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IT Projects

23. Sir Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (LD): What assessment has been made of the resources available to the National Audit Office to undertake appropriate inquiries into the future procurement of major departmental IT projects. [208471]

The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission (Mr. Alan Williams): The National Audit Office already examines IT programmes and projects as part of the annual programme of value-for-money studies. The cost implications of the NAO's work are reflected in the resource bids submitted by the Comptroller and Auditor General for consideration by the Public Accounts Commission. The commission will be examining the NAO's bid for 2005–06 at its meeting on 27 February.

Sir Archy Kirkwood: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that answer and commend the work that he and his fellow commisioners do through the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee, keeping the House informed of historic analyses of public expenditure, which is vital. He has a great deal of experience in this field. Has he any suggestions as to how the House could be better informed about future spend, particularly on ICT projects, which have huge cost implications, as they roll out? The value of the NAO reports and the Public Accounts Committee's valuable work is too historic for the House to be sure that it is keeping in touch with what is happening in some of the big projects currently being rolled out.

Mr. Williams: As the hon. Gentleman well understands, the investigatory role that the NAO carries out on behalf of the House must inevitably be retrospective. In order to retain the independence of that scrutiny, it is important that the NAO does not get involved at too early a stage. Let me report on what I think is a hopeful development, though not yet an achieved result. In November, the Office of Government Commerce appeared before the Public Accounts Committee and outlined to us a programme of gateway reviews—key stage reviews—of IT projects across virtually all Departments. When a project is in trouble, the gateway is graded red and the project does not progress until it has been examined. I suggested at that meeting that the National Audit Office should be notified as soon as a project is classified red, and that the NAO should be able to recommend it to us. A couple of
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weeks later we had the Ministry of Defence before us, which does not operate quite the same system as the OGC, but has a system of its own. I put the same question to the MOD, which has agreed to speak to the NAO, and I am hopeful that we will be able to develop some sort of early warning system in our next report.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the question is useful and pertinent, because it underlines the central importance of IT to the political debate? For instance, in the debate on identity cards there was very little mention of the fact that there are huge discussions about whether the costs will range from £1.1 billion to £3 billion, which is the Government's estimate, or £5 billion, which is the estimate of others, solely because of IT. To give reassurance to the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Sir Archy Kirkwood), on Wednesday this week the NAO is publishing a report on patient choice—again, central to the policy debate. The cost of that and its effectiveness will depend crucially on IT. The question underlines the importance of the subject.

Mr. Williams: May I agree with the hon. Gentleman in his agreeing with me?

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I agree, too. The learned society, the British Computer Society, offered to give advice to the Government some years ago—an offer that was refused. Is it possible to take up the offer on behalf of the commission and the National Audit Office, to provide expert advice on the construction of IT projects? Could the Home Office be under continual review in that respect, as it is the author of the most spectacular failures of IT and has still not implemented a requirement of section 39 of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 to set up a central register of holders of shotgun and firearms certificates? That was introduced seven years ago and not a single operation or programme has been constructed.

Mr. Williams: It is for the NAO to decide which reviews it undertakes. It is independent in the pure sense of the word and it is essential that it remains so. However, I shall draw to the attention of the Comptroller and Auditor General the points that the hon. Gentleman made.
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The hon. Member for Gosport, representing the Speaker's Committee, was asked—

Electoral Registration

24. Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): Whether the Commission plans to make proposals for further developing the facilities for rolling electoral registration. [208472]

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport) : The commission has recommended changes in the law enabling voters to register closer to polling day, and the piloting of online and telephone registration. The Government indicated last month that they intend to act on the commission's recommendations with regard to registering closer to polling day, and will give further consideration to the development of online and telephone registration.

Mr. Barnes: That is a welcome reply. Is not one of the shortcomings of the otherwise progressive move towards rolling electoral registration that it tends to depend on people who have moved home transferring their registration? The last thing that people have on their mind when they move home is electoral registration. The time when they will have it on their mind is when an election is called. That is when they need an opportunity to change their registration through rolling electoral registration so that they can vote in the place they have moved to.

Mr. Viggers: The House always listens to the hon. Gentleman with interest because he does not so much follow this subject as lead it, and many of the details in his private Member's Bill in 1993 have become law. Yes, the Electoral Commission agrees with the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's question. It believes that it should move to individual registration in the longer term, but certainly it should move to registration nearer to the date of the election. However, as I have explained in an earlier question, it is most unlikely that this will be implemented before the election because it will require primary legislation.

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Point of Order

3.30 pm

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. At the risk of irritating you, may I ask whether you have had a request from either the Foreign Office or the Ministry of Defence to make some kind of report to the House on the impact of the continuing violence on the elections that are to take place very soon? Apparently, journalists are holed up in the green zone and unable to go out and see what is happening on the streets of Baghdad. I know that it is irritating to go back to this subject, but it is desperately important.

Mr. Speaker: The Father of the House is never irritating, he is just persistent. He asked this morning for an urgent question on this matter and I refused him, but perhaps the Ministers concerned will have heard his plea.


Crown Employment (Nationality)

Mr. Andrew Dismore, supported by Ms Karen Buck, Mr. Iain Coleman, Mr. Andrew Love, Tony Wright, Sir Sydney Chapman, Linda Perham, John Austin, Mrs. Annette L. Brooke, Keith Vaz and Mr. Stephen Pound, presented a Bill to make provision for and in connection with the removal of general restrictions as to nationality which apply to persons employed or holding office in any civil capacity under the Crown; and for connected purposes. And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 13 May, and to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed [Bill 40].

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Orders of the Day

Constitutional Reform Bill [Lords]

[Relevant documents: Twenty-third Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Session 2003–04, Scrutiny of Bills: Final Progress Report, HC 1282; First Report from the Constitutional Affairs Committee, Session 2003–04, HC 48, on Judicial Appointments and a Supreme Court (court of final appeal), and the Government's response thereto, Cm 6150.]

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