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Government Information Communication Technology Projects

Volume 718: debated on Thursday 8 April 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what guidance has been given by the Cabinet Office to prevent Government Information Communication Technology projects going over budget.

My Lords, the Cabinet Office refers those responsible for projects in departments to the Office of Government Commerce—an office of Her Majesty’s Treasury—for project and programme management guidance. The Office of Government Commerce is the centre of excellence for project and programme management, and is accountable for guidance and control mechanisms.

My Lords, the NHS computer system was budgeted at £2.3 billion and will actually cost £13 billion. Does the noble Lord, Lord Myners, think that this is wrong? Does the Minister believe that this is prudent?

My Lords, the noble Lord mentions the National Health Service and the project surrounding that. The NHS National Programme for IT has never been over-budget.

It has never been over-budget, because we have protected taxpayers’ money; nothing is paid to suppliers until systems are successfully working. Given that the noble Lord mentioned the National Heath Service, hundreds of millions of X-rays and other medical images have been digitised, allowing patients to be treated more quickly and far more effectively.

I recently received a letter from the NHS asking me to acknowledge that information about myself will be able to be made available through the new technology, should I have any accident throughout the United Kingdom. But will my noble friend indeed use the government information and communication technology to communicate to the wider public and Members on the Benches opposite just how many successful government projects have come in either on-budget or under-budget in the past 13 years?

My noble friend makes a very good point on the NHS. Patients are directly benefiting from the modernisation of NHS IT, including the ability to book their first outpatient appointment through Choose and Book, new digital X-rays, and the electronic transfer of GP records.

My noble friend asked whether there were any successful IT projects. Twenty million people renew their car tax discs online each year at a convenient time for them. I am told that 6,000 people do it on Christmas Day. For business access there is which helps businesses to increase their profits by millions of pounds and make additional sales by hundreds of millions. People can now apply to receive free school meals in hours, not weeks; they can book their driving tests; they can claim carer’s allowance and legal aid; and they can even become national blood donors. What would Tony Hancock have thought?

My Lords, with reference to the National Health Service, have the Government taken into consideration the recommendation of the Public Accounts Committee in its 20th report that,

“The Department should seek to modify the procurement process under the Programme so that secondary care trusts and others can if they wish select from a wider range of patient administration systems and clinical systems”,

because it found that,

“The use of only two major software suppliers may have the effect of inhibiting innovation, progress and competition”?

In their report in January of this year, the Government paid some lip service to competition but have not by any practical means widened access to that important and expensive market.

The noble Lord makes some very good points. There has been rationalisation and modification since the earlier report of the Select Committee of which he spoke. There has been a great deal of robustness on ensuring that scrutiny, overview, accountability and transparency are to the fore. He will know that there are 14 strands in the new ICT strategy published in January, which now put real pressure on suppliers to up their game.

My Lords, would the Minister accept that not all systems have been successful? Perhaps I may remind her that the Rural Payments Agency is an absolute disgrace. It started back in 2005, it continues to be a disgrace, it still does not pay the payments on time, and it costs some £1,700 to pay each English farmer but only about £300 to pay their equivalent in Scotland.

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right. I would have no credibility if I stood at this Dispatch Box and said that every IT project of the Government in the past or future has been or will be perfect or successful. Of course there have been problems. We are dealing with a public service that interacts with more than 60 million people. Of course problems can come up. I acknowledge the real issues that occurred in the payments system that the noble Baroness mentioned. However, it has improved—I think that even she would accept that in the past couple of years it has improved enormously.

Might I suggest that the Minister should not despair, because the Secretary of State who was responsible for introducing the RPA, which proved such a disaster when it came to paying farmers, was then promoted?

My Lords, might I ask the Minister why she would think that her noble friend behind her, the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, would imagine that anyone would be interested in his health details on the internet other than to wish him well?