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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I am conscious of the fact that that was something of an interrogative onslaught in itself. The Chair cannot rule on the systems in operation. Obviously, the Chair is concerned that Members should have opportunities to get answers to their reasonable inquiries, but as to the technicalities of a system for dealing with that, I suggest that the hon. Gentleman pursue his inquiries with the Table Office.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann) (UUP): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It probably reflects on me, but I was surprised to discover that there is a report that questions tabled by me have not been answered. Can you give guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as to how I can find out which questions have not been answered? Are records kept by the Table Office of all questions tabled so that we can check through them?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I think I can say to the right hon. Gentleman that the Table Office should be able to assist him in discovering that information.
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[1st Allotted Day]


IT Projects (DWP)

[Relevant documents: Third Report from the Work and Pensions Committee, Session 2003–04, HC 311-I, on Department for Work and Pensions Management of IT Projects: Making IT deliver for DWP customers; the Government's response thereto, HC 1125; and the uncorrected oral evidence taken before the Work and Pensions Committee on 17th November 2004, from the Rt Hon Alan Johnson MP, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and Mr Doug Smith, Chief Executive, Child Support Agency, HC 928-iii, on The Performance of the Child Support Agency; and The Department for Work and Pensions Departmental Report 2004, Cm 6221.]

Motion made, and Question proposed,

1.59 pm

Sir Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (LD): I am privileged and delighted to open this short but very important debate. I recognise perfectly that my colleagues who serve on the Work and Pensions Committee and colleagues who serve on the Education and Skills Committee have been selected by our colleagues who serve on the Liaison Committee to share this valuable time on the Floor of the House this afternoon. With a little help from our friends, the business managers, I hope to be able to complete this important debate by 4 o'clock, so that the education section of today's important business of estimates consideration should be completed by 6 o'clock.

I am very pleased that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has found time to listen to this debate on an emerging subject of importance in public policy, given the way in which information and communications technology affects the provision of public services.

Last July, the Select Committee on Work and Pensions published a report called "Department of Work and Pensions Management of IT Projects: Making IT deliver for DWP customers". It is an important piece of work, which the Select Committee undertook during the Session. I acknowledge at the outset the support that we got from our specialist advisers, Dr. Sarah Pearce and Tim Jarrett from the Library. I recognise the time put into the inquiry by my three main supporters on the inquiry: the hon. Members for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg), for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) and for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), the latter two of whom are in their places, as I would have expected, and I hope that they will be able to catch your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
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In addition, I want to thank some of the witnesses. Sir Peter Gershon gave generously of his time, when he was responsible for the Office of Government Commerce. The former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) was very helpful. In particular, Mr. Tony Collins, who represents Computer Weekly, advised and informed the Committee's work as the inquiry proceeded.

I refer colleagues to annexe 2 of the report. Nothing more than a glance at that annexe is needed to recognise—given the work done by the Public Accounts Committee, the National Audit Office and the Comptroller and Auditor General—that technical failures in ICT projects have been a feature of public policy. We went back as far as 1999, and hon. Members need only consider what happened when the national insurance recording system was upgraded in 2000–01 to recognise that the problem has been with us for some time. However, the problem is now more significant, and looking to the future, it will be become more significant still if Government policy, as we currently understand it, is rolled out as planned.

Annexe 3 serves a useful purpose in listing the current DWP modernisation programme. A glance at that annexe serves to remind the House just how much more dependent the successful delivery of DWP front-line services will be on the success or otherwise of the implementation of ICT programmes in the future. All those programmes involved complicated new technology systems that are delivered in an elaborate policy framework, on a scale that is larger than normal for comparable commercial projects and over unusually short periods, all of which lead to a very high-risk environment, to put it mildly.

The Select Committee started the inquiry in November 2003. One of the main drivers of the need for the work in the first place was that we were worried by the extent to which the Department's 2003 plans for a reduction in staff appeared to be founded too much on increased efficiencies that could be delivered by new ICT projects. Those fears were compounded after the announcement of the comprehensive spending review in July 2004, which, as the House will know, includes a further additional tranche of staff reductions that will amount to a net loss of 3,000 DWP jobs by 2008. That is a matter of some concern, not just for the staff involved or the Select Committee, but for anyone involved in the efficient and safe deployment of services by the DWP in future.

Everything that I learned in the inquiry, which included an important case study of the Child Support Agency, led me to the conclusion that it is absolutely not safe to implement job losses on that scale if the justification for doing so rests on increased functionality and efficiencies provided by new ICT systems. Staff reductions may well be justified—we must always look for efficiencies—but not on that scale nor over that period. All the evidence that the Select Committee took, particularly from front-line staff at the DWP, supported that view.

Of course, it is true that the Treasury may well be looking for its pound of flesh, but to be fair to the Treasury, it has spent large sums of public money on and made capital investment in modernisation. That is welcome, but if it is looking for unrealistic payback times that damage the front-line services that affect the
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clients, it is up to Ministers at the Department to ensure that those clients are protected from a process that appears to be going too far, too fast.

As I said at the beginning, I am grateful to the Secretary of State for taking the trouble to come to the House to listen to the debate this afternoon because we are looking to him and his ministerial team. We in the Select Committee have been working carefully with them. Indeed two of them have been distinguished members of the Select Committee. We rely on their professional competence, but they have a hard job to do. They must be able to stop the process before it damages some of the front-line services if they believe that they are taking steps that may go too far, too fast, and there is a risk that we are.

The report talks about three things, and I want to spend a couple of moments on each. First, what strategies will be adopted for the future management and scrutiny of major mission-critical ICT projects in the DWP between now and 2008, and how can best practice be embedded in those future programmes? Secondly, what will happen next with the CSA? That is a matter of real concern among hon. Members on both sides of the House in the short term and in the longer term. Thirdly, I want to make one or two reflections about matters for the House of Commons itself. Have we got mechanisms in place to deal with those big, complex projects adequately in future?

The first thing that I want to say about the DWP's immediate modernisation programme is that everywhere I go with the Select Committee—I am sure that my colleagues who also serve on the Select Committee will echo this—I cannot help but be impressed by the quality of the professional front-line staff. They do a first-class job, sometimes in extremely difficult circumstances.

For example, on 22 November, 40,000 of the computer screens went down for a number of days. I happened to be in Blackpool last week—as I am sure that the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) know—and the staff dealt with that failure efficiently and professionally, but it knocks the stuffing out of people who are taking their duties seriously. They are public servants; they take their work very seriously indeed. Their morale is knocked for six when those failures happen. They always do the best that they can to apply remedial measures in the short term. They deserve recognition for what they do. It is very easy to attack organisations such as the CSA and let them believe that we are attacking front-line staff. I want to make it clear that anything that I say about the CSA, or any other agency, casts no aspersions on the quality of their work.

The report satisfied me that there is a huge amount of best practice in the industry, in both the private and the public sectors, but there has been only patchy compliance with best practice in the past. The only way that we can be sure that we are getting best practice is to achieve far more openness and accountability—they are vital tools in our hands as a Select Committee to try to ensure that best practice is always complied with—and the DWP should be significantly more open about all its IT projects.
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The OGC has had an important influence on best practice. The introduction of gateway reviews has been a significant step forward. However, too many of the OGC's recommendations are optional. We must consider giving greater powers to the OGC to enforce best practice, and we should be insisting on greater transparency—again, enforced by the OGC.

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