Clock is ticking on pledge to fix computer fiasco

Responding to Audit Scotland's scathing report into the computer shambles, Deputy First Minister John Swinney said measures had been put in place and it would not happen again.
John Swinney says the IT disaster will not happen again. Picture: Andrew O'BrienJohn Swinney says the IT disaster will not happen again. Picture: Andrew O'Brien
John Swinney says the IT disaster will not happen again. Picture: Andrew O'Brien

He also maintained all the problems would be solved by the end of June although it has to be noted that he did not specify in which year that would be.

His assertion that the Scottish Government would never again face such a damning report was based on measures that will prevent private contractors having too much control in major projects as happened with the wonky computer.

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The new – well, new to the farming portfolio – minister for the rural economy, Fergus Ewing, will tomorrow outline to the Scottish Parliament the steps he will take to try to ensure the political disaster of the IT system does not re-occur.

Having only been in post for a matter of days, he may be tempted to use the old political trick of claiming that his own hands are clean in the affair; a handy variation of the “a big boy done it and run away” excuse that may have added poignancy if the previous incumbent is in the chamber.

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Although the new minister may come up with some actions that will improve the workings of the £180 million computer, these would be surprising as it would inevitably lead to the question as to why any such changes have not taken place before now.

There are two matters that are not in doubt about the workings of the expensive machine based in the Government buildings at Saughton, Edinburgh. Firstly, the computer still has a considerable backlog of 2015 claims to chew through before the EU deadline of the end of next month and secondly, like all new computer programmes, as the initial gremlins are gradually weeded out the performance improves.

Note there is no timeline on those two realities. Both are gradual processes and both are also determined by the amount of money that is thrown at them to speed matters up.

There is another political step the Government could take to prevent such a debacle re-occurring and here apologies should go to all farmers and crofters still awaiting their subsidy payment for last year. The stark reality is that support payments will not be accelerated.

The Government could ensure the new Rural Affairs committee in the Scottish Parliament acted more robustly in its scrutiny role. Unlike Westminster, there is no second chamber in Scotland to pick up issues and guddle about in their innards. Theoretically this is supposed to be done by the various committees.

The Rural Affairs committee from the last parliament never did get round to dealing with the IT issue despite reports from Audit Scotland going back to 2014 highlighting there was potentially big trouble ahead.

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This is not to dismiss the time the MSPs on the committee spent looking into such diverse issues as the workings of the Crown Estate, deer management, Scotland’s Rural College and climate change. It might be claimed a few of these subjects may have appeared purely because certain members had bees in their bonnets about them.

Meanwhile, the proverbial elephant in the Rural Affairs committee room – the faulty IT system – was ignored. Was this because the committee agenda was full? If so, that would be a paltry excuse given the scale of the disaster.

Was it because the majority of committee members were also members of the majority party and they did not wish to expose this particular shambles? If so, then that is a disgrace and a complete abrogation of their duties and responsibilities.

Bringing the then minister and his civil service team to committee would not have changed the outcome but it would at least have exposed the scale of the problem much sooner and not allowed months to pass when farmers were misled over when their money would be paid.

In the coming days, the political horse trading that goes on in deciding who chairs the various committees will take place. There is no set formula other than the end result should roughly reflect the political composition in the parliament.

It is to be hoped the new Rural Affairs committee has more teeth and courage than the last one. Likewise it is to be hoped the committee convenorship is not given to some old party lag as a second prize for not getting a ministerial position.