Bichard Inquiry

– in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 28th February 2007.

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Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley Labour, Barnsley Central 2:30 pm, 28th February 2007

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow, in what I hope will be an interesting and informative debate about the recommendations of the Bichard inquiry. I shall concentrate on the first two recommendations, which relate to the provision of a police central intelligence computer system and a national system for cross-referencing that intelligence.

The debate that I have been lucky enough to secure this afternoon follows on from the first time that I raised the issues, just over one year ago on 8 February 2006. Today, I hope to update the House on issues relating to Bichard's first recommendation, and in turn listen to the Minister's response and gain an update on Home Office progress in meeting those recommendations.

The points that I made when I first raised the issue in 2006 can be summarised as follows: in June 2004, Sir Michael Bichard reported to Parliament in the aftermath of the Soham murders; despite the fact that he called for the urgent implementation of a computer intelligence system, there were delays in achieving those recommendations; the proposed business plan for achieving the system was also somewhat delayed; the costs of implementing a system escalated throughout that period; it appeared that the system the Home Office wished to introduce was becoming far too complex, and that simpler and cheaper systems, which were more readily available, could have been used to meet the Bichard recommendation; and systems could have been set up as an interim measure and could have been up and running much more quickly. One year on, we are still in roughly the same situation—we still do not have a national police intelligence system. Incidentally, we should not forget that the first plan for a national police intelligence system was suggested 10 years before the Bichard inquiry in 1994, so in reality we have been waiting some considerable time for the system to be developed.

I shall go through a chronology of events since the Bichard report, explaining where we are in relation to his recommendation and how the Home Office has tried to meet it. Unfortunately, because the matter relates to computers and computerised systems, a bit of jargon is involved. However, wherever possible I shall try to explain some of the more complicated acronyms.

The Bichard report was published in June 2004, and Sir Michael stated that it was his intention to reconvene his inquiry six months after the report's completion in order to assess the progress made on the recommendations—it goes without saying that the Government had accepted the recommendations. The first recommendation was that

"a national system for England Wales to support police intelligence should be introduced as a matter of urgency."

It called for the Home Office to take the lead and to report

"by December 2004 with clear targets for the implementation of the system."

The second recommendation stated that the "PLX system", a cross-referencing intelligence system

"which flags when intelligence about someone is held by particular police forces, should be introduced in England and Wales by 2005."

As you may well remember, Mr. Bercow, during the inquiries into what happened in Soham, Cambridgeshire police force made inquiries of Humberside police force to try to obtain intelligence on a suspect in that murder inquiry. The intelligence was not forthcoming, and Bichard's recommendations were designed to address that issue.

The Home Office produced a progress report six months later in December 2004 outlining the steps that it had taken to date to meet the recommendations. The Home Office said that

"there has been a comprehensive buy-in across all 43 police forces in England and Wales to the IMPACT programme."

IMPACT stands for information, management, prioritisation, analysis, co-ordination and tasking of intelligence.

It was decided that the programme would be delivered in stages, from 2005 until its completion date, which was originally suggested as 2007. The report said that

"in the interim, the PLX system was on track to provide an index of individuals about whom information is held by police forces."

The first version of that system, known as a national nominal index, was to be available from March 2005. It was plain from the outset that a clear timetable had been set for what is now a complicated system. It is clear now that that timetable was wildly optimistic.

In January 2005, the Bichard inquiry reconvened to assess the progress that had been made in meeting the recommendations. Sir Michael acknowledged the Home Office's advice that the business case would not be considered until September 2005, and that it had been downgraded to an "outline business case". However, he still called on the Home Office to ensure that a national IT system was delivered "on time, by 2007". It is now clear that that timetable will not be met.

The Home Secretary, in a written ministerial statement published on 15 March 2005, acknowledged Sir Michael's comments and agreed to issue two further progress reports in six and 12 months' time. So, in November 2005 the Home Office issued a second progress report, announcing that the IMPACT nominal index, the cross-checking reference system, would

"start rolling out to forces' Child Abuse Investigation Units from December 2005", but that it would not be completed until July 2006.

That is important because the cross-referencing system, the IMPACT nominal index, was designed to cover all aspects of police work. However, even by July 2006 it was available only in child abuse investigations. The index did not cover any other aspect of policy work, such as crime or motoring offences, and it related only to child abuse investigations. It is obvious that the progress made in achieving those systems was limited.

The IMPACT programme also assessed another system called the cross-regional information sharing project, or CRISP. That project had been developed by Cumbria police, along with some others, to allow police officers directly to access information held by other forces without having to contact the force holding the information, which was the case with the IMPACT nominal index.

To explain it more simply, I shall return to the example that I used the last time we debated this subject. Under the index system, if a police officer in South Yorkshire were to enter my name into his intelligence system, it might flag up my name in another police force area—Essex, for example. The system would tell the police officer in South Yorkshire that my name was held by Essex police force, but it would not tell them exactly what that information was. The police officer in South Yorkshire would then have to telephone Essex and ask for the information record to be provided. In doing that, the information record from Essex would be sent to Yorkshire, thereby duplicating the information held on the system.

The index system would simply flag up that that information is available. The idea of CRISP was to put all that information together in a central system, so that when the officer in South Yorkshire inquired about my name, it would not only show that intelligence was held about me, but would say exactly what it was and allow the officer to access it there and then. Unfortunately, neither of those systems is fully operational at the moment. It is worth saying that the initial estimates for the funding of the CRISP and IMPACT nominal index system were £163 million.

