Ministry of Defence: IT Systems — Statement

– in the House of Lords at 3:08 pm on 14th January 2014.

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Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence 3:08 pm, 14th January 2014

My Lords, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement an Answer given in the other place to an Urgent Question. The Statement is as follows:

The Army entered into a partnering contract with Capita in March 2012 to manage recruitment of regular and reserve soldiers. This is an Army-led initiative designed to free up military personnel from recruitment-related administrative tasks and to improve the quantity and quality of Army recruits; it will play a key role as we transition the Army to the new Army 2020 structures.

I should make it clear to the House that the Army has not outsourced its recruitment; it remains in overall charge of recruitment and will continue to play a major role in attraction and mentoring of recruits. Capita’s role is to manage the supporting processes by which a would-be recruit becomes an enlisted regular or a fully-trained reservist.

As I have explained to the House previously, there have been initial difficulties with this recruiting process as we transition to the new recruiting arrangements with Capita and, in particular, we have encountered difficulties with the IT systems supporting the application and enlistment process. The decision to use the legacy Atlas IT platform was deemed at the time to be the quickest and most effective way of delivering the new recruitment programme. An option to revert to a Capita-hosted solution was included in the contracts as a back-up solution.

I was made aware last summer that the Army was encountering problems with the integration of the Capita system to the Atlas platform. Since then we have put in place a number of workarounds and mitigation measures to the old IT platform to simplify the application process, and we have reintroduced military personnel to provide manual intervention to support the process.

Having visited the Army’s recruitment centre in Upavon on 30 October, it was clear to me that, despite the Army putting in place measures to mitigate these problems in the near term, further long-term action was needed to fix the situation. It was agreed in principle at that point that the Atlas system was not capable of timely delivery of the Capita-run programme and that we would need to take up the option to revert to Capita to build a new IT platform specifically to run its system, which will be ready early next year.

In the short term, we have already taken action to bring in a new range of initiatives that will make it progressively easier and quicker for applicants, both regular and reserve, to enlist. As I informed the House in December, we have already taken a number of actions, including: the introduction this month of a new front-end web application for Army recruitment; a simplified online application form; more streamlined medical clearance processes; greater mentoring of recruits by local reserve units through the application, enlistment and training process; and the reintroduction of reserve unit recruitment targets and the provision of recruitment resource to reserve unit commanding officers. With an improved Army recruitment website, streamlined medicals and an increase in the number of recruiting staff, recruits should see a much improved experience by the end of this month.

As we move forward, we are looking at further ways of improving the management of the recruiting process in the intervening period before the introduction of the advanced IT system now being developed in partnership with Capita, which is expected to be deployed in February 2015. We have just launched a new recruitment drive for the Army, both regular and reserves, which will remind the House and the public that the Army is always recruiting and continues to offer exciting and rewarding careers in both the Regular and the Reserve Forces”.

Photo of Lord Rosser Lord Rosser Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport) 3:12 pm, 14th January 2014

I thank the Minister for repeating the Answer to the Urgent Question asked in the other place earlier today. This is another example of things not working out as planned in the Ministry of Defence under this Government’s watch, following the Joint Strike Fighter U-turn, the defence procurement competition with a distinct lack of competitors and now this with the online IT recruitment scheme. The story has broken in today’s Times newspaper of a report by an IT research company on the costs and consequences of this flawed IT system. It is a pity the Secretary of State was not prepared to tell Parliament the details himself, bearing in mind the fact that he has been aware of the difficulty since early last summer.

What impact has this failure had on recruitment for both regulars and reserves, and how far behind schedule is the recruitment partnering project? What is the Government’s total figure for the additional costs that have been and will be incurred as a result of the flawed IT system, and how many Armed Forces personnel have had to return to or remain in recruitment posts as a result of this failure?

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence 3:13 pm, 14th January 2014

My Lords, we acknowledge that there have been difficulties, and the Army is working with its partners to put things right. As the noble Lord knows, the previous Government had their share of IT problems, and we in the Ministry of Defence are gripping the problem.

In the short term, the Army is freeing up to 1,000 soldiers to help with recruiting on the front line. As the response to the Urgent Question said, we are improving the online experience. The application form is being simplified and there is a streamlined medical clearance process and greater mentoring of recruits by the local units. We want to make the whole process much more user friendly.

Much work has gone into addressing recruiting and a new campaign was launched last weekend. Noble Lords may have seen it. Given the target set out in the Written Ministerial Statement before Christmas, we are confident that this can be achieved. We are changing the shape of the British Army to reflect financial reality and the needs of the 21st century. We need to build up reserves with much more specialist roles.

Regarding the noble Lord’s specific questions, on additional cost the £15.5 million mentioned is what we have spent so far getting the system to work on the Atlas platform. Of that £15.5 million, £6.7 million has been spent on doing work that is now of no utility—in other words, that £6.7 million will need to be written off. Another £4.4 million is needed to make the interim programme work in terms of extra manpower and so on. This means that the total of £6.7 million plus £4.4 million, which equals £11.1 million, is the extra cost of this announcement. The overall cost of the programme remains within the financial allocation of £1.36 billion covering the period from March 2012 to March 2022.

