Costly IT failures seem to be a coalition motif. Photo: Getty
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Failed government IT projects could lose taxpayers £1bn

The Home Office has been ordered to pay £224m to a defence contractor; government IT project waste is really adding up.

The news broke yesterday that the US defence contractor Raytheon has won an arbitration tribunal against the Home Office, and the government has been ordered to pay £224m to the company.

The tribunal was addressing the government’s unlawful termination of a £750m contract for an electronic border control system (the controversial “eBorders” programme intended to track down terrorists and monitor people moving in and out of the country), and has been one of the longest-running disputes over a government IT system.

A nine-year contract was signed with Raytheon under the last government, in 2007, but was swiftly broken once the coalition took power in 2010. Ministers blamed the company for being behind schedule, and no longer trusted it with building the IT framework to drive the system.

However, Raytheon threatened to sue ministers, blaming the UK Border Agency for the failings of the project’s implementation, and the tribunal yesterday criticised the UKBA’s process used in reaching a decision and carrying out the termination, calling it “flawed”.

The Home Secretary Theresa May has written to both the home affairs select committee and public accounts committee explaining the outcome of the arbitration, and although she didn’t clarify how the department would pay the money, she did comment in the letter:

“The Government has already taken steps to make sure this kind of thing should not happen again.”

Yet failed IT projects have become a bit of a morbid motif in this coalition. Costly IT failures have become a symptom of a rather chaotic propensity to outsource, and in the process fail when managing outsourcing contracts.

Last month, there were unsubstantiated reports that the Department of Health may lose taxpayers £700m by having to pay out for losing a legal battle with Fujitsu over a failed IT system for the NHS; the National Programme for IT (NPfIT). The case was held in secret, and neither the Cabinet Office (which tried to broker a deal with the company) nor Fujitsu would comment on its outcome, but reports emerged nonetheless that the latter may have won – and Fujitsu did announce its intention to sue the DH for £700m in the past, once it was fired for non-performance by the government in 2008.

If it comes to be true that Fujitsu is owed £700m, then this added to Raytheon’s award would mean that the cost to taxpayers of failed government IT projects could reach nearly £1bn.

There is also the Ministry of Justice's recent revelation two months ago of its plans to axe a £127m IT project in favour of an alternative "outsourced solution". According to the Law Society Gazette, the department has already written off £56.3m in staff and contract costs for 2013/14 as a result of this decision.

And when you add the cost of another problematic IT project, the Department for Work and Pensions’ universal credit scheme, which has notoriously already wasted millions on IT failings, it might be time for the government to do more than turn it off and turn it on again.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Where Labour has no chance, hold your nose and vote Lib Dem

May's gamble, MacKenzie's obsession and Wisden obituaries - Peter Wilby's First Thoughts.

In 2007 Gordon Brown allowed rumours to circulate that he would call an early general election for the spring of 2008. When he failed to do so, he was considered a coward and a ditherer and never recovered. Theresa May has tried a different strategy. After firmly denying that she would call an early election and killing off speculation about one, she suddenly announced an election after all. Will this work better for her than the opposite worked for Brown?

The Prime Minister risks being seen as a liar and an opportunist. Her demand for “unity” at Westminster is alarming, because it suggests that there is no role for opposition parties on the most important issue of the day. If Labour and the Lib Dems are smart enough to co-operate sufficiently to rally the country against what looks like an attempt to instal an authoritarian, right-wing Tory regime, May, even if she wins the election, could find herself weakened, not strengthened. I never thought I would write this but, in constituencies where Labour has no chance, its supporters should hold their noses and vote Lib Dem.

Taken for granted

I wonder if May, before she took her decision, looked at the precedents of prime ministers who called unnecessary elections when they already had comfortable parliamentary majorities. In 1974, after three and a half years in office, Edward Heath, with a Tory majority of 30, called a “Who runs Britain?” election during a prolonged dispute with the miners. He lost. In 1923, Stanley Baldwin, a new Tory leader sitting on a majority of 75 obtained by his predecessor just a year earlier, called an election because he wished to introduce tariffs, an issue strikingly similar to the one raised by Brexit. He also lost. The lesson, I think (and hope), is that prime ministers take the electorate for granted at their peril.

China’s long game

Commentators compare the crisis ­involving North Korea and the US with the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. It doesn’t feel that way to me. For several days that year, nuclear war seemed, to my 17-year-old mind, all but inevitable. I went to the cinema one afternoon and felt surprise when I emerged three hours later to find the world – or, at least, the city of Leicester – going about its business as normal. Two nuclear powers were in direct confrontation. The US threatened to invade communist Cuba to remove Soviet missiles and blockaded the island to prevent deliveries of more weapons. Soviet ships sailed towards the US navy. It wasn’t easy to imagine a compromise, or who would broker one. Nobody doubted that the two sides’ weapons would work. The Soviet Union had carried out nearly 200 nuclear tests. North Korea has claimed just five.

For all the talk of intercontinental missiles, North Korea at present isn’t a credible threat to anybody except possibly its neighbours, and certainly not to the US or Britain. It is in no sense a geopolitical or economic rival to the US. Donald Trump, who, like everybody else, finds the Middle East infernally complicated, is looking for an easy, short-term victory. The Chinese will probably arrange one for him. With 3,500 years of civilisation behind them, they are accustomed to playing the long game.

Mussel pains

Whenever I read Kelvin MacKenzie’s columns in the Sun, I find him complaining about the size of mussels served by the Loch Fyne chain, a subject on which he happens to be right, though one wonders why he doesn’t just order something else. Otherwise, he writes badly and unfunnily, often aiming abuse at vulnerable people such as benefit claimants. It’s a new departure, however, to insult someone because they were on the receiving end of what MacKenzie calls “a nasty right-hander”, apparently unprovoked, in a Liverpool nightclub. He called the victim, the Everton and England footballer Ross Barkley, who has a Nigerian grandfather, “one of our dimmest footballers” and likened him to “a gorilla at the zoo”.
The paper has suspended MacKenzie, a former Sun editor, and Merseyside Police is investigating him for racism, though he claims he didn’t know of Barkley’s ancestry.

Several commentators express amazement that Sun editors allowed such tripe to be published. It was not, I think, a mistake. Britain has no equivalent of America’s successful alt-right Breitbart website, disruptively flinging insults at all and sundry and testing the boundaries of what it calls “political correctness”, because our alt right is already established in the Sun, Express and Mail. To defend their position, those papers will continue to be as nasty as it takes.

Over and out

Easter is the time to read the cricket annual Wisden and, as usual, I turn first to the obituaries. Unlike newspaper obituaries, they record failures as well as successes – those who managed just a few undistinguished performances in first-class cricket and, most poignantly, some who promised much but died early. We learn of a 22-year-old Indian who, during demonstrations against the alleged molestation of a schoolgirl, was shot dead by police and whose grieving mother (invoking the name of one of India’s greatest batsmen) cried, “Bring my Gavaskar back!” In England, two young men drowned, having played one first-class match each, and a 22-year-old Sussex fast bowler, described as “roguish” and “enormously popular”, fell off a roof while celebrating New Year with friends in Scotland. In South Africa, a young batsman was among five municipal employees killed when their truck crashed; the local mayor fled the funeral as his workmates “chanted menacingly” about unpaid wages.

Among the better-known deaths is that of Martin Crowe, probably New Zealand’s best batsman. In a Test match, he once got out on 299 and reckoned the near-miss contributed to the cancer that killed him at 53. “It tore at me like a vulture pecking dead flesh,” he said. Cricket can do that kind of thing to you. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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