New controls promised after NHS losses

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The Independent Online
THE Government is to introduce new measures to ensure effective control and management of computer projects in the National Health Service.

The announcement came after an investigation by the Independent and Computer Weekly revealed that losses of up to pounds 63m were incurred during mismanaged computer projects at Wessex Regional Health Authority. The Independent yesterday disclosed evidence that ministers misled Parliament over the background to some of the Wessex contracts.

Tom Sackville, Under-Secretary of State for Health, told the Health Computing conference at Harrogate yesterday that he was to introduce a 'raft of measures' to ensure that public money was not wasted on poorly-managed information technology.

He said: 'We will not succeed unless we conduct our affairs in a professional manner . . . unfortunately things can go wrong. You will have seen the publicity given to Risp in Wessex, to events in the West Midlands, and recently the London Ambulance Service.'

The scandal at Wessex centred on the Regional Information Systems Plan (Risp), which was an attempt to integrate all information networks in the region between 1982 and 1990. Last year, the district auditor produced two confidential reports into the circumstances surrounding Risp computer contracts. These reports question the role played by the current chairman of the authority, Sir Robin Buchanan, and others including former Secretary of State, Lord Jenkin.

Their existence was kept secret by Wessex and the Department of Health. Wessex has said it was unable to publish them because it required the permission of individuals identified. But the authority has confirmed that it has not asked for necessary consent.

Following the articles in the Independent and Computer Weekly confirming the existence of these reports, the Commons Public Accounts Committee decided to convene in special session next month. The National Audit Office has been commissioned to make fresh inquiries and submit a briefing memorandum. The Department of Health has also mounted new inquiries in order to brief Sir Duncan Nichol, chief executive of the NHS, who is to be a witness before the committee. The Department of Health has said that these inquiries were 'routine' and did not, as sources close to Wessex claim, constitute a 'taskforce'.

Inquiries by John Denham, Labour MP for Southampton Itchen have indicated that the Government misled Parliament over contracts at Wessex. In 1986, Tony Newton, then Minister for Health, was asked to list those who advised the authority on RISP. He did not identify one key consultant, who later went onto to win a significant contract. The District Auditor described the circumstances of this contract as 'disturbing' and of dubious legality.

Mr Newton also stated in the Commons that tendering procedures for this contract had been in line with EC regulations. Mr Sackville, in a letter to Mr Denham, has acknowledged that this was not the case.

Sir Robin has so far resisted pressure to resign. Sir James Ackers, chairman of West Midlands Regional Health Authority, resigned after allegations of mismanagement of computer contracts last January.