Police computer system ‘so old that today’s IT experts can’t understand it’

The Police National Computer (PNC) is so old that the Home Office is struggling to find IT experts who can maintain it, a report by the Commons Public Accounts Committee has claimed.

Amid concerns that its replacement is five years late and £1.1 billion over budget, the MPs also revealed that the computer would be running for the final year before a scheduled replacement without any support from its manufacturer.

The system holds personal data on about 13.2 million UK citizens including arrests, convictions, property and vehicle ownership. It was also at the centre of a major data loss earlier this year when 150,000 records were deleted before being recovered months later.

The committee highlighted the blunder as it pointed out that knowledge of how the PNC works “has become harder for the department to maintain”.

The PNC was created in 1974 with subsequent updates to meet changing policing demands and was due to have been merged into a computer system with the Police National Database.

Home Office ‘wasted vital time’

The committee said: “It is difficult and expensive to recruit people with skills and experience in the ageing technology used by the PNC.

“The team that maintains [it] is under-resourced and several staff are nearing retirement, which means it is difficult for the team to run the PNC and also support programmes. 

“The department currently plans to run this piece of critical national infrastructure without full manufacturer support for the database after 2024, meaning it will not have that support for at least a year.”

The committee said that for the last five years, the Home Office had “wasted vital time and scarce funding without making any meaningful progress” in creating the new merged system.

‘We see perpetual failure’

It continued what the committee described as the Home Office’s “miserable record of exorbitantly expensive digital programmes that fail to deliver” – on their objectives or for the taxpayer. 

The committee also disclosed that at one point police chiefs lost confidence in the ability of the Home Office to handle the contract, writing to its top civil servant to express their concerns at rising costs and that they would be without any “meaningful capability” from the system for four years.

Dame Meg Hillier, the committee’s chair, said: “The Home Office has a number of large, complex, costly digital and technology projects to deliver. All are critical to security and yet we see perpetual failure and an inability to learn lessons on basic project management.”

The National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) said they had jointly with the Home Office established a “better way of working”, which meant the programme was now “developing well”, with the first capabilities expected by March 2022.