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A South-West Tory MP has well and truly put the cat among the proverbials with a question in the House of Commons about what he claimed is the "collapse of Avon and Somerset police's computer system".

Raising the matter last Friday, Ian Liddell-Grainger, MP for Bridgwater, claimed that the situation was so dire that 30 Indians have been brought in on temporary visas to try to sort matters out.

Liddell-Grainger wanted to know whether this was appropriate, given the sensitive nature of the data being held and the potential security implications for the police force.

The system in question has long been the focus of controversy. It is a SAP implementation managed by South-West One, a joint venture between a number of regional bodies – two local councils, Avon and Somerset Police, and Devon & Somerset Fire Brigade – and IBM, which is understood to hold an 80 per cent stake in the project.

These organisations hoped to generate huge savings both through bringing administrative functions together - according to Somerset County Council, "everything from procurement activity to booking annual leave" – and through economies of scale.

However, according to Mr Liddell-Grainger’s website, there has been a number of issues around this system since its inception. He has described it as "a huge and risky venture for public sector partners", and says "it could cost taxpayers £400 million".

This contradicts claims from the police force itself that it expects to save £35m over ten years from the deal.

Liddell-Grainger has also expresssed concern about the independence of the project Chairman, Sir James (Jay) Tidmarsh. He further writes, in respect of Colin Port, Chief Constable of Avon and Somerset: "Why does nobody raise at least an eyebrow at the idea of a police chief being on the board of a company from which his force buys services?"

He adds: "It is also well worth remembering that the original deals with IBM were brokered by Sue Barnes - who happens to be Mrs Colin Port."

Other controversies that have dogged this project include objections from local trades unions over the speed with which change is being implemented – and a suggestion that Avon and Somerset may have to cut back on the number of police stations in the region in order to gain maximum benefit from "streamlining".

According to local press, the original go-live date for the system had to be put back several times by Somerset County Council, while hundreds of IBM techies were drafted in to fix glitches.

In December 2009, the launch of the system was accompanied by the slightly world-weary observation from Chief Inspector Richard Corrigan, that this "can be a very trying time".

So it may have proven.

The official response from Avon and Somerset is a total rejection of Mr Liddell-Grainger’s assertion that the system has collapsed.

A spokeswoman said: "They also reject any suggestion that the Chief Constable’s wife was in any way involved in the selection or evaluation process for the system put forward by South West One, or in the subsequent negotiations on behalf of Avon & Somerset Constabulary.

"When it comes to reducing the number of police stations, Avon and Somerset has put together an accommodation strategy over the last year, and has put forward a proposal to the Home Office for an overall rationalisation of the strategic estate currently maintained by the Force: effectively ensuring the service is 'fit for purpose'.

"This is not directly related to the system implementation – although it is being supported by SouthWest One. At present, there is no intention to close specific buildings unless they are replaced elsewhere."

We have also asked IBM for comment on this matter, but at time of writing there has been no response. ®

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