By Tony Collins
A report published today by the National Audit Office highlights how limitations in Libra, a case management IT system in use across magistrates’ courts, has contributed towards HM Courts Service’s inability to provide basic financial information to support the accounts.
HM Courts Service claimed a success for the troubled Libra system in 2008 – but the failure of the system was more enduring and deep-rooted than thought. The problems were kept hidden until today’s NAO report because the present and past governments have kept “Gateway” progress reports on IT-based projects confidential.
In an unusual step, the head of the NAO, Amyas Morse, has “disclaimed” his audit opinion on the accounts of the HM Courts Service, largely because of a lack of financial information.
Disclaiming an audit opinion is more serious than qualifying the accounts of a government department or agency. Qualifying the accounts means that Morse has reservations on whether figures presented to the NAO are accurate. Disclaiming an audit opinion means that Morse lacks the basic information on which to give any opinion on the accounts.
MP Richard Bacon, a member of the Public Accounts Committee, says that disclaiming an audit opinion is the “auditor’s nuclear button”.
The NAO report today puts the focus on inadequacies in the “Libra” system which is supplied by Fujitsu and STL, with integration work by Accenture.
Fujitsu originally estimated the cost of Libra, a case management system for magistrates’ courts, at £146m. By March the estimated costs were £447m and were expected to rise further. The Libra project took 16 years to complete.
Problems and cost increases on the Libra system were well known in 2003 when the NAO criticised the management of the project. After that all went quiet until in 2008 when HM Courts Service declared Libra a success.
Now the NAO’s Morse says:
“Because of limitations in the underlying systems, HM Courts Service has not been able to provide me with proper accounting records relating to the collection of fines, confiscation orders and penalties. I have therefore disclaimed my audit opinion on its Trust Statement accounts.”
In a statement the NAO criticises the Libra system directly:
“Today’s report highlights how limitations in Libra, the case management IT system in use across magistrates’ courts, and similar systems have contributed towards HM Courts Service’s inability to provide information at an individual transactions level to support the accounts.”
The NAO says that the Ministry of Justice plans to investigate further the functionality of Libra to determine whether it is possible to provide evidence to support accruals-based financial reporting.
Says the NAO:
“In particular, the Ministry and HMCTS [HM Courts and Tribunals Service] believe that it may be possible to obtain evidence over fines and confiscation orders if a suitable report is run shortly after the month end.
“ However, the Ministry and HMCTS have informed me that they may not be able to address these fundamental issues until Libra is significantly enhanced or replaced with a new case management and accounting system. The timing of this enhancement or replacement is currently uncertain. However, the Ministry have committed to ensuring that any replacement for Libra includes accounting functionality to enable financial reporting.”
MP Richard Bacon, who has followed the Libra project for many years, says:
“This is a disgraceful position for the Courts Service to have reached. It is true that the Libra computer system is both expensive and useless but we have known this for many years (Cost of Courts’ IT system triples) and public bodies still have a duty to keep proper records.
“We are now looking at a possible £1.4 billion loss in uncollected fines and penalties partly because of the longstanding shambles that passes for record-keeping in the courts service.
“For centuries, people have kept accurate records and accounts using pen and paper. This could still be done now if needed and if there were sufficient will to do it.”
Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, said:
“It is really worrying that HM Courts and Tribunals Service can’t produce basic financial records. HM Courts Service is responsible for collecting fines and penalties, but we can’t tell if this money is accounted for properly.
“The Comptroller and Auditor General has taken the rare step of disclaiming his audit opinion – the Committee will be looking for HM Courts and Tribunals Service to improve.”
It is astonishing that HM Courts Service has been able to continue in operation without MPs having idea until today that the costly Libra computer system was unable to provide basic financial information.
Parliament was kept in the dark about Libra’s new shortcomings because “Gateway” review reports in IT-based projects and programmes are kept confidential. It is a pity for taxpayers and accountability on major projects that ministers are surrendering to the wishes of civil servants who want Gateway reports kept confidential.