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Home Office hands IBM £7m police database deal without competitive tender

The Home Office has handed IBM a £7m contract to support the development of a controversial police ‘mega-database’ that has been beset by delays, privacy concerns and spiralling costs.

The deal, which controversially did not go to competitive tender, was disclosed in an award notice last week that analysts said was light on detail even by the standards of the Home Office’s notoriously opaque procurement practices.

No public justification was provided for not giving other suppliers the opportunity to bid for the work. The deal is an extension of an existing contract that the Home Office had intended to re-let in March.

But it cancelled the procurement exercise in light of the pandemic, which has led to a surge in contracts awarded without a formal competition. A billion pounds’ worth of public sector contracts have so far been let without tender during the crisis.

Under the terms of the contract, IBM will provide application development services in support of the National Law Enforcement Data Service (Leds), which has been described by privacy campaigners as a police ‘mega-database’.

Privacy International warned only last week that the Home Office’s work on the project had so far escaped parliamentary scrutiny and threatened millions of people’s civil liberties.

The project is designed to provide access to the Police National Computer, Police National Database, DVLA database and the Immigration and Asylum Biometric System through a single system and free-form search queries.

Police in London and Cardiff have reportedly harvested facial images from the Police National Database in the roll-out of automated facial recognition software. Incidentally, IBM said earlier this year that it would not sell such software to law enforcement agencies.

The Home Office has said that Leds will be rolled out incrementally from the end of 2020, but it is now not expected to be completed until 2023 and is set to cost £469m. Police chiefs have also accused the Home Office of rerouting critical funding away from existing databases in order to fund the new platform.

Despite the recent concerns about a lack of scrutiny of the project, not all privacy campaigners are opposed to it. The Open Rights Group, which has consulted on its development, has said it is “set to create a more accountable framework for managing police information”, while calling for further improvements.

But the decision to hand the latest Leds contract to IBM without competition is likely to frustrate those in Whitehall who are fighting to make government procurement more accessible.

Rob Anderson, principal public sector analyst at GlobalData, which is part of the same group as NS Tech, said: “Once again, this contract award notice brings into sharp relief the opaqueness of Home Office ICT contracting. Whilst IBM is a long-term partner of the Home Office and has had significant involvement in the NLED Programme, the values and dates published do not provide sufficient transparency about when, how and via which route the contract was negotiated.

“It has echoes of the £100m cloud hosting contract that the Department awarded to AWS in December last year, although at least that notice specified G-Cloud as the procurement vehicle.

“In challenging market conditions, it will be very disappointing for suppliers, particularly SMEs (21 of whom lost out to IBM in 2017), not to have even had a chance to submit proposals for the work.”

NS Tech understands the Home Office is preparing to issue a formal tender for the remaining work.

Privacy group warns of Home Office ‘mega-database’ on the horizon