NHS IT debacle shows public accounts committee strength

A pretty brutal hearing of the Public Accounts Committee this week, as the MPs contemplated one of the great public procurement debacles of recent history.

The NHS in England's chief executive Sir David Nicholson was given a very rough ride, as were Sheri Thureen of one of the IT companies, CSC, and Patrick O'Connell the president of BT Health.

The committee was frankly incredulous at the suggestion that the National Programme for IT might deliver its key objective - and incredulity frequently gave way to derision and outright sarcasm. The chair, Labour MP Margaret Hodge, found herself interjecting that the scale of the losses was "huge, crazy, huge".

The Conservative Richard Bacon suggested the NHS had "thought it was buying a Rolls-Royce, but had ended up with a second hand Datsun".

The background is startling.

The NHS's National Programme for IT is an £11.4bn project which has delivered some good things, but which - according to a report from the National Audit Office (NAO) - will not deliver on its central aim of making a detailed local care record a "clinically rich" medical record available to local hospitals where a patient may well be treated, or making a Summary National Care Record available across England, for use when someone needs urgent treatment away from home.

All the witnesses squirmed - as detailed in some entertaining live tweets from the EhealthInsider website as well they might, because billions of pounds of taxpayers' money have been spent to very limited benefit. As Margaret Hodge observed, a billion pounds pays for 50,000 nurses - so several lost billions equate to quite a significant impact on the NHS. Her summing up talked about how much money might be "salvaged" from the programme - strongly suggesting that the committee would recommend that it should be axed.

What is impressive about the PAC, regarded as pretty much the flagship select committee, is the depth of research behind its work, the product of the prestigious National Audit Office.

When they hold a hearing on some aspect of the work of government they have detailed information, analysed by experts and looked over by accountants in an exhaustive process in which the facts and figures are normally thrashed out to everyone's satisfaction well in advance.

Which means their sessions focus on policy issues. No other committee has this level of backup - and frankly, it shows.