The government has attempted to defuse MPs’ damning criticism of the NHS’s £12.4bn IT programme, claiming that it is based on a National Audit Office report that is “out of date”.
The ministerial defence came as the Liberal Democrats called for a halt to uncommitted spending on the programme.
The powerful Commons public accounts committee released a sharply critical report on the National Programme for IT in the NHS (NPfIT), warning that it was unlikely to deliver significant benefits, unless there was a fundamental change in the rate of progress on the 10-year project.
Committee chair Edward Leigh said: “There is a question mark hanging over the National Programme for IT, the most far-reaching and expensive health information technology project in history. Urgent remedial action is needed at the highest level if the long-term interests of NHS patients and taxpayers are to be protected.”
NPfIT was “not looking good”, he added. “The electronic patient clinical record, which is central to the project, is already running two years late. The suppliers are struggling to deliver. Scepticism is rife among the NHS clinicians whose commitment to the Programme is essential to its success. And, four years down the line, the costs and benefits for the local NHS are unclear.”
The report also warns that estimates of the total cost of the scheme have varied between £6bn and £20bn. “Given that the total cost of this hugely ambitious project is expected to top £12 billion – and who can be confident that even this massive sum will not be surpassed? – the Department of Health is playing for high stakes indeed,” Leigh said.
But health minister Lord Hunt hit back, saying: "This PAC report is based on a NAO report that is now a year out of date. Since then substantial progress has been made and the NAO recommendations have already been acted on. Costs of the programme have not escalated.
“In fact, the NAO acknowledged that costs were under control and the strength of the contracts means that payment is not made until systems are delivered which protects the taxpayer.”
He added: "The NHS IT programme will provide safer, faster and more efficient healthcare for patients, and we do not underestimate the challenges of delivering a system of this size and complexity. Working with the NHS and clinicians, we are on track to meet our broad targets and, as the NAO confirmed, well placed to deliver this exciting project.”
Hunt’s defence will not cut much ice with the PAC. During the committee’s inquiry into NPfIT, MP Greg Clarke derided the tone of the NAO report. "In a year on the committee I have read 62 NAO reports. This is easily the most gushing," he said.
Earlier drafts of the NAO document revealed that many serious criticisms of the giant IT scheme were omitted from the final report, following a process of “clearance” with Department of Health officials.
The NAO has subsequently promised a second examination of NPfIT – an unprecedented move by the public spending watchdog. An NAO spokesperson confirmed that there would be a second inquiry, but said a timetable had not yet been set.
The Lib Dems reacted to the PAC report by calling for an independent inquiry and a moratorium on uncommitted spending on NPfIT. The party's health spokesperson Norman Lamb MP said: "The government cannot continue to charge ahead with the system, blind to ever more stark warnings. The Liberal Democrats are demanding an immediate end to further spending on the project, along with an independent inquiry.
"We need to find out whether it is still possible to achieve the programme’s original objectives or whether it should be adapted to deliver what GPs and hospitals say they need."
Related article NHS £12.4bn IT programme struggling to deliver, MPs warn