Fujitsu £700m Whitehall dispute heads for secret deal

Fujitsu is said to be seeking £700m from the Department of Health after the department ended its £1bn contract as the local service provider on the NPfIT for the south of England.

What stops Whitehall from going to court in any major IT dispute?

Fujitsu and the Department of Health have been locked in a protracted dispute since lawyers for the Department of Health served a termination notice on Fujitsu in May last year.

Fujitsu is said to be seeking £700m from the Department of Health after the department ended its £1bn contract as the local service provider on the NPfIT for the south of England.

The two sides are likely to have been through the pre-litigation stages in the contract, such as arbitration, leaving litigation as the next logical step.

But the case is unlikely to ever be heard in court.

The Department of Health is defensive and secretive at the best of times - a point made to the House of Lords Communications committee when it held an inquiry into the Government's relationships with the media.

The department and Connecting for Health (CfH) are particularly secretive and defensive over the National Programme for IT. They haven't published any of their own reviews into the scheme, though they did, to give them credit, publish 31 Gateway reviews on the programme.

Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and former health ministers who include Lord Hutton, Lord Warner, Caroline Flint and Ben Bradshaw have vigorously defended the NPfIT in Parliament, in public statements, or at press conferences.

NPfIT officials and ministers will not therefore welcome a court hearing in which claims and counter claims about the UK government's largest IT investment are aired in public in the run up to a General Election.

A settlement may come shortly before next year's General Election, and be kept quiet. The Tories, if they win, may reveal the amount because they would have nothing to lose by the publicity.

All of which leaves Fujitsu holding all the legal aces. The same goes for any other IT suppliers that find themselves in dispute with central departments.

It's a pity that mandarinate has so much to hide from the IT industry, the public, Parliament, and the media that its unofficial motto on legal disputes is: "Sue us and we won't see you in court".

The Govt vs EDF

History shows that the Government is willing to start litigation against IT suppliers but isn't prepared to let the cases go to an open court hearing which leads to a judgment.

In April 2002 a High Court hearing which had lasted 44 days ended suddenly when airlines running the loss-making National Air Traffic Services (Nats) agreed to pay millions of pounds to computer services supplier EDS.

The settlement came on the day the most high-profile witness in the case, Civil Aviation Authority chairman Sir Roy McNulty, was due to take the witness stand. He was expected to be asked about evidence he gave to the Commons transport committee when he was chairman of Nats.

A senior lawyer, who has decades of experience of IT litigation, says he is unaware of any central government department taking a major IT dispute to trial and judgment.

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