The business case that I mentioned should have been presented in March 2006—already a year overdue—and when it was, it confirmed that the completion date for the IMPACT system had moved from 2007 to 2010. A year ago, I raised all those issues during a debate in Westminster Hall, and the then Minister, who is now the Minister without Portfolio, confirmed that the IMPACT system was a series of "interim, incremental programmes", leading to a bigger programme by 2010. The first step was the nominal index, available to child abuse units, and the next step would be to roll out the CRISP system so that eventually, by 2010, we would have a police national database—the all-singing, all-dancing model envisaged by Bichard—which would deal with every aspect of police intelligence.

The Home Office made a statement in April 2006 in which the Minister at the time gave an overview of the final business case. She said that the Home Office had a very clear vision of the IMPACT programme. She stressed that the programme would meet the Bichard recommendations, improve police performance and operational efficiency, and make considerable savings. By the time of that statement in April 2006, the cost estimate had increased to £367 million. Although neither aspect of the system was anywhere near fully operational, the cost estimates had more than doubled. The Minister also stated that the Home Office would focus on the continued development within police forces of the CRISP database system to give them the capability to extract data from local force databases in a format that they could use.

I raised the issue in June 2006, at Prime Minister's questions. The Prime Minister stated that while the full IMPACT recommendations would not come in until later, data-sharing arrangements should be in place from the end of 2007. He said that the Government would look at how they could speed up the recommendations and added that, if necessary, they were perfectly happy to reconvene the Bichard inquiry.

In September 2006, the IMPACT programme supplier newsletter was published. It is one of the most recent publications from the Home Office on the progress in achieving the IMPACT system, and it highlighted a number of changes. The most significant was that the system would now hold only a minimum amount of information. It would still mean physical contact with the police force or other organisation in question in order to access the intelligence referred to. It also stated that the roll-out to child abuse investigation units throughout the country had only just been achieved. Again, there had been delays, even within the minimalist approach to the interim national index. The newsletter also confirmed that by mid-2007—in two or three months' time—an interim data-warehousing capability based on the CRISP software would be deployed, allowing direct, inter-force access to intelligence records. However, it also said that

"the functionality which will be delivered by necessarily constrained by the current state of development of the...product and the work required to ensure that it is fit for purpose".

In the newsletter, certain doubts were apparent in relation to the development of this programme, and there were questions about whether it could be developed in the way envisaged by the Home Office.

An independent technical review of the IMPACT technology choices then took place, which was intended to take stock of the approach at that stage. It stated that the programme team would be contacting a range of suppliers to seek advice and views ahead of a supplier day this winter.

The Home Office answered a series of questions about the IMPACT system in October 2006. It stated that it had yet to give approval to the programme to contract for the CRISP service or to initiate procurement of the police national database as it was awaiting the outcome of further work that was due to be considered in March this year. It also stated that accountability for the IMPACT programme would change in April this year and that the programme would be part of the new National Policing Improvement Agency. Not only were there further doubts about whether the system would be commissioned by the Home Office, but there was also a change in ownership of the product, which will move into the new agency that should come into being in April.

At this point, the Home Office had begun inviting tenders from industry for some of the work to be done on the data-warehousing system and improving the nominal index. It appears that a number of sources within industry have reported that the Microsoft Corporation, on whose software the system is based, has said that the CRISP system is not sufficiently robust to scale up to the size required for a national database. A test showed that after loading 1.5 million records on to the system, the response times for a search were of the order of 20 minutes. If we consider that a national intelligence system would contain something like 7 million vehicle records alone, we can see just how big a delay there would be if the system were scaled up and used nationally.

There are some considerable questions about the whole IMPACT system. We have the IMPACT nominal index, which is the indexing system, and it already contains 43 million entries. Given that this country has a population of 60 million, it is easy to see that there is a lot of duplication on that system. Every time a record is accessed from the index, it is of necessity duplicated. It is available only for child abuse investigation units, and it has not been rolled out into any other aspect of police work. On top of that, the CRISP system will be the data warehouse and hold all the records to enable police officers to access them as and when they wish. As I have mentioned, however, there are now doubts about scale and whether it can go ahead.

In my speech last year, I mentioned that there were alternatives, the first of which was the Scottish system. Scotland had that system fully up and running in 2004. Sir Michael Bichard considered that system, but he was persuaded against it because he was informed that it could not properly evaluate intelligence, which was clearly wrong because it can. The system is used in the whole of Scotland, and one or two English forces use it, too. Last February, we were told that the cost of scaling that system from Scotland out to the rest of the UK would be £55 million and that it could have been done in 13 months. If we had started scaling it out at the time of my debate, we could have looked forward to its coming into being next month.

The Scottish system was developed by a company called ABM, which has been interested in the issues, as they relate to its field and it is interested in whatever business it can tender for as part of the IMPACT scheme. I pay tribute to its group managing director, Alistair Luff, who has provided some of the information that I have cited today. When I contacted him recently to get an update on the current situation in respect of his company, he told me that it was taking no further part in dealing with IMPACT, that it is not anticipating tendering for any other such work and that it had, in effect, been warned off taking any further interest in the police system.

Here we are, with a cost estimate of £367 million for a system that does not exist, yet last year we could have paid £55 million for a system that would have been up and running in the space of a year. Obviously, other companies take an interest in the field of computer intelligence, one of which is Memex. I had not been aware of its existence until it contacted me after my debate of February last year. A Memex computer intelligence system is used by the Metropolitan police, the British Transport police, the Los Angeles police force and the new Iraqi police force that is being developed. British Transport police liaises with 14 other police forces in this country that are also signed up to the Memex system. British Transport police is our only national police force. It deals not only with fare dodging, but security issues, especially in respect of what has happened in the capital in the past two years, so there is a serious element to its involvement.

