Category Archives: Government IT

Only a judge-led inquiry will change “rotten” Post Office as IT scandal continues, MPs told

By Tony Collins

Former subpostmaster Alan Bates, who spearheaded legal action against the Post Office over its Horizon IT system, told MPs on Tuesday that the Post Office is “rotten underneath” and will not change without a judge-led inquiry.

Horizon victims Wendy Buffrey and Tracey Felstead also called for a judge-led inquiry at a hearing of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy committee.

The committee had its first hearing this week on the Post Office Horizon controversy. At its second hearing on  24 March, its MPs are expected to question the Post Office’s CEO Nick Read, the former CEO, Paula Vennells, Fujitsu, a business minister and a representative from UK Government Investments which has a place on the Post Office board.

The scandal is, in part, over the Post Office’s decision to dismiss unjustly hundreds of business people who ran local post offices. They were dismissed  because of shortfalls shown on the Horizon branch accounting system which had many hidden defects.

While keeping faults hidden, the Post Office, pursued sub-postmasters for supposed debts based on “evidence” from Horizon. Dozens of sub-postmasters  were prosecuted on the basis of Horizon evidence and many made bankrupt. Hundreds of lives were ruined.

Since a judge’s scathing criticism of the Post Office in rulings last year, the Post Office and Martin Callanan,  a business minister in the House of Lords, have said lessons will be learnt but Bates said he has “yet to be convinced things will change at the Post Office”.

He said the Post Office has promised to change its ways many times before but “it never happens”.

Bates said he had spoken briefly to Nick Read who took over the job as Post Office CEO in September last year. Bates said he wished Read well but described him to the BEIS committee as “very much like a new coat on old paintwork”.  He added that the wood underneath is “rotten” and called for a judge-led inquiry to “get to the bottom of things”.

Bates might have been referring, in part, to some of those within the corporate Post Office who chased sub-postmasters for questionable shortfalls and took legal actions against them.

Also giving evidence to MPs were Andy Furey of the Communication Workers Union and chartered accountants from 2nd Sight whom the Post Office paid to investigate sub-postmaster complaints. The Post Office dismissed 2nd Sight after their interim findings criticised aspects of the Horizon system.

What the witnesses told MPs indicates that many questions over the scandal remain unanswered:

  • Who on the Post Office board agreed to spend an estimated £100m or more, over time, on avoidable legal costs to fight the claims of sub-postmasters?
  • Does the civil service have a conflict of interest in deciding whether to support a judge-led inquiry, given that a judge may criticise officials for being a party to, or turning a blind eye, to the Horizon scandal as it unfolded?
  • Does the Horizon IT scandal continue?  It emerges that the Post Office maintains control over, and is dealing in secret with, an unknown number of sub-postmasters who were not part of Alan Bates’ High Court litigation but who have experienced problems with Horizon, including shortfalls. The Post Office has made no commitment to paying them compensation or returning their losses.
  • Why have people not been held to account although it is months since a High Court ruling was scathing in its criticism of the Post Office’s conduct and costs during the litigation, its dealings with sub-postmasters,  the inaccuracy of corporate statements to the media and Parliament and the withholding of relevant evidence from the court?
  • Could sub-postmasters continue to be blamed for shortfalls they know nothing about if nothing fundamentally changes?
  • Will the minutes of Post Office board meetings be published to enable scrutiny of the costly and a futile decision last year to try and remove the judge in the Horizon IT litigation?
  • Will those minutes, if published, reveal whether the civil service has been a party to Post Office board’s decisions?
  • In any dispute between he civil service and MPs, including Boris Johnson, over whether to hold a judge-led inquiry, who would win?

Asked whether the Post Office’s compensation of £57.75m to former sub-postmasters represented justice., Furey replied  “Absolutely not.”

He said it is “so important to get a judge-led inquiry”.” He added that the  vast majority of people operating local Post Office “want to provide a fabulous community service and are part of the fabric of society”. But when money went missing, the Post Office’s position was to “presume the sub-postmasters were guilty”.

He said the culture of the Post Office was to defend Horizon at all costs. “From the outset they could not have a position where Horizon could be questionable because that would jeopardise its business plan, its operating model and its ability to make profits”.  After accusing local businessmen and women of taking money that had been shown as shortfalls on Horizon, the Post Office escorted them out of their buildings and told them they could not visit their own post offices again even if their homes were above or at the back of them.

“This is a national scandal,” Furey told MPs, adding, “It has impacted on peoples’ reputations and the Post Office needs to be held to account”.  What is known about the scandal today has emerged only because of the litigation brought about by Alan Bates and other claimants, he said.

“The PO should hide its head in shame.”

Chartered accountant Ron Warmington of 2nd sight said his company only agreed to accept a contract with the Post Office to investigate the complaints of sub-postmasters on the basis that it wanted to establish the truth,

But the Post Office withheld information.  “Frankly,” he said,  “it was one of the worst and most difficult investigations I have ever carried out in terms of the client relationship.”

BBC Panorama is due to broadcast a documentary on the Horizon scandal on 23 March – how the Post Office covered up evidence of miscarriages of justice.

Comment:

Alan Bates called during the hearing for the “dead wood” within the Post Office to be cleared out. He referred to people who “knew the truth” but carried on with the actions against sub-postmasters.

But clearing out dead wood is not going to happen: the civil service and the Post Office do not want accountability or a judge-led inquiry.

Boris Johnson has suggested that he supports an inquiry but it is likely the civil service will have the final say.

Antony Jay, co-writer of “Yes minister”, said one thing he had learned in researching the TV series was that the civil service was the “real government”.  .

He told the Daily Telegraph that, deep in their hearts, most politicians respected civil servants but “deep in their hearts most civil servants despised politicians”. He said,

“After researching and writing 44 episodes and a play, I find government much easier to understand by looking at ministers as public relations consultants to the real government – which is, of course, the Civil Service.”

Which raises the question: why would the civil service want a judge-led inquiry? By funding and sanctioning Post Office actions that led to the scandal, the civil service has much to lose by any inquiry and nothing to gain.

Indeed it is clear it failed in its role of scrutinising, challenging and not accepting at face value what it was told by the Post Office.

A judge-led inquiry may still happen though, if MPs, peers, committees and Parliament generally, keep campaigning for one.

Clearly, for the victims of the scandal, what the Post Office has done and what the state has sanctioned, knowingly or not,  can never be undone. But not having an inquiry, not paying fair compensation, not holding people to account and offering up a plate of platitudes instead makes things much worse.

As things stand, officials and business ministers seem happy to accept 20 years of injustice and hundreds of lives ruined in order to protect a public institution and the civil service.

Today, across the world, the UK has a reputation for justice and a sometimes grudging fairness. But the more the state tolerates the damage caused by the Horizon scandal, the more it openly and fragrantly repudiates those virtues of justice and fairness.

MPs told to hold to account those responsible for Horizon IT scandal

Falsely accused ex Post Office workers demand judge-led inquiry – New Statesman

PM commits to Post Office inquiry – Nick Wallis’ blog

BEIS civil servants – are they hoisting their own petard? – Problems with Post Office Ltd blog

Accountability of the civil service? – Eleanor Shaikh’s research

Did Post Office chiefs get off lightly CWU, commnications union blog

 

New postal minister refuses to back judge-led inquiry into Horizon scandal

By Tony Collins

Paul Scully, new business minister

Paul Scully, a new business minister in charge of the Post Office, refused yesterday to back calls by various MPs for a judge-led inquiry into the Horizon IT scandal.

Downing Street and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy have also refused to commit to an inquiry, reports Computer Weekly.

Yesterday in a debate in the Commons on former sub-postmasters whose criminal records are being reviewed by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, Scully went off script several times but still refused to give any commitment to an inquiry over the scandal.

Asked for a commitment to an inquiry, Scully said,

“We will certainly look at how we can keep the Post Office on its toes in the future and look back and learn the lessons from that. What I don’t want to do is step on the toes of the CCRC’s [Criminal Cases Review Commission] investigation…. but clearly we do need to make sure lessons are learned and we will look at that over the coming days and see what more we can do.”

Scully’s comments appear to give strong backing to the civil service’s line on the Horizon scandal which is to be non-committal on MPs’ calls for an inquiry.

Boris Johnson indicated last week that he supported an inquiry but unless he has the support of the civil service an inquiry is unlikely.

Scully also gave no commitments on fair compensation to victims of the scandal or on whether he will hold anyone accountable. As the new business minister, he said he will dedicate his time to “making sure that we can see tis through and keep the Post Office on their toes to make sure we can come to a proper conclusion that means something to the postmasters who have suffered in the past …”

He said the convictions will not be treated as a group because the way the legal system works. “We are not able to do that,” he said. Each conviction will be dealt with individually with forensic accountants going through thousands of pages of documents.

He put aside his prepared speech on “what a great job” the Post Office is doing and instead answered points put by MPs but in a generalised way.

He said the government will proactively challenge the Post Office and its new chief executive Nick Read and “I will make sure that happens”.

MPs during the debate, in describing the Post Office’s conduct, used words such as “despicable” and “utterly deplorable”. One MP said the Post Office had “misled from the outset”.

MP Lucy Allan said yesterday she had been told by a representative of the Post Office that he doubts many cases of sub-postmasters with criminal convictions will be referred to the Court of Appeal and that those that are, may not succeed. She said the Post Office, is

“still intent on protecting the interests of the institution at all costs.”

