The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is to outsource its IT in a deal potentially worth £1.4bn, despite opposition from MPs.
Defra will issue a tender today inviting companies to submit bids before 12 May to run its IT systems.
The deal is worth up to £85m a year, and will run from next summer until at least 2011, and possibly 2021.
Defra is looking for better systems for payments and providing management information to farmers, disease monitoring, and livestock and land registers.
Project costs have risen dramatically from the initial estimates of £350m, due to an increasing reliance on technology in developing the new services.
But the decision to outsource has not been welcomed by all MPs.
David Taylor, Labour MP and member of the Defra Select Committee, insisted that, had Defra been contracted to a single supplier during the foot and mouth crisis, it would not have had the flexibility necessary to establish the temporary communication networks needed.
Taylor suggested that Defra had rushed to finalise its IT strategy in response to criticism from a Select Committee that it lacked one, rather than develop an IT strategy to meet the Department's needs.
"That strategy did not exist prior to the decision to [outsource] the IT services. It is therefore a strategy to support the programme rather than reflect the business needs of Defra," he said.
Taylor, a former IT manager at Leicestershire County Council IT manager, added that his 18 years' industry experience had led him to conclude that public sector outsourcing is "the last desperate act of an IT-illiterate top management" and that "IT suppliers often regard government as a cash cow".
Liberal Democrat MP Sue Doughty indicated that outsourcing would have an unsettling and detrimental effect on staff morale.
But the project has already received approval from an independent review, according to Alun Michael, Minister for Rural Affairs.
"The programme is a big undertaking," he said. "We would not be doing this if we did not believe that it was the right way forward for the Department.
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