Metropolitan police has been using the system for some years—let us bear in mind that the Met deals with 30 per cent. of the UK's total intelligence. Add to that the intelligence with which British Transport police deals, and we can see that the Memex system, which is fully compliant with the Bichard recommendations, is dealing with a third of this country's intelligence. During the delays and problems of the IMPACT system, the Memex system—the Metropolitan police system—has been up and running and working well. As I have said, it already covers a third of this country's intelligence.

I had the privilege of seeing the Metropolitan police system in operation in the service's new buildings in Earls Court. My hon. Friend the Minister, a London Member, will know more about Metropolitan police systems than me, and I urge her to take a look at the system. She will see in operation a police intelligence computer system that meets all the requirements of Bichard and is fully up and operational.

In conclusion, I ask again why we are persisting with the IMPACT system, which appears to reinvent the wheel, when much cheaper commercial systems are available and could be implemented over a much shorter time scale. As I have mentioned, the responsibility for the system will pass to the National Policing Improvement Agency in April. I suggest that that offers a good opportunity for a complete review of the whole system with a view to considering whether there is an easier, cheaper and faster way to meet the Bichard recommendations.

Photo of Jeremy Browne Jeremy Browne Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 2:56 pm, 28th February 2007

I am grateful to you for calling me to participate in this debate, Mr. Bercow. Let me start by making three observations before I get to the substance of my contribution.

First, I congratulate Mr. Illsley not only on raising this subject but on pursuing and taking an interest in it for an extended period, and, as a result, accumulating wisdom that he shared with us this afternoon. It is an immense credit to him that he should have continued to take such a diligent interest in this very important subject. Inevitably, I shall go over some of the ground that he has already covered. However, I do not wish to speak for as long as he did; I fear that I shall not speak with the same degree of expertise either. None the less, I shall go over some of the key points, if repetition adds emphasis.

My second observation is that the deaths of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman were particularly harrowing not only for people in this country, but internationally. People were disturbed and distressed by what happened. Of course, the people immediately connected with the case—most particularly, the parents of the two girls—are uniquely affected by what happened. However, even people who had no link with the family, or even with Soham or Cambridgeshire, will remember the case for the remainder of their lives. It is particularly important that we should have the opportunity to discuss it and its ramifications in this House.

Thirdly, I pay tribute to the work of the Bichard inquiry, which is widely regarded as having reached many balanced and thoughtful conclusions, which are informing our debate.

In a spirit of trying to reach helpful outcomes rather than of being confrontational or partisan in any way, let me raise four particular areas of concern with the Minister. I shall then give my concluding thoughts about possible ways forward and conclusions that we might draw from those areas of concern.

The first that I wish to bring to the attention of the House is that the IMPACT programme—the programme for shared intelligence, which the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central has already discussed at length—will not, I understand, be complete until 2010. There is some doubt about whether even that completion date will be met. The deadline for the full business case promised by the Government has been and gone, and we still have only an interim business case, rather than a full one. The programme is greatly delayed and I should be interested in the Minister's views on whether we can speed up the implementation of that programme and her response to the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that there may be alternative ways of reaching the same desired end point, although by a different route.

The second problem that I wish to raise is linked to the first one: the level of co-operation and consensus required from police forces across the country to implement programmes of this sort. Co-ordinating separate budgets to serve both local and national interests would present a formidable undertaking, even for a well-resourced commercial enterprise, but for the police service, which must also negotiate with local authorities and consult the wider population, in addition to dealing with the Home Office itself, the scale and complexity of the challenge is even greater. I would be interested to know how much progress the Minister thinks the police services and authorities across the country are making, and whether some forces are making much greater progress than others. If that is the case, what could be learned by those who are less proficient?

The third problem that I wish to raise is that, as I understand it, the police are still taking up to six months to record convictions and acquittals on the police national computer, even though the target is 10 days. There is a huge disparity between a 10-day target and taking six months, in some cases, to record relevant information on the computer. The Metropolitan police have been less than exemplary in this regard. An internal Met report stated that it took 185 days for 75 per cent. of court results to be inputted to the computer. Sir Michael Bichard stated:

"Police performance on putting data on to the PNC about arrests and summons in particular has not improved significantly or, in some respects, at all. That has been a long standing problem and it is disappointing that after all this time, more has not been achieved."

There will be legitimate public concern about procedures not being followed as speedily and diligently as they should be. Obviously, if a significant period is allowed to lapse between an offence taking place and a conviction, and the records being updated, there is considerable scope for repeat offenders to fail to be caught by the procedures that are intended to prevent them from offending again.

The fourth and final problem that I wish to raise involves the procedures for vetting adults who work with children, particularly in the education sector. I understand that staff already in post and those who have worked with children for up to three months beforehand are not vetted. The chairman of the Local Government Association's children and young people board has criticised the Government for failing to give schools the ability to vet retrospectively. I realise that there may be issues, concerns and considerations to be balanced, and I may touch on them shortly, but I would be interested to know the Minister's views on whether the existing mechanisms to protect children in schools and other institutions of that type are sufficiently robust to deal with the potential threat that is posed.

Further to those concerns, let me make three more observations. First, the Liberal Democrats support the Bichard inquiry fully, and we very much hope that the Government can address the four problems that I mentioned and any others that are raised by Members such as the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central, who has taken a particularly close interest in the matter.