Comment

Recent events have made the position of the government and civil service over the Horizon IT scandal clear:

  • Boris Johnson would like an inquiry but this is opposed by the civil service which has nothing to gain and much to lose: any inquiry may ask how the civil service allowed the Post Office to spend seemingly unlimited funds on its legal fight against sub-postmasters litigation (including the hiring of four QCs and two sets of solicitors). It may also ask why the civil service failed to stop a scandal that was obvious for more than a decade to anyone outside the Post Office.
  • Boris Johnson needs the full co-operation of the civil service to manage and implement his policies. He has little choice therefore but to accept the civil service’s party line that it must be non-committal when MPs ask what has happened to Johnson’s promise of an inquiry.
  • As MPs on the business committee (BEIS) look at how another Horizon-like scandal could be avoided in future, the existing Horizon scandal continues and deepens.
  • The criminal convictions of former sub-postmasters are to be reviewed individually and not collectively. Forensic accountants are going through thousands of pages of documents in individual cases. This could delay the final outcome of some cases indefinitely, although the reviews have already been delayed several years. The Post Office supports the individual rather than collective consideration of criminal cases.
  • The ruling of Mr Justice Fraser in the Horizon case made it clear that Fujitsu engineers could alter branch accounting systems from a remote location without the knowledge of sub-postmasters. Such changes could affect figures shown on the Horizon system. This fact alone – without the disclosures during litigation about bugs in Horizon – undermine every case where there is nothing other than Horizon evidence to suggest money has been stolen.
  • For each conviction to be looked at individually is as ludicrous as the Board of Inquiry in 1912 going through in forensic detail every survivor’s witness statement before making a recommendation on whether the available evidence supports claims the Titanic actually sank.
  • The Post Office continues, in practice, to exert a similar level of control and influence it had on the state during the height of the Horizon IT scandal. MPs made the point correctly yesterday that nothing has changed.
  • In the same way the Post Office tried to stop Alan Bates from launching a group litigation, the institution appears to be opposing former sub-postmasters with criminal convictions taking a group civil action – but how could individuals with criminal convictions, many of whom lost their homes and businesses and have found it difficult to get work, find the money, individually, to sue the Post Office which, in its legal fight against Alan Bates and his co-claimants, has shown it is prepared to spend tens of millions of pounds on lawyers?
  • Nothing substantive will change unless the Post Office has demonstrably independent, rigorous and fully empowered oversight, including representation of sub-postmasters on an oversight board (though not from the National Federation of Sub-postmasters which the Post Office funds and whose independence the judge questioned),  together with the detailed public reporting of progress on implementing the recommendations of a judge-led inquiry.
  • Without these two things, ministers and the civil service will do little more than try to embalm the Horizon scandal in reassuring platitudes such as lessons learnt, a new framework, ministerial meetings, working groups, better scrutiny etc
  • If the civil service has its way, there will be no fair compensation, minimal accountability and no judge-led inquiry; and the Post Office will emerge from the scandal entirely unscathed other than the damage to its reputation which will cost public servants and those who misled the High Court nothing.
  • It is up to MPs, many of whom have an excellent grasp of the facts, to test, as the judge did, everything the Post Office says for truthfulness. The judge found that some Post Office witnesses gave him partial and inaccurate evidence. The Post Office corporately gave the High Court inaccurate evidence on Horizon and a Post Office director tried to mislead the court.
  • The Post Office has a new CEO. But does he have the power to modify fundamentally an institutional culture that allowed a national scandal to take grip and, according to MPs yesterday, still opposes change?
  • Much of what the minister said yesterday implied that the government (other than Boris Johnson), the civil service and the Post Office speak as one voice – a voice that shows compassion in the words used but not at all in the deeds.
  • It’s difficult to avoid a conclusion that the only regret within officialdom over the Horizon IT scandal is that the Post Office was found out. It will now take a very clever use of language – something civil servants are famous for – to convince MPs and peers that the scandal is in the past.
  • Credit goes to MP Lucy Allan for securing yesterday’s debate and to MPs who contributed including Gill Furniss, Andrew Bridgen, Karl Turner, Sharon Hodgson, Emma Lewell-Buck, Maria Eagle, Philip Dunne, Marion Fellows, Gerald Jones, Jim Shannon,  Tonia Antoniaazzi,  Ian Paisley, and Duncan Baker.

BEIS civil servants – are they hoisting their own petard? – Tim McCormack

Those who did not play by the rules in Horizon scandal should face prosecution – Computer Weekly

Boris Johnson’s commitment to inquiry in doubt – Computer Weekly

House of Lords debate on Horizon scandal – #postofficetrial

Some of this state-sanctioned conduct would not be out of place in China or North Korea… the Horizon scandal in summary

By Tony Collins

  1. A knock on your mother-in-law’s front door at 3am. A state-sanctioned investigations team wants to interview you over stolen money you know nothing about.
  2. Your hands are bound and you are also handcuffed to one police officer on your left and another on your right. A state-owned institution says thousands of pounds is missing. It is confident you have taken it.
  3. You haven’t taken a penny but your protests count for nothing. The institution has the evidence from its computer system.
  4. You are not allowed to see your family. You are put in a vehicle and not told where you are going.
  5. You are taken to prison, kept in a cell all day and fed through a hatch. You see another prisoner who has committed suicide.
  6.  Before sending you to prison, a judge says you’ve stolen from pensioners. You are asked if you’ve used the stolen money for your recent holiday.
  7. In fact you are in prison because you had the misfortune to be a user of the institution’s computer system – called “Horizon” – at a time when it was showing discrepancies.
  8. Once a large and inexplicable shortfall appears on Horizon, more follow.  It’s the usual pattern.
  9. You are required to make good every shortfall now and in the future.  It is no excuse to say you haven’t stolen any money or made any mistakes. Evidence from Horizon is sacrosanct.
  10. If you cannot pay for the shortfalls, the institution, the Post Office, will make monthly deductions from your income, make you sell your home or make you bankrupt.
  11. You were given an impossible choice: a) accept the computer’s evidence at face value and agree to give to the Post Office any amount of money it requires you to pay now and in the future, or b) challenge the computer’s evidence and be prosecuted as dishonest.
  12. You challenged Horizon and ended up in court. Here, the denials of a branch counter clerk were unlikely to be believed against the evidence from a large and much-respected publicly-owned institution.
  13. The jury accepted that the computer was correct.  The computer seemed to work well for thousands of people every day. Why would it go wrong just in your case? But you didn’t realise then that, to everyone who complained about Horizon, the Post Office said they were the only one.
  14. You lose your job, cannot pay the mortgage and lose your home. You are traumatised, have an electronic tag, go on medication and try twice to commit suicide.
  15. Why have the courts and jury preferred the evidence from a computer system to your denials?
  16. Many years after prison has left an indelible mark on your mental well-being, it will emerge that thousands of reports on Horizon-related problems have been kept secret.
  17. The system’s problems are kept a secret for more than a decade while the Post Office, with apparent impunity, prosecutes and persecutes.
  18. To clear your name, the onus was on you and other accused to prove the system was flawed.
  19. But you had no right to see the system’s audit data. You had no way of proving whether the computer was showing non-existent shortfalls.
  20. Some families try to avoid the prosecution of a family member by raising tens of thousands of pounds to pay the Post Office for shortfalls they suspect are not real but cannot prove it. The Post Office still prosecutes.
  21. In one of the world’s most advanced nations, governments and civil service leaders turn a blind eye to a scandal that has been obvious for years to those not employed directly by the Post Office.
  22. Far from holding anyone accountable, the UK state appoints those ultimately responsible for running the Post Office and  Fujitsu, supplier of the Horizon system, to top jobs in the public sector.
  23. The Post Office has no close oversight because it is an “arm’s length body”. The state owns more than 100 ALBs. What is to stop any number of them turning on the public as the Post Office has turned on hundreds of Horizon users? In 2015, a committee of MPs found there was little understanding across government of how arm’s length bodies ought to work.
  24. It’s the job of state-funded auditors, non-executive directors, ministers and civil servants to challenge what they are told by the boards of arm’s length bodies.  If they accept assurances at face value, the governmental system of oversight breaks down. But in 2020 business minister Martin Callanan suggests that civil servants were unknowingly misled by the Post Office. Was this confirmation that the system of oversight has failed with appalling consequences?
  25. Since 2010, the media and Parliamentarians, particularly former defence minister James Arbuthnot (now Lord Arbuthnot) have tried to draw the attention of ministers to the Horizon scandal. But civil servants and postal services ministers have preferred the word of the Post Office to the pleadings of constituency sub-postmasters.
  26. After setting up a costly mediation scheme and hiring forensic accountants Second Sight to address the concerns about Horizon among MPs, particularly Arbuthnot, the Post Office ends the mediation scheme and summarily dismisses Second Sight whose report criticises Horizon.
  27. In totalitarian states, it may not be unusual for innocent people to be handcuffed and taken to prison because they questioned the output of a state-owned institution’s computer system. But in the UK?
  28. BBC Panorama reveals in 2015 that it is possible for engineers working for Fujitsu, Horizon’s supplier,  to access Post Office branch accounting systems and alter lines of code, to fix bugs, without the local Horizon users knowing.
  29. These changes could affect the branch’s financial records as shown on Horizon.
  30. Panorama is correct. Fujitsu staff can alter branch Horizon systems remotely but the Post Office issues a lengthy public denial of Panorama’s correct disclosures. Ministers and civil servants accept the Post Office’s denial.
  31. In at least two families,  the misfortune of being a Horizon user at the time of a glitch or training-related issue becomes a factor in  suicide. In other families there are attempted suicides. A  sub-postmaster suffers a stroke shortly after the Post Office wrongly suspends him, claiming incorrectly that he owes £65,000.
  32. The Post Office had the power to enrol state resources in prosecuting sub-postmasters on the basis of “robust” evidence from Horizon.
  33. Even after the extent of Horizon’s problems has come to light during High Court trials, the UK government continues to hold nobody to account.
  34. That the scandal was obvious to outsiders helped Alan Bates, a former sub-postmaster who was one of Horizon’s earliest victims, to obtain venture funding, via solicitors Freeths, of tens of millions of pounds for a High Court case against the Post Office.
  35. The Post Office tried to oppose Bates’ group litigation by claiming every individual case was different. The judge disagreed and the group litigation went ahead in 2017.
  36. Even after the first of a series of planned High Court trials started, the full extent of Horizon’s problems were kept hidden.
  37. Thousands of internal reports on Horizon’s problems were not given to the High Court until late 2019 – after several hearings and judgements in the case.
  38. In 2020, Kelly Tolhurst, the then Post Office minister, refused a request to pay a fair sum in compensation to former sub-postmasters.  She suggested in her letter that the compensation being paid by the Post Office (about £58m) was enough. Last week business minister Martin Callanan also refused state compensation. His words were almost identical to Tolhurst’s, implying that their words were drafted by civil servants at the Post Office’s parent organisation, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which appears to see its role as defending the Post Office against outside criticism.
  39. To those who sold homes and lost businesses because of the Post Office’s demands for payment, under threat of criminal and civil action, the compensation being offered is no compensation at all  It will not, in the end, come close to covering their losses.
  40. Today, 10 years after a pregnant sub-postmistress fainted in the dock as she was sentenced to 15 months for stealing money she knew nothing about, and woke up in hospital in handcuffs she tried to hide, her criminal conviction has not yet been quashed. She considered taking her own life.  The state’s overriding duty to protect its citizens seems not to have applied to her.
  41. Another ordinary law-abiding Horizon user went to prison in handcuffs but her criminal conviction is still in place nearly 20 years later.
  42. Her conviction is likely to be quashed this year or next but she will have endured for much of her adult life being branded a criminal by the state. No amount of compensation can replace 20 lost years of being presumed guilty.
  43. Boris Johnson last week promised an inquiry into the Horizon IT scandal but it is likely to be resisted by civil servants. Officials may see anything other than a narrow inquiry into procedures, contracts and technical matters as not being in their interest.
  44. Last week BEIS confirmed it will not hold anyone accountable. Instead, the new business minister Lord Callanan offered Parliament a series of promises from Sir Humphrey’s phrasebook: a new framework … a working group … ministerial meetings …. cultural and organisational changes … learning lessons …  a major overhaul … strengthened relationships … productive conversations … close monitoring of progress … constant reviews … genuine commercial partnerships … direct addressing of past events … the delivery of support on the ground… accelerating a programme of improvement … engaging with stakeholders … seek evidence of real positive change. .. further accountability mechanisms.
  45. It is likely that some or most the above stock phrases will be used by every BEIS minister when giving a formal response to the Horizon IT scandal in letters, statements and Parliamentary debates.
  46. But those seeking justice will continue to campaign for fair compensation at a minimum.
  47. The campaigners in Parliament include Lord Arbuthnot, Lord Berkeley, Gill Furniss MP, Kate Osborne MP, Kevan Jones MP and Lucy Allan MP. For campaigners, the High Court rulings in favour of the sub-postmasters mark only the end of the beginning.
  48.  Some of the points below may add to grounds for the state to pay fair compensation.

