DWP projects, in particular, tend to deal with vast numbers of people. The national insurance computer deals with more people than there are living in the countryit has records of the dead on it. National IT systems do not get much bigger than that, and I cannot see that having very few people who can do it and very limited in-house expertise is the way forward.
I will be interested to hear the Secretary of State's response to a suggestion in the Committee's report about breaking such projects down. Can they be compartmentalised in any way, or are they simply indivisible? What is the Government's thinking on breaking down some of these projects into more manageable chunks?
The hon. Member for South Derbyshire rightly mentioned openness and parliamentary scrutiny. The House is constantly frustrated when it tries to oversee these things. I cannot think of many other areas in which things in Government go wrong, and in some cases have a devastating effect on our constituents, yet we cannot ask questions about them. We cannot even be told what has gone wrong or that it will be put right. One example would be the mess-up with the 40,000I thought it was 60,000PCs in the Department that went wrong the
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other week. The Secretary of State did not come to the House, and I do not believe that there was a written ministerial statement. The shadow Secretary of State wrote a letter that was replied toI was grateful for a copy of thatbut the strategy was to try to keep it quiet. [Hon. Members: "It did not work."] Indeed, it may well not have succeeded, but why should it have to? The presumption that IT matters are secret and the House should not be told even about things that go wrong is unacceptable. There should be a shift of emphasis towards a presumption of openness, not secrecy.
I want to mention NIRS2, which is another computer system that has gone wrongthere are plenty to choose from. For years, we did not have reliable information on the contracting out of the state earnings-related pension, as was. Not so long ago, when I asked questions about contracting out, the latest figures were for 199596 because the computer system was such a mess. Currently, the latest figures are for 200102. We are promised 200203 figures by the end of this year. When we are well into 2005, 200203 figures will be the most recent that we get. That cannot be acceptable. We spend about £11 billion on national insurance rebates, and the Government cannot tell us definitively how many people are getting them, or what has been happening to the numbershave they been going up or down?
When I ask questions about NIRS2 functionality I am told that it is sorted out, yet we cannot have the data. I presume that that is because although the computer now works, it was such a mess that there is a backlog of data entry or some such. I hope that when the Secretary of State entered his new Department he was appalled at how little information it could give him about what it was doing. NIRS2 is not a sexy computer system, as it were, but it is a very important one. I hope that the Secretary of State will put resources into enabling it to give us reliable information. Information about trends in contracting out is terribly important, and the data that we have are so out of date that it might as well be pre-Beveridge.
I turn finally to the Child Support Agency. The presumption is that the new computer system is the problem and the old one is fine, but I heard that neither is working and that as a result staff are being sent home on annual leave and something called snowflake leaveI do not know what that is; I hope that the Secretary of State can tell me. Of course, we have no statement and no written information. Can the Secretary of State assure us that the old system is working properlylet alone the new one, which we know is not?
What is the Secretary of State's strategy for going from old to new? I recently had a meeting with a group representing lone parents, during which we discussed whether the Department might simply let nature take its course, bearing in mind the fact that in 16 years everybody will be on the new system. Every child who is born will go straight on to the new system and the older children will drop out. At some sort of tipping point, everybody will be on the new system. Perhaps three years short of that, so many people will be on the new system that it will be a fairly easy job to move the last lot across. I am not saying that it could take 16 years. I am asking whether that is an option for the Departmentsimply allowing nature to take its course and allowing
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a gradual, natural transition, or is the Department determined to have a CSA day, at which point everybody gets switched over on to the new system? What is the Secretary of State's latest thinking?
We ask repeatedly, "When?" and the answer is always, "When it is ready." Given that we are whinging about the problems of computers, of course we want the system to be ready. What is the Department's latest estimate? It has always been reluctant to give us an estimate, on the ground that it may be held to account for it. I will do a deal. If the Secretary of State will tell us when he thinks that it will happen, I will not criticise him when it fails to happen.
Our constituents want to know. People telephone to ask when they will go on to the new system. I tell them that I do not know and that I have asked the Government, and they do not know. Understandably, these people are dismayed. Those who are waiting need something better than that.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Like every other Member, the hon. Gentleman will be pressed from time to time by non-resident parents who will be better off under the new system, and not by those who will be worse off. Does he agree that it would be useful to have some statistics from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that indicate, by extracted samples, the likely proportions of people who are on the old system who will either be better off, worse off or much the same? That would give a feel to what the scale of the political impact might be.
Mr. Webb: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. If he were to read some of the written answers that I received when I probed these matters, he would find that the Department has made such estimates. As he said, on average non-resident parents will pay less. However, because of the £10 disregard, on average certain parents on benefit will gain.
I was coming on to the point that the slowness matters not only from the point of view of changes in the rules, but for every week lost, £10 is lost for good for a lone parent on income support. We may think that the odd week or two is acceptable, but if we are talking about a year or two that is £500 or £700. Those are huge sums for lone parents on income support. It is important that if the Department thinks that the transition will not happen soon, it should have a plan B. It is unacceptable that some of the poorest families in the land are missing out on a tenner a week through no fault of their own, whereas if they were new cases they would be getting the money. We have the situation where two lone parents living next door to each other, one having had a baby after a certain date and the other having had it before a certain date, will find that one is living on £10 a week more than the other, and that that will be ongoing. That is not sustainable. The Under-Secretary of State or the Secretary of State hinted that something might be done for that group. Perhaps the Secretary of State will tell us what that might be.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), to whom the Secretary of State offered a job at the end of the Queen's Speech for his knowledge of these matters, said that people are critical of these computer issues. We can telephone the excellent CSA
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hotline for Members. I pay tribute to the staff who deal with our queries and I should not drop them in it. However, it has been said to me that it is difficult to work with the new system. If I telephone about an old case, that is great, because all the information that I want is accessible. If I telephone about a new case, the staff have to go through complicated procedures and they cannot give me the information that I want on the phone. The information is less accessible on the new system. I wonder sometimes whether the people who have to deal with the system have been fully engaged in the process from the start.
A big issuealmost like the £450 millionis that on occasion it has been mooted that the new CSA computer might be given up as a bad job. Is that still an option? Is that still under consideration? If so, will the Secretary of State clarify how that would work in practice? Would the money that has already been handed over remain handed over? Would any of it be reclaimed? Is there a get-out clausea break clausefor failure to deliver an effective computer system? Could the Secretary of State pull out? What would it cost the taxpayers if he did so? Is he considering pulling out, or is he of the view that eventually everybody will be a new case and we can then get the new data correct?
I am baffled by the fact that the old data are such rubbish. One of the problems seems to be that the new system is intolerant of dodgy data. I suppose that we should be thankful for that. It appears that the old system is riddled with rubbish. The data are inaccurate. Indeed, they are full of mistakes. That is one of the problems with migrating to the new system. People do not fit because the data are rubbish. Why was the CSA allowed to get away with that for presumably the 13-odd years of its existence? It was running a system involving hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money that was based on rubbish data. Presumably it was getting assessments and liabilities wrong.
There is a can of worms there. The House has failed to scrutinise that because nobody told us. The Secretary of State's predecessors failed to scrutinise what was going on when the old system was being run. The National Audit Office might want to examine how that was allowed to go on for so long with entirely inaccurate data.
The Committee has done the House a tremendous service in addressing a huge issue. The CSA is not the only example, but it is certainly the most obvious one. I hope that the Secretary of State can reassure us by telling us where he is heading with the CSA. I hope also that he will consider running some of these projects in-house in future, as an option. Or does he have an ideological objection even to considering that approach? I know that it is a bit old-fashioned, but I would welcome some of these projects being run by the Government.