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Delays in revamping police database could put the public ‘at risk’

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A delay in plans to revamp law enforcement computer systems could put police access to vital information at risk, a report from the National Audit Office (NAO) has found.

The Home Office launched its efforts to develop The National Law Enforcement Data Programme (NLED) in 2016 to replace two police IT systems: the Police National Computer (PNC)1 and the Police National Database (PND)2.

The PNC is the most important national policing information system in the UK and has been used as the main database of criminal records since 1974. Front-line officers use it to understand who they are interacting with, but the technology it is based on is becoming obsolete.

NLED was originally planned to be delivered in 2020, but it has faced delays and a 68 per cent rise in costs to £1.1bn. 

An independent programme review commissioned by the Home Office found that if the programme continued as it was, it would be late, difficult and costly to roll out and maintain, and would not meet the needs of the police. Following this review, the Home Office reset the programme in December 2020 and, under the new plans, it is not expected to deliver a service equivalent to the current PNC until 2025 at the earliest.

The PNC’s current technology for its database will no longer be supported after December 2024, but the Home Office plans to take the risk of running the PNC without supplier support for the database until NLED is up and running.

The NAO warns that this would leave the PNC at higher risk of disruption for at least a year, although the Home Office has said this risk is low due to the mitigation actions put in place.

But the delays to NLEDS also require the police to bear more cost – the existing systems must continue to run at a cost of £21m per year for the PNC and £13m for the PND.

The Home Office’s March 2021 estimate shows that NLEDS, when complete, is expected to cost £17m per year, but if further delays are encountered then the PNC may need to migrate to a new operating system – a process that could take three years and cost £30m.

In January 2021 the PNC experienced a data loss affecting 112,697 person records. The Home Office’s efforts to recover the data lost were made more difficult by the ageing technology on which the PNC is based.

“After a succession of delays, resets, and changes in scope, the cost of the NLEDS programme has increased significantly, and it is still not clear whether the Home Office will be able to deliver the programme before the existing infrastructure becomes obsolete,” said Gareth Davies, head of the NAO.

“Fragile technology is limiting the ability of the police and other organisations to carry out their job effectively and ultimately putting the security and safety of the public at risk. The Home Office must urgently work with the police to guarantee a clear timeline for the programme, avoiding any further delays.”

The Home Office dismissed concerns over public safety and access for police as inaccurate.

A department spokeswoman said the new system would be more effective and provide “substantial savings” for police and taxpayers, adding: “The police continue to have full access to vital information while the service is implemented, with the Police National Computer remaining operational until the transition is complete.

“Parts of the programme are already delivering for the police, including the introduction of new technology which has made it quicker to successfully identify people pulled over at the roadside, saving officers over 19,000 hours to date.

“This is a complex programme and we have a dedicated and experienced team delivering it in a controlled and phased way.”

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