The UK government came under fire from MPs yesterday over IT system failures at the Department of Work and Pensions' Child Support Agency. They complained that the government's response to problems with the child-support case management and telephony system was turgid, and hit out at the government for cloaking its large scale IT projects in too much secrecy.

"Commercial confidentiality is being used to prevent Parliament from gaining access to key information about IT projects," the MPs wrote in their latest assessment of the matter.

The Child Support Agency system, which involves a Java-based application developed by Electronic Data Systems (EDS), is expected to cost the government £456m over 10 years and has been plagued by problems.

It was launched two years behind schedule and £256m over budget and was blamed last year for delaying payments to tens of thousands of single parents. The system also includes a telephone call centre system from BT 's consulting and systems integration business.

In July, the British Parliament's Select Committee on Work and Pensions, the legislative body charged with oversight of the government department, issued a condemning report that characterised the system as an "appalling waste of public money", adding that the entire system should be dumped if it is not fully operational by 1 December.

The Department of Work and Pensions rejected key recommendations from the Select Committee, including its desire to see contingency plans and a deadline for sorting out the system's problems. The department also rejected a recommendation to make the Office of Government Commerce (OGC) "gateway reviews" public.

“Instead of addressing the Committee's concern, the department defends its secretive approach on grounds of commercial confidentiality and says that it will make information available in the context of the Freedom of Information Act. This isn't good enough," Select Committee Chairman Sir Archy Kirkwood MP said yesterday in the Committee's statement. “We will not let the matter rest here."

The MP's pointed out that since 2001, the Department of Work and Pensions has spent around £4.25bn on various IT projects, including the Child Support Agency system, and that the UK's public sector IT projects in 2003/4 are expected to cost more than £12.4bn.

With such massive amounts of taxpayers’ money at stake, it is vital that the government "keep open its options for an independent review of projects", the MPs said it the Committee's statement. "Parliament and the public require more detailed information about IT projects, including the business case."