Comment

A scandal perpetuated?

To be fair to the Post Office, it has acted as if it were answerable to nobody because it was indeed not answerable.

It had the very occasional polite tap on the knuckles by officials at its parent organisation, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy [BEIS]. But nothing more.

In effect the Post Office was untouchable. It received hundreds of millions of pounds from BEIS in state aid but not even the National Audit Office was able to investigate how the money was spent.

Again, to be fair to the Post Office, it was partly in the hands of Horizon’s supplier Fujitsu when it came to understanding faults in Horizon. Fujitsu kept its own central error logs and the reports of Horizon problems. It could charge the Post Office for access to data beyond a certain point.

Given the circumstances, the Post Office did what large institutions tend to do when things go badly wrong: they  blame the weakest links in the corporate chain, the human operators.

Fatal crashes of the Boeing 737 Max were, at first, blamed on the weakest inks – pilots – instead of on a poorly-designed onboard computer system.

Again, after the Chernobyl nuclear reactor explosion, the plant’s human operators, the weakest links, were blamed, which initially helped to cover up the reactor’s design and construction deficiencies.

And after the crash of a military Chinook killed 25 VIPs on the Mull of Kintyre, the two dead pilots, the weakest links, were blamed while deficiencies with the helicopter’s computer systems were hidden.

In the case of the Horizon scandal, the weakest links when the system went wrong were the sub-postmasters. About 550 sub-postmasters took part in subsequent litigation but the Horizon shortfall scandal might have claimed another 500 or so victims who hadn’t realised at first that they weren’t alone.

That the Post Office’s parent department BEIS appears to have no interest in paying compensation or holding accountable anyone for the Horizon scandal is not a surprise given that it is part of the problem.

Indeed, it’ll be no surprise if its civil servants resist making good on Boris Johnson’s promise of an inquiry. There are already signs of this, according to Computer Weekly.

For years, BEIS and its successive postal services ministers have accepted the Post Office’s word when it was obvious to Computer Weekly and Parliamentarians that a scandal was taking place under the noses of those running the department.

The Post Office’s party line continues?

In their carefully-worded reactions to the Horizon IT scandal, the current Post Office CEO Nick Read, Post Office chairman Tim Parker, former Postal Services minister Kelly Tolhurst and a current business minister Lord Callanan, have all referred to wrongs as being “in the past”.

Perhaps unwittingly, they appear collectively to be following a party line – although Sir Peter Fraser QC, the High Court judge in the Horizon case, was particularly critical of Post Office witnesses who appeared to follow a party line.

Perhaps Read, Parker, the Post Office press office and Lord Callanan wish to consign the Horizon scandal to history.

-In its corporate apology the Post Office’s statement said,

“We accept that, in the past, we got things wrong …”

In his apology, Tim Parker, Post Office chairman, said that the December 2019 High Court judgement,

“makes findings about previous versions of the [Horizon] system and past behaviours …”

In January 2020, the then postal services minister Kelly Tolhurst said in a letter to Justice for Sub-Postmasters Alliance that the Post Office accepted and recognised that,

“… in the past they had got things wrong…”

Last week, business minister Lord Callanan said at the end of a short debate in Parliament on the Horizon IT scandal,

“Post Office Ltd has accepted that, in the past, it got things badly wrong … ”

“We accept that, in the past, we got things wrong …”

“the Post Office is also continuing to directly address past events for affected postmasters …”

Nick Read, the current Post Office CEO said there was a need to

“… learn lessons from the past.”

[My emphases]

But the scandal is not in the past. Far from it.

In February 2020, Mark Baker, a sub-postmaster and spokesman for the communications union CWU, told a BBC File on 4 documentary that he knows of Horizon shortfall incidents of nearly one a week continuing in one UK region alone this year.

File on 4 also raised the question of whether it is easier to blame “user error” than the Post Office’s having to fine Fujitsu for not fixing a bug within a pre-defined time limit.

Another reason the apologies of the Post Office and ministers for “past” wrongs are disingenuous is that they avoid any apology for the Post Office’s conduct in the litigation.

In his High Court rulings, Sir Peter Fraser was prolific in his  criticisms of the Post Office’s dealings with sub-postmasters but he also attacked its conduct in the much more recent litigation.

It is this conduct that demeans the reputation of UK government and public sector institutions as a whole.

When ministers and the Post Office refer to such conduct as historic they are, in essence,  excusing it. By apologising for past events only, business ministers appear to have become apologists for the Post Office’s conduct in the litigation … conduct such as this:

  • Several Post Office witnesses did not give accurate or impartial evidence to the High Court in 2018 and 2019.  That wasn’t in a past era.
  • A current Post Office director tried to mislead the High Court, as did a witness from IT supplier Fujitsu. This wasn’t in a past era.
  • The Post Office opposed the setting up of a group litigation order, sought to have no substantive trial listed at all and, when this failed, tried to strike out much of the evidence of sub-postmasters before the trials started.
  • During the first trial the Post Office, said the judge, seemed to try and put the court “in terrorem”  – which means serving or intended to threaten or intimidate.” None of this was in a past era.
  • The  judge said some Post Office costs were “extraordinarily high, unreasonable and disproportionate”.
  • In addition to the above costs, the Post Office hired four QCs and two firms on solicitors. It also fielded 14 witnesses against the six lead claimants for the sub-postmasters.
  • The publicly-funded Post Office appeared to be trying to rack up costs, perhaps to drain the funding of the former sub-postmasters and force them into submission.
  • The Post Office sought to have the judge removed – a highly unusual and costly approach to the litigation.  The judge expressed surprise that the Post Office applied to remove him near the end of a lengthy trial. If the judge had stood down, a re-trial would have happened, adding greatly to costs that were already tens of millions of pounds by this stage. It was only last year that the Post Office sought to have the judge removed –  not in a past era.

How many more business ministers will try to consign the Horizon scandal to the past?

That the scandal is one of the most serious group miscarriages of justice in decades is not in doubt.

But by not paying fair compensation, the state is, in essence, sending a signal to the public sector that if another group of innocent people are handcuffed, bundled into a van and taken into prison for doing nothing more than questioning the system, the state will care even less than it does today.

Holding nobody to account and not paying fair compensation also sends a message to the public and Parliament: that it is acceptable for a state-owned institution to conduct itself as if it were answerable to nobody.

One question that still remains unanswered is how a state-owed institution was able – perhaps is still able – to maintain a control and influence similar in status to that of a cult.

For more than two decades, the civil service and ministers accepted the Post Office’s criticisms of sub-postmasters. The courts and judges too.

The Post Office was also able to enlist the support of some the UK’s top QCs in litigation to fight sub-postmasters.

And the Post Office’s most senior witness in the case, whom the judge described as a very clever person,  seemed “entirely incapable of accepting any other view of the issues other than her own”, said the judge. She exercised her judgement to “paint the Post Office in the most favourable light possible, regardless of the facts”.

Other Post Office witnesses in the case were expected to give impartial evidence to the court but followed its party line. Even the Post Office’s expert witness who was professionally required to give impartial evidence to the court was, according to the judge, “partisan” in favour of the Post Office’s case.

The Post Office’s control extended to the sub-postmasters’ supposed trades union, the National Federation of Sub-postmasters: the Post Office secretly gave the Federation millions of pounds that could be clawed back if the Post Office disapproved of the Federation’s public criticisms.

Are BEIS civil servants and ministers, therefore, under the influence of a cult-like institution when they tell MPs the Horizon scandal is in the past and they refuse to apologise for conduct in the litigation, refuse compensation and refuse to hold anyone accountable?

Are the BEIS civil servants and ministers also remarkably naïve when they ask MPs and peers to accept a series of Sir Humphryisms instead of fair compensation for hundreds of damaged or ruined lives?  …  a new framework, ministerial meetings, a monitoring of progress… phrases that could be the output of platitude-generating software?

