Major police database suffered 18 ‘unplanned outages’ last year

Policing minister Chris Philp reveals that the Police National Computer, containing almost 225 million person and vehicle records, has already shut down 10 times in the first quarter of 2024

Policing’s core national database – providing frontline officers with access to records of tens of millions of people and vehicles – suffered 18 “unplanned outages” last year.

The Police National Computer (PNC), which has been in operation for 50 years and is due to be fully replaced over the course of the next 18 months, was also shut down 17 times on a scheduled and pre-planned basis in 2023.

The overall tally of 35 gaps in service across the year is the highest recorded since 2015, during which PNC suffered 48 unexpected outages in addition to 22 planned closures. In each year since then, the cumulative tally has not exceeded 30 – and in 2019, there were only four unplanned outages and one showdown for maintenance purposes.

During the first three months until the end of March 2024, there have already been six outages and four scheduled switch-offs.

The stats were revealed by crime and policing minister, who said that “partial PNC outages are included in the breakdown [and] elements of the PNC service may have been available during the outage period”.  He added that “outages on the same day have been counted as separate instances”.

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“Regular security IT health checks/audits are undertaken on PNC with actions to manage, mitigate or resolve vulnerabilities progressed to enhance the security of the system,” the minister said, in answer to a written parliamentary question from Labour MP Dame Siobhain McDonagh. “The PNC is security assured by the Police Digital Service on behalf of policing and in line with Home Office policy. PNC has a number of backup servers for resilience and mirroring to provide a disaster recovery capability from a secondary site. There are numerous back up servers at the primary site and also at the disaster recovery site providing several layers of backup for the operation of the PNC.”

The PNC contains records on about 13 million people, including details of anyone aged over 10 who has been cautioned or convicted of one of a wide range of offences in scope of the database. The system also features data on 62.6 million vehicles and 58.5 million drivers. The database is accessed around the clock by hundreds of thousands of users across the country, including frontline police officers and other service staff, as well as representatives of organisations such as the Disclosure and Barring Service.

In 2016 the Home Office launched a £600m project to create a single nationwide system – the Law Enforcement Data Service (LEDS) – to replace the PNC and complementary evidence-record platform the Police National Database. The latter of the two existing systems has since been removed from the upgrade project, which will now focus solely on decommissioning PNC – which this year celebrates its 50th birthday.

The date for concluding delivery of LEDS, which was originally scheduled for 2020, has been delayed several times and is now set for December 2025 – three months before PNC is due to be switched off for good. Despite this rather narrow margin for error, the Home Office last year decided not to pursue a £60m contingency plan to ensure continuity of access to PNC.

“We continue to make solid progress in LEDS and remain confident in LEDS delivery to enable to the PNC to be decommissioned as scheduled,” the department said in a commercial notice explaining the decision.

Sam Trendall

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