Fiasco that exposed ethical gulf: Tim Kelsey looks at the background to a hugely expensive NHS embarrassment

THE REGIONAL Information Systems Plan (RISP) was the most adventurous computer scheme in the history of the NHS. It was a visionary idea: to put computer terminals on every hospital ward and in every office and integrate all information across a swathe of southern England.

But mismanagement, misguided enthusiasm and sharp commercial practice combined to make it one of the biggest health service embarrassments in recent years, and has left the reputation of Wessex Regional Health Authority in tatters. RISP was supposed to be proof that private sector business disciplines can be brought to bear in the public sector and lead to a more efficient, and cost effective service. It was a monumental white elephant and it exposed the ethical gulf between private business and the public sector.

The report, published yesterday by the Public Accounts Committee, was prompted by a joint investigation published earlier this year by the Independent and Computer Weekly. Our inquiries revealed the existence of two lengthy confidential reports by the district auditor which criticised senior managers within the authority, including the chairman Sir Robin Buchanan, for allowing the project to last so long and be so poorly managed. The auditor questioned the role played by Britain's largest computer consultancy, Andersen Consulting, in winning one contract. He also identified conflicts of interests between Wessex and its other contractors.

The Regional Information Systems Plan was born in 1983 when the idea for the project was developed by Wessex staff working with consultants from Arthur Andersen (the company later turned its consultancy division into a separate operation called Andersen Consulting) working with Wessex RHA.

By May 1984, RISP had been adopted by the authority. Invitations to tender for the first part of the contract were issued in 1985 and Andersen went on to win it.

Their tactics in doing so were described as 'disturbing' by the district auditor. He noted that Wessex had decided in favour of another contractor, and that once this was known, authority executives were subjected to intensive lobbying on behalf of Andersen to reconsider.

Lord Patrick Jenkin, then an MP and a business adviser to Andersen, telephoned the then chairman of the authority, Sir Bryan Thwaites, to recommend Andersen's bid. Lord Jenkin, who said that he acted in good faith, had appointed Sir Bryan, when Secretary of State for Health.

In 1986, Andersen's consultants accompanied executives from Wessex who went to the US to evaluate another contractor's products. The PAC said yesterday it was 'clearly wrong for somebody who is tendering for NHS business also to be advising the NHS as their consultant'.

By 1988, when Sir Robin Buchanan was appointed chairman, it was clear that RISP was in trouble. Original cost estimates of pounds 29m had hugely inflated. If it had been abandoned at the time, at least pounds 8m would have been saved. Instead, Wessex commissioned a computer company called CSL to manage its information systems in what was effectively an attempt at privatisation.

CSL set up a company called Wessex Integrated Systems which took over all computer services in the health authority. The first contract with WIS was signed in 1988, shortly after Sir Robin's arrival. Sir Robin told the Public Accounts Committee that he had no involvement in this first contract. However, a letter was leaked to the Independent which showed that he did have some detailed knowledge of its terms and conditions.

By October 1989, only three of the authority's nine districts were still prepared to implement RISP. Sir Robin then negotiated the second contract. Far from setting tougher conditions, it stated that the company would be paid 'whether (or not) there was work for them to do'.

Sir Robin was also responsible for one of the more disturbing conflicts of interest. Shortly after becoming chairman, he approached IBM to ask it to supply a project manager to run the RISP. IBM was one of the biggest suppliers to the authority and was negotiating a contract to supply a new mainframe.

Shortly afterwards the authority bought an IBM mainframe at up to pounds 1m more than it should have paid.

The project was finally abandoned in mid-1990 after the appointment of Ken Jarrold as regional general manager. The total that had been spent was not less than pounds 43m, and may have been more than pounds 63m. No one has been prosecuted, disciplined or fined.

(Photographs omitted)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
News
peopleComedian launches stinging attack on PM
Life and Style
The collection displayed Versace’s softer side, with models wearing flowers and chiffon dresses in unusual colourings
fashionVersace haute couture review
Arts and Entertainment
'The Leaf'
artYes, it's a leaf, but a potentially very expensive one
News
Yoko Ono at the Royal Festival Hall for Double Fantasy Live
people'I wont let him destroy memory of John Lennon or The Beatles'
News
Could Greece leave the EU?
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Team Leader

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Recruitment Genius: Client Manager

£27000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A growing, successful, friendly...

Recruitment Genius: Property Negotiator - OTE £20,000+

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This family owned, independent ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'