Spending watchdog attacks IT `chaos'

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The Independent Online
THE IMMIGRATION service was reprimanded by the Government's spending watchdog yesterday over a computer system which has sunk the department into chaos.

A "too ambitious" pounds 77m private contract to install the system at the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND) has led to months of delays for thousands of applicants, including international business people, foreigners living in the UK and individuals requiring work permits.

The National Audit Office (NAO) said in a report that government departments should carefully consider whether such computer projects were achievable, even where prospective suppliers made enthusiastic bids for the work.

The immigration department's computer project is already lagging 14 months behind schedule and is unlikely to be fully operational until next year.

The delay, which has been exacerbated by the problems of relocating the IND's offices in Croydon, has infuriated the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, who told MPs this week that he "deeply regretted" the deterioration in the immigration service. He said the problem was the greatest managerial challenge faced by the Home Office.

Mr Straw, who visited the IND yesterday, has told the private contractor, Siemens Business Services, to draw up a plan to deal with the delays.

The aim of the Siemens project, which was agreed in 1996, was to switch from a paper-based to a computer-based system to speed up decisions onimmigration and asylum cases.

The IND employs 1,400 and spends pounds 67m a year dealing with 400,000 cases.

The NAO report found that problems with the computer project began after it was decided to abandon plans to use existing information technology packages and instead introduce tailor-made software. This meant that the introduction date was put back to June 1999.

The report warned that there could be more problems if the timetable slipped further because most of the limited software in use by the directorate was not year-2000 compliant.

Sir John Bourn, head of the NAO, said: "There are many examples of bespoke projects such as this one which in retrospect can be seen to have been too ambitious, despite there having been enthusiastic bids for the work from prospective suppliers."

David Davis, chairman of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, said the IND was in "chaos". He criticised the decision taken by the Immigration minister, Mike O'Brien, to move offices, implement business changes and complete the computer project at the same time.

He said: "Whilst there has been a substantial transfer of risk to the contractor, ultimately, if the project is delivered late, or not at all, the taxpayer will foot the bill."

The problems come as the Immigration and Asylum Bill is going through Parliament, with proposals for the biggest shake-up in the immigration system for decades, involving an overhaul in the organisation and working methods of the IND.

However, if the IT project is successful, it will bring substantial savings, the report said.