Scotland’s criminal records checking agency is continuing to spend millions of pounds to manually deal with disclosure applications more than a year after an IT system £44 million over budget went live.
Figures obtained under Freedom of Information law reveal that Disclosure Scotland, which vets individuals on behalf of employers and people hired to work with children and vulnerable adults, spent £8.4m on temporary employees in the year up until the end of August.
Of that sum, £3.3m paid for temporary staff to manually process disclosure applications while £5m paid for temporary employees to continue developing the IT system.
When given the green light by the Scottish Government in 2015 the system, which is taxpayer funded, was expected to cost £34.1m. Last November the total cost was estimated at £75.8m.
In December the auditor general for Scotland, Caroline Gardner, issued a critical report highlighting a lack of oversight of finances as one of the key issues with Disclosure Scotland’s handling of the project.
The bespoke system, which was built by technology consultancy BJSS to replace an outdated platform provided by BT, was supposed to cut costs by digitising the entire disclosure application process.
Costs have escalated due to ongoing delays, however, with the original go-live date of March 2018 being pushed back to September 2019.
Commenting on the use of temporary staff to work around problems with the system, Liam Kerr, the Scottish Conservatives’ shadow justice spokesman, said it is indicative of the “chaos and overspending” that delivery of government IT projects “is too often defined by”.
“Here we see costs ballooning with taxpayers picking up the bill at a time when the pandemic is putting extreme pressure on public funds,” he added.
“If it is the case that the initial budget was unrealistic, then the SNP should have been honest about that from the outset.
Kerr continued: “Questions need to be answered about why costs have more than doubled and why we’re still waiting for this delayed system to start delivering.”
A spokeswoman for Disclosure Scotland confirmed that while all basic disclosure applications have been handled by the new system since last year, “manual processing is required” for higher level applications.
“We have now developed fully digital channels for all Disclosure Scotland products, but those for higher-level disclosures are currently at the private beta [testing] stage,” she said.
“These will be rolled out to all customers as soon as possible. In the meantime, we accept emailed applications but these still have to be manually processed.”
Problems with the roll-out of the project were first highlighted in 2018, when then Disclosure Scotland chief executive Lorna Gibbs – who left the agency at the start of this year – told government ministers that BJSS was to blame.
In an email sent to Deputy First Minister John Swinney and children’s minister Maree Todd on 20 August 2018, Gibbs wrote that while she did not have “any concerns about BJSS’s ability to deliver a good software solution” she believed the company had an issue with “timing and technical capacity”.
“We challenge BJSS constantly on the deliverability and risks of their work,” she wrote. “It was as part of this regular challenge that we spotted concerns that BJSS have been overly optimistic.”
A response sent from Swinney’s office the next day, which was released under FOI legislation in October 2018, said he found delays “deeply disappointing” but agreed that Disclosure Scotland had “no alternative” but to extend its contract with BT to ensure its services could continue uninterrupted.
That contract extension ultimately added £7m to the overall cost of the project.
In the past two financial years the Scottish Government has significantly increased its funding to Disclosure Scotland.
Its 2018/19 budget award more than doubled from £14.8m to £30.3m and its 2018/19 payment almost tripled from £11.4m to £32.1m.
It allocated £21.3m to the agency in the current financial year.
At the same time as costs were escalating, Disclosure Scotland saw its income drop significantly as a result of the Home Office-run Disclosure and Barring Service taking over basic disclosure checks for England and Wales in January 2018.
Its revenues dropped by £29.2m in the first full year after that change.
Despite this, the Scottish Government said it is content that Disclosure Scotland is providing value for money, adding that the new IT system will enable the agency to provide a more cost-effective service in the longer term.
“While Disclosure Scotland required additional financial support from the Scottish Government, it continues to provide an important service to its stakeholders in Scotland, and fees for its disclosure products have not changed since February 2011,” a spokesman said.
“The transformation programme replaced an ageing and obsolete IT application owned by BT with a system that was controlled by Disclosure Scotland.
“It also provides a basis on which Disclosure Scotland will build the technology needed to deliver the Disclosure Scotland Act and achieve further savings in due course.”
Under the terms of the Disclosure Scotland Act, which passed in June, the four different types of disclosure currently used are to be replaced with a two-tier system.
Lifetime membership of the government’s Protecting Vulnerable Groups scheme will also be scrapped in favour of five-year terms.
There is currently no timeframe in place for when these changes will be made.
BJSS, which is currently working on a project for governmental agency Education Scotland, would not comment on the Disclosure Scotland project.
But the company said it made a “significant investment” in order to get the work done. As part of that it created 70 jobs, including a Glasgow-based head of delivery.
John Finnie, the Scottish Greens’ justice spokesman, said the spending on temporary staff “suggests systemic failures in oversight of an organisation which has an important role to play in keeping our communities safe”.
He added: “The public sector is littered with examples of botched IT contracts. This shambles needs the appropriate scrutiny of Audit Scotland and the responsible minister needs to confirm what impact it may have had in the quality of the organisation’s work, importantly whether public safety might have been compromised.”
Disclosure Scotland is currently being managed on an interim basis by its director of protection services and policy, Gerard Hart.
Photo by golubovy.