The UK government has been given the green light to spend public money on a new IT system for the Child Support Agency (CSA), despite concerns over wasted expenditure.
Work will include a systems upgrade at the CSA to replace complex calculations of absent parents' maintenance payments. But expenses for work on the system could be incurred despite the fact that the bill authorising the scheme has yet to receive Royal Assent.
Government performance on major public IT projects has been severely criticised by the Public Accounts Committee for a string of disasters and delays. This week's move increases fears about the further waste of public money.
The contract to implement the Accord project to rewrite the DSS benefit databases has been awarded to the Affinity consortium - comprised of EDS, IBM, Cable & Wireless and PricewaterhouseCoopers.
The reforms come under the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill which has not been enacted. However, in an unusual move, Alistair Darling, Secretary of State for Social Security, wants to use powers to incur expenditure prior to assent.
A report published yesterday by the Social Security Committee (SSC) recommended approval to the House for expenditure to go ahead, but expressed reservations over the procedure. It wants to minimise the risk to the taxpayer from signing a contract in advance of Royal Assent.
"While the power to incur expenditure in this way has been passed into law (under section 82 of the Welfare Reform and Pensions Act 1999) we believe it would be appropriate to consider how best the House and its committees should deal with any future similar cases," said the SSC.
In a February letter to the chairman of the SSC, Darling said that he could not provide information on the total liabilities that might be incurred under the contract "mainly because we have not yet signed a contract with Affinity".
Darling said he was unable to accept three key recommendations made by the committee: "That the amount, nature and timing of the financial liabilities that will be accrued by signing a contract with Affinity should be stated on the face of the Report."
"The House should be told what unavoidable expenditure there will be in the event of the Bill not being enacted or being substantively amended.
"We believe that it may be possible to ensure that Affinity does not begin the Child Support-specific work until after Royal Assent by relatively minor adjustments to the timetable, thus avoiding the accrual of financial liabilities ..."
Dr John Perkins, chief executive of the National Computing Centre, said: "It's a question of risk. Any government IT project is worrying. Best practice needs to be adhered to and notice taken of the Cabinet Office review on IT projects."
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