A “flawed contractual approach” contributed to problems in a Home Office (HO) programme meant to improve the safeguarding of children, a parliamentary watchdog has said.
The programme to modernise the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS), a service for employers to screen employees working with children, has suffered from “poor planning and contracting” and a “failure to understand” the end users' needs, a report by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said.
The report said the modernisation project is currently four years late with no agreed date for completion. The contract is also expected to be £229m over budget.
Meg Hillier, chair of the PAC, said the HO’s handling of the project was “a masterclass in incompetence”.
“Government has a crucial role to play in safeguarding children and vulnerable adults but the handling of this project has been a masterclass in incompetence. None of the cost-saving and service benefits set out in the original business case have been achieved,” she said.
She added that the state of the contract did not “fill [the PAC] with confidence” that other HO contracts were running smoothly, mentioning in particular the Emergency Services Network (ESN) programme to update the blue light communication system.
DBS is an arms-length body funded by the HO. It was created in 2012 through a merger of two existing safeguarding organisations.
At the same time as the merger, the HO launched a programme to modernise and digitalise the service, with the aim of making the process easier and less expensive for DBS customers. The HO signed a contract with Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) to design, build and run the new IT system that would achieve this.
But with only a year left on the contract with TCS, the PAC said DBS is still paper-based and that much of the modernisation has still not been done.
The PAC report said a “flawed contractual approach” meant that payments to TCS were primarily based on the volume of transactions processed, with only 3% of the value of payments related to the modernisation programme.
It said the HO also tried to transfer risk to TCS by reducing the amount it pays for each transaction after three years, but this had “clearly not worked” because the contract still allowed TCS to make a profit margin as high as 22%.
The report added that both TCS and the HO admitted the contract was signed in 2012 “without anyone having a clear understanding” of what was needed to make the programme successful, and that the HO did not have “a sound idea” of what demand there would be for the new DBS service.
The PAC also said HO was failing to track progress on the expected safeguarding benefits.
Hillier said: “On both DBS and ESN the Home Office appears either to have ignored or not fully understood the needs of the end user.
“It does not fill us with confidence that all is rosy on the department’s other major projects. Although we received verbal assurances that they are running smoothly, these are not enough.”
A TCS spokesperson said: “TCS and DBS are discussing the recommendations made by the PAC and will incorporate these, as appropriate and feasible, in the remainder of the modernisation plan.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We recognise that there have been delays in some aspects of the delivery and implementation of the Disclosure and Barring Service’s modernisation programme. However the DBS has launched the first phase of its new IT system and will continue to work towards providing their customers with a faster and more efficient service.
“The DBS’s safeguarding work is of utmost importance in protecting the public and we continue to work closely with them throughout this period of transformation.
“We will fully consider the Public Accounts Committee’s recommendations and respond formally in due course.”
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