As the year-end Brexit transition deadline looms, the government risks having to introduce software designed to help keep 10,000 trucks crossing the English Channel each day without testing it first, according to industry associations.
Whether or not the UK manages to strike a trade deal with the EU by 31 December – when the current business-as-usual transition arrangements come to an end – the thousands of freight vehicles crossing the border from the UK to the EU will require the correct documentation.
It is now almost second week of September. The system will need to work on one minute past midnight on January 1st
The Road Haulage Association and the Freight Transport Association, now Logistics UK, has written to the government detailing the risks if IT systems are not available for users' acceptance testing and training.
“We are concerned that mass user testing of the software will not be possible until October – or maybe even November: this is far too late for the thousands of companies and tens of thousands of people who build our complex supply chains to redesign their own processes and contractual relations before the Transition Period ends.
"This timeline brings Smart Freight [System, the new post-Brexit arrangement] onstream at the height of the Christmas peak – traditionally the busiest time of year for the logistics industry – the worst possible time for our members to test and train staff in new working practices,” said Sarah Laouadi, European policy manager at Logistics UK, in a statement.
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“Even if the software is ready by the end of the year, the government’s plans ignore the users’ perspective – our members will need time to learn the new system, adopt it and help to iron out any potential issues in the system,” she added.
'Ambition' to build Smart Freight System only surfaced in July
In July, the government published the Border Operating Model, which included its ambition to build a Smart Freight System. The document said heavy goods vehicle drivers will need documents for EU import requirements including customs or transit declarations and any other commodity-specific approvals. Included are Cabinet Office plans to build a web-based portal to allow drivers or freight company staff to key in details of the vehicle, load documentation and produce a decision on whether it is advisable to travel to the border.
Logistics UK policy manager Chris Yarsley told The Register the scheme was designed to avoid traffic congestion, particularly in the county of Kent, through which most of the freight passes, caused by trucks being held up at the border. Kent is home to the port of Dover, the UK's main commercial/cargo hub from mainland Europe.
Yarsley told us he'd seen a walk-through of the web-based software via a Microsoft Teams meeting with the Cabinet Office, but freight companies had not been given the chance to try out a working version. “It is now almost [the] second week of September. The system will need to work on one minute past midnight on January 1st. We need to see a significant increase roll-out of testing; it will leave us very little time. It might be November before we see a public beta test.”
He said the system looked straight forward for a single driver carrying a single load, but many trucks carry multiple loads for different destinations, and could include hundreds of packages.
Yarsley said: “Who is going include those detail and how? Do you need a new entry for each package? What if [there are] breakdowns, as happens all the time, and the freight company needs to change it? What if the driver is ill or quarantined?”
He said freight companies could put plans in place, but they needed answers to these questions to design their processes. “We can’t put those in place until we know what we are dealing with.”
'There are up to 10 new systems that haulage firms and freight forwarders will have to navigate from Jan 1...'
According to newswire Bloomberg, a Cabinet Office memo detailed the risks of the number of new IT systems involved and in development that could create risks of border disruption when Brexit becomes real.
“There are up to 10 new systems that haulage firms and freight forwarders will have to navigate from Jan. 1, including at least three being designed now,” the memo reportedly said. “This is completely unnecessary and unmanageable with duplication and overlap.”
A UK government spokesperson said: "The Smart Freight app will be up and running for January 2021 to minimise any potential disruption and help to ensure that only vehicles carrying the correct documentation for Member State border controls travel to ports. We are currently working with businesses and the haulage sector to ensure that the web application is effective and simple to use.
"Extensive preparations and engagement with ports and local authorities on border arrangements are underway. We have also committed to spending £470m on new border infrastructure to support ports in building extra capacity to meet the new control requirements where there is space to do so, and, if necessary, to build additional inland sites across the country where checks can take place," the spokesperson added.
But observers could be wary of accepting the government's assurances over technology designed to managed UK border crossings. According to spending watchdog the National Audit Office (NAO), the government e-borders programme spent £830m before it was cancelled and the Home Office allocated another £275m to the successor programme, due to be completed in 2019. It was designed to improve the use of information to track people moving across UK.
IBM produced a system dubbed Semaphore in 2004, which was due to be replaced by the a Raytheon-build system until the vendor’s deal was cancelled in 2010.
The government has said it plans to continue to use Semaphore after December 2020 and is considering options regarding any successor.
Today, the NAO warned [PDF] of the complexity of “the interdependency of IT systems at the border; and the breadth and scale of the work required across the whole of government.”
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“Preparations for EU Exit were taking place in a context where government already had a huge programme of work. We raised the need for realistic prioritisation about what could and could not be done with the resources available, particularly considering the capacity of expert functions across government and the ability of senior management to give all their projects the attention they needed,” the NAO said.
It also noted: "DExEU’s monitoring of work across government did not allow it to properly assess progress... and [it] did not have enough understanding of how missed or moved milestones would affect overall delivery.
It noted that the "instinct for secrecy" had hurt preparations and added that: "The centre of government made limited use of available tools to drive implementation." ®