Parliament was not told the whole truth about Nats deal

Parliament was not told the whole truth when it questioned a top public servant about progress on a £50m project for a new air...

Parliament was not told the whole truth when it questioned a top public servant about progress on a £50m project for a new air traffic control system in Scotland.

The admission was made in the High Court last week by Mark Webb, a senior executive at National Air Traffic Services (Nats), which is owned by the Government and a group of airlines.

Webb was responsible for a project to provide a replacement flight data processing system, known as FDPS2, which was being built by Texas-based services supplier EDS for the Oceanic area control centre at Prestwick in Scotland. The system was to have been used to control aircraft flying across the Atlantic ocean.

During cross-examination in a case between EDS and Nats over the failure of the FDPS2 project Webb admitted that the House of Commons Transport Committee had not been told the whole truth when it asked about the Oceanic system on 8 December 1999. The then Nats chief executive Bill Semple told the committee that although the project's timetable had slipped, for reasons unrelated to the contract, EDS was performing well.

However, MPs were not told that a week before the committee hearing Nats had written to another supplier, Raytheon, about the possibility of taking over the contract. Nats said in court that EDS had been "working to rule" on the FDPS2 contract, while the supplier was claiming that Nats was not co-operating adequately.

Coming after Computer Weekly's disclosures that MPs are often not given the whole truth about major IT projects such as the Post Office's Pathway Scheme and the NHS' "Read Codes" IT system, these revelations suggest a worrying lack of accountability within the civil service when reporting to Parliament on projects which are or have been in serious trouble.

The FDPS2 was a separate project to the £337m IT system at the New En Route Centre in Swanwick, Hampshire, which went live in January after six years of delays.

Last week Webb was asked about the truthfulness of a series of statements about FDPS2 made by Semple to the House of Commons Transport committee in December 1999.

The committee wanted Semple to explain the position on the Oceanic PFI contract. He said EDS had produced the first man/ machine interface model which "looks a first-class, world-beating system". He added, "They [EDS] are in the process of building that system for us. We have no reason to believe that they are not capable of doing that."

In the High Court, Webb was asked whether Semple's statements were nothing but the whole truth. Webb replied, "I believe, based on what Mr Semple knew, yes, I think he was telling the truth". He added that Semple had seen a demonstration of a prototype of the man/ machine interface and it "looked very good".

Judge Toulmin said Webb appeared to be saying that Semple had told the truth as far as he had seen it. Picking up this point, Murray Rosen, QC for EDS, asked Webb to discount the qualification "as he had seen it" and then to comment on whether Semple's statement represented nothing but the truth.

"No it is not," said Webb.

Asked about the system beyond merely the man/ machine interface, Webb said, "I had concerns about a number of things - the quality of the deliverables, the performance of EDS as a contractor, their ability to meet the timescales. I had concerns at this point."

Webb was also asked about the truthfulness of Semple's comment, "We have more time to build that system the way we want to build it." "Is that true?" asked Rosen. "No, I do not think it is," replied Webb.

Semple had gone on to tell the committee that Nats staff had been involved in the design of the system - a lesson learnt from the New En Route Centre at Swanwick.

But Webb said this was not the case. "Nats' staff were not involved in the design," he said. This was the responsibility of EDS, he added, and went on to tell the judge, "Without wishing to be disparaging towards Mr Semple, his view of the system was a senior manager's view of what I do at the screen and it had been driven by the man/machine interface prototype he had seen in Edinburgh."

Webb said Semple would have been briefed but did not have a full technical knowledge of the project. "This was a Parliamentary Select Committee," he explained. "The prime focus of the Parliamentary Select Committee was not FDPS2, and this is a politician's answer."

Asked whether he had told anyone at Nats that the evidence given to the committee was not true, Webb replied, "Not that I recall. I mean, it was the chairman [Nats' chairman Roy McNulty] and the chief executive talking to the Parliamentary Select Committee their understanding is not a technical understanding. They obviously have other factors in mind when they give these answers. It was not my job to go and correct what they said or did not say."

The judge said, "I have to tell you this, that I have actually appeared before the House of Lords Select Committee on more than one occasion, and people appearing in front of those committees, if they are wise, are meticulously prepared".

However, Webb said he had no recollection of having giving a specific briefing to McNulty or Semple.

Webb continues to give evidence. Semple is due to be cross-examined next month. The trial began in January and is not due to end until May.

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What is the FDPS2?
When signed in 1997, the 14-years FDPS2 (Flight Data Processing System) contract was heralded as the Labour Government's first deal under the Private Finance Initiative. Texas-based supplier EDS was contracted to build the world's most advanced air traffic control system, the aim being that pilots over the Atlantic would be able to notify their location to air traffic controllers not by a voice communication on the radio but by an automated three-way data communications link between the aircraft, satellites and the new Oceanic system.

Instead of becoming a system that EDS and Nats could have sold to governments around the world, the FDPS2 project's premature end has been marked by the IT industry's longest-running and most expensive High Court hearing.

Why did the case come to court?
In December 2000, EDS issued a writ seeking £42m in damages because it claimed Nats had terminated the contract for the FDPS2 without good reason in July 2000, about 18 months before the system was due to go live. Nats issued a counter-claim against EDS, and alleged that the supplier failed to meet a key project milestone in May 2000.

A measure of the seriousness with which the trial is viewed by both sides is the seniority of some of the witnesses, who include Nats' former chief executive Bill Semple and former Nats chairman Roy McNulty, now chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority.

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