Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/02/14/id_cards_escape_scrutiny/

ID Card costs escape scrutiny

Dobson amendment lets govt. off hook

By Mark Ballard

Posted in Media, 14th February 2006 10:32 GMT

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.

Burnham said £584m would be required over 10 years to issue the cards, but unspecified costs were numerous and have been estimated at between £6bn and £20bn. "I rather suspect that the United States Congress got more candour out of the Pentagon on the projected costs of the stealth bomber than then we are getting out of the government on costs of this particular IT project," shadow minister for Home Affairs Edward Garnier said.

But no one outdid Dobson in the use of hyperbole: "The IT systems companies...appear to be competing for the title of intergalactic rip off IT merchant of the decade," he said in defence of greater scrutiny of their work and charges.

"[They] have ripped off the public sector and the private sector time and again through their negligence, incompetence and stupidity," he said, using EDS and Siemens as examples.

He joked on, but serious points were being made elsewhere in the House. Garnier referred to an Auditor General report on a £44m discrepancy in Home Office accounts that was caused by a bodged IT implementation.

Not only was data handled sloppily, but there were security lapses that included the ability of unauthorised personnel to access sensitive data, and a lack of training.

"If that's what the Auditor General says about this department's accounts, it's perhaps not the least bit surprising that other departments have not found it convenient to hand over...their assessments of their costs, their workings, their accounting practices in relation to [the identity card system]," he said.

The government is ultimately responsible for failures of this kind, and is often to blame. Labour MP for Derbyshire South Mark Todd said his access to the early stage ID card planning made him fear it was turning into a "complex and poor specification...that is the route of failed IT projects."

Yet, industry should share the blame if the right advice is either not given or heard. ®