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HM Revenue and Customs’ (HMRC) border IT systems have all gone live on time for the end of the Brexit transition period. However, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, border traffic has been quiet, and despite the IT systems being ready, businesses are not necessarily ready to use them.
In December, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove criticised businesses for failing to prepare for the end of the transition period, despite the government’s campaign to ensure the UK’s businesses were ready.
Steve Bartlett, chairman of the Association of Freight Software Suppliers (AFSS), told Computer Weekly that he believed Gove was right. “I think a lot of traders have avoided doing anything,” he said, adding that he has been inundated with calls from traders for software to be able to submit customs declarations.
Bartlett said businesses are now beginning to “wake up to the fact that they need to get themselves sorted out”.
He believes that once traffic begins to pick up, the challenge will not necessarily be IT systems such as the Goods Vehicle Movement Service (GVMS) and the New Computerised Transit System (NCTS), but traders getting used to the new way of doing things.
There has not been much time to prepare for using the new systems. In June 2020, GVMS had not yet been built, and the technical specifications for the system were not published until July. On 8 December, GVMS opened for registrations, and on 23 December, hauliers were able to start creating a goods movement reference using the system.
In November 2020, a National Audit Office report noted that the overall readiness of the system was high-risk “due to a lack of time for adequate integration and testing with hauliers and carriers”.
However, the biggest issue with IT systems is at the Ireland/Northern Ireland border, where the Customs Declaration Service (CDS) is being used.
CDS replaces the old Customs Handling of Import and Export Freight (Chief) system. Originally, HMRC was due to turn off Chief by March 2020, but is now using it as part of a dual approach, in which traders use Chief for customs declarations relating to imports in Great Britain, while CDS is used for those relating to Northern Ireland until CDS has been scaled up to be able to handle the increased volumes of declarations.
However, there have been huge concerns from both industry and parliament around the use and readiness of CDS. Bartlett said in October 2020 that the CDS Northern Ireland programme’s current delivery plan gave software suppliers “little or no time to build, test and roll out software to their customers”.
In November 2020, a House of Lord Committee heard that CDS was “completely untested” and no one was trained to make declarations on the system.
However, HMRC said the system would be ready and live by the end of the transition period.
A government spokesperson told Computer Weekly: “The IT systems that were necessary for the end of the Brexit transition period are now live and fully operational. We continue to work closely with key delivery partners to support them as needed.”
Although the system is live, Bartlett told Computer Weekly that very few software suppliers are “actually ready to deliver anything”.
“The bulk of them are still working on getting CDS product ready, and a lot of them won’t be ready to do that until March at the earliest,” he said.
“Even those [AFSS] members who have got clients ready to go across to CDS, and potentially could do so, seem to have a very difficult process ahead. It’s like wading through treacle – it’s not an easy process moving someone over.”
Migrating from Chief to CDS is also an issue. Bartlett said it is about a two-week process to move from one system to the other. “So far, every single migration to CDS has been very much handheld by HMRC to make sure it works,” he said.
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Bartlett said industry had told HMRC: “If you’re going to migrate people in numbers, you need to have a standalone, unaided process that allows us to do this without you intervening.”
HMRC has agreed, but has yet to agree an open migration plan with protocols and documentation.
“Even if we had the software ready to go, there is no way that HMRC could move people across anyway,” said Bartlett.
He pointed out that software suppliers testing the system are still finding errors and bugs with CDS, and that suppliers don’t want to stake their reputation on something that is unproven.
Bartlett added that early last year, industry told HMRC that there needed to be an alternative in place for CDS, such as continuing to use Chief until CDS was ready. But HMRC has continually insisted that CDS would have to be used in Northern Ireland, as it complies with the Northern Ireland protocol.
Instead of using Chief, the government has quickly developed the Trader Support Service (TSS), a “unique service that will ensure that businesses of all sizes can have import processes dealt with on their behalf, at no cost”.
This means that businesses make declarations for Northern Ireland in TSS, which is then uploaded to CDS.
TSS went live on 21 December 2020, and so far more than 25,000 businesses have registered to use it, according to HMRC.
But Computer Weekly understands that this is not straightforward either, as TSS seems to be operating very slowly, with some users finding it takes several hours to complete a declaration.
Computer Weekly also understands that fast parcel operators operating across the Ireland/Northern Ireland border are unable to use both CDS and TSS. In order for them to still be able to operate, HMRC has had to come up with a special arrangement to allow them to bring goods across the border.
Computer Weekly has asked HMRC to clarify what these arrangements are.