Public spending watchdog the National Audit Office has again delayed publishing its report on the £6.2bn national programme for IT in the NHS.
Prompt publication of the report is crucial if the government is to learn lessons from the early stages of the IT programme while they can still be effectively applied to it, said MP Richard Bacon, a member of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee.
"The NAO is there to check taxpayers' money is being spent wisely. For the government to learn lessons from what is said, it is essential that the report is timely," he said.
The disclosure came as Gordon Brown made his pre-Budget report to MPs and as health secretary Patricia Hewitt said the NHS could be heading for a £620m deficit for 2005-2006.
The national programme aims to create 50 million electronic health records and allow all GPs to book patients' hospital appointments online or on the phone. Electronic transfer of prescriptions and medical imaging systems are also on the programme's agenda - the largest civil IT project in the world.
The NAO announced its investigation in August 2004 and said it would publish the report in summer 2005, but in August this year publication was put back until November.
Then last week, an NAO spokesman said although a publication date had not been set, the report could now be published in late February or early March next year.
Under parliamentary convention, the factual content of NAO reports must be agreed with departments before publication - a process known as clearance.
Bacon said government departments had in the past used the clearance process to delay publication of NAO reports which criticised their performance.
"I would not be surprised if the Department of Health was stringing it out. Although I do not have evidence to support that it has," he said. "It is sitting on a time bomb.
"It is clear from statements by Richard Granger [director general for NHS IT], leaked memos and newspaper storiesÉ that there is a row going on behind the scenes."
An NAO spokesman said the report had been delayed because of its complexity. "This is not anything unusual. It is a reflection of the complexity of the report; clearance will take a long time," he said.
A spokesman for Connecting for Health, which runs the national programme for IT, said, "We have, and are, co-operating fully with the NAO. The scheduling of its work and publications is a matter for them. We shall, of course, take very seriously the report when it is published."
Paul Goss, director at Silicon Bridge Research, a specialist health IT research firm, suggested that the Department of Health might prefer the report to be published when Connecting for Health could demonstrate applications were being used in the NHS, rather than a technical roll-out or the number of doctors registered to a system.