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Mr. David Willetts (Havant): It is usual to welcome a statement from a Minister, especially from this Secretary of State who has made only one oral statement to the House in the past 15 months. At least today's statement has a certain rarity value.
Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that his statement announces no new policy? Instead, it announces further IT problems at the CSA which are, sadly, not new. They are, indeed, regrettable. They are serious for the families who will be left in limbo. We need more information on the new timetable for the implementation of the changes, on which his statement was completely silent. We hope that a debate can take place when we can scrutinise those matters in Government time.
Having announced a delay in that written answer, the right hon. Gentleman now rushes to the House to make an oral statement on further delays. It would be far more significant and newsworthy if he had come to the House
Why have we suddenly had a statement on IT in the CSA after 15 months of almost complete silence? Why not make a statement on the Government's redefinition of their poverty target for children so that they can appear to meet it? Why not make a statement on the crisis in funded pensions, on which the Secretary of State refused to comment?
The explanation for this statement is that the right hon. Gentleman knows that later this afternoon the House will have a desperately important debate on the commitment of our troops in Afghanistan. The Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and his Cabinet colleagues ought to be present for that debate, but the longer the gap between Prime Minister's questions and the debate, the easier it will be for them to stay away. That is what this statement is all about.
Mr. Willetts: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I simply wish to record that the House gave a clear expression of its will yesterday under Standing Order No. 24. I do not wish to stand between the will of the House and the important debate that awaits us soon.
Mr. Darling: I am really very sorry that the hon. Gentleman has taken that stance. He knows a lot about this subject and the House often listens with respect to what he has to say. His response today was a little petulant.
First, I would have liked to make the statement yesterday, but I was told that I could not do so because it was an Opposition Supply day. I was left with no alternative but to make it today. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends have said on many occasions that Ministers ought to come to the House and be answerable to the House. Here I am.
The Child Support Agency is a matter of real interest to just about every hon. Member. I took the view that rather than use a written answer or a press briefing, or putting the story in the newspapers, it would be better to come to the House and say that, because of the difficulties I described, it would be necessary to defer the implementation of changes that many hon. Members as well as, of courseand, in many ways, more importantlymany of our constituents want to be implemented as quickly as possible.
Yes, there have been IT problems in the past. There were problems when the CSA was introduced in 1993. The IT did not arrive until two months after the then scheme was introduced. The hon. Gentleman is no doubt also thinking about NIRSa contract that was signed in 1995, had to be renegotiated in 1996, and was a year late by the time the system was switched on, by which time the old system had been decommissioned, causing all sorts of problems with national insurance records. Perhaps he is also thinking about the benefits payment card. The contract for that was signed in 1996. It had to be renegotiated in February 1997 and, by the time we took
I have another example, and this time the Conservative Government deserve some credit. The jobseeker's allowance was supposed to be introduced in April 1996. The Government of the day were advised by consultants that introduction would not be possible then because of all sorts of difficulties. To their credit, they decided to let it slip for about six months and then it was implemented satisfactorily.
We know that there are problems with large IT systems. As I have described, our problem at the moment is that the vital testing necessary to be sure that the new computer system to back the CSA changes works has not yet been completed. I have taken the view that until that testing is complete I am not prepared to authorise its commissioning. I take full responsibility and I think that I am right to come to the House to explain the position. Members can hold me to account for the decision that I have taken. I am sorry that, out of sheer opportunism, the hon. Gentleman has taken a completely different position.
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): May I offer the strongest support for the Secretary of States's attitude? Is he aware that the staff of the Child Support Agency have some of the most difficult and certainly the most harassing jobs in the civil service? Anything that adds to this harassmentand, often, ill temper and bitternesswould be a disaster. He has taken absolutely the right attitude of caution. It would be much better to wait until these teething problems are sorted out. Given the expertise that is now concentrated in the system, is there any chance of it being available to other countries that might regard it as an export proposition? Britain is a leading figure in this field.
Mr. Darling: I am very grateful for my hon. Friend's comments. Given the present position, I would be hesitant about going into the export market just yet. Perhaps one day the system will be resold in different parts of the world. Of course, it is owned by EDS, which supplies it.
In response to my hon. Friend, it is worth bearing in mind the fact that the Child Support Agency has to deal with 400,000 new applications every year, which works out at about 1,000 new applications every day. Therefore, had there been any problems with the IT systemI believe that there is sufficient risk that there might have beenit would not be long before thousands of cases built up in a backlog. That is why I am taking a cautious approach, and I make no apology for that whatever. However, I am glad that my hon. Friend the Father of the House appreciates that Ministers should come to the House to explain these positions so that we can be held to account for our decisions.
Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): I entirely agree with the Secretary of State; he is absolutely right not to introduce the system if it is not ready. However, that sidesteps the issue of who is responsible for its not being ready. Does he recall that two years ago I warned his Department in oral questions in the House that if it did not get a grip on this process and monitor it tightly this is just the sort of thing that would happen? He has already failed to mention in his statement the six-month slippage from October to
The key point is that this is not the first computer botch in the Secretary of State's Department. He mentioned NIRS2, and I understand that the pension credit system is not all it might be. The CSA computer system is now behind schedule. Does someone in his Department monitor these projects or does he take responsibility? If not, weeks before a project is due to be up and running, someone comes along to say, "We've only been testing a few weeks. Sorry, guv'nor, it doesn't work." Is it not time that he took responsibility for projects in his Department and made sure that they were ready on time? Instead, he comes to us just a few weeks before the project is due to be ready, wrings his hands and says, "We'll let you know but we can't tell you when."
Mr. Darling: In answer to the hon. Gentleman's final point, I have said on many occasions that I take full responsibility for everything that happens in my Department. That is my job as Secretary of State. It is my responsibility to make sure that we deliver an effective working system.
It might help the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members to know that I and my officials became concerned at the turn of the year that the testing was not proceeding as fast as we thought it should. We approached EDS, which is supplying the equipment, and it increased the resources devoted to testing the system. I was anxious to introduce the system, if at all possible, in the second part of April as originally planned. I thought that it was worth testing the system and making sure that it was completely installed to deliver. However, I came to the view towards the end of last week that, on the information I had, it would be irresponsible to authorise the commissioning of the system. Therefore, the Department is aware of the slippage that has taken place on testing, and we have taken that up with EDS.
As the hon. Gentleman should knowperhaps he does notwe intend to run the pension credit system on the Department's existing computer systems for the first two years, because we think it better to do that than to build a system.
On the hon. Gentleman's first point, he asserted that he had warned us about this problem two years ago, but his policy then was to transfer the CSA back to the courts at a cost of about £1 billion. However, I will give him credit. I read in The Guardian todaythis may come as a surprise to some of his Liberal colleaguesthat his policy has changed and that he now wants to transfer everything to the Inland Revenue. I would have thought that anyone in the Inland Revenue would think long and hard about saying, "Yes, let's have the CSA imposed on top of the tax system." I say this in the nicest possible way to the professor, but he should think beyond the next press release before he begins making policy on this issue.