Do ministers really believe that the Post Office, after decades of control  and influence is able to change suddenly now that it has a new CEO and the Horizon scandal is acknowledged at the top of government?

If ministers want to convince us that the Post Office, BEIS and the government are genuinely contrite, they will pay fair compensation to former sub-postmasters  and hold to account those responsible for the scandal and the failure to put an early stop to its all-too-obvious traumatic consequences.

Acknowledgements:

Alan Bates

Karl FindersNick Wallis, Tim McCormack, Mark Baker, James Arbuthnot, Eleanor Shaikh,  Private Eye, File on 4, Panorama, Christopher Head

Civil servant in charge of £9.3bn IT project is not shown internal review report on scheme’s failings.

By Tony Collins

“If people don’t know what you’re doing, they don’t know what you’re doing wrong” – Sir Arnold Robinson, Cabinet Secretary, Yes Minister, episode 1, Open Government.

Home Office officials kept secret from the man in charge of a £9.3bn project a report that showed the scheme in serious trouble.

The Emergency Services Network is being designed to give police, ambulance crew and firemen voice and data communications to replace existing “Airwave” radios.  The Home Office’s permanent secretary Philip Rutnam describes the network under development as a “mission-critical, safety-critical, safety-of-life service”.

But Home Office officials working on the programme did not show an internal review report on the scheme’s problems to either Rutnam or Stephen Webb, the senior responsible owner. They are the two civil servants accountable to Parliament for the project.

Their unawareness of the report made an early rescue of the Emergency Services Network IT programme less likely. The scheme is now several years behind its original schedule, at least £3.1bn over budget and may never work satisfactorily.

The report’s non circulation raises the question of whether Whitehall’s preoccupation with good news and its suppression of the other side of the story is killing off major government IT-based schemes.

With the Emergency Services Network delayed – it was due to start working in 2017 – police, ambulance and fire services are having to make do with the ageing Airwave system which is poor at handling data.

Meanwhile Motorola – which is Airwave’s monopoly supplier and also a main supplier of the Emergency Services Network – is picking up billions of pounds in extra payments to keep Airwave going.

Motorola may continue to receive large extra payments indefinitely if the Emergency Services Network is never implemented to the satisfaction of he emergency services.

EE is due to deliver the network component of the Emergency Services Network. Motorola is due to supply software and systems and Kellogg Brown & Root is the Home Office’s delivery partner in implementing the scheme.

Has Whitehall secrecy over IT reports become a self-parody?

The hidden report in the case of the Emergency Services Network was written in 2016, a year after the scheme started. It said that dialogue between suppliers, notably EE and Motorola, did not start until after the effective delivery dates. Integration is still the main programme risk.

MP SIr Geoffrey Clifton Brown has told the Public Accounts Committee that the report highlighted an absence of clarity regarding dependency on the interface providers, which caused something of an impasse.

He said the report “alluded to the fact that that [a lack of clarity around integration] remains one of the most serious issues and is not showing any signs of resolution”.

Stephen Webb has been in charge of the project since its start but he is the business owner, the so-called “senior responsible owner” rather than the programme’s IT head.

In the private sector, the IT team would be expected to report routinely to a scheme’s business owner.

But in central government, secrecy over internal assurance reports on the progress or otherwise of major IT-related projects is a Whitehall convention that dates back decades.

Such reports are not published or shared internally except on a “need-to-know” basis. It emerged during legal proceedings over the Universal Credit IT programme that IT project teams kept reports secret because they were “paranoid” and “suspicious” of colleagues who might leak documents that indicated the programme was in trouble.

As a result, IT programme papers were no longer sent electronically and were delivered by hand. Those that were sent were “double-enveloped” and any that needed to be retained were “signed back in”; and Universal Credit programme papers were watermarked.

The secrecy had no positive effect on the Universal Credit programme which is currently running 11 years behind its original schedule.

Webb has told MPs he was “surprised” not to have seen review report on the Emergency Services Network. He discovered the report’s existence almost by accident when he read about it in a different report written a year later by Simon Ricketts, former Rolls Royce CIO.

This month the Public Accounts Committee criticised the “unhealthy good news” culture at the Home Office. The Committee blamed this culture for the report’s not being shown to Webb.

The Home Office says it doesn’t know why Webb was not shown the “Peter Edwards” report. The following was an exchange at the Public Accounts Committee between MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, Webb and Rutnam.

Clifton-Brown: When you did that due diligence, were you aware of the Peter Edwards report prepared in the fourth quarter of 2016?

Rutnam: No, I’m afraid I was not. The Peter Edwards report on what exactly, sorry?

Clifton-Brown: Into the problems with ESN [Emergency Services Network], in particular in relation to suppliers.

Rutnam: I do not recall it. It may have been drawn to my attention, but I’m afraid I do not recall it.

Webb: It was an internal report done on the programme. I have not seen it either.

Clifton-Brown: You have not seen it either, Mr Webb—the documents tell us that. Why have you not seen such an important report? As somebody who was in charge of the team—a senior responsible officer—why had you not seen that report?

Webb: I don’t know. I was surprised to read it in Simon’s report. [Simon Ricketts.]

Chair: Who commissioned it?

Webb: The programme leadership at the time.

Chair: That is the board?

Webb: The programme director. It was a report to him about how he should best improve the governance. I think he probably saw it as a bit of an external assurance. It probably would have been better to share it with me, but that was not done at the time.

Clifton-Brown: “Probably would have been better to share it”? That report said that dialogue between suppliers, notably EE and Motorola, only started after the effective delivery dates. The report highlighted that there was not clarity regarding dependency on the interface providers, and that caused something of an impasse. It also alluded to the fact that that remains one of the most serious issues and is not showing any signs of resolution. That was in 2016, in that report. Had that report been disseminated, would we still be in the position that we are today?

Webb: I think that we would have wanted to bring forward the sort of [independent] review that the Home Secretary commissioned, and we would have done it at an earlier date.

Clifton-Brown: Why did you need to? You would not have needed to commission another review. You could have started getting to the root of the problem there and then if you had seen that report.

Webb: Yes.

Comment:

Webb and Rutman seem highly competent civil servants to judge from the open way they answered the questions of MPs on the Public Accounts Committee.

But they did not design the Emergency Services Network scheme which, clearly, had flawed integration plans even before contracts were awarded.

With no effective challenge internally and everything decided in secret, officials involved in the design did what they thought best and nobody knew then whether they were right or wrong. With hindsight it’s easy to see they were wrong.

But doing everything in secret and with no effective challenge is Whitehall’s  systemically flawed way of working on nearly all major government IT contracts and it explains why they fail routinely.

Extraordinary?

It’s extraordinary – and not extraordinary at all – that the two people accountable to Parliament for the £9.3bn Emergency Services Network were not shown a review report that would have provided an early warning the project was in serious trouble.

Now it’s possible, perhaps even likely, the Emergency Services Network will end up being added to the long list of failures of government IT-based programmes over the last 30 years.

Every project on that list has two things in common: Whitehall’s obsession with good news and the simultaneous suppression of all review reports that could sully the good news picture.

But you cannot run a big IT-based project successfully unless you discuss problems openly. IT projects are about solving problems. If you cannot admit that problems exist you cannot solve them.

When officials keep the problems to themselves, they ensure that ministers can be told all is well. Hence, ministers kept telling Parliament all was well with the £10bn National Programme for IT in the NHS  – until the scheme was eventually dismantled in 2011.

Parliament, the media and the public usually discover the truth only when a project is cancelled, ends up in the High Court or is the subject of a National Audit Office report.

With creative flair, senior civil servants will give Parliament, the National Audit Office and information tribunals a host of reasons why review reports on major projects must be kept confidential.

But they know it’s nonsense. The truth is that civil servants want their good news stories to remain uncontradicted by the disclosure of any internal review reports.

Take the smart meters roll-out. Internal review reports are being kept secret while officials give ministers and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy the good news only. Thus, the latest Whitehall report on smart meters says,

“Millions of households and small businesses have made the smart choice to get a smart meter with over 12.8 million1 operating in smart mode across Great Britain. This world leading roll out puts consumers firmly in control of their energy use and will bring an end to estimated bills.”

Nothing is said about millions of homes having had “smart” meters installed that are neither smart nor compatible for the second generation of smart meters which have a set of problems of their own.

The answer?

For more than 30 years the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee have published seemingly unique reports that each highlight a different set of problems. But nobody joins the dots.

Sir Arnold, the Cabinet Secretary said in “Yes Minister“, that open government is a contradiction in terms. “You can be open, or you can have government.

This is more than a line in a TV satire.  It is applied thinking in every layer of the top echelons of civil service.

Collective responsibility means civil servants have little to fear from programme failures. But they care about departmental embarrassment. If reviews into the progress or otherwise of IT-enabled programmes are published, civil servants are likely to be motivated to avoid repeating obvious mistakes of the past. They may be motivated to join the dots.

But continue to keep the review reports secret and new sets of civil servants will, unknowingly each time, treat every project as unique. They will repeat the same mistakes of old and be surprised every time the project collapses.

That the civil service will never allow review reports of IT programmes to be published routinely is a given. If the reports were released, their disclosure of problems and risks could undermine the good news stories ministers, supported by the civil service, want to feel free to publish.

For it’s a Whitehall convention that the civil service will support ministerial statements whether they are accurate or not, balanced or not.

Therefore, with review reports being kept secret and the obsession with good news being wholly supported by the civil service, government’s reputation for delivering successful IT-based programmes is likely to remain tarnished.

And taxpayers, no doubt, will continue to lose billions of pounds on failed schemes.  All because governments and the civil service cannot bring themselves to give Parliament and the media – or even those in charge of multi-billion pound programmes –  the other side of the story.

Home Office’s “unhealthy good news culture” blamed for Emergency Services Network Delays – Civil Service World

Emergency Services Network is an emergency now – The Register

Home Office not on top of emergency services programme – Public Accounts Committee report, July 2019

More public sector IT-related failures for which nobody will be accountable – a solution?

