Errors in pension payouts attacked

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THE MPS' spending watchdog is to investigate 40 failed government computer projects on which millions of pounds of taxpayers' money has been wasted.

David Davis, the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, said the same mistakes were being made in many different departments. Badly written briefs and poor planning were leading to projects which came in late and over-budget.

Mr Davis plans to launch an inquiry into how many projects went so badly wrong. He says the same problems are occurring across government, from the passport service to the Ministry of Defence, where a new intelligence computer had to be abandoned altogether.

Mr Davis was speaking as his committee launched its latest report, on a new system for recording National Insurance payments. There were more than 1,500 faults on the system, leading to "unreasonable delays" in payments of benefits.

In some cases, claimants were losing as much as pounds 100 per week, the report said. The system, a private finance initiative project involving the old Contributions Agency and Andersen Consulting, should have been complete by April 1998 but delays were still occurring.

"Delays to the implementation of this vital new system have resulted in unnecessary hardship and suffering to many vulnerable groups in society, including pensioners, widows and benefit claimants," Mr Davis said. He would ask his committee to look at variouscases to see whether guidelines could be drawn up to prevent such disasters happening again.

Mr Davis said some of the problems were caused by officials' failure to write adequate briefs for the work they needed doing. Then when changes were needed, the completion date receded and the price went up.

Among the most costly mistakes was a new air traffic control computer installed by Lockheed Martin, which came in almost pounds 90m over budget at pounds 217m. A new Defence Intelligence Service computer called Trawlerman cost pounds 40m but was scrapped without ever going into service.

In the National Health Service, a new clinical information service developed by a GP came in vastly over-budget at pounds 32m.

A problem such as the current passport crisis was exacerbated by a new computer system and a rule-change requiring children to have passports.

Both main opposition parties accused the Government of failing to act quickly enough to solve the National Insurance problem yesterday.

The Conservative spokes-man on social security affairs,David Willetts, said the Government had demonstrated "sheer incompetence".

"This time the victims are some of the most vulnerable people in society - pensioners, widows and disabled people. We have been warning for months about the problems with the new NI computer system," he said.

The Liberal Democrat social security spokesman, David Rendel, said there had been little progress since he raised the problem last year.