In 2011 the Department of Health made a major announcement that implied the NHS IT programme, the NPfIT, was dead when it wasn’t.
The DH's press release announced an "acceleration of the dismantling of the National Programme for IT, following the conclusions of a new review by the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority".
It said the Authority had concluded that the NPfIT was "not fit to provide the modern IT services that the NHS needs...” The National media took the press release to mean that the NPfIT was dead.
What the announcement didn't mention was that at least £1.1bn had still to be spent, largely with CSC, provided that the company successfully completed all the work set out in its revised contracts, and that the projected end-of-life of some centrally-chosen NHS IT systems was 2024.
Some will say: who cares if the DH issues a press release that is misleading. Others may say that in a democracy one should be able to trust institutions of state. If the DH issues an official notice that has the effect of manipulating public perceptions - gives a false impression - can citizens trust the Department’s other official notices?
The press release in question did not say the NPfIT was closing but gave that impression. The announcement distanced the government and the Department of Health from an IT scheme, perhaps the world’s largest non-military IT programme, that was failing. This was the press release:
The government today announced an acceleration of the dismantling of the National Programme for IT.
"The government today announced an acceleration of the dismantling of the National Programme for IT, following the conclusions of a new review by the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority (MPA). The programme was created in 2002 under the last government and the MPA has concluded that it is not fit to provide the modern IT services that the NHS needs...”
The press release was given added weight by those quoted in it. They included the Department of Health, Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office and Sir David Nicholson, Chief Executive of the NHS.
But the truth about the press release emerged this week at a hearing of the Public Accounts Committee.
Margaret Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, began a hearing on the NPfIT on Wednesday by asking Sir David Nicholson, the NHS chief, a canny question.
Hodge: “There was a big announcement back in 2011 that you were closing the NPfIT programme.”
“Yes,” replied Sir David.
“That’s not true,” said Hodge. “It was a PR exercise to say you closed it.”
Nicholson: “It certainly was not a PR exercise.”
Hodge: “What changed?”
Nicholson: “The governance arrangements changed. So there are separate senior responsible officers for each of the individual programmes [within the NPfIT].”
Hodge: “With the greatest respect, changing governance arrangements is not closing the programme.. .I think the impression you were trying to give was that you were closing the programme. All you were doing was shifting the deckchairs on the Titanic. You were shifting the way you were running it but you were keeping all that expenditure running... The impression given to the public was that you were going to get out of some of these contracts.”
On the basis of the press release the Daily Mail published a front page lead story with this headline:
£12bn NHS computer system is scrapped... and it's all YOUR money that Labour poured down the drain
On the day of the press release the Daily Telegraph reported that the £11.4bn NHS IT programme was “ to be abandoned”. Similar reports appeared in the trade press.
But this week's Public Accounts Committee heard that the NPfIT is very much alive:
- the estimated worth of CSC’s contracts under the NPfIT has risen from £3.1bn to £3.8bn at today’s prices.
- officials expected to pay CSC a further £1.1bn on top of the £1.1bn it has already received, and this payment may include up to £600m for Lorenzo deployments at only 22 trusts. Hodge said: “You are going to spend another half a billion with this rotten company providing a hopeless system” - to which the DH argues that CSC has delivered thousands of (non-Lorenzo) working systems to the NHS which trusts and community health services rely on.
- About £500m of the £1.1bn still set aside for CSC will go on GP systems supplied by CSC’s subcontractor TPP Systmone.
- Further spending on the NPfIT may come as a result of Fujitsu’s legal action against the DH after it left the NPfIT in 2008, which leaves the taxpayer with a potential pay-out of £700m or more. The outcome of a formal arbitration is expected in about six months. The closing arguments are due at the end of this month.
- £31.5m has so far been spent on the DH’s legal costs in the Fujitsu case, mostly with the .law firm DLA Piper.
- DH has agreed a compensation payment to CSC of £100m. In return CSC has released the Department of Health from a contractual commitment for 160 NHS trusts to take the Lorenzo system. The DH has made a further payment to CSC of £10m in recognition of changes to its software which had been requested by the NHS but not formally agreed with CSC.
It appears there has been no deliberate deception and no deliberate manipulation of public perceptions of the NPfIT. But the fact remains that the DH made a major announcement in 2011 which gave the impression the NPfIT was dead when this was not true.
When a BBC Radio 4 journalist called me this week and we spoke briefly about the NPfIT he said: “I thought it was dead”.
Perhaps the mindset of officials was that the NPfIT was dead because everyone except the suppliers wanted it to be. But because local service provider contracts had to stay in place - the suppliers being much better equipped than the DH to handle any disputes over early termination - large payments to CSC and BT had to continue.
It’s a little like the political row over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It’s unlikely Blair lied over the existence of WMD. He probably convinced himself they existed. In a similar act of self-delusion officials appear to have convinced themselves the NPfIT was dead although it wasn’t.
But if we cannot believe a major DH announcement one starts to ask whether any of the department's major announcements can be believed.
Information on the NPfIT has always been hard to come by. So credit is due to the Public Accounts Committee and particularly its MP Richard Bacon for finding out so much about the NPfIT. All credit to Margaret Hodge for picking up on Bacon’s concerns. Were it not for the committee, with indispensable support from the National Audit Office, the DH would have been a sieve allowing only bits of information it wanted to release to pass through.
The fall-out from the NPfIT will continue for years. We still don’t know, for example, what all the trusts with BT and CSC systems will do when the NPfIT contracts expire in the next three years. The hope is for transparency - and not of the sort characterised by the DH’s announcement in 2011 of the NPfIT’s dismantling.