Home Office yet to clarify how police IT systems should be managed nationally

Basic information sharing between forces should be implemented by year end Home Office yet to clarify how police IT systems should be managed nationally

Lindsay Clark

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If you have an important deadline to meet, the last thing you want is for your role to change. And if it did, you would want to know how as soon as possible.

The Home Office does not appear sensitive to this idea when deliberating over the national strategy for police IT. The department has had a report resulting from an end-to-end review of police IT since before Christmas, but it has not responded to it.

In February the Home Office said the report would be available in a few weeks. It said the same in March. By April an election had been called and no announcement could be made until after polling, but a policy was expected around the second week of May, the department said.

Last week a Home Office spokesman said there had never been a timetable for the decision on how police IT should be managed nationally.

Meanwhile, the Police Information Technology Organisation (Pito), the body currently charged with implementing national systems, faces a demanding timetable. The Bichard Report into the Soham murders resulted in a plan for national police IT systems: basic information sharing on all those known to the police by the end of this year - the interim PLX system.

By the end of 2007, the Home Office expects all forces in England and Wales to have started using a national intelligence system, and a requires technical demonstration of the technology by the end of this year.

Yet, at the moment, Pito does not have the power to make forces buy or use national systems. Police authorities are locally accountable for their own spending priorities - and that includes IT. Pito's role is to advise and seek consensus on national standards. It also manages the procurement of national systems, such as the Airwave programme to upgrade mobile voice and data communication, which it sells to forces.

But there has already been strong suggestion that Pito's remit could change, or even be absorbed into another organisation.

Published in November last year, the policy paper Building Communities, Beating Crime said the Home Office would create a National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA) that would mean "significant change" for Pito. "More needs to be done to ensure national consistency and implementation of IT," it said.

"[The NPIA] will pay particular attention to operational support systems including the application of science and technology," the Home Office paper said. "It will have the ability to require forces to implement mission-critical objectives at a rate that it deems appropriate."

Yet IT professionals within police forces will not know what powers will be mandated at a nation level until the Home Office publishes its response to the review of police IT, which is lead by former BOC chief executive Robert McFarland and began in January 2004.

Pito chief executive Phillip Webb said, "I was told it was going to be released in February. I have no control over it; it is a policy and a political decision. I understand that they will release the document in the near future, those are the signs I am getting."

In the meantime, the influence Pito can have over forces' IT has its limits, Webb said. "We need to work more closely with forces, but co-ordinating 43 at the same time is difficult without levers."

Although Webb expects those "levers" to come through the NPIA, plans for that organisation are still undecided. "The NPIA, like everything else, was put to one side during the election and we may see an announcement shortly," said Webb.

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