Delays to PNC upgrade putting 'public safety at risk', says NAO
Delays in upgrading vital police computer systems could be putting the “security and safety of the public at risk”, according to a new report by the National Audit Office (NAO).
The programme to develop the National Law Enforcement Data Service (NLEDS) was launched by the Home Office in 2016 to replace two police IT systems: the Police National Computer (PNC) and the Police National Database (PND). Both systems are vital to police operations but are reaching the end of their lives, with their technology becoming obsolete.
With an original planned delivery date of 2020, the NLEDS programme has yet to deliver the expected services, and the total costs to the Home Office have increased by 68 per cent to £1.1 billion.
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, in December 2020 the Home Office reset the programme for the second time and removed the replacement of the PND from its scope.
Under the new plans, the programme is not expected to deliver a service equivalent to the current PNC until 2025/26. The PNC’s current technology for its database will no longer be supported after December 2024, but the Department told the NAO it had decided to accept the risk of running the PNC without supplier support for the database after this point.
The NAO says this would leave the PNC at higher risk of disruption for at least a year, although the Department’s view is that the actual risk profile is low due to the mitigation actions put in place. In April 2021, the Home Office had only ‘moderate confidence’ in its new plans and did not have a programme plan assuring delivery by 2025/26. In June 2021, the Home Office told the NAO that it had increased confidence in the deliverability of the programme.
Delays to the NLEDS programme bring greater risks for police operations and require the police to bear more cost. The Home Office must continue to run existing systems at a cost of £21 million a year for the PNC and £13 million for the PND.
The Home Office’s March 2021 estimate shows that NLEDS, when complete, is expected to cost £17 million a year. If there are further delays to the NLEDS programme, the Home Office may also need to migrate the PNC to a new operating system, which could take three years and cost at least £30 million.
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. By May 24, 2021, all records affected by the incident had been recovered.
The Home Office and the police have not had a consistent shared understanding of what NLEDS will deliver, and since 2016 the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) has repeatedly reported a lack of consistency in stakeholders’ understanding of the programme scope, approach and benefits.
The focus of the programme has changed several times, and it has not been clear if the programme aims to replace the functions of current ageing systems or to introduce enhanced capabilities for police and other users. The NAO also found that the Home Office and police only documented the ‘vision’ for the programme in September 2018, almost two years into its development.
In autumn 2020 the police lost confidence in the programme, formally raising their concerns with the Home Office’s Permanent Secretary. Whilst the Home Office has recognised the importance of regaining the confidence of the police, and the programme team is now seeking to work more collaboratively with stakeholders, it is too early to assess the results of this new approach. The programme’s senior police stakeholders have expressed increasing confidence in the programme’s developing delivery plans.
The NAO is recommending that the Home Office immediately clarify its role and that of the police in the delivery of the new service and agree a revised business case for the programme.
Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: “The Home Office should set out clear plans on how NLEDS will replace PNC capabilities by the time required and how it can guarantee that the PNC can be relied on by police until NLEDS is ready.
“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.
“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.”
Labour’s shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds accused the Home Secretary of “putting community safety at risk” as a result of the problems.
He said the report revealed an “appalling lack of leadership and grip by the Home Secretary in making sure our police have the best technology at their disposal”, adding: “Ministers must urgently explain why there has been this additional delay with millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money wasted.”
However, 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.”