Court IT staff in limbo as Libra switches suppliers

Many of the IT staff at magistrates courts in England and Wales believe they are being treated like human ping pong balls, with...

Many of the IT staff at magistrates courts in England and Wales believe they are being treated like human ping pong balls, with the Lord Chancellor's Department changing its mind over which supplier will take over their jobs.

The uncertainty faced by staff in magistrates courts lends weight to criticism by sceptics of the Government's private finance initiative (PFI) that the main risks of failure remain with the public sector when serious problems beset a major project.

Since 1998, IT staff working for hundreds of magistrates courts had expected to transfer to ICL, later Fujitsu Services, as part of the Lord Chancellor's Department's £183m Libra PFI project.

The main aim of Libra was to speed up the process of criminal justice by allowing court staff to transfer case files electronically between the courts, police, the Crown Prosecution Service, the Prison Service and the Probation Service. At present many case files are transferred by post or fax.

But in July, after months of talks over a revised PFI deal, the Lord Chancellor's Department decided to end the contract with Fujitsu for delivery of the caseworking software. Fujitsu staff felt the Lord Chancellor's Department wanted many changes to the original specification, which added to charges, yet the department refused meet these costs.

Also in July, the Libra project was split into three parts. Fujitsu was allowed to charge £49m more than the original contract price of £183m to deliver office automation hardware, software and a national network.

The second part of Libra will be off-the-shelf caseworking software from an as yet unannounced supplier. The third part will be a contract to integrate the core software into systems run by magistrates courts and other criminal justices agencies. Again, no supplier for this part of Libra has been announced.

After nearly four years of expecting to transfer to Fujitsu, court IT staff have been told that the supplier no longer wants them. This leaves employees wondering which supplier they will be transferred to, if any. They may be contracted out to the company chosen to manage systems integration.

A spokesman for the Association of Magisterial Officers, which represents court staff, said IT specialists feel they are being treated as if they are worthless.

A Fujitsu spokesman said, "Most of the IT staff would have moved into Fujitsu Services if we had continued to develop the core software. However, this is no longer the case as the change of contract, agreed with the customer on 23 July 2002, means that we are no longer responsible for that area of the project."

A spokesman for the Lord Chancellor's Department said, "We are currently in discussions with the staff trade union on the future options and opportunities for these staff members."

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