Alan Stockdale - stock.adobe.com
The Home Office has failed to make progress on plans to replace critical police IT systems, while timescales have been extended, the project scope has changed and costs skyrocketed – and there is no evidence that measures have been introduced to change the current scenario, says a report from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
The PAC report scrutinises the progress of the Home Office’s plans to replace two ageing systems – the Police National Computer (PNC), which has been in place since 1974 and holds a vast array of data ranging from arrest information to property and vehicles, and the Police National Database (PND), rolled out in 2009, which contains data such as CCTV imagery and includes other datasets on individuals and weapons.
Under the plans announced in 2016 to replace these obsolete systems, the National Law Enforcement Data Service (NLEDS), a single cloud-based system combining the functions and data of the PNC and PND which would accessible to the UK’s 45 police forces, would be introduced. This was supposed to have been delivered in 2020.
According to the PAC report, little progress has been made ever since and under the current plans, a PNC replacement is not expected to be ready until at least 2025-26. Costs relating to that part of the modernisation programme have increased significantly, by 68% to £1.1bn so far. The PND is now expected to be upgraded or replaced separately, but it is unclear when this will happen and at what cost.
“Personal and national security are arguably the most fundamental duties of a government to its citizens – and the Home Office is falling down on these major projects with little urgency or planning for how to deliver them,” said PAC chair Meg Hillier.
According to the report, the challenges of delivering national programmes across all UK police forces have long been recognised. On the other hand, the inquiry into the modernisation has found that the Home Office and the police “did not develop the effective working relationship needed to enable the development of NLEDS”.
The report said the Home Office has lost credibility within police regarding the modernisation project, “to the point where the country’s most senior officers took the unusual step of writing to the Home Office to raise their concerns”.
The PAC report said the decisions at the outset of the NLEDS programme were made badly, but the Home Office was slow to correct this. It noted that the decision to merge the PNC and PND, two intricate systems, made the complexity worse because of the very different data formats across the platforms. The first programme reset in 2019 did not address this, said the report, and after the second review in 2020, the department took several months to decide whether to continue with the programme.
Despite the Home Office’s moves to put NLEDS on track in 2020 – such as more effective working via a “partnership” approach with police involved in the decision-making in the development of the technology – the PAC is sceptical about the department’s clarity about the route ahead.
The report raised concerns over whether the Home Office will be able to replace the PNC, which is vital to all aspects of police work and is reaching the end of its life, with the cloud-based alternative within the revised timetable.
Among the recommendations made, the report suggested that the NLEDS receives regular oversight from the permanent secretary and other senior staff to spot issues arising from the work and address them. It also recommended focusing on making the partnership approach work and asked for an update in six months about how that is progressing.
Also, in relation to the PNC – an obsolete system that the police will have to use for a further five years – the PAC noted that the team maintaining this “remarkably reliable” ageing system is small and under-resourced, and pointed out that the PNC suffered a significant data loss in January 2021 because of maintenance difficulties.
A National Audit Office report from September 2021 warned that the delays in replacing the police systems were putting information at risk. The PAC’s recommendation in this area included a full risk assessment and contingency plans for failure, including a prediction of when the system will be replaced.
Regarding the plans around maintaining the PND and combining its data with NLEDS in future, with search available to police via a federated approach, the PAC report noted that the planned benefits of the joined-up systems and cost savings from rationalisation were less likely. The report called for an approved business case for the PND outlining its plan, milestones and budget for expanding the use of the system, as well as guarantees that police will be able to access PND data via NLEDS.
“Our front-line police rely on these systems to do their job,” said Hillier. “The Home Office must be clear about the route ahead or the confidence of the UK’s police forces in the Home Office will sink even lower.” The PAC will investigate the Home Office’s progress again in 2022.
Several privacy campaign groups have also raised concerns about the NLEDS programme, suggesting that it could lead to “over-policing”. For example, Privacy International warned that granting such broad access to information “will negatively affect the trust between citizens, the police and other agencies”.
Based on the cost overruns and severe delays in other Home Office programmes, including the Emergency Services Network and Digital Services at the Border programmes, the PAC’s Hillier said the current Home Office blunders in relation to NLEDS demonstrated the department’s “perpetual failure and an inability to learn lessons on basic project management”.
She added: “It is hard to see what steps the Home Office is taking to resolve these huge problems and whether it has any inkling that they will work.”
In its report, the PAC noted there is a risk that the Home Office still lacks the capacity to prioritise and deliver major digital programmes on time. It said the department has tried to “do too much at once”, failed to prioritise, work in an agile manner, and also lacks “the programme, technical and commercial skills needed to identify realistic timetables for its major programmes”.
To work around these constraints, the PAC said the Home Office needed to be more realistic about how long major programmes would take to be delivered with the skills and funding available. Among its recommendations, the PAC suggested that all senior responsible officers should report annually on how they planned to manage skills gaps in the context of their ongoing programmes.