Secondly, we welcome the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 but recognise the concerns expressed in some quarters that over-zealous vetting procedures could discourage someone from working with children and vulnerable people. It is worth stating at this point that we all share the horror about what happened in the Soham and other high-profile cases, but we also do not want to create a situation where millions of law-abiding, decent and well-intentioned people are discouraged from working in entirely beneficial ways with children and young people because they feel that the mechanisms for vetting them are too onerous, burdensome or intrusive. Of course, a balance must be struck. The Minister will be acutely aware of her responsibility and that of the Government to protect children; none the less, it is worth paying some regard to that balance when they deliberate on it.

Thirdly, I wish to draw the attention of the House to the fact that the Bichard inquiry found that the Data Protection Act 1998 presented no obstacle to Humberside and Cambridgeshire sharing information on Ian Huntley's previous record. The Government need to act, but they should not regard all the measures and mechanisms that exist to protect the public from undue interference in their private affairs, or the basic liberties of the citizen, as being in some way burdensome to the Government. We must respect the fact that there is a private realm and that information can legitimately be kept secret by the individual.

As with my previous point, there is a balance to be struck between the rights of the individual to live his or her life without feeling that the state is prying unnecessarily into their affairs, and the need to ensure that there are no barriers to the police and other authorities sharing legitimate information that could prevent awful cases such as the one that we are discussing this afternoon. I realise that where the line is drawn is not always perfectly measurable and that there may be some scope for debate. The difficulty for the Government and anyone who is tasked with making such decisions is to try to ensure that the balance between protection of the individual and protection of the liberties of citizens is struck in such a way as to maximise both, and not necessarily to think always that there is a trade-off between the two.

There must be greater efficiency in the way that forces pool and share data, and we must consider whether the mechanisms that have been pursued to date have produced the desired results. We must either speed up the implementation of the inquiry's recommendations or develop better recommendations whereby we may achieve the desired outcomes of the inquiry but by different routes, and we must be cautious about achieving balance.

I have confidence that the issues will be addressed as soon as possible, given the determined manner in which the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central maintains interest in these matters, and the Minister and officials in the Home Office acting entirely in good faith in their desire to achieve a satisfactory conclusion that will protect the public. I know that the Minister will take my view that that is what the people directly affected by the Soham murders and the country as a whole expect and demand of her and her Department.

Photo of Nick Herbert Nick Herbert Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 3:08 pm, 28th February 2007

I congratulate Mr. Illsley on initiating this debate, which certainly is timely. I also congratulate him on maintaining the pressure and ensuring that the Government are held to account for taking forward the recommendations of the Bichard inquiry. I share the concern of Mr. Browne about the delays, and I associate myself with his remarks about what initiated the Bichard inquiry in the first place. The appalling murders in Soham moved the entire nation. The consequence was that fundamental failings in the ability of our police forces to share information were exposed.

It is worth reminding ourselves that when Bichard reported in June 2004, he said that it was a matter of urgency that greater intelligence sharing and a national IT system should be introduced. Two and a half years later, as the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central said, there are still substantial delays, and 2010 is the earliest date for full implementation. As The Guardian reported in June 2006, the cost estimates have doubled over the past year, with some estimates taking us into the region of £2 billion. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us a little more about where we are with the programme, as well as what the latest cost estimates and the timetable are. In particular, I should like to know how the National Policing Improvement Agency budget affects those issues and whether it has yet been settled. The agency will be charged with driving the programme forward, and the resources available to it will plainly have a great effect on the Government's ability to carry out the Bichard recommendations.

Rather than rehearsing many of the points that hon. Members have very effectively made, I want to introduce some new considerations for debate, because the Bichard inquiry and the subsequent failure to take forward its recommendations have demonstrated that there are some real issues here, but the House has not debated them sufficiently.

The first issue is the security of the data, should it finally become available to all police forces. After all, the data not only relate to convictions, but include other data held by police forces and may also come from intelligence systems. Police databases may include entirely unsubstantiated information, leads, suspicions or details of people who are of interest to the police, as well as information provided by the security services. Data will therefore be of tremendously varying quality, and much of it will identify individuals who do not necessarily have a criminal record or feature on any of the other databases held by the police or other agencies, such as the DNA database or the fingerprint database.

That raises questions about the ability of other forces to share such data and the security protocols that are being put in place to ensure that data are properly used. Plainly, a national database could be a powerful tool in the fight against crime, and we all accept Bichard's conclusion that the failure to share intelligence contributed to the awful events in Soham. Although we understand the need for a national database, however, I am not sure that we properly understand the extent to which it will change the way in which the police operate. There has been only a belated debate about the national health service database of patient records, with people starting to question the use and availability of those records throughout the country only once things were under way. It is therefore important that we debate the issue before us now, so that the protocols that will need to be put in place are properly discussed.

The second issue that arises as a consequence of the recommendations is whether there is sufficient national impetus to drive such police IT projects. Frankly, I am reaching the conclusion that there is not. There are obviously strong arguments for joining up the information communication technology systems used by different police forces, but that has been extraordinarily difficult to achieve. Part of the reason for that is that the 43 forces have historically procured their own IT systems and been geographically isolated—they have had their own fiefdoms in some cases—which means that their systems are not always compatible. I am not convinced that there is much momentum behind reform of the police IT market, and the shared services agenda, which is taking off in other parts of the public sector, certainly does not seem to be taking off in anything like the same way among the police.

