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Police National Computer replacement runs risk of further 3-year delay

Replatforming UK's Police National Computer would add three years of delays.

The Home Office is working on contingency plans to extend the life of the UK’s Police National Computer (PNC) by replatforming it off its mainframe. But it warned MPs this week that if it is forced to take that step it would further delay the National Law Enforcement Data Programme (NLEDP) project, waste years of work and require fresh funding for what is already an over-budget and much-delayed police IT modernisation project.

The announcement came as the Home Office also said that it had appointed its Chief Digital, Data & Technology Officer to the NLEDP board as of January 2022 in a bid to improve oversight and project management.

Responding to the Public Accounts Committee’s (PAC) damning December 2021 report on NLEDP (a police IT modernisation project) delays, the Home Office said it was working on plans to keep the PNC (which dates from 1974 and searched over 140 million times a year by 43 police forces) running until the end of 2025. A core part of the PNC's architecture, a Software AG database, is only be supported until end-2024 however.

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The Home Office claims using the PNC without full support for up to a year after this date – until the NLEDP is completed by its promised date of 2025 – is "an acceptable element of risk".

But if the NLEDP is delayed to 2026 or later and the department has to move the PNC to a new platform to ensure continued stability the work required would add years of extra delays to the replacement system, the Home Office said in a response to the PAC, seen in Treasury minutes published March 1.

(The Police National Computer is written in Software AG’s "Natural" programming language using an ADABAS database running on a Fujitsu SE700 H/W with BS2000, OSD v9, UTM v6.3, early contracts have revealed. Software AG is ending support for a wide range of legacy UNIX platforms on December 31, 2024. Migrating to alternative databases running on x86 architectures is a complex but not impossible process. But as one witness told PAC the Department had under-estimated the complexity in the PNC, saying: “It anticipated that asking the system to show a person’s driving licence would be relatively simple, perhaps involving up to five business rules, but it turned out to involve 40... The lack of documentation for the PNC meant… repeated such surprises.”)

Police National Computer contingency plans

The Home Office said it would release a plan detailing "whether and when to trigger the mitigation option" by 30 June this year -- a move the National Audit Office says will take three years and £30 million to complete.

The Home Office also made it clear it can't deliver both the NLEDP and a new platform for the PNC, for both budgetary and logistical reasons: “As the PNC re-platforming mitigation option is highly resource intensive and PNC intrusive, it is not possible to deliver both the NLEDP programme and the mitigation option in parallel, nor within the same [Spending Review] settlement" it responded this week to the PAC report.

The Home Office added: “Should the decision be taken to initiate the mitigation option, it would be necessary to pause the delivery of NLEDP until the PNC re-platforming activities have completed.

"Current estimates suggest NLEDP would be postponed for a further 2 to 3-year period... [and] there’s no guarantee that work performed to date on NLEDP could be fully reused once PNC has been re-platformed.

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“This would likely therefore lead to a significant delay in delivering NLEDP and a significant increase in longer term delivery costs," the department said. (PAC earlier reported that police "have lost confidence in the Home Office’s ability to deliver these programmes to the point where the country’s most senior officers took the unusual step of writing to the Home Office to raise their concerns", describing NLEDP pugnaciously as part of the Home Office's "miserable record of exorbitantly expensive digital programmes that fail to deliver".)

The NLEDP saga has been in the making since 2016, and aside from the massively increased costs – the programme is £1.1 billion over-budget – an NAO report in September 2021 criticised project management harshly, saying: “The Home Office and the police have not had a consistent shared understanding of what NLEDS will deliver, and since 2016 the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) has repeatedly reported a lack of consistency in stakeholders’ understanding of the programme scope, approach and benefits.

"The focus of the programme has changed several times, and it has not been clear if the programme aims to replace the functions of current ageing systems or to introduce enhanced capabilities for police and other users,” said the NAO in a summary of the report, adding: “The NAO also found that the Home Office and police only documented the ‘vision’ for the programme in September 2018, almost two years into its development.”

NLEDP initially aimed to migrate both the PNC and another database, the Police National Database (PND) -- which holds over four billion items of police intelligence -- into a unified cloud-based data lake. The initial aim: searching of the entire data pool “via a single free form enquiry (‘Google-type’)”.  The Home Office in December 2020 decided to drop plans to bring the two databases into a single environment, removing the PND from the scope of the programme. It will now be maintained as a standalone system until 2031.

“Police and other users will therefore be unable to access PNC and PND data from a single system, which was one of the Department’s original objectives for NLEDS, for the foreseeable future" PAC said.

See also: 1 mainframe, 2 critical databases, 43 police forces, 1 big headache