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HMRC underestimates Single Trade Window project complexity, says NAO

A National Audit Office report on UK border calls on government to have a more realistic approach to digital transformation

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Digital border problems are stacking up

The government’s 2025 UK Border Strategy lacks a clear timetable, according to the National Audit Office (NAO), calling for Whitehall to have a realistic view of the challenges involved.

The NAO’s report on the UK border said the government’s ambition to have the world’s most effective border by 2025 depends heavily on the success of several programmes, including the Single Trade Window (STW) project, led by HM Revenue & Customs.

“The government has no clear timetable for the implementation of its strategy to achieve its ambition of having ‘the world’s most effective border’,” the NAO report said.

“There are significant implementation challenges that will need to be overcome to deliver the different elements of the strategy, including effectively managing interdependencies between programmes, overcoming legislative barriers to sharing data and incentivising industry to take part in the relevant programmes.”

It highlighted the STW project as one of the key programmes on which the success of a digital border relies. “The programme is a fundamental element of the government’s plans to implement both the remaining import controls and the strategy,” it said.

The STW project aims to allow users to provide the data they need to trade, as well as being able to apply for licences and authorisations for trusted trader schemes on the STW platform.

The government hopes the system will eliminate duplication and simplify data submissions by allowing traders to submit data once, which can be reused in other declarations.

However, the NAO pointed out that the project has “already fallen several months behind the timetable set out in its previous February 2023 business case”. Computer Weekly reported last week that the project had already faced trouble, and HMRC ended up in a formal dispute resolution process with its technical delivery partner Deloitte earlier this year.

The NAO report revealed that the contract with the supplier was agreed before the background requirements were defined.

“HMRC has acknowledged the complexity and challenges in delivering the STW. The programme’s latest March 2024 business case and delivery roadmap do not commit to milestones for the delivery of future strategic releases, but they specify the functionality that will be delivered incrementally by 2027,” the NAO report said, adding that delays could reduce the benefits realised.

It called on the Cabinet Office and HMRC to refresh the delivery roadmap for the programme by the end of 2024 to ensure the scope, timetable and project management are “appropriate”. The government estimates that the STW programme will cost £349m, but deliver benefits of £2.48bn, including £250m as a result of better data collection and sharing.

The NAO wants HMRC to agree common standards across different departments and external systems, which will need to integrate with the STW.

“Many of the stakeholders we spoke to were supportive of the concept, but some expressed scepticism about the scale of the potential benefits. Stakeholders’ concerns included whether the benefits had been overstated and whether the STW would provide an upgrade on existing products,” the report said. 

Commenting on the report, NAO comptroller and auditor general Gareth Davies said: “The UK leaving the EU created a large-scale change in arrangements for the movement of goods across the border. However, more than three years after the end of the transition period, it is still not clear when full controls will be in place.

“The border strategy has ambitious plans to use technology and data to facilitate trade while managing risks. To achieve its objectives, government requires strong delivery and accountability – including a more realistic approach to digital transformation – together with effective monitoring to enable future improvements.”

Read more about government and border technology

  • Home secretary’s plans for immigration reform include border crossing technology, online immigration status service and electronic travel authorisation system.
  • Less than a year into the programme to create a Single Trade Window as a digital gateway for traders, HMRC has already gone through a formal dispute resolution process with its supplier.
  • The 30-year-old Customs Handling of Import and Export Freight system will cease to exist on 4 June 2024, six years after HMRC originally planned to shut it down.

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