Police systems shunned despite £100m give-away

The Home Office is meeting some strong resistance to its plan to persuade all police forces to install its "mission-critical" criminal justice systems although it is giving away more than 100m worth of free hardware and software.

The Home Office is meeting some strong resistance to its plan to persuade all police forces to install its "mission-critical" criminal justice systems although it is giving away more than 100m worth of free hardware and software.

At least 12 of the 43 police forces in England and Wales have not taken up the offers of "free" national systems from the Home Office's central Police IT Organisation (Pito). Nine of them are already using or considering buying what they regard as more innovative technology from Canadian supplier Niche.

If they adopt Niche, they will have to pay for their own systems, and further support and maintenance costs, when there is an offer from Pito of free hardware, software, software maintenance and some training.

The difficulties faced by Pito bode ill for Whitehall's more ambitious bid to persuade hundreds of NHS trusts and thousands of GPs to adopt technology that is in part centrally funded. The Department of Health has signed contracts worth 6.2bn for national systems as part of the national programme for IT in the NHS.

Last month, Richard Granger, director general of NHS IT, referred to the challenge of persuading trusts to take up new national systems. One issue is whether huge, complex projects funded by Whitehall - a one-size-fits-all approach - can keep up with technologies that are aligned directly to local business needs, which can be bought by officials working on the front line.

The Home Office has spent more than six years trying to sell the idea of national systems to largely autonomous police forces. In 1997 and 1998, Pito contracted for four main systems - Crime, Command and Control, Custody and Case Preparation - as part of the National Strategy for Police Information Systems (NSPIS).

The idea was that NSPIS systems would help to manage suspects from the time of arrest to custody and their being cases prepared and handed over to the courts. But the Crime intelligence system was abandoned, and fewer than 10 forces have adopted Command and Control. The key technologies for speeding up criminal justice, Case and Custody, now combined, have gone live in about 12 forces.

A Pito spokesman said a further 12 forces are committed to buying Case and Custody and five more are poised to sign contracts. This leaves 14 having made no commitment to Pito's Case and Custody systems.

Last month a review of police IT, commissioned by the Home Office from a team led by former BOC chief executive Robert McFarland, said forces had regarded NSPIS "especially Case and Custody" as "yesterday's technology tomorrow". The review also suggested that some forces had become "unwilling purchasers" of some national systems.

But a spokesman for Pito said last week that NSPIS systems were the most stable in the market and he hoped more than 75% of forces would go live with them.

Police systems are crucial to speeding up criminal justice, in part because about 65% of all information about suspects brought to court is held in police systems.

The home secretary set a deadline of the end of May for police forces to state how they intended to provide links into the criminal justice systems. His officials have threatened to mandate national systems if forces do not make up their minds on what systems to buy by the deadline.

The main risks of delivering Case and Custody systems lay originally with the supplier under a private finance initiative contract. But the PFI scheme failed when forces did not take up the centrally-driven technology. In 2002 the Home Office stepped in to fund the systems centrally. This has not been completely successful either.

The McFarland report on police IT said, "[Despite] Pito's high profile and the high level of free funding from the Home Office, chief constables and police authorities, for whatever reason, continue largely to go their own way."

A Pito spokesman said the commitment from forces was evidence they did not regard the technology as technically backward.

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