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A decade after breaking HMRC’s Aspire deal, the Post Office scandal exposes glaring similarities

HM Revenue & Customs finally broke from its £800m a year Aspire contract in 2016 - and the reasons have parallels with the Post Office scandal. Will government ever learn?

Ten years ago, as IT transformation director at HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC), I led the team that successfully renegotiated the £800m per year Aspire outsourcing contract with Capgemini and Fujitsu, saving taxpayers over £200m and dismantling a system riddled with inefficiencies and hidden costs.

Yet here we are again, facing a scandal involving Fujitsu and the Post Office’s Horizon IT system, this time where lives were destroyed due to faulty software and negligent oversight. The question we must ask ourselves is: why, after a decade and millions wasted, has nothing truly changed?

The Aspire contract was plagued by similar issues to Horizon - opaque pricing, questionable performance, and a lack of accountability. We fought hard to break free from that contract, demanding transparency and value for money. While we achieved success, it seems the lessons learned were quickly forgotten.

The Post Office Horizon scandal is a tragic reminder of the devastating consequences that can occur when technology contracts are awarded and managed without proper scrutiny. Subpostmasters, the lifeblood of our communities, lost everything due to a flawed system and a culture of silence. This cannot be swept under the rug again.

The public inquiry underway is making a thorough and independent investigation into the Horizon scandal, holding all parties accountable for their roles in this injustice. But we also need systemic change within government procurement, ensuring transparency, fairness, and robust oversight throughout the entire lifecycle of IT contracts.

It's time to break the cycle of negligence and wasted taxpayer money. We must learn from the past and hold ourselves accountable for creating a system that protects both public finances and the livelihoods of those who rely on them.

Procurement pitfalls

I've witnessed first-hand the pitfalls of public sector procurement relying on large, single-source contracts. The Post Office Horizon scandal, with its echoes of the Aspire contract I helped dismantle at HMRC a decade ago, exposes a systemic issue that demands immediate attention.

While we had a victory, it seems the lessons learned were fleeting. Horizon exposed how relying on a single supplier breeds negligence, fosters complacency, and ultimately, harms the very people government should protect.

The fundamental question remains - has government procurement truly changed?

Back in 2012, HMRC faced conflicting directives - reduce costs, modernise our systems, but avoid upsetting suppliers. It felt like an impossible balancing act. But even then, we saw the potential for innovation and the value of smaller, nimbler companies. The Aspire renegotiation aimed to break the mould, allowing more SMEs to contribute.

Has Brexit stifled this progress? Has it further entrenched large system integrators, limiting innovation and competition? Are they still prioritising maintaining legacy systems instead of embracing data-driven, microservices architectures that minimise dependence on outdated IT?

The answer seems self-evident.

The Post Office debacle exemplifies the ongoing failure to learn from past mistakes. We cannot continue throwing money at monolithic suppliers who view taxpayers as their meal ticket. A systemic overhaul of public sector procurement is needed, including:

  • Ending the reliance on single-source contracts. Encourage competition and innovation by fostering a diverse ecosystem of suppliers, particularly SMEs.
  • Prioritise transparency and accountability. Involve all stakeholders in decision-making, implement robust oversight, and hold all parties responsible for outcomes.
  • Focus on data and microservices. Break free from legacy systems, embrace cutting-edge technology, and empower innovative solutions that drive efficiency and cost reduction.

The Post Office scandal is a wake-up call. We cannot afford to let history repeat itself. It's time to break the cycle of wasted taxpayer money and create a procurement system that serves the public, not the interests of privileged suppliers.

Louise McCarthy was IT transformation director at HMRC from 2009 to 2012, and subsequently fulfilled a similar role at Aviva, Specsavers, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and HSBC. She is now a non-executive director and board advisor for a number of companies.

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