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Govt scraps £80m computer system

Yet another high-profile cock-up

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The government has scrapped a £77 million computer system for its immigration service, embarrassing ministers and adding to the catalogue of IT disasters in recent years.

The decision had to be deciphered from a written Parliamentary answer given by Home Secretary Jack Straw. He said the programme would not become fully operational. But the company behind the system, Siemens, will be paid up to the end of its contract (October 2003). It will be asked to improve the current, weak, system but not expand it to the original dream. The Conservatives said the scheme was "a scandalous waste of taxpayers' money".

The system - a document management system to speed up asylum claims - was awarded to Siemens Business Systems in April 1996 and had troubles from almost day one. It should have delivered the system in 1997 but failed. It then failed to meet the next deadline of summer 1998.

When it eventually appeared - 18 months late - the backlog of asylum seekers had grown enormous, sparking a hundred headlines and making it a main issue. In the current run up to a general election, asylum seekers have already become a big topic.

Of course, Siemens' system, when implemented, couldn't deal with the demand, creating a farcical situation as bad as that of the other high-profile government IT failure, the Passport office's new IT system which melted in June 1999. As luck would have it, that failure was also under the control of the Home Office and was run by - you've guessed it - Siemens Business Systems. Of course the Home Office kept saying everything was hunky-dory. Which was nonsense. Oh, and the Immigration Office moved office and sacked a load of staff in expectation of the computer system - none of which helped either.

Back in September 1999, one-man government IT watchdog Tony Collins from Computer Weekly foresaw the system's collapse. The system, which scanned post and official documents so they could be fired off to the relevant people, worked fantastically on one computer. But when you wanted to add other computers to the system, it all went horribly wrong. Siemens also underestimated the amount of processing power it would need to scan and move so many documents while retaining high security. The Home Office will now have to go with a part-manual, part-computer system.

Of 11 IT projects currently being carried out by the Home Office, eight of them are either severely delayed or severely over budget, said a Liberal Democrat spokesman. And of course, the whole saga sits alongside other government IT disasters such as the Passport Agency (Siemens), tax self-assessment (EDS), the Post Office (ICL), National Insurance (Andersen) and the Prison Service.

Doesn't bode well for the e-government dream.

Oh, we called up Siemens to try to get the technical low-down on the system but a snotty PR woman informed us that we won't be given any details for the "forseeable future". The company is knocking out a press release with the government which we can picked up off the wires. Apparently, after that "you may decide you don't want to write the story". We beg to differ. ®

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