Conservative health spokesman Stephen O’Brien has accused the government of trying to tie the hands of an incoming Tory government over the future of the National Programme for IT in the NHS.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, O’Brien said he was “very concerned” that the current negotiations that are being held with suppliers could result in contracts that “potentially tie a future government’s hands more rigidly than would they may already be under the current contracts.”

He “urged” the government “not to go down this route". Health minister Mike O’Brien, who has responsibility for NHS IT, confirmed that the government is seeking a ‘memorandum of understanding’ with suppliers by the end of March.

However, he said this was related to the demands made in the Pre-Budget Report for savings of up to £600m on the national programme, and that it was “nonsense” to think that the normal business of government could be stopped just because a general election is due to be held.

In a brief call with E-Health Insider, Stephen O’Brien said he had wanted to raise the contract issue but: "Everything we have asked for is surrounded by commercial confidentiality and we are not allowed to see the contracts."

In a subsequent press release he added: "Labour claims it is making efficiency savings, but cutting the deal with suppliers by as little as £600m does not reflect the scale by which they have failed to deliver.

"The only viable route forward is to end the monopoly of the NHS IT suppleirs and embrace the Conservatives’ plan to publish open standards and give local NHS trusts a choice of interoperable, proven IT systems." 

Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have repeatedly called for the national programme to be scrapped.

Last year, at the end of the independent review commissioned from Dr Glyn Hayes, the Conservatives pledged to dismantle much of the programme’s central architecture, including the national database of electronic patient records, in favour of more localised systems.

They also promised to “halt and renegotiate the contracts Labour have signed for IT service providers to prevent further inefficiencies.”

At Christmas, in an interview with EHI, shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley went further, saying he believed it would be possible to abandon the existing local service provider contracts.

“Whilst the contracts remain shrouded in ‘commercial confidentiality’, we suspect that it would now be possible to abandon them without penalties in either direction, because the costs of fulfilling the contracts to the companies would exceed the value of the contracts to them,” he said.

Meanwhile, in the run-up to the Pre-Budget Report, Chancellor Alistair Darling indicated that he wanted to see the national programme scrapped, arguing that it was “not essential to frontline care” and “something we do not need to go ahead with right now.”

In response, health secretary Andy Burnham mounted a strong defence of the programme, while saying it would be subject to cuts of around £600m. He indicated that these would come from the programme’s own ‘back office’ functions and the scope of some of the programmes it is due to deliver.

EHI has subsequently reported that in the North, Midlands and East of England, the scope of the Lorenzo ‘strategic’ electronic patient record will be curbed.

It is likely that it will now stop at Release 2, although negotiations are still underway that could see some elements of Release 3, which was due to include theatres, maternity and in-patient prescribing, offered to trusts.

This week, EHI has also reported that the programme is struggling to find an additional ‘greenfield’ site in the South of England for Cerner Millennium, because of concerns about costs post the end of the programme.

Other elements of the programme are being pushed ahead, with the roll-out of the Summary Care Record gathering pace despite renewed opposition from the British Medical Association and other doctors’ bodies.

File on Four: Radio 4’s File on Four is due to broadcast a programme about government IT contracts, including the future of the National Programme for IT in the NHS, tonight at 8pm.