Minister pressed Wessex to pursue computer contract: Mellor was warned of potential disaster in deal that has since cost public pounds 63m

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Indy Politics
NEW evidence that the Government actively encouraged Wessex Regional Health Authority to pursue a computer scheme that wasted up to pounds 63m of public funds has emerged with the disclosure that David Mellor, the former health minister, wrote to the authority urging it to press ahead with the project.

The news of Mr Mellor's intervention in one of the biggest financial scandals in the recent history of the NHS coincides with an admission by the Government that ministers had repeatedly been warned about the project.

Two months ago, an investigation by the Independent and Computer Weekly revealed the existence of two confidential district auditor reports which criticised the role played by the Wessex chairman, Sir Robin Buchanan, in the management of the Regional Information Systems Plan (RISP). The reports also questioned the intervention of Lord Jenkin, a former Secretary of State, in negotiations for one contract. The Department of Health and Wessex have not published the reports. In a letter dated 24 January 1989, Mr Mellor, then health minister, wrote to Sir Robin urging him to press ahead with RISP 'without delay'. The existence of the letter, which records meetings between the two to review the management of Wessex and of RISP, was revealed yesterday by the Bath Evening Chronicle. Mr Mellor gave approval to continue with the ill-fated scheme. He was, however, critical of past management of the project which had been started in 1982.

He wrote: 'Project management has been poor. I am sure that you are now in no doubt that I view this seriously, and require the authority to improve its performance significantly by completing the programme without delay.'

Mr Mellor wrote this letter after repeated warnings from his own civil servants that the RISP project was a potential disaster. It was abandoned in 1990 and the full extent of the losses are still unclear, but sources close to the authority have indicated that the final figure will be close to pounds 63m.

Tom Sackville, Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Health, has conceded that no less than three confidential reports had been sent to the Secretary of State by department auditors expressing concerns about the project before Mr Mellor wrote his letter.

On 5 May, the Commons Public Accounts Committee will sit in special session to investigate the Wessex affair.