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Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): Hon. Members will know that I sat on the Work and Pensions Sub-Committee that produced the report. On commercial confidentiality, on which I am sure the hon. Gentleman will comment, does he share my memory of the flavour of the overall evidence, which was that the Government were more concerned with hiding behind commercial confidentiality than were the commercial suppliers?

Sir Archy Kirkwood: Absolutely. It was a revelation. I fully expected to run into a lot of hostility, suspicion and concern from the commercial sector, but that was far from being the case. Instead, it welcomed us with open arms. Subject to the terms applying fairly to everyone and the protection of the genuine tenders for contracts—obviously, we are grown up enough to understand that they have to be protected, otherwise that way madness lies—it egged us on. We should grasp that opportunity. The hon. Gentleman is right. The conclusion we are driven back to is that the Department is merely protecting its own situation by hiding behind a cloak of commercial sensitivity and confidentiality. It is not justified.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman touched on the gateway review. An early gateway review was disclosed to me in response to a parliamentary question at the start of the process, when it was relatively new, for a project relating to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I noted no dramatic consequences as a result of that disclosure and found it reassuring. However, consistent questions since to gain gateway review outcomes have been denied.

Sir Archy Kirkwood: My experience mirrors the hon. Gentleman's, and I am grateful to him for raising that. I think that the Government decided it was all too difficult and started putting up the barriers. I cannot understand why. If Parliament is treated in a grown-up way, Members will respond sensibly and positively.

The new Secretary of State—he will not be new for much longer because his face is becoming familiar—should always grab opportunities to simplify policies. Some bits of work are being done, which I welcome, and outside advisers are looking at the ineffably complicated edifice that we are trying to computerise. I recognise that CS2, the reform programme of child support arrangements, was an attempt to simplify matters and that that has gone wrong, but we should not give up the drive to make things more understandable.

The combination of the complexity of the social security system and of project management for major ICT projects frightens people to death. I am grateful that so many Members have turned up because it is a worry that people give up on trying to understand any
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of it. At the same time, £12 billion of capital investment has been devoted to such projects in the current period across central Government.

I used to think that the computer implementation of projects was simply an administrative matter for civil servants to get on with. It is not that at all. Instead, it is critical to the future development of public services in the United Kingdom. We have to understand the mechanisms available to us and scrutinise that work. We have to bear in mind that questions of fairness and equity limit the potential for extensive change, but we must keep up the momentum to get a simpler social security system that we can explain easily to our constituents when asked about it.

In that regard—I cannot help but sound carping—the response to the report was unsatisfactory in both its tone and content. There was a lot of management speak of which I could not make head nor tail. We asked for reasonable, important responses to deadlines. We thought hard about those and they were not just thrown out. We asked ourselves searching questions, as the Secretary of State would expect, because we know the Department well. It always treats our reports seriously and the responses are usually good. This one did not measure up.

I hope that we can get the Department to develop the way in which it thinks about such things, in particular the deadlines. It needs to publicise the work done on the business case studies, gateway reviews and implementation assessments. All those were covered in the report in measured recommendations, which were all denied. There is no way that I can disguise our disappointment with that.

The thing that worried me most was the Department's refusal to inform Parliament on a routine and regular basis about proposed IT projects. If that is the attitude, we are on a collision course, which is in no one's interest. We are not going away, however. The matter is on the agenda. A casual response to what we think is an important report is not the end of the story—

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): Next time it's personal.

Sir Archy Kirkwood: Soon it will get personal. That is the hard way to do things, and I would rather take the easy way.

Timetables are also important, and we need to do some work on the Department's plans.

On CSA reform, I reiterate what I said earlier about the commitment of the staff. We need to be told the state of development of the new simplified system. I know that the Secretary of State is thinking about that carefully. I am confident that I know as much as anyone can know about it, because the Select Committee spent a great deal of time looking at the problem, but I am still in the dark about progress on CS2. It is worse than that, though. There were some interesting contradictions between what the retiring chief executive of the agency said to the Committee recently and how the contractor supplier, EDS, understands the situation.

The software remediation work, which is what EDS was working on, was completed on Monday 6 December. That means that the migration process can
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start. The contractual obligations of EDS with regard to the software are, as I understand it, complete. It has been handed across and signed off. The Department now has it to make use of. That does not mean that it can switch it on and it will all be right. There will be a long period of updating and amending the data in the old system. Most or some of that will need to be done manually, which may take another six months or so. Therefore, if my estimates are right, it might be another six months until the conversion of the old cases can start. Once that happens, it is bound to take a period of time beyond that. Once the calculations are made and are available, there has to be a phase-in period so that the new system does not dish out high increases in liabilities to people who are making some payments.

All that leads me to believe that it will take two or three years before the complete system is operational and everyone gets all their payments in full. In fact, it might take to the end of the next Parliament. If that is the case, I would rather know that. It might sound like bad news, and Ministers may get bad crits, but it is time that they came clean and said how long it will take to put things right.

Rob Marris: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that at the bottom of page 2 of the EDS briefing paper produced for the debate it states:

Sir Archy Kirkwood: That is my understanding. I am not trying to create trouble between the Department and its supplier, but there is a straight conflict between the evidence. It would help if we could understand the Government's position. We are not looking for definitive times that are undeliverable, because that is not in anybody's interests. I just think that we should be told the whole truth in its unvarnished form so that we can make judgments about what we do next. That leaves aside the whole question of backlogs, the difficulties of staff training and staff relocation. None of that helps with enforcement or debt reduction, which are also big areas of difficulty. All those issues are overlaid by the staff reductions that the agency appears to be facing, but I know that the Secretary of State is considering those carefully.

All in all, the situation is very difficult. The sooner that some light is shone on it by the Secretary of State, once he has finished his consideration, the better. If he cannot do it this afternoon, I hope that he will let us know early in the new year exactly what he intends to do. It is not an easy situation, but we would rather know the truth than be led on indefinitely in an area of policy that is causing great stress and anxiety throughout the UK.

We need transparency across government. What I have learned from this inquiry is how inadequate are the mechanisms that are available to Parliament. I was surprised at the extent to which the industry is willing to engage in a much more transparent partnership with Parliament in the process of scrutinising some of the projects as they are developed in real time. 'The National Audit Office looks at such matters historically and I look forward to its report on the CSA. In fact, I shall go to the hearings and sit at the back. We might even be able to sell tickets. However, we need reports
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that are more in real time, so that we can track exactly what is going on. The biggest block is the difficulty that Departments seem to have in being free and open with the information that Parliament needs. Given that we will enter new territory on freedom of information early next year, people will start looking for recourse through the courts if they do not get the information that they want, such as business process statements and gateway reviews, transparently and openly from the Government. People will go to the Information Commissioner and ask for information that is withheld by Departments on the ground that their work is paid for by taxpayers' money. Parliament is entitled to know about expensive projects.

These questions are not easy, but I hope that the new Secretary of State will reflect on the response that he gave to the Committee. I hope that that is not his last word. I do not need to tell him that this is a huge issue, both collectively and in the individual elements of the CSA and other departments. I hope he will give urgent and proper consideration to the issue and try to devise a process that will in future give Parliament more confidence that it will be able to monitor and scrutinise such projects as they develop more coherently than is currently possible.

2.23 pm

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