Hansard cleans up a tense exchange on NPfIT

Hansard – the official recorder of proceedings in Parliament – has slightly cleaned up a tense exchange between an MP and a senior civil servant over the National Programme for IT [NPfIT].

It’s not a conspiracy – the likelihood is that Hansard staff wanted to keep the substance of the exchange while making the transcript easier to read; and indeed the original exchange was hard to follow – but it’s more interesting than the published version. The MP worked harder to get to get the answer than is implied in the Hansard version.  

The exchange was between Conservative MP Richard Bacon, and Gordon Hextall of Connecting for Health which runs much of the NHS’s National Programme for IT [NPfIT].

It took place on 16 June 2008 at a hearing of the Public Accounts Committee into progress on the NPfIT; and it illustrated how difficult it can be for an MP to obtain from senior civil servants a quick answer to a direct question.

Quick answers are needed because MPs on the committee usually have a slot of about 10 minutes.  Long answers reduce the number of questions MPs can ask – and the chairman of the committee, Edward Leigh, is particularly hard on MPs who overrun, even if the line of questioning is yielding useful answers. 

It’s likely that Bacon already knew the answer to the question he was putting to Hextall. Even so the answer proved not to be straightforward.

Before the hearing it had emerged that Morecambe Bay Hospitals NHS Trust had postponed a planned go-live of the Lorenzo” system from CSC and iSoft, now IBA Health. The result was that, by the time the committee met, no NHS trust in England had gone live with the Lorenzo system. 

Morecambe Bay was due to be the first “early-adopter” to go live with the Lorenzo Care Records Service under the £12.7bn NPfIT. In fact Morecambe Bay had been due to go live on the day of the hearing of the public accounts committee on the NPfIT – 16 June.

Bacon asked the mild-mannered Gordon Hextall, Director of Informatics and Interim Director of Programme and Systems Delivery at CfH, about whether Lorenzo had gone live at Morecambe Bay.  Hextall seemed to make an unspoken distinction between going live and “deployed” – a distinction lost on MPs and indeed journalists including me. 

This was the exchange …

Gordon Hextall said an “action plan that was put in place that has led to Lorenzo actually being deployed”.

Hextall: “It [Lorenzo] was deployed in this country in May this year. It is deployed as I said several times in Morecambe Bay now. And it is being tested. But I refuse to agree – ”    

Richard Bacon: “It has not gone live at Morecambe Bay has it?”
 
Hextall: ” I refuse to agree – “

Bacon: “Sorry can I just check? You said it has been deployed at Morecambe Bay. It hasn’t gone live at Morecambe Bay has it?”

Hextall: “It’s being deployed and is being tested.”

Bacon: “So it hasn’t gone live? I am just asking you to answer my question Mr Hextall. It hasn’t gone live has it?”

Hextall: “I am trying to answer it because -“

Bacon: “Has it gone live? Yes? Has it gone live?”

Hextall: It has not gone live. It will go live when the quality is right. And that surely, anyone would agree, is the right answer …I was in Morecambe Bay last week and they are a very committed management team and a very highly skilled IT team. They will take that product when they are satisfied it is going to work for them.”

Comment:

If it’s so difficult for MPs to obtain “yes” and “no” answers to questions in the controlled environment of a Public Accounts Committee in the House of Commons, one can imagine how hard it may be for the board of an NHS trust to get answers to non-standard questions about the National Programme for IT.

This is how Hansard reported the exchange:

Mr Hextall: “…It was deployed in this country in May of this year. It is deployed, as I have said several times, in Morecambe Bay now and is being tested but I refuse to agree with any trust —“

 Mr Bacon: “Sorry, can I just check. You said it has been deployed in Morecambe Bay. It has not gone live in Morecambe Bay, has it?”

Mr Hextall: “It has been deployed and is being tested.”

Mr Bacon: “I’d just like you to answer my question, Mr Hextall.”

Mr Hextall: “I am trying to answer it.”

Mr Bacon: “It has not gone live, has it? Has it gone live?”

Mr Hextall: “It has not gone live. It will go live when the quality is right, and that, surely anyone would agree, is the right answer… I was in Morecambe Bay last week and they are a very committed management team and a very highly skilled IT team, and they will take that product when they are satisfied that it is going to work for them. They are not going to put patients at risk.”

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