In an unusual move the £6.2 billion National Programme for IT (NPfIT) is to be investigated by the National Audit Office (NAO), Parliament’s independent public spending watchdog, just two years after the programme was launched.

With the major contracts now let and implementation work said to be beginning, the agency will undertake what it describes as a “stock-check" for the ten-year programme.

The NAO has said it does not have any “particular concern” about the programme.  An NAO spokesperson told E-Health Insider: “It was always expected that we would do this. It’s such a large project that it would be surprising if we did not do so."

The spokesperson confirmed that the NAO has been asking questions about the project for the last year, including quietly gathering information on the systems currently used by trusts.  “We’ve been watching it from the beginning.  We were waiting for a good moment, and now the major contracts are let, for a stock check."

The Government has set aside £2.3 billion centrally over the three years to 2005-06 for the programme. The total value of the contracts awarded to date – which cover a period of seven to ten years – is some £6.2 billion.

NPfIT completed the placing of contracts for the major IT systems making up the national system in early 2004. The NAO study will examine the procurement processes used for placing the contracts; whether contracts are likely to deliver good value for money; how the Department of Health is implementing the Programme, and the progress made by the programme so far.

The NAO has decided to step in at an earlier stage than usual after a series of high-profile Whitehall IT projects that have either not been delivered on schedule, have failed to work as specified or seen costs spiral out of control.

Normally, the NAO would only intervene when there is evidence that schemes are going wrong.  Previous investigations by the watchdog have identified problems with the major IT projects by the Department of Health, Criminal Records Bureau, Inland Revenue, the Passport Service and Department of Work and Pensions.

The NAO spokesperson told EHI that there were previous examples where it had looked at major projects at an early stage: “With London Underground we looked at it after the letting of major contracts."

In a statement the NAO spokesperson said: "The fact that we are starting work does not imply any particular concern with the way the programme is going.

“We are starting now, because it appears to us that, with the letting of the major contracts and the beginning of the inevitably long process of implementation it is a good moment for Parliament to be taking a stock-take and a forward look."   

According to Computer Weekly the NAO study “will examine the procurement processes used for placing the contracts; whether contracts are likely to deliver good value for money; how the [Department of Health] is implementing the programme, and the progress made so far".

In a prepared statement the national programme said: "It is only natural, and it has always been expected, that such an important programme should be the subject of a NAO report.

“Having largely completed our procurement phase and being well into initial implementation this is naturally an appropriate time for such a report to be done and we welcome it."

Previous NAO reports into NHS IT projects have included its highly critical  investigation into Read Codes, began in 1996 the report only finally saw light in 1998 after having been delayed for a year until after the 1997 General Election.

In his recommendations in the 1998 Read Codes report Sir John Bourne, Comptroller General of the NAO said it was “essential that, in managing IT projects, the Executive should carry out rigorous cost benefit analysis before approving them, as required by Treasury guidance, coupled with tightly controlled piloting during development, and before releasing systems to the service as a whole."