Health and Social Care (Community Health and Standards) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:30 am on 16th October 2003.

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Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Conservative 11:30 am, 16th October 2003

I have just mentioned the experience of Sweden and Spain in pioneering the foundation trust model.

Alongside pay freedoms, the other lesson from those countries is the lesson of IT. On IT procurement the Government have returned to their age-old instincts: the IT contract for the NHS has been centrally drawn up and is being centrally managed. It will account for a vast sum of public expenditure. Recently, we understand, it has entered somewhat choppy waters. Why? Because the Government in their usual fashion have tried to impose too many risks and liabilities on the contractors, with the result that all but one of the three main bidders have walked away. The Government appear to be forcing an unrealistic pace on those contractors and it is said that the unprecedentedly tight deadlines have frightened off other bidders. Smaller suppliers on which the NHS depends are being squeezed out and if we are not very careful some may go to the wall. None of that has apparently deterred Ministers from pursuing their centralist policy. The NHS is to have the IT system that Ministers think is best for it.

Foundation trusts in Spain will say that one of the freedoms that has made the most difference to them is the freedom to procure their own IT. The only requirement imposed on them is interoperability with systems elsewhere. I must ask: why have the Government not looked more carefully at that model and drawn the lessons from it? I do not know what evidence the Government have for thinking that a giant, centrally managed government contract is likely to prove successful. The history of large national IT procurements in other departments is not exactly reassuring.

The NHS contract is immensely complex. Its broad specifications run to 550 pages without all the detailed technical requirements that one has to build in. Last year the DoH acknowledged openly, and I thought refreshingly, that there were "significant risks"—its words not mine—attached to the IT programme. Indeed, that is right.

So the Government have hang-ups about granting greater freedoms to foundation trusts as regards IT. I believe that that is a totally and unnecessary restriction. I really should like to hear the Minister's explanation. I beg to move.