This is a long-term issue that deserves cross-party support. I will be going down to Upavon, where the recruiting group, including Capita, is based, and I would like to extend an invitation to the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, my noble friend Lord Palmer and the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, or a representative from the defence group, to accompany me to see what the Army and Capita are doing to sort this problem out.

Photo of Lord Palmer of Childs Hill Lord Palmer of Childs Hill Liberal Democrat 3:17 pm, 14th January 2014

My Lords, first, I thank my noble friend the Minister for that offer, which I am happy to accept. When the decision was made to recruit online, was it not premature to cease to use the well tried manual systems, which have been used successfully over the years? I understand the need to move into the next century, but in business you do not introduce a new IT system and throw away the old system until you have proved that the new system is working. Can we be reassured that that will be looked at in the future?

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

My Lords, obviously, we will look at that very closely. It is very easy to be wise with the benefit of hindsight.

I failed to answer various questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser. He asked me how many Armed Forces personnel will return. I think that I answered that—the Army will be sending in 1,000 regulars to help on the ground with recruiting both the regulars and the reserves. He asked what the effect would be on recruitment, which is a question that I myself asked; the answer is that it is too early to say. How late will the project be? There will be a two-year delay before the full operating capability of the new programme is reached. The IT is due to be up and running in February 2015.

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Labour

My Lords, surely the fundamental, terrible error was, as the noble Lord, Lord Palmer of Childs Hill, said, to stop using the old system. We took out the people who actually make young men and women want to join the Army. They want to see a bluff NCO with a chest full of medals talking about the Army, not some Capita or “Crapita” person talking to them from behind a computer. As I understand it, 800 regulars who were doing that job were removed and now we are putting 1,000 back in. Does the Minister agree that that was the fundamental error?

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

No, my Lords, it was not. The whole idea of this was to try to relieve manpower to enable soldiers to go back to the front line as well as reducing cost. However, I point out to the noble Lord that this is not the first IT project to go on. In 1998, Labour announced a programme to reform the way that the NHS used IT. It was originally intended to cost £6.2 billion, but costs later doubled to almost £13 billion. In 2011, the Government axed that project and replaced it with a cheaper, locally led system. The National Audit Office slammed the original scheme, saying that it did not represent value for money, so this is not the first time that there have been problems with IT.

Photo of Lord Ramsbotham Lord Ramsbotham Crossbench

My Lords, that is exactly the point that the Minister has made. This is not the first time that an IT system has gone wrong. As the noble Lord, Lord West, has said, this trial was going completely against the traditional methods of recruiting. Will the noble Lord tell the House whether it was adequately tried out before it was forced on what I understand was a very reluctant Army?

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

The noble Lord is probably better informed on that than I am. We want to get the best of both worlds. The Army is not losing control of recruiting—it was always going to be in control of recruiting—but we want to use the very best software to help it do the job properly and get recruits into the reserves and into the regulars.

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Labour

My Lords, does the noble Lord not accept that my noble friend Lord West made a very important point about soldiers inspiring young people to want to join the Armed Forces? In the same way, you could say that excellent doctors or lawyers have a role in inspiring young people to join the medical or legal profession. Surely it was a mistake to cut out that role from the Army and Armed Forces and simply give it to an organisation like Capita.

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

The noble Baroness makes a very good point, but, as I said, the Army will not lose control of this whole process and there will be soldiers helping with recruiting. This concept was designed not only to cut costs but to enable soldiers to go back to the front line. The initial gateway business case was accepted back in July 2008 by the previous Government.

Photo of Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Conservative

My Lords, in addition to what my noble friend referred to in 1998, does he also recall that there was a massive reduction in the Territorial Army during that period? Some of us who were then sitting in the other place had to defend not one but two Territorial Army bases in our constituencies in order to prevent them from being closed. The situation that we are now dealing with would not be so acute if the Territorial Army had had a more stable period.

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

My Lords, my noble friend makes a very good point. When the previous Administration took office in 1997, the Territorial Army was more than 50,000 strong; by the time it left office in 2010, that figure had halved. That pattern of decline has now been arrested and the strength has been stabilised.

Photo of Lord Dannatt Lord Dannatt Crossbench

My Lords, the regular Army is losing 20% of its strength, which means 20,000 trained soldiers over the next few years over and above the normal annual outflow of trained soldiers. The initiative to increase the strength of the Territorial Army, as it was previously called, is—to be generous about it—struggling. Can the Minister assure the House that the IT system that is in place is good enough to track the regular Reserve—that is, the soldiers who have served and have been recently discharged—and that, in extremis, there is the IT capability there to recall them to the colours as ex-trained regular soldiers?

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

The noble Lord makes a very good point about officers and soldiers who have left whom we might need at some point in the future. The best of my understanding is that we can track them. If that is not the case I will write to the noble Lord.