Sir Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary, has said he stands by his decision to approve a plan to reset the troubled Disclosure and Barring Service programme while he was permanent secretary at the Home Office, despite spiralling costs and part of the programme being scrapped.
As Home Office perm sec between 2013 and 2017, Sedwill oversaw a 2014 reset of the programme to digitise record checks conducted by the DBS, which had fallen behind schedule.
However, the project has run into more problems since the reset, including a High Court challenge and delays in the handover between the system’s two commercial providers.
Last year the Home Office scrapped work on an integral IT platform, Release 1, after the commercial supplier TCS said it would be unable to deliver the update. In December, the department relaunched its procurement process for IT services after concluding the platform was “not suitable for further rollout”.
The announcement came seven months after the Public Accounts Committee accused the Home Office of providing a “masterclass in incompetence” as the programme faced a four-year delay and a £229m overspend.
But in a letter to the committee, published yesterday, Sedwill said he was satisfied that the decision to approve the 2014 reset “was reasonable based on the information available at the time”.
The business case had been shared with the Government Digital Service and approved by both the Home Office’s portfolio and investment committee and the Treasury, he added.
Sedwill also defended the DBS’s record to date, despite acknowledging what he described as the “disappointment” of TCS’s failure to deliver the new IT platform.
PAC has previously raised concerns about the delays to delivering new IT infrastructure, which was supposed to be in place by March. In a progress review published at the beginning of this month, the committee said DBS had been unable to explain how it would mitigate the risks associated with its decision to “stay with an ageing platform with the risks of obsolescence and a provider not being able to support the system much longer”.
In his letter, Sedwill said he wanted to highlight that DBS is now processing disclosure checks “faster and cheaper than ever before”.
He added: “DBS now processes over 80% of basic disclosure checks in 24… by the end of March this year, DBS had issued more than 29 million certificates, barred 21,000 people and has 1.5 million people subscribed to the update service [to keep DBS checks up to date].”
The cab sec said the Home Office was in the process of producing a programme closure report that will include a section looking at lessons learned.
He said the department would respond to the committee’s call, made in a report last year, to conduct a full lessons-learned exercise for the DBS and Emergency Services Network programmes.
The letter, dated 10 April, was a follow-up to Sedwill’s appearance before the committee earlier in the month, in which he denied that the DBS programme “failed”. At the time, he told the MPs he did not agree with their assessment that he and others in the Home Office should have foreseen problems including a much lower rate of employer take-up than expected.
Sedwill had promised to write to the committee after he was unable to give a definitive response when asked whether the “the judgment [he] exercised or the governance which gave [him] the information to exercise that judgment” was flawed during the 2014 reset.