Whitehall says no to Freedom Act requests

Whitehall officials have refused requests under the Freedom of Information Act to publish the results of Gateway reviews on high-risk IT-related projects at the NHS, the Child Support Agency and on a national ID card scheme.

Whitehall officials have refused requests under the Freedom of Information Act to publish the results of Gateway reviews on high-risk IT-related projects at the NHS, the Child Support Agency and on a national ID card scheme.

The refusal came despite two Parliamentary select committees, the Work and Pensions Committee and the Public Accounts Committee backing Computer Weekly's campaign for Gateway reviews to be published.

Gateway reviews are six-stage independent assessments during the life of high-risk projects conducted by the Office of Government Commerce.

The OGC's refusal leaves Parliament with no reliable means of receiving regular reports on the progress of risky IT-related schemes, which can cost billions of pounds.

Although Whitehall's auditor, the National Audit Office, publishes comprehensive reports on some IT-related projects, its assessments are usually one-offs, and are carried out on a few selected schemes only.

The OGC's refusal to publish reports came in the same week the government admitted that a problem-laden IT implementation of tax credits in 2003 contributed to about a third of all awards, covering 1.9 million families, being overpaid in 2003-04.

With total overpayments reaching nearly 2bn, families now face hardship as the Revenue claws back an average of 1,028 each.

Paymaster general Dawn Primarolo told the House of Commons on 26 May, "In the early months of 2003 to 2004 the Inland Revenue encountered serious problems with the new IT system, resulting in over-payments and other difficulties. Some families have also found the information provided to them on the status of their awards unclear, which has made the process more difficult."

The implementation of tax credits had secretly been given the go-ahead by a Gateway review, the full results of which have never been published.

What is known about that review is that it described the tax credits IT project as exemplary. An Inland Revenue statement in July 2003 said, "The OGC report also concluded that the new tax credit project is 'an exemplar of good programme management and although facing many major challenges (the Revenue) is well equipped to successfully manage and deliver'."

The report gave the project a "clean bill of health", said the Revenue.

Computer Weekly has learned that "severe" pressures on paying tax credits have continued into this year, according to the minutes of an HM Revenue and Customs board report in January. A spokesman for the department refused to give details.

The failure of large, high-risk IT-related projects can hit the most vulnerable in society, who rely on the delivery of government services, but the OGC has decided that it is not in the public interest to publish the results of Gateway reviews.

In a 38-page reply to Computer Weekly's request for the results of some Gateway reviews to be published, the OGC said the process "demonstrably depends on candour and confidentiality".

It said there was a public interest in non-disclosure when publication would inhibit candour among future interviewees. "Gateway interviewees must be able to be candid about matters which could lead to serious recommendations," said the OGC.

The Freedom of Information Act came into force in January 2005 amid claims by Lord Falconer, secretary of state for constitutional affairs, that it would lead to a new era of openness and transparency. But there is little evidence of more openness on IT-related matters.

After Steve Lamey, chief information officer at HM Revenue and Customs, was reported in Computer Weekly last week as revealing details of the business inefficiencies he intends to tackle, the department issued a denial statement. It claimed that Lamey's comments had been taken out of context. The statement made no admission that the department was facing any inefficiencies.

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