Police National Computer - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:00 pm on 19th January 2021.

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Photo of Lord Rosser Lord Rosser Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport) 3:00 pm, 19th January 2021

I thank the noble Baroness the Minister for being here—unlike the Home Secretary yesterday in the Commons—as the senior government Minister in the Lords covering the Home Office, to be accountable to this House for the worrying events detailed in the Statement.

The Statement says that it is estimated that up to some 400,000 offence, arrest and person records have, due to human error, inadvertently been deleted from the police national computer. There will be an internal investigation. Something described as human error can hide a multitude of failures covering, for example, inadequate training or supervision, previous warnings of the likelihood of an incident occurring being ignored, people working under pressure, out-of-date or unreliable equipment and lack of provision of readily available safeguards to override the consequences of human error—all factors for which responsibility should ultimately lie at the highest level within the department. Yet the Commons Minister yesterday stated:

“Sadly, human error introduced into the code has led to this particular situation”.

The Government appear to have already determined the outcome of the internal investigation. I therefore ask the noble Baroness, who speaks for the Government: why is this investigation not going to be independent and, secondly, will the full report of the investigation be placed before Parliament? Can the Government also say whether Statements would have even been made to Parliament if reports of this serious loss of data had not appeared in the media?

The police national computer and the police national database are due to be replaced by the national law enforcement data programme. However, the assessment by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority is that successful delivery of the project is in doubt. The Policing Minister admitted in the Commons yesterday that the replacement of the PNC

“has had its fair share of problems, it is fair to say we have undergone a reset. There is now a renewed sense of partnership working between the Home Office and the police, to make sure we get that much needed upgrade in technology correct.”—[Official Report, Commons, 18/1/20; col. 624.]

When a Minister uses those kind of words, one knows that there have been big problems with the replacement of the outdated PNC, from which up to 400,000 records have been deleted, not because it is no longer fit for purpose but apparently due solely to human error. How could up to 400,000 records be deleted without apparently there being a proper back-up system in place? Was that lack of a proper back-up system also due to “human error”?

Is it true, as was asked in the Commons yesterday, but without a reply being given, that Ministers were warned many months ago that their approach to the police national computer and database posed a significant risk to policing’s ability to protect the public, and that the databases were “creaking” and operating on

“end of life, unsupported hardware and software”?—[Official Report, Commons, 18/1/20; col. 627.]

If so, what did the Government do about that?

In the Commons, the Government sought to say that, first, the data deleted might be available on other systems or databases and, secondly—because the data related to people arrested and in respect of whom, for the specific matter for which they were arrested, no further action was taken—it really is not that serious that this data has been deleted. The National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for the police national computer has said that the deleted DNA contains records marked for

“indefinite retention following conviction of serious offences.”

Is it still the Government’s view that this deleted data is not important? If so, could the Government explain why this data is retained at all, and may be on other systems, if it has no real value in preventing crime in the first place, in the fight against crime and in bringing criminals to justice? In the absence of a credible answer to that question, clearly the data deleted is of significance. In responding, could the Government set out the potential damage that could be done, or has perhaps already been done, as a result of these inadvertent deletions?

We need greater openness and frankness from the Government, now and in promised further updates, about what has happened—merely

“technical issues … with the police national computer” according to the Statement—and why. We do not need an attempt to brush it all off as down to a “human error” with consequences of little significance.