In its document "Transforming Criminal Justice", the CBI notes that, to date, police engagement with providers has been fragmented, and that is particularly true of the IT market, where a number of niche players have dominated. For example, approximately 26 out of 37 forces in England have different crime and control systems, and similar fragmentation is found in the core human resources and crime systems.

Previous national projects have failed to take off, including HOLMES2, which was designed to be used by the police service to run major crime inquiries and casualty bureaux after major incidents. Only three forces have the electronic document management system necessary to interface with HOLMES2, and even the second-largest police force—West Midlands—is unable to afford a management system link to it. That is despite the fact that the database has been operational since 1989.

That chronic lack of co-ordination was exposed by Bichard, who described it as "an unhappy position", and that led to the proposals for IMPACT. However, IMPACT is a hugely ambitious programme, given that the police IT market is highly fragmented and dominated by a number of niche players. As I said, 26 out of 37 forces have different crime and control systems. There are also more than 15 different HR systems in England and Wales and more than 10 different providers of crime systems, and several forces run their systems in-house. The information systems strategy for the police service—an Association of Chief Police Officers programme that attempts to set out a common architecture for police ICT services—will enable individual forces to procure systems that would be able to talk to each other. Significantly, however, that programme is not mandated.

IMPACT will therefore have to operate in a fragmented environment. I can, of course, see the sense of IMPACT, which will warehouse forces' custody, case, call management, contact, intelligence and crime data. It will also include the national databases, including convictions and the sex offenders' register, and make them available to all forces. However, it will eventually bring together 100 million pieces of data. As the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central said, the sheer scale and ambition of the project is one of the contributing factors to the delay that has taken place.

As the hon. Gentleman said, there is a noticeable difference between the approaches that have been taken in England and Wales and in Scotland. The Scottish intelligence database has enabled the sharing of information between all eight police forces there, which have access to 90 per cent. of the intelligence that is gathered. Interestingly, that has brought about a cultural change in Scotland, with police officers using intelligence more proactively. Before the intelligence database was implemented, a relatively small percentage of Scotland's police officers submitted intelligence, and there was no mechanism for feeding the results back to officers, which many considered a black hole. Even if officers' intelligence did result in an arrest, they would rarely hear about it. Since the implementation of the database, however, more than 70 per cent. of police officers in Scotland have actively submitted and researched intelligence, and that figure is growing as officers see how their intelligence has helped other officers.

That demonstrates not only that a national database plays a significant role in ensuring that we have the protections that we seek post-Soham, but that it is a crime-fighting tool, which will improve the way in which police officers work and their motivation. An effective system would therefore plainly have enormous advantages beyond simply the efficient management of data.

What conclusion can we draw, then, from the failure to drive the national database forward? One is, I think, a standard conclusion about the way in which Governments tend to procure major projects of that kind. The hon. Member for Taunton and I attended a seminar recently examining those issues, including Government failures to procure. The central conclusion of that seminar was that it is uncertainty on the part of politicians who procure, and a lack of clear specification, that causes subsequent problems in the delivery of projects. However, there are also, plainly, resource implications that must be addressed if forces are to be held to the promises and undertakings given in the Government's response to Bichard.

A radical suggestion would be that police budgets, instead of allowing the individual procurement of IT systems, could be top-sliced. That would certainly ensure compatibility across all police forces and allow the exploitation of economies of scale. However, that would take us into a huge project, involving the unnecessary redundancy of perfectly good systems; and it would produce a one-size-fits-all ICT system that would stifle innovation and prevent forces from tailoring their systems to specific needs. If that is not a realistic possibility, the onus is on the Government to ensure that there is much more effective central strategic direction of the use of ICT in police forces.

It is no longer acceptable that the different approaches that police forces have taken—the fiefdoms, the individual purchasing of systems and so on—should continue. In many respects there has been far too much Government interference in local policing. Attempts to direct policing and to set targets have interfered with officer discretion at all levels and distorted professional activity. In other ways, however, the Government have had insufficient drive to ensure that individual forces co-operate more effectively. We talked this morning about the lack of progress on the sharing of services and work force modernisation. In relation to ICT the story has been the same.

We cannot go on holding debates year after year in this place at which we observe that the timetable for the implementation of a national intelligence database has continued to slip and that the costs have continued to rise. It is important to get a grip on the matter, tie down the specifications, deal with the security issues, understand the cost implications and make resources available, if it is going to happen. If it is not going to happen, alternative arrangements must be investigated, as the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central suggested. The project is too important for the fight against crime and the protection of the public for the situation to be allowed to slip any further.

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 3:23 pm, 28th February 2007

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Illsley on raising these important issues for discussion, and I very much appreciate his continuing concern.

My hon. Friend will agree that in accepting all the Bichard inquiry's 31 recommendations, the Government have risen to meet a substantial and challenging agenda of work. I am grateful for the opportunity to update all hon. Members on the Government's position on the Bichard implementation work generally—the subject of my hon. Friend's debate—and, specifically, on questions about the progress of the IMPACT programme. Today's debate usefully complements the regular reports to Parliament made by successive Home Secretaries, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be making a further report to Parliament in the spring.

I want to reaffirm from the outset that the Government remain fully committed to implementing all the Bichard recommendations and to ensuring that the necessary resources to do so are made available. The Government have been working hard for several years to make the protection of children an absolute priority. The work to set up the necessary arrangements to achieve that, including developments under the Bichard implementation programme, demonstrates our clear commitment. As my hon. Friend has explained, the Bichard inquiry report raised serious issues. We all recognise that it triggered, through its 31 recommendations, a complex but necessary programme of work to improve the safeguarding of children and vulnerable adults, which is why the Government have persisted in driving forward a complex and ambitious programme to address the shortcomings that Sir Michael Bichard highlighted.

