MPs slam courts ten-year IT fiasco

30 Jan 03
A decade-long catalogue of failures by the Lord Chancellor's Department and a private contractor has turned what should have been a straightforward IT scheme into arguably 'the shoddiest Private Finance Initiative project ever,' a senior MP has said.

31 January 2003

Edward Leigh, the influential Tory chair of the Commons' Public Accounts Committee, said the Libra project has been a 'shocking waste of money'.

The total cost of the project, through which Lord Chancellor Derry Irvine's department aimed to introduce a standard information system for all magistrates courts, has spiralled from an initial £146m over 11 years to £318m over 8.5 years, the National Audit Office revealed in a report published on January 28.

The system has still not been implemented and, incredibly, once fully completed in 2005, the system will now only run until 2007, because of delays and a phased implementation programme.

Leigh blamed the farcical situation on the failure of the LCD to assess the original private sector bid adequately and the inability of the contractor to control costs. 'The private sector partner, ICL, performed poorly but the LCD made some truly basic mistakes. They did not properly assess the bid at the very start and, as things got worse, they allowed ICL to run rings around them,' he reflected.

The NAO claimed that magistrates' IT systems had been 'inadequate' long before Libra was initiated in the early 1990s. Current systems do not, for example, allow information to be shared electronically with other agencies.

Despite this, the LCD decided to support ICL's bid to improve the existing system, rather than develop a new one. ICL was also the only bidder for the contract, which meant 'the department was unable to maintain competitive tension' in a bid to keep the company's costs from soaring.

However, ministers chose not to dump ICL from the project because they feared a protracted legal dispute. Instead, they agreed to a shorter 'variation contract' that allowed other companies to deliver parts of the system – which escalated costs even further.

Comptroller and auditor general Sir John Bourn warned that, in future, 'up-to-date contingency plans should be in place on all major contracts so that there is a fallback position if it goes wrong'.

A LCD spokesman claimed ministers had 'already learned their lessons from the report'.


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