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Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North): Many of us went through the turbulent years from 1993 onwards when we faced five years of chaos, two-year delays in assessments and thousands of children not receiving the payments to which they were entitled. The Conservatives had to set up a special MPs' hotline with 50 staff to deal just with the complaints coming from the House. May I
Mr. Darling: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It is worth bearing it in mind that, when the new system is introduced, it will benefit many people. The formula for calculating the maintenance due will be far simpler. Rather than the hundreds of pieces of information now required to make a calculation, only three or four will be needed. That means that we can get the maintenance paid within a matter of days. At the moment, nearly a third of new applications take more than six months to process. The new system will make a big difference and it is also fairer to people who have second families, a point that many hon. Members have pressed for some time. I am disappointed that we are not able to introduce the system at the end of April as I had intended, but the risks are such that it is better to take time to ensure that we complete the testing satisfactorily before we introduce the new system.
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire): It is commendable that the Secretary of State saw fit to make this statement to the House. I concur with the view that, faced with the options before him, he had no alternative. If he had done anything else, he would clearly have been in breach of an undertaking that the Under-Secretary in the other place gave to a Select Committee that the new system would not be introduced until the IT was robust. To that extent, I agree with the Secretary of State's decision.
I wish to press the Secretary of State on the testing that is necessary. Is he facing hardware, software or systems problems? It seems to me that it will take weeks to get the problems ironed out and, if he is to be fair to everyone, he will have to give at least three months' notice of a new date for implementation. My working assumption is that it will be at least six months from April before the new system is introduced. Surely the sooner we can end the period of uncertainty, the better for all concerned.
Mr. Darling: I agree with the hon. Gentleman's final point about the importance of completing the testing and fixing a date for implementation. It is important to remember that new cases will be dealt with first. That was always our intention. We will deal with existing cases after that. It is important to get the system right and then fix a date rather than do things the other way around.
I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman said in the first part of his remarks. On his second point, I point out that several features need to be tested. There are problems inherent in any attempt to rebuild a Department's IT systems, and I have told the House on many occasions that that is what we are having to do because of years of lack of investment. The new system will have to operate alongside the Department's existing systems and the technology built in 2001-02 is different from the technology that was designed in the 1970s. The current CSA computer was built in the 1970s. It is an off-the-shelf model that was bought from someone in Florida; it has never been entirely satisfactory.
However, some of my constituents who expected to be on the new system by 1 April may be dismayed to discover that their contributions will be calculated under the old system. Can the Secretary of State assure us thatonce we begin processing existing claimantsthose who will perhaps miss out between 1 April and whenever the new system is fully up and running will be the first to go on to it, provided that it works as intended?
Mr. Darling: Like a number of Members, I am familiar with the notice that greets passengers at the British Airways check-in desk, explaining the wonders of its new computer system. That system is not quite fixed, and I have some sympathy with British Airways in that regard at least.
On my hon. Friend's substantive point, as I said in my statement, once I am satisfied that the system is working, I intend to inform the House as to how we will take on new cases. The key to success, however, is to try to keep the system as simple as possible. Indeed, it was the complexity of the existing system that crippled it. I intend that we will bring on new cases once the system starts up, and when they are settled in we will bring on the existing ones. It would not be wise to undertake a backdating exercise, because that would inevitably lead to the stockpiling of cases and a lot of confusion. It would be better to proceed according to the original plans that many people signed up to, and I know that my hon. Friend participated in the Select Committee that considered the issue on several occasions.
The more complex we make the system, the worse it becomes. The hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) said yesterday that he wanted a simple system but with more complications. I strongly urge my hon. Friend to give that proposal a very wide berth, and I am sure that she will.
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I welcome the statement because it is important that we be kept informed. The Secretary of State said that there might be some increase in costs, but that the bill for the system will not be paid until it is delivered. Is the change to the new system attributable to a particular attitude of mind in the Department, to a particular view on how information should be delivered, or was there a problem with suppliers who did not measure up to demands?
I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State will confirm in a further statement how new and existing cases will be brought on. I have already been approached by people who are on the list and waiting for back-payments. They have been told that they will not be dealt with until the new system is up and running. Surely that is wrong, given that the relevant details are known. I would imagine that they could be fed into the computer system fairly
Mr. Darling: On the last point, the new system is not yet operational. It has not been fully tested, so it would not be safe to feed information into it. The hon. Gentleman is right: the Department has written to peopleas it was duty bound to dotelling them about the plan to introduce the new system at the end of April. We will write to them again, as it is clear that we cannot in fact bring them on to the new system at the end of April. As I have said, the situation is deeply regrettable and I am very sorry for those people who will suffer some degree of inconvenience. However, it would have been far worse to plough on in a manner that presented unjustifiable risks.
On the information technology system itself, as I said in my statement, the contract is so structured that we will not pay for it until we accept it as operational. That may seem obvious, but not all contracts have been structured in that way. I made it clear that, given the history of IT projectsto which the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) referredwe should not pay for the computer system until it works. The difficulty is that testing has yet to be completed. It is clearly in our interestsand in the interests of EDS, which will not get paid until the system works as I describedthat testing be completed as quickly as possible. As soon as I am satisfied that we can proceed, I undertake to return to the Housedespite opposition from the Conservative Front Benchand explain the position. I have to say that this is the first time in 15 years as a Member of this House that I have encountered an Opposition who do not want to hold Ministers to account.
Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the impact of the delay is to some extent mitigated by the additional resources provided and the administrative changes implemented by the Government for the existing system? Can he assure us that CSA staff will be encouraged to continue to improve that service, even under the existing system? Does he agree that because that system was introduced in haste by the previous Government, it has left hundreds of thousands of families to repent in anguish and that the main victims of that have been the children? Will he strengthen his resolve not to introduce the new system, which I think is much better, in haste, as he has been encouraged to do by the cynicism and sneering from the Opposition?