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Mr. Webb: Before the Minister moves on, is there not an important issue about how the Department responded? The first I knew about the problem was when I turned on the television on Friday morning of the week in question. No information was given to the House about what was going on—[Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Gravesham (Chris Pond), refers to bandwagons, but we are talking about our constituents getting poor service and the Government refusing to tell us what was going on. Why was the report marked confidential? Why is the tendency to hold back information rather than to supply it openly?

Alan Johnson: I am talking about a report from EDS to the Government, its customer, about what went wrong. It supplied the report to us marked confidential, so it was then up to us to decide what to do with it. We were happy to share the information.

As to what happened that week, a problem occurred and we were made aware of it on the Tuesday, but it was a problem with people's desktop computers rather than the mainframe. About 20 per cent. were unaffected, but 80 per cent. became affected, albeit the process was gradual. Between Tuesday lunchtime and Thursday evening, when it was finally put right, it was all hands to the deck to find out what was going on in order to put it right. There was no attempt to keep the problem under wraps. It was simply a nose-to-grindstone, shoulder-to-the-wheel attempt by the Department and our staff to put it right. I assure any aspiring conspiracy theorists
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about that. It was certainly not a conspiracy, but the alternative explanation, however unparliamentary it may be to say so.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I apologise for not having been here for the start of the right hon. Gentleman's speech, but I have asked many questions previously about these and related matters. The point that the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) was underlining was that of procedural necessity in relation to disclosure rather than the periodic exercise of ministerial fiat. Is the Secretary of State arguing that greater openness about costs will, on the whole, tend to their reduction over time? That would seem sensible. Is he alert to the fact that companies have, on the whole, a vested interest in making the process as lengthy, extensive and complicated as possible in the name of their own commercial success?

Alan Johnson: The final point has certainly occurred to me; the hon. Gentleman has put his finger on one of the real problems as regards how we solve these issues. A combination of the gateway process, having the right management systems and the fact that we are not reliant on only one supplier but are diversifying across a number of them will help put things right. Governments deal with such vast systems, not just in this country, but in others, so there has perhaps been a tendency to put too many eggs in one basket.

Let me move on to the most important issue. I am not saying that what happened a couple of weeks ago was not important but it did not affect our customers, apart from new applicants. The Child Support Agency, as many hon. Members have said, affects our customers daily. Last weekend, EDS completed a very smooth software release for the CSA system, despite its being the largest and most complex release since the system went live. This change is, in the terminology, 3.5—the fifth of six changes. So far, there have been no problems and the change has gone successfully.

David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): Touch wood.

Alan Johnson: The Dispatch Box is wood!

The hon. Members for Roxburgh and Berwickshire and for Northavon, and others, have asked why, now that has happened, we cannot migrate. There is one more software phase—3.6—to go through, as the Select Committee knows because it was part of our evidence. That will happen next spring, and we have to make sure, now that things are moving in the right direction, that we can clear the backlog and the cases jammed in the system. Before migration occurs, we have to be absolutely sure that all that is done. We got the software in this weekend, but that did not lead us to say, and the House would not expect it to, that we should think three days later about migration. That would just repeat some of the problems that my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire suggested had happened in the past.

There has, then, been some welcome progress on the CSA computer system. The current software release is the fifth out of six that form the most important components of the recovery plan, but there are still problems that inhibit the staff, so I was pleased that the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire said what
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he did about the staff who are working very hard in terrible circumstances. The final release will not be delivered until the spring.

In yesterday's meeting, I told EDS that I would conduct a formal stocktake with the Child Support Agency, EDS and the Department early in the new year. I have made it clear that I want to be personally assured, on an ongoing basis, about EDS's continued commitment and delivery track record. The plan for migration and conversion is dependent on EDS successfully remedying defects in the current system and the development, testing and successful implementation of the software for the bulk conversion of cases from old-scheme assessments to new-scheme calculations. Migration and conversion will not take place until I am absolutely satisfied that the new system is capable of supporting the full case load and that the business is stable.

I take the point made by the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire: if it is two years away, he would rather have the bad news than nothing at all. However, until the stocktake, we will be unable to give some kind of comfort about the date when people can expect to have their cases migrated. When we are in a position to do that, it is fair that we tell the House how we expect the process to go.

The hon. Member for Northavon asked what we would do about the £10 benefit disregard. The big problem with the CSA not working is that the £10 disregard is a tangible benefit to poor children, so the reference by the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Chris Pond), at the Dispatch Box at DWP questions was about us looking at whether there was a way that we could get the £10 quickly, without waiting for the computer system to be sorted out. As I pointed out to the Select Committee, initial feedback was that the process would be so complicated, it would take so long and there would be so much bureaucracy, that we might as well spend the time trying to get the computer system right. However, the issue is still being considered.

