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HMRC legacy UK customs system to be switched off for good

The 30-year-old Customs Handling of Import and Export Freight (Chief) system will cease to exist on 4 June 2024, six years after HMRC originally planned to shut it down

HM Revenue & Customs has announced it will officially turn off its legacy customs management system in early June 2024.

The Customs Handling of Import and Export Freight (Chief) system, which has been in use for more than 30 years, was originally due to be fully replaced by the new Custom Declaration Service (CDS) in March 2020. However, the date was then pushed back to March 2023, eventually settling on the final date of 4 June 2024.

The shutdown of the Chief system has been in the works for several years, during which time it has been running in tandem with CDS. The import declarations function of Chief was switched off in September 2022, but businesses are still able to submit export declarations on the system. 

While many businesses already use CDS, those that still submit customs declarations through Chief now only have a few months to transition to the new system – from 4 June, no customs declarations will be submitted through Chief. Currently, 30% of all export declarations are submitted through CDS, and HMRC is providing support and help to businesses moving across.

Sarah Hartley, HMRC’s director of border change delivery, said the department was encouraging businesses to move over “as soon as they can so the transition to CDS is as smooth as possible for everyone”.

“The open migration for exports from Chief to CDS marks a key milestone for HMRC, and we would like to thank all our partners who were involved in making this achievement happen,” she said.

Smooth transition takes time

The government began the first phase of its CDS roll-out in August 2018. Originally, CDS was due to be the only system in use by the time the UK exited the European Union in 2019, but it became clear that it would not be ready to handle the large increase in customs declarations expected after Brexit.

“The open migration for exports from Chief to CDS marks a key milestone for HMRC”
Sarah Hartley, HMRC

The plan was amended to keep both systems running in parallel until Chief would switch off in March 2020. However, the government instead decided to use its resources to upgrade the Chief system, as part of a dual approach, with traders using Chief for customs declarations relating to imports in Great Britain, and CDS used for those relating to Northern Ireland, until CDS had been scaled to handle the increased volume of declarations.

In 2021, confident that CDS could be rolled out completely, the government announced that the Chief system would close in two stages – first in September 2022 for import declarations, and then in March 2023 for export declarations. However, the latter stage was never completed.

The road to getting CDS ready for trade has been fraught. The focus on upgrading Chief, rather than focusing on CDS functionality, led to further costs and time, and was criticised widely. A National Audit Office report in October 2019 found that the focus on Chief also meant HMRC had to extend its contract with Fujitsu for a further year to support the legacy platform, at a cost of £12m.

Despite the issues, HMRC remained firm that CDS would be ready by the time the UK left the EU. As the date loomed, however, it became clear this was not going to be the case.

In November 2020, a House of Lords Committee heard that CDS functionality remained “unproven” and that HMRC was taking a “cloak-and-dagger approach” to working with industry.

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