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3.40 pm

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton): I apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis), for arriving after the start of the debate. I am also a little surprised that the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) finished his speech sooner than we might have expected when he started to speak.

Members will be glad to hear that I intend to make only a brief contribution on Government information technology and the lessons that I hope we can learn from many past failures. I do not have a particular interest or expertise in this subject, but it is an important element of the PAC's work.

My comments will draw heavily on the Committee's first report "Improving the Delivery of Government IT Projects". I hope to illustrate my remarks by also referring to the 7th report on the immigration and nationality directorate's casework programme and to the 24th report on the delays in issuing passports in 1999. In one report, my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) pointed out that we seemed to have got it wrong for people who want to get out of the country at the same time as we got it wrong for people trying to get in. That sums up the difficulties that we have had with information technology, and those problems go back a long way.

The problems of the Passport Agency were well documented. Headlines on the front pages in the summer of 1999 told us that a fiasco had turned into farce.

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I represent a London constituency with a large ethnic minority population, many of whom are refugees. For that reason I echo the Comptroller and Auditor General's comment in the report on the immigration and nationality directorate's casework. He mentioned the enormous personal distress that had been caused by the failures in the directorate.

We can talk about the issues in rather clinical terms, but we should remember the human dimension that is often associated with failures in public services. I illustrate that point by mentioning a constituent who had worked for the previous regime in Afghanistan. If he had been returned to that country, he undoubtedly would have had a well-founded fear of persecution, and statistics show that 95 per cent. of the people who have come to this country from Afghanistan are allowed to remain. However, my constituent could not resolve his status.

My constituent's father, who lived in Germany, fell seriously ill, but my constituent was unable to travel to see his father. When his father died, he was buried with the family present. However, my constituent was unable to attend the funeral and it was a long time after the tragedy before he could travel anywhere in the world or visit close family members. We should remember the impact that such cases have and continue to have.

I visited the immigration and nationality directorate during the summer recess. Although I am the first to admit that significant progress has been made, undoubtedly the casework programme still faces major problems that must be ironed out. The problems of the national insurance recording system have also been documented and people continue to fail to receive the right amount for their pension or other benefits.

Such problems have occurred throughout the development of information technology. In the 1970s and 1980s, we carried out large projects. Although they were much simpler than those carried out today and were carried out in-house, outside experts being brought in, there were still problems. In the 1980s and 1990s, during the next steps and market testing regimes, departmental IT was separated out and sometimes privatised. The Government decided to contract out entirely the provision of IT services, but there were still failures. Now the projects are designed, built and operated mainly under the private finance initiative. Although I do not want to discuss the rights and wrongs of the PFI--other Members have commented on that--it is clear that there are still numerous problems with the provision of IT services.

In their recent modernisation White Paper, the Government have committed themselves to providing better public services, and they have given IT a high-profile role in achieving that aim. It will be at the centre of the renewal of our public services and there will be a massive increase in the electronic delivery of information and services to citizens and, just as important, to businesses. We can fulfil the commitments in the White Paper only if we have better procurement.

The one sign that gives cause for optimism is a consequence of the fact that we have had plenty of experience of bad procurement. Over the past 10 years the Comptroller and Auditor General has brought more than 25 reports to the PAC, cataloguing problems and failures in procurement. We should examine those lessons, and the PAC's first report details four stages in the delivery

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of IT projects that must be improved if we are to make progress. I shall examine what should happen in each of those stages.

The first stage is inception and design. A cultural change must take place, because IT is often introduced as though it were an isolated part of a departmental structure. However, all the evidence suggests that it cannot be dealt with in isolation from the wider issues with which departments and agencies deal. For example, one part of the Passport Agency did not know what another was doing. The IT system was introduced while other significant changes were being made. The result was the failures that we saw in the summer of 1999.

The scale and complexity of some of the projects being undertaken is another important issue. If the White Paper is implemented, such projects will become more common and it is clear that incremental change can often be more effective than a big bang. Smaller, simpler, more manageable projects that make up the totality of a more complex IT system should deliver better and more effective procurement. The software used for casework by the immigration and nationality directorate was immensely complex and created enormous difficulties for the contractor. When I visited the directorate in the summer, I was pleased to see that the software had been broken down into several projects to be introduced over a period.

