The constant need for local changes to centrally mandated NHS IT systems drove Fujitsu to pull out of the National Programme for IT in the NHS (NPfIT), MPs were told yesterday.
Peter Hutchinson, UK public services group director at Fujitsu Services, told MPs on the Public Accounts Committee that local trusts "withheld payment" in order to force Fujitsu to make changes to the system beyond the contractual agreement.
"We've so far received 615 change requests," Hutchinson said.
The Public Accounts Committee was probing key figures in the NHS and Fujitsu about the problems plaguing the £12.7 billion National Programme for IT project. NPfIT has been rocked by the departure of Fujitsu, the second local service provider to leave the programme.
The Fujitsu spokesperson also said the original brief was for standardisation of systems, but the constant need to change systems to meet local requirements was been a major cause of delay.
"When we set up the project it was clear that we would set up in four releases: Release 0, 1, 2, and 3. Release 0 was subject to many changes and that is what has delayed the contract. Payment disputes were a side effect of that. This is where the fundamental issue of standardisation versus localisation comes in," said the spokesperson.
Hutchinson added that the change process was "very onerous on Trusts" and so most Trusts chose to be "less ambitious and apply less functionality than was available".
However David Nicholson, chief executive officer of NHS, said: "There has been a lot of discussions between us and Fujitsu on what constitutes contract change and what constitutes non-delivery of the contract, and my guess is that is going to be the subject of a whole series of discussions in the next period."
NHS chief operating officer Gordon Hextall fielded questions on whether Fujitsu's departure would cause more costs and delays.
Fujitsu received more than £300 million in advance payments from the Department of Health's IT delivery agency Connecting for Health, but were to repay £143 million as the supplier has left the programme, MPs heard. There is £67 million outstanding on the contract.
Hextall confirmed there could be further financial implications as part of the "transitional arrangements" as Fujitsu hands over the programme to a new supplier, which is most likely to be BT.
In a May report on the NHS IT programme, the National Audit Office said: “At 31 March 2008, Fujitsu in the South had the highest average and the most deployments for which no payment had been made … Fujitsu told us that, in its view, trusts on occasion held back from agreeing that payment should be made, even where systems were working, until all the non-contractual changes they were seeking had been implemented.”
Hextall defended the many changes and delays to the IT programme: "This is not equivalent to paint-by-numbers. Some elements are, for example PAS, are where you do the design and then you know how to do repeatedly. This is more like an expedition, you've got some expertise and you have to overcome problems you encounter along the way and work collaboratively with suppliers to do that," he said.