PAC losing their cool

Another day, another damning select committee report on ICT. Today it is the turn of the National Offender Management System (NOMS) to feel the wrath of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) for a poorly-run project. Announced in 2004 at a cost of £234 million, C-NOMIS was intended to track offenders all the way through the criminal justice system. But 3 years later in 2007, the cost had trebled and it was 2 years behind schedule. (Is ‘inevitable’ too cynical a word here?) The project has now been rehashed as NOMIS and will cost £513 million.

The most shocking item on this particular menu of calamities is that NOMS “cannot say in detail” what £161 million of the money spent up to October 2007 was spent on. In other words, they don’t have a clue.

Failure usually means big cost overrun, which is irritating for the taxpayer, to put it very mildly. But now the PAC themselves are angry with incompetent project management. Their opening conclusion in the report contains a telling nugget:

“We question the purpose of our hard work if Whitehall accepts all our recommendations but still cannot ensure a minimum standard of competence.”

We’ve covered several of the PAC’s past reports before and it must be wearisome for a legislative committee to consistently offer sound advice, only to uncover the same mistakes time and again. They must feel like they are flogging a dead horse when they report their findings, and their annoyance is now palpable and manifest in their recommendations.

Parliamentary scrutiny is a vital part of the legislative process and indeed should play a stronger role in assessing the semi-autonomous sector. But this will only be effective if their recommendations are heeded. It is disturbing when the committee responsible for investigating public expenditure is ignored to such an extent as the PAC have been, showing both a cavalier attitude with taxpayers’ money and a disregard for parliament’s crucial checking role.

NOMS also came under criticism from the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) yesterday. At a briefing to launch their new paper, Order in the Courts, it was suggested that NOMS – created as part of a centralising agenda – had been obstructive to voluntary sector groups trying to visit offenders in prison. Charities have a crucial role to play in rehabilitation and reintegrating ex-offenders back in to society and those that carry out such work should be encouraged to engage with prisoners, not hindered. If nothing else, they will usually have better knowledge of how to do this than officials in the criminal justice system.

The third sector can play a significant role in reducing the huge bill for the cost of re-offending, and can do so at a minimal cost to the taxpayer. The organisations that wish to carry out this work rely on donations, and if people were offered tax breaks on charitable giving these groups could sustain themselves to offer their considerable help at the latter stages of an offender’s progress through the criminal justice system. Of course, allowing more room for these groups to operate would relinquish central control too.

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