PAC chairman Edward Leigh fires parting shot

29 March 2010

29 March 2010 | Helen Gilbert

The UK government “rarely gets the best deal” when buying goods and services and is too often “ripped off” by suppliers, the outgoing chairman of the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has said.

Conservative MP Edward Leigh also flagged up “particularly weak” IT procurement in an open letter to his successor, who will be appointed after the general election.

Leigh, who has spent nine years in office, described IT projects as often over-ambitious, too complex and added that they fail to deliver what is promised while costs rocket.

“Reliable information is at the heart of efficient and effective government but, where this has been recognised, too often the response has been to buy a new IT system without planning what they need and allowing for adequate testing,” he wrote in the letter. “Time and time again, departments have wasted millions on IT systems that fail to live up to promise, come in late and cost hugely more than forecast.”

He cited the Ministry of Defence’s £7 billion Defence Information Infrastructure system – designed to replace hundreds of ageing existing systems – as an example, pointing out it was “fatally flawed by poor planning”.

Leigh also recommended future moves to maximise the government’s purchasing power. “Government is a potentially hugely powerful customer but it rarely gets the best deal from private sector providers,” he wrote. “Departments need to become cannier customers and think about how the public sector can use its collective buying clout to get a better deal.”

Leigh called for an end to “wasteful” decision-making highlighting a case involving the Department of Health, where primary care trusts (PCTs) were all left to locally organise the buying and commissioning of equipment and services needed to run the chlamydia testing programme.

“This hands-off approach led to the duplication of effort and efficiency,” Leigh said. “And the department did not know how much the PCTs were spending on testing or have any mechanism to measure what impact the programme was having on levels of infection.”

He named the prison service as a good-practice example. Its new strategy for procurement and a centralised professional procurement team had helped improve the quality of goods and services and saved £120 million in cash over five years, he said.

Last week’s Budget announcement placed buyers at the centre of plans to help achieve savings of more than £11 billion a year over the next three years.

Leigh’s letter follows a report by the Institute of Directors, out this month, which estimates that better buying could save the UK government £25 billion a year.

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