The Times front page – 23 January 2019

By Tony Collins

Criminal trials were delayed, jurors unable to enrol and witness statements inaccessible.

Quoting a tweet by the authoritative @BarristerSecret, the BBC said the “entire digital infrastructure” of courts was “broken for days”.

@BarristerSecret added,

“No accountability, no lessons learned.”

In the Spectator, Matthew Scott, a criminal barrister at Pump Court Chambers, said,

“Nobody seems to know exactly what has gone wrong or, if they do, they do not like to say.”

His Spectator blog was headlined,

The Spectator – 24 Jan 2019

 

 

“The most irritating fault has been for a few days the near total seizure (or ‘major service degradation’ to use the official non-explanation) of the secure email system (‘CJSM’) which for several years now has been the only authorised means of written communication between the Crown Prosecution Service and defence lawyers, probation, prisons, police and others.”

The Law Society Gazette said,

Law Society Gazette – 22 Jan 2019

 

 

 

The Law Society Gazette gave examples of how the problems had caused disruption and angst in the criminal justice system. It said,

“Major disruption that affected multiple Ministry of Justice IT systems last week continues to cause chaos.

“Lawyers on the front line have told the Gazette that trials have been delayed, jurors have been unable to enrol and practitioners have been prevented from confirming attendance that will enable them to get paid.

“Last week the ministry’s digital and technology team said most systems were improving. However, the Gazette has spoken to practitioners whose experiences suggest otherwise.”

A criminal barrister who spent the day in Leicester Crown Court said  none of the court’s computer systems was operational, jurors could not be enrolled, and no advocates could sign into the Ministry of Justice’s XHIBIT system, an online service that logs lawyers’ attendance so they can get paid.

A lawyer at Lincoln Crown Court said the XHIBIT system was down again. The Crown Court Digital Case System, on which all cases are accessed, was also down.

A criminal defence solicitor arrived at Highbury Magistrates’ Court in London at 9.15am, where there were several clients in the cells. But jailers did not know which courts the cases would be heard in and  because there was no wi-fi in the building magistrates had no access to any papers on their ipads before the hearings.

“The Gazette was told that several people attended Scarborough Magistrates’ Court last week to make statutory declarations in respect of driving matters. ‘Most of these people had come suited and booted, with all the anxiety that marks ordinary members of the public out as different from the frequent flyers who regularly come before the courts.

“These poor souls were left hanging around all morning, until 1pm, when they were advised that the systems were still not back up. Two of them agreed to come back on an adjourned date, 14 days later, but one of them explained that he couldn’t take further time off work. He was asked to come back in the afternoon, in the vain hope that the case management system might be back online.”

Former government chief technology officer Andy Beale quoted The Times in a tweet,

 

 

 

In another tweet, Beale said,

 

 

 

The Guardian reported yesterday (28 January 2019) that the Ministry of Justice knew its court computer systems were “obsolete” and “out of support” long before the network went into meltdown, internal documents have revealed.

The MoJ document, entitled Digital & Technology, said, “Historical under-investment in ageing IT systems has built our technical debt to unacceptable levels and we are carrying significant risk that will result in a large-scale data breach if the vulnerabilities are exploited.”

It added, “We have a Technology 2022 strategy, but it is not funded to help us address the long-term issues with current systems and allow us to make best use of new technologies to improve service delivery.”

It referred to a database used by 16 employment tribunal administrative offices in which the “scale of outage” accounted for 33% of incidents over the previous six months. Users were unable to access systems for a “significant number of hours”.

The report cited problems such as “risk of database corrupted leading to data loss; unable to restore service in a timely manner”, and added: “Judges say they will put tribunal activity on hold because of the poor running of the application.”

Government response

In the Commons, the government’s justice minister Lucy Frazer, responding to an urgent Labour request for a statement on the IT problems, was relaxed in her comments. She said the disruption was “intermittent” and the problems were merely “frustrating”. She added,

“The issue that has arisen relates mainly to email systems. There has been minimal disruption, I am told, to the courts system as a whole.”

She said there had been an “infrastructure failure in our supplier’s data centre”.

“The Prison Service has not been affected and—to correct inaccurate reporting—criminals have not gone free as a result of the problem. We have been working closely with our suppliers, Atos and Microsoft, to get our systems working again, and yesterday we had restored services to 180 court sites, including the largest ones.

“Today (23 January 2019), 90% of staff have working computer systems. Work continues to restore services and we expect the remainder of the court sites to be fully operational by the time they open tomorrow morning. We are very disappointed that our suppliers have not yet been able to resolve the network problems in full.

“This afternoon, the permanent secretary, Sir Richard Heaton, will meet the chief executive of Atos and write personally to all members of the judiciary. I am very grateful to all our staff who have been working tirelessly and around the clock, alongside our suppliers, to resolve the issues.”

Labour’s Yasmin Qureshi asked if Microsoft and Atos have paid any penalties to which Frazer gave a vague, non-committal reply,

“… the permanent secretary is meeting the supplier’s chief executive this afternoon and of course we will look carefully at the contracts, which include penalty clauses.”

Frazer later said the problem related to a “server” which raised questions about how the failure of a single server, or servers, could cause widespread chaos in the courts.

Labour’s Steve McCabe said the server problem was not a  single or unusual event.

“… her Department has been receiving reports of failures in the criminal justice secure email service for at least six months now”.

Police systems

The BBC reported last week that problems with a police IT system were causing some criminals to escape justice.

Nine forces in England and Wales use Athena from Northgate Public Services. They are Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent, Norfolk, Suffolk, Warwickshire and West Mercia. The system is designed to help speed up the detection of crimes.

But officers told the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme that it crashes regularly and is overly complicated, meaning some cases are not built in time or dropped.

Developers Northgate Public Services apologised for problems “in small areas”, which it said it was fixing.

A joint response from nine police forces said Athena – which has cost £35m over the past 10 years – had been “resilient and stable, although no system is perfect”.

The system was introduced following a government directive for forces to share intelligence after the Soham murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, in 2002.

Officers said the intelligence-sharing function works well but problems arise when they use the system to build cases for the Crown Prosecution Service.

The delays it causes means officers can struggle to get the information together in time to charge suspects or the cases are not up to a high-enough standard and are dropped.

Serving officers at Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Essex told the programme the process could now take up to twice as long.

The BBC did not name any officers who revealed details of the problems because they could face disciplinary action for speaking out. Their comments included:

  • “The first two weeks it (the system) was brought in were the worst two weeks of my entire career. It’s overly bureaucratic. It doesn’t understand the police investigative process at all. From day one, it malfunctioned. Four years on, it is still malfunctioning”
  • “It often requires information that is totally irrelevant and if you miss just one data entry point (like whether a solicitor is male or female), I have to reject the whole case and send it back to the officer”
  • “Even for a simple shoplift, I probably have to press about 50 buttons, with a 30-second minimum loading time between each task”
  • “There have been incidents where charges have been dropped because of the inadequacies of the system. There have been cases of assaults, albeit fairly minor assaults, but these are still people who should be facing criminal charges”
  • “It slows the whole criminal justice system down. At the moment, it is not fit for purpose. This is the most challenging time I have come across. We’re at breaking point already. This has pushed some officers over the edge”
  • “When you’ve got detainees in a custody block who’ve got various illnesses and ailments, medical conditions that are all recorded on there and they need medication at certain times – it became very dangerous because we were unable to access the records”

The nine forces – which also include those in Cambridgeshire, Kent, Norfolk, Suffolk, Warwickshire and West Mercia – said in a joint statement that they had been working with the supplier to identify and correct issues as they arose.

“Over the 12 months up to November 2018, there have only been 72 hours of total downtime and there are detailed plans in place of how to manage business when this occurs.”

Northgate Public Services, which created Athena, said 40,000 officers accessed the system and benefited from improved criminal intelligence.

It said it was working to make improvements to the “complex system”.

“We recognise there are a small number of areas of the solution where improvements can be made and we apologise for any difficulties this has caused.

“We are working hard with the customer and other parties to make these improvements as a priority.”

Comment:

As @BarristerSecret said,

“No accountability, no lessons learned.”

In central and local government, accountability means suppliers sometimes have to pay small penalties. Outsourcing supplier Capita last year paid Barnet Council about £4.2m in compensation for poor performance.

It was a fraction of the hundreds of millions Capita has received from Barnet Council.

Sometimes the opposite happens and it is the supplier that wins money from the government after a failure.

The Home Office sacked Raytheon over problems on an e-borders IT systems and ended up paying Raytheon £224m in compensation.

The Department of Heath ended up paying Fujitsu hundreds of millions of pounds after the supplier’s contract to deliver systems under the National Programme for IT [NPfIT] was ended.

A major failure in one area of the public sector will not  stop or deter officials from awarding the same supplier a major contract in the same or another part of the public sector.

Were a major failure or legal dispute to preclude a supplier from bidding for further UK public sector work, most if not all major suppliers would today have little UK government business.

A solution?

There is an effective way to encourage IT suppliers and the public sector to avoid public service failures. But the senior civil service isn’t interested.

That solution would be to publish – after every major public services failure – a full, independent third-party report into what went wrong and why.

Some senior officials seem unruffled by public criticism or even contempt after a services failure. But particularly in some of the major departments, there is a high-level fear of the full truth emerging after an administrative disaster.  Departments would do almost anything to avoid IT-related failures if reports on the causes were routinely published.

But unless there is a Parliamentary or public clamour for such internal analyses to be published, they will remain hidden or uncommissioned.

When the National Audit Office publishes a report on a departmental failure, the report has usually been agreed and signed off by the department; and it is usually a one-off report.

When public services descend into chaos, as happened in the court service last week, immense pressure falls on the IT teams to restore normal services urgently. But without the routine publication of reports on major IT-related public service failures, where is the motivation for senior officials to avoid chaos in the first place?

House of Commons debate on the courts’ IT failures

Thank you to Celina Bledowska for her tweet alerting me to the criminal justice IT problems.

Uupublished plan to throw another £13bn at the NHS’s IT problems?

