A meeting of Cambridge’s Community Safety Partnership on the 5th of February 2013 heard that many public bodies, including most notably the police, are considering massively expanding their use of web-based (but restricted access) databases for keeping track of people, addresses and for managing cases.
The current and proposed subjects of these databases include offenders, those reporting anti-social behaviour, children coming into contact with council services, lists of Houses of Multiple Occupancy and addresses where “problem families” (a currently trendy public sector term) live.
Police databases are not easy for others to access. This is generally a good thing. Access to, for example, the Police National Computer, is tightly controlled and people get disciplined, prosecuted and punished for abusing their access. Greater “partnership working” between state agencies and an increasing amount of working with private companies and voluntary organisations has led to databases held by one body, such as the police, not being accessible to others being a problem.
The proposed applications for these web-based systems appear to go well beyond those seen to date in Cambridgeshire; where for example traders in a town centre have been able to access information on people with various types of order banning them from, or putting conditions on their behaviour in, an area.
My Suggestion and View of the Programme
My view is that systems used by internally the police, councils and others ought be developed and updated so that information can be made available to different groups as appropriate. The ability to set different permissions to access different information, perhaps including access over the web by outside bodies, needs to be incorporated into public bodies’ routinely used systems.
The problem we appear to have is that police and local government information technology is archaic and slow to change; so officers are understandably enticed by commercial online offerings which offer a lightweight, speedy route to getting reasonably modern technology to support their work. We need to ensure though that the core systems used by the police, schools, councils and others are able to perform as required, otherwise we will see duplication of work, and increase in complexity of administration, rather than technology being used to best effect.
I am concerned about oversight of these new databases. Will they be as secure as the Police National Computer? Will access be controlled and logged so rigorously? At some point in the future might those running these databases for individual police forces, councils, or bodies like CBBID seek to join up records entered by these various bodies and create an overarching database outside of current control and oversight arrangements? Will those whose information is held on these databases be aware of, and have control over, how it is used and who it is shared with?
(A trial in Fenland, which involved datasharing with a housing association, used a consent form for those reporting crimes and other issues to sign to allow their information to be entered onto the system.)
I am also concerned about the focus on those reporting crime; rather than criminals. Knowing that the police will start creating records about me if I report something will deter me from reporting, or encourage me to do so anonymously. I understand there is a desire to identify those who are suffering as repeat victims of crime or anti-social behaviour as a result of political direction and due to police failings in the case of Fiona Pilkington who reportedly killed herself and her daughter after years of torment. However I think the reaction has gone too far, the police need to identify those who need particular help, but I think the best way to do that is to talk to those reporting crimes and find out exactly what the problem is, its extent, how long it has being going on, and how it is having an impact on people’s lives. I don’t think the police ought be trying to identify people on whom crime is having a serious impact though analysing statistics – there are many reasons why people might find themselves in a position to contact the police on a number of occasions.
As well as being uncomfortable with specifically recording, and sharing details of, those who report crimes; I am also concerned about councils sharing their lists of HMO addresses with the police in a live and automated manner. I don’t think it ought matter if a call to the police comes from a HMO or not; I certainly don’t think residents of HMOs ought be given a second class service. I oppose the implication here that residents of HMOs are considered problematic.
Another underlying problem is the current propensity for the police, councils and other bodies to encourage the reporting of crime to bodies other than the police. This then creates the problem of systems needing to be put in place to make the police aware of reports of crime. I would rather see the police being the sole body to which people are encouraged to report crime (using Crimestoppers if they wish to make it anonymous). I’m personally not keen on local councils, or other bodies like CBBID, or CamBAC, playing at policing.
Web-based Database for Offender Management
Detective Inspector Mick Birchall of Cambridgeshire Police described to the committee how a web-based database would help with “offender management”, he presented a report which stated:
The system allows partners to access the case file for offenders from any web based computer and allows real time multi agency case management and recording and tasking of actions.
