MPs are becoming increasingly frustrated at the Home Office's decision to put back the roll-out of a national police intelligence system to 2010 - 16 years after it was first proposed.
They are particularly concerned because the system in question was described as "a matter of urgency" by Michael Bichard in his 2004 report into the Soham murders.
Eric Illsley, Labour MP for Barnsley Central, said the government had waited until after the final report from the Bichard Inquiry in March last year before announcing its intention to put back the delivery of a national police intelligence system from 2007 to 2010 and expanding the budget for the project to about ｣2bn.
The Bichard Inquiry was set up to investigate the police handling of the murder of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells in Soham in 2002. Bichard said the police needed a national system for sharing intelligence between forces after it emerged that Ian Huntley, who murdered the schoolgirls, had been given a job at a Soham school even though other police forces had investigated reports that he had inappropriate contact with young girls.
The Home Office and successive home secretaries were heavily criticised by Bichard for failing to take the lead in developing an intelligence system for the whole of the UK. Plans for such a system were, in fact, laid down in the National Strategy for Police Information Systems in 1994, but they were dropped in 2000, just as police chiefs were agreeing a National Intelligence Model designed to place intelligence at the heart of policing.
In March last year, Bichard published his final report, which detailed the government's promise to introduce the new system, dubbed Impact, during 2007. The same commitment was published in the Police IT Organisation (Pito) business plan in July last year. However, by November the Home Office said it would put back delivery of the system to 2010.
In the Bichard Inquiry Recommendations Second Progress Report, the Home Office said, "The Impact programme has been radically re-engineered and strengthened as the basis for incremental improvements to police information management and sharing. Direct sharing of information will roll out to forces progressively between 2007 and 2010."
Illsley said, "The Home Office waited until after Bichard made his final report, then moved the goal posts after realising it had committed itself to too much."
Liberal Democrat MP Martin Horwood said in parliament that it was upsetting that the Impact system had been delayed.
"The home secretary said in the introduction to the Bichard Inquiry Recommendations Second Progress Report in November that Impact was 'in place'. It is clearly not in place. It might have achieved some of its milestones but it is not in place on a national scale."
Explaining the delay, a spokesman for the Home Office said, "The timetable was one we put on ourselves, but when we looked at it in greater detail and saw the size, scale and importance of the project we realised it would take a bit longer."
This statement suggests that although Pito had worked on Impact for a year following Bichard's initial recommendations, it had not established the scale of the project. The Home Office spokesman could not explain why this was the case, but said Pito's work would form a "building block" for the national system.
One of the problems in national police computing is that Pito has never had mandatory powers over police forces, which are locally accountable. In late 2004, former BOC Group chief executive Robert McFarland produced a report which said Pito and police IT in general lacked clear definition or purpose, which resulted in confused lines of responsibility and was "almost certainly poor value for money".
This lack of central control creates particular difficulties in building a national police intelligence system because the task requires an agreed definition of "intelligence" in terms of day-to-day police processes. The extent of these difficulties explains why Impact does not have a detailed business case. Originally Pito planned for the business case to be published in March 2005. In his final report, Bichard said, "The fact that the submission of the detailed business case has slipped from March to September is a cause for concern."
Now the Home Office says it will publish the business case for Impact during March 2006.
However, Pito itself is in a state of flux, with the Home Office accepting a recommendation by McFarland that Pito be absorbed into a new National Police Improvement Agency (NPIA).
The NPIA is already running as a "shadow" organisation until April 2007 when it will assume full powers.
The agency will pick up some of Pito's work but the future of some areas remains in doubt. A Home Office statement said, "Functions currently carried out by organisations such as Pito will transfer to the NPIA, carry on outside of the new agency or stop entirely."
The statement also warned that the number of staff employed at a national level in organisations such as Pito and parts of the Home Office would fall by at least half.
Against this background, Illsley expressed concern about the delivery of the Impact system. "It remains to be seen if the Home Office will meet the deadline for the business case," he said.
The Home Office, meanwhile, has been keen to publicise its progress on Bichard's recommendations. Police minister Hazel Blears last month launched a new system, Impact Nominal Index (INI), which will pool police intelligence.
The system allows officers to establish whether a police force elsewhere in the country holds intelligence on someone they are investigating. However, the officer must wait for the force in question to send a copy of the intelligence.
Illsley said that INI intelligence may not be admissible in court if it has been deleted by the originating force. It would be difficult for an investigating officer to know if this was the case by the time a case goes to trial.
He said in launching INI the government wanted to be seen to be meeting the Bichard recommendations while only paying lip service too them.
Against this background, publication of the business case this month for a national police intelligence system for England and Wales has become a crucial test for the Home Office, and for police IT.
What is Impact?
"Impact will draw on the data held in forces' existing systems (including, but not limited to, intelligence systems) and will eventually provide standardised data and intelligence at a force level, which is capable of being searched at a national level. Business rules and processes also need to be put in place to ensure that the data used in Impact is of a common standard."
The Bichard Inquiry: Final Report, March 2005