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Embracing technology remains one of the biggest challenges facing UK police forces, according to policing minister Nick Hurd.
Giving evidence to the Home Affairs Committee’s policing for the future inquiry, Hurd said technology enables the police to work in a smarter and more efficient way, but the country’s forces appear far from ready to embrace it.
“Policing is a human business, the most important assets are human, but I think the biggest opportunity in British policing lies in technology,” he told the committee. “It has changed almost every industry we know. It is changing what criminals are able to do.
“The police, with the best will in the world – and they are the first to admit it – are not where they need to be in taking advantage of the digital opportunity.”
UK police forces have been criticised for failing to take advantage of digital systems, and the use of technology across policing in general remains poor.
Asked by one of the MPs on the committee, Douglas Ross, if he would agree that progress in both technology and in the country’s 43 police forces speaking to each other has been too slow, Hurd said there is definitely a challenge around “an historic approach to procurement, with insufficient understanding of what they were buying and insufficient collaboration and best practice in how it is bought”.
The UK’s 43 police forces mostly tend to work in silos, said Hurd, which “can’t be part of the future” if UK policing is to embrace the opportunities technology brings to transform services. However, there has been an improvement in recent years, he added.
Hurd said the police service now understands the need for change and is working towards it, despite a current system with “terrible amounts of duplication”, systems that don’t talk to each other and “evidence sent to courts on CDs”.
In 2016, the UK National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) set out its vision for policing in 2025, aiming to improve data-sharing, integrate IT functions, improve digital intelligence and make digital interactions easier.
“Collectively, we are trying to drag police technology from a place that feels terribly out of date into the modern age, but there is a will to do that,” said Hurd.
“There needs to be a plan around it and evidence that the police system buys into the plan and will implement it, and then there will be a resource requirement attached to that, which we intend to take to the comprehensive spending review.”
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Also giving evidence to the committee was chief inspector of constabulary Thomas Winsor, who has heavily criticised the country’s police forces for their failure to adopt technology.
In a report in April 2017, Winsor said public safety was being “imperilled” by a lack of functional and interoperable police IT.
He told the committee that having forces talk to each other is key. “It is not a question of taking an existing system and preserving it – it is a question of taking a fragmented landscape and building it into a single system,” he said.
“What it does not do in any way, nor could it, is require the creation of a single police force. But it does require the 43 police forces and the 43 police and crime commissioners, because they hold the budget, to collaborate and create a system of perfect, affordable interoperability of all ICT systems.”
Hurd added that although there is no mandate for police forces to ensure interoperability when they buy new IT systems, they will be encouraged to do so.
He said the police inspectorate has “devised an instrument” called the Network Code, which is aimed at establishing common operating procedures and practices. Although the inspectorate has no power to require this of the police forces, Winsor said he is confident that “when the police forces see the elegance and beauty of the system that we present to them, they will be eager to sign up to it”.