The Sketch: Winning a place in Big Book of Bureaucratic Bollocks

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The Independent Online

We were packed into Committee Room 15 like the jury of a revolutionary court - scores of us sitting, standing, squatting, crammed in behind the flame-faced chairman, Edward Leigh.

We came to catch a glimpse of the vile wretches of the NHS who had devised the monstrous IT system that dwarfs the ID card proposals, and even by official estimates seems to be about to cost £20bn (think of the Trident system we could buy for that!).

The chairman asked for "crisp answers", and by God, I have records of answers given to the committee by the ex-NHS head Sir Nigel Crisp as he then was, and nothing could beat them for opacity, turgidity, and vacuity. However, Sir Ian Carruthers has promise. We hope to see much more of him. He is the acting chief executive of the NHS and he will merit certainly his own chapter in the Big Book of Bureaucratic Bollocks.

Austin Mitchell asked him why the costs of the project had gone from the £6bn they'd sold us the scheme for, to an interim £12bn to the £20bn we now seem to be up for. He made an energetic distinction between these sums, which he summarised as: "The £12bn is a mixture of costs, extrapolations and forecasts and the £20bn relates to the total spend of the NHS."

So that's all right then? "We are where we are. We need to progress."

Actually we don't. We could can the whole thing right now, in spite of the Audit Office's "universally positive" report. We all know this project of "bringing coherence to the NHS" is going to end up as coherent as a bag of adders. We understand this at a level beyond belief or faith - at the level of knowledge.

We know this partly from the tenor of the replies to the committee's questions - they were intensely political, and some of them straight out of the Prime Minister's manual (he really should set a better example).

When the IT director was asked whether some hostile fact was correct (was it true that after all this money that not one single hospital was yet using these clinical programmes) he began his reply, "What is correct is ..." before spiralling off into a catalogue of positive statistics. I think many of us in the revolutionary court thought fondly of the guillotine, at that point.

The acting chief was asked why they were seeking to impose this massive centralised programme on a fantastically diverse NHS. He said it wasn't centralised because it was being implemented locally. ("Swiiiisssshhh! Thump. Thud." That's my imagination butting in.)

The deadly phrase in all this, and the one they think justifies their failures and delays is: "The system is a world first!" I'm a sketch writer but even I know that the cardinal rule of IT systems is - Never Be First.

sketch@simoncarr.co.uk

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