Exclusive The national police unit responsible for fighting cybercrime faces a deep cut to its already stretched budget, counter to pre-election talk of an increased focus on the UK's digital security.
According to senior Westminster sources, the coalition government has quietly and drastically trimmed the £3.5m that the Police Central eCrime Unit (PCeU) receives annually from the Home Office. The 30 per cent squeeze has been confirmed internally as the department braces for the Chancellor's first Budget this month.
The cut is effective this year and represents 14 per cent of the unit's total funding. The Home Office's direct contribution is added to £3.9m from the Metropolitan Police budget, which will itself come under threat as the government embarks on its deficit-reduction programme across the public sector.
The previous government promised the PCeU £3.5m per year from the Home Office until 2011.
The coalition's decision to renege on the funding is a blow to Deputy Commissioner Janet Williams, who as well as leading the PCeU at Scotland Yard is in charge of national cybercrime policing strategy. In March last year she complained that the unit's budget was "not a lot of money" and said she aimed to persuade ministers to increase it this year.
The decision will also provoke consternation among the PCeU's 50 investigators. At the Infosecurity Europe conference last month one interrupted Tory MP James Brokenshire as he criticised progress. "The problem is, we can't afford trained experts. I'm here to ask you all to please offer your support," the unnamed officer pleaded with the audience.
Brokenshire, who once said "if you don't prioritise cybercrime you compromise national cyber-security", is now a junior Home Office minister. David Cameron himself made the link between cybercrime and national security in a speech in April, noting a "growing cyber security threat".
By cutting rather than increasing funding to battle cybercrime on the front line, the Tory-led coalition has also disappointed industry and academic commentators who campaigned for the PCeU's formation. The Home Office approved the unit less than two years ago following sustained criticism that UK police had no credible cybercrime investigation capability.
Despite limited funding, the new unit registered early successes, including arresting a Manchester couple suspected of using the Zeus trojan to commit banking fraund, and a swoop on the London branch of an international cybercrime gang. ®