A UK government system to avoid miles of road traffic congestion in the county of Kent as the Brexit transition period comes to an end will rely on software which is not yet in its beta version.
Following the announcement this week that the government would introduce Kent Access Permits to ensure heavy goods vehicles travelling to the port of Dover and the Folkestone Eurotunnel crossing do not set off without the proper paperwork, the transport industry was quick to point out Whitehall had not begun testing the technology on which they would depend.
The business-as-usual Brexit transition period is set to end on 1 January 2021, and freight travelling between the UK and the EU's common Economic Area (aka the single market) will be subject to customs checks for the first time in decades.
New customs arrangements at Kent ports could lead to a lorry jam of 7,000 vehicles (about 60 miles or 96km end-to-end), according to a government worst-case scenario. To avoid congestion at the Kent crossings – which carry by far the largest share of UK-EU goods – the government is proposing a system of Kent Access Permits to prevent HGVs travelling to the county in southeast England without the proper paperwork.
Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove told the House of Commons this week: "That system has been developed, it's being shared with business and we want to make sure that people use a relatively simple process in order to get what will become known as a 'Kent Access Permit', which means that they can then proceed smoothly through Kent."
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But KAPs, as they have become known, would only be issued to truck drivers who get a green or amber rating from the online Smart Freight system, which the government has yet to introduce.
Cabinet Office plans describe 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 EU or single-market border.
The transport industry has yet to test the system and, according to reports, a beta version will not be ready until mid-December, with the release version not expected until April, well after the end of the Brexit transition period.
A Cabinet Office official told Bloomberg that beta is a standard labelling practice for a digital service that is fully operational. Experienced IT professionals may contest this definition.
Sarah Laouadi, manager of European and international policy at Logistics UK, told The Register that the industry body had seen a version of the system demonstrated on a shared screen, but had not been able to explore the system itself, or understand exactly how freight companies should align processes to meet the needs of the software.
"We understand that [government] user testing is in progress, but a more massive campaign is needed and that is what we are calling for," she said.
She said that while the UI looked simple, the challenge for users would be gathering the information the system requires, which might involve speaking to customs brokers, subcontractors, and other partners.
"It could work but it needs to be more widely available. It is not something haulage companies have seen before and they need to have many conversations to decide who is going to do what [to meet the system requirements]."
She added that the government had committed to producing a "fully operational" Smart Freight system by December and that the "beta" term had caused confusion.
A major concern for the industry is that legal liabilities for customs compliance rest with the driver.
"It's very challenging," Laouadi said. "The only thing we can do is work together to make [Smart Freight] work. It would not be fair to expect the industry to be ready to solve it at the last minute."
The government insisted it was working with businesses and the haulage sector to ensure that Smart Freight is "effective and simple to use".
It said public consultation on the Kent Access Permit, to be enforced by the police and Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency, began in August. The government is set to publish its consultation response in which it promises to provide more details.
The government said Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs Digital teams had been testing the Smart Freight UI since early September. It claimed a prototype of the "Check an HGV is ready to cross the border" web service has been shared with business, and users would be able to test the service shortly.
Even so, its expected December release leaves only a few weeks for freight firms to ensure they can get their people working to the needs of the new system. They need time to adapt, and the Smart Freight software to work as described, for KAPs to be effective in avoiding miles of lorries clogging Kent's roads come January. ®