The Police National Computer (PNC) and access to the information held on it has always been a hotly debated topic. The PNC stores data on individuals who have been subject to a conviction, caution, reprimand, warning or arrest.
Over the years countless stories have shown that the database has been misused time and again by some police officers and that thousands of entries are incorrect; leading to mistakes or miscarriages of justice.
This week Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) published a series of reports which highlighted a number of serious failings amongst the non-police agencies that are allowed access to the PNC.
The agencies the reports look at are:
- Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass);
- Environment Agency;
- Financial Conduct Authority;
- Gangmasters Licensing Authority;
- NATS (an air traffic control provider);
- Natural Resources Wales;
- Post Office;
- Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals;
- Thurrock Council.
- Royal Mail
Between them the 10 agencies racked up over 50,000 searches of the PNC in less than two years. Many of the searches will have been for perfectly logical reasons, some to investigate specific crimes, others vetting job applicants taking on sensitive roles.
However the reports also uncovered a glut of failings including flawed audit processes and confusion about what staff could access the PNC for. Most worrying of all was the finding that no fewer than 6 of the 10 agencies were accessing the PNC without proper authorisation.
The Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Gangmasters Licensing Agency, the FCA and Cafcass were all found to be using their powers even though the terms of the original agreement allowing them access had expired. Additionally Natural Resources Wales and NATs Holdings Ltd, were both wrongfully using their predecessor organisation’s powers to access the PNC.
It is of concern that these organisations were able to continue accessing the very personal information held on the PNC even after their permission had expired.
The FCA was one of the worst offenders, not only had they failed to re-apply for access for three months prior to the inspection, but the original agreement setting out what uses of the PNC were permitted was found to be extremely vague. The fact that under the Investigatory Powers Bill the FCA are set to get more powers to snoop on our browsing habits is something that adds even more concern to the situation.
It is astonishing that all these agencies could continue accessing the PNC, in some cases for years, without anything being done to stop it. They may well have persuasive cases to make supporting their access, but they have to follow the rules and actually make them rather than simply carrying on regardless.
It’s high time that more information is released to give citizens a better understanding of who can access the PNC, what is held on it and how long it is kept for. For too long the PNC has been run in a shadowy and un-transparent way. This news simply raises the possibility that even those in charge of it have no idea what is going on.