Focus: Do the 'systemic' failures that left Ian Huntley free to kill go right to the top?

The incompetence of one man in Humberside is a distraction from a far wider scandal, argues Paul Lashmar. The Home Office is also culpable - for its failure to set up and fund a national database for criminal intelligence
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The Independent Online

Where does the buck stop in the Soham murder case? Is it with the chief constable of a small, inefficient and beleaguered police force? David Blunkett thinks so. The Home Secretary wants David Westwood, Chief Constable of Humberside, removed from active service after he was heavily criticised in a report last week.

But the Humberside Police Authority refused to do what it was told on Friday. Instead, it insisted that the Home Secretary should "reconsider his decision". A furious Mr Blunkett then said he would begin legal action "at the earliest opportunity" to get Mr Westwood suspended.

The chief constable was an obvious target after taking much of the most ferocious criticism dealt out by Sir Michael Bichard, who led an inquiry into the handling of the case against the Soham murderer Ian Huntley. But a cynic might also see the confrontation with Humberside as a diversionary tactic by Mr Blunkett - because the report published by Sir Michael last week also contains serious and far-ranging criticism of home secretaries over the past decade or so, including the present incumbent.

The report is a truly shocking document, as Sir Michael dissects the errors at every level that left Huntley free to kill Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman. He does tear into David Westwood for Humberside police's "systemic" failings over the gathering and keeping of intelligence on potential offenders.

But Humberside's incompetence has served to distract from a wider scandal. One of Sir Michael's chief complaints is against the failure of the Home Office to provide leadership, knock heads together, decide policy and provide resources.

The main issue is the failure to set up a central database of criminal intelligence. Huntley was suspected of nine different sex offences including rape and under-age sex. He was never prosecuted, which meant his name was not recorded on the police national computer. Suspicions and allegations are left to local forces to handle - and in Humberside all records relating to Huntley were deleted in the absence of a conviction. Other forces are diligent with their records, while others face a mountainous backlog. Information is easily lost - but a national database of criminal intelligence would make it all easily available to detectives elsewhere in the country.

Instead, the Humberside and Cambridgeshire forces failed dismally to communicate. If a national system had been in place, Huntley might have been jailed for a previous offence, he might have been refused the job at Soham Village College, and he certainly would have been caught a lot quicker after the murders.

"Recognising the importance of intelligence is nothing new," noted Sir Michael. "This recognition has not, however, always been matched by effective action. The problems, and the failure to address them have been wide-ranging."

One reason for the chaos is the haphazard development of different local police information technology systems, many of which do not communicate with each other. A project was set up in 1994 to standardise the IT systems of the 43 police forces and run national software applications - but 10 years on there is still no common IT system for managing criminal intelligence.

"The national solution was removed from the implementation plan in 2000 when it was judged that there were insufficient funds to deliver all the applications," says Sir Michael. The Association of Chief Police Officers showed two years ago how all the systems could be made compatible. No funding was made available. The Home Office says Soham has concentrated minds and a national database is a priority. But when it will be ready is still unclear.

Sir Michael focuses on Humberside and Cambridgeshire but you can't read his report without wondering how many other sex offenders have escaped detection because of the incompetence of their local police. "One cannot be confident that it was Huntley alone who 'slipped through the net'," says Sir Michael.

The national police structure is also a problem, as small forces fight for resources with super rivals like Thames Valley and the Met. The Bichard report presents a powerful implicit case for a national police force working together to a common end - the catching of criminals - rather than 43 different groups getting on with their own thing without very much reference to each other, even in extreme cases. Sir Michael said it was "extremely unlikely" that Cambridgeshire ever sent a fax asking Humberside to checks its records on Huntley. The records themselves would not have been deleted if there was a national standard for record keeping, and not just a chief constable applying his own flawed interpretation of the data protection laws.

