession. He says clients often have a glamorous picture of private eyes' work and unrealistic ideas of what they can legally do.
The reality, he says, is often dull, painstaking work, sometimes lasting weeks. "If you spent three days with us, you'd be really bored," he says. "The most mundane things thrill us. Just to get that one piece of information that squares the circle is a bonus. Great - got it!" Then there are the deadlines. As we speak, one agent has been working around the clock to try to track down a witness for a court case. "It's ten to 11 now - we have about two hours to locate him and get him served for it to be valid," says Battes.
Suppose I want to become a private investigator. How do I do it? There is no established route. Nationwide Investigations Group is trying to change this. The company also operates a training "academy" offering distance learning for would-be recruits.
Battes heaves a weighty ring-binder on to the table. "And this is just half the modules," he says. The contents would be an eye-opener for anyone who thinks private investigation work is about car chases and wearing grubby raincoats.
Private detectives need to develop a sound knowledge of the law. There are modules on process serving, affidavits, the power of arrest, as well as criminal investigations, surveillance and tracing missing persons.
What qualities do I need to be a private eye? "One has to be inquisitive and sympathetic. You might think I'm gilding the lily, but everybody who instructs you - be it the little old lady who hasn't seen a relative for 30 years, or the managing director who has trouble within his company - has a problem, and you have to be able to empathise."
Alistair Hipperson has been an agent with Nationwide for 18 years. Now Frank Battes is assessing him as he works towards his NVQ level 3, listening in as he instructs another agent to go on a surveillance job.
Isn't it trying having someone snooping on you when you're trying to snoop on someone else?
"It's no problem at all," insists Hipperson. "I welcome it. It's something that should have been around a long time ago. Anything that raises levels of proficiency and competence has to be welcome. This is such a complex profession. There's just a wealth of information. We are dealing with the laws of the land and they're so complex you don't leave it to chance."