By Tony Collins

The Health Service Journal yesterday revealed details of NHS IT investment plans that have been costed at about £12.9bn over the next five years.

The HSJ’s award-winning technology correspondent Ben Heather  says the sums currently involved – which could reduce as proposals are “reined in” – are on a par with the notorious National Programme for IT in the NHS.

He says that officials working on the plan have produced an estimate of between £10.9bn and £12.9bn for the cost of supporting proposals across 15 long-term plan “workstreams” ranging from creating personalised care to improving cancer survival.

The figures form part of the work of the digital and technology workstream for the long term plan, which is being developed by NHS England and NHS Improvement.

“The sum would be on par with the National Programme for IT, the most expensive push to improve IT systems in NHS history and an infamously costly and troubled project. It is likely to reduce substantially, however, as ambitions for the plan are negotiated and reined in over coming weeks.”

The plan is due to be published in late November or early December. The health secretary is known to be a keen advocate of new IT-related investments.

It is likely that a sizeable portion of the new £20bn planned for the NHS – which will be financed partly by tax increases that are due to be announced in the budget later this month – will go on NHS technology.

But the Health Service Journal suggests the investments will be controlled centrally, which may be a bad sign given that one of the major flaws in the failed £13bn NPfIT was that money was controlled centrally rather than by local groups of doctors and nurses.

Comment

On the face of it the current investment proposals bear no resemblance to the NHS IT programme NPfIT which was “dismantled” in 2011.

The NPfIT comprised a handful of specific major projects that were to be implemented nationally under the umbrella of “ruthless standardisation”.

The current proposals look very different. The investments fall into vague categories such as digitalising secondary care, improvements to IT infrastructure, data gathering and analytics.

The proposals have all the appearance of a different way the NHS has found to waste vast sums of public money.

It has never been acknowledged by the Treasury, NHS England or the Department of Health that the NPfIT wasted billions on spending that was invisible to the public, such as numerous consultants, years of globe-trotting by officials, first-class hotels across the world, sponsored conferences and unreported funds for marketing items that included DVDs and board games designed especially to promote the IT programme.

For officials, there’s nothing more exciting than going to work on a £13bn technology programme where money flows more freely than water. It’s no wonder officialdom is lobbying for the money.

No doubt it will be easy for officials to obtain the new billions. At any time in the recent history of the NHS it would have been easy on paper to justify £13bn for new NHS technology. Much of the £13bn could be justified simply enough by submitting plans to HM Treasury to modernise what already exists.

It was easy to justify the NPfIT. Tony Blair approved it at a Downing Street meeting that lasted 40 minutes. Computer Weekly obtained minutes of the Downing Street meeting after various FOI appeals.

But the NHS needs £13bn to be spent wisely on technology. The last thing the NHS needs is for Whitehall officials to be involved. History shows that Whitehall has the reverse Midas touch when it comes to major NHS IT investments. It is local groups of doctors and nurses who know how to spend the money wisely.

If either NHS England or the Department of Health and Social Care is involved in the new proposals for NHS IT investments – and they both are – it’s almost certain the new plans will end up as costly failures.

How would the public feel if they realised that a sizeable portion of their increased taxes for the NHS is almost certainly destined for the dustbin marked “mismanaged Whitehall IT schemes”.

Revealed: Officials’ £13bn funding ask to modernise NHS IT

Another NPfIT scandal in the making?

£20bn for the NHS? – not spent like this please

Johnathan Lewis, CEO Capita (right) and Simon Stevens, Chief Executive, NHS England (left) at Monday’s Public Accounts Committee.

By Tony Collins

Capita apologies for working “blind” on NHS outsourcing contract – but no humility from NHS England

Capita’s CEO Johnathan Lewis was contrite and authoritative when he appeared before public accounts MPs in the House of Commons on Monday.

He apologised unreservedly for what the committee chairwoman Meg Hillier called “a shambles”, which was Capita’s £330 seven to ten-year contract to run a range of services for GPs, dentists and ophthalmologists, as well as handle invitations and test results for cervical screening.

Capita’s Primary Care Support Services contract began in 2015 and complaints about the service from medical practitioners began to flow months later.

Capita made mistakes, said Lewis who was supported by his colleague Stephen Sharp, who reports directly to Lewis on public sector contracts. One mistake was that Capita tried to save money too soon by folding the work of 47 local NHS offices with 1650 staff into three offices without fully understanding that each office had a different way of working and a different way of delivering NHS services.

[A similar mistake helped to floor the £10bn National Programme for IT in the NHS (NPfIT), where suppliers and Whitehall officials tried unsuccessfully to use computers to standardise working practices and services in hundreds of hospitals before they fully understood the widely-different approaches of each hospital.]

Lewis told the Public Accounts Committee on Monday,

“This was an extremely complex outsourcing of services that I think both parties would recognise were not fully understood when the work was outsourced – the volumes, the scope, the fact that the service was being delivered in different ways across the different regions that became NHS England. At the same time I recognise the pressure NHS England were under to reduce costs and hence the pressure on them to outsource.”

His colleague Stephen Sharp added,

“I think mistakes were made. During the bid stage, NHS England did say there were some inconsistencies and differences within the various operations. But once Capita got into all the offices and looked at it, the inconsistencies and differences were not inconsequential. It was more or less 45 different services being run from 45 different offices, so the closure programme, which we adhered to and carried on with, we maybe should have stopped. We just made the problem worse as we went along.”

Why didn’t you stop the office closures, asked Conservative MP Anne Marie Morris who added that “even the NHS said, ‘We think you need to stop’.”

Sharp replied,

“We were actually working blind for a period of time. It was only once the service had been running under our control for a few months that complaints started to come in and we started to see visibility that there were bigger issues than we thought there were.”

With hindsight he said he would not have closed offices “until we had got the procedures operating on a national basis”. He conceded that if NHS England and Capita had deferred closing offices, the first two years of savings of about £60m would not have been achieved.

Capita’s losses of £140m

Lewis said that Capita had invested £125m in the contract but, given the loss of profit margin, the losses would be closer to £140m. “We will not make money over the life of this contract,” said Lewis.

An MP asked: why not walk away?

Lewis replied, “Because we made a commitment to deliver this service and reputations depend on that commitment. We see the public sector as a segment of our market that helps us achieve a diversified revenue base. It is a segment where we have services and solutions, where we can create value for the taxpayer and that is why it is an attractive segment.”

Capita is now meeting 41 of the 45 KPIs and, though the company is making good progress against the remaining four KPIs, it doesn’t change the fact that “our initial execution on this contract was not good and for that we apologise unreservedly,” said Lewis.

There were failings on the part of NHS England too. Health officials were so anxious to achieve the savings from closing offices and replacing old IT that couldn’t be relied on that they failed to test new national, standardised working practices and services before they asked a supplier to implement this strategy.

The result was that officials at NHS England had no clear idea of how much work they were outsourcing. They left due diligence to Capita; and Capita admitted at the hearing it did not do enough due diligence at the bid stage. If it had understood how much work was involved it would have bid a higher price or not bid at all.

NHS England also failed to involve most of the potential end-users – GPs, dentists and ophthalmologists in the design and planning of new services that would directly affect them such as pensions and payments.

Lewis said.

“There are other stakeholders that have historically not been brought into this process to the extent that they should have been, such as the BMA [British Medical Association] in how we might implement the digitisation of pension payments and the management of its pensions, or the Confederation of Dental Employers with regard to ophthalmic payments.

“We want to bring them into the process in ways that they have not been historically because we think that that will ultimately lead to a more successful roll out of the technology… They rightly have influence over the process. If we are going to roll out a process for digitising the 20,000 paper documents that cover the process by which you get refunded for an ophthalmic prescription today, surely those people need to be involved in the final roll-out and configuration of that solution.”

Absence of humility?

When MPs questioned the top official at NHS England, Simon Stevens, there was little sign of humility, contrition or regret. He left an impression that the same problems could end up being repeated by a different supplier under a different contract. One Conservative MP Bim Afolami found himself “sticking up for Capita”.

Afolami said,

“Do you feel, Mr Stevens, that criticism of this contract is in any way unfair on Capita? The more I hear, the more I feel that Capita has taken the sharp end of this and NHS England, despite slight reputational difficulty, has saved £60 million. To what extent do you feel that you should take more of the blame here and Capita should take less of it?”

Stevens emphasised the £60m savings but made no mention any of the contract’s specific problems such as the thousands of patient records that went missing, dozens of women left off cancer-screening lists, the qualified GPs who were unable to work for months while the system delayed verifying their entitlement to go onto a “National Performers List”, the GPs who ran short of basic supplies or the GPs and ophthalmologists who suffered financial detriment because of delayed payments.

Said Stevens,

“First, let me say that this has clearly been a rocky road, and the National Audit Office accurately described the bumps along the way, which are regrettable. That should not obscure the fact that, notwithstanding the economic pain that Capita has experienced, the contract has saved taxpayers £60 million in lower administrative costs in the National Health Service over the first two years of its life … that £60 million of savings is not to be sniffed at; it is the equivalent of 30,000 operations.”

Comment:

Campaign4Change has repeatedly criticised Capita’s performance on Barnet’s outsourcing contract, in part because Capita and the council have been markedly defensive – thin-skinned.

It was refreshing, therefore, to hear Capita’s newish CEO Jonathan Lewis being openly contrite over highly-visible failings in the NHS contract. He gave the impression to public accounts MPs of being a CEO who is determined to put right the failings for the sake of Capita’s reputation. The cost of correcting the problems seemed a secondary consideration.

With Lewis at the helm, Capita’s share price has continued to rise in recent weeks.

Less impressive at Monday’s hearing was Simon Stevens, NHS England’s chief executive, who seemed to imply that NHS England had done nothing wrong.  It was a reaction we’ve come to expect from top civil servants after an IT-related programme disaster. It’s never the fault of officialdom.

The reality is that NHS England was almost as culpable as Capita. NHS England rushed the whole outsourcing exercise – which doomed it from the start. It didn’t listen to critics who warned that primary care support services were too locally diverse and inherently problematic to standardise as part of a national  outsourcing deal.