Much of the hard work has been done behind the scenes, but I assure hon. Members that there has been no lessening of effort as a result. I shall focus first on some of the achievements so far, and then on the implementation programme. Of the 31 recommendations, 21 have been either fully or substantially completed. Naturally the remainder, the larger and more complex projects, are taking longer to implement fully, but work has been no less vigorous. None of the work streams should be viewed in isolation. The fundamental aim is to minimise risks to children and vulnerable adults through co-ordinated and robust systems and actions. We remain committed both to the spirit of Bichard and to carrying out all the recommendations, which requires careful assessment of the interdependencies and a fully joined-up approach across Government and delivery agencies such as the police, education, health and social services. It also includes taking tough but sensible decisions about resources and making continuing efforts to change working cultures and support frameworks and processes.

We have achieved significant and solid progress since June 2004. We have already presented to Parliament, as I have said, three comprehensive progress reports. Although there has been slippage in some areas, the robust nature of that reporting again shows our clear commitment to delivery. I make it clear that we remain fully committed to achieving the changes that all have agreed are required, even if the plans for putting them into practice have, necessarily, evolved during the life of the programme to take account of emerging realities. A clear example is the substantial programme to enhance information and intelligence management across the police service—the IMPACT programme.

The IMPACT programme was launched to provide an integrated approach to the improvement of police information management through business change, supported by the appropriate information technology. I emphasise the notion of business change—this is not just about getting the appropriate information technology. The baton will now pass to the new national policing improvement agency from April 2007 to ensure that it is police-led and that it delivers what the police need. My hon. Friend has raised the issue of the agency and the ownership of IMPACT. I reassure him that the NPIA will be a non-departmental public body and a police-led organisation, which will be its strength. That will ensure that it delivers what the police need. Ownership will be where it should be, with the police. The NPIA is committed to delivering IMPACT and the business change that it represents, as well as the IT systems needed to support it.

An initial review of police information technology procurement was completed in 2004, and after careful consideration by Ministers it is now feeding through into the wider work to develop the NPIA on track. We are already working with the shadow agency and Chief Constable Peter Neyroud, who is heading it up. Its work is impressive, and we will see significant improvement as it gets up and running from April 2007.

Photo of Nick Herbert Nick Herbert Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

While the Minister is on the subject of the NPIA, can she tell us whether its budget has yet been set? Is she satisfied that there will be sufficient provision in the budget to ensure that the IMPACT programme can be delivered to the original specified timetable?

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

It is no secret that there is pressure on Home Office budgets, but I am confident that the NPIA will be able to deliver its programme. As I have said, the next progress report on the issues that we are discussing will take place in the spring, and we expect an announcement within a few weeks about the detail and time scales for the development of IMPACT and other technological issues. Further information will be available shortly, but I am confident on that point. We remain committed to fulfilling all 31 of Bichard's recommendations.

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

As I have said, I am confident that the NPIA will be able to fulfil the work programme that it is setting.

Photo of Nick Herbert Nick Herbert Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I am grateful to the Minister for her further explanation, but can I press her on the specific question whether the NPIA's budgets have been agreed?

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I shall have write to the hon. Gentleman about whether that agreement has formally been reached. I reiterate that I am confident that the NPIA will be able to carry out the work programme that it has set.

Points were raised about the quality of data and data exchange. Work to improve the quality of data on the police national computer has been ongoing. Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, which has embedded the monitoring of forces' timely input of data and the quality of their data into its baseline assessments, continues to work proactively with any forces that experience difficulty. The project to achieve the direct input of court results through the police national computer has been reinvigorated, but it remains challenging. The development of automatic resulting from the courts to the police is dependent on a number of factors, including streamlining the complex business process and having the right information technology in place. Nevertheless, the roll-out of the XHIBIT system to Crown courts was completed on 31 March 2006, which is enabling faster updating of court results to the PNC.

The initial roll-out of the Libra infrastructure to all magistrates courts was completed in 2003 and the further roll-out of the infrastructure is pending Department for Constitutional Affairs and Court Service evaluation of the outcomes of the experiences to date. That clearly concerned Sir Michael, and we had hoped that improvements would be achieved sooner. The new case management system is now running in 16 courts, with another seven courts planned for this quarter. We have seen improvements to the Criminal Records Bureau vetting procedures, which include developing and implementing a quality assurance framework in partnership with the police service to standardise the disclosure processes across all forces. The CRB has reported that the majority of forces have now implemented the quality assurance framework following delivery of training with the remainder to be completed by the end of the financial year.

In April 2005, the CRB also issued revised guidance to all registered bodies, further strengthening the disclosure application process. This is an appropriate point to reply to Mr. Browne, who has raised points about CRB checks on staff who were in place before 2002 or teaching staff who have not changed their place of employment since that time. Checks were introduced in 2002, and from then it was strongly recommended that new appointments to the school work force who will work closely with children should be CRB checked.

There has never been a requirement to CRB check school staff who were in the work force before 2002 and who have stayed in continuous employment since then, but such staff must all be checked against the Department's list 99, which is the list of individuals who are barred from working with children in education settings. Checking against list 99 incorporates a check against the Protection of Children Act 1999 list of individuals who are barred from working with children in other settings.

