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ID Card costs escape scrutiny

Dobson amendment lets govt. off hook

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Analysis Parliament has scrapped House of Lords amendments that would have demanded strict scrutiny on the proposed ID Cards system.

Instead, the amendments have been replaced with weak controls tabled by Labour MP Frank Dobson, a known ID Card opponent.

Last night's Parliamentary debate repeated concerns that a lack of scrutiny would increase the chances that government and its IT suppliers make a hash of the ID cards system.

The House of Lords proposed (in amendment 70), that the full costs of the ID Card implementation be estimated, the cost estimates be signed off by the Comptroller and Auditor General, that it outline the "material assumptions" on which the estimates where based, and that government state the intended benefits of the system.

While Dobson's amendment (a), requires government to report on the costs of the system every six months to ensure Parliament learns early of any significant overruns, it lacks demands for justification, independent verification, and a statement of anticipated benefits - the kind of safeguards that can ensure a system is properly specified and avoids the changes in specification that can lead to the sort of costly overruns Dobson would like to avoid.

Nevertheless, the debate revealed growing pressure on government to open costly IT projects to public scrutiny. Concerns were raised that secrecy too often leads to billions of pounds of public money being wasted on poorly planned and executed projects.

Calls are being heard for more access to the Gateway Reviews that the Office of Government Commerce, the government procurement sheriff, uses to ensure IT projects do not go awry in their most crucial early stages.

Warnings about the proposed ID Card system have been raised in a Gateway Review, but Parliament has not been given any information about any dangers that may have been identified.

Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland Alistair Carmichael joined Labour's Mark Todd in saying that government fell too readily on the defence of 'commercial in confidence' as an excuse for not allowing proper Parliamentary scrutiny of expensive and troublesome IT projects.

Yet, most of the Lords' amendments were reversed in series of feebly uncontested motions and two votes (314 to 261 and 316 to 257).

In defence of the government's stand against the Lords' amendments, Home Office minister Andy Burnham said a balance must be struck between the need to protect the commercial confidence of IT suppliers and allowing public scrutiny of government spending.

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