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National security ‘not affected’ by failed e-Borders programme, says Home Office

Despite the key Warnings Index system suffering an average of two high-priority incidents a week – such as a system component not being available – Home Office officials deny it causes risk to national security

Home Office officials have denied that the failed e-Borders programme has caused any risk to national security and said it has delivered value for money.

The project, originally due to be delivered in 2011, is well over budget, costing £830m to date, with a further £275m projected costs before the Home Office produces new systems in-house, due to go live in 2019.

A highly critical report from the National Audit Office (NAO) earlier this month highlighted that the key Warnings Index (WI) system used at the UK’s borders “suffers from an average of two high-priority incidents a week”, including a component of the system not being available, or “30% or more of border control points being unavailable”.  

But in a Public Accounts Committee meeting to discuss the report, Sir Charles Montgomery, director general of the UK Border Force, insisted that the UK’s borders have remained secure despite the original plan for new systems running years late.

Montgomery told MPs that the core WI software has seen 100% availability throughout this year. He said “high priority” incidents include issues such as defective screens at immigration or even power outages at overseas checkpoints such as Calais – and did not mean security was affected. 

Home Office permanent secretary Mark Sedwill acknowledged that the e-Borders delays mean border systems are not as “efficient as they could be”, but said: “We do have, and throughout this have had, capability to secure the country.”

The e-Borders initiative aimed to improve the use of information to track people moving across UK borders by conducting checks on travellers at the beginning of their journey to the UK, rather than on arrival. 

A major part of the plan was to integrate the two key systems – Warnings Index and Semaphore – but that integration has still not been achieved, 12 years after the project was launched.

However, Lin Homer, former chief executive of the UK Border Agency – she left in 2011 – insisted that e-Borders has largely delivered on the vision she originally set out.

“I think a significant amount of what was anticipated has been delivered,” she told the committee. “The bit that has been delayed – but which Charles [Montgomery] is on track to deliver, is full integration with WI [and Semaphore].”

Read more about the e-Borders programme

Integration of the two systems was meant to be the responsibility of supplier Raytheon, which was sacked in 2010, leading to five years of legal proceedings that concluded with the US company being paid a £150m settlement by the UK government. 

Homer said she disagreed with the decision to terminate the contract with Raytheon and would have preferred to “reset” the programme.

“I remained positive about trying to bring the supplier to a position where we had confidence for what price and what they would deliver. If I’m honest, not everybody shared that confidence,” she said, adding that Raytheon had missed many of its project commitments.

“It was clear [in 2009] that the programme was struggling to deliver both on time and to the quality that was expected,” she said.

At the time, Raytheon had proposed a revised contract worth an additional £778m to deliver a reset programme, but Homer said that was pushing cost beyond what had been approved by the Treasury.

Committee member Caroline Flint, MP, suggested that with a combined overspend to date of £763m – including the legal costs and the settlement with Raytheon – it would perhaps have been better to have accepted Raytheon’s proposal. However, Sedwill countered that Flint was not “comparing like with like”.

Home Office insists on value for money

The NAO said the Home Office has written off all but £150m of the money spent on e-Borders to date, out of a total spend of £830m. But Homer insisted the spending has mostly been worthwhile.

“It would not be my view that 80% of the money spent has been wasted,” she said. “I feel confident in saying it is nothing like 80% wasted. We would accept that the sum paid to Raytheon did not deliver much value.”

Raytheon UK CEO Richard Daniel said the Home Office changing the requirements of the project caused the problems that led to the contract termination.

“We didn’t want the contract terminated – we had been paid £209m at that point,” he said. “We wanted to deliver what we were contracted to deliver. We were looking for a way to reset the programme and overcome some of the challenges. But it became clear that the requirements weren’t fixed, [which is not what you would expect] with a fixed-price contract.

“We were given a figure [for a new contract] and we said we’d accept that. We were surprised then that it went to the termination, which was subsequently deemed unlawful. The [UK government] major projects group looked at the programme some time in 2010 and it was a recommendation from them that resulted in the termination of the programme.

“Miss Homer was recommending the reset – it seemed like a logical way of moving the whole process forward and would have delivered the integration aspects in a timely fashion.”

The e-Borders programme has since been scrapped and replaced by the in-house “digital service at the border” project, said Montgomery, who added that since 2013, “very significant improvements” have been made to both Semaphore and Warnings Index.

The NAO report found that the delivery plan for the e-Borders programme was too ambitious, and the Home Office “underestimated the scale of business transformation required in government agencies and multiple external stakeholders, which each had diverse information systems”.

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