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PAC slams Home Office digital border programme

The Home Office has failed to acknowledge and be transparent about Digital Services at the Border programme problems, according to the Public Accounts Committee

The Home Office has continued to fail to deliver digital border programmes for nearly 20 years, with continuous delays and additional costs, a Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report has found.

The department originally launched an e-Borders programme in 2003, aiming to improve the use of information to track people across borders, which cost £830m and failed to deliver.

It then launched a replacement programme, Digital Services at the Border (DSAB), in 2014, which was originally due to be complete in 2019, but also failed to deliver and reset the programme.

The PAC report said the Home Office “has presided over a litany of failure in nearly 20 years of non-delivery of digital border programmes, with significant delays introducing additional costs to taxpayers, continued dependency on contractors to maintain legacy programmes and delayed delivery of benefits to Border Force officers, other users and passengers”.

It added that the department continues to struggle to deliver technology programmes “at a staggering cost to the tax payer”, with delays to the DSAB programme so fat costing £173m. In December 2020, a National Audit Office (NAO) report also criticised the DSAB programme for lacking clear objectives and a timetable for delivery and budget.

The PAC said the department has “has failed to identify, acknowledge and be transparent about problems in the Digital Services at the Border programme”.

“Optimism bias about delivery and a failure to be open and transparent about delays left the Department unable to act on accurate information and exposed it to increased costs due to delays in identifying the need to reset the programme,” the report said.

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It added that the department failed to respond or address risks that were flagged to the programme board, with “false assurances about progress” further impeding its responses, and that the programme suffered from constant changes in leadership.

“There have been three accounting officers and four senior responsible owners (SROs) since the Digital Services at the Border programme began,” it said. “The department now expects the Digital Services at the Border programme SRO to focus full-time on seeing the programme through to delivery.”

Originally, the DSAB was going to deliver three main systems: Advance Border Control (ABC); Border Crossing; and Advanced Freight Targeting Capability (AFTC). These would replace two legacy systems: Semaphore, which was delivered by IBM in 2004; and the 26-year-old warnings index system. However, during a programme reset in 2019, the Home Office made the decision to upgrade and improve Semaphore.

It has begun rolling out its Border Crossing system, but so far it has only reached 300 frontline users at seven locations, despite aiming for 7,000 users at 56 locations by June 2021.

“It still has no proof that systems can cope with passenger volumes that existed prior to Covid-19, let alone the 6% annual growth in the volume of passengers it is allowing for above the 140 million people that arrived in the UK annually prior to Covid-19,” the report said.

Timetable

The PAC called on the department to set out specifically what it’s doing differently in its approach to the programme to ensure it’s delivered to its current March 2022 timetable. However, it added that there is a “clear risk” that the department will not be able to deliver on time.

Commenting on the DSAB programme failures, PAC chair Meg Hillier said that immigration and border security are “among the biggest political issues of our time”.

“It’s incredible that the Home Office can have failed so badly, for so long, to deliver technology that is crucial to our national security objectives: crucial to protecting the public from terrorism, crime, illegal immigration and trafficking, and crucial to facilitating legitimate movement across the border,” she said.

“The Home Office has struggled to get to grips with the technical challenges, resetting the programme and changing the leadership repeatedly. And it is the tax payer hit by both the financial cost and the risks to our security.”

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