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Clarke fends off Commons umbrella attack

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Home Secretary Charles Clarke has recently been claiming the new-look super-efficient Passport Service as a Government IT success, but it was not always thus, as Liberal Home Affairs spokesman Mark Oaten reminded him this week. Once upon a time, umbrellas were an essential component of the Passport Service's disaster recovery programme.

When the new IT system fell apart in 1999, the Passport Service acted swiftly to deal with the long queues snaking from its office - it issued them with umbrellas.

Oaten's concern over the fate of public property is commendable. Asked what became of the umbrellas, Clarke confirmed that the Passport Service had bought 1,200 umbrellas in 1999, but said that "The appointment system that has operated in all offices since 2002 resulted in the umbrellas no longer being required and they were donated to the charity, Oxfam." If the system starts to creak when personal interviews for new passport applications commence, and it rains, Clarke may have reason to regret this generosity.

But do we see yet another example of poor value for money in Government IT procurement here? The 1,200 umbrellas are reported to have cost £16,000, which is not out of line for a reasonably smart umbrella, but way over the odds for a cheap emergency piece of plastic. Further enquiries to Clarke may be in order, although in our experience he may not be entirely forthcoming.

Asked last year about the cost of the chairs in his previous department, Education, Clarke replied thus: "The price paid by the developer to the supplier is confidential under the terms of the agreement between them. It took account of the extended warranty period and long-term maintenance costs. The developer decided that for the price paid the Mirra chairs represented the best value for money to deliver their commitment, at their cost risk, to provide and maintain office furniture for the 26 year operating period of the PFI contract."

The price of Mirra chairs, which look just like the sort of super-complicated project the MoD would throw millions at before cancelling, is a state secret. Official. ®

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