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EC calls on the UK to ensure UK-Ireland border customs IT systems are ready

The European Commission has warned that the UK must be ready for IT systems implementation at the Northern Ireland/Ireland border to handle goods

The European Commission (EC) has called on the UK to be ready for implementation of IT systems at the UK-Ireland border by 1 June 2020.

In a cover note circulated to member states, as part of the EC’s technical note on the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, seen by the Independent newspaper, the EC warned that the UK has less than 30 days to begin upgrading its customs IT systems to be able to process goods at the border in a post-Brexit world.

“Most time-critical is the area of IT systems and databases supporting customs, VAT and excise processes,” the note said, according to the Independent.

“To ensure full functionality and inter-operability of relevant systems by 1 January, commission services and the UK administration need to be working together at full speed and be ready for the necessary technical implementations, which in our technical assessment need to start by 1 June at the very latest.”

The EC confirmed the accuracy of the note and the quotes to Computer Weekly.

The new customs system from HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), the customs declaration service (CDS), has been behind schedule, and was not ready by the time the UK left the EU in October 2019. A National Audit Office (NAO) report, published in October 2019, said HMRC was behind schedule on the delivery timescales for CDS in February 2019, but the situation had become worse, according to the NAO report. 

The reason for the delay is that software developers at HMRC have had to focus on the old Customs Handling of Import and Export Freight (Chief) rather than the new system.

Chief, which has been in place for 27 years, was originally only able to handle 60 million customs declarations per year. The system therefore had to be upgraded to ensure it would be able to cope as a contingency post-Brexit.

An HMRC spokesperson told Computer Weekly that the department has now  extended the migration timelines for moving from Chief to CDS, and will run both systems in parallel for longer than originally planned.

"We had originally planned to close our Chief system this year but, on discussion with our industry partners, we decided it would support them if we extended until after 2020,” the spokesperson said.

"We continue to work in close partnership with the customs industry developing the new Customs Declaration Service."

There have long been concerns over the readiness of the UK’s IT systems in coping post-Brexit. In November 2018, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said it was concerned about the risks “to customs and borders post-Brexit” and the impact it will have on British businesses.

In January 2020, a few weeks before the UK officially left the EU , an Institute for Government (IfG) report warned that the systems needed to support the UK border after the post-Brexit transition period, which comes to an end in December 2020, seem “almost impossible to deliver”.

The report also noted the situation around goods crossing the UK-Ireland border, where declarations on animal health, VAT, tariffs, standards, rules of origin and potentially rules of destination may be needed, and deemed the 11-month timeline for compliance “almost certainly undeliverable”.

The EC’s technical note on the implementation of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, said the UK must “provide details on the ‘dedicated mechanisms’ it intends to create, and a detailed timeline showing how those mechanisms will be fully operational by the end of the transition period”.

It added that the UK should provide “details and detailed timelines” on the measures needed, which are required to be operational by the end of the transition period.

“Across all the measures, the European Commission urges the United Kingdom to enter into technical implementation discussions with the relevant commission services immediately,” the technical note said.

It added that businesses also need time to prepare for the changes to customs and regulations at the border.

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