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Virtual inanity: Solution to Irish border requires data and tech not yet available, MPs told

Also reliant on HMRC's shaky Customs Declaration Service

A "virtual" solution to the Irish border problem arising from Brexit relies on data that has not yet been amassed and technology yet to be available, MPs heard today.

In the Home Affairs Committee hearing into Home Office preparations for Brexit, Shanker Singham, chair of the Prosperity UK thinktank-backed Alternative Arrangements Commission, and Tony Smith, expert on border management and security for the panel, were quizzed on the current border proposals.

Under the Good Friday agreement, physical infrastructure at the 499km-long border between the northeastern UK-led chunk, Northern Ireland, and EU member state the Republic of Ireland to its west and south, would not be workable, with MPs told today that an "intelligence-led" system had instead been proposed.

There are over 200 roads that cross the border.

Smith, former director general of the UK Border Force, told MPs the "intelligence-led interventions" would require information on traders who will need to complete customs declarations after Brexit, something they currently are not required to do. "The challenge really is the data that we don't have now is going to take some time to accrue."

Once all the data is available, it is proposed that customs officials will be able to target individuals suspected of trading undeclared goods at points away from the border.

When asked for a timeframe for that data being in place, Smith said he "wouldn't want to hazard a guess", although added that for those interested in registering he hoped it would be ready by December 2020.

The panel's proposals are contingent on the EU agreeing to a Brexit transition period of three years, and on a scenario where the UK leaves with a deal.

Smith also said: "We do have a very good border, and an excellent targeting capability. What is changing is the volume of data – and [whether] we have the capability to fulfil that data. Hopefully the [Home Office's Customs Declaration Service] will enable that."

CDS is intended to replace HMRC's 25-year-old current IT system – known as Customs Handling of Import and Export Freight (CHIEF) and responsible for duty on imports from countries outside the EU each year. In 2015, nearly £700bn worth of goods crossed the border.

There are currently 55 million annual customs declarations, a figure expected to rise to 255 million after the UK leaves the EU.

However, the government's major projects watchdog recently flagged the system amber/red, meaning successful delivery is in doubt, with major risks or issues apparent in a number of key areas.

Smith also said tracking technology could trace the progress of freight "so Border Force would see it moving, a bit like an Uber" and help to solve the issue of smuggled goods. Although he added that while he has viewed demonstrations of the technology, it is "not yet in place".

Pressed on how it would be possible to know if traders had failed to declare their goods without surveillance, he said: "[We] would be looking to see if there are movements... if goods are cropping up in the market [that shouldn't be]."

He added: "We're not saying it's easy, it's far from easy. But we're trying to come up with an alternative arrangement to managing the Irish border without putting in any physical infrastructure."

Yvette Cooper, chair of the committee, replied: "It sounds like we've just created a huge number of additional haystacks and we're not clear where the additional help is to find all those needles. But thank you very much for your evidence." ®

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