Today, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills announced that the revised list 99 regulations have been extended so that a greater range of offences will result in automatic inclusion on the list. They will include those who have received cautions as well as those who have received convictions for sexual offences against children. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman and clarifies the requirement for CRB checking.

In April 2005 the CRB issued revised guidance to registered bodies further to strengthen the disclosure application process. Under the Serious and Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, we have enabled the CRB to seek access to relevant information from a wider range of appropriate data sources for vetting purposes. Those sources include the Serious Organised Crime Agency and HM Revenue and Customs. That will further strengthen the vetting regime.

Most significantly, the establishment of a new integrated vetting and barring scheme for those working with children and vulnerable adults should be borne in mind. The scheme has passed to the Home Office following Royal Assent for the legislative framework. The Home Office is now working closely with the Department for Education and Skills and the CRB to establish the independent barring board, a new body that will manage all discretionary judgements under the scheme. That is due to be implemented in September 2008.

We have made some significant progress, but the real challenge is that the changes must fit together with subsequent developments in a consistent and co-ordinated way. New business processes for information sharing must spread consistent good practice but manage and present information in a way that supports the needs of the new safeguarding arrangements and protects vulnerable groups effectively. The Government look to all the agencies and stakeholder organisations involved to reaffirm their collective, long-term commitment to working together effectively to protect the most vulnerable in our society.

I turn now in more detail to the work that is being done, and to the points at the heart of the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central. On the subject of the IMPACT programme, the key strand of work is on the development of new national information-sharing capabilities across the police service. The IMPACT programme is charged with delivering seven of the recommendations made by Sir Michael Bichard, but it has a much wider remit to tackle the root causes of the problems that led to the failings in the use and sharing of information and intelligence across the police service identified in Sir Michael's report. The programme aims to transform the ability of the police service to exploit its intelligence and other operational information much more effectively, which will enable it to manage and share its information more efficiently. Most importantly, it will progressively improve the service's ability to prevent and detect crime and to protect the public.

Change will not be achieved by the introduction of technology alone. We do not want to introduce technical fixes to operational problems that fail to deliver the promised benefits, which is why the impact programme is determinedly a business change programme. The aim is to change the way in which the police service manages and shares its operational information. The process will be enabled and supported by technical solutions that are carefully designed with specific operational processes in mind and matched to those business processes.

The IMPACT programme is delivering that capability incrementally, giving the police service time to develop its business processes in a way that delivers the benefits. The programme has learned from past experience. The big bang approach to rolling out new capabilities seldom delivers the promised benefits. The Government have learned across the piece from numerous programmes that introducing technology with an incremental build de-risks programmes and is by far the safest way to proceed.

In that context, I can report substantial progress on the impact programme over the past year. Just over 12 months ago, the programme delivered the IMPACT nominal index, to which my hon. Friend has referred, to the child abuse investigation units of each of the 43 forces in England and Wales, thus fulfilling our commitment to implement Sir Michael Bichard's second recommendation. However, I want to pick up my hon. Friend's point about the INI being used primarily in child abuse cases. Child abuse cases amount to about 80 per cent. of inquiries, but the INI has been used to support other inquiries and has been trialled in other areas. On the advice of ACPO, we have not yet rolled it out more widely due to the likely demand caused by inter-force inquiries. I hope that I have answered my hon. Friend, but we must bear in mind the purpose behind the programme.

The INI enables an investigating officer in any force to establish whether another force holds information about a person of interest and where that information is held, which is an entirely new operational capability. Previously, unless information about a person of interest was held on one of the central systems, such as the police national computer, or unless the investigating officer had some particular reason to approach another force, the information would have been invisible to him. Given that most operational information is held in local force systems, that was a serious deficiency.

My hon. Friend has spoken about duplication. He has suggested that the existence of 43 million records would result in a lot of duplication on the INI, which is not the case. There will be more than one record per person, if a person has come to the attention of the police more than once, whether that involved the same force or different forces. Some people rightly have multiple records on the INI.

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley Labour, Barnsley Central

I wish to pursue that matter a little further. The index system, by necessity, has to duplicate the record that it is searching for. If a police force uses the index system and a record is flagged up as being available in another force, the only way to obtain it is to duplicate it. Every time an inquiry goes ahead, that piece of information will be duplicated. Clearing the system of old information will keep it under control, but by necessity it lends itself to duplication in any event.

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I take my hon. Friend's point, but I do not think that the index system duplicates the record in the system. However, he knows that we are taking the first steps and that we wish to move towards the sort of system that he outlined earlier, which is the journey that we are on—there may be some disagreement about the journey itself, but there is no disagreement about where we want to go. However, I note what my hon. Friend has said. Indeed, it is one of the reasons why we are on the journey.

In accordance with the priority highlighted in Sir Michael's report, we have concentrated deployment of the system in police child abuse investigation units, and it has proved to be extremely valuable. It has opened up some significant new lines of inquiry for the police, and since the INI was launched the volume of information on the system has doubled.

We now have more than 45 million named link records, and the police have made more than 106,000 enquiries on the system, of which around 80 per cent. relate to child protection. More than 10 per cent. of the child protection checks have resulted in requests to other forces for access to their information, and in a third of those cases the officers involved assessed the information that they received as being of direct relevance to their inquiries. We estimate that in more than 600 of the child protection cases that the police dealt with last year, the information that they uncovered using the INI led them to take significantly different decisions, which must indicate a real improvement in the level of protection that the police can now offer to vulnerable children.

