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Critical border IT systems won’t be ready before Brexit, says PAC report

Of the 85 IT systems at the UK border, 30 will need to be replaced or changed due to Brexit, but critical new or updated border IT systems won’t ready by the time the UK leaves the EU, PAC report finds

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has criticised the government for failing to plan for any new physical infrastructure at the UK’s borders by March 2019.

A PAC report on Brexit and the UK border found that the government did not expect “all new or updated IT systems to be ready” by the time the UK leaves the European Union (EU) and was assuming risks to the border wouldn’t change immediately.

“Departments say they are planning for a no-deal scenario, but do not expect there to be many changes whatever the position in March 2019,” the report said, adding that the committee was concerned “the Border Planning Group’s assumption that the risks to border activity will remain unchanged immediately post-Brexit is a risky approach”.

IT at the UK borders is run by several departments, such as HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Home Office.

These government departments do not have the best track record in delivering “critical border programmes” on time and to budget, the PAC report said, adding it left the committee “skeptical that they are up to the challenges of planning for the border post-Brexit, including having enough people to manage it”.

Borders IT delay

The Home Office is currently in the process of rolling out its Digital Services at the Border (DSAB) programme, which replaced the failed e-Borders programme. 

The project, which aims to introduce IT systems to secure the UK’s borders, started in 2003 and was due to be completed in 2011 to a budget of £600m, but it will be at least 2019 before the technology goes live, at an estimated cost of £1.1bn.

Home Office border IT projects have been plagued by a very high turnover of programme directors, which has been seen as one of the main reasons why e-Borders and its successor programme are so delayed.

At the end of 2016, the Home Office brought in Barry Gould, a CIO with a track record in delivering successful projects, to run Borders IT, who undertook a restructuring and rethink of the programme. However, Home Office permanent secretary Patsy Wilkinson told the PAC in November that Gould had left his position after only a few months in the job.

This puts border IT in a precarious situation, and the PAC is concerned the government is not taking the risks seriously enough.

“Around 30 of the 85 IT systems used at the border will need to be replaced or changed in some way when the UK leaves the EU. This includes requirements for five entirely new systems and three replacements, including systems currently provided by the EU,” the PAC report said.

“Major changes to border management are difficult to make and will require strong coordination across government and with many stakeholders.

“Given the track record it seems unlikely that all the new systems needed to manage the border effectively after we exit the EU will be successfully delivered, and even if things go to plan, departments accept already that not all the systems would be ready by March 2019.”

Risky business

PAC chair Meg Hillier said the government’s preparations for Brexit simply assume there will be no extra border risks in leaving the EU.

“It has acted – or rather, not acted – on this basis. This approach, in the context of what continues to be huge uncertainty about the UK’s future relationship with the EU, might generously be described as cautious,” she said.

“But against the hard deadline of Brexit, it is borderline reckless – an over-reliance on wishful thinking that risks immediately exposing the UK to an array of damaging scenarios.”

As previously reported by Computer Weekly, HMRC reached the halfway point of its development work on the UK’s new customs IT system in September, however it still can’t guarantee the system will be ready by March 2019.

The new Customs Declaration Service (CDS) system is due to go live in January 2019 – just two months before the UK leaves the EU, and will replace the existing Chief customs system used for handling import and export freight from outside the EU, which has been in place for 25 years.

HMRC chief executive Jon Thompson has previously admitted that it would be “catastrophic” if the new system was not operational on Brexit day.

The PAC report said the department was still negotiating with HM Treasury for £7.3m to upgrade the current Chief system as a contingency plan. 

Read more about border IT

  • HMRC has built blockchain proof of concept to coordinate interventions at the border. 
  • Home Affairs committee calls on government to improve contingency planning in case new IT systems miss Brexit deadline at end of March 2019.  

Read more on IT for government and public sector

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