Top civil servants have defended Accenture after it helped to deliver a "fundamentally flawed" £350m IT system to pay EU subsidies to farmers.
Helen Ghosh, permanent secretary at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), told MPs yesterday: "The people responsible for the fact that the IT system was not as good as it should have been were the people who commissioned it as much as Accenture."
The defence of Accenture came when the House of Commons' Public Accounts Committee (PAC) met to question Ghosh and Tony Cooper, chief executive of the Rural Payments Agency, on the Single Payment Scheme.
Labour MP Alan Williams asked Ghosh and Cooper whether Accenture should pay compensation for a disastrous system that pays subsidies to farmers under the Single Payment Scheme.
Cooper said that officials had so poorly specified the system that it had no facility for changing the entitlements for each farmer.
Statements are sent to farmers each year which set out the amounts they are entitled to. The rates in 2009 are higher than 2008 entitlements.
Cooper said that something "pretty fundamental was missing from the original specification".
He added: "When the system was delivered out of the change programme in 2005/6 it did not include the functionality to be able to change entitlement or to transfer entitlements, and that is a fundamental aspect of the scheme. We therefore had to invest to retrofit that functionality into the system."
Ghosh, who as head of Defra has overall responsibility for the Rural Payments Agency, said that one main problem with the IT was that Accenture delivered what it was asked to deliver. "What they [Accenture] were asked to deliver was the wrong thing."
When asked if Accenture should pay compensation, she said: "I feel that one might have a bank of solicitors breathing down one's neck. We are not saying they [Accenture] were incompetent in what they built. They built what they were asked to build Somewhere between the specification of the business process and the checking and the quality assurance, it broke down.
"There is no reason Accenture should have known that about entitlements, for example. We don't believe that that was negligence of their part, subject to any point a lawyer may make to me."
The system went live at the Rural Payments Agency in 2005 to pay the right amount of subsidy to farmers under the Single Payment Scheme.
But public spending watchdog the National Audit Office (NAO) said in a report published on 15 October that the agency's systems are "very expensive", "cumbersome", difficult to change to keep up-to-date with new policies, and are in danger of becoming obsolete.
The systems are only four years old. Accenture has 100 contractors working full-time on the systems. Each one cost taxpayers £200,000 in 2008/09. The Single Payment Scheme costs about £1,700 per claim, which is six times the cost in Scotland of paying subsidies to farmers.
MPs on the committee yesterday were angry at the amount of money wasted on IT and other overheads. Amyas Morse, the head of the NAO, told the committee that the Rural Payments Agency has spent hundreds of millions of pounds more than it expected on IT and other overheads to administer the Single Payment Scheme.
The committee's chairman Edward Leigh warned Cooper that the committee may take the unusual step of naming him in its report on the scheme. Normally the PAC avoids criticising named civil servants in its reports.