The remit of the IMPACT programme was originally limited to forces in England and Wales, but it has attracted much interest from other policing agencies, who are now influencing its development. By the end of March, Scottish police forces, the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the British Transport police will be able to link up to the INI, and a number of other policing agencies are in line to gain access to the system during the next year. That will increase the number of records on the system to more than 50 million. That will not only help decision making within police forces and enforcement agencies, but enhance the CRB's vetting process, as it has access to the same records.

I am pleased to report that the IMPACT programme has just been awarded the central e-government award for team excellence for delivery of the INI. It was also highly commended in the technology category of the civil service awards for 2006. That recognises the success of the programme in working with its partners to deliver real business benefits. I am sure that hon. Members will join me in congratulating those involved.

Where the INI is already delivering major benefits, it is the first step in our plans to provide new capabilities in an incremental and modular way. The INI provides an index to nominal records in local force systems. We now want to provide access to the records themselves and to extend the information available to include objects, locations and events as well as people.

There is a software application that enables information to be pooled for access by all forces connected to it. A new common data scheme also exists, which enables information from myriad different systems to be shared in a common format. CRISP, the cross-regional information sharing project, is designed to be an interim solution and the data scheme will provide the long-term basis for information sharing across the police service. The programme has taken over responsibility for developing and testing the software and the data scheme. The latter is now ready for service and forces are in the process of extracting the information from their systems and transforming it to be loaded to a central data warehouse for sharing.

The programme is now in dialogue with potential commercial suppliers to host and support the delivery of the system. However, a problem has been encountered with the software itself, to which my hon. Friend referred. Tests using large numbers of records have revealed that the response time for search operations is unacceptably slow. Following investigation and consultation with potential suppliers and the wider IT industry, it was concluded that it is likely that a new search engine will have to be incorporated into the application. The cost and delivery implications are currently under investigation, but unfortunately it means that there will inevitably be some slippage in the time scale for deployment of the system.

The programme has also made significant progress towards the development and introduction of the police national database, which is a single source of operational policing information, linking information held on local systems with that held on the police national computer and other national systems.

I have reported on the development of the IMPACT programme and the progress made with implementing the first and second recommendations of Sir Michael Bichard's report. My hon. Friend also referred to the technology available in Scotland's police system and to the Metropolitan police. The Scottish system makes available what we would call intelligence—information that has been evaluated. We want to make both information and intelligence available, so we will need a different functionality from the Scottish system. That is the ambition. We hope also to have the ability to link that to the PNC, which holds the conviction data. That would provide a one-stop shop for information and is a different system from that to which my hon. Friend referred. Police forces in Scotland and elsewhere are interested in the system that we are developing.

Sir Michael Bichard's fourth recommendation was on securing the future of the PNC, which is crucial. Earlier this month, the PNC application was successfully loaded on to a new hardware platform by the police IT organisation, following a project sponsored by the IMPACT programme. That will ensure that the PNC remains resilient and fully functional until it is replaced by the PND. As I said, the IMPACT programme is not just about installing new IT systems, as helping the police service to deliver the business change needed to exploit those capabilities effectively and to get the best out of its information assets is also crucial to the success of the programme.

The statutory code of practice on the management of police information, which came into effect in November 2005, underpins all the projects. In March last year, ACPO published detailed guidance that provides the practical detail required to ensure compliance with the code of practice. The national intelligence model, the code and the guidance provide the core of the business change agenda to be delivered by the programme and will improve the way in which, and the consistency with which, forces manage, share and exploit information.

The hon. Members for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) and for Taunton made good points about the 43 separate police forces and how there have been different levels of co-operation over the years. Those forces could indeed purchase their own 43 different systems should they so require. A positive outcome of the debate on police force mergers last year, however, was the realisation among forces of the need to co-operate more effectively, not least on protective services. The NPIA will, of course, be a further catalyst for closer working while also recognising the independence of local forces and their police authorities.

During the past year, the IMPACT programme has worked with forces to help them to implement the requirements. A comprehensive capability assessment was completed last summer, and as a result, all forces will have the plans, policies and infrastructure in place by the end of next month to enable them to achieve full compliance across all business areas by December 2010. More recently, the programme has been managing a peer review process to establish the state of preparedness in individual forces. Inevitably, there remain some significant challenges to overcome, but most forces recognise the breadth of change needed to achieve full compliance by 2010. They have responded positively and have either put or are putting in place the resources needed. The results of the reviews are being fed back to forces and used to focus the effort provided by the programme to support compliance activity. I am pleased to report substantial progress on the IMPACT programme, but we must not lose sight of the fact that it remains a complex and challenging process.

The programme requires a significant investment of resources by the Home Office and by forces. We have, to date, already invested more than £70 million in the IMPACT programme. We have discussed the considerable pressures on the Home Office budget at present and we are engaged in a fundamental review of our expenditure plans. We remain fully committed to delivering the aims and objectives of the IMPACT programme, and are conscious that ACPO has rated it as its core priority. There are no guarantees that the programme will not have to share some of the cost savings that we must make. However, there are guarantees that we will meet the 31 recommendations.

In accordance with good practice, the programme has been continually evaluating all the options that would allow it to deliver maximum value to the police service within difficult budgetary profiles while capitalising as much as possible on the investment made by the Home Office and police forces. Ministers will shortly review the outcomes of the latest evaluation and we shall announce our conclusions.

I hope that I have covered the points raised by hon. Members. We have had a good and wide-ranging debate on a very important issue that remains a priority for the Government, the Home Office and ACPO.