Another important point is that £5 a week is stacked up under the old system and paid out as a £1,000 job bonus. That is available under the old system but not under the new system. As more and more lone parents go into work—in general, we are talking about lone parents—that £1,000 is an important element and we must ensure that they understand that that financial arrangement is still in place.

When I appeared before the Select Committee, I explained that the system is improving to a degree that would make it very difficult to decide to go through the real nuclear option, about which I was asked, bearing in mind that pulling the plug means the end of CS2 and the hopes and ambitions of the whole House for the system—it had a remarkable amount of political cross-party agreement—as well as the end of our hopes for an easier system. We are still at the stage where the system is improving to such a degree that it is difficult to contemplate scrapping it, but it is not yet coming up with the type of customer service that means that we can make a decision definitely not to scrap it. We are still in that difficult situation.
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The option is not an easy one, but it must be faced. I have not yet come to a conclusion. As long as the system is appreciably improving—moving in the right direction—and EDS honours the undertakings given to me, the answer to the question, "Would you pull the plug?" would be "No" — but I shall look at it again in the new year.

Mr. Goodman: The Secretary of State told the Select Committee that he would make a quick decision. He has just given us an insight into his thinking and has concluded that, at present, the balance of the argument is in favour of letting the system continue. Will he give us any more guidance about when that quick decision will actually be taken?

Alan Johnson: I said that we would look at the matter again in the new year. The stocktake will be in January and there will be a new chief executive—I shall come to that in a second. The word "quick" will be as elastic in parliamentary terms as saying that we will publish a report in a spring that generally runs from April to December.

I want to reiterate, and make it absolutely clear, that this CSA system is the last of the old-style projects. We have learned lessons from it and there is no question but that we would do it differently if we were starting today. We need to meet today's challenges and our new chief executive will play a crucial role in helping to do so. I can confirm that the advertisement for the new chief executive has been completed and should be appearing in the weekend press. I hope that it will attract a strong field of candidates from which to choose, including my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire and the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam, who is leaving Parliament at the next election.

In conclusion, the DWP's IT systems are vast. They contain more than 20 million customer accounts and make 13 million payments every week. We are part way through one of the largest change programmes anywhere in the world, which is transforming DWP businesses by implementing major organisational and business process change, delivering better services to our customers and freeing up staff to help people on the front line.

That change is at the heart of our aspiration to transform the customer experience. Today, customers can claim benefits over the phone and get jobs through the internet. The number of new integrated Jobcentre Plus offices has already reached almost 550. At the same time, 26 centralised pension centres have been established to provide a telephone-based service designed for the needs of today's 11 million pensioners.

The programme to modernise the way benefits are paid has so far resulted in almost 20 million accounts receiving direct payments. The public service agreement target is to reach 85 per cent. by 2005, but the current projection is that we will exceed that, reaching 93 per cent. in that time scale.

The Government's most popular online service is available through 9,000 touch-screen terminals, giving access to 400,000 vacancies in the internet job bank. The Jobcentre Plus website is one of the most popular in the country. In October of this year, it was the 66th most visited site in the UK, while in both Government and employment sectors, it was the most visited of more than 1,000 UK websites in each sector.
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The Department has also been shortlisted for awards in recognition of achievements in connection with the modernisation programme. Those awards include IT department of the year and IT manager of the year, sponsored by Computing magazine, and the project professionals group won the Office of Government Commerce best practice delivery award in October 2003.

The modernisation of our transactional processes is crucial to delivering improved services more efficiently. It frees up resources for front-line services, modernising and streamlining corporate back-office functions, including reducing the reliance on clerical processes and reducing fraud and error.

Almost everyone in the country will come into contact with the DWP at some stage of their lives. Our commitment to better public service lies at the core of our use of IT. I welcome the continued scrutiny by the Select Committee in helping us to ensure that we get the best value for money that we can from our IT projects. I welcome the opportunity of the debate to put on record some of those facts and to answer some of the legitimate criticism that has been made by the Select Committee and others, and I look forward with optimism to a future where we can get ever greater value from our suppliers and deliver a continually improving service to our customers.

Debate concluded, pursuant to Resolution [6 December].

Question deferred until Six o'clock, pursuant to Standing Order No. 54(4) and (5) (Consideration of estimates) and Order [29 October 2002].

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