Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1080 - 1099)



  Q1080  Baroness Sharp of Guildford: I live in Surrey and if I went to the Surrey Police website would I get directed towards this Metropolitan Police website?

  Commander Wilkinson: I do not know but one of the things that I would like to achieve through the new unit is to ensure that all police forces are providing a decent quality of service to everybody across the 43 police forces. That is exactly the sort of thing that I would like to see standardised across the country.

  Q1081  Baroness Sharp of Guildford: From your point of view that is precisely what you want. You want a single website where everything is logged and then you can actually tell if there is a particular trend emerging.

  Commander Wilkinson: The ideal situation for me would be if there were a single web portal that anybody could go to in terms of fraud or e-crime and they could get in through that central website, if you like, and then be guided within there to Get Safe Online or to the Internet Watch Foundation or to the Fraud Alert website, whichever is most appropriate. They may seek prevention advice, they may want to report crime or whatever and be led to the right place through that single portal. That is certainly something that Sharon and I are going to work together on. I understand there are some technical challenges around it and it may cost quite a bit of money to do, but it is certainly the direction in which we need to travel.

  Q1082  Baroness Sharp of Guildford: That sounds very sensible.

  Commander Wilkinson: Yes.

  Q1083  Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan: We get the impression that this is a Metropolitan Police led thing; you do not know what happens in Surrey, for example. How consistent are skill levels across the police forces? Are there centres of excellence in the investigation of Internet crime outside of London?

  Commander Wilkinson: We have done a very provisional capability assessment across the 43 police forces to provide part of the business case for the National Unit. We now need, through the National Unit, to go back and get a very good standard and capability assessment done so that we can begin to standardise the skill level across all police forces. Across the country there are some very skilled investigators, whether it be into forensics or whether it be covert Internet investigators or whatever and we have a good idea now of where they are to be found. We also deal with e-crime on a regionalised basis—given that police forces vary hugely in terms of size, for example, and resources available to them—and what we have done is publicised who is where, who has got what capability so that police forces around the country know where to go to get support and help. That is what we have been working on up to now.

  Q1084  Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan: My colleagues were in the United States and they found that near San Francisco there was an FBI laboratory which was funded both centrally and from private sources. That provided very high level expertise in computer forensics. I am not sure that every police force within the US would be capable of benefiting from it, but those that could were able to do so. Would you envisage something of this nature happening in the UK where there would be a centrally co-ordinating network of skills and equipment to support regional police forces?

  Commander Wilkinson: That would be an ideal scenario and would take some time to achieve I think. The important thing is that I get all police forces to a position where everybody knows where they can go to get the relevant expertise or support or help or advice that they need in whatever context to do with e-crime. That would be my first aim, to get to that position.

  Mr Hughes: There are several issues at play here and the point you are making is that there is e-crime and there are also forces that have centres of excellence around the investigation and analysis of equipment seized during an investigation as well, people who are better placed to deal with access and the way that e-crime has been perpetrated. What we are trying to do is pull together all of that understanding of what is going on in police forces around the country so that we are able to deal with e-crime and trying to find a way of making sure we have the best analysis. Sometimes the unit that you are talking about at the FBI, the federal resources are there to support in different types of scenario. The ones that we have dealt with are those looking at crimes being perpetrated and then there will be other labs, as such, which are good at exploiting the evidence and intelligence that you gain from that equipment.

  Q1085  Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan: What you are talking about does seem incredibly fragmented. This has been a form of crime that has been going on for quite a while. Is there not a case for making the resources of a national character, that you break down these 43 barriers?

  Commander Wilkinson: That is entirely where I am coming from in terms of the business case that I put forward to the chief constables who all agree that a national unit is needed, or a unit covering the 43 police forces is needed to get standards, policy, training and skills levels standardised across the country. That is the whole premise for the new unit. I should just add—I do have one copy here that I can leave with the Committee—that ACPO does publish good practice guides and this one I have here is for computer based electronic evidence and evidence retrieval and actions that officers should take when attending the scene of an e-crime and how to handle computers, laptops, phones and that sort of thing. We do constantly keep these good practice guides up to date and circulate them across the country so there is also written support and policy guidance.

