Page last updated at 05:00 GMT, Tuesday, 2 March 2010

NHS IT deal 'stitch up' claim by Conservatives

The government is trying to fix a quick deal with suppliers for its controversial £12.7bn NHS IT programme ahead of the next General Election, the BBC has been told.

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The NHS IT project is years behind schedule

Industry insiders and the Conservative Party allege the deals, which would be in place by the end of March, would "tie the hands" of whoever forms the next government.

But Health Minister Mike O'Brien said it was "nonsense" to expect the government to suspend negotiations just because of the impending election.

Last December Chancellor Alistair Darling said NHS spending which was not front line, such as parts of the IT project, should be shelved in the coming round of spending cuts.

Digital case notes

The ambitious scheme, which aimed to make patient records digitally available to every surgery and hospital in England, is years behind time.

Originally planned to be completed in 2006, 2015 is the latest estimate for full implementation.

Tory policy would seek to halt the two main contracts and dismantle its central infrastructure.

The Liberal Democrats would like to scrap the programme.

Shadow health minister Stephen O'Brien told File on 4 that Whitehall is trying to reset these contracts within the next four weeks, which could make it harder for whoever forms the next administration to cancel them.

"We are urging the government not to go down that route because we wouldn't want any further contractual arrangements to be committed," he said.

He added: "We have heard that there is a process, which is intended to be completed by the end of March, which would have the effect of potentially tying a future government's hands more rigidly than they would already be under the current contracts."

Other sources in the IT industry also claim Whitehall is trying to stitch a quick deal.

'Business as usual'

Mike O'Brien said the government is looking to cut £600m off the programme's cost before it is fully rolled out.

"We are certainly looking for a memorandum of understanding by the end of March if we can get that," he added.

But he denied these negotiations would "tie" the next government's hands.

"It may well be this government [ie Labour] and in that case what we want to do is that we make sure we get these savings.

"I'm certainly not going to get into a situation where because we're approaching a general election at some day soon, the whole of government stops and we can't make any contracts with suppliers of key NHS equipment. That would be complete nonsense."

File on 4 is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday, 2 March 2010, at 2000 GMT, repeated Sunday, 7 March, at 1700 GMT. You can listen via the BBC iPlayer or download the podcast.

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