Darling bans DSS computer revamp

22 Jul 99
The Department of Social Security has shied away from a complete overhaul of its computer system in the wake of a catalogue of IT disasters across central government in the past few months.

23 July 1999

Social Security Secretary Alistair Darling ruled out wholesale reform of his department's IT system when he appeared before the House of Commons social security select committee this week.

The system, Access to Corporate Data (Accord), will be replaced under the Private Finance Initiative and is key to the government's aims for a transformed welfare state and the eventual delivery of benefit payments electronically.

However, Darling, speaking on July 20, said the work would be done 'in malleable chunks'. He expected to make an announcement on how the project would be taken forward in the next few months. 'The original decision had been to replace the system in one go but we will not do that now. We need to replace it in manageable bits to ensure it actually works,' he added.

The government has been stung by the number and scale of IT disasters across Whitehall, two of which affected the work of the DSS. The Horizon project, which proposed using benefit cards to automate benefit payments with claimants using a magnetic strip swipe card, has already been cancelled. Meanwhile, the National Insurance Recording System (NIRS2), which is central to the work of the department, has been plagued by setbacks and delays.

The problems have left the DSS with a million-pound compensation bill because the system could not provide up-to-date records. Thousands of people who are being underpaid benefits, such as those receiving pensions and widows' and incapacity payments, are to be considered for compensation under DSS rules.

Darling told the committee that, despite the cancellation of the Horizon project, the DSS would continue with plans to pay benefit directly into claimants' bank accounts, saving up to £400m a year in administration costs.

NIRS2 is still subject to delays but Darling refused to take the blame for the problems. He said: 'The problems illustrated the difficulty of putting all your eggs in one basket.'

But he conceded that the situation was far from resolved: 'There is still a significant backlog of cases but the situation will not be fully resolved until the end of the year or the beginning of next year.'

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