  Q1086  Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan: With respect, this seems to be a rather top-up approach. Is there not a case for some kind of top-down approach? How do you get these 43 ferrets in the bag behaving themselves? It is akin to a bit of a shambles, is not really? You are doing your best but somebody needs to grab a hold of it and nobody seems to be doing that. I am not saying that you are not trying but ministers hiding behind business case excuses, that really is the most feeble excuse for a minister to utilise. They will always nitpick; they will always employ good accountants (or even bad ones, which is probably even better) to nitpick at the detail and you will get nowhere.

  Commander Wilkinson: I would refute that to a certain extent because the 43 chief constables are now signed up to the National Unit and I think that is an enormous step forward. We are now entering the implementation phase of putting it together. I think everybody has recognised the fact that the 43 forces need to work together to be more effective in terms of the service that we provide to the public on e-crime. I cannot tell the 43 chief constables what to do, but what I do find when I speak to the 43 chief constables is that they actually see the logic and the sense in what I am saying and they acknowledge the service that the police service provides at the moment could be improved. That is what the National Unit is all about.

  Q1087  Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan: Without the national centre or the network that you are working towards, how long do you think business will stand by and say, "We have this money ready"? Will they be on stand-by forever or will they say, "Look, if you don't come across with something sensible before long we'll just go away and do what we can as best we can" and you will lose the opportunity of private funding?

  Commander Wilkinson: I may be living on a pink cloud here, but certainly the feedback I have had from industry is that they are extremely pleased with the speed with which we have got the principle of the unit agreed; they are ready with the money now and we have now entered the phase of actually going back to them and saying, "Show us the colour of your money; show us how you are prepared to support us". Over the next few weeks I intend to pull all that together into the business case that I have been talking about and take it back first of all into the Met because the Met is going to house the unit (the Metropolitan Police Authority) and then back out onto a national basis with ACPO and back to the Home Office.

  Q1088  Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan: Good luck with that. Regardless of what might happen next week with the elections there are still six million people north of the River Tweed and unfortunately there are criminals there as well. There are nine police forces in Scotland. Do you talk to them?

  Commander Wilkinson: Yes.

  Q1089  Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan: I know ACPO is a UK organisation but there is a Scottish bit as well.

  Commander Wilkinson: Yes, there is an ACPOS and actually Scotland are ahead of us. They do already have an amalgamated unit and there will be a protocol in place with them in exactly the same way as there will be one in place in SOCA to ensure that we are all working together effectively.

  Ms Lemon: ACPOS are on the National e-Crime Strategy Group.

  Q1090  Chairman: How many units are there? You say there is one in Scotland, is that of the same size and capability as the Met unit?

  Commander Wilkinson: No, nothing like. I think it is more of a coordination unit but they do have a unit of sorts that coordinates the service that Scottish forces provide. The Welsh Assembly is also beginning to put a unit together to coordinate the Welsh forces. One of my key aims in putting the ACPO unit together is that I do not just duplicate what they are already doing. We must take advantage of where they have got to so I can concentrate resources perhaps more on areas that are not covered by units.

  Q1091  Chairman: I would have thought there is a volume question and there is also a turn-around type question. If every bit of equipment you go in and grab you need to look at it fairly quickly and this is a time consuming business. When we looked at this in the States I think the FBI has 12 units or something like that around the country. We are five times smaller but I would have thought you would need two or three units of the quality that the Met has but probably larger than the Met has. We were very impressed with what we saw at the Met but it was barely sufficient for London in my opinion, let alone having to take stuff from all over the country. I would have thought you would need three units in the UK.

  Commander Wilkinson: Every force has access to a forensic lab and every force has access to digital retrieval facilities. I think the biggest problem at the moment is the backlog because more and more phones and computers et cetera are being seized as part of routine investigations. Another aim of the unit will be to get some proper criteria into place whereby cases are prioritised so that it is not seen as a massive backlog but we are actually bringing the more critical cases to the front of the list.

  Q1092  Lord Harris of Haringey: Both in the US and here we have heard about the loss of support staff to private sector companies. Is staff retention a major issue for you and what are going to do to overcome it?

