Provision of digital etc services by HMRC: preparatory expenditure

Local Government Finance Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:30 pm on 9 February 2017.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Devolution)

May I ask the Minister a question about confidence in IT systems? Back when I was a council leader, we were implementing what we call My Account, the principle behind which was to bring together a range of different data held by the local authority in different datasets and different IT systems into one place so that residents could log on, see their interactions with the local authority, pay bills, raise issues and, we hoped, get a more tailored service. In a neighbourhood—Oldham, for instance, has brought together seven townships, so people have a very localised identity—a tailored service would bring out local libraries, community centres or events in that area. A similar IT system was implemented by Transport for Greater Manchester. As London has its Oyster card, the Get Me There card in Manchester was designed to be a single card that could be used on different modes of transport across different operators.

With both projects, there were two lessons. First, they showed that we should never believe what an IT salesman offers—usually salesmen will say what we want to hear, but the technology does not always follow. Secondly, they showed just how complicated it is to bolt together different IT systems. The patches needed to get the different systems to talk together can be very complicated, extremely time-consuming and, as a result, extremely costly. IT data coders are not the cheapest labour to employ. Given my own experience and reflections on IT systems, and given Government experience across political parties—no elected politician has wanted an IT system to fail, and we trust professionals to get on and do the job promised, although sometimes that works and often it does not—what confidence does the Minister have that we can genuinely move towards a system for HMRC that provides the type of functions proposed in the Bill?

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important matter. There has been a catalogue of challenges with IT projects down the years, most notably the NHS supercomputer, which reportedly cost the Government of the day about £13 billion and never worked. We had IT challenges with regard to police and fire control centres—again, the system never worked and was finally aborted. We do have to be careful and cautious, as the hon. Gentleman points out. The measure in the Bill, however, will not lead to a full-blown programme, but will enable HMRC to carry out the early design work and engagement to develop proposals for how that particular principle of providing digital services can be developed. Given the spirit of my explanation, I hope the hon. Gentleman is reassured that this is about early design and engagement rather than entering into a full-blown IT project which, as he rightly pointed out, can often be challenging.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 14 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 15