Ian Huntley murdered schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in August 2002. In response to questions that followed his conviction in December 2003, Humberside Police blamed the UK's Data Protection Act for failures in recording and managing information that led to Huntley being appointed as school caretaker, despite there being nine prior allegations against him. Its criticism was that the Act required forces to delete information about suspects that had not led to a conviction.
However, Sir Michael Bichard wrote in his 196-page report: "I do not believe that the current Data Protection Act needs to be revised as a result of these events."
He continued: "I suggest, however, that better guidance is needed on the collection, retention, deletion, use and sharing of information, so that police officers, social workers and other professionals can feel more confident in using information properly".
The Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, yesterday confirmed that his Office would be assisting the police in drawing up a new Code of Practice, and commented:
"We are pleased that the Inquiry has underlined that the Data Protection Act (DPA) was not the problem behind the deletion of Ian Huntley's records. We are confident that the findings of the Inquiry will go a long way to restoring public confidence in the DPA which provides important protection for the privacy of personal information."
So what went wrong?
The blame, according to the report, lay with flaws in the Humberside Police system for creating records on their intelligence system, particularly the guidance and training offered to officers involved in inputting and deleting information.
"As a result of these failures," wrote Bichard, "there was not one single occasion in all of the contacts with Huntley when the record creation system worked as it should have done."
In Bichard's view, "the Inquiry did find errors, omissions, failures and shortcomings which are deeply shocking. Taken together, these were so extensive that one cannot be confident that it was Huntley alone who 'slipped through the net'."
The report also criticised Cambridgeshire Police, which had made the initial inquiry for information from Humberside Police, for making errors that were not "systemic or corporate, but they were serious."
Both Humberside and Cambridgeshire police say they have now taken steps to correct the errors highlighted by the Inquiry.
In his report Bichard issued a number of recommendations, including:
The introduction of a national intelligence system. Where information has been collected which points to someone posing a threat, this information should be shared and acted upon before that person is employed in a sensitive post.
The development of a Code of Practice on record creation, retention, review, deletion and the sharing of information
Those recruiting staff in schools must be properly trained in safeguarding children.
Stronger, more consistent vetting - the introduction of a new system for registering those working with children and vulnerable adults, perhaps through a licensing scheme.
The social services database should hold details of all alleged sexual offenders involved with named children and needs to be easily searchable.
Home Secretary David Blunkett accepted the recommendations made by the inquiry and detailed the actions that the Government proposed to take in response. These include:
The introduction of the first National Police Intelligence Computer system, entitled 'IMPACT'. It will ensure that all forces use the same system to manage and share intelligence information.
As an interim measure, bringing forward the nationwide introduction of the police local exchange, an easily searchable index of all those on whom any police force holds information. This will begin in autumn this year and be complete by spring 2005.
A statutory code of practice on police information handling by the end of this year to enable all 43 forces to deal with intelligence information in the same way. This will link closely to the police national intelligence model.
Selection panels should contain at least one panel member properly trained to identify those who pose a risk. We will also ensure that those in post are properly reviewed.
It will urgently consider Sir Michael's recommendation that a register be created to bring together all the relevant information held on individuals in a way which is easily accessible as part of Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks, considering how it fits with and enhances the service already provided by the CRB.
The register will also need to make the link to proposals for identity cards containing
individuals' biometric details (although Mr Blunkett did not explain how this would work in practice).
A second inquiry by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary into the manner in which Cambridgeshire Police had conducted their investigation was also released yesterday. This was less critical of the police, finding that there had been a 'lack of grip' at the start of the investigation into the disappearance of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells, but that the shortcomings did not undermine the final outcome of the case.
According to David Blunkett: "Failings were neither systemic nor corporate. Mistakes have been fully acknowledged and actions have been taken to ensure they do not recur. But much graver concerns are raised about the senior management of Humberside."
The Home Secretary has therefore called for the suspension of David Westwood, Chief Constable of Humberside Police – a move rejected by the Chief Constable at a press conference yesterday afternoon.
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