On the Today Programme this week, I challenged the Government on their attempt to lock-in a quick deal just weeks before an election with the suppliers for the £12.7 billion National Programme for IT, known as NPfIT.
Cabinet Office guidance makes it crystal clear that a Government is acting out of line if it makes decisions that could tie the hands of the next Government on ‘large and/or contentious procurement contracts’ in the period before a General Election.
But, when asked directly on the Today Programme, Government Health Minister Mike O’Brien admitted that negotiations on the hugely controversial NPfIT were indeed going ahead.
Not only is this bad news for the NHS, it is highly worrying for taxpayers. The aim of the Programme – to deliver electronic health records to every patient in England – is as far away from being realised as ever. Whilst GPs were well on the way to having electronic records before the NPfIT began, the main focus of the Programme – to create electronic records in acute care and link these up with the rest of the NHS – has failed: only 13 NHS hospital Trusts have full IT systems under the NPfIT to date despite a total spend on the initiative of £6.1 billion.
Mike O’Brien claims that the Government is renegotiating the contracts in order to deliver on the Chancellor’s pre-budget report pledge to cut the Programme by £600 million. But industry experts were quick to point out on Radio 4′s File on 4 Programme this week that the suppliers have the Government over a barrel: as one IT consultant put it, ‘for every £1 taken out of the contracts, £2 will come out of what they have to deliver.’
In the light of Labour’s ongoing dispute with Fujitsu – said to be worth £700 million, and its half a billion pound pay-off to BT last year (rumoured to have been a bargaining chip to keep them from exiting the NPfIT), the public have plenty of reason to be wary about the Government’s latest trip to the negotiating table. At best it is a last-ditch attempt to tackle a deficit of their own making; at worst it is an underhand effort to tie the hands of the next Government and block Conservative plans to finally deliver value for money to the public through our localised, interoperable vision of NHS IT.