Anything to declare? Passport IT system goes over budget

September 29, 2011 5:58 PM

The Sunday Telegraph reported this week that the cost of a new Passport Agency computer system had rocketed, rising from an estimated £80-£100 million to a bill of £365 million. In response to a parliamentary question tabled by Eilidh Whiteford MP, Immigration Minister Damian Green insisted that rising costs were down to ‘additional demand for passports, enhancements of the IT infrastructure and business processes to accommodate changes in policy, response to changes in security threats and customer service improvements.’

Eilidh Whiteford was not satisfied, denigrating the ‘absolute scandal’ of the previous Government (who signed the contract with Siemens) and their lack of care with taxpayer’s money. She was right to point out the similarities between this and other IT debacles, including the £2.7 billion wasted on the failed NHS IT project  and huge overruns on the Welsh Government’s £220 million Merlin Programme.

A Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC)  report, released in August, described the NHS scheme as ‘beyond the capacity of the Department to deliver.’ Systematic failure to consult with those health professionals who would use the new IT system, inability to prevent the Department from ‘clearly overpaying BT [one of the suppliers] to implement systems’, and ‘weak programme management’ led to such substantial overruns in both time and money. Although there were ‘political inconsistencies’, these were overwhelmed by the inability of the Department of Health to cope with managing £11.4 billion of taxpayers’ money.

But Damian Green’s lacklustre response to Eilidh Whiteford suggests many of the lessons in the PAC report have been ignored. Although Francis Maude’s Major Projects Authority is meant to ensure ‘a more systematic approach by departments as well as regular, planned scrutiny to keep projects on track’, the Passport Office overrun suggests that such scrutiny is not being applied consistently. Even worse, the glib explanation that the bill has gone up by at least £265 million due to ‘customer service improvements’ and ‘additional demand for passports’ suggests such scrutiny is not even being taken seriously.

Aside from the data security implications of government holding such vast stores of our private information, and their tendency to lose it, projects like these show that government projects fail when they attempt to do too much. The inability, or unwillingness, to scrutinise and manage contracts with suppliers is just another example of a tendency to play fast and loose with taxpayers’ money.The Sunday Telegraph reported this week that the cost of a new Passport Agency computer system had rocketed, rising from an estimated £80-£100 million to a bill of £365 million. In response to a parliamentary question tabled by Eilidh Whiteford MP, Immigration Minister Damian Green insisted that rising costs were down to ‘additional demand for passports, enhancements of the IT infrastructure and business processes to accommodate changes in policy, response to changes in security threats and customer service improvements.’

Eilidh Whiteford was not satisfied, denigrating the ‘absolute scandal’ of the previous Government (who signed the contract with Siemens) and their lack of care with taxpayer’s money. She was right to point out the similarities between this and other IT debacles, including the £2.7 billion wasted on the failed NHS IT project  and huge overruns on the Welsh Government’s £220 million Merlin Programme.

A Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC)  report, released in August, described the NHS scheme as ‘beyond the capacity of the Department to deliver.’ Systematic failure to consult with those health professionals who would use the new IT system, inability to prevent the Department from ‘clearly overpaying BT [one of the suppliers] to implement systems’, and ‘weak programme management’ led to such substantial overruns in both time and money. Although there were ‘political inconsistencies’, these were overwhelmed by the inability of the Department of Health to cope with managing £11.4 billion of taxpayers’ money.

But Damian Green’s lacklustre response to Eilidh Whiteford suggests many of the lessons in the PAC report have been ignored. Although Francis Maude’s Major Projects Authority is meant to ensure ‘a more systematic approach by departments as well as regular, planned scrutiny to keep projects on track’, the Passport Office overrun suggests that such scrutiny is not being applied consistently. Even worse, the glib explanation that the bill has gone up by at least £265 million due to ‘customer service improvements’ and ‘additional demand for passports’ suggests such scrutiny is not even being taken seriously.

Aside from the data security implications of government holding such vast stores of our private information, and their tendency to lose it, projects like these show that government projects fail when they attempt to do too much. The inability, or unwillingness, to scrutinise and manage contracts with suppliers is just another example of a tendency to play fast and loose with taxpayers’ money.

Latest Blogs:

TaxPayers' Alliance Icon

Aid spending needs to be more transparent

4:55 PM 08, Dec 2016 Harry Fairhead

TaxPayers' Alliance Icon

The sugar tax and the public finances

6:00 AM 05, Dec 2016 Harry Fairhead

TaxPayers' Alliance Icon

Working for the taxman

6:00 AM 26, Nov 2016 Harry Fairhead

TaxPayers' Alliance Icon

Further thoughts on the Autumn Statement

4:56 PM 24, Nov 2016 James Price