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Home Office moots 'Precrime' agency for future serial killers

But wacko ideas don't fix dud IT systems

Although there is general acceptance that police forces are in serious need of radical IT upgrade, sooner rather than later, the concerns Bichard expressed regarding attention to existing systems remain valid, and reactions such as the Home Office "Precrime Register" plan illustrate how government is still trying to address the problems via the wrong routes.

The professional organisations it is proposed to charge with identifying potential problems already are in large measure organisations whose role includes the identification of those problems. And where they (in the Soham case, the police and social services) fail, they fail to a great extent because the tools and systems they use are faulty, or barely exist.

What went wrong?

By the time he committed the Soham murders, Ian Huntley had been the subject of several allegations of rape and of sex with under-age children, had had repeated contact with social services and Humberside police in connection with these, and had also been charged (but not convicted - the charge was allowed to "lie on file") for burglary.

Generally, the failings in the case are seen as being of communication between Humberside and Cambridgeshire police, because the criminal record check made via Cambridgeshire came out clean, revealing none of the information that was known (but, as it turns out, only after a fashion) to Humberside. The history of Huntley's involvement with the authorities as set down in Bichard (from page 23 on) however shows that the problems went much deeper.

In the underage sex cases it is clear that risk assessment did to an extent take place, but this was largely focussed on the young girls involved. Social services and police did exchange information at various points, but social services approached each instance separately, with no apparent awareness that a single individual was involved.

The system used by social services did not readily facilitate this, as it was searchable only by the name of the "service user" (i.e. the child), not by any claimed perpetrator. And social services themselves failed on several occasions by not referring matters to the police when they should have. There were however discussions between social services and Humberside police at various points, and the course of action followed afterwards was agreed between the two bodies when this happened.

There is clearly an argument for social services systems being aimed primarily at protection of the vulnerable, and their ability to do this could be damaged if they began to be perceived as part of an enforcement network (which is one unfortunate potential consequence of current government data sharing strategy). In fairness, however, it is difficult to see Humberside's social services' failure to identify Huntley as a serial threat to its customers as anything other than an own goal. They would surely have performed more effectively if they had been better equipped to grasp the nature of the threat.

Note however that as they were not able to spot that Huntley was a single threat rather than three or four separate incidents, they would have been entirely unable to pass any useful information on to the Department of Precrime. If the systems themselves are not able to spot the serial offender, then why should we expect a superimposed deus ex machina to be able to do so?

Humberside police also lacked a record or an awareness of the totality of Huntley's activities, and no 'big picture' of the man was built up in around 15 years of contacts with him. Bichard catalogues a series of, effectively, individual incidents where the outcome was explicable, even logical.

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