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UK to have digital border by end of 2025

Home secretary’s plans for immigration reform include border crossing technology, online immigration status service and electronic travel authorisation system

The Home Office has launched a scheme to create a digital border as part of its plans for immigration reform.

The government’s New plan for immigration: legal migration and border control sets out how it aims to achieve a “fully digital end-to-end experience” in all aspects of immigration and border crossings.

“Over the next four years, we will implement transformational change for everyone who interacts with the immigration system and crosses the border,” said the strategy document.

“We will deliver a fully end­-to-end digital customer experience for people from the way they apply online, how they prove their identity, how they provide evidence that they meet the relevant criteria, to how they receive and use proof of their status to cross the border and demonstrate any entitlements in the UK.”

This includes delivering a digital system allowing for online evidence of immigration status.

“In addition to reforming the immigration routes, we are continuing to deliver a digital system by removing the use of physical documents to demonstrate status,” the document said. “We will make further improvements to how applicants access and prove their immigration status to others.”

This system has already been put in place for European Economic Area (EEA) nationals to apply for the right to remain in the UK post-Brexit.

“We will continue to improve the online immigration status service, and we will enhance our support offer for those who need assistance to use this service,” the document said.

“We will be taking a phased approach as we move to a fully digital system. As part of this, we are looking at further ways to remove physical documents from the process and streamline the system, such as potentially removing the need for separate vignettes and biometric residence permits, taking out the cost and time for the user and the Home Office and improving security.”

The government has a long-standing history with border IT. The Home Office originally launched an e-Borders programme in 2003, aiming to improve the use of information to track people across borders. The programme cost £830m and failed to deliver.

It then launched a replacement programme, Digital Services at the Border (DSAB), in 2014. The original aim was for DSAB to be completed by March 2019, delivering three main systems: Advance Border Control, Border Crossing, and Advanced Freight Targeting Capability.

Read more about border IT

  • HMRC will get more than £100m for border IT systems as part of a £705m government funding package for infrastructure, jobs and technology after Brexit.
  • Chief inspector of borders and immigration calls on Home Office to re-establish exit checks project with proper data quality in place, but department rejects recommendation.
  • The Home Office’s digital border programme has so far not achieved value for money, has suffered delays, lacks clear objectives and will cost taxpayers an additional £173m, according to the National Audit Office.

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.

By March 2019, when the programme was due to be fully operational, only one of the three systems was in live operation – Border Crossing – and even that was only run as a pilot in up to eight ports.

The latest document said the Border Crossing system has now been piloted and is being rolled out nationally.

“The improved capability enables improvements in the operational process at the border, delivering customer and security benefits,” it said. “By summer 2021, all Border Force staff will have the ability, if required, to check at the PCP [primary control point] whether an individual has applied for, or been granted, status under the EU Settlement Scheme, should they need to do so.

“The [border crossing] capability will be extended to the e-gates as they are upgraded during 2021. This modernised system will also bolster our networks with partner agencies when one of their persons of interest is encountered at the border.”

The government will also put in place an electronic travel authorisation system, similar to the US’s ESTA system “as part of a wider universal ‘permission to travel’ requirement, which will mean everyone wishing to travel to the UK (except British and Irish citizens) will need to seek permission in advance of travel”.

To deliver this system, the government is planning to work with academia and technology suppliers on creating “innovative” solutions for the border, and develop border standards for technology and infrastructure.

In a speech at a conference hosted by liberal conservative think-tank Bright Blue, home secretary Priti Patel said: “The UK’s immigration system is broken, and we will fix it.

“Our new, fully digital border will provide the ability to count people in and count people out of the country. We will have a far clearer view of who is here and whether they should be, and we will act when they are not.”

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