The UK border could be left exposed after Brexit as departments have failed to plan for new IT systems, according to a damning report by MPs released today.
Whitehall is assuming the risks to managing the border will not change immediately when the UK leaves the EU in March 2019, and that border checks will accordingly be the same after the exit as they were before, the Public Accounts Committee found.
Given this laissez faire attitude, departments have not budgeted to deploy fresh physical infrastructure at the border over the next 15 months, which in the event of a no-deal scenario could prove to be a big mistake, the PAC added.
Around 30 of the 85 IT systems currently used at the border will need to be replaced or updated in some way, MPs stated. This includes requirements for five entirely new systems and three replacements, along with systems currently provided by the EU.
PAC Chair Meg Hillier said: “We were deeply concerned by the lack of progress on this back-up plan. It is now alarming to note such weak contingency planning extends across Government departments.
“The volume of traffic at the border under current arrangements is substantial: in 2016, around 300 million people and 500 million tonnes of freight crossed it.
“After Brexit, the number of decisions required about people or goods crossing could more than treble and more than quadruple respectively. These figures should concern all in Government and in our view its current approach is not fit for purpose."
Many departments are still negotiating with the Treasury to secure their share of the £250 million available to all departments. The Home Office has received £60m for 2017-18, but remains in discussions with the Treasury about future funding.
The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs has been in discussion with the Treasury since the end of 2016 but, while it has funding for this year, is only now starting to discuss future costs.
HMRC has also said it is still negotiating for £7.3m to upgrade its CHIEF IT system as a contingency option if the new Customs Declaration Service is not ready on time.
The report recommended the Treasury release money to departments more quickly to facilitate preparations for Brexit.
Difficulties in the past delivering improvement programmes have meant that many border processes still rely on dusty IT systems or are paper-based.
To put it mildly, many departments have a poor track record of delivering critical border programmes. The PAC said that "leaves us sceptical that they are up to the challenges of planning for the border post-Brexit, including having enough people to manage it."
For example, e-borders, intended to collect advance passenger information, started in 2003 but was delayed and eventually cancelled in 2010, with the government having to fork out £150m in a contractual dispute. Its successor programme, Digital Services at the Border (DSAB), will not be complete until 2019, some sixteen years later. ®