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Spending watchdog blames British Home Office for delays to £1bn crime-fighting IT system

Department says it's prepared to run ailing Police National Computer out of support if it has to

A critical report by the UK's public sector spending watchdog has blamed the Home Office for delays to a new crime-fighting IT platform designed to replace two systems on the verge of obsolescence.

The National Law Enforcement Data Service (NLEDS), which was supposed to be up and running last year, is designed to replace both the Police National Computer (PNC) and the intelligence-sharing Police National Database (PND).

But delays – including a failure to agree on exactly what the system should do – have cast further doubt on the project, with delivery pushed back to 2025 at the earliest.

"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 National Audit Office, in a statement accompanying the report.

"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 NLEDS programme has so far failed to deliver the expected services and the total cost to the Home Office has ballooned 68 per cent to £1.1bn. The project has been plagued by delays and internal disputes which, in one case, led to a second Home Office programme reset in December 2020 and the removal of the PND element from its scope.

Earlier this year the frailty of the ageing PNC was exposed when a technology failure led to 413,000 criminal records being lost, although they were subsequently recovered.

An independent report at the time blamed a scripting error in code designed to weed out records that needed to be deleted from the PNC, prompting the Home Office to slam the PNC tech team.

The report also found that the "processes and culture that existed within the PNC team" also contributed to the snafu.

But as the NAO points out, since the technology requires specialist skills and experience to maintain it and relies on this "expert team for the continued operation of the PNC," it's not only the hardware and software that will need to be nursed through the next few years.

Key staff on the team are approaching retirement and few – if any – are queueing up to replace them.

The Fujitsu mainframe computer used by the PNC will reach the end of its supported life by 31 December 2021. As a short-term fix, in March the Home Office signed a £9m contract with the IT giant that could, if required, last until 2026.

At the same time, the Software AG database used by the PNC is only supported on the Fujitsu mainframe until 31 December 2023. And although the Home Office has an option to extend the contract for this support for a further 12 months, the NAO said that this has yet to be agreed.

"If NLEDS is not ready, the PNC will need to be moved off the mainframe onto a supported operating system from 2025 or run unsupported," it warned.

In a move that could come back to haunt it, the NAO reports that the Home Office has "decided to accept the risk of running the PNC without support for the database for 12 months after December 2024."

"This would leave the PNC at higher risk of disruption for at least a year, although the [Home Office's] view is that the actual risk profile is low because of the mitigation actions put in place," it said.

Elsewhere in the 48-page report, the NAO shared concerns that the project lacked clear understanding and focus on how it should be tackled and what benefits it might deliver once up and running [PDF].

As a result of a succession of failures, in autumn 2020 "the police lost confidence in the programme, formally raising their concerns with the Home Office's Permanent Secretary."

One of the NAO's many recommendations was that 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."

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Home Office told us that NLEDs will deliver a "modern IT system for policing that is more effective at catching criminals and delivers substantial savings for the police and taxpayers."

In the meantime, they told us that 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."

But they did accept that this is a "complex programme" that would be delivered in a "controlled and phased way."

Deputy chief constable Nav Malik, National Police Chiefs' Council lead for the NLEDS, told us: "Whilst there has been a significant delay in the delivery of the new Law Enforcement Data Service, the police service is committed to working with the Home Office to ensure that there is a realistic and robust plan to deliver the system on time and within budget." ®

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