The Cabinet Office is considering intervening in the contracts between the Department of Health and its suppliers on the disastrous £11.4 billion National programme for IT, it has been reported, in order to protect local trusts from each facing multimillion pound exposure as the NHS is reformed. reported last week that the Department of Health is concerned that CSC, BT and Fujitsu could team up against it in a court fight over large sums of money, if the failed programme is scrapped. Fujitsu quit the programme in 2008, but the other two suppliers remain.

The problem facing local trusts is exacerbated by health reforms which will leave the trusts in the programme with system and cost responsibility from 2015, even though they do not know their legal exposure. The responsibility wall fall on them as the country’s 10 strategic health authorities, which run large groups of trusts, are abolished.

At the weekend it was reported in the Observer newspaper that the government is considering creating a special unit to house the contracts and potentially shoulder much of the financial burden.

A damaging report into the programme by the Public Accounts Committee had warned that trusts were increasingly exposed to the contracts as the NHS is reformed. Those sticking with the programme had to conduct IT business negotiations through Whitehall and had no direct contractual relationship with suppliers, the report stated, and they had “no information” about real future costs.

“NHS trusts will take over responsibility for care records systems from 2015-16, but they do not currently have the information they need about potential future costs,” the report stated.

“After the implementation of forthcoming health reforms, the organisations currently managing the Programme will no longer exist and the risks will transfer to NHS trusts. However, at present these trusts have no direct contractual relationship with existing suppliers and no information about the likely cost of using care records systems beyond 2015.”

The committee called for the Department of Health to write to every NHS trust to make clear the “detailed implications” of their future responsibility for care record systems, “and in particular the financial liability to which each trust will be exposed”.

“This information should include information about exit costs from the LSP [local service provider] contracts [with BT and CSC] and future maintenance and running costs for those Trusts that continue with the Programme, and this information must be provided within two months.”

The Department of Health has not provided guidance on any potential steps being considered  to protect the trusts. It said only that it was in talks with the Cabinet Office, and that an announcement on the future of the programme will be made in the autumn.

The news comes as a letter from committee member Richard Bacon MP to the prime minister made public that the government’s dispute with Fujitsu is in arbitration, and is likely to stay locked in talks until at least the end of next year. Fujitsu quit the programme in 2008.