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Southwest One made overpayments of £4.6m

Glitch had staff chucking cheques out of town hall windows

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A software glitch has led Somerset county council to make overpayments of £3.7m, the authority has confirmed.

It was part of a problem affecting Southwest One, the shared service in which the council is involved, resulting from the introduction of a new SAP software system two years ago. Delays with the automated system led to staff at Southwest One issuing cheques to avoid further delays, leading to overpayments of £4.6m to suppliers to all of the organisations involved.

Somerset council confirmed that it had made the duplicate payments, but did not reveal a breakdown of where the money had gone. But according to the BBC, the biggest duplicate overpayment totalled £800,000 to transport operator First Group. It is thought that the council is still owed nearly £170,000 in repayments.

It also reported that the remaining £900,000 in overpayments was made by the other public authorities using Southwest One, Avon and Somerset police and Taunton Deane district council. It said that the force paid £404,000, but has recovered most of its money, while Taunton Deane paid £517,000 and still has £12,200 to recover.

A spokesman for Somerset council said that there had been "a great deal of misreporting" about Southwest One in the past, referring to previous criticisms of the collaboration.

"Councils like ours have often made a small number of duplicate payments due to the huge number of transactions taking place daily," he said. "Due to early teething problems with the introduction of SAP at Somerset county council, a very large number of duplicate payments were made. We can assure residents that any payments we do not receive back to this council will be charged to Southwest One. As a consequence, these duplicate payments will not cost Somerset's council taxpayers a penny.

Somerset added that it has worked hard over the past year to ensure the SAP system had been improved "to greatly reduce the risks of duplicate payments being made in the first place".

Southwest One has been criticised in the past for not performing to a high enough standard. A report by Somerset county council in June showed that the venture had not met its savings targets, pointed to IT issues and said there were management and training weaknesses.

It was also the subject of sustained criticism from a local MP, Ian Liddell-Grainger, and was put under review after the Conservatives took control of the county council from the Liberal Democrats in May 2009.

This article was originally published at Guardian Government Computing.

Guardian Government Computing is a business division of Guardian Professional, and covers the latest news and analysis of public sector technology. For updates on public sector IT, join the Government Computing Network here.

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