Instead of first piloting and agreeing with GPs, dentists and ophthalmologists fundamental changes in working practices that would be needed across the country, NHS England went ahead with signing a co-called transformation deal with Capita.

NHS England paid only lip service to engagement with the new system’s end-users in the medical professions. By its own admission Capita, because of its own internal shortcomings, went into the contract blind.

What’s worrying is the way civil servants blithely repeat mistakes of the past and later say they did everything right.

The National Programme for IT in the NHS – NPfIT – failed in part because it was rushed, the implications of “ruthless standardisation” were not fully understood at the outset and there was a lack of proper engagement with potential end-users in hospitals and GP practices. All these same mistakes were made by Capita and NHS England on the Primary Care Support Services contract.

When ordinary human beings become senior civil servants there seems to be a requirement that they lose at a cellular level the facility to express humility and contrition. That loss is replaced by an overly prominent complacency. Whatever goes wrong is not their fault.

Stevens said in essence that NHS England did everything right. Through its unpublished project reviews, the Major Projects Authority – now the Infrastructure and Projects Authority –  endorsed NHS England’ s plans. All the so-called experts gave the outsourcing deal what Stevens called a “thumbs-up”.

It would have been surprising if Stevens had said the public sector was in any way to blame.

At least Capita has learned the lessons. It has a financial interest in doing so.

Ministers can learn from Capita’s candid chief executive

NHS England’s management of Primary Care Support Services contract with Capita – National Audit Office report

Monday’s televised Public Accounts Committee hearing with Capita’s Jonathan Lewis and Simon Stevens of NHS England

Are you happy paying to help with problem Capita contract?

By Tony Collins

This week, as Barnet residents go to the polls, how many will be influenced by the continuing national and local media coverage of the council’s mass outsourcing deal with Capita?

Barnet’s Capita contracts are a local election issue. The council’s conservatives and Capita say the outsourcing contracts have saved money and are performing as expected “in many areas”.

But a former local Tory councillor Sury Khatri , who has been deselected after criticising the Capita contract, described the deal as “disastrous”. Barnet has paid Capita £327m since the deals were signed in 2013. Capita runs council services that range from cemeteries to IT.

Councillor Khatri said,  “My time at the council has been overshadowed by the disastrous Capita contract that is falling apart at the seams. Four years on, issues still keep rolling out of the woodwork. This contract represents poor value for money, and the residents are being fleeced.”

Another critic of the Capita contracts is John Dix who blogs as “Mr Reasonable” and is one of several highly respected local bloggers. He has been studying the council’s accounts for some years. He runs a small business and is comfortable with accounts and balance sheets.

He writes,

“I have no problem with outsourcing so long as it is being done for the right reasons. Typically this is where it involves very specialist, non core activities where technical expertise may be difficult to secure and retain in house.

“In Barnet’s case this outsourcing programme covered so many services which were core to the running of the council and which in 2010 were rated as 4 star (good). Barnet has been an experiment in mass outsourcing and almost five years in, it appears to be a failure.

“Last night’s [19 April 2018] audit committee was a litany of service problems, system failures, lack of controls, under performance, a major fraud. Internal audit saying issues were a problem, Capita saying they weren’t.”

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has entered the debate. He has applauded Barnet’s Unison branch for its enduring, close scrutiny of the Capita contracts. Unison this week published a report on the deal.

Capita’s share price rises

Earlier this month the national press reported extensively on concerns that Capita would follow Carillion into liquidation.

Since the bad publicity, the company’s announcement of a pre-tax loss of £535m, up from £90m the previous year, £1.2bn of debt and a rights issue to raise £662m after fees by selling new shares at a discount, Capita’s share price has risen steadily, from a low a month ago of about 130p to about 191 yesterday.

Could it be that investors sense that Capita’s long-term future is secure: the company has a wide range of complex and impenetrable public sector contracts where history shows that public sector clients – ruling politicians and officials – will defend Capita more enthusiastically than Capita itself, whatever the facts?

A list of some of Capita’s problem contracts is below the comment.

Comment

Carillion, a facilities management and construction company, collapsed in part because the effects of its failures were usually obvious: it was desperately short of money and new roads and hospitals were left unfinished.

When IT-based outsourcing deals go wrong, the effects are usually more nuanced. Losses can be hidden in balance sheets that can be interpreted in different ways; and when clients’ employees go unpaid, or the army’s Defence Recruiting System has glitches or medical records are lost, the problems will almost always be officially described as teething even if, as in Capita’s NHS contracts, they last for years.

It is spin that rules and protects IT outsourcing contracts in the public sector. Spin hides what’s really going on. It is as integral as projected savings and key performance indicators.

When Somerset County Council signed a mass outsourcing deal with IBM, its ruling councillors boasted of huge savings. When the deal went wrong and was ended early after a legal dispute with IBM the council announced that bringing the deal in-house would bring large savings: savings either way. Liverpool council said the same thing when it outsourced to BT – setting up a joint venture called Liverpool Direct – and brought services back-in house: savings each time.

Barnet Council is still claiming savings while the council’s auditors are struggling to find them.

Spinmeisters know there is rarely any such thing as a failed public sector IT contract: the worst failures are simply in transition from failure to success. Barnet’s council taxpayers will never know the full truth, whoever is in power.

Even when a council goes bust, the truth is disputed. Critics of spending at Northamptonshire County Council, which has gone bust, blame secretive and dysfunctional management. Officials, ruling councillors and even the National Audit Office blame underfunding.

In March The Times reported that Northamptonshire had paid almost £1m to a consultancy owned by its former chief executive. It also reported that the council’s former director of people, transformation and transactions for services, was re-hired on a one-year contract that made her company £185,000 within days of being made redundant in 2016.  Her firm was awarded a £650-a-day IT contract that was not advertised.

In the same month, the National Audit Office put Northamptonshire’s difficulties down to underfunding. It conceded that the “precise causes of Northamptonshire’s financial difficulties are not as yet clear”.

Perhaps it’s only investors in Capita who will really know the truth: that the full truth on complex public sector contracts in which IT is central will rarely, if ever, emerge; and although Capita has internal accountability for failures – bonuses, the share price and jobs can be affected – there is no reason for anyone in the public sector to fear failure. No jobs are ever affected. Why not sign a few more big outsourcing deals, for good or ill?

Thank you to FOI campaigners David Orr and Andrew Rowson for information that helped me write this post.

Some of Capita’s problem contracts

There is no definitive list of Capita’s problem contracts. Indeed the Institute for Government’s Associate Director Nick Davies says that poor quality of contract data means the government “doesn’t have a clear picture of who it is buying from and what it is buying”. Here, nevertheless, is a list of some of Capita’s problem contracts in the public sector:

Barnet Council

A Capita spokesperson said: “The partnership between Capita and Barnet Council is performing as expected in many areas. We continue to work closely with the council to make service enhancements as required.”

Birmingham City Council

“The new deal will deliver a mix of services currently provided under the joint venture, plus project based work aimed at providing extra savings, with forecasts of £10 million of savings in the current financial year and £43 million by 2020-21.”

West Sussex County Council

A spokesman said, “Whatever your concerns and small hiccups along the way, I believe this contract has been and will continue to be of great benefit to this county council.”

Hounslow Council

A Capita spokesperson said: “We are working closely with the London Borough of Hounslow to ensure a smooth transition of the pensions administration service to a new provider.”

Breckland Council

“They concluded that planning officers, working for outsourcing company Capita, had misinterpreted a policy, known as DC11, which dictates the amount of outdoor playing space required for a development..”

Army

Mark Francois, a Conservative former defence minister,  said Capita was known “universally in the army as Crapita”. But Capita said in a statement,

“Capita is trusted by multiple private and public clients to deliver technology-led customer and business process services, as demonstrated by recent wins and contract extensions from clients including British Gas, Royal Mail, BBC, TfL Networks, M&S and VW.”

Electronic tagging

(but it’s alright now)

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: “As the National Audit Office makes clear, there were challenges in the delivery of the electronic monitoring programme between 2010 and 2015…

“As a direct result, we fundamentally changed our approach in 2015, expanding and strengthening our commercial teams and bringing responsibility for oversight of the programme in-house.

“We are now in a strong position to continue improving confidence in the new service and providing better value for money for the taxpayer.”

Disability benefits

A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions said, “Assessments work for the majority of people, with 83 per cent of ESA claimants and 76 per cent of PIP claimants telling us that they’re happy with their overall experience…”

Miners

A Capita spokesperson said: “This issue has been resolved and all members affected will shortly receive letters to advise that they do not need to take any action. We sincerely apologise for any concern and inconvenience this has caused.”

NHS

Opticians

Dentists

BBC licence fee

Windrush

Ministers told of major problem on Capita NHS contract more than a year later

By Tony Collins

Today’s Financial Times and other newspapers cover a National Audit Office report into GP clinical notes and correspondence, some of it urgent, that was not directed to the patient’s GP.

The correspondence was archived by Capita under its contract to provide GP support services. But patient notes were still “live”. They included patient invitation letters, treatment/diagnosis notes, test results and documents/referrals marked ‘urgent’.

What isn’t well reported is that ministers were left in the dark about the problems for more than a year. The National Audit Office does not blame anyone – its remit does not include questioning policy decisions – but its report is impressive in setting out of the facts.

Before NHS England outsourced GP support services to Capita in 2015, GPs practices sent correspondence for patients that were not registered at their practice to local primary care services centres, which would attempt to redirect the mail.

By the time Capita took over GP support services on 1 September 2015, GPs were supposed to “return to sender” any correspondence that was sent to them incorrectly – and not send it to primary care services centres that were now run, in part, by Capita.

But some GPs continued to send incorrectly-addressed correspondence to the primary care services centres. Capita’s contract did not require it to redirect clinical correspondence.

An unknown number of GP practices continued to send mail to the centres, expecting the centre’s staff to redirect it. A further complication was that Capita had “transformation” plans to cut costs by closing the primary care services support centres.

Capita made an inventory of all records at each site and shared this with NHS England. The inventories made reference to ‘clinical notes’ but at this point no one identified these notes as live clinical correspondence. Capita stored the correspondence in its archive.

