Sun 18 April 2021

Delays uncovered by the National Audit Office coincide with other delays in Government plans to introduce new Brexit border controls and custom checks

A costly Home Office plan to digitalise the UK border to check the arrival of 141 million people every year is now running three years late and will land taxpayers with an extra £173 million bill on top of the hundreds of millions of pounds already spent, a report by the spending watchdog reveals today.

The delay in implementing the new border control system comes at the same time as plans to introduce new Brexit border controls and custom checks are also behind schedule. The £4.4 billion programme is unlikely to be ready for 1 January.

The Home Office’s e-border plan aims to digitalise the system so that all citizens, visitors, asylum seekers, potential terrorists and criminals on a “watch list” can automatically be checked when they enter the country at 56 major ports and airports. It will also improve the system at 270 other crossing points.

The scheme, which predates Brexit, began in 2003 under the then Home Secretary David Blunkett and has cost in the region of £1 billion. The first programme to create an e-border was cancelled in 2011 and ended in a legal dispute with the US security firm Raytheon. It was resurrected in 2014 after some £830 million had already been spent. The new programme will now cost another £311 million at current prices.

The revised scheme was supposed to go live in 2019 when the UK was still in the EU but changes brought about by Brexit, including the end of free movement and Home Secretary Priti Patel’s plan to digitalise the immigration service, have set its delivery back.

One immediate result is that the Home Secretary’s plan to stop people coming into the country using identity cards has been rescheduled from 1 January 1 to next October because the new technology is not ready.

The rest of the programme will not be completed until 2022 and, in the meantime, antiquated systems will have to be used. The “watch list”, which is supposed to check potential criminals and terrorists, relies on a Fujitsu computer system which is 26 years old. The advanced passenger system for flight arrivals relies on a 16-year-old system by IBM.

In its report, the National Audit Office states: “The Home Office now has 16 months to introduce its new systems, including delivering the more technically complex aspects of the programme which it has previously struggled with. It is dependent on the full roll-out of Border Crossing – its new long-term solution for managing the “watchlist” of individuals of interest – to meet new demands on border management arising from EU Exit.

“The most significant requirement will be to enable electronic visas, settled status and other status which will be official digital permissions allowing entry to the UK, to be checked at the border against the watchlist.”

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said: “The Digital Services at the Border programme did not achieve value for money by March 2019, failing to deliver what it intended and leaving Border Force staff to rely on outdated legacy systems. Since resetting the programme, there have been improvements and the Home Office has a better understanding of the significant risks and challenges ahead. It now needs to build on this work to ensure that it can deliver the programme at the pace and scale it requires.”

Labour MP Meg Hillier, chair of the Commons’ Public Accounts Committee, said the report showed how the Home Office had “utterly failed to learn from the mistakes it made with the e-Borders project”.

“The Home Office once again lost sight of the programme’s core purpose, trying to add more and more features like baubles on a Christmas tree,” she added. “The department plunged ahead without a delivery plan and didn’t address risks. Failure was inevitable.” 

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