The Home Office has been accused of presiding over a “masterclass in incompetence” in relation to a programme to digitise record checks conducted by the Disclosure and Barring Service that should have completed four years ago.
A report from MPs on the Public Accounts Committee says the programme to improve the system for safeguarding checks on those looking to work with vulnerable people – such as children – is on course to cost £229m more than was originally anticipated and still has no identified finish date.
The committee said that the DBS was charging 30% a year more for the update service than had been envisaged despite not delivering on any of its anticipated improvements. The update service is currently still paper-based and has fewer than half of its originally-anticipated 2.8m users.
The PAC said the programme had been delayed from the start, forcing DBS to extend a contract with then-supplier Capita for two years. MPs said there was now a danger that the contract with current supplier Tata Consultancy Services would run out next year before the programme was complete. DBS is currently in negotiations with TCS to finalise a completion date.
MPs observed that a “flawed contractual approach” that focused on transaction volumes meant only 3% of the payments DBS made to the supplier were related to completing the modernisation programme. They said the Home Office’s attempts to incentivise TCS to complete the modernisation programme more quickly had “clearly not worked”.
They added that DBS has failed to understand its cost base and fee structure and was currently losing £9 for every application to the update service, losses that it offset by profits made from issuing conventional paper disclosure certificates, which had lead to a projected £114m cash surplus for 2019.
PAC chair Meg Hillier said the safeguarding service modernisation programme had been dogged by poor planning and contracting, delays, spiralling costs and other failings that raised questions over the Home Office’s ability to handle the project to upgrade the communications system used by the nation’s emergency services.
“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,” she said.
“None of the cost-saving and service benefits set out in the original business case have been achieved. At the same time, DBS has built up a projected surplus of £114m.
“These are testing times for the Home Office. We continue to have serious concerns about its largest project, the Emergency Service Network [to upgrade radio communication for blue light services], which is critical to the ability of our emergency services to do their jobs and keep citizens safe. The department also faces huge challenges arising from the UK’s departure from the EU – not least, potential threats to security at the border from day one of Brexit.
“On both DBS and ESN the Home Office appears either to have ignored or not fully understood the needs of the end user.”
Among its recommendations, the PAC called on the Home Office to set out the outcome of the negotiations with TCS, a clear and realistic timetable for when modernisation will be completed, and details of the cost implications for DBS and the Home Office before the summer recess.
A Home Office spokeswoman said the DBS’s safeguarding work was “of utmost importance” in protecting the public and that it was working with the body throughout “this period of transformation”.
“We recognise that there have been delays in some aspects of the delivery and implementation of the Disclosure and Barring Service’s modernisation programme,” she said.
“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.
“We will fully consider the Public Accounts Committee’s recommendations and respond formally in due course.”