Tony Blair promises IT upgrade for justice system

IT insiders say two mentions of IT in a speech amounts to a promise of money for the justice system, but warn against quick fixes

Tony Blair has pledged to upgrade IT practices in the courts. In a wide-ranging speech on Tuesday, which promised to modernise many aspects of criminal justice, he twice referred to IT initiatives within the courts and police force. "The time has come to drag the criminal justice system from the nineteenth century into the 21st century," Blair said. IT in the criminal justice services is "in the dark ages compared with other public organisations, and certainly compared with the private sector," he said. The key issues are the excessive levels of paperwork, with information being re-keyed far too often as a case progresses, and communications between the courts, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. "This will take some time to put in place," warned Mr Blair, speaking at an international conference in London on modernising criminal justice. "The prime minister would not plug something twice if there is not a commitment to spend money," said James McVicar, account director for home affairs and criminal justice at IT firm SchlumbergerSEMA, one of the sponsors of the conference. "This means there is a commitment to invest in this." Mr Blair was trailing a promised white paper, due in July, which is expected to cover proposed modernisation of the criminal justice process, including initiatives against drugs, organised crime and changes to court procedures. Any IT changes will have to be thought through, instead of "point solutions", warned McVicar. "Integration is of the essence, and the industry should be gearing for that." The major applications will be in reducing paperwork and improving communications, he said, and while each project should provide stand-alone benefits, the whole picture should be improved. The recent appointment of ex-IBM executive Jo Wright as director general of criminal justice system IT was evidence that a more integrated approach was on the way, said McVicar. "She is pragmatic. She will start small but consider the big picture." There are several schemes under way, such as the Metropolitan Police's plan to move to an electronic warrant card and Wiltshire Police's plan to integrate its databases to reduce paperwork, but these must all consider the implications for other parts of the criminal justice system, if Blair's vision is to work, said McVicar. "The same data can be re-entered six times as a case progresses between detection and the probation service," said McVicar. Streamlining within organisations must be matched by joining the IT systems of those organisations together. This will require PKI security, to make sure that data is not altered or accessed by the wrong people. For more sensitive cases, biometrics such as retinal scans will be required. All these projects are likely to require long time spans, said McVicar. This means that the IT aspects of Mr Blair's crusade to modernise justice will not be election vote-winners. But the parallel efforts in health, for which voters are being asked to pay extra National Insurance, might well be.

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