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Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con):
I begin by congratulating the Secretary of State. That may seem a strange, curious or bizarre remark after a debate of this sort. If for no other reason, as the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for
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Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Sir Archy Kirkwood), said, I congratulate him on coming to the House this afternoon. We all know that, sometimes, Secretaries of State with easy announcements to make come to the House, but those with difficult debates to face slough them off on junior Ministers. The right hon. Gentleman has not done that. The Opposition will not be congratulating him on much else.
Speaking as a member of the Select Committee as well as an Opposition Front Bencher this afternoon[Interruption.] I have not had any complaints about that to date from Government Members of the Committee but perhaps I have received the first. The report, the Government's response, the response to that response and the events that followed were unique in my admittedly limited experience of these matters. They were also deeply worrying and should concern every Member of this place, and I want to explain why.
I should pay tribute to the Chairman of the Committee for the way in which he went about his work; I pay tribute also to the members of the Committee who have spoken this afternoon, including my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous). When the hon. Gentleman put the report together, an important focus of it was the Child Support Agency's IT programme, which not unsurprisingly has been the focus of this afternoon's debate.
My general experience is that the Select Committee does not pull punches in reaching is report conclusions. None the less, the reports are written reasonably; the volume is not normally playing at full blast. The current report is reasonablehow could I say anything else?but, in announcing its conclusions, the Committee turns up the volume.
The decision to deliver a simplified policy through a more complex IT system was, in the Committee's view, "astonishing." The service that the CSA's telephony system provides is "appalling." The Committee said that a former Secretary of State for the Department, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling), had promised the House not only a simpler child support system but a simpler IT system. Above all, the Committee had been refused access to reviews of the IT system that the Department conducted. The Committee concluded that that
The Committee demanded a full post mortem. It asked the CSA to guarantee by 1 Decembera date that has passedthat the migration of old cases to the new scheme would be complete by May next year, and to publish a contingency plan by February 2005 if it could not migrate to the Committee's deadline. The Department's responsewhat there was of itappeared in due course. There was no response to the request for a contingency plan or, therefore, to the deadlines that the Committee recommended.
The Chairman demonstrated again this afternoon that he is not someone who is prone to wandering through the Corridors, searching for Ministers, with a
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broken bottlefull or emptyin his hand. He is always moderate. However, on reading the Government's response, he and the Committee lost patience. Out whizzed a press release, which said that the Committee was "profoundly dissatisfied" with the Government's response on publishing business cases, gateway reviews and implementation assessments. It stated that commercial confidentiality, going further than before,
Mr. Goodman: I am aware of that. We all know what followed as the Department scrambled at full speed to anticipate events. Would that it had responded so speedily to the Committee's recommendations in the first place.
The media were less diplomatic: "CSA Chief Quits in £460 Million Chaos" read one headline. Mr. Smith told the Committee that there was no date for migration, no firm date for what he called the recovery programme and, above all, no contingency plan. The Secretary of State said that he had not ruled out the nuclear option of scrapping the computer system. He pledged to make a "quick decision" on that, as the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) will be interested to know. Later that day, the Prime Minister told the House that the current state of affairs was "not acceptable".
As I said earlier, the Secretary of State's presence this afternoon is very welcome. We all hope, whatever our party and whether we are members of the Select Committee or not, that he has some answers on, for example, the quick decision. We cannot expect an exact date but can he give some guidance about when he will make the decision? In the meantime, will he give us a timetable for the appointment of the new chief executive of the CSA when Mr. Smith goes? Is EDS right that the new version of software that was implemented on 6 December provides the capability to migrate cases from the old computer to the new system? That was mentioned earlier. If EDS is right, why is not at least migration happening now?
If the Secretary of State decides not to press the nuclear button, to use his figure of speech, will the recovery programme be completed by spring, as Mr. Smith expected? Hon. Members should note that, in the phrase that Mr. Smith used to the Committee, the deadline is
To pick up a point that the hon. Member for Northavon made, when will lone parents get the £10-a-week payment to which they are entitled? After all, as hon. Members of all parties have said, that is at stake. The CSA is in crisis. Of the 478,000 applications to the new scheme since April 2003, only 61,000 non-resident parents13 per cent.have made a first payment. The CSA has failed to collect £750 million from some of the poorest families in the land.
We are not considering simply a technical story of computers, software, data and telephones that do not work, but a human story of needy children, lost cash, bewildering letters, parents getting away with not paying and desperate parents with care hanging on at the other end of those telephone lines. The story goes wider. The hon. Member for Northavon and other hon. Members said that on 22 November the Department's computer operations were paralysed by what has been described as
We understand that, following an attempted software upgradewe cannot be sure because we do not really knowcivil servants were unable to authorise new benefit claims or amend existing claims for approximately three days. Perhaps the Secretary of State can tell us whether the crash was linked in any way with a crash that apparently brought down the Home Office's national fingerprint computer system last week. According to insiders, that meant that
The Department issued 19 press releases last month. As the hon. Member for Northavon pointed out, it did not find time to issue a press release to explain exactly what happened on 22 November. The public, like the Select Committee, are still in the dark. My hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) wrote to the Secretary of State to ask him a series of questions. I shall not repeat them all; the list was long. However, I want to ask when Ministers were first made aware of what had happened, what instructions were issued and what, if any, implications the Secretary of State believes the incident has for the future. After all, it is the future that is at stake.
The Select Committee travelled to Blackpool and Preston last week. We were told in Blackpool by both the Disability and Carers Service and the Pension Service that the Department was expecting the computer systems to take the strain as staff numbers were reduced. The CSA is an IT disaster, a human disaster and a DWP disaster, and we cannot be confident that it will be an exception to the rule when we read that the company that might deliver the Home Office's grand identity card schemeperhaps the biggest-ever Government IT schemeis EDS.
So the Secretary of State must reassure us today. We cannot reasonably expect him to provide instantaneous solutions; I am sure that he will be grateful for that. However, wealong with demoralised CSA staff, parents with children in need, the Committee and the Houseare entitled to clear answers that will sweep away the cobwebs of evasiveness, secrecy and non-co-operation of which the Select Committee complained.
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