David Westwood has few defenders this weekend beyond his own police authority, whose chair Colin Inglis believes the chief constable has been made a scapegoat. "The person who murdered Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman is in prison for the rest of his life. Trying to pin the blame on any other individual is a fool's errand."

But whatever David Blunkett may prefer us to think, Sir Michael Bichard made serious and clear criticisms of national institutions, from the social services to the police service inspectors and ultimately the Home Office. The chain of command is clear, as the senior Home Office official Stephen Rimmer said during the Bichard hearings in March. "The buck stops with the Home Secretary in terms of being answerable to Parliament and the public for policing in England and Wales, that is absolutely true." The Bichard report indicates a failure on a national scale, as well as a local one. When he has managed to get rid of David Westwood perhaps David Blunkett will consider adopting the motto that President Harry Truman kept on a plaque on his desk: "The buck stops here."

Failure to modernise is at the heart of police troubles

By Brian Cathcart

You might think police and computers were a marriage made in Home Office heaven, capable of spawning a hi-tech, low manpower, Big Brother super-force - but they are not. The two have been surprisingly slow to get together.

One of the earliest decisions made by the police after the death of Stephen Lawrence was that - unusually for a murder in 1993 - it would be a computer-based investigation. Senior officers would insist later that it was proof of the seriousness with which they approached the case, that on the very first day they chose to deploy the HOLMES (Home Office Large Major Enquiry System) database.

However, it took time to set up the computers and clear the data from a previous inquiry off the disks, and when the system was finally running it turned out most of the officers assigned to the case, including several in charge, had no idea how to work it.

Paper reports and messages, some containing vital information, piled up in in-trays, and for a time a chaotic regime prevailed in which the case was being run on both screen and hard copy at once, with different people following different trails. The Macpherson Inquiry, when it came to pick it all apart, was horrified.

In the Jill Dando murder case, six years later, there were also computer problems. Though it was a better-run investigation, it still proved unable to cope with the volume of incoming data and an extraordinary failure of cross-referencing meant that almost a year passed between the time Barry George, the man eventually convicted of the crime, first entered the database and the moment when he was first questioned.

One problem has been a lack of investment. I recall visiting the Dando investigation headquarters in 1999 and seeing officers sitting at small, green screens which looked like historical artefacts.

They seem eternally to be three generations of hardware behind the rest of us.

But inertia is also a reason for the failures. The police service is slow to change - on pay, conditions, uniforms, structures and cultural attitudes and also on technology.

There is now a job called "analyst" in the police service, devoted to studying crime in precisely the ways for which computers are most helpful. But are these people at the heart of modern policing? No. For the most part, they are low-paid, low status, inadequately trained civilian "support staff", enjoying little authority.

The "real" policemen, meanwhile, operate all too often in a formal, hierarchical structure that does not encourage the best use of computers. Investigations are broken down into small-scale "actions" which officers must perform and tick off, one by one, perhaps with little awareness of their relation to the big picture. Adapting to technology remains a problem area for a public service that in so many respects remains remarkably unmodernised and unreformed.

Brian Cathcart is the author of 'The Case of Stephen Lawrence' and 'Jill Dando: Her Life and Death'

A CATALOGUE OF ERRORS

The inquiry by Sir Michael Bichard found:

* Soham Village College failed to check Huntley's references.

* North-east Lincolnshire Social Services did not report to the police occasions that Huntley had come to its attention for having sex with underage girls.

* Humberside police were guilty of "systemic and corporate" failings including a "widespread failure to appreciate the value of intelligence".

* Humberside Police deleted records showing that Huntley was suspected of nine sexual offences, including five against schoolgirls.

* The Chief Constable of Humberside did not know basic details about how his force stored intelligence and was wrong to blame data protection laws for its failures.

* Cambridgeshire police did not enter Huntley's correct name or his aliases on the police national computer.

* The Home Office and other organisations failed to create a national intelligence database accessible by all police forces - which should now be an "urgent priority for the government".