The Prime Minister Gordon Brown was confronted by a claim in the House of Commons yesterday that the NHS IT scheme does not work.
When a similar attack on the National Programme for IT [NPfIT] was made in the Commons on 12 July 2004, Brown – who was then Chancellor – gave a granitic defence of the programme.
Yesterday he didn’t, though this time it was more difficult for Brown to give a specific response on the NPfIT, in part because of the attack on the NPfIT by Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg was bundled with criticism of the cost of ID cards and the proposed Home Office surveillance database.
Even so, some may be surprised that Brown yesterday said nothing to counter Clegg’s claim. The £12.7bn programme is the government’s biggest-ever IT investment. Some may wonder whether Gordon Brown knows much more about the depth of the NPfIT’s problems than he would want generally known.
These were the exchanges in the Commons yesterday – and in 2004:
“As we heard earlier, the Prime Minister does not seem to distinguish between good public spending and bad public spending. At a time when every penny of public money needs to be spent wisely, he wants to waste £13 billion on an NHS computer system that does not work, £12 billion on a surveillance database, which will spy on everybody in the country, and billions more on ID cards.
“He could redirect all that money to the things that people really need in a recession: homes for hard-pressed families; good child care, so that people can go out to look for work; and training for people who have lost their jobs. At a time when all British families have to rethink their spending plans, is it not time for him to rethink his?”
The Prime Minister:
“I do not recognise the figures that the right hon. Gentleman gives us. The only figure that matters in this debate is that the Liberal party wants to cut £20 billion out of public spending. That would be the wrong course for this country.”
The House of Commons, 12 July 2004:
Richard Bacon [MP for South Norfolk and a member of the Commons’ Public Accounts Committee]
“Does the Chancellor of the Exchequer agree with GP magazine that the national programme for IT in the health service is more likely to be a fiasco than the Dome; and should not he be rather worried that the Department of Health is about to squander £6 billion?
“The hon. Gentleman should be cautious about what he says about these things. A great deal of work has been done in setting up that very extensive IT programme. As I understand it, the National Health Service uses more IT than any organisation outside NASA–the space centre–in the United States of America.
“It is therefore very important that it is got right. New people have been brought in and the whole system has to be modernised. It is important that electronic records can be properly developed and that nurses and GPs’ surgeries can be in regular contact with hospitals.
“It is in all our interests that the programme works. Before the hon. Gentleman pronounces that it is not working, he should look at the evidence of all the efforts that have been mad (sic) to ensure that it does. It is certainly very important to the future of our health service–we would agree on that.”
Politicians from Tony Blair to Lord Hunt, Lord Warner, Caroline Flint, Ben Bradshaw have rarely passed up an opportunity to expectorate statistics on the national IT programme. So it’s surprising that Gordon Brown didn’t say anything to correct Clegg. As Chancellor, Brown approved the funding for the NPfIT. He defended it impressively in the House of Commons in 2004. Perhaps his knowledge of the depth of the programme’s problems has removed his stomach for rejecting Clegg’s criticisms. We should be told what he knows.
Or perhaps not.
This is an example of an NPfIT minister, Caroline Flint in this case, using statistics of little significance to sum up the NPfIT [1.2 million NHS employees having access to the N3 broadband network doesn’t mean they’re using it].
Caroline Flint, 6 June 2007, in a debate on the NPfIT, moved that the House of Commons:
“… supports the aim of connecting over 30,000 GPs in England to almost 300 hospitals and giving patients access to their personal health and care information; congratulates the NHS on having already delivered 93 Picture Archiving and Communications Systems across the country including a 100 per cent. achievement in London, delivering faster results for patients; further congratulates the NHS for sending over 21 million electronic prescriptions so far, reducing inefficiencies and errors; welcomes the fact that over 85 per cent. of all GP practices have used Choose and Book to refer their patients to hospital and that almost 3.8 million Choose and Book bookings have been made so far, allowing patients to choose appointments that are at convenient times to fit in with their lives; and welcomes the news that approximately 1.2 million NHS employees now have access to the new broadband network N3”.
Gordon Brown tells Parliament NPfIT will not be fiasco – Computer Weekly 2004
Hospital has long-term NPfIT problems warns paper – IT Projects blog, Oct 2008
Hundreds of millions of patient records shared – Medical Privacy weblog
NPfIT officials may pay out £100m to BT for extra NHS IT support – Computer Weekly, October 2008