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A project to computerise Magistrates' Courts has been branded a "shocking waste of money" after the cost of the project doubled in just two years.

Project Libra was supposed to develop a new IT infrastructure linking magistrates' courts electronically while improving the efficiency of the legal system.

But in a stinging rebuke, Edward Leigh MP, chairman of the influential Public Accounts committee said: "The Libra project is one of the worst IT projects I have ever seen. It may also be the shoddiest PFI (public finance initiative) project ever.

"Not only has the cost more than doubled since the original bid but the system will be available for two years less than originally planned.

"This is a shocking waste of money. It was over 20 years ago that my Committee first highlighted the IT failings of the courts, and yet despite throwing money at the problem they still do not have a working system."

A report published today by the National Audit Office (NAO) today makes it clear that although plans to create an IT system for magistrates courts has been under development for more than ten years, such a system has yet to be completed.

The report highlights a number of errors including the lack of "competitive tension" surrounding the project after only one formal bidder remained at the end of the procurement process.

In July 1998 the Government chose ICL (now Fujitsu Services) as the preferred bidder with its bid of £146m over 11 years. Six months later when the contract was signed the price had increased to £184m.

Since then the contract has been renegotiated twice and in May 2000 the cost of the project rose to £319m.

Said the Conservative MP: "The NAO report reveals a catalogue of errors. The private sector partner, ICL, performed poorly but the Lord Chancellor's Department made some truly basic mistakes in how they ran the project. They did not properly assess ICL's bid at the very start, and as things got worse, they allowed ICL to run rings around them."

In a statement Fujitsu said it believes "all parties have learned lessons from the project." ®

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