DI Birchall told the committee that some partners would get direct access to full case files but it was also possible to “task” others, such as volunteers, by sending them emails from within the system without them having access to it.
As these functions appear to be right at the core of the activity of “offender management”; any outsourcing needs surely to be very carefully managed.
Cambridge City Council officer Linda Kilkelly told the partnership that as the council already releases information it holds, for example, on those who have reported anti-social behaviour to the police on request by email. Kilkelly stated there is no difference in giving the police direct access to the council’s databases and declared this would be “covered by existing data access agreements”.
My view is there is a huge gulf between providing direct access to a database and handing over information on request. Responding to requests for information almost inevitably involves considering the appropriateness of passing information on. Local senior police officers regularly told the Police Authority how they thought it important to consider the proportionality of releasing information, particularly relating to children’s encounters with the police, to other parts of the public sector (or in even response to requests for CRB checks).
The Community Safety Partnership considered a paper from the police, presented by Inspector Richard Lowings, who was described as Cambridgeshire Police’s Youth and Antisocial Behaviour Manager. The paper proposed considering using the Empowering-Communities Inclusion and Neighbourhood management System (E-CINS) database produced by “Empowering Communities”. Empowering Communities is a Community Interest Company.
While it wasn’t clear if the E-CINS system was specifically being referred to officers talked about systems to which providers are constantly adding “modules” having seen their systems being used in relation to, for example, sharing a council’s information on their tenants with the police they then add elements to make it suited for other purposes such as sharing information on children considered at risk.
The police are so keen to get more organisations in Cambridgeshire using the E-CINS system they have offered to pay the ~£5000 per CSP area per year charge for the next financial year to get it in-use.
Officer Kilkelly stated that Cambridge City Council would not want to maintain duplicate databases; so would move all their record keeping on to a new online system if it was adopted.
City Council leader Tim Bick made no comment.
Just finished a video presentation on #ECINS for the Cambridgeshire Troubled Families Teams.
— Gary Pettengell (@EMPWCommunities) January 30, 2013
Officers from a wide range of agencies representatives at the partnership told the meeting they were regularly approached by private companies offering online databases intended for sharing information between public bodies. A number of members urged caution on selecting the right database provider, for example ensuring there was one which would develop their product in response to users’ needs and provide support.
Officer Kilkelly said she had seen a mock-up of the E-CINS system (though had not seen it in use) and reported it “looked good and user friendly”. Kilkelly told the partnership that she had seen a system in use which shared photographs and profiles of offenders (but didn’t reveal where that was).
The Cambridge Community Safety Partnership agreed to support a motion to the County Wide Community Safety Strategic Board which includes the following statement:
The Countywide Community Safety Board recognises the operational benefits of a web based data share IT system for community safety practitioners which will adapt to changing business environments and provide services which are future proofed
Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner’s Comment
Cambridgeshire’s Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner, Commissioner Graham Bright’s friend Brian Ashton, was present at the meeting. He asked the sensible question of if data entered into one system could easily be downloaded from it and used in an alternative system; he was assured by Inspector Richard Lowings that the arrangements to enable such data portability were in place with the E-CINS system.
Rupert Moss-Eccardt’s Comment
Liberal Democrat Rupert Moss-Eccardt who stood for election as Cambridgeshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner and has worked professionally in police technology responded to my live tweets from the meeting:
@rtayloruk I don’t know why they don’t use GovConnect which was supposed to safely allow this sort of data sharing 1/2
— Rupert Moss-Eccardt (@rm113) February 5, 2013
@rtayloruk I can only infer they can’t build it strong enough to be allowed to connect it to the GovConnect backbone but are cutting corners
— Rupert Moss-Eccardt (@rm113) February 5, 2013
Previous Related Comments
I have previously expressed concern about the database held by CamBAC on those who are excluded from Cambridge, responsibility for which is soon to be taken over by the Cambridge Tax organisation “CBBID”.
- Community Safety Partnership Papers – 5 February 2013 (P83 and also from p86)