In line with its contract, Capita did not forward the mail. It was not until May 2016 – eight months after Capita took over the primary care services centres – that Capita told a member of NHS England’s primary care support team that there was a problem with an unquantified accumulation of clinical notes.

It was a further five months before Capita formally reported the incident to NHS England. At that time Capita estimated that there was an accumulation of hundreds of thousands of clinical notes. When the National Audit Office questioned Capita on the matter, it replied that, with hindsight, it believes it could have reported the backlog sooner.

In November 2016, Capita and NHS England carried out initial checks on the reported backlog of 580,000 clinical notes. It wasn’t until December 2016 that ministers were informed of problems – more than a year after Capita took over the contract.

Even in December 2016 ministers were not fully informed. Information about a backlog of live clinical notes was within in a number of items in the quarterly ministerial reports. NHS England did not report the matter to the Department of Health until April 2017 – about two years after the problems began.

Even then, officials told ministers that clinical notes had been sampled and were considered “low clinical and patient risk”. But a later study by NHS England’s National Incident Team identified a backlog of 1,811 high priority patient notes such as documents deemed to be related to screening or urgent test results.

The National Audit Office says, “NHS England expects to know by March 2018 whether there has been any harm to patients as a result of the delay in redirecting correspondence. NHS England will investigate further where GPs have identified that there could be potential harm to patients. The review will be led by NHS England’s national clinical directors, with consultant level input where required.”

Last month Richard Vautrey, chairman of British Medical Association’s General Practitioners Committee, wrote to the NHS Chief Executive Simon Stevens criticising a lack of substantial improvement on Capita’s contract to run primary care service centres.

In December, the GP Committee surveyed practices and individual GPs on the Capita contract. The results showed a little improvement across all service lines, when compared to its previous survey in October 2016, but a “significant deterioration” in some services. Vautrey’s letter said,

“While any new organisation takes time to take over services effectively, the situation has gone from bad to worse since Capita took over the PCSE [Primary Care Support England] service almost two and a half years ago …

“This situation is completely unacceptable. As a result of the lack of improvement in the service delivery of PCSE we are now left with no option but to support practices and individual doctors in taking legal routes to seek resolution. While this is taking place, we believe it is imperative that NHS England conducts a transparent and comprehensive review of all policy, procedures and processes used by PCSE across each service line.”

Comment:

It’ll be clear to some who read the NAO report that the problems with urgent patient notes going astray or being put mistakenly into storage, stems from NHS England’s decision to outsource a complex range of GP support services without fully considering – or caring about – what could go wrong.

It’s not yet known if patients have come to harm. It’s clear, though, that patients have been caught in the middle of a major administrative blunder that has complex causes and for which nobody in particular can be held responsible.

That ministers learned of a major failure on a public sector outsourcing deal over a year after live patient notes began to be archived is not surprising.

About four million civil and public servants have strict rules governing confidentiality. There are no requirements for civil and public service openness except when it comes to the Freedom of Information Act which many officials can – and do – easily circumvent.

Even today, the fourth year of Capita’s contract to run GP support services, the implications for patients of what has gone wrong are not yet fully known or understood.

It’s a familiar story: a public sector blunder for which nobody will take responsibility, for which nobody in particular seems to care about, and for which the preoccupation of officialdom will be to continue playing down the implications or not say anything at all.

Why would they be open when there is no effective requirement for it? It’s a truism that serious problems cannot be fixed until they are admitted. In the public sector, serious problems on large IT-related contracts are not usually fixed until the seriousness of the problems can no longer be denied.

For hundreds of years UK governments have struggled to reconcile a theoretical desire for openness with an instinctive and institutional need to hide mistakes. Nothing is likely to change now.

National Audit Office report – Investigation into clinical correspondence handling in the NHS.

Companies nervous over HMRC customs IT deadline?

By Tony Collins

This Computer Weekly article in 1994 was about the much-delayed customs system CHIEF. Will its CDS replacement that’s being built for the post-Brexit customs regime also be delayed by years?

The Financial Times  reported this week that UK companies are nervous over a deadline next year for the introduction of a new customs system three months before Brexit.

HMRC’s existing customs system CHIEF (Customs Handling of Import Export Freight) copes well with about 100 million transactions a year. It’s expected a £157m replacement system using software from IBM and European Dynamics will have to handle about 255 million transactions and with many more complexities and interdependencies than the existing system.

If the new system fails post-Brexit and CHIEF cannot be adapted to cope, it could be disastrous for companies that import and export freight. A post-Brexit failure could also have a serious impact on the UK economy and the collection of billions of pounds in VAT, according to the National Audit Office.

The FT quoted me on Monday as calling for an independent review of the new customs system by an outside body.

I told the FT of my concern that officials will, at times, tell ministers what they want to hear. Only a fully independent review of the new customs system (as opposed to a comfortable internal review conducted by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority) would stand a chance of revealing whether the new customs system was likely to work on time and whether smaller and medium-sized companies handling freight had been adequately consulted and would be able to integrate the new system into their own technology.

The National Audit Office reported last year that HMRC has a well-established forum for engaging with some stakeholders but has

“significant gaps in its knowledge of important groups. In particular it needs to know more about the number and needs of the smaller and less established traders who might be affected by the customs changes for the first time”.

The National Audit Office said that the new system will need to cope with 180,000 new traders who will use the system for the first time after Brexit, in addition to the 141,000 traders who currently make customs declarations for trade outside the EU.

The introduction in 1994 of CHIEF was labelled a disaster at the time by some traders,  in part because it was designed and developed without their close involvement. CHIEF  was eventually accepted and is now much liked – though it’s 24 years old.

Involve end-users – or risk failure

Lack of involvement of prospective end-users is a common factor in government IT disasters. It happened on the Universal Credit IT programme, which turned out to be a failure in its early years, and on the £10bn National Programme for IT which was dismantled in 2010. Billions of pounds were wasted.

The FT quoted me as saying that the chances of the new customs system CDS [Customs Declaration Service) doing all the things that traders need it to do from day one are almost nil.

The FT quotes one trader as saying,

“HMRC is introducing a massive new programme at what is already a critical time. It would be a complex undertaking at the best of times but proceeding with it at this very moment feels like a high stakes gamble.”

HMRC has been preparing to replace CHIEF with CDS since 2013. Its civil servants say that the use of the SAFe agile methodology when combined with the skills and capabilities of its staff mean that programme risks and issues will be effectively managed.

But, like other government departments, HMRC does not publish its reports on the state of major IT-related projects and programmes. One risk, then,  is that ministers may not know the full truth until a disaster is imminent.

In the meantime ministerial confidence is likely to remain high.

Learning from past mistakes?

HMRC has a mixed record on learning from past failures of big government IT-based projects.  Taking some of the lessons from “Crash”, these are the best  things about the new customs project:

  • It’s designed to be simple to use – a rarity for a government IT system. Last year HMRC reduced the number of system features it plans to implement from 968 to 519. It considered that there were many duplicated and redundant features listed in its programme backlog.
  • The SAFe agile methodology HMRC is using is supposed to help organisations implement large-scale, business-critical systems in the shortest possible time.
  • HMRC is directly managing the technical development and is carrying out this work using its own resources, independent contractors and the resources of its government technology company, RCDTS. Last year it had about 200 people working on the IT programme.

These are the potentially bad things:

  • It’s not HMRC’s fault but it doesn’t know how much work is going to be involved because talks over the post-Brexit customs regime are ongoing.
  • It’s accepted in IT project management that a big bang go-live is not a good idea. The new Customs Declaration Service is due to go live in January 2019, three months before Britain is due to leave the EU. CHIEF system was commissioned from BT in 1989 and its scheduled go-live was delayed by two years. Could CDS be delayed by two years as well? In pre-live trials CHIEF rejected hundreds of test customs declarations for no obvious reason.
  • The new service will use, at its core,  commercially available software (from IBM) to manage customs declarations and software (from European Dynamics) to calculate tariffs. The use of software packages is a good idea – but not if they need large-scale modification.  Tampering with proven packages is a much riskier strategy than developing software from scratch.  The new system will need to integrate with other HMRC systems and a range of third-party systems. It will need to provide information to 85 systems across 26 other government bodies.
  • If a software package works well in another country it almost certainly won’t work when deployed by the UK government. Core software in the new system uses a customs declaration management component that works well in the Netherlands but is not integrated with other systems, as it would be required to do in HMRC, and handles only 14 million declarations each year.
  • The IBM component has been tested in laboratory conditions to cope with 180 million declarations, but the UK may need to process 255 million declarations each year.
  • Testing software in laboratory conditions will give you little idea of whether it will work in the field. This was one of the costly lessons from the NHS IT programme NPfIT.
  • The National Audit Office said in a report last year that HMRC’s contingency plans were under-developed and that there were “significant gaps in staff resources”.

Comment

HMRC has an impressive new CIO Jackie Wright but whether she will have the freedom to work within Whitehall’s restrictive practices is uncertain. It seems that the more talented the CIO the more they’re made to feel like outsiders by senior civil servants who haven’t worked in the private sector.  It’s a pity that some of the best CIOs don’t usually last long in Whitehall.

Meanwhile HMRC’s top civil servants and IT specialists seem to be confident that CDS, the new customs system, will work on time.  Their confidence is not reassuring.  Ministers and civil servants publicly and repeatedly expressed confidence that Universal Credit would be fully rolled by the end of 2017. Now it’s running five years late.  The NHS IT programme NPfIT was to have been rolled out by 2015.  By 2010 it was dismantled as hopeless.

With some important exceptions, Whitehall’s track record on IT-related projects is poor – and that’s when what is needed is known. Brexit is still being negotiated. How can anyone build a new bridge when you’re not sure how long it’ll need to be and what the many and varied external stresses will be?

If the new or existing systems cannot cope with customs declarations after Brexit it may not be the fault of HMRC. But that’ll be little comfort for the hundreds of thousands of traders whose businesses rely, in part, on a speedy and efficient customs service.

FT article – UK companies nervous over deadline for new Customs system

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