New inquiries into pounds 63m computer loss

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THE NATIONAL Audit Office and the Department for Health have ordered new inquiries into the loss of up to pounds 63m by Wessex Regional Health Authority on mismanaged computer contracts.

The move comes after an Independent/Computer Weekly investigation revealed the extent of the loss and the involvement of Sir Robin Buchanan, authority chairman, and Lord Jenkin of Roding, a former Conservative minister.

The investigation disclosed there are two secret district auditor reports detailing incompetence, negligence and gross mismanagement, and questioning Sir Robin's role.

In the wake of the disclosures, the Commons' Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is holding a special session to consider Wessex shortly after Easter.

It was also revealed yesterday that Sir Duncan Nichol, chief executive of the NHS - who will be summoned to the hearing - has ordered an inquiry over the losses. A senior government official said: 'He has sent a taskforce to tear the place (Wessex) apart. He is very worried. I don't think they know where the next story will come from.'

Department auditors were so concerned about Wessex's computerisation programme in the mid-1980s that, in 1986, a 'report in confidence' was sent to the Secretary of State. However, no action seems to have been taken. Hampshire Fraud Squad, which has seen the secret reports, is conducting two separate investigations.

After the Independent's reports, Downing Street asked the department whether it had asked Sir Robin to resign as Wessex chairman. In 1991 Sir Robin was appointed by the Government to a key post in the reformed NHS - chairmanship of the Supplies Authority, which co-ordinates all health service purchasing and controls a pounds 4bn budget.

The Prime Minister's office has confirmed it was briefed by the department on matters related to the reports, but declined to give details. The department could neither confirm nor deny whether Mr Major had been briefed personally. Sir Robin is understood to have offered his resignation but Wessex has not accepted it.

The PAC said Sir Robin was likely to be summoned before the PAC. He will be joined by Ken Jarrold, Wessex regional general manager, who admitted last month that he did not know of the chairman's involvement in an unconventional attempt to solicit a loan from a contractor for Bath District Health Authority. The Treasury vetoed that loan but the Bath project went ahead. It has since run into financial problems.

The audit office will submit to the PAC a memorandum detailing the two secret reports compiled last year on the scheme to integrate Wesex's computer services.

Wessex and Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for Health, both admitted after the Independent investigation that the reports existed, but have refused to publish them.