Skip to main content

Central Courts IT System

Volume 795: debated on Wednesday 23 January 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall repeat in the form of a Statement an Answer given in the other place by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Justice. The Statement is as follows:

“I am grateful for the opportunity to update the House on the IT issues facing the Ministry of Justice over recent days. I start by apologising to those who have been affected by the intermittent disruption, which was caused by an infrastructure failure in our supplier’s data centre. While services have continued to operate and court hearings have continued, we know how frustrating this is for everyone.

The issue has been that some of our staff in courts and tribunals, the Legal Aid Agency, probation and the Ministry of Justice headquarters have been unable to log on to their computers, but we have contingency plans in place to make sure that trials can go ahead as planned. The Prison Service has not been impacted and—to clarify incorrect reporting—criminals have not gone free as a result. We have been working very closely with our suppliers, Atos and Microsoft, to get all our systems working again, and yesterday had restored services to 180 court sites, including the largest sites.

Today, 90% of staff have working computer systems. Work continues to restore services, and we expect the remainder of court sites to be fully operational by the time that they open tomorrow morning. We are very disappointed that our suppliers have not yet been able to resolve the network problems in full. This afternoon the Permanent Secretary, Sir Richard Heaton, will meet the chief executive of Atos and write personally to all members of the judiciary.

I am very grateful to the staff who have been working tirelessly and around the clock, alongside our suppliers, to resolve these issues”.

My Lords, last May the National Audit Office published a damning report on the Ministry of Justice’s four year-old £280 million IT programme. In the light of the latest fiascos affecting the probation service and the entire criminal justice email system, would the Minister rank the department’s performance in these areas as better or worse than that of Chris Grayling’s recent award of a ferry contract to a company with no ships, or the shameful record of the Home Office over the Windrush debacle?

I rather fear that the noble Lord’s inquiry has taken sail. The position is that the issue that arose recently had nothing whatever to do with the development of the common platform system for the Ministry of Justice, which is still in its testing phase. It was entirely unaffected by the issue that arose, which was in fact attributable to the corruption of a routing server that has now been replaced.

My Lords, the Answer repeated by the Minister is welcome, but expressions of frustration and an apology are, frankly, not enough. The reported consequences of this IT failure include: the adjournment and collapse of criminal trials; lawyers and litigants unable to access court documents; probation workers unable to provide courts with pre-sentence information; and even the farce of courts asking driving offenders to check their own DVLA records for past offences. The chair of the Criminal Bar Association, Chris Henley QC, describes the system as being “on its knees”.

We appreciate that the MoJ needs time to understand these failures, but they come at a time when the department is rightly further digitalising courts and tribunals to increase efficiency and save time and money. Will the Minister promise us an urgent, full and detailed inquiry to cover what has gone wrong, any failures of contract management within the MoJ, other weaknesses in the IT system, what updating and replacement is necessary and what it will all cost?

My Lords, the reported effects narrated by the noble Lord are not accurate; let us be clear about that. There is no evidence of any cases being adjourned in either courts or tribunals with respect to this issue. In addition, it is not true that defendants have had to do their own DVLA checks. Furthermore, the probation service was affected by the outage but no offender appointments were missed, and the service reverted to paper processes where necessary. The IT systems are back up and working as of this morning with respect to the probation service. There was no impact on the Prison Service, which is in fact dependent on entirely separate computer system.

The cause of the outage was identified as a routing server that had become corrupted, and that has been replaced. It fell within one of our contractors’ systems and, as I indicated earlier, we are going to be speaking to our contractors with regard to that matter. At this stage we do not intend to institute the sort of inquiry that the noble Lord alluded to.

My Lords, is it correct that thousands of criminal cases in the courts have been disrupted? The National Audit Office criticised the delay in the IT system installation and said that the objectives would not be reached on time and on budget. Given this warning, are there any penalties in the contractual arrangements between the company and HMG?

With respect to the noble and learned Lord, it is important to distinguish between two entirely separate systems: the existing system, which suffered the corruption of the routing server, and the proposed new common platform system which is in its testing phase. That is entirely unrelated to the existing system, but is of course connected to the modernisation of the courts system and the case management system, which has been allocated considerable funding at the present time.

With regard to the existing contracts, we are engaging with the provider over this issue. We regret the outage that occurred. Back-up systems did operate. Certainly, I am not aware of thousands of criminal cases being disrupted. I am advised that there is no evidence of cases being adjourned due to the IT issue.

My Lords, it a fairly easy strike to suggest, as the Labour Front Bench did, that this was all the fault of Chris Grayling. I was also the Minister of State in the Ministry of Justice when we set out to reform court IT. Throughout my political life we have had, periodically, Ministers coming to explain some disaster in an IT system. What I wonder is: what happens next? As he rightly said, the comprehensive view of reform is not affected by this particular malfunction, but I do remember visiting courts and asking, “Have you got any problems with your IT system?” and they would say, “Well, our fax system doesn’t work”. This was long after the rest of the world had sent their fax systems to museums. The original idea is still valid: to invest in technology to make our court systems efficient. Where does the buck stop? I understood that the Cabinet Office also has responsibility for oversight of the efficiency of bringing in these new systems. Who is overseeing this? Who is keeping their eye on it? Or will we wait for another few years, and somebody coming along to explain why that system has not worked.

I am obliged to the noble Lord for his observations, drawing upon his own experiences in the ministry when we began the introduction of the common platform system. Clearly, we want to move on to that platform fully and as soon as possible. We have already seen some success in the digital approach that has been taken to some forms of casework—such as debt actions and undefended divorce actions—and we want to roll that out further. With regard to the existing system: it is not perfect. If it was perfect, we would not be seeking to replace it. There are back-ups, but they are of limited operability because of the availability of wi-fi in courts in circumstances where it has not been possible for those working there to access their desktop computers. That has been the case in some courts recently, and in the ministry itself, because of this particular problem.

At the end of the day, the Ministry of Justice must consider the effectiveness and efficiency of the computer system that it relies upon, not only as a ministry but also for its attendant agencies and arm’s-length bodies. We accept that we have a responsibility in that matter.

My Lords, yesterday, in his evidence to the Justice Sub-Committee, the Home Secretary was emphatic that the registration of EU people living in Britain will be dependent entirely on IT and that there are no plans whatever to give people documentary evidence of what has been granted. With the vulnerability of IT again being illustrated today, I wonder whether we could have an undertaking that Ministers will look again at this approach.

I thank the noble Lord for his question. I do not believe that it is for me to gainsay the Home Secretary’s evidence before the Justice Sub-Committee, so I am afraid I am not in a position to commit to any alternative approach on the matter at present.

My Lords, in preparing this Statement, have Ministers and their officials spoken to judges and lawyers, or only to IT consultants?

My Lords, I was not involved directly in the preparation of this Statement. I was invited to repeat it in this House on the basis of information given to me. I cannot directly answer the question of who was consulted in the preparation of the Statement itself. If the noble Lord wishes I will write to him on the point—but if he has no desire for me to do so I will not.

My Lords, less than three years ago there was a whole-Whitehall review of the £500 million contracts given to Atos for government IT systems. This is another potential catastrophe with an IT system that Atos has implemented in government. In the light of that, what government-wide review will now be done of Atos’s ability to provide IT services for government on such a scale?

My Lords, this issue arose in the context not of the implementation of an IT system but of an existing system, in particular the corruption of part of the hardware, namely a routing server, which has now been replaced. Given that that has been identified and rectified, we would not contemplate launching the form of inquiry indicated by the noble Lord.