Ministry in talks to spare its blushes over prisons IT fiasco

The Ministry of Justice is in talks with EDS to reduce the cost of a prisons project which has more than doubled in estimated cost even though its scope has been cut.

The Ministry of Justice is in talks with EDS to reduce the cost of a prisons project which has more than doubled in estimated cost even though its scope has been cut.

Officials want to reach a deal which could reduce their embarrassment when a report on the National Offender Management Information System (Nomis) project is published by the National Audit Office early in 2009.

Nomis adds a fourteenth scheme to Computer Weekly's list of  Labour's 13 unlucky IT projects.

The purpose of Nomis was to provide a single record of an offender across the criminal justice system, from appearing in court to being put on probation or going to prison.

Its problems suggest that Gateway reviews are not preventing projects from ending up incomplete and over budget. The reviews are independent assessments by the Office of Government Commerce of high- and medium-risk projects at stages in their lifecycle.

The estimated cost of Nomis has escalated from £234m when it was initiated in June 2004 to £690m by August 2007. In the meantime, the project has been downscaled and the full system will be installed in prisons only, not the Probation Service as well.

Officials say the main part of Nomis is the system being built by EDS. But it is unclear how the estimated cost of Nomis in 2004 can be reconciled with the fact that EDS's initial contract on the system was only £39m. EDS declined to comment.

The National Audit Office is looking at whether the de-scoped cost of Nomis represents value for money.

In the absence of Nomis - there has been a limited roll-out only - prisons and probation staff have been exchanging data on prisoners via paper forms and e-mail.

It is not known when Nomis is being rolled out to prisons. The Ministry of Justice declined to say whether the programme was on hold pending the outcome of talks with EDS.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice also declined to answer Computer Weekly's questions on why costs have escalated. The department issued a statement to Computer Weekly this week, which referred to the project in positive terms only.

It said, "Commercial negotiations with EDS are continuing regarding implementation and live service costs of Prison Nomis We are committed to continuing the successful implementation of the Offender Management Model and to ensuring that offender managers have access to the necessary information to allow them to effectively manage offenders within custody and in the community, and to replace unstable, at-risk IT systems across the Probation and Prison Services. The revised Nomis programme reflects this commitment, while providing a clear development path for the future.

"The revised Nomis programme will preserve and build upon the work completed to date to offer substantial benefits in the management of offenders. It will see improved sharing of information between the Prison and Probation Services, allowing staff in both organisations access to the information required to support offender management. In addition, the programme will provide improvements to offender assessment systems."

About £177m had been spent on Nomis by the end of the 2007/08 financial year.

A blow for offender management

Last year the Thames Valley Probation Board said the cancellation of Nomis for the Probation Service was a "real blow for end-to-end offender management and created a serious new risk for Thames Valley". Officials and ministers had hoped that the original plan of "one offender, one record" would help cut the risks of criminals re-offending.

The governor of Birmingham's Winson Green Prison put part of the blame for a prisoner's escape on the absence of Nomis. Inmate Raheem Ahmed strolled out of the prison in Autumn 2007 by swapping identities with another prisoner who was to be freed.

Governor Mike Shann told the Birmingham Post and Mail, "As governor, I had supported the view that, with C-Nomis [the forerunner of Nomis] around the corner with photo identity built in, we should not expend money on a new photo system for reception."

In December 2006, the then home secretary, John Reid, told Liberal Democrat MP Nick Clegg that the Nomis project was "currently within allocated funds". He added, "The business case for the project is regularly reviewed and more than meets the criteria for return on the investment proposed."

The true cost of Nomis

In September 2008 the National Audit office put the total estimated of the Nomis project - to exclude the Probation Service - at £793m, which is a trebling of the original £234m projected cost.

The £793m figure was removed from the National Audit Office's website, after Computer Weekly put questions about it to the Ministry of Justice and the NAO.

The NAO said the £793m figure was a mistake and that £690m is the estimated total cost of the original project as of August 2007.

The increase in estimated cost made the original programme unaffordable. In January 2008, the justice minister announced that Nomis would be installed in prisons only. The Probation Service would have read-only access to the Nomis database.

Read more on Tony Collins' blog >>

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