  Mr Hughes: I think that is probably an area for us to talk about because the advantage that Sue has is that she has police officers as well doing some of this work but actually there are people that the Metropolitan Police and other forces have who are locked into a police service background. The answer to that is yes, we do have a problem about recruitment and retention. We are competing with the wages that are paid in the private sector. That will always be a problem. It is the same with financial investigators; it is the same with a lot of other areas where we are looking at changing the face of the work force for the police service and in the way in which SOCA operates. There are tactics and strategies that we are adopting in order to try to recruit and retain people. There are development strategies that we are using and ways that we bring people in and use them in projects. Many people in law enforcement do not do the job for the money because if they do then they have made a fundamental mistake. The point is that they do the job because they want to do it. Yes, we have a core of people who will stay with us but recruitment and retention is difficult. That is one reason why what we are doing is working with our private sector colleagues to see if they can supply us with people on secondment or by use of them assisting us with some of the expertise that they have. That is what we have to do in that type of environment.

  Ms Lemon: We are looking at alternative methods as well. Previously if some evidence were seized it would be a digital evidence recovery officer who would have that kit and join a queue but now we have a triage system and we are looking at some good practice by some of our partners overseas who then make that available without any interference from the evidential trails to the operational officer remotely. They can then examine that disc for what they want and then we can back it up with the evidence trail. You do not need the expertise around that, just the initial expertise around the triage and then the operation officers get immediately what they need. That is some good practice from one of our partners.

  Q1093  Lord Harris of Haringey: Is there a problem so far as experienced police officers are concerned?

  Commander Wilkinson: There have been instances where that has happened. We also have a threat almost from people being promoted and therefore being posted into a different role which is rather infuriating. In my view it is a mixed economy and we can look more flexibly at how we pay our police staff to supplement the police officers that are in post and also my perspective is that we use industry. Most of our partners are very, very keen to help second people into us. If we are losing staff to them, at least we are getting very competent and experienced staff back on secondment. I think we just need to remain flexible. There is always going to be a situation where police wages and police staff wages are less than the going rate in the private sector; we just to be clever around it.

  Q1094  Lord Harris of Haringey: Does that meant you are satisfied with the number of police officers and police staff you have available to work in this area?

  Commander Wilkinson: I want to mainstream it remember, so I think the more I can do that the better value I can get out of every single member of the police force and the police staff who support that police force. We need to raise everybody's capability across the board. In terms of setting up specialist units I am not aware of any acute recruitment problems. People will come into it for a while at least. Of course it costs a lot of money to train them and we would like to retain them as much as we can, even on promotion.

  Q1095  Lord Harris of Haringey: Are there serious backlogs of work in any of the specialist units that you are aware of?

  Commander Wilkinson: There are backlogs of work in terms of forensic retrieval which I have already mentioned. The demand is endless on these units and it is a question of prioritisation, working out the crimes that are causing the most threat and harm and investing those. We are never going to be able to investigate it all.

  Q1096  Lord Harris of Haringey: The Home Office at one stage provided central funding for two computer crime officers in each force. What has happened to those posts since the loss of the National High Tech Crime Unit?

  Commander Wilkinson: I think you are referring to the Home Office funding that was divided between each force. It represented about £38,000 per force and it was withdrawn earlier this year as part of Home Office savings. That money is probably, if I dare say this, a drop in the ocean to most police forces. It clearly had more impact on the very small police forces who may have funded a post in computer crime investigation or whatever with that money. I certainly hope, through the National Unit, by other means to restore capability across every police force in the country.

  Q1097  Lord Harris of Haringey: In principle the Home Office has £38,000 times 43 which it took out of its budget which it could put it back into the National Unit if it wanted to.

  Commander Wilkinson: I would love it if that were to be the case; it would help me enormously.

  Q1098  Earl of Errol: Recent guidance requires the police to refer victims of phishing fraud to the banks in the first instance, rather than the police logging them as crimes. What do you think of this?

  Commander Wilkinson: I think it is a very helpful development because, as we have said several times during this session, individual reports to individual police forces about such phishing offences really do not give us a good picture of what is going on and it is impossible to get a proper crime pattern analysis as things stand at the moment. However, if all these reports are collated by the banks, who have very good support in terms of intelligence analysis, they are able to refer to us particular trends and patterns by collating right the way across the board and we get a much better overall picture. In general we are very supportive of this development.

  Q1099  Earl of Errol: In the US the Federal Trade Commission has gone the other way. They are requiring offences to be reported in the first instance to law enforcement. That then triggers a crime number and everything, then it gets reported to the bank and the bank then triggers an investigation. Does that not make more sense because then you actually know what is going on?

  Commander Wilkinson: We are getting a very good picture of what is going on through the banks. By reporting each individual one to a police force, given the scale of what we are talking about, it would increase the bureaucracy enormously.

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