The second stage is the way in which IT projects are managed. We should recognise that they are not a marginal technical decision but part of the mainstream business activity of departments, and must be treated as such. We need to manage staff in a way that is appropriate for a project. We must provide training and incentives to keep staff with the project while it is introduced. The status of staff, especially in the public sector, must be appropriate to their responsibilities. Most important, staff must be accountable, not only for their success, but for any failures.

There is also the issue of contingency planning, which the Committee has noted is often missing. Such plans need to be in place if anything goes wrong with the introduction of information technology. There are many examples of that, but I shall concentrate on the immigration and nationality casework programme. It was decided that in some non-IT aspects of the programme, people who dealt with casework would work in teams, but because of software failures it was not possible to back up and provide proper contingency plans to allow the service to continue. If it was not possible to provide the service that was required, it was important that, at the very least, things were not made more difficult, so contingency planning is crucial.

The third stage is the relationship that a department should have with its suppliers. It is a truism to say that the supplier should understand and share the business objectives that a project is trying to achieve. That can be viewed in several ways. The roles and responsibility undertaken by the supplier should be fully defined in the contract that it enters into, but in the immigration and nationality project, Siemens, which was the main supplier, had not entered into a proper arrangement for remuneration when the project started. Not only was that a major failure of the contract, but it put at risk the value for money aspect of the project because it was not clear whether the company would deliver it on time, to

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specification and on budget. No one could fully know that it would because the contract had not been properly detailed.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West commented on late delivery in relation to other reports. The consequences of late delivery of a project must be reflected in the contract. That is relevant to any number of previous projects. The compensation that the Passport Agency received for the inadequacies of the main supplier was nothing to the amounts that it had to pay out to another supplier that was affected by the failures of the first. The Government received little compensation for the project on the national insurance recording system, but all the risk--my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West touched on this matter--was not transferred to the supplier. The Government have been living with the consequences of that ever since.

The fourth stage is post-implementation of projects. There must be an open and constructive review that gets to the bottom of whether a project was delivered on budget and on time. It must find out what was right--and wrong--with a project and, of course, learn the lessons and ensure that they are taken on board. Once a system is introduced, the staff who operate it must be able to function effectively with it. It is necessary to commit time and resources for training, so that staff are brought up to a proper standard. Some people might think that that is obvious, but that is exactly what did not happen with the Passport Agency programme. The staff were not ready to work the system when it was implemented, which resulted in major delays.

The Government responded to the report some time ago and made a commitment to address all the issues that it raised and, on 22 May, the Cabinet Office published the report "Successful IT--Modernising Government in Action". The Cabinet Office works closely with the National Audit Office, which is reflected in many of the report's priorities.

I want to mention three priorities. The first is to improve skills, which is especially relevant to the public sector because it has great difficulty in attracting the sophisticated IT management skills that are needed. The second is to change the culture of the public sector by bringing IT into the main stream. It is no longer a marginal activity, and must be at the centre of everyone's consideration. The third priority is strong leadership when IT is introduced, which must come from the top.

The report made 30 recommendations, many of which have been or are in the process of being implemented. It outlines some notable issues. Permanent secretaries will be responsible for driving forward progress on IT projects. It will be interesting to see how that develops. The e-envoy, who has been introduced into Government service, will be responsible for the overall implementation of all 30 recommendations. That is a major task and I hope that he will receive the support of permanent secretaries in achieving that.

The report also recommends producing an interim report on the progress of the IT programme. I hope that the Minister will share it with the House when it is published this month because it is an important matter and we must get it right. The programme has a major impact on the public services that we provide, such as the

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delivery of benefits by the national insurance recording system and, indeed, the provision of the information and services that are outlined in the White Paper on modernising government.

The Committee wants to ensure that there is value for money for the public purse, which is its main remit. Parliament has an interest in getting IT matters right and it is crucial that we provide services to the public that represent value for money. Parliament has a specific role to play and I hope that the Government will continue to work with it, and specifically with the NAO and the Committee, to ensure that all the recommendations in the White Paper are implemented and delivered.

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