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Home Office moots 'Precrime' agency for future serial killers

But wacko ideas don't fix dud IT systems

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Analysis Home Office proposals on "multi-agency information sharing", leaked to the Times this week, say that council, NHS and care staff should be given a statutory obligation to pass on information about anyone they think might commit violent crimes in the future.

According to the Times, the report proposes that a preliminary risk assessment be made by the body concerned, following which those flagged as dangerous should be referred to a new "multi-agency body" for more detailed assessment.

The proposals were circulated by Simon King, head of the Home Office violent crime unit, and envisage a new statutory obligation on professionals to pass on their fears about potential future offenders. There would be, it suggests, two new agencies for them to tip off - one for potential criminals and one for potential victims.

The proposed agency for possible criminals could perhaps be seen as a step on the road to a Department of Precrime, with a growing database of potential murderers and rapists who haven't actually done anything, yet. The second body adds handy symmetry for Home Office strategists seeking quick fixes for the twin cause celebres of Soham and Haringey.

If murderer Ian Huntley had been intercepted early enough, then the Soham murders would not have happened, while if the threat to Victoria Climbié had been properly identified, she would not have died.

If, indeed. But in both these cases, although failure to share information is widely seen as being to blame, and frequently used by the government as a justification for breaking down the 'outmoded' barriers to data sharing between public bodies, carers and agencies, in neither of these cases was this entirely true.

In the case of Victoria Climbié information was shared at various points between hospital, social services and police, and her death was more a consequence of failure to act, or failure to act with sufficient urgency, on the information that was available. And while there were failures of information sharing in the Huntley case, it is clear from the report of the Bichard enquiry into the Soham murders that this is a systemic problem, not one that can be fixed simply by placing a statutory duty on professionals to pass on their concerns to a new agency that manages a suspect list.

Inadequate IT systems and practices loom large in the list of failures identified by Bichard, but cancellations, delays and overruns have meant that little has been done since Bichard to address these failures. From the government's perspective it is no doubt a lot easier to announce a whole new "fix" (necessitating, erm, another new database) to be layered on top of the existing failing systems, but there's no reason to believe this will have any effect on the root problems.

Bichard found numerous problems with the IT systems used by police, and with police data entry and retention practices. The Police National Computer (PNC) was the only system accessible by all forces in England and Wales, but its effectiveness as a broad-ranging national system remains limited, and there had been "major and continuing problems" with it.

Bichard also notes that although various reviews resulted in the adoption of the National Strategy for Police Information Systems (NSPIS), they "did not address urgently enough the problems of the existing systems and whether these needed to be modified or improved in the interim." NSPIS, set up in 1994, is intended to standardise the forces on a compatible IT architecture running national software applications. Some 38 applications were originally envisaged as being part of this. Crucially, however, the common IT system for managing criminal intelligence was removed from the list in 2000 in order to cut costs, and this leaves forces singularly ill-equipped to share intelligence - a key problem in the Soham case.

More recently, the Home Office pulled the plugs on CRISP, the Cross-Region Information Sharing Project, one of the justifications offered being that police quality standards for inputting, maintaining and sharing data would not become compulsory until 2010. This could easily be read as "it's not possible to fix the broken databases and procedures because the databases and procedures are broken" - but this could be seen as a reasonable summation of the hill police IT systems have to climb.

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