The Government has cancelled a key immigration service IT system intended to help clear the 66,000 backlog of asylum seekers in the UK.
The Immigration and Nationality Directorate's (IND) Casework Application programme was at the heart of a complex public finance initiative IT and business process reengineering contract signed with Siemens Business Services in April 1996 for implementation by October 1998.
It was intended to speed up refugee and asylum applications and save the taxpayer at least £110m. Last week the IND finally pulled the plug after a disastrous project, which in 1999 David Omand, then permanent secretary at the Home Office, described as "in effect a doomsday machine".
The Casework Application programme was part of an effort to introduce a "paperless office" at the IND. The failure to deploy it played a major part in a soaring backlog of asylum seekers and forced the Home Office to spend millions of pounds on interim solutions. It also led to scathing National Audit Office and Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) reports in 1999.
The home secretary, Jack Straw, announced the decision to end work on the system in an obscure Commons written answer.
"The original full Casework Application now seems over-complex and out of touch with current working practices," said Straw.
The interim solution introduced by Siemens and the IND was working effectively, said Straw, who promised further improvements to the IND's IT would be completed over the next year.
The average waiting time for an initial decision on asylum is currently 11 months, with many people waiting years.
Siemens told Computer Weekly, "The IND business has fundamentally changed since the original contract was signed. The Casework programme as originally envisaged is no longer valid."
Siemens went on to claim, "The recent programme realignment agreed with IND is a true example of partnership evolving in real time."
PAC member Nigel Griffiths MP described this explanation as "Orwellian newspeak".
He told Computer Weekly, "To claim a project running three years late is a good example of operating in real time shows an inability to grasp the real world."
The interim solution deployed last year included the roll-out of 3,000 terminals at 23 locations across the UK, and the introduction of new databases.
However, Stephen Calvard, director of the IND's Casework programme, said, "The Casework Application was always a high-risk undertaking and in the end it proved too ambitious and complex."
Fazil Kawani of the Refugee Council said, "The way to create a credible asylum system is to make fair decisions quickly and this will only be achieved when the Home Office properly resources the asylum system."
IND's Casework Application timetable
April 1996: private finance initiative contract awarded to Siemens Business Systems for business change programme heavily dependent on IT
June 1998: Home Office admits programme has "slipped by about six months"
July 1998: Siemens parts company with Perot Systems, its IT subcontractor, and decides to build a bespoke system to meet the original deadline
October 1998: initial planned date for implementation of Casework Application programme
June 1999: Siemens tells Public Accounts Committee it has delivered a working system to IND for trials. Backlog of asylum cases reaches 76,000 (up from 52,000 in May 1998)
October 1999: revised target date for full implementation
2000: Home Office rolls out interim systems across IND
February 2001: Home Office and Siemens drop full Casework Application programme.