“We have a haphazard system of recording missing persons…anxiety is growing over the way in which we handle the problem.”
That was a Conservative MP speaking in a House of Commons debate - in November 1989.
Jacques Arnold, who represented Gravesham in Kent, wanted to set up a national register of missing persons accessible by police across the UK. The proposal had been accepted by the Government eleven years earlier following a recommendation from the Council of Europe but was not implemented. Arnold and other MPs continued to lobby Ministers and in 1992 the Home Office finally pledged that a register would be set up, but not before 1995.
We are still waiting for it.
The need for a database for missing people was highlighted during the investigation into the disappearance of the student nurse, Owami Davies. She was reported missing to Essex Police on July 6 and on the same day was seen sleeping in the doorway of a house in Croydon by officers from the Metropolitan Police. They spoke to her but did not realise that she was a missing person. Had the Met officers known what had been reported in Essex, Owami's family would have been informed and the unimaginable stress and anguish they later endured for nearly seven weeks, before she was found safe and well in Hampshire, would have been averted. Huge amounts of police time and resources, in two constabularies and elsewhere, could have been saved.
The reasons why the Met did not know that Owami had been reported missing to one of its neighbouring forces will no doubt be the subject of an internal review which is examining all aspects of the police response. Scotland Yard has said that at the time of the July 6 encounter the 24 year old had not been marked as missing on the “national system”.
That is believed to be a reference to the Police National Computer (PNC), which is not the bespoke missing persons’ database envisaged by Jacques Arnold, but a vast trove of real-time police information and alerts, used by every force in the country, along with 127 law enforcement agencies and public bodies. Established in 1974, the PNC holds records on 13 million people - those with criminal cautions and convictions, wanted suspects, firearms certificate-holders, disqualified drivers and prisoners who have escaped or absconded. It also includes information on 64 million UK-registered vehicles, their owners and linked police reports.
When someone goes missing, officers are meant to use the PNC to circulate the details. Guidance from the College of Policing says it is one of the “minimum actions” officers should take. But entering information about a missing person on the database usually follows a series of other important steps, some of which can be time-consuming. These include: recording the case locally, on the police force’s command and control system or its own missing persons computer database; speaking to friends and relatives of the individual; completing a risk assessment; and creating a plan of immediate action. PNC updates do not happen automatically - and sometimes they don’t happen at all.
In 2016, a report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Runaway and Missing Children said it had received evidence that not all missing persons’ cases were being “properly transferred”. The Committee reiterated the call first made in the 1980s for a national database so information could be “shared across police lines”. What was clear to the MPs and peers, as it was to Arnold three decades earlier, was that a simpler, quicker approach was needed, a computer system where comprehensive details inputted locally are immediately visible to all. I suppose it would be a kind-of ‘google doc’ for missing people.
The idea again found a sympathetic ear in the Home Office. The department had just embarked on an ambitious plan, known as NLEDS, to overhaul the PNC and its younger sibling, the PND, a national database for locally-held police intelligence. It was proposed they would be replaced by a new, single system which would “host” a national missing persons register. Victoria Atkins (pictured), who was one of the Ministers responsible, said: “This will enable police officers to access up-to-date data about missing people across force boundaries and take appropriate action when they investigate missing person incidents or encounter a missing person who is away from his or her home force area.” It was said the register would start to be ready in 2018, but the date slipped to 2019, then it became 2021 and finally “early 2022”.
That deadline has passed and it is unclear when the register will be launched. The entire NLEDS programme has been scaled back, with a focus on incremental changes and replacing the PNC rather than combining it with the PND. The aim is to complete the work by December 2025, but even that seems optimistic given the troubled history of NLEDS. Last year, a highly critical report from the National Audit Office concluded that the Home Office still faced “significant risks” and “many practical challenges” in delivering the system, which is forecast to cost £1.1 billion overall, 68% more than originally estimated.
Last week, Charlie Hedges, a specialist on missing people, summed up the saga by saying it had been “years of toil” to try to get a national database in place. He told the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 that he couldn’t fathom why millions of pounds might be spent on an inquiry into one missing person when an equivalent sum could be used to set up a register that would help “hundreds, if not thousands, of people”.
The lack of a UK-wide missing persons' database is not the only data-sharing problem: arrangements at force level are alarmingly fragmented as well. The issue came to light during a briefing I and other reporters were given into the murders in south London, in 2017, of a registered sex offender, Noel Brown, and his 41-year-old daughter, Marie.
The possibility Brown, 69, had been killed in an act of revenge or retribution for one of the 33 offences he’d been convicted of was a strong line of inquiry. So, among a list of 500 possible suspects detectives compiled were the names of those who were linked to the victims of his crimes. One of them was Nathanial Henry (pictured, left). Background checks were carried out on the 37 year old in the early stages of what became a huge and complex investigation but there was nothing to indicate that he was involved - until DNA tests showed that he had been at the murder scene.
It took detectives five months to reach that point - but they could have got there within days had the Met’s databases been joined up. The murder investigation had started on December 4 with the discovery of the two bodies at Brown's flat in Deptford. On December 12, Henry, who lived three miles away near Burgess Park, was reported missing to police, having last been seen on December 5. The detectives working on the inquiry were unaware of that crucial information because his missing person status didn’t appear on the HOLMES major-inquiry computer system they were using. In the Met, the details of missing people are logged on a separate database, MERLIN, with alerts added to the PNC, as required in every force. But there is no automated way of cross-checking names of people reported missing with those held on the HOLMES system and nothing to alert those using HOLMES that one of their possible suspects had been flagged on another system.
Henry, who had previously attempted suicide, was found dead in a locked electricity cupboard on December 31. He had taken an overdose of drugs. Had he been alive, detectives said they would have submitted a file of evidence to the Crown Prosecution Service to charge him with the murders. Henry is believed to have died shortly after the victims were discovered and some days before he was reported missing, so the outcome of the police and legal process would have been the same even if the HOLMES and MERLIN computer systems had ‘spoken’ to each other. But thousands of hours of police time and resources devoted to the investigation, including extensive CCTV and forensic analysis, would have been saved.
'Missing a trick'
One of Sir Tom Winsor’s first observations after being appointed Chief Inspector of Constabulary in 2012 was the inefficient way in which police technology was being procured and deployed. He noted there were 2,000 separate IT systems across England and Wales. Since then, there have been improvements such as the establishment of the Police Digital Service. But policing remains blighted by the same problems of clunky technology and lack of interoperability. It was telling that when I asked Sir Tom’s successor, Andy Cooke, during an interview for Policing TV, for the one change that he would like to introduce, he replied that it would be a “national IT system”.
“I think we're missing a real trick by not being able to properly link all those different systems up together,” Cooke (pictured) told me. “It would cost an absolute fortune, I accept that now. But forces still continue to go down their own paths and purchase IT that's incompatible with neighbours and others. I do think it's a real problem.”
Holes in the UK’s disjointed law enforcement network of intelligence, alerts and record-keeping are not always evident. Delays and duplication are often accepted as ‘par for the course’. Sometimes the gaps are overcome through diligent detective work. Occasionally, the police get lucky. But there will also be instances when the public are severely let down because of IT failings which have been well documented and, in the case of missing people, for which the remedy has been clear for all to see, for decades.